From the Luftwaffe to the IAF

From the Luftwaffe to the IAF

© David Burton 2024

An Israeli ME-109

     The State of Israel came into existence in 1948. It did so in spite of immediately being attacked by the combined and supposedly overwhelming forces of several neighboring Arab nations. An irony in the success of the Jews in beating off the Arabs and in establishing their new nation was the fact that it was unintentionally aided by the German air force of World War II, the Luftwaffe.

The Luftwaffe
     The Luftwaffe was the aerial-warfare branch of the Wehrmacht before and during World War II. After World War I, Germany’s air force was disbanded in accordance with the terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles which banned Germany from having any air force. But after the Nazi rise to power between the two world wars, German pilots were trained secretly in violation of the treaty at the Lipetsk Air Base in the Soviet Union. With the rise of the Nazi Party and the repudiation of the Versailles Treaty, the Luftwaffe's existence was publicly acknowledged on 26 February 1935. The Condor Legion, a Luftwaffe detachment sent to aid Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War, provided the force with a valuable testing ground for new tactics and aircraft. Partially as a result of this combat experience, the Luftwaffe had become one of the most sophisticated, technologically advanced, and battle-experienced air forces in the world when World War II broke out in September 1939.
     The Luftwaffe proved instrumental in the German victories across Poland and Western Europe in 1939 and 1940. Later in the war, despite its belated use of advanced turbojet and rocket-propelled aircraft for the destruction of Allied bombers, the Luftwaffe was overwhelmed by the Allies' superior numbers and improved tactics, and a lack of trained pilots and aviation fuel.
     After the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Luftwaffe was disbanded in 1946. During World War II, German pilots claimed roughly 70,000 aerial victories, while over 75,000 Luftwaffe aircraft were destroyed or significantly damaged.[1]

The ME-109
     The Messerschmitt Bf 109 was a German World War II fighter aircraft that, along with the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, was the backbone of the Luftwaffe's fighter force. The Bf 109 first saw operational service in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War and was still in service at the end of World War II in 1945. It was one of the most advanced fighters when it first appeared, with an all-metal monocoque construction, a closed canopy, and retractable landing gear. It was called the Me-109 by the Allies, even though this was not the official German designation.
     The plane was conceived as an interceptor, although later models were developed to fulfill multiple tasks, serving as bomber escort, fighter-bomber, day-, night-, all-weather fighter, ground-attack aircraft, and aerial reconnaissance aircraft. It was supplied to several states during World War II and served with several countries for many years after the war. The Bf 109 is the most produced fighter aircraft in history, with a total of 34,248 airframes produced from 1936 to April 1945.[2]

"In the beginning . . ."
     After the Second World War, the fate of many European Jewish survivors of the Holocaust was bleak. Some returned to their homes across war-ravaged Europe, starting their lives from scratch. Others, who had lost entire families in the concentration camps or had lost everything for the war, decided to move to Palestine to establish the State of Israel.
     Many of these, however, were blocked at the border of Palestine by the British, who were worried that the thousands of Jewish migrants could overrun the region. Others ended up in British camps for displaced persons in Cyprus.
     Some World War II veterans of different nationalities, Jewish or not, decided to take matters into their own hands. One such person was Lou Lenart, who had lost 14 relatives in Nazi concentration camps. He wanted to retaliate and help displaced persons by joining the Haganah and becoming a so-called ‘Mahal’ (Mitnadvei Hutz LaAretz) or “volunteer from abroad”. During Israel’s War of Independence, the Mahal numbered about 3,500 volunteers from 58 different countries. At the start of the hostilities, of the 18 fighter pilots of the Haganah, 15 were Mahal.
     A post WWII version of the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmidt ME-109 was the Czechoslovakian Avia S-199. A total of 532 Avia S-199’s were built from 1947 to 1955, and 25 of these were used by the Israeli Air Force (IAF) of the newly formed State of Israel between 1948 and 1949.
     Immediately after World War Two, Czechoslovakia had a shaky democracy dominated by communists, many of whom were of Jewish descent and pro-Zionist, despite discrimination and oppression of Jewish people by the Soviets.
     Czechoslovakia had found itself in possession of a large quantity of German weapons, many of which had been produced under occupation within its borders. Some types remained in production after the war ended. Czechoslovakia was looking for a way to restore its economy, which was at an all-time low after the German occupation and the destruction caused by the war. Selling weapons was an excellent way to do this.
     The Czech delegation to the UN voted for a Jewish state only a few months before a communist coup turned Czechoslovakia into a Soviet satellite state. Czechoslovakia then became one of the most important partners in helping arm the Jewish people.
     While light weapons were important, the Israelis needed tanks and an air force to fight the invading Arab armies. All of this aid incurred a huge financial burden for the Czechs. Russian dictator, Joseph Stalin, allowed support to continue after the Czechoslovak communist coup, not so much as to support the Israelis, but to undermine the British Empire. The first contract was signed on January 14th, 1948 by Jan Masaryk, the Czech foreign minister.
     In the final phase of the Second World War, it was decided that the factory of the Avia company located in Prague-Cakovice would assemble the Messerschmitt Bf109G-6, Bf109G-14 fighters and the Bf109G-12 two-seater trainer aircraft for the needs of the Luftwaffe.
     The first Avia S-199 fighter took off on April 25th, 1947, flown by test pilot Petr Široký. After solving some mechanical problems, the series production of the machine began almost immediately.
     The Avia fighter differed from the original Messerschmitt ME-109 only in terms of propulsion and armament. Because of its new engine, the engine cowling, propeller, and spinner were modified.
     Because of its new engine, the Czechoslovakian aircraft was inferior to the original German ME-109. The worst problem was the change in the center of gravity of the aircraft, which greatly complicated takeoff and landing. The S-199 had another serious defect: the machine guns placed under the engine hood were not always synchronized with the propeller, which led to serious accidents.
     The Czechoslovaks helped create the Israeli Air Force by selling the nascent Israeli state 25 Avia S-199 fighter planes in 1948.
     David Ben Gurion, the Prime Minister of Israel, did not hesitate and gave the order to buy the planes and to send the pilots to training as quickly as possible. A contract was signed for 25 Avia S-199’s
     The first 10 Israeli pilots departed from the Sde Dov airfield on 6 May 1948. Of the 10 pilots, 2 were US volunteers and one was South African. These three were veteran pilots of the Second World War, having served with the US Army Air Force and Royal South African Air Force respectively. The other seven were British or Palestinian Jews, some of whom were World War II veterans, while others had only completed Royal Air Force training in Rhodesia in early 1945, failing to actively participate in World War II.
     The first to fly the successor to Luftwaffe’s ME-109 fighter was former Marine Corps pilot Lou Lenart.
     On his first test flight, as soon as he started to gain speed during take-off, the aircraft started to yaw to the left due to the larger propeller on the Czech S-199. Fortunately, he was aware of this problem. After several attempts, he managed to take off while fighting against the plane going off the runway. After a few minutes, he returned to the airfield. Lenart again had to fight to keep the plane straight during landing.
     When all 10 pilots made their first flights, they gave their impressions of the plane. None were positive. The landing gear was narrow and made the S-199 difficult to keep straight during take-off due to the huge torque of the propeller. The plane was unwieldy and very hard to handle, the cockpit was cramped and the canopy was hard to open.
     The Jewish volunteers were accustomed to spacious, agile and fast Allied fighters, such as the Spitfire, P-51D Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolt. The shock of flying an aircraft with completely different characteristics upset them, but the Avia was all they had and they had to make do.
     After only 4 days of training, the pilots of the Sherut Avir, Air Service in Hebrew, the ancestor of the Israeli Air Force, were recalled to Israel.
     During training in Czechoslovakia, only five of the volunteers, those with World War II experience, had qualified to fly the Avia and none had flown it more than twice. The first S-199s were disassembled and loaded onto two Douglas C-54 Skymasters. The planes landed on 20 May 1948 south of Tel Aviv. With the five fighter pilots who had “completed” their training in Czechoslovakia, American Lou Lenart, American Milton Rubenfeld (former RAF and USAF), South African Eddie Cohen (former RAF), Israeli Ezer Weizmann (former RAF), and Israeli Mordecai ‘Modi’ Alon (former RAF). Weizmann would become the seventh president of Israel.
     One of the Skymasters carrying the fifth S-199 crashed during landing due to poor visibility.
     The Israeli Air Force gave the Czechoslovakian fighter the nickname “sakin”, meaning “knife” in Hebrew. After being reassembled, the aircraft received the Israeli air force’s coat of arms and a number ranging from 100 to 125 for identification.
     After the outbreak of hostilities, the war was going badly for the State of Israel, which had been invaded by Arab forces composed of Egyptians, Syrians and Iraqis with the support of other nations such as Jordan and Lebanon. The Egyptian Army was advancing north along the Mediterranean coast, penetrating to less than 20 miles south of Tel Aviv.
     In late May of 1948, the last phases of the assembly of the first four aircraft had been completed in a hangar. An attack was being organized against the Royal Egyptian Air Force (REAF) airport in El Arish, in order to take the REAF by surprise and announce in a very daring way the existence of the IAF.
     But, due to the proximity of the Egyptians to Tel Aviv, the Israeli pilots were ordered to take off the next morning with the only four S-199s that had arrived from Czechoslovakia and attack the Egyptians near Ashdod. The planes had not yet been tested in flight, not all four had radios and those that had them did not work. The guns had never been tested, not even during the training of the pilots, who had flown on these fighters only twice.
     The four S-199s, piloted by Lou Lenart, Ezer Weizman, Modi Alon and Leonard Cohen, took off one hour before dark. Lenart, who commanded the unit, had never flown in Israel before, and he did not know where Ashdod, which was less than 10 miles away from their airport, was located.
     Anachronistically, he gestured to the other pilots the direction to go. Having clarified the direction to go, there was another problem, as the villages along the coast looked similar. Fortunately, columns of smoke were seen and, shortly afterwards, a column of Egyptian trucks and light armored vehicles was spotted stretching for more than a mile south of the Ashdod bridge. These belonged to engineering units trying to repair the bridge for the forces that were to take Tel Aviv the next day.
     The four planes attacked the column, which immediately dispersed. The Egyptians were not aware of the existence of an Israeli air force, lacked sufficient anti-aircraft weapons and, in some cases, had never seen an aircraft before. The fighters swooped down on the Arabs, dropped the bombs they had and started to strafe the scattering soldiers. After a few shots, their guns jammed. In reality, the bombs and the following machine gun strafing did little damage. However, the psychological impact on the Egyptian troops was so devastating that, the next day, the order to attack Tel Aviv was cancelled. After that, the Egyptian offensive strategy became purely defensive.
     During the attack, South African Leonard ‘Eddie’ Cohen’s Red Four plane was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. Cohen was the first loss of the Israeli Air Force. During landing, Modi Alon’s Red Two aircraft went off the runway and was damaged.
     Early on the morning of 30 May 1948, in order to take advantage of the surprise appearance of the IAF, the two remaining S-199s, piloted by Weizman, Red 1, and Rubenfeld, Red 3, attacked the village of Tulkarm in northern Israel, which was controlled by a Jordanian-Iraqi force. In this case as well, the real damage was insignificant but the psychological effect was devastating.
     Rubenfeld’s plane was hit by enemy fire and due to the damage sustained by the aircraft, he could only return to the territory controlled by Israel and then bail out at low altitude into the sea. His parachute did not open properly and he fell into the water and was injured. He swam towards the shore, and after two hours, he reached land. After treatment, he was brought back by cab to Tel Aviv and then returned to the United States.
     On May 30th, the unit was officially named the 101st Squadron or First Fighter Squadron, a name that was very impressive for a unit that had only two fighters, one of which was operational, and four pilots, one of which was wounded.
     On 3 June 1948, two Egyptian twin-engine Douglas C-47 Dakota transport aircraft, escorted by two Egyptian Spitfire fighters, arrived from over the sea to bomb Tel Aviv. This practice had been ongoing for a long time and had cost the lives of hundreds of civilians in the city. The Egyptian tactic was to drop bombs out the back door of the transports onto the city below.
     Late in the afternoon, the 101st Squadron was alerted that Egyptian bombers were again on their way to Tel Aviv. Modi Alon climbed into the only available S-199 and took off. Arriving over the city, he spotted the two C-47s with two Spitfires escorting them. He first flew west over the Mediterranean Sea and then turned east, approaching with the sun behind him. The enemy aircraft would thus have a hard time seeing him. Coming up behind the first C-47, he hit it with a long burst of cannon and machine gun fire and sent it crashing to the ground. With a very risky maneuver, he passed in front of a Spitfire and then turned around again to attack the second C-47 head-on.
     The slow and clumsy C-47 tried to turn around to get rid of the attacker while the two Spitfires tried to line up the S-199. Alon’s S-199 shots hit the second C-47, which crashed into the Mediterranean. Alon then pushed the throttle to full and sped away at top speed, without the Spitfires being able to hit him.
     On June 8th, 1948, during his first mission aboard an S-199, Gideon Lichtman, who had trained for only 35 minutes aboard the S-199, flew the first dogfight of the war against an Egyptian Spitfire that was strafing civilians in Tel Aviv. Lichtman didn’t even know which trigger to fire, so he kept pressing buttons, levers and switches until he found the right one, and chasing one of the Spitfires, he opened fire, shooting it down.
     One month later, on July 8, Modi Alon and 2 other S-199s took off to attack an Egyptian reinforcement column at Bir Asluj in the Negev Desert. After a successful attack, on their way back Alon noticed two Egyptian Spitfires in flight, attacked them and managed to shoot down one of them.
     The S-199 fighters flew with the Coat of Arms of the Israeli Air Force until June 1949. The Avia S-199, although an extremely unreliable aircraft, was the first aircraft of the Israeli Air Force, the only one that at that time they could acquire due to UN embargoes. During the 13 months of IAF service the Israeli pilots shot down a total of 8 Arab aircraft without losing a single Avia to Arab aircraft. The major losses were due to mechanical problems of the aircraft leading to the conclusion that the Avia S-199s were more dangerous for the Israeli pilots than for the Arab pilots.[3]

     In 1948 the Czech-built version of the German Luftwaffe’s Messerschmidt ME-109 was the first fighter aircraft of the newly established Israel Air Force (IAF). Although not the best fighter of its day, it established the IAF as a combat air force with which to be reckoned – a reputation that the IAF retains to this day.

     Forerunners of the Israeli Air Force were the Palestine Flying Service established by the Irgun in 1937, and Sherut Avir, the air wing of the Haganah. The Israeli Air Force formed on May 28, 1948, shortly after Israel declared statehood and found itself under attack. The force consisted of a hodge-podge of commandeered or donated civilian aircraft converted to military use. A variety of obsolete and surplus ex-World War II combat-aircraft were quickly sourced by various means to supplement this fleet. As described above, the backbone of the IAF initially consisted of 25 Avia S-199s, essentially Czechoslovak-built Messerschmitt Bf 109s, purchased from Czechoslovakia.
     Creativity and resourcefulness were the foundations of early Israeli military success in the air, rather than technology, which, at the inception of the IAF, was generally inferior to that used by Israel's adversaries. The majority, 15 out of the first 18 pilots in 101 Squadron (Israel), of the IAF's first military-grade pilots in 1948 were foreign volunteers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, mainly World War II veterans who wanted to collaborate with Israel's struggle for independence. The rest of the military-grade pilots were Israeli WWII veterans. Pilots from Sherut Avir 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. During these initial operations, the squadron operated with a few planes versus almost complete Arab theater air supremacy.
     As the war progressed Israel procured more aircraft, including Boeing B-17s, Bristol Beaufighters, de Havilland Mosquitoes and P-51D Mustangs, leading to a shift in the balance of power.[4]

  1. Luftwaffe, Wikipedia, Accessed 28 March 2024
  2. Messerschmitt Bf 109, Wikipedia, Accessed 28 March 2024
  3. Avia S-199 in Israeli Service , Arturo Giusti, Plane Encyclopedia, 3 December 2021.
  4. Israeli Air Force, Wikipedia, Accessed 29 March 2024


  18 April 2024 {ARTICLE 69; ISRAEL_88}    
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