This Day in Jewish History / Canadian Who Smuggled Planes to Prestate Israel Is Born

Flying ace Sydney Shulemson is the reason early Israel could create an Air Force.

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De Havilland Mosquito fighter-bomber.
De Havilland Mosquito fighter-bomber.Credit: Rudolph89 / WIkimedia Commons
David Green
David B. Green

October 22, 1915, is the birthdate of Sydney Shulemson, the World War II Canadian flying ace who was his country’s most highly decorated Jewish soldier in that war and who, a few years later, played a key role in the establishment of the air force of pre-state Israel.

Sydney Simon Shulemson was the son of Saul Shulemson and the former Rebecca Rosenberg. Saul had come to Montreal from his native Romania at the age of 7.

Sydney grew up in Montreal, and while in high school was cadet commander of the army unit at Commercial High School, which he attended. He was also an (underage) member of the Non-Permanent Active Militia, serving as an army signaler.

With superior grades, Shulemson was accepted to McGill University, despite its quotas on Jewish students, and began engineering studies there just short of his 17th birthday. Unfortunately, difficult financial straits for his family forced him to quit university before graduation; he worked in advertising in New York for some time, and then at the printing business owned by an uncle in Montreal.

On the day that Canada declared war on Germany, September 10, 1939, Shulemson enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Three years later, he graduated flight school, near the top of his class.

Sydney Shulemson in his Canadian Royal Air Force uniform.

Shulemson was assigned to the RCAF 404 Squadron stationed in Wick, Scotland, where he flew a twin-engine Bristol Beaufighter, a fighter bomber. The squadron’s mission was to attack enemy ships in the North Sea, off the coasts of Norway and Netherlands. In his very first mission, he shot down a German “flying boat” and helped in the downing of a second one.

He later told Wayne Ralph, author of the book “Aces, Warriors and Wingmen,” about Canadian fliers, that “I can state with some confidence that I personally sank or damaged 13 ships.”

As bold and successful as Shulemson was as a pilot, his greatest achievement was to put his knowledge of engineering to use to develop a method for using effectively the armor-piercing, wing-mounted rockets his pilots were armed with, but were unable to aim. He and his squadron leader, Ken Gatward, calculated the speeds and angles required for the release of the rockets, and their method was extremely effective.

As an obituary for Shulemson in the Globe & Mail noted in 2007, “[S]uddenly, 404 Squadron was not only sinking cargo vessels but also the warships that protected them.”

Eventually, he was prohibited from flying more missions because of his value as a trainer. By then, as a mere flight lieutenant, he had received a Distinguished Service Order in February 1944 for diverting the attention of a German Messerschmitt 109 for 18 minutes while a colleague could escape in his damaged plane, and six months later he won the Distinguished Flying Cross for the sinking of two enemy warships.

Following the war, Shulemson returned to his uncle Ted’s print shop, but in 1947 he became seriously involved in helping Israel’s pre-state army, the Haganah, build an air force. His contributions included recruiting veteran pilots to fly for Israel, and finding surplus aircraft for acquisition. The latter included 200 De Havilland Mosquito fighter-bombers that he arranged to buy from the Republic of China.

Shortly before the United Nations vote on the partition of Palestine in November 1947, Shulemson and his brother-in-law Morris Cohen met with the Chinese ambassador to Canada, who was also a member of China’s UN delegation. Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen was a legendary warrior who had at one point been the bodyguard of the Chinese Nationalist leader Sun Yat-Sen; he showed the ambassador, Liu Cheh, a letter from Sun in which the latter promised that China would never do anything to harm the Jewish people. Although China had been planning to oppose partition, the two Jewish men persuaded Liu not to do so. In the end, China abstained in the vote.

Sydney Shulemson married Ella Lozoff in 1989, at age 74. He was active in the Canadian Jewish Congress until the early 1990s. He died on January 25, 2007, at the age of 91.

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