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Military Aviation in Ottoman and Mandate Palestine

The capture of Lydda Airport from Arab forces on 10 July 1948 by the IDF 8th Brigade under the command of Moshe Dayan ended the Mandate Palestine era of aviation.

With apologies for the poor quality of the old photograph below

Cape Town born Machalnik Leslie Marcus with Moshe Dayan on the armoured car at the

capture of Lydda Airport 10 July 1948

Thanks to Morris Marcus for this historic photo

This article is dedicated to Smoky Simon and the brave band of airmen who founded 101 Squadron in 1948 as the first fighter squadron of the Israeli Air Force.

101 Fighter Squadron Emblem

Following the first flight by the Wright brothers in a heavier than air machine in 1903, it took just 6 years before military leaders appreciated the strategic possibilities of the new machines. The United States military authorities purchased a Wright Brothers Model A aircraft for use by the Signals Corps on 2 August 1909, making this the first military aircraft in history. The use of the word aircraft implies a heavier than air flying machine, as balloons of various types had been used by the French as early as 1794, and remained in regular use until just after the Second World War.

The first use of an aircraft in combat was during the Turco-Italian war of 1911; fought for control of Libya. This war, which lasted from 29 September 1911 until 18 October 1912, ended with Libya becoming a colony of the victorious Italians. The first Italian military reconnaissance flight was flown over Libya by Captain Carlo Piazza on 23 October 1911 in a Bleriot X1 aircraft. One week later, Italian army pilot Giulio Gavotti flying a Stahl Taube purpose designed war plane, dropped 4 grenades on enemy forces at Tajoura, north western Libya in the first recorded aerial bombing

Stahl Taube (Steel Dove) flown by Giulio Gavotti for the first aerial bombing in Libya, October 1911

The Institute for International Law met in Madrid in October 1911, shortly before the first aerial bombing raid by the Italians in Libya. One of the proposals put forward at that meeting was for the military use of aircraft to be limited to reconnaissance only, with a demand that the use of aircraft as armed offensive attack weapons should be banned. Nothing ever came of this proposal and the outbreak of the First World War raised the status of aircraft as weapons of war to new heights, with specialised fighter, strafing and bomber aircraft soon making their appearance. The advances in aircraft design were given added impetus by the war, as can be seen from the image below.

Digitally enhanced photograph of a 1917 French built Nieuport biplane fighter.

German Air Force (Luftstreitkräfte) in Palestine

Military aviation descended on Ottoman Palestine in March 1916, with the arrival of a German army group designated the Asia Korps, to bolster the rapidly failing Ottoman hold over Palestine. Codenamed the Pasha 1 Expedition, the German task force consisted of cavalry, infantry, artillery, signals, medical services and Flying Detachment (Fliegerabteilung) 300, the air reconnaissance arm of Pasha 1. The 300th Air Detachment, equipped with 14 Rumpler C1 reconnaissance aircraft was stationed at Beersheba during April 1916. Their purpose was to carry out reconnaissance flights in support of the Turkish army after their unsuccessful attempt during January 1915 to capture the Suez Canal. The 300th were later based at Al Arish and Bir al Abd in the Northern Sinai, before falling back to Beersheba as the victorious British led Egyptian Expeditionary Forces (EEF) advanced.

Following successive defeats at the Battles of Romani and Gaza, and the subsequent defeat in the Battle of Beersheba, German reinforcements, task force Pasha II, were shipped to Palestine. Pasha II arrived in January 1918 with Flying Detachments 301, 302, 303, 305 and 304, a Bavarian Squadron, while fighter aircraft made their first appearance in Palestine with the deployment of Fighter Squadron (Jagdstaffel) 55. These air squadrons all retreated to bases at Jenin and Afula in Northern Palestine, following the Allied victory at the Battle of Beersheba. The Jenin and Afula bases were overrun and captured on 20 September 1918 during the Battle of Megiddo, ending all German Air Force activity in Palestine, allowing British aircraft freedom of the skies. The Battle of Megiddo was of great significance as this was the last battle fought by the Turkish forces before their final capitulation, marking the end of 400 years of Ottoman rule in the Middle East.

German Air Force assets captured after the fall of Afula on 20 September 1918

Albatross D.III fighter in the foreground

Allied Air Forces in Palestine

Britain’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) 14th Squadron was based at Kantara in the southern Sinai on the western bank of the Suez Canal, offering protection to canal shipping from Turkish attacks during early 1916. The squadron later moved to the Northern Sinai where it provided air support to the advancing EEF during the Battle of Gaza. During August 1916 the RFC was joined by 1 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) who participated in providing air support during the Battle of Romani. The EEF attack on Beersheba in October 1917 owed a large measure of its success to the intense aerial bombing attacks on Turco German forces targeting roads, railway stations and airfields, carried out by 14 Squadron RFC and 1 Squadron AFC. During the long preparatory period between the first Battle of Gaza and the second Battle of Gaza and the subsequent Battle of Beersheba, aircraft played a vital role by flying reconnaissance missions. Intelligence information gleaned from these flights enabled the preparation of battle maps and detailed planning of the tactical aspects of Allenby’s advance through Palestine.

Despite the fact that the Allied aircraft were technically inferior to those of the German enemy, superior flying skills and a greater dedication seems to have won the day for the Allies. The only Victoria Cross to be won by an Australian pilot during the First World War was awarded to Lieutenant (later Air Vice Marshall) Frank McNamara for the death defying rescue of fellow pilot, Captain Douglas Rutherford, who had been shot down behind enemy lines.

The many smaller battles across the Sharon Plain and the Jezreel Valley, collectively known as the Battle of Megiddo, benefitted in no small measure from the air superiority that had been achieved by the Australian and British pilots. Many of the tactics that were to play such a huge role during the many air battles in the defence of Britain during the Second World War were developed by the RFC pilots during their battles with the German Luftstreitkräfte pilots in Palestine. War in the air waged by men in flying machines came of age in Palestine between 1916 and 1918, and has played a leading role as one of the foremost weapons of war ever since.

RFC Pilot and Observer with their RFC Modern Bristol fighter in Palestine 1918

Both the German and Allied air forces needed landing strips and parking areas for their aircraft, which resulted in British Mandate Authorities Palestine inheriting an exceptionally large number of airfields for such a small territory. While many of these airfields were in a bad state of repair following air and other attacks, they were to be found throughout the region, making air travel between the different centres viable for British officialdom and later for the Jewish paramilitary air forces.

Israeli Air Force (IAF)

The IAF came into being on 28 May 1948, shortly after the proclamation of the Independent State of Israel by David Ben Gurion. The IAF was born out of the fusion of the Palmach’s Plugat HaAvir (Palavir), which became the Sherut Avir or Haganah Air Corps, and the Irgun sponsored Palestine Flying Service. My earlier article on Civil Aviation in Mandate Palestine touched briefly on pilot training by the Haganah and the Irgun, with greater detail to follow in this article.

Sherut Avir - Haganah Air Corps

The Sherut Avir (Air Service) was established on 10 November 1947, when the previously clandestine Haganah air arm was formally renamed as the Sherut Avir, while its predecessor, the clandestine Palavir, had been kept under wraps away from prying British eyes until then. Pilot training for the Haganah was undertaken by the Aviron Aviation Company, which had been established in 1936 by Dov Hoz and Yitzhak Ben Ya’akov, with a mandate from the Jewish Agency to train pilots for a future Jewish air force. While Israel itself was still a distant hope on the horizon, Zionist leaders were certain the day would soon dawn when a Jewish State could be established, with trained pilots a necessity for the future.

Following the outbreak of the Second World War, a number of Haganah members joined the Royal Air Force, with a total of 22 receiving their wings and becoming RAF pilots. The British government was not keen on training Jewish Palestinians as pilots and deferred their training until 1943, with most of them receiving their wings too late to gain experience in combat flying. Among the more notable pilots to win their wings with the RAF were Modi Alon, Ezer Weizman and Dan Tolkowsky, while Aharon Remez was sponsored by the Jewish Agency to do pilot training in the United States, before joining the RAF in 1942. Modi Alon became the first commander of 101 Fighter Squadron, losing his life tragically while on a combat mission on 16 October 1948.

Dan Tolkowsky and Ezer Weizman both underwent pilot training at the RAF Flight School in Rhodesia, before becoming combat pilots with the RAF. Weizman was one of the founding members of 101 Squadron and flew in its very first combat mission, which played a large role in halting the Egyptian advance on Tel Aviv on 29 May 1948. South African born pilot Eddie Cohen was shot down and killed during this first attack. Tolkowsky went on to command the IAF from 1953 to 1958 and was succeeded by Weizman, who commanded the IAF from 1958 to 1966 and then served as Deputy Chief of Staff from 1966 until his retirement from the IDF in 1969. Weizman was further honoured to serve as President of Israel from 1993 to 2000. Tolkowsky retired from the IDF in 1959 and forged a highly successful career in the world of international banking and finance.

Zvi Zibel joined the Sherut Avir where he was trained as a pilot, achieving fame by airlifting ammunition and other much needed supplies to the besieged settlers in Gush Etzion during June 1948, landing his aircraft in the face of enemy fire. For his brave action he was awarded the Hero of Israel Ribbon, at that time Israel’s highest award for bravery in combat. He was later sent to Czechoslovakia for flight training on the Messerschmidt Avia S-199 fighter aircraft, which Israel had managed to acquire. Zibel was shot down and killed during Operation Horev in the Negev on 28 December 1948, when his fighter plane was attacked by 4 Egyptian fighters.

Israeli Air Force Avia S 199 Fighter Aircraft

Hatzerim Israel Air Force Museum in Beersheba

Palestine Flying Service

While the Aviron Aviation Company did its utmost to hide the fact that it was clandestinely training pilots, the Irgun’s Palestine Flying Service did the exact opposite, by openly running a flight school at the British administered Lydda Airport. The pilot training scheme run by the school had in fact been designed to train pilots for the Irgun, the underground Zionist resistance movement that was locked in a life or death struggle with the British Mandate Administration. The most notable pilot to qualify for his wings with the Palestine Flying Service was Irgun member Binyamin Kahane, who later experienced difficulty in being accepted by the Sherut Avir as a result of his age and his Irgun background. He was eventually allowed to join the Haganah as a pilot on 5 April 1948, although he was never fully accepted by his colleagues and was moved to various posts until he eventually became a flight instructor with the Piper light aircraft squadron. Kahane moved to Eilat in March 1956, posted as a liaison pilot at regional IAF headquarters. During Operation Kadesh, otherwise known as the 1956 Sinai Campaign, Kahane was on a routine communications flight in a light aircraft on 30 October, when he noticed 2 Egyptian MIG 15 fighter planes preparing to strafe Israeli forces at Mitla Pass. Unarmed and undaunted, he engaged the two enemy aircraft to draw them away from attacking the IDF ground forces.

Kahane was awarded Israel’s second highest award for bravery, the Medal of Courage, with the following citation; “Participating in Operation Kadesh, during hostilities in the Sinai, Capt. Binyamin Kahane served as a liaison pilot with the task of maintaining communications links with a reconnaissance patrol operating 12Km ahead of its main force that was advancing to the Kuntilla police camp. While discharging his duties, Kahane identified two enemy MiG-15 jet fighters. He intentionally drew their attention, and engaged in an aerial cat and mouse game with them that lasted 15 minutes. One enemy plane had to leave the scene becoming short of fuel, while the other finally hit Captain Kahane’s Piper and shot it down just before departing. With this brave action Kahane distracted the pair of enemy planes and prevented them from fulfilling their task”.

This article ends with the establishment of the Israeli Air Force, the stories of the transition from paramilitary air training to becoming fully fledged IAF pilots of a few of the heroes marks that transition. The Israel Air Force has grown over the years to become one of the most efficient and feared air forces globally, maintaining a tradition that was established from its very earliest days, following its establishment in 1948.

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Excellent article Peter, as always meticulously researched and most interesting! Air Power is a fascinating subject first proposed in the Smuts Report of 17 August 1917 upon which basis the RAF came into being. The IAF continues today to exemplify the principles proposed now 104 years ago.

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