I had been aware that Israel had a few ME-109G’s in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948-49 but I had no idea how they got there.
In a FB chat a friend tuned me into Mr. Levett’s book and lent it to me. From the first page to the last the book was interesting which meant it quickly rose to the top of my “I need to finish this one” list.
Flying Under Two Flags is about more, much more, than Mr. Levett’s experiences in the Israeli Air Force (IAF) although that is certainly where Mr. Levett deserves high praise.
Levett is an unlikely hero. He came from the slums of London. His bio father (alcoholic) died at an early age and his mother according to Levett was at best, remote and distant as she struggled to survive in post-WW1 London. This part of Levett’s story was interesting to me and it illustrates Levett’s later socialist leanings.
Levett dreamed of being a pilot like his WW1 heroes but as lower working class he had small chance of that happening so he joined the RAF as an enlisted rank just prior to WW2. This section of the book is also interesting as one truly gets a glimpse of what it was like to be an enlisted (an “erk” in RAF slang) rank in the RAF.
But Levett managed to impress a few people who were in a position to recommend him as a pilot. Levett’s simple love of flying eventually got him a commission in the RAF and he served as a trainer throughout WW2 much to his chagrin.
Part One takes up over 100 pages of the book and while I was most interested in the under two flags part I have to say the previous 100+ pages were a fascinating, often entertaining and humorous glimpse into the life of an RAF trainer who trained pilots in Canada and the UK.
Remarkably, Levett is drummed out of the RAF while in command of some forgotten base in Burma following the Japanese surrender. He returns to England, busted from the RAF and busted financially. The punishment he received from the RAF does not seem to fit the crime (He granted himself leave and did not know he could not do that. He compounded the problem by returning from the leave late!) and there are hints that the RAF just did not want to tolerate a “socialist” within their ranks even though, at the time, Levett had applied for discharge.
Levett returns to London and the type of jobs he can get do not involve flying, a situation he finds most depressing. He lands a job with an English Jewish couple who run a laundry. Apparently, one of the main sources of income is laundering dirty baby diapers!
Through this couple Levett comes to understand the plight of the Jewish people especially in regards to them returning to Palestine after the Holocaust in Europe.
In 1917 the British Government issued the Balfour Declaration which said something about the Jewish people having a homeland of their own in the wake of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire following WW1. By 1948 Jews from all over Europe were trying to immigrate to Palestine still under a British mandate.
The surrounding Arab countries, some of which still under heavy British influence (Britain, despite the Balfour Declaration was pro-Arab during and after Israel’s War of Independence) would have none of it and as soon as Britain pulled out they all attacked.
Israel lacked everything except courage to fight them off and they especially needed an Air Force and that’s where Levett comes in.
The couple he works for puts him touch with one of the Jewish “scroungers” who were working Europe over for WW2 surplus weaponry. The “scroungers” were probably early Mossad trying their best to arm the fledgling State of Israel against incredible odds.
One of these agents takes a chance on Levett even though Britain is anti-Israel and Levett is a Gentile (non-Jew). Some Israeli’s actually think Levett is a British agent when in actuality he just loves to fly and comes to believe in the Israeli cause.
Oddly, the first country to recognize Israel is the Soviet Union (Russia today). The Soviets had placed an “Iron Curtain” over eastern Europe and some of the satellite countries were sympathetic to Israel and Israel’s need for all types of aircraft (transports, fighters and bombers).
(France was sympathetic to Israel as well and in Levett’s words it probably was just to annoy the British!)
The difficulty was Britain was still actively opposing arms shipments to Israel and the US even though recognizing Israel was naively supportive of an arms embargo (Truman administration) for all the belligerents. All the belligerents ignored it and rearmed during the truces.
The arms embargo did not deter Israel from trying and they found a friend in Czechoslovakia. The Czechs, recently liberated from Nazi occupation by the Red Army had a number of ME-109Gs that they used (and manufactured) for their own Air Force. They were willing to sell about 75 of them to Israel. How Israel got them to Israel would be Israel’s problem.
Levett was recruited to clandestinely fly the transport aircraft and take 1/2 of a ME-109 at a time to Israel where they would be re-assembled when the other half arrived!
The Israeli’s had no fighter aircraft up to this point. The Arab countries on the other hand had plenty, mostly Spitfires supplied by Great Britain and sometimes flown by ex-RAF pilots (Egypt, Jordan and Iraq were under heavy British influence, their armed forces all have a British feel to them).
The mission to get the ME-109’s to Israel was successful and within a period of time Israel actually achieved air superiority with a mixed bag of ME-109’s, Spitfires (they found other sellers and were able to obtain this extraordinary fighter to supplement the first Messerschmitt’s) and even a few P-51 Mustangs.
Eventually, Levett gets his wish and is able to join Israel’s first fighter squadron flying all the above fighters in combat although the Spitfire was certainly his favorite. Levett shoots down a couple of Egyptian Spitfires while attached to the squadron! Interesting and amazing stuff!
Levett rises to rank of Lt. Colonel in the IAF but decides to return to Britain instead. He his called back into Israeli service again as a transporter just after the Suez Crisis of 1956, a crisis that found Britain, France and Israel all on the same side. At one point he flies Spitfires to Burma for Israel as Israel re-equips with jets. His crash landing in Iran on the way there is a story on to itself.
Two final observations about this fascinating read.
As a conservative Christian I’ve always thought it interesting that Israel, despite the over whelming odds against them could achieve and maintain independence. I’m not saying that current State of Israel is the fulfillment of God’s Old Testament promises to Israel (for example, Gen. 12:3) but it is no-the-less remarkable that the tiny State of Israel surrounded on all sides by enemies has managed to survive and prosper. Many evangelical American Christians think the same and it explains why Israel’s biggest fans are American evangelical Christians.
Secondly, when I read the stories of historical figures (even minor ones like Levett) I’m always interested in whether or not religious faith is an influence in their motivations.
Levett himself touches on the issue a number of times in regards to himself or others.
For example, Jews that most certainly are Israelis but not religious, like the girlfriend Levett had. Later Levett talks of a female pilot he flew with who was greatly influenced by her Catholicism. Levett also notes that in his opinion, Arab hostility against Israel is religiously motivated more so than the nonsense about Palestinian issues than it’s become today. (I am inclined to agree. The degree to which Jews have been hated by just about everyone is remarkable. What explains this? It does not seem accidental that Islamic fanatics hate Israel and America (for supporting Israel until recently) in nearly equal measure.
Levett himself comes across through most of the book as an agnostic although he never uses the term. I assume he means Church of England when he said he was born a Protestant.
Later in the book it’s clear he becomes familiar with Israel’s Old Testament history as he adopts Israel’s cause as his own. In the final chapters he speaks of his second wife’s conversion to Christianity and his seemingly approval of it as he tolerates and even reads the New Testament, something he formerly disdained.
Levett does not go beyond that so it is impossible to tell whether or not that he, like his wife truly became a Christian.
What is clear, Levett truly believed in Israel’s cause, yet was a loyal Briton, when others may have revolted in the way he was treated by fellow Britons who , as the British say, the “posh lot.”
Levett’s story is unusual and often surprising as well as entertaining. The forward is by Ezer Weizman, a former President of Israel. Levett died in 2000 at the age of 79 and was mourned by Jews and Israelis everywhere for service to Israel when few would dare.
Flying Under Two Flags-An Ex-RAF Pilot in Israel’s War of Independence by Gordon Levett (Frank Cass Publishers, Great Britain, 1994)