December 28: REAF Macchi MC.205 and probable REAF Spitfire (in S-199)
Despite his Judaic last name, Levett was 100% gentile. Born into a family so poor that his mother placed him in an orphanage so that he could eat, Levett joined the RAF in early 1939 at the age of 17. Originally an "erk", or groundcrewman, Levett applied for and in November 1940 was posted to flight school.
Levett spent WWII as a trainer of other pilots and as a transport pilot, rising to Squadron Leader in the process. Drummed out of the RAF after taking an unauthorized vacation from his remote post in Burma and so without RAF references, Levett could not find employment as a pilot, and ended up working in a Jewish-owned diaper laundry. In April 1948, he volunteered to fly for the Jews in Palestine.
After two meetings with a Jewish agent in London, Levett received a train/boat ticket for Paris. There, he was shipped to Czechoslovakia, specifically Zatec.
In an isolated and rural area about 20 miles from the East German border we turned onto a minor road leading to a military aerodrome.... The aerodrome was primitive with a control tower, a few huts and a single concrete runway. It had been used by the Luftwaffe as a fighter base during the Second World War.
When the tarmac came into view I saw an astonishing collection of American transport aircraft and several Messerschmitt 109 fighters (sic) parked neatly along the tarmac. There were six or seven Curtiss Commando C-46s, a Douglas Skymaster DC-4 and several smaller aircraft.... Even more astonishing, the ground staff wore baseball caps and were speaking with American accents. (Levett 1994)
Levett originally took part in Israel's fight for life as a C-46 pilot in ATC (Israel's Air Transport Command) in which capacity he ferried S-199s from Zatec to Israel. Later he checked out on the DC-4 and DC-5 and ferried goods to the Negev as part of Operation Dustbowl (Avak, which means "dust"). During Operation Yoav, in October 1948, he flew C-46 bombers. In November, he transferred to 101 Squadron.
I had a tussle with Hayman Shamir to get transferred to 101 Squadron, but there was little for ATC to do during the cease-fire and he reluctantly agreed. He knew that I had flown Spitfires and Hurricanes in the RAF and assumed that I had done so in combat. (Levett 1994)
Levett first met the 101 guys in a bar - the Galei Yam in Tel Aviv, of course.
That evening I packed my possessions into a rucksack and went to the Galei Yam Bar facing the beach in Tel Aviv, the fighter pilots' favourite watering hole. I knew most of the pilots. There were several of them, including Syd Cohen the commanding officer, sitting at tables drinking thin, local beer. They all wore vivid red baseball hats. There was no bar to lean on. It seems only the British like to drink standing up.... At midnight we stole a large American station wagon and drove the 20 odd miles to Qastina.... For several months the operation of Israel's sole fighter squadron depended upon stolen cars. We learned how to rip out ignition wires and by-pass the ignition key. The police collected our booty regularly from the aerodrome. It became known as Syd's used car lot. (Levett 1994)
Levett found there to be some friction between 101's true volunteer pilots and mercenaries, who were paid considerably more.
One American fighter pilot was getting 2,000 dollars a month and a 500-dollar bonus for every enemy aircraft he shot down. They did their job well, but I did not care for them. At the toss of a shekel they would have been on the other side. (Levett 1994)
Levett took the Spitfire, Mustang, and Avia up on familiarization flights.
The Spitfire weighs less than four tons. Knowing that my recent experience was with the 25-ton C-46 and the 40-ton Skymaster (DC-4), most of the pilots turned out to watch my over-controlling antics. I had a red face when I landed. After I had got the Messerschmitt and Mustang down a little less ham-fistedly, I was considered ready for action. (Levett 1994)
Levett still concealed a secret at this point. He had never flown a single fighter combat sortie.
Everyone assumed that as I had volunteered for 101 Squadron and was an ex-RAF pilot I knew all about the "Scramble! Tally-ho! Achtung Spitfire!" fighter pilot stuff. I did not reveal that all I knew about being a fighter pilot was gleaned from "Biggles". The night before my first patrol I tried to recall the imperatives. Beware an attack from the sun. Height is precious. Close, short bursts. Keep a good look out. Use your rear-view mirror all the time. Wear goggles and gloves in case of fire. Do not follow your victim down. Do not steer the same course or hold the same height for more than a split-second. Keep some ammunition left for defence on the way home. If baling out, pull the rip-cord at the last minute. If you crash-land in enemy territory get away from the aircraft as quickly as possible after putting a match to it. Stay with it if in friendly territory. (Levett 1994)
His first operational sortie took place on December 28. During a breakfast of cold hard-boiled eggs and green salad with olives and cottage cheese washed down with black coffee, he and Syd Cohen prepared for an early day.
It was still dark. Syd and I were the only people in the mess apart from the cook. We were wearing casual mufti, without wings or badges of rank. We did not look like fighter pilots breakfasting before dawn patrol. I could hear our two Merlins being tested distantly in the darkness. Dawn Patrol! I felt a bit like David Niven or Errol Flynn. I promised myself I would buy a white silk scarf. Syd was the calm, reassuring Spencer Tracy type. I felt confident he would not lead me into undue trouble. Nevertheless my ashtray was full by the time we left the table to go to our Spitfires. (Levett 1994)
Cohen and Levett took out a pair of Spitfires with two 250-pound bombs each to patrol the Khan Yunis-Rafah-Gaza front. They found a train heading southwest away from Rafah and dove on it.
Moderate anti-aircraft fire weaved pink, black and white filigree patterns around us as we circled the train and prepared to attack. Syd went in first and dive-bombed twice. His first bomb missed completely, his second was a near miss. It was my turn. Both my bombs missed by a mile. We had shifted a lot of sand. We then strafed the locomotive several times. I was astonished at the clatter and the recoil effect on the Spitfire as the guns fired. I was so absorbed by the puffs of sand as my bullets hit the desert that I nearly flew into the train. It spurted steam and stopped. Passengers were jumping out and scrambling underneath. Mothers were handing down children and babies from the windows. After our sixth or seventh pass we circled, looking down at our handiwork. The locomotive was badly damaged. By unspoken agreement neither Syd or I had attacked the passenger coaches. Our meek flight hit the headlines. According to the press we had destroyed a vital ammunition train and caused heavy losses among Egyptian troops on the train. Truth is indeed the first casualty of war. (Levett 1994)
Later that day, Levett found himself in a S-199 escorting, along with Jack Doyle in Spitfire White 12, four of 35 Squadron's Harvard dive bombers to Faluja. After the Harvards dropped, Doyle and Levett spotted eight enemy fighters east of Faluja. Levett, who shouted "Achtung, Spitfire!" to himself for atmosphere (Levett 1994), thought they were four Spitfire Mk XVIs (a Mk XVI is essentially a Mk IX with an American Packard engine) and four Fiat G.55s whereas Doyle claimed they were all Fiats (or Macchis). The escort fighters stayed with the bombers until they had dropped, then returned to the enemy flight.
The two pilots reached an up-sun position 4,000 feet above the enemy, who apparently hadn't spotted them. With radios that used different frequency sets (Weiss and Weiss 1998, Levett 1994), the two pilots could not verbally communicate, but Doyle smiled and pointed at the low planes, then dove as Levett followed.
Diving on the Egyptians, Doyle exploded a Macchi MC.205 immediately. Doyle recalled:
We jumped them. I shot down one and went after another. Gord hit two, the rest got away. (Cull et al 1994)
Levett's report was far more verbose:
As Doyle and I climbed into the sun I remembered a rumour that ex-Luftwaffe aces had joined the Egyptian Air Force. It would be a bizarre fate for an Englishman in a Messerschmitt to be shot down by an ex-Luftwaffe pilot flying a Spitfire. A dog-fight at last! I was excited but not afraid. Most pilots in combat feel it is the other chap who will die. To think otherwise would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Harvards dropped their bombs hurriedly on Faluja and returned to base. They were no match for the fighters. The enemy had not yet seen us. By now we were in perfect attacking position, about 4,000 feet above them and between them and the sun - bright, blinding sun even though it was winter.... Doyle grinned at me and pointed downwards with his index finger, his thumb cocking an imaginary gun. I nodded and followed him down. He attacked a Fiat before they saw us. I locked onto a Spitfire and fired. Bits flew off the Spitfire and the white trail of glycol told me his Merlin engine was probably mortally wounded. I was about to finish him off when I saw another Spitfire coming up my starboard side and broke off the attack. I turned steeply trying to shake him off, but he was still there. Looking back over my shoulder I watched, hypnotised, the tiny, pretty, orange lights twinkling at me from the leading edge of the enemy Spitfire's wing before I realised I was staring eternity in the face. I was looking down the barrels of machine guns and cannon that were trying to kill me. I realised I was being a bloody fool trying to out-turn a Spitfire in a Messerschmitt. I rammed the control column harshly forward and dived in as violent a manoeuvre as I had ever flown. Dust and dead flies flew up from the cockpit floor and my head banged against the roof of the cockpit canopy, but despite the heavy negative gravity forces imposed by the manoeuvre the fuel-injected engine continued to run sweetly. (Levett 1994)
Levett goes on to explain that he chose to enter a neg-G dive knowing that the Spitfire's gravity-fed Merlin engine would sputter in negative gravity conditions.
In this, my first dogfight, I dimly remembered the negative G factor I had experienced in my first Spitfire flights as an instructor in the RAF in 1943 and applied this factor in frantic combat which I thought at the time would get me out of a tight situation. (Levett, pers. comm.)
He was wrong.
The early Spitfires, into the Battle of Britain, used gravity-fed carburetors. A drawback of the devices was that negative G conditions would interrupt the fuel feed, causing the engine to sputter and costing the Spitfire considerable speed and acceleration.
Certainly, late-war Spitfires - including all types to be found fighting on all sides in the War of Independence - had Merlin engines that used fuel injection and continued to run in negative Gs. Levett, and his squadmates, really had no idea what marks of Spitfire they faced. Levett summarizes the state of their knowledge during the war:
A further illustration which might interest you of the total lack of military intelligence available to the IAF at that time which led to my misapprehension was the fact that all pilots at 101 Squadron, conformed subsequently by historians, claimed to have shot down or fought Italian Fiat G55 fighters used by Egyptians and it was not until decades afterwards that it was discovered that these aircraft were in fact the Macchi 205V. It was a funny war. (Levett, pers. comm.)
Nevertheless, a neg-G dive is a wonderful escape maneuver, but Levett was probably just plain lucky to have escaped that fight. Let's pick up his description in the dive:
I dived beyond the vertical to make sure. He disappeared. I did not need to look at the airspeed indicator to know I was nearing 450 mph when I pulled out of the dive and zoomed back into a gaggle of Spitfires. But I could not fire. Doyle had a unique advantage in this melee. He could fire at any Spitfire. I had to make sure I was not firing at him.The Egyptians had a similar problem. I saw a lone Fiat G.55 below me heading home towards the Egyptian Air Force base at El Arish and I used my superior height to catch him up. I did not know the strengths and weaknesses of the Fiat, but it did not matter for his evasive manoeuvres were elementary. I fired a short burst from his starboard quarter. He flew on, straight and level, at my mercy. Perhaps he was injured. I did not like the role of killing a sitting duck and considered lowering the undercarriage and waggling the wings at him in the accepted signal demanding his surrender, but it was too dangerous. It would slow me down and there might be other enemy aircraft lurking about. I fired again and again. Black smoke trailed from his engine as he flew in a steep, descending arc towards the sea. I did not follow him down and flew towards Faluja. But the sky had suddenly become quiet and empty. It was over. After I landed the armourer was peeved that I had a little ammunition left. I explained why. He pursed his lips. (Levett 1994)
The "Fiats" of course were actually the Macchi MC.205s.
Both pilots were awarded a kill of a Macchi. Doyle was also credited with a damaged Spitfire and Levett was was credited with a probable Spitfire kill. That evening, Cairo radio admitted the loss of three planes.
Levett flew some "twenty-odd" missions in 101 Squadron. The morning following the January 7 clash with the RAF was spent on alert, as the ground crews readied every available plane and every pilot prepared for the word to go.
I had spent a restless night. I was still not sure as I sat in the Spitfire's cockpit waiting for dawn, what I would do if the Royal Air Force attacked and we were scrambled. Could I fire at an RAF aeroplane? I remembered E.M. Forster's apophthegm that if he ever had to choose between cause and country he hoped he would have the guts to choose the cause. (Levett 1994)
After the war, Levett took command of 106 Squadron, a transport unit tasked with training new, native crews. With ranks introduced, he became a Sgan Aluf (Lieutenant Colonel). Slick Goodlin also moved to 106 Squadron.
After returning to a mundane existence England, Levett occasionally served as a ferry pilot, flying aircraft to and from Israel.