Canadian In The Israeli Air Force ... and the Czech help
Canadian In The Israeli Air Force
Fifty years ago, the state of Israel was born and immediately had to fight for its survival. The Israel Defense Force/Air Force came into existence through improvisation, smuggling and a ragtag collection of foreign volunteers.
By Robert Letovsky
The summer of 1947 was a period of impending crisis for the small Jewish community of Palestine. In September, the United Nations was to begin debate on a plan to divide Palestine into two states -- one Arab, one Jewish. The Arab community had made it clear that it would resist such a plan with force. While the prospect of a civil war within Palestine was bad enough, David Ben Gurion, the unofficial minister of defense of the Jewish community, predicted that neighboring Arab states would also join in the fighting.
Transforming The Haganah
The Jewish community was confident about its chances in a purely civil war. While Palestine was under British rule, the community had organized a sizable underground army, the Haganah, which had grown to a force of almost 45,000 part-time members. What the Jewish forces in Palestine lacked was the ability to withstand an assault from the conventional forces of the surrounding Arab states, equipped with armor, artillery and air power.
Ben Gurion set about the task of acquiring the equipment and personnel to transform the Haganah into a conventional, full-time force with land, sea and air capability. Beginning in 1945, he sent agents into the United States to buy surplus arms-making machinery for shipment to Israel. In late 1947, Haganah agents in the United States began to acquire heavy weapons and aircraft. They had to work around a U.S. embargo imposed on all arms shipments to the Middle East. That meant setting up a web of dummy companies and making shipments using falsely labeled containers from a variety of American and Canadian ports.
Meanwhile, the Haganah began to recruit skilled pilots, flight crews and support personnel to staff the fledgling Sherut Avir (air service), as well as specialists in certain ground force areas, such as artillery and armor. Jewish war veterans were the main focus of the recruitment program abroad, though a significant number of non-Jews were successfully recruited (see sidebar, P. 34). Great care was taken to hide the program from public knowledge, since U.S. law specifically prohibited enlistment of Americans for foreign military service. Elaborate precautions were taken to verify each potential recruit's background and true intentions and to ensure that federal agents were not infiltrating the program.
Five thousand men from the United States, Canada, Europe and South Africa volunteered for military service in Israel during the 1948-1951 period. Almost 700 of the foreigners served in the Sherut Avir and its successor, the Chel Ha'Avir, or Israel Defense Force/Air Force (IDF/AF), as it was renamed at the end of May 1948. They served as the pilots, aircrew and ground support personnel in all its early squadrons. One of those volunteers was Elkan Levitan, a 25-year-old veteran of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). In an interview with Robert Letovsky for Military History, he described his activities in the service of two air arms.
Military History: Tell me about your record with the RCAF during World War II.
Levitan: I joined the RCAF in August 1941. I took my training at Saint Thomas, Ontario, and went overseas to England in April 1943. I was stationed with No. 410 Squadron, which was strictly an air defense unit flying [de Havilland] Mosquito night fighters. I was assigned to the flight crew, servicing the aircraft that came down from the missions. From there, I was sent to a new squadron, No. 433, in Yorkshire, the first Canadian squadron to be equipped with [Handley Page] Halifax 3s. After a year with 433, I was sent to Italy in a combined operations unit. We were organized into six-man teams -- two from infantry, two demolition people and two mechanics. Our job was to go out and take off secret equipment from downed aircraft. If we couldn't retrieve the equipment, we were supposed to destroy the plane.
MH: How often were you behind German lines?
Levitan: Only two or three times.
MH: Did you run into trouble on any of those missions?
Levitan: Only on the last one, when we came up against a German infantry unit. That was around April 28, 1945. There were about 30 of us. We thought of surrendering.
MH: What happened?
Levitan: They surrendered to us!
Levitan's Change Of Mind
MH: When were you contacted about the Sherut Avir?
Levitan: I was approached in Italy, in 1944. There was a Passover meal given by the Palestine Brigade of the British army, and Jewish personnel from all the Allied units in the area were invited. Some of the Palestinian personnel assigned to the British army were recruiting people to serve in Palestine.
MH: What was your response at that time?
Levitan: I just said, "Sure, why not?" but I didn't really give it much thought.
MH: Did the person who approached you in Italy contact you again?
Levitan: No. I came back to Canada in October 1945, and was discharged a month later. I went back to school and found a part-time job. I was contacted by someone else in late 1946.
MH: What was your response when you were approached in Canada?
Levitan: I said I wasn't interested. I really wanted to finish my education.
MH: What made you change your mind?
Levitan: I started to learn more about what had happened in Europe -- the concentration camps, the mass murders. I wanted to do my bit to prevent that from happening a second time. Also, I was single at the time, and it seemed like a bit of an adventure.
MH: What happened after you agreed to go to Palestine?
Levitan: I was sent down to Albany, New York, for an interview. They asked me questions about my RCAF experience and looked over my discharge papers. I went back to Montreal, and after I got my passport, I was told to go to New York City. I was given a phone number, a first name and a password.
MH: What happened after you got to New York?
Levitan: My contact in New York was expecting me. After I had arranged to get all my travel papers together, he gave me an airline ticket to Rome and a contact there.
MH: What was your cover story for the trip?
Levitan: I would say that I was going to Europe to check out machinery. I arranged a cover with my ex-employers in Montreal. I was on pretty good terms with the owner of the company. I told him that I needed someone to cover me in case I was questioned, and he agreed.
A Scientific Killer
MH: What did you do once you got to Rome?
Levitan: There were a number of us waiting for our orders to go on to Palestine. We basically lay low for a few days. I met George Beurling, among others. A bunch of us went out with him one day. Over dinner, he started giving a mini-lecture on gunnery. When he was finished, veteran pilots, guys with five or six kills to their credit, were standing there in awe. Beurling was a scientific killer. He had it down to a T. After a few days, I was told that I was going to Czechoslovakia, along with two other guys, both Americans.
MH: Beurling never made it to Palestine. He was killed when the plane that he was supposed to fly to Israel caught fire and crashed during takeoff from Rome. To this day, some people think his plane was sabotaged. Did you ever come across any information about this?
Levitan: I heard the rumors, but I also spoke to a few guys who had worked on the [Noorduyn] Norseman plane Beurling was flying. They all told me the Norseman was a very tricky aircraft. You had to treat it gently. Beurling may have shot his throttle out too fast and caused a flame to shoot out from the engine.
MH: What impact do you think he would have made on Israel's war effort had he lived to fly in the IDF/AF?
Levitan: I don't think he would have made much of a difference, except maybe as a morale booster. He was a loner -- the kind of guy you didn't want as your wingman. The days of the lone ace were gone; by now, war was a team effort, and he just wasn't known as a team man.
MH: What was your mission in Czechoslovakia?
Levitan: We were told to check out military equipment that the Haganah was buying from the Czechs. We went to the Avia plant, where on one side they were making MiGs, and on the other, [Messerschmitt] Me-109s. The Czechs also had German army equipment from World War II. We were supposed to make sure that the equipment and munitions that the Czechs were selling to us weren't defective, and that the equipment was serviceable. A lot of the German army equipment had been sabotaged, and it had to be looked over quite carefully.
MH: Were you technically able to do that, even though it was German-designed equipment?
Levitan: Sure. I refused to pass quite a bit of ammunition. In Italy, I had become quite familiar with several pieces of German equipment, especially the Spandau -- a beautiful weapon. We had a guideline that if there were so many duds per batch, we rejected the batch. That would get the Czechs really mad!
MH: What type of equipment were the Czechs selling to the Israelis?
Levitan: At first, it was mostly small arms and ammunition. Later, the Czechs sold us a few modified versions of the Me-109G.
MH: Those modified Messerschmitts were called the Avia S-199s?
Levitan: Right. Actually, the Czechs called them Mezecs [Mules].
MH: Why was that?
Levitan: The Avias didn't have the same power as the original Me-109s. The Me-109 [G-14] had a Daimler-Benz engine, but the Czechs didn't have enough of those. Instead of the Daimler-Benz, the Czechs used a Junkers Jumo [211F] engine [a heavier, less powerful engine used in Heinkel He-111H bombers]. The Avias were hard to control during landing and takeoff. In fact, they were known to flip over as they came in to land.
Levitan: They were disassembled and packed in crates, then carried over to Israel in IDF/AF [Curtiss] C-46s. It took two planes to get them over, one plane carrying the fuselage, another carrying the wings and propeller.
MH: Were you involved in the actual shipments?
Levitan: My first few weeks in Czechoslovakia were spent at the plants, inspecting equipment. Then they posted me to Zatec [the air base in Czechoslovakia from which transport planes left for Israel]. I was only there for about a month.
MH: What did you do there?
Levitan: More of the same, inspecting equipment and supplies being bought, looking over the supply planes and helping load them. I worked under Sam Pomerantz, who was one of the guys in charge of the Czech operation [Pomerantz, an American, was killed in late 1948 while flying a Supermarine Spitfire from Czechoslovakia].
Landing In The Dark
MH: Who did the actual ferrying of the Avias and other supplies from Czechoslovakia to Israel?
Levitan: The whole transport operation was done by the IDF/AF -- which means by the foreign volunteers. It was a tremendous job when you think of the route, flying fully loaded C-46s over the Alps, then into Israel without any air cover to speak of. They had to land in the dark, without any navigational aids.
MH: Czechoslovakia was already under Communist control by that time. Why do you think they were willing to sell arms to Israel?
Levitan: It was a question of money, really. The Czechs had huge stocks of abandoned German arms, and their own factories were still turning out a lot of equipment.
MH: Where did you go from Zatec?
Levitan: I was assigned to Israel in May 1948. My first job was to see that the Avias, as they were brought in, were properly reassembled and ready to fly. I only did a couple of those. Then they told me that they were forming a new squadron in Herzlia, and off I went.
MH: This was 101 Squadron?
Levitan: Yes. Actually, we started out at Tel Nov [the old Royal Air Force base at Ekron]. We were later moved to Herzlia, then Hatzor, which was the old RAF base known as Qastina.
MH: What did you do in 101 Squadron?
Levitan: I worked on operations, getting the planes ready for missions. Remember, this was at the time the only fighter squadron they had. There was no letting up. At one point, I didn't get any leave to go to Tel Aviv for six months.
MH: What types of aircraft were you working with?
Levitan: At first, the Avias. [Supermarine] Spitfires [Mark IXs] came about four or five months later. Israel bought 75 of them from the Czechs. They had them because Czech pilots who had flown with the RAF during the war were allowed to fly their planes home. I was one of the very few guys that was familiar with the Spitfires. Then along came some [Bristol] Beaufighters. I even got a chance to work on a Mosquito that someone brought over from England. In later years, I got to work on [North American P-51D] Mustangs.
MH: How was the pay in the IDF/AF?
Levitan: Don't ask! The pay was bad.
MH: I heard that some of the pilots were well-paid.
Levitan: A couple of the pilots were pretty well-paid. I spoke to a couple of American guys who claimed that they were getting up to $800 a month, with bonuses of $600 for each plane shot down.
MH: Was this kind of pay standard for the foreign volunteers?
Levitan: No. They all had their own individual contracts. The ones who were getting the really good pay were probably being paid by the Jewish communities back in North America that had recruited them.
MH: How good were the pilots in 101 Squadron with you?
Levitan: These were all experienced pilots, and many of them had several kills to their credit in World War II.
RAF Planes Shot Down
MH: What about the Arab air forces?
Levitan: The Arab countries had air forces that were more or less equipped, while in the beginning of the war the Israelis had almost nothing. Unfortunately for the Arabs, they never really took advantage of their air power in the early stages, and within a few months the IDF/AF began to come together.
MH: With air crews from so many countries, was language a problem in the IDF/AF?
Levitan: At this point, the IDF/AF was mostly staffed by foreigners. The foreigners were everything -- the pilots, the ground crew, you name it. You couldn't become a noncommissioned officer in the IDF/AF unless you spoke English or French. With all the Americans, Englishmen, South Africans and Canadians, the day-to-day language was always English.
MH: I understand that the IDF/AF shot down five RAF planes on January 7, 1949. What was the story behind that? What were the British planes doing over Israeli territory?
Levitan: It happened during our offensive against the Egyptians in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai. The British planes came over from an RAF base in Egypt. The British later said that their mission was just to monitor our movements and report back to London, but it's likely that they were sharing intelligence with the Arabs.
MH: Do you think the IDF/AF pilots knew they were RAF planes?
Levitan: Sure they knew. They radioed in to headquarters and got the order to shoot them down. Actually, I believe that the army got one of them with anti-aircraft fire.
No War, No Raid
MH: Were you on duty when that happened?
Levitan: I was on pre-flight that day. Another Canadian volunteer [John F. McElroy] came up to me right after it happened and said: "Levitan, pack your bags. We just shot down some British planes."
[Editor's note: A total of five RAF Spitfire FR Mk.18s and one Hawker Tempest Mk.VI operating from Fayid near the Suez Canal -- all of which had penetrated Israeli air space -- were shot down in three separate incidents. In the biggest engagement, one of four Spitfires of No. 208 Squadron was downed by Israeli groundfire, two were shot down by McElroy (a World War II Canadian ace with 11 victories to his credit, most of them over Malta in 1942), and the fourth fell to former American test pilot Chalmers "Slick" Goodlin. One British airman, Pilot Officer I.I.R. Sayer, was killed. The rest were eventually returned to their units.]
MH: How did the episode with the British turn out?
Levitan: We didn't expect a war with the British, but we were all pretty sure they would hit us with a raid to teach us a lesson. As it turned out, nothing happened, though we didn't see any more RAF patrols over our positions.
MH: How long were you with 101 Squadron?
Levitan: Three years. I left Israel in November 1951. By then, most of the foreign volunteers had left, and there were only a few American and Canadian technicians left. There was no need for us anymore. The Israelis did ask me to stay on, but they were already training their own people in the United States, France and the United Kingdom to take over my job.
MH: What finally prompted you to leave?
Levitan: It had gotten to the point where I was always being sent from one operations area to another, with no letup. Even after the cease-fire, there was always action, always fighting. I had married an Israeli girl, but there were times when I wouldn't get to see her for a month. Finally, I said to myself that the state of Israel was fine, so it was mission accomplished and time for me to leave.