The IAF's Spitfires

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 stamp was issued in 1998, one of three dedicated to the War of Independence aircraft. Designer: T. Kurz.