Don't forget the foreign fighters who sacrificed for Israel's Independence

One-on-One with Harold 'Smoky' Simon, a 'Mahal' navigator from South Africa who took to combat missions on his second day in Israel

Harold ‘Smoky’ Simon (second left, inset) goes over plans with then-Israel Air Force commander Aharon Remez (left) and two unidentified serviceman during the War of Independence. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Harold ‘Smoky’ Simon (second left, inset) goes over plans with then-Israel Air Force commander Aharon Remez (left) and two unidentified serviceman during the War of Independence.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As Smoky climbs up the stairs, he notes in his dry humor, “An 11th commandment should be added for people my age: Thou shall not fall.” This past week, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Smoky turned 97.
This Monday, on Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars and the eve of Independence Day, Smoky will visit the Mahal memorial site in the Rabin Forest, west of Jerusalem.
Every year, fewer and fewer of his friends from Mahal, the Hebrew acronym for “foreign volunteers,” attend the ceremony. The thousands of volunteers – Jews and non-Jews alike – who came to Israel to fight shoulder to shoulder with IDF soldiers in the War of Independence in 1948-1949 contributed immensely to the victory and survival of the State of Israel. In fact, it could even be said that their presence was a decisive factor in the outcome of the war.
They served in various corps, including the air force, Armored Corps, artillery, intelligence and infantry, and in a variety of roles, such as pilots, navigators, bombardiers, doctors, nurses and paramedics. Some 4,800 women and men volunteers came from 59 countries around the world. Of the volunteers, 123 (among them four women) were killed in battle, and hundreds were wounded.
In honor of the country’s 69th Independence Day, I am dedicating this column to all the Mahal volunteers. Their contribution to the security of Israel and the IDF is slowly being forgotten, and so I would like to take this opportunity to salute them.
Smoky is the head of World Mahal. He received this nickname from his friends during a ball game in his native South Africa during World War II. Born Harold Simon in the Orange Free State, Smoky’s father was from Lithuania, his mother was from England, and they lived with 29 other Jewish families in a small town that was mostly made up of Afrikaners. There was a community rabbi, and although they celebrated the Jewish holidays, their connection to Judaism and Zionism was minimal.
Later on, his family moved to Johannesburg, where Smoky finished his studies in accounting and commerce at the University of Witwatersrand. In 1941, in the midst of WWII, Smoky volunteered to join the South African Air Force and also later in the war flew for the Royal Air Force over the deserts of western Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. After the Nazis retreated from Africa, Smoky continued carrying out sorties against them over Sicily and the rest of Italy.
He was a navigator and bombardier (an air crew member responsible for sighting and releasing bombs), from planes such as the Boston, Catalina and Baltimore, where he gained extensive operational experience. None of the planes Smoky flew in was ever hit.
At the end of the war, he returned to Johannesburg and worked as an accountant. In April 1948, he married Myra, who was seven years his junior, and who worked as a meteorologist for the South African Air Force. Three weeks after the wedding, the young couple surprised their families when they told them they’d decided to make aliya and volunteer in the Jewish army. “The Zionist Federation of South Africa was actively raising money for the Jewish community in Israel and the Jewish army,” recalls Smoky. “So when Myra and I heard they were in need of additional personnel, we immediately volunteered our help.”
How did your parents and family members react?
“Of course, our parents were very concerned, but they also knew that we were adults and so they never tried to convince us to change our minds.”
Hundreds of South Africans volunteered as pilots, doctors, engineers, nurses and combat soldiers in the War of Independence. Smoky and Myra were part of the first advanced group that reached Israel on May 9 after an arduous journey. They flew to Nairobi on a Dakota aircraft that was owned by three South Africans, and from there over Sudan, Egypt and then finally on to Israel. But when it became clear to the pilot that battles were being waged in the area of the Lod airport, he refused to land there and instead continued on to Cyprus. There, after some difficulties, the Simons finally found a plane owned by a Cypriot company that agreed to fly them and the rest of the group to Haifa.
“We were worried the British would arrest us upon landing, and in addition, Myra was carrying confidential documents from the Zionist Federation that were meant to reach [then-Provisional State Council head David] Ben-Gurion. She had hidden them in her knickers. Luckily, we landed without any problems in Haifa and didn’t run into any difficulties. The British were apparently busy evacuating their army and had bigger worries than dealing with a couple of young people who’d just arrived.”
From Haifa, Smoky and his wife traveled straight to Sarona, now known as the Kirya, in Tel Aviv where they both officially joined the Israel Air Force. At the time, the air force headquarters were located in a hotel on Yarkon Street, and later on it moved to Jaffa. Smoky was recruited as a navigator and bombardier, and Myra as a meteorologist.
The next day, Smoky was already flying his first operational mission. He joined a flight on a light civilian Bonanza airplane, and together, with another South African pilot, Boris Senior, and an Israeli photographer, they set out on a reconnaissance mission in which they photographed Jordanian territory. They circled over the West Bank, entered Jordanian air space and photographed the columns of the Jordanian Legion’s armored cars making their way to the bridges toward the battle front.
On their way back, Smoky and his comrades noticed fires and smoke billowing up from the Gush Etzion (Etzion Bloc) settlements, which had been under siege by the Jordanian Legion and local Palestinian fighters. A few days later, the Etzion Bloc surrendered and 242 of its Jewish women and men fighters were killed in battles or were murdered in cold blood after they had surrendered. Another 320 were taken as prisoners of war.
Smoky recalls that the IAF was having a hard time finding airplanes to purchase and bring to Israel due to the UN embargo. In the end, the transitional government succeeded in acquiring fighter planes in Czechoslovakia (German Messerschmitts and British Spitfires) and having them flown to Israel. Other aircraft, mainly heavy bombers, were smuggled out of the US by a network headed by future-Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, Al Schwimmer (who later became CEO of Israel Aerospace Industries) and others. They also received assistance from the Italian mafia and Jewish gangsters in New York.
In June 1948, Smoky was appointed the IAF’s chief of operations. Throughout the war he participated in 24 reconnaissance and bombing sorties. None of the planes he flew in was ever hit by heavy fire, although some were riddled with bullet holes.
One mission that Smoky recalls as particularly memorable took place on June 10, 1948. The target was Damascus. The decision to carry out an attack on Damascus was mostly for its psychological impact. The Egyptian Air Force was the major player in the region, and its planes were continually attacking Tel Aviv and other Israeli targets at random times, while the IDF had almost no anti-aircraft defenses. And so, in an effort to alter the balance of power, to deflate the enemy’s morale and raise that of the Jewish community, it was decided to carry out an attack on the Syrian capital.
Smoky and his team flew a Dakota for about an hour, outfitted with the best weapons the IAF could get a hold of: bombs, firebombs and empty glass bottles. Upon arriving over Damascus, Smoky launched 16 bombs, each of which weighed 80 kg. Because they were so heavy, he couldn’t lift them higher than his thighs, as they should have been lifted prior to launching. The bombs were attached to a rope, which Smoky would pull on strongly so that they could be launched. The Israeli plane wanted to create the impression that a number of planes were involved in the mission, so the Dakota carried out six separate sorties over the center of the Syrian capital and its airport.
The bombs that were launched from a height of 1-1.5 km. caused great damage and the firebombs succeeded in setting fire to a number of locations. And the empty bottles? “Oh, the empty bottles – they were wonderful,” Smoky reminisces. “They made the most absolutely frightening sound when they hit the ground.”
At the end of the war, most of the volunteers who had come from overseas left and went back home. They returned to their families, their studies and their jobs. Smoky, however, accepted the offer made to him by his commanders and served another two years in the air force. He was discharged at the end of 1950 with the rank of major. The Simons returned to South Africa where Smoky began working as an insurance agent. In 1962, they decided to return to Israel for good as new immigrants. Smoky opened up the Simon & Wiesel Insurance Agency, which was a big success and specialized in life insurance. In 2000, he sold the portfolios to the Migdal insurance company.
Many years earlier, in 1968, he and a few of his friends got together to form World Mahal to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their volunteering in the War of Independence. “At first, we just wanted to make it easier to keep in touch with and support each other, but over the years we realized that we wanted to memorialize our experience and tell our story.”
Do you feel like the country has forgotten you or is ignoring your contribution?
“We’re like an endangered species. Every year we are less and less coming to visit the memorial with our family members. I understand that not many people know about us or remember what we did. So much happens in Israel. People barely remember what happened yesterday, so how should I expect them to remember what happened so many years ago. Do you think if I asked today’s General Staff generals if they know what happened in 1948 and who the Mahal were, that they’d even know?”
Does this upset you?
“No, there’s a limit to what people can remember.”
Smoky and the few other Mahalnikim who are still alive are doing their best to support the IDF volunteers from overseas. They meet with lone soldiers who volunteered in the IDF just like they did. They give speeches in schools, and especially at the school in Beit Shemesh that’s near the Mahal memorial. A year ago, former US ambassador Dan Shapiro attended their ceremony, and this year, Smoky gave a talk to a group of foreign military attachés.
There were about 600,000 Jews living in Israel when the 1948 war broke out, and the IDF numbered about 70,000. Although volunteers from overseas constituted close to 7% of the army’s manpower, their added value was not in their number, but in their quality. Many of the volunteers had combat experience from serving in the military of their home countries. This was particularly evident in the air force, especially among pilots. According to Smoky, 420 volunteers served in the budding air force.
However, there’s a bit of a distortion in the way the history has been recorded. For years, Israel’s collective memory identifies Mahal volunteers with the air force and all of the accompanying glamour. The truth, of course, is quite different: 4,800 volunteers from overseas served in various units.
Before my interview with Smoky ended and he would move on to a photo shoot for this article, I asked him if he is happy with what he sees around him in the modern State of Israel, and if this is what he imagined 69 years ago.
“We have a country that is vibrant and strong. Of course, alongside the sources of pride there are also disappointments. I regret the disagreements and extremism that prevail in Israeli society today, but I also don’t forget that we are a country of 8 million people who are making their mark on the world and that’s just amazing. I believe in the eternity of the Jewish people and am certain that Israel will exist in the region forever.”