Operation Velveta 1 — Part 1

Part One: Purchasing 50 “Spitfires”.

By the second week of September 1948 I was already checked-out as First-Pilot Day on the “Norseman”. On the 14th, I was ordered to fly 7 passengers to Tel-Aviv. The passengers were 6 pilots from Air Transport Command and the Commanding Officer of Flt. 35,1 Ted Gibson. The 6 ATC pilots had their personal luggage with them. Gibson was flying to Tel-Aviv to attend a meeting at IAF HQ.  I later found out the topic of Gibson’s meeting: It was Operation “Velveta”.  The meeting would set into motion events that would involve me and our Flight.

Norseman(side) (1)

Profile of the Norseman

norsemen cockpit

Cockpit of the Norseman

The next two days, the 15 and 16 of September, Gibson told me to practice wheel-landings on the Norseman, which I did with Asher De Leeuw as my co-pilot. I was surprised and did not understand what was going on. Gibson, usually a friendly fellow, kept mum and explained nothing. After these two days he sent me on leave for 3 days. My parents were glad to see me.  I regaled myself with long nights of sleep and my mother’s cooking which I so loved. I returned on the 20th and flew that night, practicing take-offs and landings with Gibson at my side. When we got back he said, “You are now checked-out as First-Pilot both Day and Night. Come to my office tomorrow morning at 9. We will have an important conversation.”

Me in 1948

This is I in 1948 (age 22)

The next morning, tense with expectation, I went into Gibson’s office and found another three men there: Maurice Bensimon who did not belong to Flt.35 but to Air Transport Command where he flew a Captain, Joe Sunderland, and Laszlo “The Count” Stark. Gibson started briefing us and this is what I found out from this briefing:

Early in July 1948 the Czechs proposed to members of our Purchasing Mission2 the purchase of 50 British-made Supermarine “Spitfire” Mark LF9E fighter-aircraft out of the 76 which they received as a gift from Britain after they gained their freedom at the end of World-War 2. The Czechs asked $23,000 for every Spit. Their proposal was made for two reasons: The first being the brand-new fighter-aircraft which Czechoslovakia just received from the USSR and the second being the extremely poor economical situation in which they found themselves. Our representatives pounced on this bargain. The former purchasing deal which was carried-out early in 1948 and which included 25 fighter-aircraft which were originally German but made in Czechoslovakia: “Messerschmidt” Type S-199 “Avia” proved to be almost a bad if not poor deal. Neither IAF HQ nor our fighter-pilots were happy with these airplanes which were not very successful during World-War 2 as fighter-aircraft. It was not suitable to conditions in Israel. It was not produced in order to operate from runways but from grass-fields. Our fighter-pilots never flew it before and saw it only through their gunsights. By mid-September 1948 we had already lost 5 and 5 more were not airworthy. Our fighter-aircraft Squadron was left with 15 which were diminishing very quickly.

It should be noted that two “Spitfire” aircraft were assembled from “Spit” bits and parts which were found in the junkyard of Ekron Base (Ekron having been the largest Royal Air Force Base in Palestine contained the largest junkyard). These parts belonged to the Egyptian “Spitfires” which we shot down and to 4 Egyptian “Spitfires” which were shot down by the British when the Egyptians attacked the Ramat-David Airbase on the 22nd of May 1948 , thinking that the British have already evacuated it, while actually the British RAF was still there in full force. These two “Spits” which we managed to assemble and make airworthy started flying already early in September but were not enough. Operation “Yoav” was at an advanced stage of planning.  Our Air Force was expected to play a major part in this operation and we were very short on fighter-aircraft.

The Czechs proposed to disassemble the airplanes and pack them in wooden crates which would be sent to Israel by train and boat and then be reassembled and made airworthy. It would take six months. We did not have this much time and so we told the Czechs that we wanted to fly them to Israel. The Czechs said that this was practically impossible. This airplane had an endurance of 90 minutes which was quite enough to operate as a fighter. At cruising-speed it could fly 700 kilometers in 90 minutes. The British had planned to add an additional fuel-tank under the belly which would bring its range up to 1,570 kilometers. Even so it could not fly non-stop from Czechoslovakia to Israel. It still required 2 or even 3 refuelling stops. Our relations with Greece were very bad at that time and made this impossible. We already had this problem when we ferried the “Norsemans” from Europe to Israel. It was then decided to add two more external fuel-tanks which would make it possible to fly from Yugoslavia to Israel non-stop. IAF ATC had an American volunteer who was an Aeronautical Engineer and a pilot with a Commercial Pilot License named Sam Pomerantz. He was sent to Czechoslovakia to check the feasibility of the offer and the airworthiness of the airplanes and then plan and carry out the adding of two more outside fuel-tanks to each airplane. Pomerantz checked the airplanes, declared them airworthy and the deal was signed. Each airplane was fixed with two additional fuel-tanks, one under each wing and the necessary changes were made to the fuel-system of each airplane so that the fuel of every fuel-tank could be used as necessary.

Carrying such a large and heavy amount of fuel made it impossible to carry the cannons and machine-guns of these fighter-aircraft or even part of the radio equipment, not to mention ammunition. All these items were taken off the airplanes and had to be sent to Israel separately. The Czechs insisted again that they be sent by train and boat. They had a most important reason for being so insistent: As late as August 1948 the Czechs allowed us to use Zatec airfield which is situated not far from the Capital – Prague. All our aerial traffic which originated from the USA passed through Zatec, especially IAF ATC flights. Innumerable cargo flights of ours took-off from Zatec after they have been refuelled laden with airplanes, arms, ammunition and various other military equipment, bound for Israel. But all this did not pass quietly and unseen. The volunteer crews, during the few days spent in Zatec, used to drive to Prague so as to have a good time by visiting the bars and night-clubs which abounded in the Capital.The volunteers were laden with large amounts of money (relative to 1948),mainly in US$. Hungry Czechoslovakia was in an extremely bad economical situation and one could obtain quite a lot for 1$ – especially women. The prostitutes of Prague were having a dream of a ball. The volunteers used to spend huge amounts of money, get drunk and disturb the peace and the prostitutes had a secondary source of income by reporting information to certain employees of the foreign Embassies, mainly the Embassy of the USA which was well aware that most of these volunteers were American citizens.

It did not take long for the American Embassy to find out the details of all our operations, flights, types of cargo: Legal and smuggled, including the number of airplanes used and their types, what each flight carried, even a long list of names of most aircrew and ground personnel.The Americans were furious:3 They were not only deceived and lied-to when we purchased many different types of airplanes from the surplus stocks of the US Air Force and then smuggled them all the way to Israel but we almost turned all of Europe: Holland, Belgium, France, Italy, Yugoslavia and mainly Czechoslovakia to be our logistic rear: A logistic rear which included air-bases, flying-schools and ground-schools and a wide and smart purchasing and smuggling system which supplied Israel with the most essential war materiel. This was in full contrast to the Embargo on all middle-eastern countries which was declared by the Security-Council early in 1948 as a result of diplomatic pressure by the USA and Britain. Czechoslovakia was also a member of the UN and was expected to obey the Embargo decision instead of disobeying it so blatantly. The American State Secretary ordered the American Embassy in Prague to protest most strongly to the Czech Foreign Ministry and add a concealed diplomatic threat: That if Czechoslovakia will not stop selling us arms and services and will not close all its military air-bases and chase all Israeli personnel from its territory the USA will report this serious violation to the Security Council and recommend that serious economical sanctions be taken against Czechoslovakia. This is what poor and hungry Czechoslovakia was afraid of indeed.It was dependent on the economical help which it was getting from the USA and other western countries and could not allow itself to get punished by economical sanctions. To add to this unfortunate situation the USSR whose influence and involvement was slowly augmenting in Czechoslovakia – cooled-off their relations with Israel and reversed their former advice to the Czechs which was to help Israel in its need.

The American ultimatum was passed to the Czechs early in August and by the third week of this month all our airplanes and men were ousted out of Zatec and Prague was emptied of her merry visitors. IAF ATC based itself in Ekron and its operations changed in more than one way. All the requests made by the Israeli Legation in Prague requesting that clearance be given to our airplanes to load and fly out the cannon, machine-guns, ammunition and various spare-parts of the 50 “Spits” were sternly refused. Finally the Czechs agreed that Israeli single-engined airplanes only would fly in and out of Czechoslovakia. The Czechs were certain that small airplanes of this class would not be able to carry the necessary cargo.

But Israel never said die. Our Extraordinary Ambassador at Large for the Balkan countries, Yeshaayahu (Shaike) Dan was instructed to negotiate with the Yugoslav government and ask them to put to our disposal an airfield and allow our airplanes to fly the route: Czechoslovakia – Yugoslavia – Israel and return so as to carry out Operation “Velveta”. Geda Shohat (who flew as a pilot with the RAF during WW2) was in command of a previous flight operation through Yugoslavia and so it was he who was sent back to find an appropriate airfield, as close as possible to Yugoslavia’s southern border. Yugoslavia’s President Tito and his first Prime-Minister who was a Jew named Moshe Pijade were of the first to recognize Israel (de facto and de jure), not due to the USSR’s recommendation (relations between Yugoslavia and the USSR were very cool at that time,) but because they made every effort to help the State of Israel in every possible way. Geda Shohat found a suitable airfield near the town of Niksic’, in the province of Czarnogora (Montenegro). It was a huge green meadow surrounded by hills. A river passed on the west side of the airfield and the town was on the east side. A railway-track passed from north to south just on the outskirt of town. The Norseman was chosen for the operation. It was the only single-engine airplane which could carry 1000 kilograms of cargo.

Two of the 10 “Norsmen” which were held up in Holland and France during July and August and were freed in mid-September were flown through Kunovice in Czechoslovakia to Niksic’ in Yugoslavia. The plan was as follows: The “Spitfires” which were made airworthy by the Czechs in a small aircraft factory and airfield near the town of Kunovice will be flown in eight or nine flights including 6 airplanes in each flight all the way to Niksic’ in Yugoslavia where they will land, be refueled and given a last check before taking-off again and flying non-stop to Ramat-David in Israel. The two “Norsemen” will carry-out a shuttle-service between Kunovice and Niksic’. On every departure from Kunovice each “Norsman” will carry the cannon, machine-guns, ammunition and vital spare-parts of one “Spit” (the total weight of this cargo being exactly 1,000 kilograms). This way the vital contents of 2 “Spits” will get to Niksic’ every day. On the arrival day of a group of 6 “Spits” a Douglas C-54 “Skymaster” of ATC will arrive in Niksic’ in order to escort the “Spit” formation, navigating them ahead, act as their communication channel, act in case that search-and-rescue becomes necessary due to a “Spit” ditching in the Mediterranean. For these purposes the “Skymaster” was staffed with two Navigators and two Wireless-Operators in addition to the pilots. It had also several different dinghies, life-belts and a load of different pyrotechnical props. Once a week a Curtiss-Wright C-46 “Commando” airplane will arrive in Niksic’ to collect the cargo which the two “Norsemen” brought from Kunovice to Niksic’. The C-46 could carry 7 tons of cargo.

Footnotes:

1. During WW2, and for the decade or so after, the Israeli Air Force was composed of Squadrons (it took after the Cavalry, which was also composed of Squadrons). A Squadron was divided into 3 Flights. Each flight had 5 planes. Flight 35, for example, was composed of 5 Norsemen and 10 pilots (all foreign volunteers, about half Jewish and half gentiles). 3 Squadrons formed a “Wing”: Wing No.1 was the Fighter Wing, Wing No.4 the Bomber Wing.  3 Wings formed a “Group”. But there were also exceptions and changes to this structure. For instance, if the Air Force needed a large unit of Transport Aircraft it would form an ATC (Air Transport Command). 2. A Purchasing Mission is a mission in which one to five men are sent by the Minister of Defense to find parties who are willing to sell to Israel arms and ammunition of all and any kind: Airplanes, ships, tanks, cannon, rifles, machine-guns, mortars, ammunition, mines, etc. 3. For background on the American stance during the War of Independence, see this article by the Jewish Virtual Library.

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