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How Nazi Germany's Fighter Planes Saved Israel

How Nazi Germany's Fighter Planes Saved Israel

A variant of the German Bf.109 helped the Jewish state defeat invaders — but at a terrible cost

Yet the mere presence of the S-199s had made an impact — and would soon do so again.

The following morning, two Avias were back in action strafing an Iraqi column. A bird struck Weizman’s airplane in the cockpit, while a 199 piloted by Milton Rubenfeld sustained damage in a clash with Egyptian fighters. Forced to bail out, Rubenfeld narrowly escaped death at the hands of locals that assumed him to be an Egyptian pilot.

Egyptian Spitfires retaliated by strafing two unassembled 199s on May 30, and the squadron was pulled back to a new air base at Herzliya a week later.

While flying on June 3, Modi Alon spotted two Egyptian C-47s escorted by two Spitfires over Tel Aviv — the 16th raid of this kind. Swooping down on the formation, he chased off the Spitfire escort and then shot down both of the C-47s — the first aerial victories of the Israeli air force.

After that, the bomber attacks on Tel Aviv ceased for good. After being celebrated with gifts of wine and chocolate by the locals, two American pilots designed the logo for the unit that remains today, a winged skull wearing a fighter pilot’s helmet.

On June 8, American Machal Gideon Lichtman and Alon engaged their Messrsagainst four Egyptian Spitfires on a bombing mission in an ironic rematch for the two types that had battled over England eight years earlier. Lichtman’s guns shot one of them down.

The Crash-Prone Menace:

On June 11, the United Nations organized a truce. This gave the Israelis time to assemble five additional Avias to replace the ones they had lost. Other new aircraft included two P-51 Mustangs fighters and two B-17 bombers smuggled via Puerto Rico. More aerial clashes ensued when the truce ended in a month later.

On July 6, Maurice Mann’s S-199 reportedly shot down a Syrian AT-6 Texan trainer bombing a kibbutz, but his wingman Lionel Bloch crashed over the Golan Heights while pursuing another Texan. Syrian records report he was shot down by the tail gunner of the second Texan, Muhi Al Din Wadi, who died from his wounds after landing.

Two days later, on a strafing mission against the Egyptian air base at El Arish, American Bob Vickman’s Messr was seen crashing into the sea — either shot down by flak or possibly a victim of his own machine guns shooting off his propeller.

On July 18, Alon scored a third kill when he downed the Spitfire flown by Wing Commander Said Afifi Al Janzuri.

Yet it soon became evident that the greatest danger to Israeli pilots came not from enemy fighters and flak, but from the Avias themselves.

To begin with, the S-199’s narrow landing gear made the aircraft unstable while landing and prone to flipping over — a problem that the original Bf.109 suffered from, as well. It soon became a routine for neighboring Yemeni farmers to pull down flipped over Avias with wooden poles. Such accidents were made even worse by the side-locking canopy which could not be opened by the pilot.

The Avia’s MG.151 cannons jammed more often than not. The nose-mounted 13-millimeter MG 131 machine guns regularly fell out of synchronization for unknown reasons — with the horrifying result that many Avia pilots shot off their own propellers.

The enormous propellers — intended for use on large bombers — also created intense leftward torque, making landings and takeoffs especially dangerous. The S-199’s accident rate grew so bad that Israeli pilots began taking bets each time an Avia attempted a landing on whether it would crash or not. When Avias flew alongside other aircraft, they always landed last so that any wreckage from a crash wouldn’t obstruct the other planes.

Serviceability rates for the S-199s were abysmal, and no more than four of the 25 were ever in the air at the same time. The volunteer mechanics were unable to decipher the aircraft’s difficult hydraulic systems or its engines, which on several occasions fatally overheated.

On July 18, the United Nations organized a second truce. Neither side had any serious intention of negotiating, and instead frantically recruited, reorganized and rearmed despite an arms embargo. Israeli agents concluded a contract for 50 Spitfires IXs. The superior aircraft cost only $23,000 a piece — $230,000 in 2016 dollars — and began arriving in September 1948. When the second ceasefire ended on October 15, the new Spitfires permitted the Israeli air force to establish air superiority.

The incessant accidents took a grim toll of the pilots, however. On October 15, after providing ground support to an Israeli counter-offensive, the S-199 of Squadron Leader Mordechai Alon developed an engine problem while making a second landing attempt after his landing gear refused to lower.

Streaming fumes from its engines, the 199 suddenly nosed down into the runway and burst into flames while Alon’s pregnant wife watched in horror.

Two other Avias crashed while attempting to land the same day and a third landed on its belly after being hit by anti-aircraft fire. Morale grew low and the Machal became infamous for their raucous partying and their habit of stealing vehicles for use at the airfield.

The last S-199, which had been impounded in Rome for four months, finally arrived in November. S-199s flew a few more combat missions. One crashed while taking off in November, while another shot off its propeller in December and only barely made it back to the ground. When 101 squadron redeployed to Ramat David that winter, Weizman, the new squadron leader, recommended they leave the Czech-built fighters behind.

Fighting in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War came to an end in March 1949. A year later, Israeli inspectors decided to scrap the decrepit aircraft.

Of the 25 Avia 199s, at least five had been lost as a result of enemy fire, six were destroyed attempting to land, three flipped over taking off, another is believed to have shot its propeller off, one had its cockpit shattered by a bird and two were destroyed on delivery. And that doesn’t count all the incidents in which damage was repairable.

Ezer Weizman went on to further glory as a Spitfire pilot — and controversy, as it appears he deliberately led a deadly attack on neutral British Tempest fighters on Jan. 7, 1949. In his later years he became air force commander, defense minister and, finally, the president of Israel from 1993 to 2000, during which he advocated strongly for the peace process with the Palestinian Authority.

Today 101 Squadron flies F-16s out of Hatzerim air base. The only surviving S-199 can be seen there, in the Israeli Air Force Museum.

This first appeared in WarIsBoring here.

Image: Creative Commons.