'His name is engraved in pantheon of IAF'

Syd Cohen (1921-2011) Israeli aviation great who stepped up in the dark days of '48, passed away Thursday.

Syd Cohen, Smoky Simon_311 (photo credit: David E. Kaplan)
Syd Cohen, Smoky Simon_311
(photo credit: David E. Kaplan)
As I said in my eulogy at his funeral at the Ramat Hasharon Cemetery on Monday, Sydney (Syd) Cohen was a mensch in the best sense of the word, and his name is engraved in the pantheon of the Israel Air Force.
Among those attending the funeral were the current commander of the IAF and two other previous commanders, as well as many senior officers and squadron commanders from the past and present.
Syd Cohen grew up in a small village in South Africa called Bothaville, named after a famous Boer general. After school, he attended the School of Medicine at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and disrupted his first year of medical studies in 1940 to join the South African Air Force in World War II.
He served in the South African Air Force right up until the end of the war in 1945, and was a member of a well-known squadron, Squadron No. 4. Initially they flew aircraft called Kitty Hawks, and afterward Spitfires.
Even in those days, he was a colorful character. He had a tremendous beard and a handlebar moustache, and was known in the air force as “the flying rabbi.” He also had a wonderful sense of humor.
I was on a bomber squadron, and they used to be protected by the fighter squadrons. On one of the flights, two ME 109s (German fighter planes) jumped him, and he couldn’t shake them off. He called his formation leader and asked him: “How did these Jerrys know that I’m the only Jewish boy in this formation?” After the war, he resumed his medical studies, then disrupted them again in 1948 to come fly here as the war clouds were gathering over Palestine.
We started recruiting in South Africa when war looked inevitable. There were 4,800 Mahalniks (foreign volunteers) who eventually came from 58 countries to serve here. With 834 volunteers, South Africa had the largest single number of Mahalniks.
Syd arrived in July 1948 to serve in the IAF, flying in the first combat aircraft, Avia S-199, which was a Czechoslovakian-built aircraft – a version of the ME 109, though it was very inferior.
The pilots had tremendous trouble, but Sid was an experienced pilot and handled it extremely well.
He was assigned to the nowfamous 101 Squadron. The officer commanding the squadron was an Israeli by the name of Modi Alon. In October 1948, Alon was unfortunately killed in a crash, and Syd was appointed commanding officer of 101 Squadron.
Then 101 was really building up its muscle, because it started getting the Spitfires, which were also bought from Czechoslovakia and had to be flown to Israel.
Until then, we had the air transport command, which would fly that route. However, because of tremendous pressure on the Czech government from the US and British governments, this airline was canceled.
At the time there was a boycott of war materiel to the Middle East, and Israel was in a particularly difficult position because the British had supplied the Jordanians, the Egyptians and the Iraqis with aircraft, artillery and tanks.
Israel was virtually defenseless when the War of Independence started, which was why America, Britain and the Arabs were convinced that the war would be over in 10 days.
The 101 was getting Spitfires and the B-51 Mustang, but everything had to be smuggled into the country because of the United Nations arms embargo.
When the air force acquired the Avia S-199, the planes were dismantled in Czechoslovakia, flown in crates to Israel and reassembled here, and then became operational once they were tested.
But we couldn’t do this with the Spitfire, which, according to the British manufacturer, had a maximum flying time endurance of one-and-a half hours.
So an American pilot engineer by the name of Sam Pomerantz took everything out of the Spitfire – the armored plating, the guns, the radio and navigation equipment and the cameras – and fitted fuel tanks under the belly, under the wings and within the aircraft itself.
The aircraft had to fly from Czechoslovakia to Yugoslavia, and then to Israel, which was a six-hour flight, and the first three that came over were flown by Pomerantz, Syd Cohen and Jack Cohen. (The Cohens had been in the same squadron in the South African Air Force, but were not related.) This was an epic event in aviation history. No one could believe it was feasible – including the manufacturer.
When Syd was appointed commanding officer of Squadron 101, the fighter pilots were an amazing bunch of guys – many of them aces in World War II – with strong personalities and from Anglo-Saxon countries such as South Africa, Canada, the USA and Britain.
They needed someone with a strong personality to lead them.
Syd had this. But he was also a first-class pilot who was respected as a fighter and as a leader, and a guy with a wonderful sense of humor.
He led the squadron during Operation Yoav, which was when we liberated the Central Negev and Beersheba.
Then came the big battle in December 1948, Operation Ayin, to expel the Egyptian forces back into Sinai, and there was tremendous air activity with all the squadrons involved.
The War of Independence actually ended on January 7, 1949, when Syd’s squadron shot down four RAF aircraft and damaged a fifth. Another RAF aircraft was shot by a Mahal tank crew in Sinai. The final cease-fire went into effect at 4 p.m. that day.
After the war, the emphasis moved to training Israeli pilots.
We had an outstanding bunch of instructors. The first wings parade was taken by Syd as commander of the squadron and the Hatzor base, on March 4, 1949, when the first six pilots got their wings.
They included Moti Hod, who later became the IAF’s commander in the Six Day War, and famous test pilot Danny Shapiro.
In March 1949, president Chaim Weizmann was going to meet the president of the US, and his nephew, Ezer Weizman, was commander of 101 after Syd.
I said to Weizman, “This is the first visit in 2,000 years. Let’s give the president a fighter escort.”
Weizman started telling me that he had all kinds of maintenance problems, though, and we weren’t able to do it.
But when Syd left Israel in April in a Dakota from Tel Aviv to Johannesburg, lo and behold, there was an escort of four Spitfires doing aerobatics and putting on quite a show.
When the aircraft landed, I phoned Weizman and asked him to explain this asymmetrical situation.
He said: “Did you imagine that Syd would leave the Israel Air Force without a fighter escort?” In this situation, camaraderie overtook protocol.
Syd returned to South Africa to resume his medical studies and qualified as a doctor, practicing in Durban and Brakpan.
He remained close with Weizman, who adored him. Weizman once said that everything he’d learned about fighter operations, he’d learned from Syd Cohen.
One day, Weizman telephoned him and said, “Uncle Syd, you’ve got to come back to Israel.” So Syd and his wife and three lovely daughters came on aliya in 1965.
Syd did a specialization in aviation medicine, so he was well qualified when he became a physician to El Al air crews and to the Civil Aviation Authority.
In the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War, he was a physician on helicopters evacuating the wounded. By then, he was also practicing as a family doctor. He was an excellent one, and his patients adored him.
Unfortunately he was stricken with Alzheimer’s, and to see a lion like that eroding was heartbreaking.
Syd passed away last Thursday night at his home in Ramat Hasharon, at the age of 90. He is survived by his wife, Adi, and three daughters, Leora, Kerry and Janet.
The writer is chairman of World Mahal.