June 5, 1967 was a day that will live in glory in the annals of Jewish history. On that day in 1967, the Israeli air force destroyed on the ground and in the air the Arab air forces, and gained full supremacy in the air, and ultimately on the ground and at sea. This was the Six Day War 52-years ago. It was one of the greatest victories in Jewish history, and a seminal event in Israel’s history.
It all began a month earlier. The Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdul Nasser, made bellicose statements on the Voice of the Arabs radio station, including the threat of drowning the Jews in the Mediterranean Sea. It was not only verbal threats coming out of Nasser’s and his underlings’ mouths, it was the actions he took, including the closing of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli navigation, making Israeli trade from Eilat to Asia and the Far East nearly impossible.
The vital shipment of oil to Israel came through the Straits to Eilat. On May 23, 1967, Nasser, addressing Egyptian pilots in the Sinai, announced the blockade of the Straits. He stated, “The Gulf of Aqaba constitutes our Egyptian territorial waters…under no circumstances will we allow the Israeli flag to pass through…” Earlier, on May 21, 1967, Egyptian troops occupied Sharm el-Sheikh, and two days earlier the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) contingent, based in the Sinai, was ousted by Nasser, in contravention of the decade long armistice agreement following the 1956-57 Sinai Campaign, in which Israeli forces reached the Suez Canal and captured the Sinai Peninsula. Under pressure from the U.S. and western powers, Israel withdrew from the Sinai. Israel was guaranteed freedom of navigation through the Straits and the Suez Canal, and a UN observer force was dispatched to the Sinai and serve as a barrier against aggression.
In Israel, the news throughout May 1967 filled the people with doom and gloom. In the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa, as well as elsewhere in Israel, it was felt that once again Jews were abandoned to their fate by the world. In Tel Aviv, ditches were dug to bury the anticipated thousands of casualties. A sense of desperation pervaded the country, and memories of the Holocaust came flashing back. The Maritime powers did nothing to fulfill their promise. Israel was alone to face the Arab world seething with hatred and revenge and promising a bloodbath.
At the Tel Nof airbase, where this reporter was stationed, preparation for the inevitable war was in full swing. The base was now a closed community, no passes, no leaves, and a 24/7 work schedule was on. Our relatively small air force of 200 serviceable jet-fighters, including Fouga-Magister training planes, converted to serve as ground-support and bombing operations, faced a huge Arab air force about four times its size. Israel’s French made Mirage III and Super Mystere interceptors, Vatours and Ouragan bombers were able to destroy 391 enemy planes on the ground, and an additional 60 planes in dogfights. Israel lost 19 planes. The Egyptian runways were also destroyed, which prevented their aircraft from taking off. Israel was left with 12 interceptors to defend the country. At 7:45am, 180 Jet fighters and bombers were flying just over the Mediterranean Sea toward Egypt. The world marveled at the feat performed by the Israeli Air Force (IAF). The IAF generated 3,300 sorties, (Nasser, to cover his humiliating defeat, charged that U.S. and British aircrafts attacked Egypt, which was of course a total fabrication.) an amazing and unsurpassed record, with credit going to the IAF incredible pilots and the ground crews.
King Hussein of Jordan, compelled to turn his territory and his army to be commanded by an Egyptian commander under a signed treaty in Cairo, opened fire on West Jerusalem on June 5, simultaneously lobbing artillery shells into our airbase, not far from our bunks. The IAF soon silenced the artillery, and within days, the Old City of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, and the Western Wall were in our hands. By Wednesday, June 7, the entire West Bank or Judea and Samaria was captured by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Back on Israel’s home front, cars and public transportation buses were requisitioned by the IDF, and factories were closed because all able-bodied workers were mobilized. There were hardly any men left on the streets. Israeli cities looked like ghost towns. Wives and mothers were praying for their husbands and sons.
Back at Tel Nof, at 12 noon, on June 5th, we were ordered to assemble at the parade grounds. Our base commander stepped out, and in a dramatic voice announced that “as of this moment, the Arab air forces no longer exists.” We, the airmen, threw our berets in the air, we hugged and kissed each other, with a genuine feeling of relief and exultation. We were tired with lack of sleep, but the news renewed our energies. A few days later, when the news that our paratroopers captured the Old City, and the Western Wall “was in our hands,” the feeling was that a G-d given miracle had occurred. We had all dreamed of one day visiting the Old City, the Temple Mount and the Wall, but it was wishful thinking. Now it was real, a dream come true. A week or so later, our squadron commandeered a few trucks so we could drive up to Jerusalem to touch the Wall, and see the historical sights denied us for 19-years.
For years, Israeli kibbutzim around the Sea of Galilee lived in shelters, enduring almost daily Syrian shelling from the heights of the Golan in northeastern Israel. On Friday, June 9, the Israeli cabinet voted to end the 19-year nightmare. IAF jets neutralized the Syrian air force and pummeled its entrenched bunkers on the Golan. It was literally an “uphill battle,” in which Israel prevailed. By the end of fighting on June 10th, the entire Golan Heights was in Israel’s hands. The next day, a cease-fire was declared and all fighting stopped.
Israel’s Chief-of-Staff Itzhak Rabin, accepting an honorary degree from the Hebrew University three weeks later declared, “Our airmen struck the enemies’ planes so accurately that no one in the world understands how it was done, and people seek explanations or secret weapons; our armored troops who beat the enemy even when their equipment was inferior to his; our soldiers in all other branches who overcame our enemies everywhere, despite the latter’s superior numbers and fortifications – all these reveal not only coolness and courage in battle, but an understanding that only their personal stand against the greatest dangers would achieve victory for their country, and for their families, and if victory was not theirs, the alternative was annihilation.”
The IAF was the last to receive passes to go home weeks after the war ended. When we finally got out of the base, we sensed the euphoria that gripped the people of Israel. Hitchhiking our way home, we encountered on every intersection mothers and daughters showering us with baskets filled of fruit and candy. It was reminiscent of the scenes in New York, London, and Paris on May 8, 1945, when WWII ended in Europe. It was great time to be alive and I cherish those special memories.