AIR COMBAT IN ISRAEL - A TRUE STORY
A little background on the Israel situation first.
Following the large territory gains that Israel won in the Six Day War in '67 hostility from its neighbours increased markedly over time. By 1969 the region was deeply embroiled in what became known as the War of Attrition. Not a true war, but since the neighbouring Arab States did not recognise Israel, and certainly claimed sovereignty over the territory captured in '67, daily acts of aggression against Israel were the norm. Officially the War of Attrition ended in mid '70, but not really, sundry acts continued, and escalated until the October Yom Kippur War of 1973.
Down in the Sinai the Bar-Lev line had been built along the canal, and became a constant hot spot, one we tried to avoid, although that was not always possible. It was the main site of any ground fighting, although some shelling took place up in the North on the Golan Heights from time to time. The Lebanese border was a scene of covert raids both ways and of attacks on Jewish settlements from Lebanon. Jordan was primarily a source of terror raids and of many, many feints by aircraft of several air forces. Those were about testing the Israeli defences, probing for weaknesses, and gathering intelligence on tactics and bases and assets such as radar stations.
In the air there might as well not of been any borders between the Arab states. The Russians were deeply involved, trying out some new aircraft and weapons, and refining their tight ground control methodologies whilst training their clients. Although it was rarely admitted to we were as likely to be encountering Russian, or Warsaw Pact pilots as Arabs, and even the Arabs came not just from Egypt and Syria, the two biggest air forces with a border with Israel, but also from Iran, Iraq, Libya amd other more distant Arab States.
Officially the Israeli Air force, which is actually part of the whole Israeli Defence Forces, more tightly integrated than most countries, was all Israeli, good for morale. In fact there were quite a few foreign pilots, I was, as far as I know the only Brit, but there were Americans from time to time, South Africans, and a few from various NATO countries. The presence of these foreigners was for Israel a mixed blessing. It takes time to train a fighter pilot, and although losses were not high they only just had enough without taking into account needed breaks from the unremitting grind of being on alert.
It was not easy to absorb foreigners into line squadrons, so a few ad-hoc units with some Israelis involved were created, primarily responsible for border patrols. Those were mainly done from the ground. The same QRA, or Quick Reaction Alert, system as the UK was using to counter Russian recon aircraft in the North Sea, although those didn't involve any shooting, in Israel it easily could.
I was an element lead for a couple of reasons. I was in my second full tour on fast jets, the first having been in the UK, and I had a lot of DACT, Dissimilar Aircraft Combat Training, under my belt. Also when Duv and I paired up we found it worked best that way. Duv was a superb pilot, but not too tactical in his thinking, a wild boy whom I trusted implicitly behind me, but might not of been as confident of if he was leading. He felt the same way, wanted me in front.
Usually we were seeing hostiles off the territory, or more correctly keeping them from ever entering the territory. But the Israelis use their Air Force to the max, wherever it is needed, so there were other types of missions, this is one of those.
The young Israeli Skyhawk pilot was not feeling comfortable. This mission was a world away from the normal patrols and training that were his daily fare. Instead he was down low over the Gulf of Suez, just south of the city of the same name, and about to enter Egyptian airspace. The coast flashed over the horizon and he tensed, trying to keep low, trying to keep an eye on his RWR and wishing like hell he was somewhere else, anywhere else.
Now he was close to the area he had been asked to go look at, time to pop up and do the job. He pulled back and rose to 500 feet, an insane altitude over enemy territory, eyes sweeping across the land below and, yes! There. So that's what command are concerned about, and with good reason. He'd taken them by surprise but they were quick to react, AAA hosing in his direction as he ducked and weaved. Seen enough, time to get out of here. A shell exploded below his tiny fighter, rocking his world, and his eyes flew to the instruments. No damage. Roll down to the safety of low level, turn completed, run away. The water rushed back at him and he was out over the Gulf. Time in hostile air, not much more than two minutes, felt less, and more. He relaxed a little now, heading home, but someone was going to have to come back, what he had just seen could not be left alone.
He almost made it.
The small man portable SA7 came out of nowhere, launched from one of those small ships he kept seeing, and slapped into the tail of the A4.
Chaos. Every alarm there was went off at once. He pulled back on the stick trying to use whatever time and speed remained to gain a little altitude, home was so close....
His crippled aircraft tried, but the shattered tail and engine would not obey his commands. Inexorably the water rose to meet him, in terror and despair he let go of the stick and grabbed for the ejection curtain. The Skyhawk hit the water, bounced once and tore itself to pieces under him as his Escapac seat ignited, throwing him out of the fireball and high into the air, but not quite high enough......
Eight Hours Later
....."So, that's what we have. Any questions?"
The ready room full of pilots looked at each other and one raised a hand:
"Sir. How's the pilot?"
"Not good. The SAR chopper got to him before the Egyptians, but he hit too hard, busted him up, we were lucky he stayed conscious long enough to tell us what he saw. The Docs give him no more than 50/50."
More eyes meeting eyes around the room, but no, there were no more questions.
Duv and I walked out of the room into the bright afternoon sun, moved away a few metres and fumbled for cigarettes. I lit up, held the Zippo for Duv and we both blew smoke at the sand as other pilots joined us.
"What do you think?"
"I think this is not a job we should be doing, but if the Phantoms try to go in there cold it'll be a turkey shoot."
Several nods around the group.
What we had just heard was a briefing for a mission the next morning. For months Israeli intelligence had suspected that Russia was going to supply Egypt, and perhaps Syria, with their latest SAM, the SA-6 Gainful, a weapon optimised for mobile rapid reaction to low and medium altitude aircraft. Far more effective than the SA-2's that were all over the Canal zone, more deadly even than the SA-3s because it was so effective against low flying aircraft, it was in Israeli minds an escalation weapon, able to travel with the Egyptian army when/if they tried to re-take Sinai and keep the Israeli Air Force out of the picture.
Now we had proof: The first gaggle of launch vehicles and missiles had been seen South of Suez, presumably engaged in training and work up, command had decided they had to be attacked.
Heavily bomb laden Phantoms would be sent against them at dawn, and with fighter assets already stretched to the max two squadrons of our Mirages were to lead the Phantoms in, keep the air clear, deal with any enemy fighters and cover the Phantoms back out.
There was one little problem with that. Their fighters were very unlikely to react in time, and since we were going against a heavy SAM concentration they'd be more in the way than anything else. No one in the group had any illusions, we were SAM bait.
Beyond basic tasking we were free to decide our own tactics, after a quick smoke break the crews reassembled and the arguing began.
Arguments, the national Israeli sport. But by the time everyone headed off to get a few hours sleep we had a plan, not one any of us cared too much for, but the best that could be cobbled together.
We were up well before dawn, our aircraft sitting ready, for stage one of our plan - get closer. To do what we had in mind we were going to need as much fuel as possible to give us time over the target. the easiest way to do that was to move the squadrons down to a forward base near the gulf and refuel. So, we took off in pairs in the dark and arrived at our final jump-off point just before dawn began to break. A rapid turn- around, and back into the air, but none of our usual zooms to altitude, we stayed low, spreading out in pairs and skimming the water, inbound, whilst somewhere behind us the Phantoms were also on the move, wings laden with 1000lb bombs, tiptoeing through the air out of respect for all that weight and explosives.
Over the coast now, a final course check, and then looking out, waiting for the target area to appear, I'm holding the Mirage well below 100 feet, Duv on my left, closer than usual, and slightly behind, both of us dipping and bobbing over the sand.
Over a final crest and there's the target, heavily fortified and camouflaged as we had been warned but since we are not the first to arrive the tracers were already flying. The element of surprise looks to have been pretty good, but it couldn't last. Ahead and slightly to my left a gun emplacement, twitch the nose over and fire, 20mm hits jumping all over it for a second, lift the nose, target hypnotism, and we're past, turning tight to attack from a different direction, the sky full of dancing tracer and ugly black puffs of smoke. Something hot and angry arcs over my canopy, snatch a glance back, Duv's still there, firing, and whatever it was misses him as well.
Peripheral glimpe of tracer hosing up from a blockhouse to my right, getting close. Change course, roll up, pull the nose down, fire back, push to lift over the blockhouse roof, finish the roll as we continue on across the target.
All a blur really but there are secondary explosions all over the place, we are getting hits.
We exit the target area again, turning, another Mirage flashes past in front of us, little close, this is when it gets dangerous, third pass and everyone is all over the place.
The target looks far worse by now than it really is - yet. Plumes of smoke rising in several places, aircraft seeming to whizz everywhere, a SAM that has ignited on a rack is hurtling across the dunes to our right, unguided and harmless but an eye magnet nonetheless. The chatter on the radio is distracting, not used to that, and ignoring it unless I hear Duv, who is keeping quiet, but suddenly I hear "Here they come!"
Looking up I see the Phantoms. They've sneaked in low as well but now with us distracting the ground defences have popped up into high roll overs, their most vulnerable moment, and are diving in on the target.
No way I want us to be under a shower of thousand pounders. I break right with Duv following, thinking its time to get North and higher, the direction any fighters will come from.
A burst of tracer comes out of nowhere, lashing between us as we go burner and zoom, twisting and weaving up the lead staircase. Looking back I can see other Mirages doing likewise, one limping out of the area trailing smoke and a Phantom pulling out early, bombs toppling off the wings racks and an expanding plume of smoke behind, been hit on the way down.
"Control... any bogies yet?"
"Negative Cain One, picking up radio traffic Cairo West, suggest you are clear at least five minutes."
"Barak flight lead, control says no inbound bogies, Cain one and two moving to cover two damaged birds."
"Confirm Cain one."
Duv and I roll over and head after the outbound Mirage and Phantom. The Mirage has taken hits along the rear fuselage, doesn't sound too bad. The F4 however has been hit by a SAM, lucky to still be in the air, one engine is out, almost literally, its been knocked off its mounts and is visible through the shattered rear panels.
Now that we're away from the immediate target area the scale of the attack is becoming even more apparent. The plumes of smoke are merging into a huge mushroom cloud, traversed by not a few SAMs, and the flitting shapes of hard manouvering Mirages and Phantoms. But to all intents and purposes the raid is over. The Phantoms have unloaded their ordnance and are jinking out of the area, the Mirages have moved to a brief racetrack pattern a few miles North, out of missile range, providing CAP cover for a few minutes because apart from their cannon the Phantoms are totally defensive, every hardpoint was hanging a bomb, no self defence missiles at all. So different from the American way in 'Nam about the same time, no half bombed-up airplanes here.
Meanwhile I have a problem.
The struck Phantom is a mess. Duv has given the Mirage a once over and apart from not being able to get his burner lit the pilot has no other real problems, he's happy to head home alone. Just as well, this Phantom needs full attention and I feel naked without Duv at my back.
As he loops back to cover us I move in closer on the Phantom.
If anyone wanted proof of how deadly the SAM-6 is they have it here. I can't really see why the F-4 is still flying. Not only is the engine half out of the airplane but there is extensive appenage damage and a fire is refusing to go out in the shattered engine bay.
"Guys, if you can't get that fire out this is going to be a short trip, I'm calling SAR."
The extinguisher is exhausted, and, all Hollywood plots to the contrary, a dive is not going to blow this out, its taking hold and starting to eat the airplane.
We cross the coast, other Phantoms streaking by beneath us, and once the head count is in the Mirages come off station and head out. I get a call from lead asking if we need any help. Answer is no, not unless he wants to come over here and try pissing on the flames.
When the fire starts melting holes in the metal I call again:
"Alright guys, SAR's on the way, time to get out, that fire's too close to your fuel now."
The pilot initiates the eject sequence, REO first then himself go flying up and over the tail, get good 'chutes and Duv and I pull into an orbit, descending with them.
Perversely the stricken 'plane flys on another few miles then suddenly is totally consumed, pitching up and porpoising in its death throes before spiralling down to the water.
"Bogies outbound Cairo West, heading your way, five minutes max, count is nine, no, eleven ."
The crew hit the water and release their chutes, a low pass shows both of them waving, lifejackets inflated, dye markers popped, and hopefully their shark repellent, this is one of the most shark infested pieces of water on earth.
"How far out is the rescue chopper?"
"Maybe five minutes."
"OK. Could use a little help here now, we have two in the water, both alive, whatcha got?"
"Not a lot, SAR escort is a pair of Skyhawks."
"Ok, get them here now."
"Cain Two, with me."
Hoping that the Skyhawks will not have any trouble locating the downed airmen I lead Duv up and at the incoming fighters. No boat is going to make it out to them in time, but that Super Frelon chopper will be just a fat juicy target for these Migs. Eleven on two, oh goody.
The Migs have wasted a bit of time making altitude. They really don't get this game half the time, the right thing to do would of been to just rush to us as fast as possible. Their tactical error helps us though, still ok for fuel we go burner and zoom, levelling out slightly above and directly in front of them.
"Where's that chopper!?"
"Duv, lock up on anything, lets clean the rails."
" 'k Boss."
Nosing down slightly I get a faint growl, more a purr, from my pair of Shafrir IR homers. Enough, I launch both. Alongside me and aways off Duv does the same.
Four trails rip across the sky, and the Migs react the way I had hoped they would, breaking all over the place. Being we just fired the equivalent of four Kibbutzim worth of output for a year it better work.....
We drive on in, behind the missiles, not one of them ever gets a lock. Pull hard and roll back out behind and above the Migs. Even these guys can get that message.
"Chopper is on scene."
The Migs are busy trying to get organised and to find some way to respond to two tail chasing Mirages that are somehow keeping them all out in front and twisting all over, I feel like a sheepdog. I suppose they realise we are now rails-empty, but most kills here happen with guns anyway.
"Another six bogies, inbound, lifted from Helwan."
Alright, those are too far away right now, so, we going to party?
Someone makes a call and the Migs turn and dive away, well under us and heading north west.
"Control, Migs are outa here, status?"
"Chopper has the pilots, leaving the area now."
"Cain flight, moving to cover SAR egress."
We didn't really need to bother. It's a very narrow piece of water at that point, the SAR guys had done a fast pickup and, covered by their escort, are already well on the way home.
The Helwan Migs gave up the chase as we fled out of Egyptian air and a few minutes later we were back on the ground at the forward base.
On the hardstand I popped the canopy and looked up at the sky. It was not yet 8am, I was bathed in sweat, shaking uncontrollably as adrenaline was purged from my system, more tired than I could ever recall being.
Duv appeared on my ladder as the groundcrew swarmed around the Mirage.
"Yeah, just remembering why I don't like ground attack......"
There was an interesting postscript to this story.
A few days later the squadron Leader called me in and showed me a memo from Command. Some bean-counter wanted to know why we had fired four Shafrirs "in an irresponsible manner" to quote the document.
His reply in my behalf probably left the author more than a little singed.....
Oh, one thing that always amused me about this event - For months we had been reacting fast to attempted incursions of Israeli air, when the boot was on the other foot their ability to get out of bed and come deal with us was pathetic....Just as well, it was close enough as it was.