Tuesday, June 05, 2007

First Strike


Former Air Force commander

Avihu Bin-Nun describes leading the aerial attack on Egyptian airfields that gave Israel supremacy of the skies. The first of three eye witness accounts provided to 'Bamahane - IDF Magazine' by men who took part in the key moments of the Six Day War, which helped change the course of Jewish, Middle East and world history.
The first attack of the Six Day War was possibly the most important of the hundreds of missions that I carried out during the 34 years of my regular army service. I don't remember any other mission that bore such an awareness of heavy responsibility as leading the first formation that took off from Tel Nof air base on the morning of June 5, 1967.
During the war I served as deputy commander, with the rank of captain, of the fleet of Mysteres - French fighter jets - at Tel Nof. For two or three weeks before the war, it was clear to us that the fate of Israel hung on our success in the first wave of "Plan Focus." The objective was to achieve aerial superiority over Egypt and the Syrians.
As the political situation and the military threat grew more and more serious, we trained, exercised and learned our targets by heart. Each formation had several targets, which it practiced attacking in complete radio silence. We had reached a point where no words were necessary; we could have executed the plan with our eyes closed.
Our orders were strict. We could not jeopardize the Air Force's ability to send each formation to its target. In the event of something going wrong on the runway, our instructions were to get off the runway, even if it meant crashing the plane, so as not to delay the planes taking off after us. In case of engine trouble after take-off, our instructions were to bail out at low altitude without a word. In order to prevent unnecessary talk, we were unable to operate our wireless sets until we were over the targets at 07:45.
The flight over the sea was at especially low altitude, so that the Jordanian radar could not warn the Egyptians. Our target was the Faid airfield, west of the Suez Canal, in the area of the Great Bitter Lake. The field was home to three combat squadrons: one of MiG 19s, one of MiG 21s and one of Sohoy 7s. My formation was the first, and 10 minutes behind us were three more. Our secondary mission was to strike the batteries of SA-2 ground-to-air missiles on the east side of the canal. We could not miss.
The formation that I led included a deputy leader, who was a reservist, and two very junior pilots who had less than a year's flying experience. The four of us took off as planned. The flight over the Mediterranean was so low that we left a wake behind us. All four of us were in place, but number 4 did not maintain a steady altitude. I was very concerned, since flying over the sea is very dangerous if one's altitude is not constant; there had been cases of inexperienced pilots flying into the ocean. I could do nothing to help, and could not say a word.
At about the halfway point, while we were over the sea, I looked to the right. Number 4 had disappeared! I looked behind, but couldn't see him anywhere. I assumed that he had hit the water and crashed. I could not call him, or call for a helicopter to be sent on search and rescue. There was nothing to do but carry on. When we crossed the shore of the Bardawil lake, I realized that I wasn't in the correct position, presumably because the wind was blowing in a different direction than forecast. This was cause for concern. As we approached the canal, the sky began to be covered with low stratus clouds, which increased the possibility of failure.
Our plan of attack was to climb over the target, dive-bomb and then fire our 30-mm. guns at the planes on the field. If we failed in this mission, and all the other formations encountered similar conditions, the result could be fateful for the future of the State of Israel.
The sky gradually cleared as we approached the target. As we came closer, the clouds dispersed enough to let us carry out the attack as planned. As I began my climb, I turned on the radio, and realized that it was not working! I was not especially worried, since the formation had been trained to attack in radio silence. As I dived and released my bombs, I saw four MiG 21s at the end of the runway lining up to take off. I pulled the bomb release, began firing and hit two of the four, which went up in flames. When I looked up, I saw a huge Antonov 12 cargo plane landing in front of me. The Antonov's pilot saw the MiGs blowing up, and turned south.
I was in a dilemma: should I shoot him down, or go on with the attack as planned? Since I couldn't contact the formation, and because of the importance of destroying all the MiGs on the field, I decided to carry on as planned.
During the attack we destroyed 16 of the 40 MiGs scattered around the field, and paralyzed the SA-2 battery on our way back. During the flight home, we could see all the other Egyptian airfields in flames. I even managed to fix the problem with the radio, and heard the encouraging reports.
After we landed, when I reported the disappearance of my number 4, I discovered that he had not crashed but had gone back and landed because of a problem with his gasoline feed.
Several years later, I learned that the pilot of the Egyptian Antonov, which I didn't shoot down, had been awarded a medal of commendation for his successful engagement with Mysteres! In spite of the "attack," he succeeded in landing safely ... with the Egyptian chief of staff and his senior staff officers on board! With hindsight, it was one of the missed opportunities of the war.