Mordechai "Modi" Alon
June 3: Two REAF C-47 bombers and damaged one REAF Spitfire (in S-199 D-120)
July 18: REAF Spitfire Mk Vc (in S-199)
KIA October 16, 1948
Alon's air force career began under the British flag. Growing up in a pioneer community near Lebanon, the 19-year-old Alon joined the RAF in 1940. He flew Spitfires and Mustangs in Italy for a short time after the war. Leo Nomis described him in June 1948:
Israel's first air hero has fair hair and a strong jaw and blue eyes and he could pass as a German fighter pilot. (Nomis and Cull 1998)
Modi Alon was one of the original pilots of Sherut Avir's Tel Aviv Squadron, which formed in December 1947. The 27-year-old Alon was chosen to be one of the ten pilots to attend S-199 training in Czechoslovakia.
On May 6, two Machal volunteers (Lou Lenart and Milton Rubenfeld) and eight Israeli Sherut Avir pilots (Modi Alon, Ezer Weizman, Jacob Ben-Chaim, Pinchas Ben-Porat, Itzchak Hennenson, Misha Kenner, Nachman Me'iri, and the immigrant Eddie Cohen) left Sde Dov on a leased Pan African Air Charter DC-3. It hopped to Cyprus, Rome, then Geneva. From Geneva, the group took a train to Zurich and from there took a Czechoslovakian Airline DC-3 to Prague. After two days at a dingy Prague hotel, they flew to Ceske Budejovice aboard a military Ju 52. Assigned a barracks and Luftwaffe flight jackets, they began training.
The instructors at the Ceske Budejovice airfield were Czechoslovakian veterans of the RAF. A few flights in the Avia C-21B (Avia's version of the Arado Ar 96B) re-awakened old skills in the pilots who had flown fighter aircraft before. They also quickly and firmly rejected any hope that the Israelis who had only flown light civil aircraft in the past could be quickly converted into fighter pilots. Only those pilots with previous fighter experience - Alon, Weizman, Rubenfeld, Lenart, and Eddie Cohen - were allowed to move on to the next step in the course, which introduced the CS-199, a dual-seat trainer version of the S-199. Lenart took the first S-199 solo, on May 15.
On May 18, the pilots in training at Ceske Budejovice learned that two Egyptian C-47s that day had bombed Tel Aviv's central bus terminal, killing 42 people and demanded to return to Israel. Their Czechoslovakian instructors unsuccessfully tried to convince the pilots to stay for at least a few days more training - the Israeli pilots had not yet undergone air-to-air or air-to-ground gunnery lessons. The Israelis insisted, saying they'd practice gunnery on real targets, and the five former combat pilots who passed the training course the next day moved from Ceske Budejovice to Zatec airfield, the headquarters of Israel's airlift operations.
The morning of May 20, the pilots and a handful of Czechoslovakian mechanics squeezed into a C-54 beside a disassembled S-199, ammunition, and bombs. More than 11 hours later, they landed at Ekron. The next day, another S-199 arrived in a C-46 (serial number RX-138). On May 22, a third flew into the country inside the C-54.
Alon and Lou Lenart shared informal command of the new squadron back in Israel. On May 29, Lenart, Modi Alon, Ezer Weizman, and Eddie Cohen took off from Ekron at 19:45 with two 70-kg bombs each, bound for an Egyptian army column near Ashdod - in fact, a mere 20 km south of Ekron itself. The Egyptians had been stalled by a blown bridge 32 km south of Tel Aviv and the lightly armed remnants of the Givati Brigade. The Egyptians were estimated to have 500 vehicles, among them ten tanks.
Lenart led the first mission. The wingman pair of Lenart and Alon took off first, followed by Weizman and Cohen. Lenart, however, was unfamiliar with the country and once in the air realized he didn't know the way to Ashdod. The S-199s had no radios so he used hand signals to indicate that to Alon, who pointed in the proper direction.
The official report of the operation reads as follows:
At 1945 local, a four-aircraft formation took off to attack a large column of Egyptian vehicles, between Ashdod and Gas'ser Ishdod, which had just stopped on the southern side of a destroyed bridge:
(1) - The leader, Lou Lenart, approached Ishdod from the north and dropped his bombs in the center of the village. He observed the largest vehicle concentration at the road curve about 300 meters south of Ashdod. His second pass was from southeast to northwest. His third pass was from north to south and in both he strafed with his machine guns since the cannon ceased firing after the first ten rounds. The AA fire was very intense and most of it came from 40mm guns. He landed at 2025.
(2) - Modi Alon approached from the northeast. South of the bridge, he observed a lot of vehicles and also many more vehicles were observed east of Ishdod. He dropped his bombs on the vehicles on the road. On his second pass, he attacked from east to west and on his third from north to south. In his passes, he exhausted his ammunition and returned home flying over the sea. The AA fire was heavy. He estimates the number of vehicles in hundreds. Upon landing at Ekron, his left brake did not function and he could not maintain a straight line as a result. Finally, he performed a ground loop, the left tire exploded, and the wing tip struck the ground and was damaged. He landed at 2005.
(3) - Ezer Weizman attacked from south to north. At first, he witnessed about 20 vehicles south of Ashdod and dropped his first bomb. In his second pass, he attacked from west to east and dropped his second bomb about one kilometer north of Ashdod. His third pass was from south to north. His cannons fired one round each and jammed. His machine guns worked fine. He landed at 2015.
Eddie Cohen was in radio contact with base. On his way back he reported that all was OK, that he saw the base and that he was about to land. From Ekron, he was not observed and he did not land there. Our men near Chatzor air base saw an aircraft engulfed in flames trying to crash-land two and a half kilometers distant. Two infantry platoons were sent immediately but the Egyptian forces were the first to reach the location. It is thought that Eddie Cohen mistook Chatzor for Ekron and tried to land there with his damaged airplane. (Cull et al 1994, Huertas 1998)
Alon's guns had also jammed. Lenart had used a clover-leaf attack pattern he'd learned in the USMC.
Cohen was killed in the crash. His S-199 may have taken an AA hit which started a fire that he apparently hadn't noticed. In 1949, Israel recovered Cohen's remains near a small airfield called Beit Daras, at the time of his death in Egyptian hands. Cohen could have mistaken that field for Ekron and received fatal defensive fire from defenders in the area.
Despite the loss of one aircraft and damage to another, the mission succeeded. The Egyptian force advanced no farther than it had on May 29 for the remainder of the war.
Alon's next action, on May 31, proved harrowing. Headquarters had asked the Chel HaAvir to take out Jordanian artillery that was impeding construction of the Burma Road, a route skirting the impenetrable Latrun garrison that would allow uninterrupted contact with Jerusalem. Alon and Lenart - the only two available pilots after Weizman broke his left hand while riding Alon's motorcycle - flipped a coin to see who would take up an S-199 that had been delivered that day, the only undamaged aircraft. Alon won and took off in the morning to escort a Tel Aviv Squadron Dragon Rapide to support the Seventh Brigade at Latrun. He flew several sorties and by the time he called it a day, one mechanic said, "his machine was so full of holes, we didn't know how he kept it flying." (Yonay 1993)
Following the near-loss of the new Avia, the Chel HaAvir decided to retain the S-199s for the air defense of Tel Aviv. Squadron co-leaders Alon and Lenart would fly twilight patrols over Tel Aviv, alternating days. The scheme would pay dividends on June 3, when Alon scored Israel's first two air-to-air kills over a pair of REAF C-47 bombers.
June 3 was a busy day for Alon and the lone fighter plane. At 11:30, REAF Spitfires attacked the IDF's HQ at Ramat Gan. Alon scrambled for an intercept and eventually caught a Spitfire over Bet Hanan. He attacked it from astern and "poured machine gun fire into it" (Cull et al 1994) before it managed to escape.
That evening, Alon took his allotted twilight patrol over Tel Aviv. At 19:00, he spotted four REAF aircraft approaching the city - two C-47 Dakota bombers with an escort of two Spitfires. Alon took his S-199 out to sea to get the sun behind him then swept in on the bombers. He easily evaded the undedicated REAF Spitfire escort and latched onto the tail of a bomber. A reporter described his attack:
Unable to dodge, the Dakota kept on its course. The fighter banked, turned and struck again. The bomber stalled, dropped sharply and flew off towards Jaffa where it suddenly exploded in mid-air, raining fragments on the nearly deserted streets of the Arab town. (Cull et al 1994)
The other C-47 attempted to escape south. One of the Spitfires tried to get on Alon's tail, but he shook it and pursued the bomber. He caught upto it near Rehovot and hit its engines. Trailing smoke, the second bomber continued southward. Alon followed it until it crashed at Wadi Sarar.
Leo Nomis offers another account of the combat, albeit with slightly differing facts. Nomis was not in Israel at the time, so this must be at best a secondhand report:
When the Egyptians became aware of the Israeli fighter's presence they took separate courses toward the south but, climbing above them, the faster Messerschmitt attacked the nearest Dakota and sent it crashing earthward.... The second Dakota crossed the coastline and the Israeli plane closed in behind and fired. A bright flame appeared beneath one of the wings of the Egyptian aircraft. The blaze grew and enveloped the wing and everyone in the streets below could see how bright the flame looked against the blue of the sky. The doomed machine rolled down toward the calm surface of the sea and pieces began to fall from the fiery wreckage. A plume of water and spray and black smoke briefly marked the place where it disappeared. (Nomis and Cull 1998)
Much of Tel Aviv witnessed the first attack and, incredibly, a picture one resident took of Alon after the first kill - Israel's first ever air -to-air victory - still exists. Up until this spectacle, few Israelis even knew their country could field real fighter planes and celebration at the Yarden Hotel (Air HQ) and along the waterfront lasted well into the night. REAF bombers never appeared over Tel Aviv again, although occasional REAF Spitfires continued to make ground attacks on the city.
A June 1 REAF Spitfire raid on Ekron damaged a pair of S-199s awaiting assembly in a hangar. The effectiveness of the raid, and the revelation that Egypt knew where Israel based its fighters, convinced the air force to pull the unit back from the front lines somewhat and move it north. Alon and Weizman chose the destination, Herzliya. It had a 2,000-m unpaved runway aligned north/south that was bulldozed amid orange groves. Weizman claims that one of the reasons they chose this field was because they felt the unpaved strip would handle the uppity Avias somewhat better than concrete, but Sid Cohen believes the softer surface actually promoted accidents. A water tower - which still stands - served as the control tower. The actual move took place shortly after Alon shot down the two REAF Dakota bombers - probably during June 4-6. The aircraft were nestled between orange trees beneath camouflage netting. The REAF never attacked the Herzliya field, possibly because they never knew any aircraft were based there.
Alon flew again on June 8, from the new strip. He led Lichtman, flying his first Israeli combat mission, in the two operational S-199s to where REAF Spitfires had been seen the day before. Lichtman recalled the memorable flight:
As we had no radios, Modi said if we saw any enemy aircraft he would wave his hand in a circular motion, finger up and then point to the enemy aircraft. We took off from Ekron on a hot and hazy afternoon, with visibility down to about eight to ten miles, heading for Tel Aviv. Modi immediately put his aircraft into a maximum angle of climb, which made it very difficult for me to fly in any kind of fighter formation with him. He also seemed to have full throttle on and turned into the sun, which made it even more difficult for me. All the while, the distance between the two of us increased.
After about 15 minutes, I could barely see through the tears in my eyes. My flying suit was soaking wet due to the heat in the cockpit. At this point, I pulled to the side and wiped the tears from my eyes. After a short while, I looked into Modi's cockpit and barely noticed him waving his arm. I was then aware that something was up. I looked into my cockpit with all the German lettering on the instruments and became a little doubtful about whether or not I could find the gun sight and armament switches. My total Messerschmitt flight time to date was about 35 minutes.
Modi rolled over into a dive, in front of my nose, and I barely missed him. I rolled over and followed him and noticed well below me and well ahead four Spitfires, heading for Tel Aviv. They were about five to ten miles away, approaching from the south naturally.
I followed Modi over the formation into a crazy angle and noticed him pull up and away. I noticed he was shooting into the aircraft as I saw the puffs of smoke. He was well ahead of me and they broke into four different directions. He then went into a climb, heading north.... (Cull et al 1994)
Lichtman chased and shot down one of the enemy and the other three attacked Tel Aviv. Alon doesn't seem to have figured in the combat after his initial pass.
After Lou Lenart's transfer to Air HQ following the Vickman tragedy, the Chel HaAvir named Alon commander of what was by then officially known as 101 Squadron. Several volunteers with much more experience resented Alon's appointment. Others just didn't like him. Alon disapproved, vocally, of the drinking the pilots would do on forays into Tel Aviv and he insisted on the use of Hebrew for written reports. Syd Cohen recalled Alon's charisma:
I remember one morning, after a particularly bad night in Tel Aviv when we literally ripped the town apart, he called us together and gave us a good talking to. He said that he associated such behavior with the British army during the mandate rule. He said that he felt let down by our behavior, and he asked us to refrain from such acts in the future. The incredible thing was, we all sat there like little lambs. If anyone with lesser personality had tried to give us hotshots such a talk, I don't know what we would have done, but we took it from him as if he were our equal. He was quite an inspiring guy. (Yonay 1993)
To the best of my knowledge - and research - I believe Alon and Chris Magee were the 101's only married pilots.
At 17:30, July 18, the last day of the summer offensive, Modi Alon led Syd Antin and Rudy Augarten from Herzliya in three S-199s to attack an Egyptian armored column at Bir Asluj, west of Beersheva. It was Augarten's first combat mission in Israel. He comments:
My first turn to fly came up with Modi Alon and Sid Antin. They had bombs on their planes; I didn't. They took off. I forgot the TMFRTS code and took off. You normally have to take your trim all the way back so when you run up your prop, it holds the tail down. I had trim set all the way back which had an effect like somebody pulling back on the stick. When I pulled full throtttle, I went down the runway 150 to 200 yards and the plane started to come up but hadn't enough flying speed. One of the wings stalled, going to the left side. Then I realized what happened. I counteracted it by pushing down on the stick to keep the plane from climbing too fast.
I was fighting the stick. The plane was in a slow turn to the left. There was a tree 200 to 250 yards off the runway and they tell me my wing brushed through. But I got off. (Rubenstein and Goldman 1978)
The Israelis dropped their bombs and made three strafing passes. On the return to Herzliya, Alon flew lead at 6,000 feet, with Augarten off to his left and Antin to his right.
Antin spotted two or three REAF Spitfires cruising on a parallel course to the left and called the others on the radio.
Modi was closest, he went after the first one. Rudy was next, 'cause they were on his side, and he went after the second one, but he was out of ammunition. He spent all his ammunition that we were returning from.... So he slid over, I told him, "Move over," and I slid behind the one that he had latched on to, and I still had some ammunition. So I started firing at him and it was a very brief dogfight. I saw some pieces come off him but I didn't knock him down. He kept on going. He got back.
Modi knocked down his, so we got at least one of them for sure.
After Augarten peeled off to come up behind his targeted Spitfire unseen, he had depressed his trigger, but nothing happened. He dove out of the way. Alon had hit a Spitfire Mk Vc, REAF serial number 610, flown by W/C Said Afifi al Janzuri, the fighter leader at Al Arish. The Egyptian tried to crash-land his plane in the hills below, but died in the attempt.
All three S-199s escaped without damage - until they tried to land at Herzliya. Alon landed first and spun off the runway to the right, nearly flipping over. Augarten, blinded by the setting sun, nearly hit the other two as he attempted to touch down, but pulled away in time. By the time he came around again, he'd run out of fuel. Some sources claim Antin nosed over on landing, but he is adamant that he did not.
Alon wasn't a CO averse to gestures. During August 17's visit by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Alon tried to impress his commander-in-chief. Besides dressing up - modestly adding a webbed service belt to his normally sharp attire - Alon also scrambled his troops for no other reason than show. Leo Nomis recalled the event:
Everyone is milling about, when a shuftykite (see November 20) appears high overhead, a tiny speck against the wisps of cirrus clouds that are streaked across the deep blue above. The patrol aircraft had landed before the Rapides came in and everyone just looks upward and watches the intruder plane.
B Flight is on standby and (Syd) Cohen looks over at Modi to see what he is going to do. Ben-Gurion... is also looking at the sky, shading his eyes with his hand. Abruptly, Modi tells Cohen to scramble four planes. Cohen points to me and grabs Lichtman by the arm and shouts to Bill Pomerantz.
We start running to the nearby readiness jeep and we jump in; Cohen floors the throttle pedal when the motor starts. We head for the revetments. The rotund Pomerantz smiles skeptically, as we watch the shuftykite fast disappearing to the north. Everyone knows it is futile to scramble and, when we get to the standby Messerschmitts, Modi cancels it. A red flare arches up from behind the Ops tent and falls to earth out on the field, where it burns and sputters for a moment. The gesture for the Prime Minister has been made. An hour later Ben-Gurion leaves and the Rapides lift off slowly in the midday sun. (Cull et al 1994)
Alon was one of the pilots allowed to fly the recon Spitfire D-130 and did so during the second week of September. Leo Nomis, who isn't correct if he means Modi Alon took the first ever D-130 flight, recalls:
...It is decided only those who have experience on the type will be assigned to it. The names are written on the blackboard at the Ops tent and mine is on it along with (Syd) Cohen, Modi, Mann, and Arnold Ruch. The photo reconnaissance missions begin with Modi taking the first sortie in the Jewish shuftykite.
It is mid-morning and I go with Cohen over to the Spitfire revetments, where Modi is talking to Dave Croll (101 Sqn's operations officer). We look underneath the aircraft and see where the camera is lined up with the opening. We walk around in front and Modi and Croll have a map spread out under the wing and Croll is indicating an area with a pencil....
Modi folds the map a certain way and climbs into the cockpit of the Spitfire. When he starts the engine, it fires smoothly and we all stand back from the blast of the propeller wash. The cockpit canopy has been removed like they were on the Spitfires in the Western Desert. The star of David emblem on the fuselage of this machine is so large, it laps over the top. Modi taxis out and stops near the boundary and turns the Spitfire around. After a moment, he nods over to us and opens the throttle. The aircraft leaves the ground when it is half way down the field. (Cull et al, 1994)
Alon flew more Spitfires when he took part in Velvetta 1. Six Czechoslovakian Spitfires left Kunovice for Niksic, Yugoslavia, 300 miles away, in the morning of September 24 with the 101's Modi Alon, Boris Senior, Syd Cohen, and Jack Cohen joining Sam Pomerance and Naftali "Tuxie" Blau behind the controls. Blau forgot to lower his landing gear at Niksic and damaged his plane.
The five airworthy Spitfires, led by a C-54, took off for Israel three days later. Two hours into the flight, Modi Alon and Boris Senior realized that their reserve fuel tanks were not functioning and the two landed in Rhodes. Leo Nomis, who with Sandy Jacobs had been circling over the Mediterranean in S-199s to escort the gunless Spitfires, recorded what Syd Cohen had told him:
Modi and Boris Senior had force-landed on the Greek island of Rhodes. Their reserve fuel tanks had malfunctioned and now the Spitfires were interned by the Greeks. So were Modi and Boris Senior....
Syd says Modi didn't say much on the R/T at the time, but that Boris was joking over the radio as they were preparing to land on the island. The other aircraft, including the C-54, had circled until the two were down on the Greek runway, but they couldn't tarry and had to leave them behind. (Cull et al 1994)
Greek authorities suspected both pilots of being Communists and arrested them. Senior recalled:
We taxied up to the control tower and got out. Our Spitfires had Israeli markings, but no guns. The Greeks asked us what we wanted. I replied we wished to see the Shell agent, to obtain some fuel. About five minutes later they came back with some soldiers with guns. They took us and put us in an office. They separated us immediately and started questioning.
We had a pre-arranged story. I told them that we were on a long-range patrol from Israel and that we had run out of fuel. The Greeks had nothing special against us, but they were fighting Communist invaders from Albania and Yugoslavia, and they found a piece of my map with a course line over the Peloponnese from Yugoslavia. They also found my South African passport with a Czech visa.
One night, two little men in dark suits and black ties woke me up in the middle of the night, and threatened to shoot me. I told them I was not a Communist but they didn't believe me. I told them I had known a pilot in the Greek Air Force in 1943, George Lagodimos, who would vouch for me. Within a couple of hours, Squadron Leader Lagodimos walked in (they had flown him specially from Athens to Rhodes), but he said he didn't know me!
Eventually, he remembered me and I told him the problem, but he said he couldn't help me. We were then flown in a Dakota to Athens and put in an air force prison. Finally, they decided to release us. (Cull et al 1994)
The other three planes made the 750-mile passage to Israel safely. The Greeks released Senior and Alon, but not their Spitfires, on October 12.
Alon apparently didn't take kindly to languishing in Greece and when hostilities renewed on October 15, two days after Yom Kippur, he threw himself into the thick of things. Israel had used some Egyptian light arms fire as an excuse to launch a major offensive called Operation Yoav, to be spearheaded by a preplanned air raid.
Alon led a flight of three S-199s from Herzliya (four had been planned but one went unserviceable) over the Mediterranean, where they met up with two C-46 bombers and two C-47 bombers (three were planned, but only two had been armed in time). The fighters took up station ahead of and below the bombers as the formation continued out to sea until the shore disappeared from sight. The planes turned south, then back east to approach the the target, Gaza, from out of the sun. The attack run was co-ordinated with two other groups: 103 Squadron's two Beaufighters and an escort of three 101 Squadron Spitfires attacked the Egyptian airfield at Al Arish and 69 Squadron's three B-17s bombed Majdal.
Alon's charges, very late to target, and the B-17s meted out little physical damage but the Beaufighters and Spits rendered Al Arish inoperative.
On October 16, Alon had made plans with his wife, Mina, who was three months pregnant. He scheduled himself for two early missions and a free afternoon, during which they would drive to the Sea of Galilee. Mina spent the day at the Herzliya air base.
As a result of the air bombardment the day before and a successful Israeli army offensive during the night, the Egyptians began to retreat from Ashdod, where they had holed up since May 29, to Majdal. Air HQ ordered the 101 to harass the retreating armor.
In the afternoon, Alon asked Ezer Weizman, "What do you say we go fly in Hebrew for a change?" after the latter returned from a sortie (Yonay 1993). With Mina waiting, the two Israelis left in S-199s - Alon on D-114 and Weizman in D-121, both with two 70-kg bombs - to strafe the fleeing Egyptians. Weizman recalled:
We took off, flying low and maintaining radio contact. We flew along the coast and I dropped my two bombs on the center of an Egyptian concentration. I continued on to Majdal, strafing with my machine guns. We lost contact with one another and each of us returned separately. Before landing back at Herzliya, I noticed a pillar of black smoke near the airfield. (Cull et al 1994)
Alon arrived first. His gear wouldn't descend so he tried to shake it down. Syd Antin, manning the control tower, spotted an unidentified aircraft at treetop level to the west and radioed the news to Alon, who interrupted his maneuvering to check it out. Once he had identified the bogey as a friendly, Alon resumed the high-G maneuvers.
Alon had managed to get one wheel down when Antin noticed a wisp of smoke coming from Alon's S-199. He asked Alon to check the engine temperature, and Alon radioed that it seemed fine. Alon's second wheel came down and he made his final approach, but Antin thought the plane was too slow and descending too fast. Antin shouted at Alon to "Get it up! Get it up!" (Yonay 1993) but the plane crashed short of the runway and exploded. The official report read:
Aircraft returned from mission and pilot could not lower landing gear. After circling for some time, one leg came down. Pilot continued circling, trying to lower other leg, when engine cut out. Aircraft crashed out of control, burst into flames and was completely destroyed. (Cull et al 1994)
Alon crashed at 17:45. Eyewitnesses reported that D-114 had entered a power spin at 1,000 feet. Antin thinks Alon pushed his engine too hard in the chase after the bogey and overheated his engine, leading to that wisp of smoke and glycol fumes in the cockpit. He thinks Alon eventually passed out in the fumes as indicated by his unresponsiveness and the way the S-199 so effortlessly augered in.
Weizman landed and headed for Mina Alon, who did not know who had crashed until she saw him. He drove her home to Tel Aviv and returned to Herzliya.
Alon's death affected the 101 profoundly. The 101's XO, Maurice Mann, desired to take command but Air HQ felt he was too aggressive (Red Finkel, pers.comm.) - and, in fact, he crashed a Spitfire within a few hours of Alon's death. Air HQ chose the experienced and greatly respected Syd Cohen to lead the 101 instead.
While few 101 pilots could say they liked Alon, his influence on the squadron would be missed. His insistence on Hebrew and morality made the 101 an Israeli outfit. After his death it would feel more like a mercenary unit. The Israeli Air Force would not "fly in Hebrew" again until the 1950s. Rudy Augarten recalled the effects of Alon's death:
Everybody in the squadron was crying that night. In all the wars I've been in, I had never seen anything like that. (Yonay 1993)