Avia S.199 (Sakeen)

(Messerschmitt Bf 109)

The Avia S.199 was a Czech version of the Messerschmitt Bf 109G-14 manufactured at previously German-controlled factories from the Messerschmitt blueprints. The standard airframe was combined with the only available engine, the Jumo 211F, and the result differed from the original German design by having a larger engine cowling and a tri-blade propeller. The S.199 had very difficult handling characteristics, especially during takeoff and landing, and very unforgiving controls, reasons for which it was dubbed "Mezek" (mule) by its Czech pilots. About 550 examples had been built by the time production ended in 1949.
The Israeli War of Independence broke out on November 29th 1947, following the United Nations resolution on the partition of Palestine into two separate Jewish and Arab states. The Palestinians had rejected the proposed partition plan and fighting broke about between the quasi-military forces of both sides. The "Shirut Avir" (air service), which had been established on the eve of the UN resolution, took part in the fighting, mainly transporting men, equipment and ammunition on the various fronts, but also conducting some bombing sorties, using grenades and hand-held bombs. The "Shirut Avir", however, was little more than a collection of light aircraft, no match for the regular air forces of Israel's Arab neighbors. Plans were therefore drawn up for the establishment of a real air force and men were sent all over the world to recruit volunteers and purchase aircraft for the operation of such a force.
In early 1948 word had reached Israeli agents in Europe of Czechoslovakia's willingness to sell fighter aircraft to the Jewish forces fighting in Palestine. The Czech offer of Avia S.199s, however, was not what the "Shirut Avir" was looking for. The service had managed to enlist the help of a number of volunteers to fly its aircraft, but most of them had flown the Allied aircraft of World War II, the Spitfire, Mustang or Thunderbolt, certainly not the Avia, a Nazi design! Furthermore, little was know of the Czech fighter and the availability of spare parts, ammunition and pilot training. Israeli agents in America had already begun negotiations for the purchase of P-47 Thunderbolts, but the situation in Palestine and the upcoming end of the British mandate gave priority to the purchase of aircraft that could be supplied immediately. On April 23rd 1948 Jewish representatives signed a deal with the Czech government for the acquisition of 10 Avia S.199s. A second 15 aircraft deal was signed on May 20th, bringing the total number of Avias ordered by the IAF to 25. The first batch of future fighter pilots left Palestine for Czechoslovakia on May 6th and training commenced on May 10th. Within days the first pilots were back in Palestine to put the Avias to use.
May 14th 1948 brought about the end of the British mandate in Palestine and the state of Israel declared its independence. The regular armies of Israel's Arab neighbors, bent on its destruction, invaded the newborn state on the following day. Soon an Egyptian armoured column was advacing on Tel-Aviv from the south, while the Egyptian Air Force (EAF) totally dominated the skies, bombing Israeli cities and attacking Israeli installations without an adequate respose from Israeli forces.

avia s.199

The first Avia S.199 arrived in Israel on May 20th, carried on board a C-54 Skymaster which landed at Ekron AFB. On the evening of May 29th, with only four assembled aircraft, Israel's new fighter arm went into action for the first time. Flown by Lou Lenart, Modi Alon, Ezer Weizman and Eddie Cohen, the four S.199s took off from Ekron to attack the Egyptian force threatening Tel-Aviv, located at a bridge near the Arab settlement of Isdoud. The four fighters descended on the surprised and unprepared Egyptians, strafing and bombing the assembled armor. Eddie Cohen's aircraft was caught by anti aircraft fire and crashed, killing its pilot, while Modi Alon's aircraft was lost when it overturned upon landing. Yet despite inflicting only minor damage and losing two aircraft, the attack was nonetheless successful in halting the Egyptian advance and allowed Israeli ground forces to organize and go on the offensive. The bridge where the Egyptians were halted is today named "Ad-Halom" (up to here), for it was as far as the Egyptians had ever advanced, the remainder of the war seeing them driven back across the border. The May 29th attack also marks the official formation date of Israel's first fighter squadron, the 101st "Hakrav Harishona" (First Fighter) Sqn, commanded by Modi Alon.
With only two operational aircraft, the 101st went into action again on May 30th, attacking an Iraqi column which had attempted to cut Israel in half. The attack was carried out by Ezer Weizman and Robert Rubenfeld, whose aircraft was shot down. By the end of the second day of operations, only a single Avia remained serviceable, yet more aircraft were eventually assembled and Avia numbers increased. 23 aircraft had arrived from Czechoslovakia by July 28th, carried on board C-54 Skymasters and C-46 Commandos. Of the two undelivered aircraft, one was destroyed when a Commando containing half of it hit a bridge while trying to land Ekron, while the other was impounded in Rome on the way to Israel. The type entered service as the "Sakeen" (knife) and was initially serialled D.101 - D.123, although when serialling was changed in November 1948, the Avias were serialled in the 1900+ range. One of the 23 aircraft was a photo reconnaissance variant (D.119) which was in service until October 8th 1948, when it crashed.

Within days the newly arrived fighters had participated in attacks on all fronts and were instrumental in driving back the invading Arab armies. Aside from their military value, the Avias were also of great symbolic value, the appearance of an Israeli fighter arm surprising Arab commanders while boosting the morale of the local population. The citizens of the young state first learned of the existence of an Israeli fighter force on June 3rd 1948, with the first IAF aerial victories. From the outbreak of the war, Egyptian Dakotas had regularly bombed Tel-Aviv with impunity, causing a great number of casualties. Two Dakotas reappeared over Tel-Aviv on the afternoon of June 3rd and had completed their bombing run when they were pounced upon by Modi Alon in S.199 D.112. Alon shot down both bombers, scoring the IAF's first aerial kills (picture below). These kills mark the end of Egyptian domination in the sky, the Egyptians ceasing their regular bombings of Israeli cities on this date. The first dogfight against Arab fighters took place a few days later, on June 9th. An encounter between an Egyptian Spitfire and an Avia S.199 ended with Gideon Lichtman shooting down the Spitfire over Rehovot. Another Avia was lost on June 10th when it run off the runway returning from a bombing sortie.

modi alon scoring first IAF kill over tel-aviv

Although Avia numbers increased, the IAF's poor maintenance standards caused only a few to be airworthy at any one time. When fighting resumed on July 8th 1948, following a ceasefire that lasted most of June, the 101st could only fly 5 aircraft in support of Israeli operations. The Avias nonetheless participated in fighting on all fronts, most notably the southern front, where Egyptian Spitfires still dominated the battlefield. The S.199s were tasked with attacking enemy positions and often aided Israeli forces in defending Israeli settlements from Egyptian forces. They were also employed escorting the IAF's B-17s which had arrived in Israel on July 15th. On July 9th one S.199 crashed while taking off to attack the Egyptian airfield at El-Arish. The remaining three aircraft failed to find their target and attacked Gaza instead, losing another aircraft and pilot, Bob Wikman, in the attack. On July 18th three S.199s which had attacked Egyptian armor encountered a pair of EAF Spitfires over Be'er-Sheva. In the ensuing dogfight, Modi Alon managed to down one of the Spitfires, scoring his third kill. One of the Avias returning from this fight crashed upon landing at Hertzelia, where the 101st had moved on June 5th.
The sole encounter between Israeli and Syrian fighters took place on July 10th, after two Avias were dispatched to northern Israel following Syrian Air Force strikes against Israeli settlements. The two aircraft, flown by Morris Mann and Lionel Bloch, encountered a pair of Syrian AT-6 Harvards and Mann managed to down one the Harvards. Bloch, however, pursued the other Harvard into Syrian territory where he disappeared without a trace. Later investigations revealed his aircraft had been hit by the Harvard's rear gunner and he had crash landed within Syria. Injured during his landing, Bloch died of his wounds in a Syrian hospital. His body was later returned to Israel but he was buried as an unknown soldier, his true identity revealed only in 1994.
A second ceasefire came into effect on July 19th and fighting along the various fronts diminished. Over the next few weeks the 101st would spend a lot of time on training and reconnaissance missions, bolstering up its abilities, although some combat missions were flown in support of various operations as well. On July 25th two Avias participated in the conquest of Arab villages along Israel's coastal plain, while other sorties were directed against the Egyptian blockade of the Negev Desert. Late July 1948 also saw the 101st relocate to an airstrip at Ma'abarot, slight north of their Hertzelia base which was undergoing repairs. The squadron begun moving back to Hertzelia in late August, for a while operating from both bases. By this time there were only eight operational S.199s and the 101st was instructed not to fly its aircraft unless absolutely necessary. Avia number nonetheless continued dwindling, D.115 written off on September 8th and D.122 on September 16th.
Another Avia kill was achieved on September 23rd. Gideon Lichtman had taken off in the reconnaissance Avia, D.119, to flight test it, but upon completing his testing was directed north to photograph Tzfat. Over the city he encountered a Jordanian Dragon Rapide on its way to Lebanon. After the Rapide refused to accompany Lichtman to a landing and attempted to evade the fighter, it was shot down and crashed near the Sea of Galilee. Fighting, meanwhile, resumed in southern Israel and late September saw the 101st once again provide assistance to forces on the southern front. A large number of sorties was flown on October 7th in the face of a large Egyptian assault, and the Avias were instrumental in pushing back the offensive. The Avias also participated in operation "Yoav", launched on October 15th 1948 to break the Egyptian blockage of the Negev. 34 Avia sorties took place during the 10 day operation, most of them reconnaissance and escort missions. Only 3 Avia sorties were directed against Egyptian ground forces, during which 420kg of bombs were dropped. On October 16th Rudi Augartin in D.121 encountered three Egyptian Spitfires and managed to down one of them. The same day, however, witnessed the loss of two S.199s and the death of Modi Alon, the 101st squadron commander. Alon was killed after a mechanical failure prevented his landing gear from deploying. Amidst his attempts to lower the gear, his aircraft, D.114, hit the ground and exploded. Alon was succeeded by Sid Cohen, a South African volunteer and former wing commander with the SAAF. The second Avia lost on October 16th was D.113, written off after suffering an engine failure and belly landing. A third Avia, D.117, was lost on the following day: it was hit by anti aircraft fire and belly landed at Ekron AFB.
On October 19th, in the face of Avia losses, the IAF banned the type from participating in ground attack missions. Although the type was to continue flying escort and reconnaissance missions, these too were stopped on October 22nd. These decisions were made possible by the arrival of more advanced fighter types in the IAF inventory: the Supermarine Spitfire and the North American P-51D Mustang. These aircraft soon surpassed the S.199s as Israel's front line fighters.

click to enlarge

There were only 6 Avias in service with the 101st sqn. when it moved to Hazor in mid November 1948. Although there were still two months before the war's end, the Avias would rarely be put to use, flying only when no other aircraft were available. By January 4th 1949, only 4 were airworthy, although the type may have participated in operation "Horev" and in the January 7th dogfights in which 5 British aircraft were downed. There were still 4 airworthy examples in May 1949, but the aircraft had not been flown for 4 months, and only two pilots were qualified to fly the type. When the 101st squadron moved to Ramat-David AFB in June 1949, the Avias were left behind in Hazor. The six airframes were shortly later moved to Ekron for storage and were apparently disposed of some time after July 1950. A single S.199 survived at Hazor and is now at the IAF Museum at Hatzerim. Although the photo above depicts the aircraft in the colors of D.112 and bearing the marking of Modi Alon's first two kills, it has since been given a different livery.
Two Avia S.199 pilots are still missing in action : Eddie Cohen, whose aircraft was shot down in the type's first attack on May 29th 1948, and Bob Wikam, shot down over Gaza on July 9th.

Specification: Avia S.199
Type: single seat fighter.
Powerplant: one Junkers Jumo 211F.
Performance: max speed - 518 km/h at 19,685ft, operational range - 850km, service ceiling - 9,500m.
Weights: empty - 2,650kg, max takeoff weight - 3,740kg.
Dimensions: span - 9.92m, length - 9.10m, height - 2.59m.
Armament: 2 * 20mm cannon and 2 * 13.1mm machine guns, one 250kg bomb or 4 .

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