When Israel became an independent nation on May 14, 1948, the armies of four Arab neighbours — Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq — immediately invaded the new country to prevent its creation. Desperate to defend themselves the Israelis lacked many modern weapons and aircraft.
The Israelis did however have a small fleet of Avia S-199 fighters, made in Czechoslovakia with parts left over from the WW2 German Lufwaffe. The aircraft was poorly constructed and it was extremely unpopular with pilots who called it a Mezek (mule), another name for it was the ‘Messer’ (meaning ‘Knife’ and because the frame was that of the WW2 German Bf109G Messer-schmitt) the engine came from a Luftwaffe Heinkel He-111H bomber, and the Israeli pilots sarcastically also called it a ‘Messer-shit’.
Within this tiny newly formatted Israeli Air Force were a number of very brave Jewish pilots, from the world over, some with WW2 combat experience. One such pilot was a South African, Eddie Cohen. This is his story.
Edward (Eddie) (Shlomo) Cohen came from South Africa. He was the only child of Victor, Edward Cohen was born in Johannesburg on 2nd July 1922 into a well-to-do family. He grew up in an assimilated background, completed high school and began his studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.
World War II changed his plans, and he joined the South African Air Force (SAAF), qualifying as a fighter pilot with the rank of Lieutenant. He flew with 2 Squadron, SAAF and subsequently 4 Squadron SAAF in Italy during the war.
Upon his discharge from the SAAF at the end of the war, he did not return to his university studies, and took an office job in his father’s business in Johannesburg. He loved playing sports with his friends: rugby, tennis and golf. He was also very fond of music and excelled at that, too.
His meetings with Zionist friends aroused his interest in his religious roots, and their beliefs awoke something in him which led him to follow in their footsteps to Palestine.
He arrived in Palestine in 1947 and joined his friends at Kibbutz Ma’ayan Baruch. On a trip to Tel Aviv, he bought a number of books on archaeology and the history of Palestine, and in these scholarly works he found a new life, and began to take an interest in Judaism and his historical homeland. He wrote to his mother:
“Today, Shabbat, I spent the whole day studying the history of the Jews and surrounding nations, using the Bible and other books. It is the most interesting study I have ever undertaken, as the area around this part of the world was the cradle of western civilization. My greatest regret is that I did not think of studying this branch of history earlier in my life, as so much can be learnt from it…”
Later, in 1947, the survival of the Zionist settlers called Eddie back into military service, he joined ‘Sherut Avir’, the forerunner of the Israeli Air Force, which formed on the 27th of December 1947. Eddie Cohen, Boris Senior, Ezer Weizman, Modi Alon, and six others made up the new Tel Aviv Squadron.
On January. 15, 1948, Eddie Cohen took part in the Sherut Avir’s first co-ordinated multiple-plane mission: a pre-dawn aerial resupply of the besieged Gush Etzion settlements, using outdated Tiger Moths and Cargo planes.
Eddie Cohen was then trained at Ceske Budejovice in Czechoslovakia as one of ten pilots earmarked for the initial S-199 training course. He flew back to Israel on May 20 with the other graduates and the first batch of Avia S-199 fighters.
On 29 May 1948, Cohen flew in the first S-199 mission, regarded as the first mission of the newly formatted Israeli Air Force (IAF). The Egyptian advance on Tel Aviv had been stalled by a blown bridge 32 km south Tel Aviv by the lightly armed remnants of the Israeli Givati Brigade.
The Israeli Defence Force issued Operation Order No. 26 to the IAF Command that very same day and ordered an attack (even though the first Avia S-199 fighters were theoretically air-worthy they were not yet properly tested). Four pilots, Eddie Cohen (South African), Modi Alon (Israeli), Ezer Weizman (Israeli) and Lou Lenart (American) took off from Ekron at 19:45 in their Avia’s bombed up with two 70-kg bombs each, and armed with ‘untested’ cannons and machines guns, they set off bound for the Egyptian army column near Ashdod.
Of the mission, Lou Lenart said, “There is no making light of this moment. Behind us is Israel, the Jewish people hanging on by a thread. Ahead of us is the enemy, advancing to destroy everything we love.”
The four pilots alone faced 6,000 Egyptian troops — consisting of seven infantry battalions, six hundred vehicles (including tanks), and formidable anti-aircraft weapons.
Lenart and Modi Alon shared unofficial command of the new fighter squadron and Lenart led the first mission. The wingman pair of Lenart and Alon took off first, followed by Weizman and Cohen. Lenart, however, was unfamiliar with the country and once in the air realized he didn’t know the way to Ashdod. The first two S-199s had no radios so he used hand signals to indicate direction requirements to Alon, who in turn pointed in the proper direction. In order to avoid any enemy fighters the formation flew over the sea (west of the column) and turned east when it reached Ashdod.
They spotted the Egyptian column between Ashdod and Gas’ser Ishdod, which had just stopped on the southern side of the destroyed bridge. At this point all four pilots using machine guns and cannons strafed the concentrations of Egyptian armed forces and bombed them.
Once ammunition and bombs had been exhausted they all headed back to Ekron, Eddie Cohen had a radio and was in radio contact with base. On his way back he reported that all was OK, that he saw the base and that he was about to land. From Ekron, he was not observed and he did not land there. At another nearby air base at Chatzor an aircraft was observed engulfed in flames trying to crash-land about two and a half kilometers away from Chatzor.
The Israeli army at Chatzor dispatched two infantry platoons immediately to rescue the pilot but the Egyptian forces were the first to reach the location. Eddie Cohen had mistaken Chatzor for Ekron and tried to land there with his damaged airplane.
Tragically Eddie Cohen was killed in the crash. Eddie’s S-199 had taken an anti-aircraft gun hit which started a fire that he apparently hadn’t initially noticed.
The bold strike left the Egyptian forces dumbfounded and vulnerable. That night, Jewish ground troops took advantage of the situation by attacking the Egyptians’ flank. The Egyptians were thrown into disorder. Israeli intelligence intercepted this dispatch from their brigade commander to Cairo: “We were heavily attacked by enemy aircraft and we are scattering.”
Despite the loss of Eddie and one aircraft, the mission was a success, it seems that the attack had a profound psychological effect on the Egyptian forces, and they halted their advance completely. The bridge where they stopped was later named ”Ad Halom” bridge, meaning ”no further”.
The Egyptian Army later deflected to the east, in order to link with other Arab forces besieging Jerusalem. Tel Aviv was saved, and so was too was the new nation of Israel.
After the Israeli War of Independence finished, in prisoner exchanges with the Egyptians for the remains of the Fallen, Eddie’s body was identified by the then Chief Army Chaplain, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, and in 1949 Israel recovered Eddie Cohen’s remains near the small airfield, at the time of his death in Egyptian hands. Edward Cohen’s mother came from Johannesburg for the re-interment at the Mount Herzl military cemetery on the 8th of November 1951.
Eddie Cohen Is regarded as the first combat casualty of the first fighter squadron (101 Squadron) of the new Jewish State of Israel, and is a national hero in Israel (in South Africa he is hardly remembered at all). On 29th September 1949, on the orders of the Israeli Chief of Staff, Edward Cohen was posthumously promoted to the rank of Flight Commander in the IAF.
Researched by Peter Dickens. Source: The Jerusalem Post, the history of 101 squadron and wikipedia