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Purity of Arms

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Mike Amir (Landshut)  E-mail
Mike_AmirMike’s experience in the artillery in World War II was invaluable to the Israelis.  He was appointed commander of a group of volunteers who were mainly from South Africa.  Mike Amir, as he is known today, currently lives with his wife and family in Israel.

He relates his personal experiences as follows:

The first Artillery "Gunda" in the Israel Army was formed in November 1948 at the airstrip camp in Ramle. The Gunda (corresponding to a “Battery”) consisted of two troops (“solelot”), each with four guns. The guns were Swiss 75 mm, with large chest-high wooden wheels dating from the time of the First World War, 1914-1918.

The Gundat Avalon commander was Gerry Shachori (Altman), an Englishman.  Troop A commander was David Rebak, another Englishman.  I, an Australian, was the Troop B commander.  All three of us had had active officer artillery experience in the Second World War -  Shachori and Rebak in Africa and Europe, while I had served in Burma.

Operation “AYIN”, aimed at expelling the Egyptian Army from Israeli soil, started on 26th December 1948.  We bypassed the Egyptians at Bur Asluj (today Ashalim) and attacked Auja-al-Hafir (today Nitzana).  We then crossed the border into the Egyptian Sinai, about which we had no maps at all.

In late May 1948, a cargo of “pianos” arrived by ship at the Tel Aviv port.  Who needed pianos in those days, God only knows, but the ship’s manifest did state “pianos” and so the United Nations arms-inspectors let them through.  After all, pianos are not implements of war.

In fact, these “pianos”  turned out to be 75 mm French anti-aircraft guns, capable of firing shells up to 10,000 meters at an elevation of 89 degrees.   These guns had been dug out of concrete in Brest on the north-west coast of France.  They were unloaded in the dark of night and hidden from prying eyes.  What the country desperately did need was proper field artillery; at that time there were only a few small 65 mm guns in the country, circa 1800, smuggled in from Mexico and affectionately known as “Napoleonchiks”.  These “Napoleon-chiks” had a maximum range of only a short 5,000 meters.

The problem with the French anti-aircraft guns was that they arrived without any written range-tables (instructions), and with only solid shell-and-casing joined together, a length of one meter.  The shell itself was only for air-burst purposes, and had an internal fuse that could be “cut” or set by the gunners to explode at any given height.

The guns themselves were huge, for those days.  They weighed almost seven tons.  One man sat forward on the right side, and double-handed cranked the elevation.  Another man sat forward left and cranked direction, both men reading huge dials numerated in Mils (instead of 360 degrees in a circle, the French had a 4,000 mils system).  The gun was semi-automatic, meaning that it had a “tray,” whereas the meter-long shell-and-casing was placed by a man on the left side of the gun, then at the pull of a handle by a fourth man on the right side, the tray shot forward and forced the shell-and-casing into the gun’s breech, which closed and locked automatically.  At the pull of another (red) handle by the fourth man, the gun fired and the tray was forced back to its ready position, bringing back with it the now-empty shell casing, which dropped to the ground.  With practice, this was a fast operation and was probably very effective.

We needed ground-burst shells, not air-burst.  The solution we found was to unscrew the entire upper air-burst fuse.  The only fuses we had that would detonate upon impact were the small fuses of the 65 mm Napoleonchiks, and so we “invented” a combination screw which would screw into the place where the wide air-burst fuse had been, and with a hole in the centre with a screw that would fit a 65 mm gun fuse.  Since the original upper air-burst fuse was cone-shaped for travel through the air, we therefore also needed to fit a new cone, but in this case, a cone that would collapse upon impact with the ground, so that the inner 65 mm fuse would also detonate, thus in turn detonating the main shell itself.  A small-arms factory in Ramat Gan produced cones made of aluminum, which we screwed onto the top of the shell.  This contraption worked very successfully in the field.

However, we still needed to learn how to fire the gun and to produce some sort of range-tables (instructions) that future gunners could use in the field.  In early June 1948, we took one gun to the area of the disused alcohol factory on the sands of Herzlia (today near the Accadia Hotel), pointed it seawards, cautiously loaded one shell, elevated the gun to 45 degrees (500 mils), tied a long rope to the red firing handle, ducked down behind the sand-dunes and pulled.  There was a deafening roar and the shell literally disappeared!  We had a Piper spotter aircraft in the air to report the distance of the splash into the sea of the shell, but it was never seen again.

After firing a few more shells at lesser angles and recording the distances, elementary range tables were made.

Two guns were sent for anti-aircraft purposes with the original shell-and-casings unaltered for the air defense of the oil refineries north of Haifa.  However, three guns were used for field artillery.  One gun was sent to Ein Karem near Jerusalem for use against the Jordanian Arab Legion, and two guns under my command were sent to Rosh Pina for the defense of the Upper Galilee against the Syrians.  The rest is already written history.

The two-gun unit, known as a “troop” (or “solela” in Hebrew) was the only fully operative ground-fighting organization manned solely by English-speaking Machalniks - from Australia (me), with a majority of South Africans, as well as Americans, two Canadians and an Englishman.  I taught  the gunners, and with the drivers, the ammunition bearers, the cooks and even the first-aid stretcher bearer, we were in fact a fully-sufficient unit.

Author:  Mike Amir

Researcher’s note:
The 4th Troop  Anti-tank Battery and the 72nd Infantry Battalion “B” Company were also made up solely of  English-speaking  Machalniks.