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How Israel won the battle for the Negev

Memorial to the Fallen at Ad Halom, Ashdod

The fledgeling Israeli Air Force (IAF), took on and beat the mighty Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1948/49, after British intervention on behalf of the Egyptians during the War of Independence. The excuse for the intervention was to ensure that Israel complied with a biased United Nations resolution.

Last week's article included an excerpt from a speech made by prime minister Netanyahu at Sde Boker on David Ben Gurion Day, in which he alluded to the vital role played by Ben Gurion to ensure that the Negev Desert would become part of the nascent State of Israel. The newly established Israeli Defence Forces, Army, Air Force and Navy, made sure that Ben Gurion's ambitions would be realised

Operation Yoav, which commenced on 15 October 1948 and ended a week later on 22 October, was fought under the direction of Southern Front commander Yigal Allon and had a decisive effect on the final outcome of the War of Independence. Allon’s adversaries were Egypt and Jordan, individually the 2 strongest of the 5 Arab armies that had attacked Israel in May 1948. Jordan’s Arab Legion was considered the most highly trained and efficient of all the Arab armies, while the Egyptians were considered to have the strongest army. Thrown into the mix was the might of the RAF, after Britain intervened in support of Jordan and Egypt, and you begin to get an idea of the gargantuan task facing Allon and his forces.

Simply put, Egypt wanted the western Negev contiguous to the Sinai, Jordan wanted the eastern Negev, including the Dead Sea region, as well as access to a port on the Mediterranean, while Israel believed it was entitled to the whole of the Negev, in terms of the 1947 United Nations Partition vote. Britain supported her client states, Egypt and Jordan, in their ambitions with control of the all important Suez Canal the prize. There were numerous Jewish settlements dotted across the Negev, all of which were vulnerable to armed attack, which many of them suffered at the hands of the Egyptian army. The importance of the Negev to Israel was to enable vital access to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean through the Gulf of Aqaba, while making vast tracts of barren land available for agricultural and other development.

Egypt had invaded the Negev from Gaza, and was striking out in two directions: an easterly direction to link up with the Jordanian Army and in a northerly direction to threaten Tel Aviv. Jordanian forces had occupied Umm Al Rashrash (now Eilat) in the south, and were holding positions adjacent to the road between Jerusalem, Hebron and Beer Sheva. The Arab plan was for Egyptian and Jordanian forces to link up in the northern Negev, and in so doing cut off the Jewish settlements in the south, and then share the spoils between them.

Areas under Israeli control at Independence in blue. 14 May 1948

Arrows indicate advance route of Arab armies

The objective of Operation Yoav was for Israel to achieve control of the entire Negev by pushing the Egyptian and Jordanian forces back into their own territories. The first blow of Yoav had actually been struck much earlier. The newly born Israeli Air Force launched Operation Pleshet by carrying out its first ever air attack on 29 May 1948. An attacking force of 4 Czechoslovakian built Avia S-199 fighter aircraft, piloted by Israelis Ezer Weizmann and Modi Alon, American Lou Lennart and South Africa Eddie Cohen, strafed the Egyptian forces at Isdud (Ashdod). Eddie Cohen earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first IAF pilot to fall in combat, when his aircraft was shot down by Egyptian anti-aircraft fire. There is an ongoing debate in military history circles as to whether the air attack dissuaded the Egyptian high command from pressing on towards Tel Aviv, or whether they never intended advancing further than Isdud in the first place. My opinion is that advancing further would have overextended their lines of communication, causing logistical problems, rendering supply convoys vulnerable to Israeli air attack, and for this reason they decided to hold their line at Isdud and await the Jordanians. Making matters more difficult for the Egyptians, the Israel Naval Services played a vital role in disrupting maritime supply lines and cutting off much needed support from Egyptian naval vessels.

Avia S - 199 - Israel’s first fighter aircraft

While the Egyptian Air Force and the RAF had the more advanced Spitfire Mk 9 and 16

The objective of Operation Pleshet was to capture Isdud from the Egyptians and drive them back to Gaza, and while this was not achieved, the prevailing belief was that it succeeded in confining the enemy to a line just south Isdud, while also preventing a link up with Jordanian troops. The Egyptian succeeded in capturing kibbutz Yad Mordechai on 29 May, holding it until 5 November, when it was recaptured by the IDF.

Operation Yoav commenced with air attacks on Egyptian emplacements in Majdal Al Shams (Ashkelon), Gaza and Beer Sheva on the evening 15 October, 1948, while ground forces consisting of 3 brigades attacked Isdud and other enemy positions in and around Gaza and Majdal Al Shams. The results of the operation were impressive; Israel captured Isdud, Majdal Al Shams, Beer Sheva and retook Yad Mordechai, pushing the Egyptian forces into Gaza. In the south the Jordanians fled, abandoning Umm Al Rashrash, leaving it to the Israeli forces Exhibiting a bias that has become the norm, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution on 4 November, demanding that Israel withdraw from all the positions it had captured from the Egyptians and the Jordanians. A further resolution to similar effect was passed on 16 November, with the British government offering to supervise Israel’s compliance with the resolution, an offer that was never accepted.

Memorial to Warsaw Ghetto Fighters leader, Mordechai Anielewicz,

Kibbutz Yad Mordechai was named in his honour

Despite the non-acceptance, the offer gave the RAF an excuse to commence reconnaissance flights over Israel, with the aircraft flying at a height of 25 to 30,000 feet, well beyond the reach of Israeli anti-aircraft weaponry. The illegal flights over Israeli territory sowed the seeds for an aerial confrontation. Israeli observers noted an unidentified Mosquito entering Israel air space from the direction of Lebanon on 20 November, flying at a height of about 30,000 feet. An IAF Mustang P-51 piloted by Wayne Pick (a non Jewish volunteer) was dispatched to investigate the foreign aircraft, which traversed Israel from north to south. Pick caught up with the Mosquito, bearing RAF markings, as it was flying about 40 kms north east of Gaza City, firing one burst from his guns, he hit the Mosquito, which crashed into the sea about 25 kms south of Tel Aviv, killing both crew members.

The Negev was by then largely in Israeli hands, so Britain decided on a low key approach to the incident, while it suited Ben Gurion that the British should not be further antagonised. Winston Churchill raised the incident in Parliament, questioning why RAF aircraft were being used in danger zones, when the UN had never requested nor accepted Britain's offer to police Israeli compliance with the Security Council resolution. British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, however recommended to prime minister Attlee that the flights should be continued , which is what took place

Israel launched Operation Horev on 22 December 1948 to deal a final decisive blow against the Egyptian Army, a move seen as direct provocation by the British government. Israeli forces entered Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula, raising British fears that Israel intended grabbing the Suez Canal, and orders were given to the RAF to fly surveillance missions. Britain issued a serious warning to Israel, reminding Ben Gurion of a 1936 mutual defence treaty between Great Britain and Egypt, which could lead to a British attack on Israel. Later that day the Egyptian government formally requested British assistance, with the British Ambassador to Egypt recommending direct British intervention against Israel. The RAF command in the Middle East ordered 324 Wing to start flying immediate reconnaissance missions over the battle zone in order to report on Israeli troop movements and strengths.

On the morning of 7 January 1949, two Mosquito reconnaissance planes accompanied by 8 Spitfire fighter aircraft were detailed to fly a mission over the Rafah area and report on Israeli troop movement. South African volunteer radar operator Maurice Ostroff detected the flight of the Mosquito aircraft and escort and alerted the IAF command. The IAF’s fighting capacity consisted of one fighter squadron, designated 101 Squadron, commanded by South Africa volunteer Syd Cohen. He was at IDF headquarters in tel Aviv at the time, with the senior officer none other than future IAF chief and president of Israel, Ezer Weizmann, who was in temporary command of the squadron. Weizmann took the view that the RAF action was antagonistic, placing them firmly on the side of the Egyptians. He advised Cohen accordingly and requested permission to deal with the situation, which was granted. Two IAF Spitfires were detailed to investigate and take such action as was necessary to deal with the the enemy aircraft, which they believed were attacking IDF vehicles. In a short time the IAF pilots “dealt with the situation” most effectively, shooting down all three Spitfires which had been accompanying the reconnaissance aircraft. A 4th RAF aircraft was hit and downed by Israel anti aircraft fire.

Syd Cohen (R) with Ezer Weizman and Nelson Mandela (Photo: Oranit)

Later in the day RAF Middle East Command realised that the 4 aircraft were missing and a large force consisting of 15 Tempest F-6 and 4 Spitfires, a total of 19 fighter aircraft, were dispatched on a search and rescue mission in an attempt to locate the four missing aircraft. The possibility that they had been shot down by the IAF was never considered. After receiving reports of the British air armada, once again from Ostroff, Weizmann called Syd Cohen, who reluctantly agreed that a flight of 4 Spitfires led by Weizman should investigate and take action. A ceasefire was due to become effective a few hours later and every advantage had to be sought before then. Weizmann wrote later that he had no idea of the number of enemy fighters they would be facing, but was spoiling for a fight, so undaunted they went on the attack. Once committed, they realised that they were up against 19 “enemy" fighter aircraft, five of which the Israelis shot down in the ensuing air battle. Fortunately for Israel, cool heads prevailed in the RAF, and despite demands for a full scale attack on Israel to restore British honour, no further confrontations took place.

Not only had the miniscule IDF defeated 5 Arab armies, but its fledgling air force had taken on the might of the RAF, and won. This was the very beginning of the enviable reputation the Israeli Air Force and its fighter pilots enjoy to this very day.

So the battle was won, the Negev was secure and an integral part of modern Israel. David Ben Gurion's dream of a port on the Red Sea and Jewish towns and villages from north to south was to be realised.

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For me the most interesting of all your articles to date, Peter, though I guess that with the IAF featuring, there's no great surprise! Could the Maurice Ostroff radar operator mentioned possibly be the same person I met in the 90's, with substantial property interests in Olifantsfontein, 20km south of Pretoria? Super read, thank you Peter!

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