By Corey Adwar
Steven Pressfield’s new book The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War contains a remarkable account of the Israeli Air Force’s first-ever mission in 1948, in which four planes succeeded against overwhelming odds to stop a massive Egyptian army in its tracks.
When Israel became an independent nation on May 14, 1948, the armies of four Arab neighbors — Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq — immediately invaded the new country to prevent its creation.
The Israelis were desperate to defend themselves, but they lacked many modern weapons and had no aircraft to protect troops, Pressfield wrote. Meanwhile, western nations including the U.S. and Britain were enforcing a ban on arms shipments to Israel.
Basing his book on dozens of interviews with various individuals who experienced Israel’s early wars, Pressfield wrote the chapters from the perspectives of veterans who survived combat, telling the story in their voices.
Israel Defense Forces
Knowing a massive Arab invasion was imminent, American Lou Lenart helped recruit foreign war veterans (like he was) to fly for Israel. Czechoslovakia was one of the only countries willing to sell aircraft to Israel, because it was a Soviet bloc nation desperate for American dollars.
Just two days before the Arab nations invaded, Lenart and a handful of recruits rushed to Czechoslovakia to train on that country’s version of a German Messerschmitt 109 fighter plane — ironically, the type flown by the Nazis during World War II. Lenart, who had served as a U.S. Marine fighter pilot against the Japanese, was not impressed with the Czech aircraft:
This plane was the worst piece of crap I have ever flown. It was not even an airplane. It was put together by the Czechs from mismatched parts left behind by the Nazis. The airframe was that of an Me-109 but the propeller and engine came out of a Heinkel bomber. You can’t make a plane that way. But it was all we could get, so we took it.
The first time Lenart took off in the aircraft, he almost crashed into the sea. He compared the plane’s engine to a farm tractor motor inside a Lamborghini. He even feared that poor synchronization of the machine guns would cause him to shoot his own propeller off.
As the pilots hurriedly trained in Czechoslovakia, the Arab countries began their invasion with tanks and aircraft, gaining ground rapidly. Pressfield wrote this in Lenart’s voice:
Every night we got bulletins from Israel. The Arab Legion with tanks and artillery was attacking near Jerusalem. Syrian forces had crossed the Jordan [River]. The Egyptian Army, with Spitfires, tanks, and artillery, was advancing up the coast road toward Tel Aviv. There’s a kibbutz [communal settlement] on the frontier called Yad Mordechai. Three Egyptian battalions were attacking a force of 140. Even the kibbutz women fought in the trenches, firing World War I Enfields. They held out for five days before the Egyptians stormed the place and captured it.
To make matters worse, two of the six planes Israel purchased were destroyed in an accident on the way to the Middle East. By the time the remaining four planes were ready for their first mission, Arabs forces were on the verge of capturing Israel’s two biggest cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Pressfield wrote.
Outnumbered Israeli troops managed to destroy a section of a bridge 17 miles from Tel Aviv, momentarily halting a massive Egyptian army from capturing the city. On the new Israeli Air Force’s first-ever mission May 29 1948, Lenart and three other pilots — Modi Alon, Ezer Weizman, and Eddie Cohen — took off in a desperate effort to bomb and strafe the Egyptians before they could repair the bridge.
“There is no making light of this moment,” wrote Pressfield in Lenart’s voice. “Behind us is Israel, the Jewish people hanging on by a thread. Ahead of us is the enemy, advancing to destroy everything we love.”
The four pilots alone faced 6,000 Egyptian troops — consisting of seven infantry battalions, six hundred vehicles, and formidable antiaircraft weapons, according to Pressfield. Lenart, the only pilot with combat experience in a fighter plane, led the mission.
Here is Pressfield’s incredible account of what Lenart experienced next, written in Lenart’s perspective:
We attack. The guns malfunction; the bomb releases balk. I look right and left and see nobody. Antiaircraft fire is ferocious. Six thousand Egyptians are putting up everything they’ve got. Eddie Cohen, a wonderful, brave pilot from South Africa, must have run into too much of it. His plane doesn’t come back. I manage to put one 70-kilogram bomb onto a concentration of trucks and troops in the town square of Ishdud. Modi and Ezer do what they can. It’s a mess. We straggle back, having inflicted minimal damage.
But the shock to the Egyptians is overwhelming. To be attacked from the air by four Messerschmitt 109s with the Star of David on the side!
The bold strike left the Egyptian forces dumbfounded and vulnerable. That night, Jewish ground troops took advantage of the situation by attacking the Egyptians’ flank. Pressfield continues the account from Lenart’s perspective:
The Egyptians are thrown into disorder. Israeli intelligence intercepts this dispatch from the brigade commander to Cairo: “We were heavily attacked by enemy aircraft and we are scattering.”
The Egyptian Army deflected to the east, to link with other Arab forces besieging Jerusalem.
Tel Aviv was saved, and so was the nation.
Sometime later I got a chance to speak with several Egyptian officers who were there that day. They said that the soldiers in the column were certain that these four planes, our piece-of-crap Messerschmitts, were just the tip of the spear, that the Jews had hundreds more, poised to attack and destroy them all.
Today Israelis call the bridge where the attack took place “Ad Halom,” meaning “Until Here” in Hebrew, according to The Jerusalem Post.