Tag Archives: IDF

The Air Force Museum, Near Be’er Sheva

Yakov, Moshe (holding his history of the IAF), and Sara in front of Kfir fighter, near the entrance to the Air Force Museum
Yakov, Moshe (holding his history of the IAF), and Sara in front of Kfir fighter, near the entrance to the Air Force Museum

Moshe, our ten-year old grandson, has become enamoured of the Israeli Air Force (IAF). He has read a thick history of the IAF at least three times. One day in the late summer, when I saw him reading the book, I mentioned I had visited the IAF museum several years ago. He immediately asked his parents to take him there. They agreed, and planned a family trip for Succot. The group quickly expanded to include two of his siblings and both sets of grandparents.

This week, the long anticipated outing took place. Nine of us piled in to a rented van for the trip to Hatzerim, a little to the west of Be’er Sheva. Harold, Aliza’s father, asked Moshe how excited he was, on a scale of 1 to 10. The answer came back immediately: “20.”

An open-air museum

The word “museum” generally brings to mind a picture of a large building, full of pictures on its walls and tastefully displayed artifacts. The IAF museum has no large building. Just inside the museum entrance are a snack bar and souvenir shop. Nearby are a few small buildings: the administration offices, archives, and exhibits related to the history of the IAF. This is the desert—the annual rainfall of nine inches makes large roofed areas a needless expense. Besides, most of the exhibits are outside.

More than 150 aircraft are parked on a large expanse of concrete. The aircraft are arranged in chronological order of their use by the IAF. We were lucky—because there were so many of us, we had our own English speaking guide. Audrey made aliyah from France as a teenager. She spent a year improving her Hebrew before drafting into the Air Force. She was probably assigned to guiding museum tours because of her fluency in three languages. As she led us around the field, she told us about the history of IAF, the air planes, and the men who flew them. (Women have been able to train as pilots only in the last decade or so.)

One of the reasons the Israeli-designed Lavi was outstanding was that it was made with input from pilots, specifically for Israel;s needs
One of the reasons the Israeli-designed Lavi was outstanding was that it was made with input from pilots, specifically for Israel;s needs

Audrey had her work cut out for her. Moshe kept interrupting her with added information or questions. Several times she stopped in the middle of a comment to tell him that the plane was he had just asked about was “parked over there—we’ll get to it in a few minutes.”

 

Messershmitts: The beginning of the IAF

The first plane in the first row is one of the Messerschmitts Israel purchased from Czechoslovakia in 1948. The planes were brought disassembled to the new country as pieces of “agricultural equipment.” When the six planes were re-assembled, some parts were missing. For example, there was one more body than engine. After a frantic search, the procurement team located the wreck of a Messerschmitt whose engine remained in good condition. The wreck was dismantled and its engine placed in the German plane, whose body had been repainted to cover the Nazi insignia.

By now it was late May 1948, and the Egyptian army was advancing on Tel Aviv. Israel was desperate. With no time to test fly the aircraft, the newly assembled planes were immediately pressed into battle just in time to stop the Egyptian army from capturing Tel Aviv. Twenty-five percent of the Israeli Air Force—one air plane—crashed into the Mediterranean.

Audrey pointed out a major problem with the German craft. Its machine gun sits behind the propeller. Any slight defect in the timing mechanism could cause the bullets from the machine gun to destroy the propeller. The Czechs were not as careful synchronizing the timing as the Germans, who had designed and first manufactured the planes, had been. Later Israel acquired some Messerschmitts with guns on their wings, which did not require synchronization with the propeller.

Another problem was psychological. Many people felt uncomfortable that Israel was using German aircraft so soon after the Nazis had tried to wipe out the Jewish people. The air force needed to find new sources of equipment.

The aircraft came from many countries

Israel bought aircraft from whoever was willing to sell them. We walked past rows of American planes and French ones. A British Spitfire was also on display, which seemed odd. When the British Mandate for Palestine expired, the British were determined not to leave anything usable in the hands of the Jews. A few Spitfires were left at one airfield. Since since none of them was complete, the British must have felt these planes were of no use. They failed to take Jewish ingenuity into account. The Israelis were able to construct two completely functional Spitfire planes, from the pieces they cannabalized from the planes. They used the engine from from a downed Egyptian Spitfire. These planes served the IAF well for years.

Audrey pointed a French Ouragon, which had survived a dangerous malfunction during a flight. As soon as she mentioned the pilot’s name, Yakov Turner, we knew the story would end well. In her introduction, she had mentioned that the

The Ouragon crash landed by Yakov Turner, which was repaired and returned to active duty
The Ouragon crash landed by Yakov Turner, which was repaired and returned to active duty

museum was the idea of General Turner when he was the commander of Hatzerim Air Force base. It had opened in 1991 when he was mayor of Be’er Sheva.

Turner was returning from a mission, about to land, when he discovered his front landing gear would not deploy. The control tower told him to eject and ditch the plane. Yakov refused to obey orders. He was not about to lose his plane. He told the tower to cover the runway with foam, he was bringing the plane in. While the airfield crew was covering the runway with foam, he dropped his remaining bombs somewhere they would do no harm and emptied his fuel tanks. When the tower radioed they were ready for him, he landed the plane on its belly on the foam covered runway. The plane sustained much damage, but was successfully repaired. Yakov walked away from the crash, and eventually flew that same plane again.

We walked past one French-built Mystere fighter, painted in a different way from the rest of the Mysteres. This plane had a history of having killed 13 enemy planes, the most hits by an IAF plane. When the IAF retired it, it was sold to Argentina, for use in its war against Great Britain over the Falkland Islands. A few years later, the IAF wanted to buy it back to display at Hatzerim. The Argentines agreed to sell it to Israel for $1, on condition that its Argentinian colors were retained.

A Soviet MIG fighter

One unusual plane parked at the museum is a Soviet MIG-21. At one time the MIG was the best fighter plane in the world. No one else had a plane like it; no air force could defend against it. The MIG-21 was deadly against the Mystere, the major fighter plane of the IAF in the early 1960’s. At the time, the Soviets supported the enemies of Israel. Military support included supplying several Arab countries with MIGs. Israel wanted one to study and figure out how to defend against it. They found an Iraqi pilot who was willing to steal the plane and fly it to Israel, if his family could first be smuggled out of Iraq.

The plane, obviously, did not come with an instruction manual. Danny Shapiro, who had been one of the pilots trained by the French to fly Ouragons and Mysteres, was assigned to figure out what made the MIG so lethal. He trained himself, flying the plane hundreds of hours. He realized that because the cockpit was so narrow, the only way to bring down a MIG was from almost directly behind it. Thanks to his work, the IAF was the first air force to kill MIGs.

Capturing Egyptian radar 

One of the non-aircraft exhibits was a large radar array on top of a truck. In the late 1960’s, when Egypt purchased this array from the Soviets, it was one of the most advanced in the world. The IAF needed to understand how it worked in order to counter the advantages it gave their enemy. They had to study it closely, which they could not do while it was in Egypt. To bring it to Israel, the Israelis cut the apparatus in two pieces. Two Sikorsky CH-53 Yas’ur helicopters were sent to lift it off the ground and carry it. The helicopters had problems because the machinery was heavier than they had estimated. One of the helicopters almost crashed several times. As soon as they were over Israeli territory, they landed. The radar was safe.

Daniel and Moshe filled in a few details Audrey had left out. Before the helicopters left the country, Israel sent paratroopers to Egypt to secure the site. At the end of the operation, the IAF was supposed to return and pick up the paratroopers. But when the radar arrived in Israel, the Israelis were so excited over the success of the operation, they forgot to go back. The paratroopers spent more time in Egypt than they had expected, until the IAF remembered to send a Super Ferlon helicopter back to pick them up. That Super Ferlon is parked next to one of the Yas’ur helicopters, close to where the now obsolete radar sits at Hatzerim.

Special for younger visitors

Because was in the middle of Sukkot, when schools are on vacation and many adults off from work, the museum had several activities directed to younger visitors. Tow historic planes made frequent demonstration flights directly above. A biplane flew Figure Eights, each one a little lower than the one before. It alternated with a bright yellow two seater Tzukit plane, which was used to train new pilots for more than forty years.

"Pilots for a Minute" Yakov and Moshe dress up as fighter pilots
“Pilots for a Minute” Yakov and Moshe dress up as fighter pilots

An activity strictly for children was “Pilot for a Moment,” where children had the opportunity to dress up in pilot’s uniforms. Yakov and Moshe wanted to participate; Sarah deliberated for a few minutes and then decided not to do it. Despite the lack of a visor, Moshe seemed very happy to be wearing the uniform. But, as Aliza pointed out, the boys will be in uniform soon enough. There was no need to rush it.

Over Shabbat, I asked the kids what they liked the best at the museum. Yakov said he liked dressing up as a pilot and getting in some of the planes. Sarah said she liked seeing the small planes flying so close above us.

And Moshe?
Predictably, he said it was all so good, he couldn’t choose.

Where is the Air Force Museum ?

Remembering 23,447: Yom Hazikaron

Yom Hazikaron ceremony of Noam School.May 10 2016.
Yom Hazikaron ceremony of Noam School.

The white-haired man walking in front of me put down his briefcase and stood at attention. The soldier at the bus stop across the street removed his overstuffed backpack and stood with his hands in his pockets, staring towards the sky. One of the clerks came out of the health food store and walked to the curb, where he stood saying quietly saying Psalms. Two people who had just entered their parked cars got out and stood next to the open car doors.

The siren blared.

The bus stopped a few feet past the bus stop it had just left. All the traffic stopped—nothing moved. Some drivers got out of their cars and stood in the middle of the street. The light rail halted between stations. At the military cemetery on Har Herzl, Allen reported, everyone stopped in their place; no one continued walking to the grave of their loved one.

On and on the siren blared, for two long minutes. The sound seemed to come from everywhere, enveloping us.

Each of us stood alone in our thoughts, yet united in sorrow.

It was Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror. This year we remember 23,447 dead soldiers and civilian victims of terror. In a country as small as Israel, each one of those who died is known. We know their stories. We know their grieving parents, wives, husbands, children. We remember meeting them on Shabbat or working with them. We remember seeing their names in the newspaper, and reacting, “Oh no!”

Although this is our fourth year here, it is the first time I witnessed everything come to a halt in a public space. In ulpan, the siren sounded during our break time. We stopped chatting, put down our containers of yogurt or bags of Bamba, and stood in silence. In a friend’s kitchen, we put our cups of tea on the counter and stood looking towards the Temple Mount. At home, I pushed my chair away from the computer to stand next to the desk by myself.

Standing on the sidewalk, in the company of strangers, and watching traffic stop carries the experience to a different level. Kanfei Nesharim, four lanes wide, is a busy street, used by eight bus routes. I’m used to seeing it empty of all traffic on Shabbat. The rare car can be heard many blocks away. But to see the usual weekday heavy traffic– all the cars, taxis, buses, motorcycles– come to a stop and sit motionless for two minutes impresses the gravity of the moment on the memory.

23,447. So many killed. Too many.

I thought of the ceremony I had attended the night before, in the Jerusalem forest south of the city. Noam school takes its fifth and sixth graders on a hike the day before Yom Hazikaron. They end at a monument to fallen soldiers where they hold memorial ceremony in the evening. The principal said in his opening remarks that every year the school goes to a different monument, one that is not visited often. This year the ceremony was held at the monument to the soldiers who died in Operation Lulav against Kfar Husan in September 1956. Kfar Husan, at the time on the Jordanian side of the armistice line, had been a base for the fedayeen who carried out terrorist attacks against Israel. Operation Lulav was triggered by a Jordanian attack on an archaeological conference at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, in which four archaeologists were killed and sixteen others wounded. During the action, the IDF destroyed the fedayeen headquarters, killing several of their leaders. Terrorist attacks in the area ceased. But nine members of the IDF were killed.

Most of the memorial ceremony was carried out by the sixth grade boys. They started by lighting flames, one flame in memory of each of Israel’s wars, plus one for victims of terror.

One of the speakers had been a member of the IDF squad which attacked Kfar Husan. He described the action. Six soldiers had been killed because they were too close to the building when it blew up; the fedayeen killed three soldiers. Their names are on the small monument near the clearing where the ceremony took place.

The school rabbi spoke about Shia, his best friend from childhood–how they grew up together, went to Yeshiva together, and were hevrutot (study partners). They enlisted into different units in the army. After the 1973 war, he discovered Shia had been killed. He talked about our duty to remember, not to forget, those who died.

The ceremony was timed so that the 8 PM memorial siren would be heard about halfway through. I noticed the principal checking his watch several times to make sure the siren would not interrupt any of the prayers or poems.

At exactly 8 PM, the siren sounded. I was amazed at how loud it was out here in the middle of nowhere. We heard the sirens from both the city of Beitar to the south and from the town of Tsur Hadassah to the north. Everyone stood in absolute silence. No moved for a moment after the siren ended, until we heard the echoes of sirens from distant towns die away.

This is the second time I’ve attended a memorial ceremony held by the boys’ school. Both times, during the two minutes of silence, my mind drifts from thinking of those who gave their lives to protect the country to the boys in front of me. In a few years, they will all be in the army. I say a small prayer, asking G-d to protect them, and to protect us and the land of Israel.

May we know no more wars

The Road to Jerusalem: Mishmar David

Mishmar David, national memorial to members of Haganah and IDF Engineering Dorps who gave their lives in service to Israel
Mishmar David, national memorial to members of Haganah and IDF Engineering Corps who gave their lives in service to Israel

Mishmar David is one of those places in Israel that I never knew about until a tour guide took me there. It was once of the key points in the battle for Jerusalem in 1948. Once Eitan Morell told its story, I wondered why I had never heard about it before.

Mishmar means guard, so Mishmar David is David’s Guardian. In this context, it refers to those who guard Jerusalem,the City of David. Atop the hill is the memorial to the Haganah Engineers and their successors, the IDF Engineering

IDF Engineering corps memorial inscription: If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget (from Psalm 137)
IDF Engineering corps memorial inscription: If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget (from Psalm 137)

Corps, who gave their lives protecting Jerusalem. It’s not too far from Road 1, at the top of one the hills that border the road, and marked by a few small brown directional signs. Basically, if you don’t know it’s there, you probably won’t find it. Yet this spot was critical during the time the British were preparing to leave mandatory Palestine and to the new nation of Israel.

The Arab siege of Jerusalem started months before the proclamation of the State. At the time Jerusalem was just a small city. It could have been classified as a Jewish outpost since it was surrounded by Arab towns. Those Arab towns not only surrounded the city, they also surrounded the road to it. Strategically, Jerusalem was worth little. It was distant from the population centers, surrounded by the Mountains of Judea, far from a good source of water. It had no decent airport nearby and didn’t even overlook any major road.

But psychologically, emotionally, it was worth everything. As the direction of Jewish prayers for millennia, as the focus of longing for a land of our own, Jerusalem was the heart of the nation. Without Jerusalem, there could be no Jewish nation.

Even the nonreligious David Ben Gurion, leader of the Jewish community, the Yishuv, and first prime minister of Israel, recognized this. Although he was determined to keep the Negev part of the new country, he pulled army units from the south to save Jerusalem.

Saving Jerusalem meant breaking the Arab blockade.

The first attempt to break the blockade was sending convoys carrying food, water, and weapons from Tel Aviv. Armored trucks and jeeps carried the supplies. The word “armored” is used loosely here. The vehicles were covered with thick boards, over which thin sheets of metal were attached. They offered a little protection against bullets. Worse, the “armor” made the vehicles much heavier, which slowed them down on the way up the steep roads through the Mountains of Judea on the way to Jerusalem.

The road wound up to Jerusalem along the valleys, through the mountains. Arab villages were located on almost all the hilltops, which made the slow-moving trucks easy targets. The truck drivers knew that their chance of getting through were not good. In every convoy, at least three, and maybe five or eight, drivers died. Nonetheless, as long as the Haganah was able to send supplies, men and women were willing to drive the vehicles.

On March 30, a large convoy gathered at Hulda to make its way to Jerusalem. Although winter was almost over, it was still the rainy season, and it rained. As the slow trucks passed Mishmar David, one after the other become bogged down in mud. The Arabs on the nearby hilltops saw, and attacked. They then looted what remained. Little of the valuable food or weapons arrived in the city, but the Arabs in the nearby villages were well armed and well fed for weeks.

Convoys continued to travel, Arabs continued to attack, and truck drivers continued to die, but a trickle of food reached the city.

Zipporah Porath, a young American who had come to Jerusalem to study for a year in the fall of 1947, described the convoys in one of her letters home that spring:

           “A convoy…generally sets out from Hulda or the outskirts of Tel Aviv                   with thirty, forty, or fifty trucks laden with hundreds of sacks of flour,             canned food, other staples and fruit—the city’s needs for less than a                   day—accompanied by a couple of armed escorts to “protect” it. Burdened             as they are, the trucks, which can’t travel faster than about ten miles an             hour, are perfect targets for a bloody massacre by the Arab bands that             lay in wait.

          “If the convoy is in luck, maybe fifteen or so of the trucks will make it to            Jerusalem. If they have ben waylaid by roadblocks, most of the trucks                will be knocked out of commission and block the way for the others, so                the whole shebang becomes sitting ducks for the Arab attackers and the            precious cargo is dislodged, scattered and looted. We’ve lost so many of              these armored trucks—along with their drivers and Haganah protectors—            that stocks are now almost nil. “ (Letters from Jerusalem 1947-1948, p.              135-136)

Jerusalem was kept going by the convoys for several weeks. The memorial at Mishmar David includes a map of the area as it was in March and April 1948(see below). The British camps are yellow, Arab villages are red, and the Jewish settlements, including Jerusalem, are blue.

Map of road to Jerusalem in Spring 1948 at Mishmar David, showing Arab (red) & Jewish towns (blue)
Map of the road to Jerusalem in Spring 1948

Looking at the map, I wondered how the city managed to remain in Israeli hands. Jerusalem’s rescue seems like the hand of G-d, working through the hands of the Engineering Corps and soldiers of the IDF. I’ll describe what they did later—it’s too long a story for one installment.

When I came to Israel in 1962, the destroyed trucks and jeeps still sat at the side of the road to Jerusalem. They were the rusted skeletons, left where they had been stopped as memorials to the brave men and women who had saved Jerusalem. Our guide told us that they would not be moved from the roadside where they sat because they were people’s graves. The visible deterioration and the rust that had accumulated in fourteen years contributed to their emotional impact.

The trucks still sit there today. You can see them as you travel Road 1 near Sha’ar Hagai. In the smallest national park in Israel, six old truck skeletons sit in the grassy median between the east bound and west bound lanes.

None of the trucks are exactly where they had been stopped by Arab bullets; they have been moved several times as the road was widened or straightened. Periodically, they are taken to the shop and given a coat of preservative paint, to keep them from rusting away to nothing. The pale green paint is not quite the color of old rust. The solidity and new look of the painted relics lacks the emotional impact of the old rust. Their smoothness covers up the destruction and deterioration beneath. Visitors who don’t know the history of the road probably think they are statues placed artistically along the road towards Sha’ar Hagai, not even identifying the location as the fearsome Bab al Wad. The urge to preserve them is understandable—they are the only physical evidence of the lives sacrificed to save Jerusalem, to keep it part of yet to be born Jewish state.

Nevertheless, I miss the rust.

To get there: