With the passage of time, Southern African volunteers who fought in Israel’s 1948 War of independence are passing away, and with them, a living link to the genesis of modern Israel
By David E. Kaplan
Israel’s 1948 War of Independence , despite all the odds was won decisively.
So how come we are still fighting it?
Mainly because of the nature of what is “decisive”. The current theatre of battle is not “On the Ground”, “in the Air” and “at Sea” but “in the court’ of world opinion”. Today’s “Battleplan” involves documenting and securing the truth, so that the history of the War of Independence is not subverted by revisionists and purveyors of falsehood as is wont by BDS in South Africa that ‘attacks’ Israel not over its dispute over territory but its very existence. It opens the file not of 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank in a defensive war, but the “1948 file” that transforms the Israel-Palestine debate from a negotiation over territory, into an argument about the conflict’s older and deeper roots – the establishment of a Jewish state.
Who has been spearheading the campaign of recording the role of volunteers who came to fight in Israel’s war of birth in 1948 is former South African, Smoky Simon, Chairman of World Machal, today 98 years old. (The word MACHAL is an acronym for the Hebrew, Mitnadvei Chutz L’Aretz, meaning “Volunteers from Overseas.”)
Once a fighter plane navigator, Smoky is still ‘navigating’; this time securing a flight path towards educating the young and the old, Israelis and foreigners on the existential contributions to the 1948 war by the 4500 volunteers from abroad – over 800 of them Southern Africans – who put their futures on hold, and risked their lives to fight for a nation in the making.
Sir Winston Churchill’s apt depiction after the Battle or Britain that “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” could equally apply to the debt the State of Israel owes to these volunteers.
They left jobs, interrupted their studies, and some even postponed weddings, while others brought their weddings forward to come on ‘honeymoon’ to fight in Israel’s War of Independence as did Smoky and his wife, Myra, who was the first meteorological instructor in the Israeli Air Force. “Many of her graduates became squadron and base commanders,” reveals Smoky proudly.
Literally rescheduling their lives, they dropped everything to come and fight for the fledgling Jewish state. In cockpits and on board ships, in tanks and armored vehicles, treating the wounded in hospitals and on the front lines, these young idealistic men and woman – Jews and non-Jews – helped change the tide in Israel’s War of Independence and forged the birth of a nation.
One in this illustrious “band of brothers” who participated in the most exciting adventure for a Jew in 2000 years was another former South African from Johannesburg, Joe Leibowitz, who passed away in January 2019 in Hod Hasharon in central Israel. It is important with the passing of these Machalniks to record and relate the service they performed.
Joe was born in Lithuania “where a Jew knew what anti-Semitism was” and came to South Africa at the age on nine. Then, three years after WWII and the prospect of a Jewish state, “I was torn to pieces inside. I had a strong feeling that we had a moral pact with the slaughtered Six Million of Nazi Europe. This was the first chance to fight back against a world that hadn’t cared.”
He reveals in writings recorded in Henry Katzew’s “South Africa’s 800 – The Story of SA Volunteers In Israel’s War of Birth” that his thoughts at the time were “mixed up with other things.” He felt he was “in rebellion against the old supine ways. Our rabbis used to snatch us indoors when we threw stones at Gentiles throwing stones at us. The rabbis broke our spirit before we could develop it. Turning the other cheek was no answer.”
Then when Philip Zuckerman of the South African Zionist Federation approached him to serve, 21 year-old Joe volunteered without hesitation. “The battle inside me was resolved. I could be helpful to my people.”
The ‘Plane’ Truth
Arriving in pre-state Israel on the 10th May 1948, this ex-SAAF air gunner WWII veteran with 102 sorties under his belt in North Africa and Italy, noted at Sde Dov airfield in Tel Aviv, that the strength of the nascent State’s “Air Force” comprised “two Rapides, a Fairchild and a Bonanza (ZS BWR).”
Hardly a force to hold back invading armies coming in from all directions!
With no option of being an air-gunner, Joe teamed up with South African pilot, Elliot Rosenberg, becoming a “bomb -chucker” of one of the Rapides, a fabric covered bi-plane. “Bomb-chuckers” as they were called, carried 25 and 50 pound bombs on their laps, and on reaching the enemy target, the safety pins were released and the bombs were manually dropped onto the target.
It was a nerve-wracking business – so much could go wrong!
With the door of the plane removed, “there was always the possibility,” said Joe that “in leaning over while chucking out the bomb to slip, and follow the bomb.” The plane carried no parachutes and communication between the pilot and “chucker” was by torch with “a flash from the pilot, indicating “Over target” , and a flash from the “chucker” “All bombs unloaded.”
Despite the lack of sophistication of the nature of this war over the skies of Israel, there was some compensation for the airman recalled Joe: “We were so admired by the local Israelis that we were always treated to free meals in restaurants and free haircuts at the barber shop.”
Joe recalled the strains of those early days of the war. One morning the legendary Moshe Dayan came striding into Airforce O.C. Aharon Remez’s office demanding to know why the Air Force was “sitting on its arse.” He had reason to be angered; Israeli units were being hard pressed at several points by the invading Arab armies. However, the men on the ground had little understanding of the war in the air and “how the bombs thrown out could as easily fall among the Israeli men on the ground as among the enemy.”
Joe recorded an experience when the Israeli forces were pinned down along the “Burma Road” to Jerusalem and a Palmach unit was surrounded and radioed in for support. “We had to drop by parachute, two Piat guns and two bags of ammunition.” Complicating the mission, “we had no wind intelligence and no calculation of drift allowance and a real danger of the Piat and the ammo falling into enemy hands.”
With the door of the Rapide removed, there was only the metal handle on the side with the ammo bags tied to the handle until ready for the push. Joe used his feet against the banking of the plane. Then, “a mysterious thing” happened over at the 4th attempt of the drop. The metal handle broke and Joe would have gone hurling into space with the bag had not the pilot, Elliot Rosenberg, at that precise moment tilted to port. “The mystery is that from the cockpit, Elliot could not see me and had no logical reason to tilt. Some mysterious instinct came into play that ensured that Joe’s passing was delayed by over seven decades – “How did Eliot know something was wrong, we spoke about it for years afterwards.”
Close shaves were Joe’s calling card, even when not in the air. On one occasion during a UN brokered truce, Joe had an unsettling encounter with Count Folke Bernadotte, the UN Security Council mediator, known to be most unsympathetic to the new State of Israel.
“We had just landed with supplies at Sdom in the Negev desert, and who surprisingly was there was Bernadette who came up to me and asked what supplies we had brought.” Only knowing a few Hebrew words, Joe said:
“Ani medaber rak ivrit” (I only speak Hebrew)
Bernadette tried German.
“Rak Ivrit,” Joe repeated.
This went on until Bernadotte was distracted, never discovering that among the crates of carrots were hand grenades, certainly a violation of the truce agreement, “but this was a fight for survival.”
In truth it was.
The Machalniks’ contribution represents one of the proudest chapters in modern Jewish history, when ordinary people – like Joe Leibowitz and the over 800 Southern African volunteers – behaved quite extraordinarily. As Israel’s first Prime Minister Ben-Gurion said:
“This was a war not won by heroes. It was won by ordinary men and women rising above themselves.”
Above and Beyond. Short clip of volunteer fighter pilots in Israel’s War of Independence.