IAF - The Beginning

Defense aviation in Israel got off the ground in the thirties, when Flying Clubs were set up around the country and young men participated in flying courses. In 1936, the Hagana, under the cover of The General Worker's Union (Ha'Histadrut), set up the "Aviron" aviation company which purchased airplanes and trained pilots. In 1939, the first two pilot courses were conducted, one by Betar/Etzel at Lod airport, and the other by "Aviron", at Kibbutz Afikim in the Jordan Valley.

WW-II led to a breakthrough. Dozens of volunteers from Eretz Israel were trained by the allied air forces as pilots and for several other aviation positions. The Palmah Aviation Department was set up at the same time.

On Nov. 10, 1947 the Hagana headquarters decided to set up the Air Service. At that time there were 35 licensed pilots in Israel with varied experience, and about 12 light aircraft. Only one of them was a dual engine, a Dragon Rapide (the plane depicted on the left stamp).

During the early months of the Independence War, Israel Air Force (IAF) planes were busy transporting goods, delivering mail, maintaining contact with new and distant settlements in the Negev and Gush Etzion, and conducting air reconnaissance attack and bombing missions. Light aircraft were also used in safeguarding convoys to Jerusalem. The light Auster planes, purchased as junk from the British and renovated, took on the majority of the missions.

The real change occurred when the regular Arab armies entered the war in mid-May 1948. Tel Aviv and many settlements were attacked from the air, with no ability to defend themselves. During one of the attacks, on May 18, 1948, over forty civilians were killed and over one hundred injured in an Egyptian air attack on Tel Aviv.

During this time attempts were being made abroad to purchase more sophisticated aircraft for the Air Force. Negotiations came to fruition in Czechoslovakia, and twenty five Avia S-199 (Czech-manufactured Messerschmitts) were acquired. The aircraft began arriving towards the end of May 1948. The Avias were dismantled, transported in C-46 Commando aircraft and C-54 Skymasters ("Operation Balak"), and secretly reassembled at Ekron (later the Tel Nof Air Force Base). On May 29, the First Quartet (the only one at that time) of Avias attacked an Egyptian column of some 500 vehicles near a bridge south of Ashdod. The surprised Egyptians scattered for cover. By the time they regrouped, they had lost the offensive and failed to advance any further. The bombed-out bridge became known as Gesher Ad Halom (The "To This Point" Bridge). One airplane was downed in the attack, and the pilot, a volunteer (Machalnik) from South Africa, was killed.

On June 3, the first commander of the first fighter squadron downed two Egyptian Dakotas in an air battle in the Tel Aviv skies - the first Israeli air battle. The most impressive flights of the War of Independence include the air attack on Arab capitals. Amman was attacked by three light aircraft including the Dragon Rapide. Later Damascus and Cairo were attacked. Cairo was bombed on July 15 1948 by a B-17 ("Flying Fortress") plane which had arrived in Israel from Czechoslovakia (this was one of the three heavy bomber planes clandestinely smuggled out of the United States, see a previous SOH's article for the detailed story).

The transportation planes were very active during the War of Independence. Arms so vital to the Nahshon Operation, to break through the road to Jerusalem, arrived in a direct nighttime flight from Czechoslovakia. This was followed by an air lift from Czechoslovakia to Israel, bringing both aircraft and arms. The transport planes were able to maintain contact with the besieged Negev.

In September 1948, the era of the Spitfires in the IAF began, following the success of the Velvetta and Velvetta-II operations in which the aircraft were flown to Israel from Czechoslovakia (see the previous SOH’s article for details).

The contribution of the MACHAL (volunteers from overseas) to the IAF deserves a special notice. Though many Palestinian Jews had volunteered and fought in British units against the Nazis, not many had been accepted by the RAF for aircrew training, and there was a severe lack of trained personnel. This gap was filled by Machalniks, who served as pilots, navigators, radio operators, bombardiers, air gunners, aerial photographers and bomb-chuckers. Some 70% of the IAF's aircrew personnel throughout the war were Machalniks. Most squadron commanders, pilots, and senior operations officers, as well as training command, maintenance, engineering and radar specialists, photo intelligence and technical personnel were Machalniks. The training of pilots, both in Israel and abroad, was accomplished almost exclusively by MACHAL. Nineteen of the dozens of airmen fell during the war were MACHAL aircrew members.

The stamps were issued in 1998, dedicated to the War of Independence aircrafts. Designer: T. Kurz.

The IAF's Spitfires (depicted on the stamp in the middle)
The IAF built its first Spitfire from "junk" which was left by the RAF (the British Royal Air Force) when the British forces evacuated Palestine, as well as from components from six REAF (Royal Egyptian Air Force) Spitfires which had been shot down in late May 1948 while attacking (by mistake) the RAF's air base in Ramat David. It became operational in August. A second Egyptian Spitfire was also reconstructed and became operational in October.

In August 1948, Czechoslovakia sold 50 Spitfires to Israel at a cost of $23,000 per unit. The aircraft were to be dismantled so as to be airlifted to Israel by C-46 and C-54 transport aircraft. However, political pressure from the U.S. and Britain stopped the air-bridge. The solution was Operation Velvetta - flying the Spitfires from Czechoslovakia to Israel, with only one single refueling stop in Southern Yugoslavia. The longer leg, from Yugoslavia to Israel, was a daunting 1,200 miles long. In order to lighten the Spitfires considerably, the aircraft were stripped of their guns and cannons, armor-plating, oxygen cylinders, cameras, and radios. Fuel tanks were fitted onto the bomb racks under each wing, and a long-range tank under the belly, and another tank in the space in which the radio had been located. These fuel modifications increased the fuel capacity almost five-fold.

On Sep. 24, 1948, the first six Spitfires were flown to Yugoslavia from Czechoslovakia, but one of the aircraft was damaged on landing. On Sep. 27, the five remaining Spitfires took off for Israel. A C-54 was the "mother ship" which would navigate and monitor the flight. Another C-46 served as an air-sea-rescue aircraft in case one of the pilots was forced to ditch his aircraft over the sea. As an extra precaution, two Avia S-199 (Czech-manufactured Messerschmitt) fighters - the IAF's first combat aircraft - were on standby to protect the unarmed formation from the Egyptian Air Force.

After two hours in flight, two aircraft experienced a fuel system problem. Their pilots landed on Rhodes Island, got arrested and the Spitfires were impounded (the pilots were released within two weeks, but the aircraft remained impounded). The remaining three Spitfires arrived safely in Israel, with only drops of fuel left in their tanks after a 5-hours-20-minutes flight. On arrival, the Spitfires were immediately integrated into 101 Squadron which until then had been flying the Avias.

By mid-December 1948, 15 additional Spitfires were ready for delivery, and Operation Velvetta-II commenced to bring them to Israel. On Dec. 18, six Spitfires left for Yugoslavia, but due to a very severe snow storm the aircraft were forced to turn back. Two Spitfires were lost as a result of the storm. One of the pilots - Sam Pomerance, who had orchestrated the Velvetta Operations - was killed in his crash.

On Dec. 19, six aircraft flew to Yugoslavia, to be followed by six more aircraft on the next day, and four more three days later. The last batch of six Spitfires left on Dec. 26. These formations of Spitfires were also led from Yugoslavia to Israel by C-46 "mother ships". Two Spitfires which had to be left behind in Czechoslovakia due to mechanical problems were disassembled, crated and transported in two C-46 aircraft, arriving in Israel on Dec. 28. Except for the tragic death of Sam Pomerance and the loss of two Spitfires due to the snow storm, Velvetta-II was a smashing success. With this massive reinforcement of combat aircraft, the IAF very quickly established complete air superiority over the battle zones.

At the time of "Operation Yoav" in October 1948, which captured Beersheba from the Egyptians and consolidated the Negev, only four Spitfires and two P-51s were operational. They were engaged in multiple operations - escorting bombers, supporting ground forces, flying air patrols, attacking the El-Arish air base, and air reconnaissance. The Spitfires also participated in "Operation Hiram" which had liberated the Galilee. Later on, the Spitfires - now in greater numbers following Velvetta II - participated in "Operation Horev" which was launched towards the end of December.

In addition to attacking Egyptian ground forces and air bases, as well as escorting bombers, 101 Squadron was shooting down and damaging enemy aircraft. The REAF was the main adversary of the IAF in the War of Independence. The British supplied the REAF with 62 Spitfires. All the Egyptian Spitfires operated from air bases at El-Arish and El-Hama. The Egyptian Spitfires had more success against the Israelis on the ground than in the air. Until the Israel Air Force received its Spitfires, the Egyptian Spitfires vigorously strafed and bombed Israeli civilian and military targets. However, with the arrival of the Spitfires, control of the skies shifted from the REAF to the IAF. It is estimated that the REAF lost 27 planes as a result of air combat and ground attacks.

The cease-fire between the Israelis and Egyptian Forces was due to take effect at 4 p.m on Jan. 7, 1949, and would halt hostilities in the War of Independence. In that morning, the British RAF sent four Spitfires on a low-level reconnaissance mission over the battle front. Israeli Spitfires, mistaking them for REAF planes, engaged and shot them down. Later in the day, the Spitfires engaged another formation of 19 British aircraft which had been dispatched from the Suez Canal zone to look for the 4 missing RAF Spitfires. The IAF disengaged after shooting down one of them and that was the IAF's last combat operation in the war.

The IAF's B-17 Flying Fortresses
The summer of 1948 was a desperate time for the newly independent state of Israel. Five Arab armies had invaded. The Arabs were intent on the total destruction of the Jewish State. President Truman had been the first to recognize Israel. But, reacting to intense U.S. State Department pressure, together with violent Arab protests, Truman declined to aid the Jewish State any further and applied the Neutrality Act (a law from the Roosevelt administration era designed to keep America non-involved in the gathering clouds of World WW-II) against Israel and the Arab invading countries equally. The U.S. arms embargo was a severe blow to Israel's ability to defend itself.

The Hagana identified four B-17s (Flying Fortresses) in the U.S., surplus from WW-II. The B-17 was a famous and iconic high-altitude heavy bomber which became well known especially in attacks against German targets in Europe. Al Schwimmer approached his friend Charlie Winters for help in a covert Hagana action to bring them to Israel. Charlie Winters - a righteous gentile who was looking to help out Israel - was running at that time an air freight service out of Miami ferrying fruits and vegetables to the Caribbean. He had an export license, and more importantly, he had permission to fly aircrafts out of the United States. The purchases of the planes were made using Charlie's export licenses. The plan was to fly the planes to Europe, then "sell" them there to Israel.

On June 12,1948, three of the B-17s were smuggled out of the U.S., flying from Miami to Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. After filing flight plans for Brazil, they left for the Portuguese Azore Islands. From there they flew on to Zatec in Czechoslovakia, refueling in Corsica (Ajaccio) in the Mediterranean Sea. Charlie personally piloted one of the three bombers to Czechoslovakia. Under pressure from the U.S. Government the fourth B-17, flown via Canada, was impounded by the Portuguese Authorities in the Azores, and never made it to Israel.

At Zatec the B-17s were fitted with bomb racks and guns and bombed-up for action. It was decided that on the flight from Czechoslovakia to Israel on July 14 the B-17s would carry out attacks on three targets in Egypt - the Royal Palace in Cairo, the Egyptian airbase at El-Arish, and Gaza. Cairo was bombed, but due to difficulties in locating the El-Arish and Gaza targets, the other two aircraft bombed Rafah. The night attack on Cairo caused tremendous panic and thousands of Cairenes left the city. The arrival of the three B-17s in Israel on July 15 gave the IAF a tremendously enhanced attack capability. Based at Ramat David Air Force base, the new aircraft were known as "Ha'patishim" ("The Hammers"). On July 16, their first day in Israel, the new bombers went into action, and in the military operations of "Yoav" and "Horev" each aircraft flew up to three sorties per day. The IAF had now acquired quite a significant bombing capability.

In the meantime, Winters and his mission were discovered by the American government. Upon returning home, he was arrested for violation of the Neutrality Act. A year later, he pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to 18 months in Federal prison and a $5,000 fine. He served his time quietly, never speaking again of what he did.

Three Americans were convicted under the 1939 Neutrality Act in connection with smuggling arms to Israel: Al Schwimmer, Hank Greenspun and Winters. Of the three, only Winters went to jail. Following his release, he spent the balance of his life as a small businessman in Southern Florida. He died in 1984 at the age of 71. Israel never forgot Charlie Winters. After the funeral service, Mrs. Winters was flown to Israel where the ashes of Charles Winters were laid to rest in the Alliance Christian Missionary Cemetery in Jerusalem.

Greenspun was pardoned by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Schwimmer was pardoned by President Clinton in 2000. A major campaign to get a pardon for Winters gained momentum in 2008. As part of it, the famed Jewish cinematographer Steven Spielberg wrote to President Bush: "There are probably many unsung heroes of America and of Israel, but Charlie Winters is surely one of them …. While a pardon cannot make Charlie Winters whole, and regrettably he did not live to see it, it would be a fitting tribute to his memory and a great blessing to his family if this pardon is granted." On Dec. 23, 2008, as one of his last acts as President of the United States of America, President Bush had signed a posthumous pardon for Winters.