The IDF (Israel Defense Force) is the army of the people. It was established in order to defend the country, as its name tells us, not to attack and conquer as some armies do.
In Israel, every boy and girl who reached the age of 18 is drafted to serve and protect their country that is surrounded by hostile nations. With all the wars it endured Israel, the state, and its military have become a model country of progress and a leader in innovation.
I was honored by an invitation to attend the ending ceremony of the 3-years long Air Force pilot course that took place at an air force base. It was the 177th graduation ceremony and the receiving of pilot’s wings, attended by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the IDF Chief of the General Staff, Gadi Eizenkot, and Aluf Amikam Norkin, an Israeli general and the current commander of the Israel Air Force (IAF).
And this annual graduation ceremony carries an ongoing unfathomable national pride. After all, the IAF, one of the three IDF branches – Air, Land, Sea – has established a name for itself of being among the best Air Forces in the world.
Some IAF Early History
The IAF began with mostly foreign aviators’ volunteers, some not even Jewish, who arrived to Israel in 1948 upon the call of David Ben Gurion. These daring aviators, from many countries, most of them did not even speak Hebrew, gave the IAF its foundation and the kick off starter.
IAF Early Years
The harbinger of the Israel Air Force was the Palestine Flying Service, established in 1937 by the Irgun (full title: Hā-‘Irgun Ha-Tzvaʾī Ha-Leūmī b-Ērētz Yiśrāʾel, translates to: ‘The National Military Organization in the Land of Israel’, in Hebrew:הארגון הצבאי הלאומי בארץ ישראל), and Sherut Avir (meaning Air Service), which was the air wing of the Haganah (meaning defense), which was a Jewish paramilitary organization that operated in the British Mandate of Palestine, AKA the land of Israel, from 1921-till 1948, later on to become the core of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Shortly after Israel declared statehood, on May 28, 1948, the Israel Air Force (IAF) was formed. At the very same time it found itself under attack by the Arab countries that conglomerated in order to annihilate the nascent Jewish state.
Initially this flying force consisted of a medley of commandeered or donated civilian aircraft that were fast converted to military use. A variety of obsolete and surplus ex-WWII combat-aircraft were quickly sourced, by various means, to supplement this questionable fleet. The IAF of 1948 Israel War of Independence backbone consisted of 25 Avia S-199s, purchased from Czechoslovakia, Messerschmitt Bf 109s, essentially Czechoslovakian built, as well as 60 Supermarine Spitfire LF Mk IXEs, with first such aircraft locally assembled from British abandoned spare parts and a salvaged engine from an Egyptian Air Force Spitfire and most others were purchased from Czechoslovakia.
At its inception, in general, the IAF was inferior to the air force of Israel’s adversaries.
It was and it remains, that creativity and resourcefulness were the foundations of early Israeli military success in the air; technology and innovations followed suit and brought the IAF to the superiority it enjoys today.
Fifteen out of the first eighteen pilots, the majority, in the famous 101 Squadron of Israel, who, in 1948, were the IAF’s first military-grade pilots, were foreign volunteers, Jewish and non-Jewish, member of MACHAL.
In 1947-9, more than 4,400 overseas volunteers came from 56 different countries to defend and fight for the nascent State of Israel during its struggle for survival and independence. They were known as MACHAL, Mitnadvei Chutz La’aretz-meaning, volunteers from overseas. Most were World War II veterans whose military experience and skills were of decisive importance in helping to shape the newly emerging Israel Defense Forces of all its 3 branches.
The rest of the military-grade pilots were WWII Israeli veterans, and the pilots of Sherut Avir, mainly locals, flew light civilian aircraft for supply, reconnaissance, and makeshift ground attack with hand-thrown light bombs and hand fired light machine guns.
The MACHAL-niks’ names, Modi Alon, Eddie Cohen, Rudy Augarten, Mitchell Flint and Ezer Weizman are etched deep in the history of the IAF.
IAF Acquisition of AT-6 Harvard Aircraft
The AT-6 Harvard, a single-engine monoplane built for a crew of two, was a well-known training aircraft used extensively by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).
In the summer of 1948, an Ontario scrap dealer bought a batch of Harvard planes. With the vital help of Alex Skelton, a non-Jew who was a senior employee in the Department of Trade and Commerce in Canada and had a close personal relationship with two Zionists – Moe Appel and Sam Zacks – a scheme was formulated for the export of these due for scrap aircraft to Israel. Alex’s ingenious idea was to disassemble the Harvard planes and ship them in crates to a fictitious “Tel Aviv Spring Fair,” and thus an export license was obtained for the shipment. Upon arrival in Israel, the planes were re-assembled, equipped with bomb racks, and used as dive-bombers in 35 flights that took off from the Tel Nof base. The first commander of the AT-6 Harvard Squadron was Phil Marmelstein, followed by Ted Gibson, son of a Southern Baptist Minister.
It was the well preserved Harvard plane, in a perfect air exhibition that reminded the graduates and the graduation’s spectators how the IAF legacy started. Followed by the F-35, which the IAF named it Adir, meaning great, that summed up, with a breath taking air performance, the 70 years to the success of Operation Horev, in which the IAF of those days did its job heroically.
Operation Horev, which began on December 22, 1948, and ended in January 1949, with the exception of the Gaza Strip, was a success. It was a large-scale attack by the three IDF branches against the Egyptian Army in the Negev and East Sinai during the last stages of the War of Independence.
The operation began with the attack of the Golani Brigade soldiers and with the air force attacking Egyptian targets in El Arish, Rafah and Khan Yunis. The tactic of warfare was to plant in the Egyptians the impression that the main objective of the IDF was an attack on the Gaza Strip, and therefore the air force attacked the Faluja pocket. At this stage, in order to maintain the element of surprise, the air force refrained from attacking the Auja al-Hafir area.
During the operation, the Israeli Air Force enjoyed aerial superiority, although not absolute superiority, since Egyptian planes attacked the IDF during the fighting in the south. In the course of the operation, the Air Force carried out 243 sorties and these sorties dropped 226 tons of bombs on 12 targets.
The pilot’s course is built on three elementary stages: the human being, the course and the warrior. The IAF could be seen as the spinal cord of the state of Israel defense system, holding in its secret rooms military technology that claims to be exclusive to the IDF of its air, land and sea national defense system.
I sat among proud parents, siblings and friends who came to share with their loved ones graduates this indelible and impressive moment of becoming a member of the IAF.
With the air display that followed the speeches and the graduation ceremony, as a proud Jewess whose late parents were Holocaust Survivors and had no one to defend them and their families who all perished in the horrific Nazi human slaughter, I could not have been prouder to be there and see one other witness to the 70-years of the state of Israel’s miraculous progress.