Reports David Kaplan
Originally from Telfed -
Wherever the action, Smoky Simon has always been ‘in the thick of it’. It is therefore no wonder he was recently awarded the prestigious Menachem Begin Award of Honour for his contribution to the birth of the Israel Air Force and serving as Chief of Air Operations during the War of Independence, his untiring work as Honorary Treasurer of the Menachem Begin Heritage Centre, and his long service as chairman of World Machal.
Smoky has interesting recollections from an aerial visit to Damascus. It was June 9, 1948, the day before the first truce, and Smoky was navigating a Dakota over Damascus on a bombing mission. A month before, Smoky with five years of WWII experience under his belt in the South African Air Force, arrived in the new State of Israel accompanied by his young bride, Myra. They came “on their honeymoon” to fight in Israel’s War of Independence.
“Bombers? We had none at that time, that’s why we used Dakotas,” says Smoky. Having no bomb racks on these planes “we improvised with what we used to call, ‘bomb-chucker-outers’. Before opening the aircraft’s door and pitching-out the bombs, we would tie the bomb-chuckers to each other with rope, so that they would not fall out of the plane along with the bombs. We dropped some sixteen 80-kilo bombs, and for good measure threw out crates of empty bottles which made a terrifying noise scarring the hell out of the population below. If we did not have the goods, we had to pretend!”
Smoky’s plane did six runs over Damascus that night creating the impression “that we were part of a large formation.”
Although the damage caused was probably negligible - “a few fires” - the next day, “all the foreigners fled Damascus, as they feared our ‘air force’ was about to hammer them.”
THE NON-JEWISH CONTRIBUTION
As Chairman of World Machal, Smoky always has his pulse on the lives of his former comrade-in-arms. Referring to the recent exoneration by President Bush of Charles Winters, a non-Jew, who helped acquire and smuggle vital aircraft from the U.S. to Israel, Smoky drew Telfed magazine’s attention to the recent passing away of another non-Jew, South African Milton Bottger, known as “Butch Ben Yok”, who flew as a wireless operator/ air-gunner in the Israel Air Force. “Butch had a ‘Jewish heart’ to the extent that he even used to go to Cheder with his Jewish pals,” said fellow machalnik Zan Swartzberg in a tribute to the passing of his good friend. “So when years later, Butch learnt that volunteers were queuing up at the Zionist Federation offices to fight in Israel’s War of Independence, he joined us.” With Butch’s WWII experience, he had “the perfect credentials.”
They were soon required.
Together with a group of nineteen machalniks from Southern Africa, they took a serpentine route via Rome to Czechoslovakia. There, in a secret out-of-the-way airfield, they were brought face to face with three B-17 Flying Fortress bombers smuggled out of the USA. After fitting-out the B-17s with bomb racks, bombs, and guns, the Machalniks were ready to fly the aircraft to Israel.
Smoky thought it not a bad idea to kill two birds with one stone, so together with the Chief of Air Force and South African Dov Yehuda, it was decided that on the flight to Israel, the B-17s would attack Cairo and bases at El-Arish and Rafah. Having completed their mission, the B-17s literally limped to their landing fields in the black of night, with very little fuel to spare.
From there on, says Swartzberg, “Butch was stationed at Ramat David Air Force Base flying B-17s and DC-3 Dakotas, specializing in night raids on El Arish, Rafah, Gaza and Khan Yunis.”
And here is the interesting connection. The aircraft that were smuggled out of the USA by the non-Jewish Charles Winters were flown to Czechoslovakia, and were the same B 17s that the non-Jewish Butch and his comrades then flew on to Israel, bombing Egypt en route.
Says Swartzberg: “Mention the name Milton Bottger and you will draw a blank. But if you say Butch Ben Yok, ah ha, that’s a different story.”
Smoky reveals that “amongst the 425 volunteers who flew in the Israel Air Force and in Air Transport Command (ATC), 92 were non-Jews, representing 21.6% of all the flying crews. In the face of the U.N. embargo on arms exports to the Middle East, ATC was a lifeline for bringing in all types of ‘illegal’ armaments from abroad.”
Nine non-Jews, who were killed either in action or in accidents, are buried in the military cemetery in Haifa.
Times have changed, and yet in some instances not. The writer cannot fail to note that the same targets in the Gaza Strip that Butch and his fellow Machalniks bombed in 1948 are again being bombed in December 2008 and January 2009.
Peace remains as elusive as ever!