IDF troops on the ground & IAF planes in the sky during the War of Independence
The “Messerschmitt” Plane The weapon deal between Israel and the Czechoslovakia changed the face of Israel’s War of Independence. In mention of the date marking the beginning the war, a look into the aerial efforts made behind the scenes
Sneaking into airports at the dead of night, smuggling weapons under the guise of medicine and secretive deals with democrats and communists alike-all these were components of the Czechoslovakian weapon deal.
The machine guns, bombs and planes provided to IDF fighters were probably enough to tip the scales in the War of Independence and probably even affected the formation of borders of the state.
The quick course that took place in Czechoslovakia for a group of Israeli pilots also contributed to the outcome of the war, making the Czechoslovak assistance all the more meaningful. But the most complex component of the deal was bringing the weaponry to Israel by air, in operation “Balak”, named for the bible’s Balak Ben Tzipor (Tzipor – Hebrew for bird).
The first contract with Czechoslovakia to supply guns, machine guns and ammunition was already signed on December 17th 1947, but the ways of transportation to Israel were not yet resolved.
The first method tried was sea transport and the initial delivery left in February 1948. It was then understood that sea transport required passing through Yugoslavia, which caused many Bureaucratic troubles, prompting the idea of transport via air.
The new plan gained the support of David Ben-Gurion and the operation was code-named “Balak”. The Israeli agents began working to find a plane willing to transport the weapons to Israel and eventually found an American company willing to move the explosive cargo in spite of the U.S embargo.
The plane, named “Balak 1”, took off from Prague on the night of March 31st 1948, landing in Israel early in the morning in an airstrip in Bet Daras that was abandoned by the British.
The preparations for landing included locating communicators and lighting the runway-which was assembled of electric bulbs on barbed wire, some of which reaching the length of four kilometers. Securing the area, which was surrounded by Arab villages, was the responsibility of the “Givati” Brigade.
The plane landed successfully and the weapons it carried were immediately put into action.
On April 1st Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary: “The tools that were received tonight were already put to work in the war on Jerusalem transportation”. The plane returned to Prague in order to bring additional equipment, but arrived to an unpleasant reception: representatives of the U.S Embassy, accusing the crew of smuggling weapons. The plane’s crew claimed to be transporting medical equipment, but supplying of the rest of the weapons was cut short for a long period of time.
Converting to “Messerschmitt”
Meanwhile, an additional weapon deal was brewing in Czechoslovakia: To sell Israel “Messerschmitt” combat planes. Despite the steep price, the severe shortage of planes caused Israel to agree to the deal, stipulating that it would include replacement parts and training for the Israeli pilots, who were inexperienced in flight on the German plane.
The deal consequently came through and on May 6th 1948 a group of Israeli pilots arrived for a preparation course on the new combat plane. The group included Mordechai “Modi” Alon, Ezer Weitzman (Israel’s 7th President) and additional Israeli pilots and Volunteers from Abroad.
They were flown to the Czechoslavaki Air Force Airbase “Ceske Budejovice”, where they began practicing flight on the “Messerschmitt”. During the course, on May 15th, the members held a party in honor of the declaration of the State of Israel. A short while after, they returned to Israel in order to assist the combat efforts.