Czechoslovak military aid to Israel during the War of IndependeceThis short study will show the difficulties which the founders of Israel were confronted with even before the outbreak of the War of Independence it's self. Of course it is impossible to mention every detail or event that happened from May 14th 1947, Gromyko's speech at the UN Assembly, to the Armistice Agreement between all the participating sides in early 1949. Therefore, it will deal only with the Czech military aid, without which the survival of the young state would be quite impossible.
USSR’s Middle East policy after WWII
The main reason for the military support from the Soviet bloc was the USSR’s attempt to place satellite “republics” in the Middle East.
When early in 1947 exchequer was unable to support the British exertion to contain the Soviet in Iran, Turkey and Greece alone, the United States which earlier acted firmly to force the Soviet withdrawal from Iran, came to Britain’s aid by launching the Truman Doctrine of March 1947 .
From the Soviet angle, this act looked like a threat. Moscow reacted by launching their own “Truman Doctrine” which meant giving support to peoples and groups trying to get rid of the British rule.
The Soviets ran these kinds of campaigns mainly at the UN’s Security Council, as a revenge at the same forum by which they themselves were forced to leave Iran in early 1946.
In May 1947 the Soviet delegation tried to persuade the special UN Assembly to vote for the immediate termination of the British mandate in Palestine. On the same occasion Gromyko made a speech in which he recognized the Jewish right for an independent state in Palestine, along side a Palestinian Arab state.
The Soviets even restored their cooperation with the USA, in order to push the partition resolution trough.
The actions taken by the Soviets made them the main supporter of the partition of Palestine. But, the decisive factor of their support was their desire for a better position in their global struggle for power and not because they had been won over by Zionism or because the Jews had become communists.
USSR’s military support
Gromyko's well known speech at the First Special Session of the UN's General Assembly awaked high hopes in the yishuv's leadership. Ben-Gurion approached Gromyko immediately afterwards and suggested that a Yishuv delegation be invited to Moscow, but no response came from the Soviet side.
Nevertheless Gromyko's speech was in fact a highly qualified support of partition, the Soviets were hesitant to make further commitments concerning their ideas on Palestine's political future. There seem to be a few main reasons for this ambivalence in the Soviet stand. In the first place it was not clear how the majority of the states would vote. Secondly, the British were planning at this stage to evacuate Egypt and not Palestine; in fact they were transferring supplies and equipment from Egypt to El-Arish.
In February, after the arms deal with the Czech government had already been signed, Sharett asked to see Gromyko and presented three requests . But again, no reply.
Later it became known that Bernadotte , who first requested the service of Soviet observers, was forced to change his mind by the USA and Britain. Now Golda Meir believed that the USSR has to be more ****e to undermine the embargo. She met with the Haganah wise man, David Hacohen, and requested that he speak with Gromyko. This time Gromyko replied and let Hacohen know that the USSR will not send any direct military support, but the Yishuv can use the contacts they already have with Czechoslovakia.
Only in September 1948, after an exchange of diplomatic missions took place, Golda Meir went to Moscow as the head of the Israeli delegation. The Israeli delegation was concerned that the question of military aid to Israel would be one of the urgent subjects that the Soviet Government would like to discuss with the Israeli Military Attaché, General Rattner. But instead the Israeli delegation found itself isolated and Rattner was unable to establish working contacts with the Red Army. However, in October Rattner was invited to see the General-in-Chief of the Red Army, General Antonov. Antonov advised Rattner that it would be better if he applied not for Soviet arms proper but for captured arms (German) instead. This advice was most probably an attempt to encourage Israel to dare and break the truce , and with this act undermine the Bernadotte plan, which was pending debate on the UN Assembly. On November the 8th Rattner returned to Antonov with a list of requested arms including some Soviet arms as well. Early in 1949, Mrs. Meir inquired at the Soviet Foreign Ministry regarding the fate of the Israeli request, the answer was typical for the Soviet policy; it could not been approved since the USSR adhered to UN decisions. After Mrs. Meir, Rattner mentioned the same problem to a high-ranking Soviet officer, the answer was quite surprising: the USSR believes that Israel is building a huge army in order to participate in the Western pact. At around the same time, according to the British intelligence report, the USSR offered arms on easy terms to Egypt. Israel never received a similar offer.
Czechoslovakia's military assistance to Israel
The real assistance given to Israel from the Communist Bloc came from Czechoslovakia. Their reason for giving Israel military support was quite simple, money. Although there are some other theories, the American and the British analysts were convinced that the Czech military assistance to Israel was part of a premeditated plan hatched by Moscow. They would give Israel diplomatic support and try to sneak to Israel through Jewish immigration from Communist countries, until eventually they would take over Israel from within, while Czechoslovakia would take care of building the army. However there is no supporting evidence for this theory.
After the "Economic Rehabilitation" and "Mutual Trade Agreement" was signed in December 1947 the USSR had dictated much of the priorities of the Czech economy, this resulted in a transfer from free enterprise to an extremely concentrated system and from production of light consumer goods to heavy industry.
However, in 1948 the export of arms become its main source of income. The Czech government, in order to survive the post-war economic difficulties, intended to sell not only what they had produced, but also weapons given to them by Britain during WWII, including armored fighting vehicles and 72 Spitfire aircraft . According to British reports, based on insid information from within the Czech Government, the total Czech dollar income from export of arms and military services to the Middle East in 1948 was over $28 million, and Israel received 85% of the Czech foreign military aid, the Arabs received the remainder.
The Deal & Execution
The leaders of the Yishuv, already in the spring of 1947, intended to purchase arms in order to improve their defenses. In July 1947 the Chief of the European branch of the Jewish Agency, Dr. Moshe Sneh, paid a visit to Czechoslovakia and was surprised by the sympathy towards Zionism and by the interest in arms export on the side of the Czech Government. Sneh met with the Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Clementis, who succeeded the non-Communist and definitely pro-Zionist Jan Masaryk . Sneh and Clementis discussed the possibility of Czech arms provisions for the Jewish state. Masaryk gave his approval, but still there were certain obstacles: first of all it was still unclear what course the Palestinian issue would take at the UN, also the Czech Government was willing to sell only to a sovereign nation. However, the UN Assembly resolution of the 29th November ended the Czech's watchful waiting.
Ben-Gurion sent Ehud Avriel to Paris where he contacted two commercial agents of the Czech Zbrojovka. After that Avriel qualified to meet the people at the top of the Czech Government he was asked to obtain for himself the guise of a sovereign government, such accreditation was bought from Ethiopia at an earlier stage. At this point there were no further obstacles to meet General Ludvik Svoboda, the Minister of National Defense, and signing the first contract on the 10th January 1948. On the same occasion Masaryk slipped a massage to Avriel which said: "the more you buy the less will go to the Arabs". This note may support the theory that the real reason for the Czech military support was mainly commercial, and not a Soviet master plan of taking Israel over. There were four possible routes to transport the arm deliveries in to Palestine via Communist countries; a) the Northern route: via Poland and the Baltic Sea, b) the Southern route: via Hungary, Yugoslavia and the Adriatic Sea, c) via Hungary, Romania and the Black Sea, d) by air, via Yugoslavia to Palestine. According to Avriel the shipment should take approximately a month, but it took more over two months.
However, the first contract included 200 MG34 machine guns, 4,500 P18 Mauser rifles and 5million rounds of 7.92 mm ammunition. This transport was delivered by a chartered "Skymaster" airplane. Avriel was concerned that from that point there could be 3-4 weekly flights, but the Americans thought otherwise and the chartered airplane was forced by the FBI to return to the USA. The day was saved by the arrival of the first shipment which anchored in Beit Daras on the 3rd April. These arms came just on time to launch "Operation Nachshon". The next shipment arrived only at the end of April and the next one on the 25th of May. By the end of May the IDF absorbed as much as 20,000 Czech rifles, 2,800 machine-guns and over 27 million rounds of ammunition. Two weeks later additional 10,000 rifles, 1,800 machine-guns and 20 million rounds of ammunition arrived. By October 1948 the IDF absorbed 46,751 rifles, 6,142 machine-guns, of two types MG34 and ZB37, and 80 million rounds of two types were brought from Czechoslovakia. From May onwards the IDF could equip every new recruit with a personal weapon, every infantry section with a machine-gun and many IDF battalions obtained medium machine-gun support.
Avriel, once he knew that the Americans are preparing to interdict the export of airplanes of any kinds, began to negotiate with Prague regarding the acquisition of "Avia S.199"s .
The Czechoslovak Economic system was going through changes of nationalization, which caused minor delay in the negotiations, but General Ludvik Svoboda, the Minister of National Defense, was kind enough to remove them. The first "Avia S.199" contract was signed on April 23, which included 10 airplanes. A month later another 15 were purchased, bringing the number of airplanes up to 25 with an intention to purchase more .
An old-new problem was facing the Haganah people; How to get the airplanes to Israel? Shipping was one of three possible ways just that the Haganah could not afford to wait until the airplanes would have arrived. So they had to think of something else, flying them from Czechoslovakia to Israel required refueling on the way. The maximum range of these airplanes was approximately one-quarter of the distance from Czechoslovakia to Israel, which made the entire operation exceedingly dangerous. The third option was the dismantling of the Avia's and flying the parts to Israel. This task could have been done with a Skymaster or C-46. The C-46 was unfortunately available only in the third week of May and needed one refueling enroute. The possible places to refuel were Sicily, Rhodes and Corsica. Landing there, except Corsica, until mid-June, incurred he risk of confiscation both the of the plane and of the equipment.
However, the first Avia S.199 arrived in Israel on the 21st of May, carried on board a Skymaster which landed at Ekron AFB together with a teem of Czech technicians. In the meanwhile nine C-46s arrived and joined the airlift called "Operation Balak". On the evening of May 29th, with only four assembled aircraft, Israel's new fighter arm went into action for the first time . Flown by Lou Lenart, Modi Alon, Ezer Weizman and Eddie Cohen, the four S.199s took off from Ekron to try and halt the fast advancing Iraqi and Egyptian forces near the city of Isdud (later Ashdod). Two Avias were lost in that mission. The next day, the remaining two airplanes took of and attacked an Iraqi column near Tul Karem hitting an Iraqi Brigade Command vehicle, but another S.199 was lost leaving General Remez with only one operational Avia S.199 until the beginning of the first truce. One the 3rd of June, the remaining airplane shot down two Egyptian Dakotas which tried to bomb Tel Aviv. Up to the beginning of the first truce 11th of June, 11 Avia S.199s arrived in Israel. From the end of May the "Balak flights" went up to seven a week and the pace of delivery of Avias up to three a week.
Since the Avia airplane was a great disappointment, due to its immense technical problems and difficulty of maneuverability, the IDF gave in a last chance July during the ten days fighting. There after there were barred from such tasks as air-fight or ground strikes. The tasks for the remaining Avias were confined to escorting ground troops and scouting missions. Operation Balak ended on the 4th of August 1948.
In the meantime Avriel was trying to persuade the Czech government selling British XI Spitfires. On the 26th of August the Czechs agreed to stop selling Avias, and instead sell to Israel 50 second-hand Spitfires at a reduced price . In Israel, the availability of these airplanes was viewed as an indispensable condition for launching the new IDF offensive. And again the question of delivery raised in the IDF headquarters. Since the Czechs no longer dared to renew such air-lift as they did with the Avias, and the IDF's experience with dismantling airplanes was a bad one, they had to find another way of bringing them to Israel. At the same time it was clear that the shipment of the Spitfires would not allow them to arrive in time for the IDF's planned forthcoming offensive. The idea of self-flying of some of the planes arose once again. This time to decrease the risk of confiscation of the Spitfires the fuel tanks were expanded to such capacity that only one refueling would be needed enroute. The refueling was planned to happen at the airfield of Podgorica, in Southern Yugoslavia. The planes were expected to arrive on the last drop of fuel to Israel. Twenty-two Spitfires were flown in this way; this was called the Operation Velvetta.In this operation emerged some serious difficulties. The Yugoslav authorities delayed the take-off of the Spitfires due to a $1 million debt. Another reason for the delay, which at some point seemed like a sabotage, could have been the Yugoslav striding on a slippery path between the two Super-powers. The IDF agent in Geneva suggested changing the country for refueling to Bulgaria. However, the Yugoslavs eventually made their move and on the 28th of September six Spitfires left Czechoslovakia . Out of the six airplanes only three of them arrived in Israel, one of them crashing on the runway and the other two were forced by insufficient fuel to land in Rhodes, where under British pressure the Spitfires were confiscated and the pilots released after interrogation. As a result of the interrogations the USA and Britain learned all they needed about the "Velvetta”, and was immediately withheld by Belgrade. Luckily when the IDF was about to launch more operations on the Southern front, the negotiations with the Bulgarian government were completed and a new route for the Spitfires was ready.
The Israelis were shocked by the Bulgarian demand to charge 10,000$ for each landing. At the end the Yugoslav government softened and on the 8th of December reopened the Podgorica airfield. On the third week arrived ten out of twelve Spitfires (two crashed due to bad weather). By then Operation Assaf was completed and Operation Horev was in full swing. Until the 1st of February 1949 the Israeli Air Force had six serviceable Avia S.199s and sixteen British XI Spitfires out of the 84 purchased. More Spitfires were shipped; two major consignments arrived in Israel in February and March 1949. The last ship left the port of Gedynia in January 1951.
At some point the Czech offers and helpfulness went further, in May 1948 proposed to sell Israel tanks , artillery and an ambitious training program for Israeli gound troops and pilots. The training began in May, it was planned for approximately a hundred flight cadets which would start the training in Olomouc. For those who would qualify, an advanced course was held in the Czech Air Academy in Hradec Kralove. By the 21st of May, after only nine days of training, five pilots were qualified and rushed back to Israel to fly the first assembled Avia S.199s. The elementary course consisting of twenty Israelis, from which only 13 recieved their "wings", was withheld due to the outrageous price which the Czechoslovak Government was charging. For Israel this course in particular have not been essential, since the IAF had more trained personel then airplanes to fly.
One Czech-Israeli project which particulary alarmed the Western inteligence was the, so called, Czech Brigade . This unit consisted of Jewish members of the "Free Czechoslovakia", which fought with the British Army during WWII. On August the 15th the Brigade started its training at four bases; Libava, Milovice, Velka Strena and Straz pod Ralskem. This program had some enbarrassing consequences, when some of the soldiers demanded a proper salary for their service in the IDF.
The Czech military aid during 1948 was highly improvised. Some of the operations have not been carried out as planned, and some not at all. Israel used the Czech aid not because she leaned towards Communism, but because she was fighting for its survival.
The value of the Czech assistance to Israel's military strength in 1948 can be simplified in to three categories; a) small arms, which were by far the most important of all; b) 84 airplanes from which only a few took part in the Israeli war effort, but took a major part in the demoralization of enemy troops; c) various military services, including military training and technical maintenance.
The price for the Czech help was outrageously high, and Israel paid, since it was essential for the survival of the young state.