Ezer Weizman was one of the original pilots of Sherut Avir's Tel Aviv Squadron.
On Jan. 15, 1948, Weizman took part in the Sherut Avir's first co-ordinated multiple-plane mission: a pre-dawn aerial resupply of the besieged Gush Etzion settlements. Boris Senior flew the escort, a Tiger Moth loaded with hand grenades and a gunner on board with a Bren gun. Weizman flew one of the two cargo aircraft, an Auster. A second pilot would drop the supplies, which included hand grenades, out the door while the first flew extremely low near stalling speed. Car tires tied to the bottom of the supplies would cushion their fall. At Gaza East, a deserted field near Be'erot Itzchak, Eddie Cohen waited with a Taylor carrying jerry cans of fuel in case any of the planes needed to refuel.
The group met no opposition - just as well, as the Bren had frozen up - and completed the mission, although Weizman noted that many of the supply crates had been destroyed when they hit the ground. A British Auster patrol had seen one of the cargo aircraft drop packages, which was illegal.
The next day, the British authorities asked the Haganah to turn in the pilot they had seen illegally resupply Gush Etzion. The Haganah asked Weizman to be the responsible party, hoping that his RAF history, spotless record, and family reputation would limit any punishment. Weizman told the British he had heard that Gush Etzion was under attack, so he had rented an airplane to drop medical supplies. Weizman spent two days in jail before the British let him go.
The Sherut Avir formed the Negev Squadron at Nir Am airfield on Mar. 12, 1948 with Weizman as CO. Its duties were many, primarily delivery, light transport, and reconnaissance.
Weizman was chosen as one of the original 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.
"Tall, rail thin with classic Hebrew features, Weizman has a debonaire quality.... Weizman is sitting in one of the chairs and watching the rest of us with an amused smile." (Nomis and Cull 1998)
The original plan for first use of the new fighters was to make a surprise attack on Al Arish. To this end, Weizman participated in an interrogation of Flt. Lt. Mahmoud Barakat, who had crash-landed his REAF Spitfire on Herzilya's beach on May 15. Weizman was obviously eager for action. After the REAF attacked the nearby kibbutz Holdah, he jumped into one of the Avias and started it up, eager to take off after the attackers. He was refused permission and someone ordered a vehicle to park in front of his airplane, just to make sure he stayed put.
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 and Modi Alon shared unofficial command of the new fighter squadron and 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.
In the meantime, Arab regulars threatened Israeli forces elsewhere. Weizman and Milton Rubenfeld rolled in the last two serviceable S-199s at 05:30, May 30 from Ekron, less than 12 hours after the first mission. An Iraqi light armored column was advancing on Kfar Yonah, about four miles east of Netanya and the coast, and the two remaining Avias were asked to help stop it. Weizman led Rubenfeld to Tul Karm in the two S-199s, loaded with full ammunition and two 70-kg bombs each. They bombed either the railway station (Huertas 1998) or the column (Yonay 1993) at Tul Karm (six miles east of Kfar Yonah) and strafed the column on the road:
...The two swept east toward Tul Karm, then came in from behind the Iraqis and dropped their bombs on the front end of the column. They then pulled up and began to come around to strafe the tanks and trucks.... As he was pulling up, Rubenfeld's plane was hit by antiaircraft fire or by fragments from his own bomb and began to fall to the west, thick black smoke trailing behind. A moment later, Weizman had begun to fire his guns when a heavy object smashed through his windshield, splattering him with glass and forcing him to turn back to base. (Yonay 1993)
Rubenfeld nursed his plane to Kfar Vitkin, a moshav on the coast just north of Netanya, and bailed out over the Mediterranean at only a thousand feet altitude. The windshield-less Weizman had also suffered a few bullet strikes to his wings but landed safely at Ekron. His windshield had been taken out by a bird strike.
The squadron threw a party - a good party, according to Rubenfeld - to celebrate Rubenfeld's safe return, at their quarters, the Yarden Hotel on Tel Aviv's Ben Yehuda Street. All the pilots but Modi Alon drank heartily (Nomis and Cull 1998). The next morning, Weizman missed the jeep to Ekron, so he borrowed Alon's motorcycle. At the Beit Degan junction, he hit a mortar shell crater and flew over the handlebars, breaking a bone in his left hand or wrist. The 101 was left with one plane and two pilots, Lenart and Alon.
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. Modi 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 Syd 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.
On October 16, 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 in 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.
After Alon, the squadron's commanding officer, died, the question of who would succeed him arose. The choice eventually boiled down to one of the squadron's flight commanders, ironically the two who had the best view of Alon's crash: Syd Cohen and Maury Mann. Mann, the 101's XO, desired to take command but Air HQ felt he was too aggressive (Red Finkel, pers.comm.) - and, in fact, he had crashed a S-199 earlier that day. Either through injury or temperament, Mann was disqualified from consideration, and in fact lost his flight leader status. Air HQ chose the experienced and greatly respected Syd Cohen to take over Alon's mantle, and he would lead the squadron throughout the rest of the war. Augarten and Weizman were promoted to flight leader.
On Nov. 19, Ezer Weizman took D-130 on the first Israeli deep penetration reconnaisance mission, accompanied by Charles Nott in a Mustang. They left Chatzor for Ramat david, where they refueled. At 11:50, they took off for Syria. Weizman spent 40 minutes making three passes over Damascus at the assigned 14,000 feet and 220 mph, then made three more passes over Sach el Sacher. The two Israeli aircraft saw neither flak nor enemy aircraft, and landed safely at Ramat David at 14:39. The mission produced excellent photos, and similar mission took place later on.
After Wayne Peake shot down the shuftikite on Nov. 20, Ezer Weizman took the squadron's Seabee runabout to investigate the crash site off the coast of moshav Dor, south of Haifa, but he only found wreckage floating on the surface.