Mules inside one of the Nebi Daniel convoy’s armored cars Sherut Ha’avir planes aid the beleaguered Nebi Daniel convoy
On March 26th 1948 it was decided to send a convoy to the Gush ‘Etzion settlements south of Jerusalem, carrying three months’ supplies for its defenders. The Sherut Ha’avir Staff was notified and its planes put on alert in case anything went wrong. The plan called for a plane to escort the convoy on its way to Gush Etzion and back, carrying out observation and maintaining radio contact with the convoy commander throughout.
The escort plane carried out a preliminary observation flight all the way down the road to Kfar ‘Etzion and reported to the convoy commander that no roadblocks or Arab concentrations could be seen. The second escort sortie also reported that the area was calm. The convoy reached Gush ‘Etzion and offloaded its cargo.
By that time, however, the Arabs were already aware of the movement of the large convoy, which numbered dozens of vehicles, and they began putting up roadblocks in order to block its way back from the ‘Gush’. Various delays caused the convoy to leave Gush ‘Etzion an hour late, at 11:25 – a factor which was to have disastrous consequences.
The escort plane made out five roadblocks – piles of rocks placed on the road – towards which hundreds of Arabs were streaming. Some had even taken up position beside the roadblocks and commenced firing at the plane. The pilot reported this to the convoy commander, but he decided to go head back towards Jerusalem anyways. The lead vehicles, spearheaded by the armored car known as ‘the obstacle buster’, initially met light obstacles which they managed to remove. However, as they neared Bethlehem the obstacles grew more numerous and the enemy fire grew stronger, and the convoy had to slow its movement.
The ‘obstacle buster’, which carried 14 troops, struck a landmine and was stuck, disabled, on the road’s shoulder. The convoy, which stretched out for over a kilometer, halted near Solomon’s Pools and the Arabs began attacking its vehicles at close range. At 12:30 the commander gave the order to turn the vehicles around and return to Gush ‘Etzion, but only 11 vehicles managed to make it back.
By now, the part of the convoy that remained on the road had many wounded in it, and was surrounded by large Arab forces. The commander of the armored escort vehicles ordered his men to take up positions around a lone house at the side of the road, a few kilometers away from Nebi Daniel.
The Arabs surrounded the house on all sides and began setting the abandoned vehicles on fire. The first two waves of attack were repulsed, but the number of wounded among the convoy’s men grew larger by the hour.
At this point, a Sherut Ha’avir plane was scrambled to the spot, and dropped two ‘Siman 1’ bombs on the attackers. In the next sortie, the pilots made contact with the trapped men, who directed them to bomb a large concentration of Arabs. After the bombs had been dropped, dozens of Arabs were seen running away. One of the pilots began firing at them with a ‘Bren’ machine gun, but the first burst hit the plane’s wing pylon, and in any case, the gun stalled. The plane landed at Gush ‘Etzion, the crew replaced the faulty machine gun and refreshed its supply of fuel and ammunition. The pilots fired all of this ammunition at the Arab attackers, and flew to Tel Aviv.
Several sorties were carried out in the early and late afternoon, with Sherut Ha’avir’s planes attacking the Arab forces with bombs and gun fire. Between attack runs, three planes brought fuel and ammunition to Kfar ‘Etzion and evacuated wounded.
Dusk found the situation of the trapped convoy’s men worsening. Several armored cars had attempted to reach the ‘obstacle buster’ and rescue its men, but they were also hit. The Arabs had surrounded the armored car and were lobbing hand grenades at it. Most of the men inside were either wounded – or dead. When the sun had set, the car’s commander, Zrubavel Horvitz, decdided to send the three men who had not been injured towards Gush ‘Etzion, and to blow the armored car up along with the soldiers who renmained inside. Horvitz gave covering fire to his men as they made their escape, and the detonated the explosive charge, killing many of the attackers and wounding others. He received the ‘Gibor Yisrael’ (‘Hero of Israel’) medal for this deed.
Meanwhile, urgent aid was needed for the remaining convoy defenders. There was a full moon out, and the weather permitted aerial activity. Pilot Pesach Tolchinsky dropped supplies for the defenders – consisting mostly of water.
The Arabs renewed their attack on the house at Nebi Daniel at first light on March 28th. A Sherut Ha’avir Auster Autocrat arrived on the scene at the same time, though, dropping two ‘Siman 1’ bombs and four 8 kg. bombs. The trapped men pinned the attackers down with their fire, enabling the plane to carry out its bombing raids more effectively. The bombing runs held up the Arab assault for some time and even temporarily silenced the mortar that they had been using. A Rapide tried to drop more supplies for the defenders, but heavy fire from the ground prevented the plane from flying low enough for an accurate drop, and the supplies did not land where they could be reached by the men.
At 06:40 pilot Yitzhak Henenson bombed the Arab positions next to the house. 40 minutes later another plane dropped eight bombs on the attackers. Some of them hit three houses on the eastern side of the road, from which incessant Arab sniping was being carried out. Between 08:00 and 08:30, more ammunition and water was dropped for the convoy defenders. The attack and supply sorties continued, non-stop, until the afternoon hours. At the same time, Sherut Ha’avir planes carried fuel, medical supplies and weapon parts, as well as commanders, to the Gush ‘Etzion airstrip, evacuating wounded men on their way back.
Arab reinforcements had reached the spot in the early morning hours, and at 10:00 a fresh, full-scale military attack was mounted, under the command of ‘Abd el-Kadr al-Husseini. Several attackers approached the house and began firing into it from very close range. At 10:40 Moddy Alon and Tzvi Ziebel’s Auster reached the spot and dropped bombs on the attackers. This sortie and a similar one which followed helped break the force of the Arab attack.
In the early afternoon, food and weapons for the defenders were dropped in two low flyovers, executed under intense and continuous fire from the ground. At the end of the second run a burst from a machine gun struck one of the planes, shattering part of the front windshield and injuring pilot Zvi Ziebel in his face and chest. The second pilot, Tzvi Vidlis, bandaged Ziebel’s wounds in mid flight and managed to bring the two safely back to Sde Dov.
Towards 14:00, the Arabs’ fire began dying down, and Husseini, realizing that his attack had failed, allowed a British rescue force to evacuate the trapped convoy’s fighters. The rescue convoy reached Jerusalem by evening.
All in all, Sherut Ha’avir’s planes had carried out ten bombing and strafing sorties in this battle, dropping 33 bombs with a combined weight of 435 kg., and nine supply sorties, in which packages with a total weight of about 1,000 kg. were dropped. Although the aerial support had not been enough, in itself, to decide the battle, the light planes were of substantial assistance in the trapped men’s hours of crisis, not only in their attack and supply functions, but also in boosting the defenders’ morale, thus helping them withstand wave after wave of attack.