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Purity of Arms

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The flights of the C-46s and B-17s from the USA to Czechoslovakia  E-mail



After World War II the U.S. was the world’s biggest arsenal of war-surplus equipment. In planning for the War of Independence, it was obvious that there was a vital need to transport arms and stockpiles from Europe and North America.


Al Schwimmer, who had been a flight engineer in TWA, was recruited by Yehuda Arazi (a most skilful and highly successful operative). Schwimmer immediately recognized the importance of large aircraft for transporting military material to Israel. He purchased three Constellations at $15,000 each, as well as five old C-46s. He established Schwimmer Aviation in order to prepare these aircraft for meeting civil aviation requirements. Swifty Schindler established a company called Service Airways, and it was agreed that Service Airways would lease three Constellations and the five C-46s to operate an airline. The two chief pilots at the time were Sam Lewis and Leo Gardner. Service Airways then leased these aircraft to LAPSA (Lineas Aereas de Panama SA), which was registered as a civil aviation company in Panama, and one of the Constellations was the company’s flagship. Arnold Ilowite and Jack Goldstein were the pilot and radio operator of the first C-46 aircraft.


The U.S. Government decreed that by 15th April 1948 all exports of aircraft, parts, accessories, etc. would have to be cleared by the State Department. This decree put tremendous pressure on Schwimmer and his team to get the aircraft out of the United States before 15th April. Four C-46s and one Constellation were based at Milville and five C-46s were based at Burbank. On 10th April, four C-46s and one Constellation headed south for Tocumen in Panama. Hal Auerbach, William Gerson and Sam Lewis flew five C-46s from Burbank to Panama before the deadline expired. Unhappily, William Gerson and Glen King were killed when taking-off from Mexico City to Tocumen in an overloaded C-46.


On 8th May, five C-46s took off from Tocumen to Paramaribo in Dutch Guiana. Three planes had mechanical problems on route which held them up for two days in Paramaribo. Two C-46s flew to Natal in Brazil, where the five planes had to be readied for the 2,700 kilometer flight to Dakar in French West Africa. On 12th May, three planes left Natal to cross the Atlantic – Hal Auerbach, Martin Ribakoff and Ray Kurtz as his co-pilot, and Larry Raab with Jules Cuburnek would navigate for the formation. They took off in driving rain, and Hal had to return to Natal due to mechanical problems. Flying above the weather, Jules was able to do astro-navigation, and they arrived in Dakar after a 10-hour 30-minute flight. Raab and Ribakoff then flew on to Casablanca, and from there to Catania in Sicily. From Catania the C-46s flew on to their base at Zatec in Czechoslovakia.


On 23rd April, Israel bought 10 Avia S-199s at a price of $190,000 per piece, including guns, cannons, bombs, spare parts, and training. It was therefore vital to acquire long-range transport aircraft on which to carry the dissembled S-199 aircraft, packed into crates, from Czechoslovakia to Israel. The C-46s and the Constellations would fly to Israel via Ajaccio in Corsica, where they would refuel. It was then decided to induct the C-46s and the Constellations into Air Transport Command (ATC), and the first airlift from Zatec to Israel took off on 31st March 1948 –“Operation Balak I.”


The mission's highest priority was given to getting the S-199s to Israel. On 24th May, the C-46 piloted by Norman Moonitz crash-landed in a dense fog which enveloped Tel Aviv airfield and the navigator Moe Rosenbaum was killed. All the flights from Zatec to Israel had to be night-flights because of roaming Egyptian fighters. Planes and crews were working to a punishing schedule. Take-offs from Israel were scheduled for 4 a.m. for the 10-hour flight to Ajacio, and after refueling there was a 4-hour flight to Zatec. It was necessary to fly at 15,000 feet when clearing the Alps, and after a night or two in Zatec the heavily laden planes returned to Israel. The return trip was even more hazardous, as the planes were fully loaded and the air above the peaks of the Alps was very unstable. It was most important to fly as level as possible to stop the loads from shifting in the aircraft. Then there was the risk of a forced landing whilst carrying contraband cargo as a result of the United Nations embargo on military equipment to the Middle East.


The first five pilots who did the conversion course on the S-199s were Machalniks Eddie Cohen from South Africa, Milton Rubenfeld and Lou Lenart from the U.S., and Ezer Weizman and Modi Alon from Israel. With the arrival of the first S-199s and the pilots and ground crew, 101 Squadron was born. The very first attack led by Lou Lenart and Eddie Cohen, Ezer and Modi, stopped the advance of the massive Egyptian column at Ashdod (Isdud), 30 kilometers from Tel Aviv. Eddie Cohen was killed by Egyptian ack-ack fire. Lou Lenart’s plane was badly damaged. On landing Modi Alon’s right tyre burst, the aircraft looped, the right wing was smashed and the plane was a write-off. The next day, in an attack on the railway station at El Arish, Bob Vickman was killed. Rubenfeld had stopped flying and Ezer Weizman had broken his arm in a motor cycle accident, so that 101 Squadron was left with only two pilots, Lou Lenart and Modi Alon, and only one serviceable S-199. On 3rd June, Modi attacked an Egyptian formation of two Spitfires and two C-47s. The Spitfires fled the scene and Modi shot down the two C-47s. Israel was ecstatic.




On 4th June 1948, three B-17s left Miami for San Juan, Puerto Rico. Schwimmer had bought four B-17s, one in California, one in Oklahama, and two from Charles Winters in Miami. The crews for the B-17s had collected at San Juan, ten persons to a plane. The flight plan stated that the aircraft were going to conduct an aerial survey of the Azores, off the West Coast of Africa. Two planes made it to the Azores, but the third B-17 had to return to San Juan for repairs, and the aircraft was reported missing, as the pilot had failed to notify the Azores of his return to San Juan. The B-17s had their problems. The navigational equipment was inadequate. Flexiglass domes and turrets had been removed from the aircraft and the holes had been covered with plywood. One of the navigators, Eli Cohen, fell through the plywood halfway into space. He was left dangling 3,000 metres above the Atlantic and was being sucked out by the aircraft’s slipstream. Co-pilot Goldberg heard Eli’s screams. Goldberg told Beane to reduce speed, and crew members pulled Eli back into the aircraft. The B-17s reached Santa Maria in the Azores on 13th June, and then took off for Zatec in Czechoslovakia. The U.S. Authorities were hot on their heels in their attempts to stop smuggling the planes into Palestine, and so in order to mislead the State Department it was announced that the B-17s had left the Azores for Ajaccio. At Zatec, bomb racks and rudimentary bomb sites were fitted to the B-17s. In the meantime the C-46 transporting arms from Zatec to Israel had to force-land at Treviso in Italy. When customs searched the aircraft, five cases of machine guns and 35 cases of ammunition were discovered. The crew, the plane, and the cargo were arrested. Danny Agron (Agronsky), the Haganah man in Rome, sent Danny Rosin with a “wad of money” to Treviso to see what he could do. The crew and the aircraft were released, but not the cargo. The pilot of the C-46 had left Treviso to return to the U.S., so Danny Rosin – who had never flown a C-46 – and the co-pilot successfully returned the plane and the crew to Zatec, and the C-46 went back into “Operation Balak I.”


The State Department and the British were putting tremendous pressure on many countries to stop assisting Israel in its quest for aircraft and weaponry. Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, France, Holland and Italy, were sympathetic to Israel. In another instance at that time, a mysterious guy by the name of Terry Farnfield (an ex-South African) arranged for John Harvey to fly a Mosquito aircraft from Cambridge ostensibly to Exeter, but he went on to Paris to refuel and then on to Israel.


So what happened to the fourth B-17? On 11th July, Swifty Schindler flew the B-17 from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Westchester. The New York Herald had three reporters and a photographer onto the story. Schindler intended to fly the B-17 via the Great Circle route to the Azores. En route, it was getting darker, the weather was deteriorating and the navigation equipment was in poor condition, and as he had little experience in flying B-17s, Swifty headed for Halifax in Canada. He asked for landing rights and the Herald Tribune aircraft was still following him. The crew gave false names to the Royal Canadian Air Force. The Air Force informed Ottawa, who passed the information on to the U.S. Government. A Canadian air commodore by the name of Wait took over at this stage. Canadian Customs and the U.S. Consulate did a thorough inspection of the aircraft, and discovered navigation charts of the Mediterranean area, food for a long flight, tools, ammunition and bomb shackles. The Canadians decided to release the plane on condition that Schindler return to Westchester, and they reduced the fuel in the tanks to leave him with sufficient only to reach Westchester. Not deterred, Swifty took off and headed east, flying low to avoid the radar. Then his number-four engine overheated, and he was forced to shut it down. On 18th July Swifty landed in the Azores, having foiled the Royal Canadian Air Force and the State Department. They were not aware that Shifty had carried fuel in his auxiliary tanks. Regrettably, whilst Swifty was resting prior to his flight to Zatec, the U.S. Consul discovered him and the B-17. The plane was confiscated and the crew was flown back to the U.S. on a commercial flight at their own expense to face criminal charges. Schindler's crossing of the Atlantic on three engines was, according to R.C.A.F. officials reporting to the press, “a brilliant piece of flying.”


On 14th July, a LAPSA C-46 carrying pilots, navigators, air-gunners and radio operators landed at Zatec. Heyman Shamir and Dov Judah carried the orders for the B-17s to depart from Zatec on 15th July, and to bomb Cairo, Gaza, and El Arish en route to Israel; Bill Katz was the pilot of the lead plane, with Ray Kurtz as his co-pilot. Norman Moonitz and Al Raisen piloted the two other B-17s. They took off at 10 a.m. with a full fuel load and twelve 500 lbs on each aircraft. The lead plane experienced mechanical difficulties, it did not have an artificial horizon and the oxygen system was deficient. There were towering cumulus clouds over the Alps, and over Albania they encountered light ack-ack fire. Heading towards Egypt, Katz climbed to 25,000 feet. The sun was setting and Cairo’s lights were on, and he aimed the aircraft at King Farouk’s palace, and after dropping his full bomb load, he headed for Israel. The other two planes bombed Gaza and Rafah instead of El Arish, as they didn't identify the target. After a flight of eleven-and-a-half hours, the aircraft landed at Ekron (Tel Nof). The B-17s were pressed into service the very next day, attacking El Arish, Mishmar Hayarden, Majdal, Tulkarm, etc. On 17th July Egyptian bombers hit a hospital in Israel, killing 60 people. In retaliation, a B-17 bombed Damascus, killing 17 people.


In order to maximize the IAF’s offensive capability, the empty C-46s bound for Zatec took bombs on board and attacked Gaza, El Arish, Majdal, Faluja and other targets on their way to Europe. The D-47 Dakotas were fitted with bomb racks and used as bombers when they were not ferrying supplies to settlements that were cut-off, and to outposts. On one night flight to Damascus, a bomb which was thrown out by a bomb-chucker hit the tail plane of the aircraft which went into a spinal dive. The pilot, Cyril Katz from South Africa, ordered the crew to bail out, but the co-pilot, Arthur Cooper, also from South Africa, pulled out of the dive and managed to belly-land the damaged aircraft.


The U.S. Government continued its relentless pressure on countries to stop aiding Israel. France capitulated and Ajaccio was closed to Israeli aircraft. However, Yugoslavia saved the day by granting permission to Israel to use an abandoned airfield at Niksic, near Podgorica in Montenegro. This new development made it possible to execute Velvetta I and II. Then, once again, Czechoslovakia came to Israel’s rescue by selling 50 Mark-9 Spitfires to Israel for $23,000 a piece, and with refueling facilities at Niksic. it became possible to mount the highly successful Velvetta I and II operations.



Link to Israel Air Force –Spitfires story

Link to Avia S-199 story