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1948: The Makeshift Israeli Air Force Stuns the Egyptians

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In 1948, Israel fashioned an air force out of scraps and junk. An experienced American Marine fighter pilot became a volunteer fighting for Israel, Lou Lenart. More on the minuscule Israeli Air Force and its first battle can be found here.

On May 13, just two days before the Arab nations invaded, Lenart and a handful of recruits rushed to Czechoslovakia to train on the Avia 119. Lenart was not impressed with the Czech aircraft:

This plane was the worst piece of crap I have ever flown. It was not even an airplane. It was put together by the Czechs from mismatched parts left behind by the Nazis. The airframe was that of an Me-109 but the propeller and engine came out of a Heinkel bomber. You can’t make a plane that way. But it was all we could get, so we took it.

As Lenart and the other pilots were rushing through their training on the planes in Czechoslovakia, the Arab countries began their invasion with tanks and aircraft, gaining ground rapidly. Lenart later recounted about his stay in Czechoslovakia:

Every night we got bulletins from Israel. The Arab Legion with tanks and artillery was attacking near Jerusalem. Syrian forces had crossed the Jordan [River]. The Egyptian Army, with Spitfires, tanks, and artillery, was advancing up the coast road toward Tel Aviv. There’s a kibbutz [communal settlement] on the frontier called Yad Mordechai. Three Egyptian battalions [with 3,000 fighters] were attacking a force of 140. Even the kibbutz women fought in the trenches, firing World War I Enfields. They held out for five days before the Egyptians stormed the place and captured it.

To make matters worse, two of the six planes Israel purchased were destroyed in an accident on the way to the Middle East. By the time the remaining four planes were ready for their first mission, Arabs forces were on the verge of capturing Israel’s two biggest cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

As the Egyptians proceeded north toward Tel Aviv, outnumbered Israeli troops managed to destroy a section of a bridge 17 miles from Tel Aviv, momentarily halting a massive Egyptian army from capturing the city. At that point, the new Israeli Air Force’s first mission took place on May 29, 1948. Lenart and three other pilots — Modi Alon, Ezer Weizman, and Eddie Cohen — took off in a desperate effort to bomb and strafe the Egyptians before they could repair the bridge.

The four pilots faced 6,000 Egyptian troops — consisting of seven infantry battalions, six hundred vehicles, and formidable antiaircraft weapons. Lenart was the only pilot of the four with combat experience in a fighter plane.

Lenart described what followed:

We attack. The guns malfunction; the bomb releases balk. I look right and left and see nobody. Antiaircraft fire is ferocious. Six thousand Egyptians are putting up everything they’ve got. Eddie Cohen, a wonderful, brave pilot from South Africa, must have run into too much of it. His plane doesn’t come back. I manage to put one 70-kilogram bomb onto a concentration of trucks and troops in the town square of Ishdud. Modi and Ezer do what they can. It’s a mess. We straggle back, having inflicted minimal damage.

But the shock to the Egyptians was overwhelming. To be attacked from the air by four Messerschmitt 109s with the Star of David on the side!

The stunned Egyptian troops, who had been assured that the Israelis had no aircraft, stopped their advance and retreated. Subsequent news reports hailed Lenart as “The Man Who Saved Tel Aviv.”

“It was the most important event in my life,” Lenart later told the Israel Air Force journal. “I survived World War II so I could lead this mission.”

After the war, Lenart participated in the airlift of Iraqi Jews to Israel, was a pilot for El Al Airlines and produced six feature films, including “Iron Eagle” and “Iron Eagle II.”

One of his collaborators was Hollywood screenwriter Dan Gordon, who emphasized that the moniker was no exaggeration.

In many ways, Lou was what Lafayette and Nathan Hale were to the American Revolution,” Gordon said. “If it hadn’t been for Lou and his three comrades, Tel Avivians would be speaking Arabic today.”

The mortars, tanks, and ammunition bought from the Czechs were put to good use by the Israelis. And so were the other Avia-S-119 planes, and the 61 Spitfires, that arrived months later. But the most important battle, where weaponry was all-important, was the one that took place, 17 miles south of Tel Aviv, when four rickety planes, that constituted at that point the entire Israeli Air Force — planes that according to lead pilot Lou Lenart were “the worst piece of crap I have ever flown”– managed to terrify 6,000 Egyptian troops into calling off their attack on Tel Aviv and retreating back into the Sinai. For the Egyptian troops had had no idea that Israel had an air force, and those four planes must have seemed to them like forty.


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