The Tel Aviv Blitz: The Air Raid That Shook the City During WWII

Survivors recall when the war reached the shores of Mandatory Palestine

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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Young Meir Mosberg from Tel Aviv had a bright future ahead of him. He’d been studying music from the age of 6 with the best teachers the first “Hebrew city” had to offer. As he got older, he began studying with Zvi Haftel – the concertmaster of the Palestine Orchestra, later to become the Israel Philharmonic – who recognized Mosberg’s talent and nurtured it. By the end of the 1930s, he had already played as a soloist at several concerts. “If David had played like that for Saul, he wouldn’t have hurled his spear at him,” it was said of Mosberg.

His life was brutally ended on September 9, 1940, 80 years ago this week. Meir’ke, as the neighborhood referred to him, was 13 when he was killed in a bombing raid by Italian warplanes on Tel Aviv, a year after World War II broke out.

He was on the way to a bus stop holding a bouquet of flowers to greet his mother, who was returning from Jerusalem, when shrapnel from one of the bombs hit and killed him. It was only a few weeks before he was due to audition for the great Bronislaw Huberman, the orchestra’s founder.

“Indiscriminate bombings of Tel Aviv,” said Haaretz’s lead headline the next day. “A city whose only ‘sin’ is that it’s Jewish,” the paper wrote. The attack killed 137 people, most of them Jewish but also some Arabs.

Italy, an ally of Nazi Germany, launched the planes from Rhodes, and they flew in over the sea from the west on a sunny Monday afternoon. Most of the four tons of bombs fell close to the shore on Bograshov, Pinsker, King George, Trumpeldor and Ben-Zion streets, west of what is today the Dizengoff Center.

Damage caused to a home in Tel Aviv after the Italian bombing raid on September 9, 1940.

Most of the casualties were waiting in a long line to buy kerosene, an in-demand product during the war, according to Tel Aviv historian Ilan Shchori, who’s writing his doctoral thesis on the city during the British Mandate era.

“The electricity supply stopped, there were many fires, and lots of people ran with the victims to the Hadassah Hospital on Balfour Street, where there were long lines,” he recounts. “There was total shock. No one had expected it. Tel Aviv had been calm – people were sitting in cafés as usual.”

Tel Aviv’s firefighters published a memorial pamphlet three years after the bombing, which Shchori managed to find during his historical research. “September 9 came as a sudden blow with the flash appearance of enemy aircraft,” the pamphlet stated. “Because the event was so sudden and unprecedented, it was impossible to prevent the disaster and reduce its scope. … The medical aid provided was at a level that had never occurred before in Tel Aviv.”

Gavriel Tuchler was 5 at the time of the attack. When the bombing occurred, he was at his aunt’s home on Reines Street with some of his cousins. “I was standing on the balcony and looking toward the sea. Suddenly I saw planes throwing white things,” he recalled this week. Then explosions were heard and his aunt took him and the other children to the building’s first floor. “All the residents gathered there. Every time another bomb exploded, they crouched down. I thought it was very funny. I wasn’t scared,” he says now.

Tour guide Avi Moshe-Segal, who often leads trips around Tel Aviv’s streets and speaks with residents, says the bombing was “the most catastrophic event in the history of Tel Aviv until then.” He calls it “the day the earth shook.”

Gavriel and Bilha Tuchler. “Every time another bomb exploded, they crouched down. I thought it was very funny. I wasn’t scared,” he recalls.

Moshe-Segal, an aviation history expert, estimates that the Italian planes “missed the Tel Aviv Port, its airport [later known as Sde Dov] and Reading [the power station], the city’s holy strategic triangle,” which is why they turned to bomb the city itself.

Archaeologist Ram Gophna was 12 at the time and lived on Sirkin Street. “I was sitting on the balcony with my mother after we’d come home from the beach,” he said, in an interview with Moshe-Segal and Peleg Levy. “We heard the sound of planes and ran to the neighbor’s yard, where there was an underground shelter.”

Shortly afterward, the extent of the disaster became clear when he learned that four of his neighbors had been killed. “It was awful. The war fell on my head in one minute,” he recalls.

Tel Avivians surveying the damage after the Italian bombing mission on September 9, 1940.

‘Metal talons of death’

“The cruel enemy has passed over Tel Aviv, the open and peace-seeking city, and harmed quiet residents in their homes or innocent passersby,” wrote Mayor Israel Rokach in a flyer distributed to residents. “Our city has lost many victims, suffered many wounded, and serious damage to property,” he added.

In Haaretz, the editors waxed poetic and wrote: “Tel Aviv, apple of the eye of an oppressed people that groans for redemption, has also merited that this eagle of the murder champions, that seeks to annihilate for its own sake, has sunk its metal talons of death into it. On a clear day, from the pure blue skies of the Hebrew city, enemy bombs were dropped on us, whose sole intention was to spill pure blood, Jewish blood.”

An uncredited Haaretz journalist reported from the field: “A number of bombs fell in a concentrated area … many walls collapsed. One man leading four donkeys was killed with his donkeys. A woman crossing the street with a small package in her hand was crushed. A boy riding a bicycle was thrown against a wall and killed on the spot. … A laborer coming home from work lay down to rest on a sofa in his shack. He was thrown upward together with the shack. … A woman came down from the third floor of a building to buy cigarettes, a bomb fell and all the residents of the building were killed but she was saved. … The owner of a soda kiosk was miraculously saved. … As the bombing started, he had left to greet an acquaintance who was walking nearby and was spared.” The kiosk was burned to the ground.

The Haaretz reporter added that it bore noting “the self-control and courage displayed by the residents of the city.” As an example, the journalist told of how “one person was seriously wounded, and told those who were taking him to the doctor, ‘Don’t panic, drive calmly.’” The writer also reported on an “elderly woman” who called out: “These murderers murdered innocent babies and old people. God will avenge us double; he will fight for us and our allies!”

A damaged apartment block after the attack on Tel Aviv on September 9, 1940.

A similar spirit permeated another article that appeared in the paper the same day. “Now we know, and now we’ve seen with our own eyes what this war is devoted to, who and what this enemy is of the human race. With our own eyes we’ve seen it, we’ve felt it on our flesh, our hearts are bleeding and the tears flow … their sacrifice will not be in vain. There are no victims of evil that are not a call for justice, for a day of revenge and payback. And it will come, it will come. It must come.”

Rare displays of solidarity

The bombing may have surprised the residents of Tel Aviv, but Haifa had already suffered losses from Italian warplanes several weeks earlier. On July 15, 1940, British Mandatory Palestine “officially” entered World War II when 10 Italian planes penetrated Haifa’s skies, “using the clouds as cover,” as Haaretz reported. They dropped 50 bombs, “all of them full of explosives.” Another bombing, on July 24, caused tens of fatalities in the northern port: 46 dead, with another 90 wounded.

Smoking rising after an Italian attack on Haifa, July 1940.

Tel Aviv also suffered other bombings. On June 12, 1941, French planes killed 13 city residents when a bomb fell on a home for invalids on Marmorek Street [near the Habima Theater]. Seven year later, during the War of Independence, some 150 Tel Avivians, most of them civilians, were killed in bombing raids by Egyptian aircraft.

Nir Arielli, a historian at the University of Leeds, has researched the air raids on Mandatory Palestine during World War II. He has documented some 30 attacks by French, Italian and German warplanes, which killed over 200 civilians. Damage was also done to property and infrastructure – including the oil refineries in Haifa, which were shut down for several weeks. However, he said, the attacks did not achieve any military or diplomatic goal. “These attacks were not the product of an orderly plan, but a sideshow aimed at making Britain’s military effort more difficult. In the end, they didn’t change the face of the campaign in the Middle East,” he told Haaretz.

Practically speaking, the attacks actually had a positive – albeit short-lived – result: they led to rare displays of solidarity between Jews and Arabs. “The victims were from both communities and there were mutual condolence visits,” Arielli says. The local Arab press also sharply criticized the Italian bombing of Tel Aviv. Thus, the attempts by Benito Mussolini to present himself as “the defender of Islam,” which included addressing the Arabs directly through flyers tossed out of planes, failed.

A small monument was erected to memorialize the air raid’s victims (who were all buried in Nahalat Yitzhak Cemetery, to the east of the city). The stories of their lives can be read on the (Hebrew) memorial website for the victims of hostile actions. The list includes babies, children, teenagers and young adults. Most of the dead were Jews. Seven were Arabs and one was Australian.

Some of the stories are particularly tragic, like that of 4-year-old Hagai Lazerovitch. Two years before he was killed, he and his entire family were kidnapped in an attack by Arabs on the prisoners camp in Atlit, near Haifa, where his father served as an officer in the British police.

A mass funeral for some of the 137 victims of the bombing attack.

Hagai, his brother and his sister were freed after three days. However, their parents were murdered and their bodies found only a quarter-century later. The siblings were divided up: Hagai was living with his aunt on Bronstein-Cohen Street, off Pinsker Street, when he was killed in the air raid.

Funerals for the deceased after the bombing raid by Italian warplanes, September 1940.

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