The Israeli Air Force is now considered the best in the Middle East. But its beginnings were very precarious and humble. Its first wartime fighter missions were flown by an eclectic mix of foreign and Israeli pilots in the Czechoslovakian-made Avia S-199. This plane was a copy of the Messerschmitt Bf 109, or commonly known as the Me 109. Yes, barely after the Holocaust, the new state of Israel was fighting for its very survival, during the First Arab-Israeli War, in Nazi-designed fighter aircraft. How ironic that must have been.
This unlikely story is shown in Above and Beyond a 2014 documentary by Roberta Grossman and Nancy Spielberg, the younger sister of the famous director.
Above and Beyond follows the compelling story of the handful of Israeli and foreign-born Jewish pilots who flew the copycat Me 109 against Arab armies during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
The Israeli Air Force’s Entrepreneurial Beginnings
Following the end of the British mandate in Palestine, the land was to be partitioned into Jewish and Arab. Nevertheless, all of the surrounding Arab countries had made it clear that they would mobilize to drive the Jews into the sea. The Israelis had only a few heavy weapons. Making matters more difficult, they had no air force to transport supplies or protect their troops and citizens on the ground.
At the time, the U.S. Neutrality Act prevented the sale of equipment to either side. Al Schwimmer, an American, found an ingenious way to circumvent this and help Israel. He purchased transport aircraft from the WWII boneyards in the western U.S. and created a front airline in Panama. Schwimmer got the Israelis C-46 Commando and Constellation cargo aircraft.
The next step was finding the pilots.
The Israelis began trying to find American aircrews, with combat experience in WWII, who had Jewish-sounding names.
Several American pilots, fearing another Holocaust, signed up to join the fight, even though the U.S. government had threatened to revoke their citizenship if they did. These first pilots included Lou Lenart, Leon Frankel, Harold Livingston, Milton Rubenfeld (the father of Pee-wee Herman), George Lichter, Gideon Lichtman, and the Canadian Ace of Aces George “Buzz” Beurling. They were joined by Ezer Weizman, Eddie Cohen, and Modi Alon, the only three pilots of the Israeli Air Force at the time.
The Czech Me 109: A Frankenstein Monster of a Plane
Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948. On May 26, the Israeli Air Force was formed.
Israel found an outlet for fighter aircraft in Czechoslovakia. The Czechs were building a copycat of the Bf 109 Messerschmitt called Avia S-199. Their plane had an Me 109 frame, a Junkers Jumo 211 engine in lieu of the Messerschmitt’s Daimler Benz, and a Heinkel He111 bomber propeller.
This hodgepodge of parts caused the aircraft to perform horribly and often suffer from engine problems. Gideon Lichtman referred to his plane as a Messer-Schitt.
Nevertheless, the nascent Israeli Air Force would have to make do with what it had.
Baptism of Fire
On May 29, 1948, the Israeli Air Force flew its first combat mission with four 199s flown by Modi Alon, Ezer Weizman, Lou Lenart, and Eddie Cohen. The small group attacked an Egyptian armored column that was threatening Tel Aviv.
Although the damage they did to the Egyptians was minimal, the psychological effect it had was profound. The Egyptian commander radioed to Cairo that he was holding his position. The Egyptians would never get any closer to Tel Aviv than they did on that day. The Israelis only lost Cohen; no one was sure if because of ground fire or a mechanical failure.
The next day Rubenfeld was shot down and forced to parachute into the ocean. He tried to swim to shore for hours before finally realizing the water was shallow enough for him to walk to shore. Israeli citizens, thinking he was an Arab, began shooting at him. Rubenfeld didn’t speak Hebrew and knew very little Yiddish, so he began blurting out the only words he knew… “Shabbos, gefilte fish!”
Schwimmer would later finagle his way into getting two B-17 Flying Fortresses that the Israelis would use to bomb Cairo. He was charged with violating the Neutrality Act and had his citizenship revoked. President Clinton finally pardoned him in 2001.
A Unique Moment in History
Above and Beyond does a slick job of interlacing actual combat footage with film of period aircraft photographed in England, and some nice CGI showing Arab armored columns.
That it doesn’t show the Arab side of the equation doesn’t take away from the film at all. It is about how these men played a part in historical events and what that meant to them.
These men were the same as fighter pilots of every generation. When they weren’t flying seat-of-your-pants missions against the Egyptians or Jordanians, they were hell-raising and chasing women in Rome or Tel Aviv. The pilots of the fighter squadrons wore distinctive red ball caps. Due to their notoriety, whenever the Israeli police would see a jeep with red caps going into a bar, they’d try to shut it down.
As the old joke goes, “What’s the difference between God and a fighter pilot? God doesn’t think he’s a fighter pilot.”
Later, the Israeli Air Force was able to purchase British Spitfires and American P-51 Mustangs as its airpower grew. But those first pilots trained, in German aircraft, wore German flight gear (complete with Nazi Luftwaffe markings), while fighting for a country and people that the Germans had tried to erase from the face of the earth just three years before.
You can watch Above and Beyond below.