Smoky Simon takes to the sky for his 100th birthday
By David E. Kaplan
“Exhilarating,” was the way Smoky Simon described in one word his flight in a small plane over the central Negev near Beersheba at age 100. Dubbed “Flight of the Century” in a local video made of the historical flight, it has understandably gone viral on YouTube. Most blokes – at any age – might settle for a slice of birthday cake or if of a senior age a “medicinal” scotch but not Smoky. Donning a helmet and goggles and grinning from ear to ear like a mischievous teenager, Smoky, who turned 100 in May 2020 climbed into a single propeller Tiger Moth in September and flew over the very area where in 1948 he and his comrades helped repel the advancing Egyptian attack.
It was truly a “family Affair” for in separate planes alongside their dad’s aircraft were his two sons, Saul and Dan, who after school, followed in their father’s ‘flightpath’ by becoming top pilots and flight instructors in the Israel Air Force. What a joy for the birthday boy when he alighted from the plane an hour later to be met by his adoring grandchildren screaming proudly, “Saba, Saba” (“grandfather”).
If the experience also felt “liberating”, Smoky would later say, “You know, the area I just flew over – the central Negev – was the very first area to be LIBERATED in the War of Independence.”
Sitting down with Smoky for an exclusive interview with Lay of The Land, Smoky had many more words beyond “Exhilarating” to say of that experience and those daring days during Israel’s War of Independence.
While the War of Independence was Israel’s longest war lasting eight months from May 1948 to January 1949, “it was also its costliest with 6,373 military and civilian lives lost out of a population of 650,000,” says Smoky. “What’s more, it was also Israel’s most fateful war for if this war had been lost, the prayers, hopes and dreams of 2000 years would have vanished into thin AIR.”
To ensure that did not happen, it took the likes of this plucky South African aviator who in 1948 – took to the AIR to fight for Jewish survival and independence.
A Call to Arms
There are not too many couples who can say they selected a war to come on honeymoon, but that is what Smoky, and his young bride Myra did in 1948. “When the South African Zionist Federation began recruiting ex-WWII servicemen and it became clear there was going to be an imminent war, we brought our wedding earlier. Why? Well, when I said to Myra, “We have got to postpone our wedding, because I’m going to Palestine,” she replied, “Not postpone, advance because IF YOU’RE GOING, I’M GOING!”
This is how Smoky and Myra were part of the first group of volunteers from South Africa. “We arrived on the 9 May 1948 and the next day we signed on to serve in the new-born Israeli air force, although on that day we did not know yet it was Israel – we spoke of Palestine.” While Myra had served in the SAAF during WWII as a meteorologist and became the first instructor in meteorology in the IAF, Smoky, who had flown for the Royal Air Force over the deserts of western Egypt, Libya and Tunisia and later over Sicily and the rest of Italy, was about to again ‘take off’ into history.
On the 14 May 1948, while David Ben-Gurion was declaring the State of Israel in Tel Aviv, Smoky was one of three people who had a clear, disturbing view of what was about to befall the new state. The other two were fellow South African Boris Senior and an Israeli photographer Shmulik Videlis who were flying in a Bonaza in what was the first reconnaissance flight over enemy territory. Boris was the pilot, Smoky, the navigator.
They observed with sinking hearts the roads leading from Transjordan and Syria lined with hundreds of vehicles, tanks trucks, half-tracks, and armoured cars, “all moving in for the kill.”
They could see Kfar Etzion “had already been overrun and was on fire,” and would soon learn that some 200 members of Kfar Etzion had been killed in its defense, including South Africans.
Returning to Tel Aviv for their debriefing, they could hardly conceal their anxiety.
“We know,” said Yigal Yadin, Head of Operations.
What Smoky did not know but discovered on landing was that Ben Gurion had declared the State of Israel.
“I always say that when I left on that reconnaissance mission, I took from Tel Aviv Palestine but when landed later at the same location it was Tel Aviv Israel!”
The Jewish world as had Smokys’, changed forever.
‘Tiger Moth’ to ‘do the Math’
The anxiety felt by all was natural. “All we had were a few Tiger Moths, Cessnas and Austers. This made up our ‘Bomber Command’. Egypt had 62 frontline aircraft, including British Spitfires and Italian Macchis and here we were completely exposed without a single combat aircraft or anti-aircraft gun. I keep reminding myself – and I thought of this when flying again for my 100 birthday in the Tiger Moth – that we are really living in a miracle.”
The leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine at the time were aware that the result of declaration of a State of Israel would be an immediate invasion by the surrounding Arab nations.
And the warning was clear in the words of US Secretary of Defence, James Forrestal:
“There are thirty million Arabs on one side and about six hundred thousand Jews on the other. It is clear that in any contest, the Arabs are going to overwhelm the Jews. Why don’t you face up to the realities? Just look at the numbers!”
No Jew could expect any quarter. These words by the first Secretary-General of the Arab League, Abd Al-Rahman Azzam Pasha were chilling:
“It will be a war of annihilation. It will be a momentous massacre in history that will be talked about like the massacres of the Mongols or the Crusades.”
What was going through Ben Gurion’s mind to proceed with the declaration? “You know,” says Smoky, “I have asked myself a 1000 times, what sort of inspiration and courage and determination he had. Only answer I can find, is Ein Beira – “No Choice”
Israel’s position was bleak. It was a David and Goliath scenario of bringing the proverbial staff and sling to a battlefield against five well equipped armies.
“In our few Austers and the few Cessnas brought over from South Africa we flew off into battle with a pilot, navigator and what we called” bomb chuckers”. These fellow carried the bombs on their laps – 20 and 50 kilograms – and at a height of 1500 to 2000 feet, they would chuck ‘em out and drop them on the enemy. We would then fly back to base counting our lucky stars, ‘reload’, and then off again on our next trip.”
Incredulous, I ask, “Wasn’t this very dangerous?”
“Well, before opening the aircraft’s door and pitching-out the bombs, we would secure the bomb-chuckers with rope, so that they would not fall out of the plane along with the bombs. Sometimes, for good measure we also threw out crates of empty bottles which made a terrifying noise scaring the hell out of the population below. If we did not have the goods, we had to pretend!
This is how the IAF in this modest way, developed into this amazing world class air force of today.”
An Officer and a Gentleman
“MODEST” it was, as Smoky will attest in this delightful anecdote. On being made Israel’s first Chief of Air Operations in 1948 with the rank of Major or the equivalent of “Squadron Leader”, he needed to display his new rank, “but we didn’t even have any so what did we do? Myra went to a haberdashery shop in Allenby Street and purchased a few pieces of ribbon and sowed it on to my uniform.”
Making fun to lighten the tension, the night before Smoky’s participation in an aerial attack on Damascus on the 10th of June 1948 – the first attack on an enemy Arab city – Smoky said to Myra “Now at least if I get shot down, they will know I am an ‘Officer and a gentleman’!”
Smoky’s plane did six runs over Damascus that night creating the impression “that we were part of a large formation.”
Although the damage caused was probably negligible – “a few fires” – the next day, “all the foreigners fled Damascus as they feared our ‘air force’ was about to hammer them.”
Age of Miracles
Smoky reminds that in those early days of the war that while Egypt and Jordan were equipped by the British, Syria and Iraq by the French “Israel had only one friend in the world and that was Czechoslovakia. You know, we have such a debt to that country. It was Israel’s lifeline and I still keep in touch with guys in Czechoslovakia to this day.”
“How significant was that contribution? I ask.
“Firstly, they provided 25 German Messerschmitts, and what was so remarkable was – I call it a miracle within the bigger miracle – was that the first four Messerschmitt’s, which were brought in parts to Israel and reassembled under the strictest security, were ready on the 29th of May – two weeks after the declaration of the State – for an operation that literally saved the war and the State of Israel.
“The Egyptians had overrun the kibbutzim in the south and reached Ashdod, and the next day they would have been in Tel Aviv, where Ben Gurion and the provisional government was located, and the War of Independence would have been lost.”
So who flew these planes to counter the Egyptians?
“Two Mahalniks (volunteers from abroad), Lou Lenart an American who led the attack and Eddy Cohen a South African, who was sadly killed in the operation, and two Israelis, Ezer Weitzman, later President of Israel and Modi Alon. And I call that day, Israel’s day of survival. It was one of the IAF’s greatest moments.”
The attack came as a shock to the Egyptian commanders who had believed Israel to be without combat aircraft and suddenly this air attack by the four Messerschmitts halted their advance. Says Smoky, “The Egyptians fell on the defensive and would not be in Tel Aviv in 48 hours as their government-controlled media had boasted. Tel Aviv receded from their grasp! I always think of Churchill’s words of the Battle of Britain, “Never has so much been owed by so many to so few.”
Amongst that “few” is Smoky, today Chairman of World Machal (Organisation representing the volunteers from overseas in the Israel Defense Forces). In the words of Israel’s Founding Father and first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion:
“The Machal forces were the Diaspora’s most important contribution to the survival of the State of Israel.”
Seventy-two years on from those fateful days, Smoky – at the wonderful age of 100 – was back in the cockpit, revisiting in a similar plane over a familiar terrain and reflecting “what was achieved.”
All the people on the ground below can ‘tip their proverbial wings’ and shout “BRAVO”!
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