This Day in Jewish History, 1948

First Batch of Smuggled Spitfires Takes Off for Israel

At the height of the War of Independence, shackled by embargo, Israel managed to buy 50 Spitfire jets from Czechoslovakia. Now they had to reach Israel.

Oren Rozen/Wikimedia Commons

On September 27, 1948, the second and most dangerous phase of Operation Velvetta I took place when the fledgling Israel Air Force overcame an international arms embargo and smuggled a first batch of Spitfire fighter jets from Czechoslovakia to Israel.

By the time Israel declared statehood on May 15, 1948, the United Nations had imposed an international arms embargo on Israel and the Arab states fighting it. This didn’t stop a vast procurement enterprise, much of it organized from the United States, which involved finding ways to purchase and transport everything from bullets to airplanes to Israel, much of it surplus from World War II.

During the initial months of the war, the main supplier of equipment was Czechoslovakia, although political pressure from the Soviet Union forced it to stop its sales during the course of 1948. In August, however, Israel was still able to purchase 50 Spitfire LF Mk. IX fighter planes, each one priced at $23,000, to which an additional nine aircraft were soon added.

Now, all that was needed was to get the single-seat planes to Israel. An initial plan to disassemble the aircraft and ship them via air transport planes had to be dropped once the United States and Great Britain expressed their opposition, at which point Israel resolved to fly them over the Mediterranean.

Czech insignia and radio silence

The Czechs were not comfortable with the distance the planes would be required to fly, especially as it included a stretch of 2,250 kilometers (1,400 miles) over open sea. But once Yugoslavia agreed to allow an airfield in Niksic, Montenegro, to be used for refueling, Czechoslovakia gave its consent – although it wanted to maintain the utmost secrecy. It required the planes to be painted with Czech insignias and also for crew members to be confined to their hotel rooms when not working to prepare for the mission.

The first batch of six planes departed from Kunovice, Czechoslovakia, on September 24, and headed for Niksic, a 90-minute flight. To maximize their range, the planes had been equipped with extra tanks, which boosted their fuel capacity from some 85 gallons to roughly 370 gallons. At the same time, guns, radios and other “unnecessary” equipment were removed from them to lighten their loads; pilots had to use walkie-talkies to communicate with each other.

One plane was damaged while landing in Niksic, though its pilot was unharmed. The remaining five were cleared to take off for Israel, which they did on September 27.

Two hours into the flight, two of the planes – piloted by Modi Alon and Boris Senior, respectively – indicated that they were out of fuel. (A later investigation found that a malfunction of the improvised fueling system caused the planes to automatically dump fuel into the sea.) Both men made emergency landings in Rhodes, where their planes were impounded. They were interrogated and transported to Athens, and only released and returned to Israel – without their craft, only one of which was released to Israel, and that not until 1950 – on October 6.

The three other planes – piloted by project leader Sam Pomerance, Syd Cohen and Jack Cohen – landed safely at Ramat David, southeast of Haifa, after a flight of nearly seven hours, a flight-time record for a Spitfire. Velvetta I successfully brought eight Spitfires to Israel.

Operation Velvetta II (the name came from an Israeli hand cream, Velveta) took place in mid-December, and brought an additional 12 planes to Israel. Of the remaining 39, from the initial order of 59, five were lost to accidents – one of which killed Pomerance – or other mishaps. The remainder were taken apart and packed in crates, and eventually arrived in Israel by way of sea, some of them only after the War of Independence had ended.