One day after the State of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948, a military coalition of Arab countries attacked the new state. David Ben-Gurion had expected the attack, and as the Jews in Mandatory Palestine desperately lacked arms, he had begun to seek them long before the UN November 1947 decision to establish the Jewish and Arab states. An international arms embargo was in force, and the only country willing to sell arms to a nascent Israel was cash-strapped Czechoslovakia, which also offered to train Israeli pilots and other specialists. The first deal between the Yishuv and Czechoslovakia was signed in January 1948 – and it was not cheap.
The Israelis obtained some 400 tons of mortars and other heavy machinery, aerial bombs, rifles, ammunition, machine guns, flamethrowers, explosives, tanks, and combat vehicles from the Czechs. A separate deal promised twenty-four Czech-built Avia S-199 fighters, a lesser version of the German Messerschmitt. After his first flight, Lou Lenart, an American fighter pilot and volunteer, said the plane was “the worst piece of crap I have ever flown.”
The first Israeli pilots and foreign volunteers arrived in Czechoslovakia before the Arab invasion, on May 11, 1948. The training was far from over when the War of Independence broke out; the fighter planes had to be hastily disassembled, sent to Israel, and reassembled.
In late May, the “Sakinim,” as the Israelis dubbed the Czech Messerschmitt, saved Tel Aviv. Six thousand Egyptian troops were advancing on the city when pilots Lou Lenart, Ezer Weizman, Modi Alon, and Eddie Cohen took off in their “Sakinim” and bombed the invaders. They inflicted only minimal damage but caused an enormous shock – the Egyptians had no idea that Israel had an air force. The Jewish ground troops attacked them, and Egypt withdrew.
By the fall, Czechoslovakia also offered its World War II-surplus Spitfires and sold 61 fighters to Israel. In the end, the Israelis stopped the enemy.
By January 1949, Czechoslovakia had trained some 200 Israeli specialists, paratroopers, and aircraft mechanics, including 82 pilots and 1,600 volunteers from Czechoslovakia and other European countries. Many of them chose to stay in Israel after the War of Independence.
For many people in Czechoslovakia, helping Israel was a moral issue close to their hearts, while for others, it was an opportunity to make money. According to a 1952 report from Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Viliam Široký, Czechoslovakia received almost $14.5 million for its arms. It was an enormous amount of money for the State of Israel, but the Avia S-199s played a crucial role. In 1968, David Ben-Gurion said: “Czechoslovak arms saved the State of Israel, really and absolutely. Without these weapons, we wouldn’t
In February 1948, Czechoslovakia became a Communist country, blindly following the Soviet Union. Initially, Joseph Stalin supported the State of Israel, but when its pro-Soviet parties lost Israel’s first election to the Knesset in January 1949, he withdrew his support – and so did Czechoslovakia.This article was written in cooperation with Donath Business & Media s.r.o.