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Purity of Arms

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Lionel (Les) Morris Bloch  E-mail

By Mavis Wolff

Les Bloch's burial place found after 48 years
First published in “South Africa’s 800” by Henry Katzew

South African Machal pilot Lionel (Les) Morris Bloch disappeared on July 10th 1948 in the battle for control of the bridge near Mishmar Hayarden in the Galilee, but it was not until 1994 that his body was located, to close 46 years of anxious speculation by family members and friends.

My cousin Les and I were always very close and I recall that during his service in the Middle East in World War II, he spent a week's leave in Palestine. Coming from a Zionist family, this first visit made a tremendous impression on him. When the War of Independence broke out and Israel desperately needed pilots, he felt he had to go. I can still clearly remember us talking it over on the veranda. In the end I said: "Are we going to ask someone else's son to do the job for us?" So perhaps I am responsible in some way for his death.

What happened that fateful day is still very much a matter of conjecture. Maurice Mann, who now lives in the UK, was the pilot of the plane that went out with Bloch. The two were confronted by two enemy planes.  Says Maurice:
"I gave instruction I'll take this one, you take the other. You start close together but you are flying at about 300 MPH and you concentrate on what you're doing. I fired at the one Harvard and saw him go down. Then I looked to see where my number 2 was. We were over, what was then, the Syrian border and I couldn’t see him. Before long I realised that because of fuel limitations he couldn't still be airborne”.

“It is possible that a mechanical twist of fate caused Bloch to go down”, says Mann:
“He was flying one of the Czech-built Messerschmitt 109's in which the gun was synchronised to fire between the gaps in the propeller blades. Sometimes the Czech workmanship was not as accurate as the German designers meant it to be. Planes often came back with chips out of the propeller, and Bloch could have shot his own propeller off. On the other hand he may simply have run out of fuel and been forced to crash-land".

Fellow pilot, Syd Cohen, says that the following day he searched over Lake Tiberias and the Hula swamp in the hope of finding the wreckage of Bloch's plane. Much later it was discovered that the wreck had been found in Syria and that the plane and pilot had been taken to Damascus.  Despite repeated enquiries by Les's brother, the late Bernie Bloch, who came on aliyah in 1962 and lived in Haifa, no definitive information could be obtained about Les' fate until 1994 when his body was traced to an unknown soldier's grave in a military cemetery in Nachlat Yitzhak. This discovery resulted from a review by the IDF of the histories of the various battles of 1948, in particular the battle for Beit Affa and the painstaking work of Yerach Paron, a researcher and historian for the Ministry of Defence office dealing with Commemoration of the Fallen, which searches for fallen and missing soldiers of all the wars.

His research led to the discovery of a discrepancy in the number of fallen of Beit Affa known to be buried in Nachalat Yitzhak and the number of gravestones in the section of the cemetery.  Parons research in the archives of the Tel Aviv Hevra Kadisha revealed that one of the bodies buried in the in the Beit Affa section had in fact been returned from Syria in October 1949. The grave had been marked "Unknown Soldier" because of lack of positive identification and confusion as the Syrians had returned the body under the name Chaim Faizal.

The name Chaim Faizal I s associated with our grandfather Chaim Sack who always called cousin Cecil, "Fischel". We think that this may have given Les the idea of using a false name which would be recognised by the family so that we would realise he was in captivity. Les probably gave a false name for security reasons. Of the two bodies returned by the Syrians in October 1949, one was that of Zeev Stahl, while the other had been given two names which came with documents of the Red Cross, Chaim Faizal and Daniel Gutman.

As Gutman’s body was traced to a cemetery in Degania, the other had to be that of Chaim Faizal, (Les Bloch). Paron is 100 percent certain that Bloch lies in the remaining grave.

On July 22, 1994, Les’ gravestone was unveiled in a moving ceremony, in the presence of State President Ezer Weizman, (a 1948 comrade in arms of the late Les in Squadron 101).

Also present were Ronnie Shlomi, then Officer Commanding Squadron 101, senior representatives of the Israeli Defence Force, the heads of the Machal Veterans Association and many of Bloch’s air force comrades including Dr. Syd Cohen, “Smoky” Simon and Boris Senior. Family flew in from abroad and Bloch’s brother Willie came from South Africa to attend the event.

Said Willie: “I always prayed that I would live to say Kaddish over Les’ grave”.

Other family members expressed relief that the years of unhappy speculation have been brought to an end.

President Weizman paid a stirring tribute to the South African “Machal” pilots, who, with their combat experience in World War 2, made a contribution to the fledgling Israeli air force way beyond their numbers.

Thanks for information used in this report are due to Dr. Syd Cohen, ex 101 Squadron who made his diary available, to Eli Eyal, archivist and to Yerach Paron, researcher and historian, Ministry of Defence.

“Les, if your spirit is hovering over us, know that to live in the hearts of those who loved you is not to die”.

My friendship with Leslie Bloch,

My friendship with Les Bloch spanned just nine years, but in that time I got to know him as a good friend and a fine person. We met in 1939 as out-of-town engineering students at the University of Witwatersrand. Les studied chemical engineering and I civil engineering. On graduating in 1943, Les joined the SAAF and I, the Special Signals Services (radar).
We then lost contact with each other until 1948 in Machal. Bat Ami and I were billeted in a room at the Central Hotel, conveniently situated opposite Air Force HQ that became a meeting place and unofficial clearing house for many South African Machal. Les was one of them. Whenever he went off on a mission, he would deposit his bag and picturesque hat with us and then call in to collect them on his return. Until the day in July 1948, when he did not come back, Bat Ami kept his things for a long time in the vain hope that perhaps he would return. Eventually she handed them over to Les’ cousin, June Medalie, who took them back to South Africa. Jack and June Medalie, to this day our best friends, often talked about Les and wondered about his fate. Now that the body has been identified and the tombstone unveiled, the chapter is finally closed.

Reuben Joffe, Savyon