ANGELS IN THE SKY: HOW A BAND OF VOLUNTEER AIRMEN SAVED THE NEW STATE OF ISRAEL
By Robert Gandt
Norton, $26.95, 442 pages
When the State of Israel was founded on May 14, 1948, it was immediately under attack by its Arab neighbors. The makeshift Israeli forces fought back against their enemies, and defeated them on the battlefield.
There were other individuals who played integral roles in ensuring the new nation’s survival. Military historian and former Navy pilot Robert Gandt explores one of the more uplifting stories in his book, “Angels in the Sky: How a Band of Volunteer Airmen Saved the New State of Israel.”
These Angels of Mercy (so to speak) were a group of experienced airmen from the U.S., Canada, Britain, France and South Africa. Many of them were Jewish, but a third of them were not. Some had already participated in World War II, but were still willing to selflessly volunteer their services for this important cause. They fought heroically against multiple waves of aggressors, and helped save Israel from potential defeat in the air — and on the ground.
Alas, most people know hardly anything about these brave souls.
Mr. Gandt examines some of the significant players. There’s Mike Flint, who had “performed with distinction” the role of a fighter pilot until a difficult incident with a Japanese kamikaze during WWII, which was a “righteous cause” that he wanted to do again. Al Schwimmer discussed the purchase of the planes for the Haganah (paramilitary organization) in a “calm, unruffled manner,” “was not intimidated by obstacles,” and once he had “seized on an idea, he clung to it with a bulldog tenaciousness.”
Swifty Schindler, who owned a defunct airline, Service Airways, Inc., had a dream of “living an historic adventure” and “saving Jews in Palestine,” while his old friend Martin Bellfond, founder of a “non-sched airline called World Airways,” was tired of CAA regulations and “was looking for a new area of operations, a place free of the stringent U.S. bureaucracy.”
The most entertaining parts of “Angels in the Sky” obviously involve the battles.
Readers will come across intriguing tales of Egyptian Spitfires “mistaking the British-held” Ramat David Air Base “for an Israeli base” not once, but on multiple occasions, leading to heavy casualties via RAF fighters.
They will learn about the secret Zebra Base in Zatec, Czechoslovakia, which became their new home “behind the Iron Curtain.” They will discover code names used by the Haganah (the U.S. was called “Detroit” in message traffic). As well, they will likely be startled by the short-lived Altalena Affair, a “blood feud” between the Israel Defense Forces and a Jewish paramilitary organization, the Irgun, “that could have ripped the new country asunder.”
The most unusual story? Breaking embargoes with their respective democratic countries, some volunteer airmen helped smuggle out Messerschmitt fighter planes from Czechoslovakia in C-54s and C46 planes. Think about it. Jewish pilots had arrived in a “Communist country to fly, of all things, ex-Nazi fighters” in defense of Israel. The historical irony is impossible to ignore.
Although the experienced American-Israeli fighter pilot Lou Lenart thought they had performed poorly in their first mission, Operation Pleshert, on May 29, 1948 due to various casualties, it was quite the opposite. Mr. Gandt writes the Egyptian general “was stunned by the appearance of fighters with the Star of David emblazoned on their sides,” since “neither he nor his intelligence officers had any idea that Israel possessed such warplanes.” Their efforts caused the “demoralized Arab troops” to hunker down “for a long stay,” and helped save Tel Aviv in the process.
During this intense war, battles were won, lives were lost, and planes and munitions were constantly purchased under the cloak of darkness. When the armistice with Egypt was signed on Feb. 29, 1949 — followed by Lebanon, Jordan and Syria shortly thereafter — it had come at a “staggering price.” Over 6,000 Israelis and volunteers, which constituted “1 percent of the population,” had perished, along with over 7,000 Arabs. But in the pursuit of democracy and freedom, and the protection of a nation’s borders, it was a terrible price that had to be paid.
Most of the volunteer airmen went back to their countries of origin, and became everything from lawyers to movie producers. Some stayed in Israel, and created new lives. They held reunions, and remembered the fallen. They were “brothers in a righteous cause,” as Mr. Gandt writes, and deserve to be recognized for their bravery and sacrifice in defending a country under siege that meant so much to them.
Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.