A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

January 7, 1949: Israel Shoots Down RAF Over Sinai

Sixty-six years ago, in the very last hours of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War (Israeli War of Independence), in incidents barely remembered outside the Israeli and British Air Forces, Israel shot down five British Royal Air Force aircraft inside Egyptian airspace in Sinai. Two pilots died; two others were captured, and the British threatened to invoke the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty and intervene in the fighting.

Though it may be a footnote to history, its dramatis personae include a Canadian World War II fighter ace, John F. McElroy, who is surely the only fighter ace whose credited kills include German, Egyptian, and British aircraft; an American, "Slick" Goodlin, who was the first test pilot of the Bell X-1 rocket plane, being replaced by Chuck Yeager just before the sound barrier was broken, and who even appears in The Right Stuff; and Ezer Weizman, future Air Force chief, Defense Minister, and President of Israel. That makes for a tale worth telling.

To frame the context a bit: what most people call, for shorthand, "the 1948 war," actually lasted until this date in 1949. Throughout the 1948 war, Israeli strategy always called for achieving as many gains on the ground as possible before a ceasefire was scheduled to go into effect. In December 1948, with the UN actively seeking a ceasefire, Israel sought to cut off and isolate Egyptian Army troops in the Gaza Strip and the Negev, by striking into Egyptian territory in Sinai and cutting off Gaza. This was called Operation Horev (Horev or Horeb being an alternate Biblical name for Mount Sinai), or Operation ‘Ayin because its four major objectives — Gaza (‘Azza in Hebrew), al-‘Auja, Bir‘Asluj, and al-‘Arish all begin with the Hebrew letter ‘ayin (just as three of the four begin with the Arabic letter ayn in Arabic) In an attempt to take al-‘Arish and cut off Egyptian forces in Gaza, the IDF pushed into Egyptian territory in Sinai, I believe for the first time in the war.

West Point map of Operation Horev/Ayin
Complicating matters was the fact that the Royal Egyptian Air Force, the nascent Israeli Air Force, and the British Royal Air Force operating from bases over the Suez Canal Zone, all flew variants of the British Spitfire fighter. The British RAF fighters regularly carried out reconnaissance operations over Sinai, with orders not to cross the border with former Mandatory Palestine. But Israeli ground forces were now inside Egypt, and had faced attacks by Egyptian Air Force aircraft. So Israeli Air Force fighters were authorized to provide ground support for the IDF inside Sinai, while RAF fighters were authorized to patrol up to the international border.

There had been earlier incidents, since the RAF had been flying over the combat zones on recon missions; in November 1948 a British Mosquito on a recon mission over Galilee was shot down, but that was over a combat zone and was shrugged off and such missions ended.
Fairly comprehensive accounts can be found at this 101st Squadron unofficial fan website and also here for the incidents which follow, though I am also drawing this account from other histories of the war.

On the evening of January 5, the United Nations announced that Egypt had agreed to a ceasefire to go into effect at 1600 hours, 4 p.m., on January 7.

Meanwhile, on January 6, British RAF aircraft from RAF Fayid base on the Suez Canal carried out recon up to the border, overflying Israeli lines.

The next morning, another recon mission was flown with four Spitfires from Fayid. They were unaware that a group of Royal Egyptian Air Force Spitfires had just attacked an Israeli column, and when they overflew the damage the Israeli ground forces, the latter, assuming the Egyptians had returned, responded with ground fire, bringing down the Spitfire  piloted by Frank Close, who parachuted but broke his jaw in the landing.

Two Israeli Spitfires arrived on the scene. As many of you may know, the Israeli forces in the war of Independence were joined by many foreign veterans fresh from the Second World War; many but not all of these were Jewish. Collectively known as mahal or machal from a Hebrew acronym for "Volunteers from outside the land [of Israel]," they played major roles. Former US Army Col. Mickey Marcus (played by Kirk Douglas in Cast a Giant Shadow) became Israel's first general officer and is the best known of these, but in no service were the machal so present as the Air Force. The two Spitfire pilots who arrived on the scene were a Canadian and an American.

The Canadian was John F. McElroy, a Royal Canadian Air Force World War II ace who shot down  numerous German kills from World War II, who also had at least on Egyptian aircraft to his credit. The American was Chalmers "Slick" Goodlin,who until 1947 had been Bell Aircraft's test pilot for the X-1 rocket plane, but had been replaced before the attempt to break the sound barren by an Air Force pilot, Chuck Yeager.

There is little question that in the first attack the Israeli Air Force pilots assumed the RAF Spitfires  were Egyptian. McElroy shot down two of them, piloted by Tim McElhaw and Tom Sayers. Sayers was killed in the crash; McElhaw bailed out, landing near Close. The remaining RAF plane, flown by Geoff Cooper, engaged in a dogfight with Goodlin and finally went down, with Cooper bailing out.

Close and McElhaw landed within Israeli lines and were taken prisoner. Cooper came down within Egyptian lines and was taken to Ismailia.

The Israeli aircraft returned to base at Hazor and Goodlin told McElroy that at the last minute he had realized that the colors of the roundel on the plane he shot down were British.

Meanwhile, the failure of the earlier flight to return led to the RAF ordering four Spitfires and 15 Tempests to investigate. They encountered four Israeli Spitfires led by Ezer Weizman, of later fame. Flying with Weizman was Sandy Jacobs, born in Palestine of British parents, and two American volunteers, Bill Schroeder and Caesar Dangott.

Schroeder engaged a Tempest flown by David Tattersfield and shot it down, killing Tattersfield. In a general battle that followed, some of the Tempests reportedly could not distinguish between the RAF Spitfires and the IAF Spitfires (though they were different variants). Finally the outnumbered Israelis withdrew into Israeli airspace., shortly before the ceasefire was to go into effect at 4 pm.

It's much less clear that the Israelis mistook the British in the second encounter as Egyptians, as Egypt did not fly the Tempest.

The RAF did authorize its pilots to engage any Israeli aircraft caught in Egyptian airspace, and Britain did demand compensation, but no retaliation was taken, though the IAF pilots at Hatzor reportedly were on alert for a British airstrike.

Had the clashes occurred earlier in the war the results might have been more serious for Israel; as it was, the clash with the RAF became more of a curious footnote to the war, except for the lives lost.

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