The state of Israel had very few weapons and not a very large army before its creation. Help was offered by Czechoslovakia. The Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Masaryk and his deputy Vladimír Clementis (Československo a Izrael 1945-1953. Dokumenty. 1953, p. 61) had the greatest contribution to the arms supply.
In 1947, the United Nations on 29thof November 1949 banned arms exports to Palestine. OnApril 29, 1948, the UN Security Council called upon Member States to abandon arms exports to the Middle East countries. The Military Organization of the Jews in Palestine Hagana (Defense) suffered from a constant lack of weapons. The representatives of the future state of Israel, in particular Ben Gurion, estimated in which European states it was possible to buy weapons. Czechoslovakia was among the selected countries, not only because of the relatively large arms production, but also because of the positive relationship to the establishment of an independent Jewish state. Due to the export ban, the Ethiopian Empire Abyssinia was declared the target country to which the weapons were supplied.
The Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Clementis and Ehud Überall-Avriel (Československo a Izrael 1945-1953. Dokumenty. 1953, p. 75) also discussed the supply of arms and export problems to the Palestinian state. He stated that the only distributive field of Czechoslovak weapons was the Middle East. He also said that the navigation through the ports of Trieste and Bosphorus are impassable. It was due to the UN embargo.
FROM THE HISTORY OF RELATIONS
The first President of Czechoslovakia, T. Masaryk, supported the positive attitude towards the Jews and towards the creation of an independent state. In 1899, the President stood up for a Jew named Leopold Hilsner (Hilsnerova aféra - Masarykova společnost, web source) from the village of Polná in Bohemia, who had been arrested and charged with a ritual murder of a young girl. The case was that the judges and the investigators blamed the Jew in order to distract theattention from their own inability to find the true murderer. T.G. Masaryk visited Palestine in April 1927 in person. His statement confirms his attitude towards the Jews,” I believe that whoever has Jesus as a leader in religion cannot be anti-Semite. It is clear to myself: Jesus himself was a Jew, the Jews were apostles and old Christianity, especially Catholicism had a lot of Jewish in it. If I receive Jesus, I cannot be anti-Semite. One or the other, either Christian or anti-Semite!" (Kalina, Český rozhlas, 2007, web source).
The first post-war Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš openly supported the creation of an independent Jewish state. He also expressed this support at official meetings. Let's look at one of them. On October 9, 1946, President Edvard Beneš received a former member of the Czechoslovak Parliament, Anglo Goldstein from Tel Aviv, at private audience. He made the political situation in Palestine clearer for him. "My opinion on Zionism remains unchanged. ... ... I consider the establishment of the Jewish state as the only possible and fair solution to the world Jewish question. So, if I get the opportunity anywhere, I will always help to make it happen. During the war, I was in constant contact with Professor Weizmann and I understood his opinion and his tactics and totally approved them. "
In Czechoslovakia, the first arms supplies were handled by representatives and agents of the Zionist organization Jewish Agency, which also funded the first purchases. Later, after the declaration of independence, it was the representatives of the state of Israel.
Not all book entries of the deliveries are available, especially the first ones in 1947. However, it is possible to assume that deliveries to some countries, such as Switzerland, Pakistan, Abyssinia and the Scandinavian countries, ended in Israel because they were probably re-exported.
Golda Meir had raised about 30 million USD during her visit to the US (Ygar, 1997, p. 87). Purchases were negotiated by Israeli politician and diplomat Ehud Überall-Avriel and businessman Otto Felix, who was staying in Czechoslovakia. Prior to the creation of the state of Israel, Josef Nasch-Nacht, who led the commercial representation for Tatra and ExploziaSemtín before the World War II in Bucharest, was the one that attempted to buy arms. At one of his visits to Prague, he gave notice to an influential General Heliodor Pík, pointing out the adverse consequences of the export of Czechoslovak weapons to Syria, the general acknowledged his arguments. Josef Nasch-Nacht failed due to his demand for a very high commission.
For the Czechoslovak armament industry, the saleof arms to the new state of Israel was important, because the arms exports were at a crossroads,as a result of the increasingly distinct division of the zones of influence - the East and the West. In consequence, Czechoslovakia lost its traditional markets to which it exported weapons. At the end of 1947, Czechoslovakia lost an export contract amounting to 13 mil. USD to Argentina, after an US appeal.
In September 1947, the Jewish Agency (Československo a Izrael 1947 – 1953. Dokumenty, p. 81-89) was discussing arms supplies with the Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk, son of President T.G. Masaryk. Later, they also negotiated directly with some armament plants. In January 1948, Otto Felix lobbied for Czechoslovakia to cease delivery of weapons to Syria. The Ministry of Defense of Czechoslovakia banned it with a decree from January 13, 1948. A complete turnaround in trade took place on 3rd of February 1948 when a shipment of 8,000 P-18 rifles and 6 million projectiles were seized in the Yugoslav port of Rijeka. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Czechoslovakia has temporarily detained the consignment by telegram to the embassy in Yugoslavia. The weapons destined for Syria left for the Italian port of Bari. The shipment was sunken by Hagan commandos there. The Czechoslovak authorities have begun to support the export of weapons, based on the fundamental permission of Moscow. There are no written records about it, but it is most likely that the USSR gave its consent.
Vladimir Clementis speaked with representatives of Kovoabout arms supplies directly with the Prime Minister Klement Gottwald (Československo a Izrael 1947 – 1953. Dokumenty, p. 81-89) on March 11, 1946. In case of deliveries to Jewish Palestine, the customer demanded shorter delivery times and quicker transport. This was causing problems for armament factories. Therefore, stocks from army warehouses were often used. The major players in export were the Czechoslovak metalworking and engineering factories, Zbrojovka Brno and Škoda Plzeň.
At that time in Czechoslovakia, a law was in place, under which arms exports were coordinated with the Ministry of Defense of the Czechoslovak Republic. This determined the prices and amount of exported goods. A serious problem was the price fixing for the exported goods. Military administration often determined prices based on equivalents that existed before the World War II. It often determined them regardless of the technical state of the weapons and other technology. During the trade preparation, disagreements concerning the agreement on the distribution of the amount of money emerged. Military administration first wanted to get 50-70% of the export value. Later, however, it was agreed to only obtain the value of the raw materials used in the manufacture of the exported goods. Weapons from military warehouses were taken over by companies that assembled, repaired, reviewed, and tested them.
NONDISCLOSURE OF DELIVERIES
Military administration has also taken care of security and privacy policies. Before shipping, all the signs and elements that would speak of the country of origin were removed from military equipment and goods.
On January 14, 1948, Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Clementis (Československo a Izrael 1947 – 1953. Dokumenty, p. 81-89, 176), following the ban on the export of arms to Argentina and Syria, decided with the conscience of Minister Jan Masaryk, to intervene with the Yugoslav branch partner to obtain Ehud Überall-Avriel's permission to transit 4,500 rifles, 200 machine guns, 5 million projectiles, which were prepared in the Danube riverside port of Bratislava, ready for export to Palestine under the name of Abyssinia. Another shipment was transported to Belgium and from there re-exported by boat to Haifa.
At that time in Czechoslovakia, a law was in place, under which arms exports were coordinated with the Ministry of Defense of the Czechoslovak Republic. This determined the prices and amount of exported goods. In the case of deliveries to Jewish Palestine, the customer demanded shorter delivery times and quicker shipment. It was causing problems for armament factories. Therefore, stocks from army warehouses were often used. The Ministry of National Defense of the Czechoslovakia simultaneously verified through the General Consulate, whether Ehud Überall-Avriel and Otto Felix were authorized to sign these types of contracts. At that time, for Czechoslovakia, the Jewish Agency was the official representative of all Jewish national interests in accordance with the UN mandate then in force.
On April 23, 1948, an agreement was established between Czechoslovak metalworking and engineering plants and L'AgenceJuive pour la Palestine. The value of the contract was 1,798,480 USD. This operation called "Balak" was of a smug character. Prices of some military equipment were reduced. Israel's plenipotentiary, Otto Felix, agreed on May 5, 1948, with Divisional General Alois Vicherek, commander of the Czechoslovak Air Force, to train the Palestinian field pilots. (Československo a Izrael 1947 – 1953. Dokumenty, p. 81-89)
The first air transit of arms left Prague-Ruzyně airport on 31 March 1948. The aircraft transported altogether 130 boxes of weapons of a total weight of 7 tons. It was transported by a plane that belonged to the US airlines company Northern Airlines. The cargo was declared as iron goods, hand tools. The next day the aircraft was checked by an American military attaché. He contacted the Embassy and was interested whether the cargo was not destined for Greece. The British Embassy manifested much greater interest in a British crew member. However, the Czechoslovak authorities helped him to leave the airport unnoticed and returned to the UK by another route.
However, the Czechoslovak side solved the situation with the goods transport by providing the Žatec military airport for transport. It served as a base for purchased or leased aircrafts that had Panama registration marks. They were mostly piloted by American crews. At Staňkovice, in the Žatec district, on 19 May - 21 May 1948 there landed the first transport aircrafts carrying weapons to the state of Israel.
The first aircraft that landed at the airport was Skymaster. The first Avia S-199 aircraft was loaded into its cargo area (Československo a Izrael 1947 – 1953. Studie. p. 110 – 188) Hagana bought ten of them. Avia S-199 was a Czechoslovak airplane produced based on the German model Messerschmitt Bf 109. One or two aircraft were flying daily. The crews of the transport aircrafts were Americans, Poles, Frenchmen, Germans, South Africans, and Englishmen. Czechoslovakia later sold 61 of the Spitfire aircraft to Israel, on which Czechoslovak pilots were fighting in Great Britain. Airplanes were flying through Yugoslavian airport Nikšiči, where they had a stopover. Direct transport was a problem, so Spitfire aircrafts were transported by rail and sea.
On empty S-199 aircrafts, which transported airplanes to Israel, on the way back came the crew, organizational and technical personnel. In one crew, there were 20 to 50 people. Airplanes to Žatec airport arrived from Avia company airport in Letňany. They dismantled them right after their arrival. Together with the other goods they loaded them on the transport aircraft. Five Avia mechanics were storing them in Israel. At the end of June,they returned to Czechoslovakia.
Airplanes were put together by technicians at the Dov airport in Tel Aviv and immediately used in the battlefields. Their decisive attack on May 29, 1948 surprised the Egyptian army. On that day, four Israeli S-199 aircrafts that had just been assembled, were launched. Each of the aircraft had two 70-kilogram bombs hung under the wings. One of the pilots was EzerWeizman, the next Israeli president. The aircrafts stopped another attack on Tel Aviv, which was about 30 kilometers away. Military equipment was shipped to Ekron Airport.
Žatec Airport became a temporary base for three B-17G machines. The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was a heavy duty four-cylinder American bomber. Israel bought them from US military surpluses. They left for Czechoslovakia from Miami, Florida on June 12, 1948. In Žatec, these flying fortresses were adapted to provisional bombers. From the Czechoslovak Army warehouses the aircrafts were given bombs weighing 250 kg and 500 kg. On June 14, 1948, they started off for Cairo. The machine piloted by Ray Kurtz and HarvayNachmann even hit the palace of the King Faruk. After this attack the Egyptian aircrafts had to move from the Israeli front to defend the capital of Egypt.
International responses to the extensive transport of military equipment did not leave themselves to wait for long. They said that Israel had an air base behind the Iron Curtain. In addition to unnecessary publicity, diplomatic notes of the US Embassy arrived. On July 8, 1948, first such note turned to the Czechoslovak authorities to provide information on three airliners that illegally left the US. In the following note from July 28, 1948, the Czechoslovak party was asked to takeaway the passports of the crew members and transport them to the United States.
The interest of the USA was not left at diplomatic level. US Embassy workers Thomas Donovan and Ralph S. Saul visited Žatec on August 10, 1948. At the Stalingrad Hotel, they made contact with several American mechanics. They were interested in their work and where they were flying. They advised them to register at the Embassy. Some of them did it. That way the US team obtained detailed information about the Air Bridge. Therefore, the air transport of equipment from Žatec airport was soon ceased. The transport ended on the order of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Czechoslovakia on August 11, 1948.
In the period between 20th of May and 11thof August 1948, 92-93 transport aircraft of different types left the airport Žatecfor Israel: Curtiss C-46 Commando, C-64 Norseman, C-54 Skymaster, Lockheed C-69 Constelation. These aircrafts were purchased by Israel from US military surpluses or temporarily rented, including crews. More than 300 tons of different equipmenthas been transported to Israel via the Žatec Air Bridge. Later, the transport of equipmentcontinued from aiportKonovice in Bohemia and Malacky in Slovakia.
In addition to the fact that Israel needed weapons, it also needed to provide training for the military specialists who would handle the purchased weapons and technology. (Československo a Izrael 1947 – 1953. Studie. p. 110 – 188) Urgent need for training of the military experts was taken over by Czechoslovakia. Unlike training in Italy, where the government just tolerated the training, the Czechoslovak leaders went much further.
On 12th– 14th of June 1948, the Ministry of National Defense of Czechoslovakia approved a directive for the training of pilot pupils at the aviation training college in Prostějov, training of mechanics, armament personnel, parachute folders at VOŠLM in Liberec, training of liaison specialists at LSŠ in Chrudim, paradesant training in town Kuřim.
Thus, Czechoslovakia provided its military schools and training facilities that did not exist in Israel at the time of its creation. It made it possible to train Israeli soldiers and volunteers in shorter time periods. According to the Israeli party's demands, trainings included Israeli pilots, aviation ground staff, paradesant training instructors and tankists. Israel asked to train 35 fighter pilots, 70 ground specialists and 20 corps of signals.
LEGAL ACTION WITH SLÁNSKY
With the increasing power of Communists in Czechoslovakia, as well as the decreasing support of J. V. Stalin to the State of Israel, the Czechoslovak government was forced to cease the sale of arms to Israel and end with the training of its military personnel. Officers who co-operated with Israel were later dismissed from the army or given subordinate functions. The culminating point of the change in attitude towards the Jews was the trial with Rudolf Slánsky, which took place in November 1952. In that trial, 14 high officials of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia were convicted and sentenced for spying, Trotskyism, Titoism, conspiracy against the republic, and partisanship. During the process, they were characterized as enemies of the Czechoslovak nation and Zionist, bourgeois-nationalist betrayers. On 24thNovember 1952, in theleading article published in daily newspaper Rudé Právo”, it was the Zionists that were related to so called Titoists, Trotskyists, bourgeois nationalists and cosmopolites. Various people were mentioned, who were involved in the trial with Slánsky, either as accused or as witnesses, all of them of Jewish origin. They were labeled as "creatures who mercantile with everything that is holy to them, cynically betraying everything and all who have given them confidence." According to the authors of this article, every bourgeois nationalism, even Jewish, must necessarily lead to fascism. Critics fell onto the establishment of Israel's contacts with Germany after its inception, the inactivity of the Zionists during the World War II, rumored alliance with Mussolini and Hitler. Cosmopolitanism and bourgeois nationalism - "two sides of one dirty coin" - should be united in Zionism.
The eleven convicted were of Jewish origin, two were Czechs and one was Slovak. It was the former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimír Clementis, who had covered the arms export action politically. He was hanged on 3rd December 1952. (Tlačová agentúra Slovenskej republiky, 3. December 2012)
The export of weapons was of a great economic importance for Czechoslovakia. In total, Israeli party paid $ 12,198,844for the weapons, representing about one-third of Czechoslovak foreign currency earnings. "Czech armament plants had saved the state of Israel, and without these weapons, we would not have survived" said David Ben-Gurion, head of the Jewish Agency and later the president of the Israeli government. The renewed co-operation of Czechoslovakia and Israel began with the change of the social establishment at the turn of years 1989 and 1990.
(Author thank to Kamila Fircakova, Head of Library of the Museum of Jewish Culture in Bratislava and to Pavlov Mešťan, Director)
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