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Israel - The critical period, 11 May to 19 July 1948

Why is my blog this week not a continuation of what I promised last week - the story of Norman Lourie, but rather titled Israel - The critical period, 11 May to 18 July 1948?

The reason is to honour a remarkable couple, Smoky and Myra Simon, who arrived in Palestine on 11 May 1948, a few days after their marriage in South Africa (yes, they have been married for 72 years, and counting). This was a few days before the evacuation of the remaining British Mandate troops and the establishment of the State of Israel on 14 may 1948.

David Ben Gurion declares the establishment of the State of Israel - 14 May 1948

Smoky Simon, born in South Africa on 24 April 1920, is 100 years “young” and was interviewed by Sue Jackson on Johannesburg's Radio Chai FM this past Tuesday. The link to the podcast of the interview is at the end of this blog and I’m sure you will be enthralled by listening to Smoky’s story about his role in the founding of the Israeli Air Force (IAF). During the same period Myra played a significant role in the establishment of the IAF Meteorological Services. You will hear in the interview that Smoky Simon is no ordinary War of Independence veteran, but that he filled a crucial role as the first IAF Chief of Operations. Smoky tells his story during the interview on the podcast, so what follows from is to provide a background to the Smoky and Myra Simon saga, during the period between their arrival on 11 May and the 2nd cease fire on 18 July 1948.

President Reuven Rivlin Honouring Smoky Simon - December 2017

David Ben Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel on 14 May 1948. This heralded a critical nine week period during which the future of the nascent Jewish State hung in the balance, with the scales tipped in Israel's favour after the UN brokered ceasefire which came into effect on 18 July 1948.

The political war of nerves the Jewish Agency had been engaged in for many years, ended immediately after the United Nations partition vote on 29 November 1947. The decision to partition Palestine into two separate independent states, one Jewish and one Arab, was accepted by the Jewish Agency, but rejected by the Arab League. Palestinian Arabs, armed and assisted by volunteers from various Arab States immediately took the offensive with a series of attacks on Jews and Jewish property. By 31 March 1948 the Jewish paramilitary organisations Haganah, Irgun and LEHI began to achieve the upper hand over the Arab irregular forces. Jewish forces were able to go onto the attack and secure large areas of Palestine, making it possible for Ben Gurion to announce the establishment of the Jewish State on 14 May. The newly born State of Israel was immediately subjected to a concerted attack by 5 Arab armies from the states of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq as well as the Arab Liberation Army commanded by French trained Fawzi al-Qawuqji (Kaukji), all determined to strangle Israel at birth. Kaukji had deserted from the French Army during the 1925 Syrian rebellion against France, supported the German sponsored coup in Iraq in 1941, and finally ended up in Berlin in 1942. He was appointed as a colonel in Hitler's army, where he continually worked, without success, to establish an independent Arab command to take the fight to the British (and the Jews) in Palestine.

The combined Arab attack heralded the most critical phase of the war, from 15 May to 18 July, a phase which would determine whether the nascent Jewish State would survive or not. Remember that Smoky and Myra Simon arrived on 11 May, just in time to play their vital roles in this critical period. The Arab armies enjoyed a significant advantage in war materiel such as tanks, artillery pieces and combat aircraft. They were rapidly able to capitalise on this advantage, capturing the Etzion Bloc in Judea, which actually fell on 13 May, and kibbutz Yad Mordechai in the northern Sinai, which was overrun by Egyptian forces on 24 May, while Mishmar Hayarden and surrounds in the north fell to the Syrian army on 10 June. In my book, Men of Valor, I describe how Sgt. Emil Brigg heroically destroyed the bridge at Kibbutz Gesher in the Beit Shean Valley, preventing the Iraqi 2nd Armoured Brigade from invading Israel, which might have had disastrous consequences. Egyptian forces occupied Isdud (Ashdod) on 29 May 1948, just 30 kms from Tel Aviv, where they were the target of the first air attack by the fledgling Israeli Air Force. Isdud became the northern limit of the Egyptian advance, before beginning a retreat which left the whole northern Negev to Israel. This was a major turning point in the war.

Bridge at Kibbutz Gesher, destroyed by Sgt Emil Brigg, 14 May 1948

Following intense negotiations between the leadership of the 3 Jewish militias and the government, Ben Gurion finally proclaimed the establishment of the Israeli Defence Forces on 31 May 1948. The former paramilitary forces would now fight as the Israeli Army, Air Force and Naval Services under a unified command. From this time onwards the IDF was able to take the ascendancy and go on the attack, with significant victories on the ground, at sea and in the air. The Israeli offensive was so effective that the Arab armies accepted a United Nations brokered truce effective 11 June 1948, which lasted until 8 July. Both sides to the conflict used the period of the truce to rearm, but from this point on, the Israeli forces made steady inroads on all fronts, with the exception of the Jerusalem area where the British led and trained Jordanian Arab Legion put up stern resistance. The United Nations again brokered a ceasefire which went into effect on 18 July 1948, ending the most critical phase of the War of Independence. This cease fire lasted until 15 November that year. By then the back of the Arab attack had been broken and Israel had achieved parity in terms of men and equipment.

Now you can listen to Smoky Simon, an active and leading participant in this history tell his story by clicking on the following link.

Norman Lourie - Part 2 will be published on Sunday 21 June.

Chairman of World Machal Chief of Air Operations

Please forward this article to contacts who may find it of interest

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