A variant of the German Bf.109 helped the Jewish state defeat invaders — but at a terrible cost
by SEBASTIEN ROBLIN
When Israel declared independence from British colonial rule in May 1948, it immediately went to war with the neighboring Arab states. One of the first weapons Israel acquired was a fighter plane designed by a country that had sought the extinction of the Jewish people.
The German Messerschmitt Bf.109 — later re-designated Me.109 — was the most advanced fighter plane of its time when it first saw combat in 1937 in the Spanish Civil War. Flown by German pilots in support of General Franco’s Nationalists, Bf. 109s secured air superiority over Spain and allowed Fascist bombers to terror bomb cities nearly unopposed.
The Bf.109E model was upgraded with 20-millimeter cannons and a new Daimler Benz 601 engine that increased its speed to 354 miles per hour. It swept its opponents from the skies in the invasion of Poland and the Battle of France.
Only when it met large numbers of Royal Air Force Spitfires in the Battle of Britain did it meet its match — resulting in the Nazi war machine’s first major defeat.
While superior fighter aircraft began entering service on all sides by 1942, Nazi Germany continued upgrading and producing 109s until the end of the war. Much of this production took place in heavily industrialized Czechoslovakia, which had been annexed by Germany in 1938. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Czechs decided to reopen production by making their own version of the 109, the Avia S-199.
The Czechs planned on using their stock of Daimler Benz 605 engines intended for use in 109 aircraft. However, a factory fire destroyed the engines, forcing the Czechs to find an alternative. They settled on tapping a stockpile of Jumo 211F engines and propellers used by Nazi Heinkel-111 twin-engine bombers.
Needless to say, the 211F wasn’t designed to be a fighter engine — and caused endless problems when fitted to the 109's airframe. Not only were the engines underpowered, but the 109’s original nose-hub cannon was incompatible with it, so the Czechs instead strapped MG 151 cannons under the wings using World War II-era Rüstsatz VI add-on kits. These worsened the S-199’s flight performance.
The Czechs produced 532 S-199s, which served in the Czech air force for 10 years under the unaffectionate nickname mezek — “mule” — because of their difficult handling characteristics.
War in Palestine
In the wake of violent anti-Semitic pogroms in Tsarist Russia during the 1880s, European Jews had begun immigrating to Palestine as part of the Zionist movement, which promoted Jewish nationalism.
They joined a local population of Middle Eastern Mizrahi Jews that had lived alongside Arab Muslims and Christians for centuries.
The growing Jewish population led to increasing tensions with local Arab communities, and many Jews and Arabs began to see themselves as being in a zero-sum competition for control of the territory. Palestine at the time was under British colonial rule, which clumsily attempted to pacify both populations, satisfying neither.
As violent clashes erupted, Jewish groups began forming militias. Haganah, the largest group, was led by David Ben-Gurion. There was also the more hardline Irgun under Menachem Begin, and the violent extremist Lehi or “Stern Gang.”
After World War II, these groups launched a guerilla war against colonial rule that led the United Kingdom to begin withdrawing in 1947 after a deadly attack on the King David Hotel. A United Nations resolution calling for separate Jewish and Arab states cleared the way for Ben-Gurion to declare the creation of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948.
Fighting between Jews and Arabs for control of Palestine had already begun well before then.
Britain and France had been decolonizing its other holdings in the Middle East, too, and the newly independent Arab states of Egypt, Transjordan, Iraq and Syria intervened against Israeli forces, which they viewed as illegitimate.
Egypt in particular had inherited a lot of military equipment from the British, and soon Egyptian Spitfires were strafing Israeli-held airfields, while C-47 transports converted into bombers began bombing Tel Aviv.
The leaders of the newly formed Israeli Defense Force, drawn out of Haganah’s ranks, scrambled to put together an air force even before the declaration of statehood.
Haganah already operated an assortment of light civilian planes such as Piper Cubs in its Sherut Avir — “air service” — which flew reconnaissance as well as bombing missions. The pilots held bombs and grenades on their laps and threw them out the side of the cockpit. Clearly, that wasn’t going to cut it much longer.
But Israeli agents had difficulty purchasing military equipment because of an arms embargo. Finally, Otto Felix found a Czech arms dealer willing to sell Avia S-199s at the then-exorbitant rate of $180,000 each, equivalent to $1.8 million today. The price included equipment, ammunition, delivery, and flying lessons for the Israeli pilots, many of whom had only civilian flying experience.
The first order for 10 S-199s was followed by another for 15. When the Israelis subsequently received an offer to purchase far more capable P-47 Thunderbolts at a lower price, they turned it down.
The new air force also lacked qualified pilots and mechanics, so it assembled a rag-tag group of volunteers, adventurers and low-paid mercenaries known as Machal or Machalniks.
Of the 609 personnel that served in the Israeli air force in its first war, 181 were Israeli-born, 182 came from the United States, 80 were South African and around 50 each hailed from Canada and the United Kingdom. The remainder came from at least a dozen other countries. Around four-fifths were Jewish.
On May 6, 1948, two of these volunteers and eight Haganah pilots left for the Czech Republic to begin training on the S-199s.
Four broken aircraft save Tel Aviv
On May 18, an Egyptian C-47 dropped bombs on Tel Aviv’s central bus terminal, killing 42 people and wounding more than 100.
When the Israeli pilots learned of the attack, they demanded to return to Israel early. Their Czech instructors objected that the volunteers hadn’t even received basic combat training, and only the experienced pilots had any chance of operating the aircraft safely. But the volunteers got their way and headed back to the Middle East.
Plans to ferry the S-199s directly became impossible because of the arms embargo. Instead, technicians dismantled the S-199s. Each was shipped over in two separate flights by enormous long-range C-46 Commando transport aircraft. These flew first to Corsica and from there to Ekron — now Tel Nof Air Base — in Operation Balak, which began on May 20.
In an omen of things to come, the first S-199 was lost on May 23 when its C-46 transport crashed attempting to land in the fog, the dismantled fuselage sliding forward and killing navigator Moshe Rosenbaum. On other occasions, aircraft carrying the 199s were impounded and their crew jailed at various airports for their violation of the arms embargo.
It wasn’t until noon on May 29 that the first S-199s were assembled and in functioning order under the newly-christened 101 Squadron. The appellation “Messerschmitt” for the knock-off aircraft was shortened to Messrs — which also means “knife” in Hebrew.
By then, an Egyptian column of around 2,300 men drawn from the 2nd Brigade mounted in hundreds of trucks was heading toward Tel Aviv, accompanied by armored cars and 10 Matilda and Mark VI tanks. The force stopped near Ashdod, also called Isdud, delayed by a destroyed bridge only 30 kilometers away from the Israeli capital. If it completed repairs to the bridge, the column was poised to capture Tel Aviv the following morning.
Without even a single test flight, the four operational Avias were dispatched directly into combat. The pilots included Ezer Weizman and Mordechai “Modi” Alon — both combat veterans that had served in the British Royal Air Force — plus Lou Lenart, a Pennsylvania Jew with experience flying for the U.S. Marines over Okinawa and Eddie Cohen, who had flown for the South African air force. Each fighter was armed with two small 154-pound bombs.
Upon spotting the Egyptian vehicles, the four S-199s swooped down on the column as 40-millimeter anti-aircraft shells tore up the sky around them. Releasing their bombs, the fighters made three passes, machine guns chattering and cannons barking — but only briefly, because three of the four aircraft’s cannons immediately jammed.
Cohen’s Messr, likely struck by flak, crashed in flames close to the air base of Hatzor. Alon’s airbrakes malfunctioned while returning to base and a wingtip plowed into the ground while landing.
In this “pathetic little attack” in the words of the 101 Squadron history of the event, the Israeli air force had lost two aircraft and one pilot.
But the Egyptian column ceased its advance entirely, flummoxed to have been attacked from the air. “We have been heavily attacked by enemy aircraft, we are dispersing,” explained a radio transmission to Cairo.
The Egyptian force came under several more air attacks and repelled a major Israeli counterattack on June 2 — but it never resumed its advance toward Tel Aviv.
This seemingly minor raid is credited by some as having preserved “the existence of Israel as we know it.” This is far from certain. While many see the column’s halt as marking the turning point of the war, it is debatable whether the Egyptian force even intended to enter Tel Aviv.
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 Messrs against 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.