There are men called Angels In The Sky (AITS) because they flew so called planes and were the angels who came to save Israel in her struggle for Independence in the 1948 War.
About the Early Years of the Israel Air Force (IAF)
After Israel declared Independence, in May 1948, six Arab states’ armies converged in order to destroy the Zionist dream, the emerging nation state for the Jewish people. Short of experienced fighters, a call went out for pilots, air gunners, radio operators, mechanics and foot soldiers.
Cecil Margo was a South African Jew who, during WWII served in the South African Air Force, where he commanded 24 squadron as a bomber pilot and took part in more than 140 bombing sorties against enemy forces in North Africa and Italy.
David Ben Gurion, the leading force for Israel to declare her independence, heard of Margo. Ben Gurion called Margo to let him know that his presence in Israel would be a great service and asked him to come to Israel. In his memoir Margo mentioned Ben Gurion’s statement to him: “I give you an open directive, learn what you can, see what you want to see, talk to whomsoever you wish, and let me have your recommendations.”
Margo completed the operations plan and called for a maintenance system based on the then new concept, a major extension of the early warning radar system that was gaining acceptance by the airlines.
In his autobiography Cecil Margo, who could be addressed as the ‘Architect of the Israel Air Force,’ wrote: ” … I longed for peace and an end to the killing and the maiming, the blinding and amputations. To improve our chance of survival, we had to use craft and stratagems and develop the necessary skills. This was why the people of Israel were ‘sounding the Shofar’ once again – the ancient call to battle, to prevent yet another Holocaust.”
The ‘Palestine Flying Service,’ established in 1937 by the Irgun, the National Military Organization in the Land of Israel, was the forerunners of the Israeli Air Force. ‘Sherut Avir’ (Translates to air Service) was the air wing of the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organization in the British Mandate of Palestine (1921-48), which became the core of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Shortly after Israel declared statehood and found itself under attack by Arab countries, on May 28, 1948, the Israel Air Force (IAF) was formed.
At the start, the force consisted of a hodge-podge of seized or donated civilian aircraft which were converted to military use. A variety of obsolete and surplus ex-WWII combat-aircraft were quickly sourced by various means to supplement this nascent fleet.
The backbone of the IAF consisted then of 25 Avia S-199s, purchased from then Czechoslovakia, Czechoslovakian-built Messerschmitt Bf 109s, and 60 Supermarine Spitfire LF Mk IXEs. Creativity and resourcefulness, characteristic to the IAF till today, rather than technology, which, at the IAF’s inception was generally inferior to that used by Israel’s adversaries, were the foundations of early Israeli military success in the air.
In 1948, the majority of the IAF’s first military-grade pilots, 15 out of the first 18 pilots in the 101 Squadron (Israel), were foreign volunteers, both Jewish and non-Jewish. These volunteers, mainly World War II veterans, came to help Israel in her struggle to uphold her independence; they collaborated with the rest of the military-grade pilots being Israeli WWII veterans. Sherut Avir pilots were mainly locals who flew light civilian aircraft for supply, reconnaissance, and makeshift ground attack with hand-thrown light bombs and hand fired light machine guns.
On May 29, 1948, Israel’s new air fighting-arm first went into action assisting the efforts to halt the Egyptian advance from Gaza northward. Four newly arrived Avia S-199s, flown by Modi Alon, Ezer Weizman, Eddie Cohen and Lou Lenart, struck Egyptian forces near Ashdod. Albeit the damage caused to the enemy was minimal, two Israeli aircraft were lost and Cohen killed, nevertheless the attack achieved its goal and stopped the Egyptians.
After un-assembled planes were bombarded on the ground on May 30, at Ekron airfield, the fighters were moved to a makeshift airstrip, located around the current Herzliya Airport. The airfield was a purpose-built strip, constructed in between the orange orchards around Herzliya, after the beginning of hostilities. It did not appear on published maps, and thus was clandestine.
On June 3, 1948, the Israeli Air Force scored its first aerial victories when Modi Alon, flying Avia D.112, shot down two Egyptian Air Force DC-3s, which had just bombed Tel Aviv. The first dogfight against enemy fighters took place a few days later, on June 8, when Gideon Lichtaman shot down an Egyptian Spitfire plane. During these initial operations, the squadron operated with a few planes, versus almost complete Arab air supremacy and its airplanes were parked dispersed between the orange trees. Due to its unsuitability in rainy conditions and probable loss of clandestine status, in October the fighters were moved from the makeshift Herzliya airstrip to Hatzor Airbase, a former British base; moving to front lines made former British bases safe for use and a shift in the balance of air superiority towards the Israelis.
As the war progressed Israel procured more and more aircraft, including Boeing B-17s, Bristol Beaufighters, de Havilland Mosquitos and P-51D Mustangs, leading to a shift in the balance of power.
MACHAL – Foreign Volunteers in Israel’s War of Independence 1947-49
About 4,800 volunteers (MACHALnikim), including men and women, Jews and non-Jews, from 59 different countries came to the rescue of the Jewish state. Most of the volunteers served in World War II. They brought with them experience and training capabilities, which they passed on to the IDF branches. They contributed not only to the victory of the war, but also to the building of the core base on which the IDF, the army, the air force and the navy were established.
They fought in all the divisions of the IDF, including the Air Force, the Navy, Artillery, Armored Corps, Infantry, Medical Corps, Engineering Corps, Communications, Radar and more.
Yitzhak Rabin, the former Israeli prime minister, said about the overseas’ volunteers, “You arrived here when we so much needed you during the difficult and cloudy days of our war for independence, in 1948. You donate to us not only your experiences, but also your life. The citizens of Israel and the State of Israel will never forget and always honor your one time and most unique contribution to the country.”
David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of the State of Israel, said: “The MACHAL forces were the most important contribution to the establishment of the State of Israel.”
This year 2018, Mike Flint, whose father Mitch Flint was a pilot member of MACHAL, and myself were invited by the IAFA (Israel Air Force Association) to attend its annual get together national event.
Since its establishment in 1991, the Israel Air Force Association puts together a great event at Heichal Ha’tarbut – the Culture Center in Tel Aviv. Each year the event carries a specific theme. This year the theme was “Marking and honoring 70 years to the Israel Air Force (IAF) – Legacy & Aviation. Celebrating 70 years of Heritage & Innovation.”
The main heritage subject was dedicated to the several dozens of aviators’ volunteers, from 40 different countries, who came to Israel in 1948 to help Israel fight the War of Independence.
Most of these volunteers have passed.
Some 1,500 people attended the event, many serving top Air Force Brass, former Air Force Chiefs and the new/current Air Force Commander, Amikan Norkin.
Angels In The Sky
The Air Force Association praised the contribution of the “MACHALnikim”; producer Mike Flint called them “Angels In The Sky,” and the script of his upcoming full feature film and and the book by Bob Gandt, both carry the same name.
“Their contribution is invaluable – they helped the Air Force to form and grow,” Colonel (Res.) Gideon Shefer, President and Chairman of the Israel Air Force Association stated during the event.
I sat next to Harold Simon, nicknamed Smoky, a flight volunteer navigator from South Africa, now 95-years young. Smoky is the epitome of the love for Israel. He moved to live in Israel.
I also sat next to Mike Flint, who was there as the President of MACHAL West Coast, USA, as well as on behalf of his father, Mitch Flint, who passed last year, a volunteer pilot, member of the 101 Squadron, from the United States, and all the other volunteer aviators.
Over the years Mike lived this legendary story through his father, and had the honor to meet most of the volunteer aviators.
Many thanks to Eran Ramot, lieutenant colonel (Res.), a veteran pilot in the Israel Air Force (IAF), and the IAF former test pilot and a veteran pilot at El Al, Israel’s national airline for the entire idea to bring MACHAL to the focus.
Bringing MACHAL into focus gave a huge honor to those who packed their bags and came, unconditionally, to assist Israel and help bringing about winning the War of Independence.