In the summer of 1948, Israel was desperately looking for new fighters to equip the Israeli Defence Force/Air Force. Israeli agents in the USA managed to purchase four P-51 Mustangs in the USA. These were shipped to Israel in crates, despite the arms embargo. The crates they were transported in were marked as agricultural equipment, the first two arriving in Israel in September 1948.
The War of Independence
The first pair of Mustangs to arrive in Israel were quickly assembled and rushed into service in Israel's first fighter squadron. They were first stationed at Herzelia and later at Castina. The aircraft was by far the best in IDF/AF service. Its superior range enabled it to conduct reconnaissance missions all over the Middle East. In addition, it was faster than any airplane on the Arab side, and was not threatened by interception.
But the Mustang was also used in strike and interception missions. For some time, RAF Mosquito reconnaissance aircraft had been flying above Israel. The IDF/AF could not challenge these aircraft, as none of its own could fly as high as the Mosquito. The arrival of the P-51 changed the situation. A first attempt at intercepting the Mustang was a failure, but on November 20th, 1948, a Mustang was scrambled to Castina to intercept the intruder. The Mustang shot down the RAF Mosquito, the first victim of an Israeli P-51.
The first encounter between Mustangs and enemy fighters occurred on January 5th, 1949. A short dogfight opposed the Israeli Mustang to Egyptian Macchi MC.205s, the fight ending with no casualties on either side. On January 7th however, the two Mustangs were escorting three T-6 Harvards on a strike mission when they were intercepted by six MC.205s. In the ensuing dogfight, the Mustangs shot down three Egyptian fighters, showing the P-51's superiority.
The second pair of Mustangs bought in the USA had arrived in October 1948 but were not assembled quickly enough to see action in the War of Independence, because of lack of spare parts.
After the end of the War of Independence, the Mustang began "regular" service in the IDF/AF. The two sole Mustangs which had served during the war had been rushed into service as conditions allowed. The IDF/AF started operating the second pair of Mustangs, and wanted more. In the early fifties, 36 other P-51s were purchased in the USA, and in June 1952, 25 Swedish Mustangs were purchased from Sweden, which was phasing the Mustang out of operational service. These were flown to Israel in early 1953. In 1955, another batch of 30 was purchased from Italy and shipped to Israel. However, not all of them were assembled and flown, probably to be used as spare parts reserve. One of the reasons for this might be that the Italian P-51s were already war-weary aircraft, purchased from surplus depots in Germany, and some of them probably had already logged a large number of flying hours. The Mustangs were to replace the Avia S.199 (Czech-built Bf 109G).
With a total of 79 operational Mustangs and 26 Mustang airframes in Israel, the fighter quickly became the backbone of the IDF/AF. The Mustangs were to see action again in 1951. When Syrian forces ambushed and killed 7 Israeli soldiers, four Mustangs and four Spitfires led a retaliatory mission on April 5th, 1951, against the Syrian police station and army camp at El-Hama.
The Mustangs also saw action when an Israeli ship ran aground near Saudi Arabia in April 1954. The Mustangs were tasked to cover the rescue operation and then destroy the ship to prevent it from being captured by the enemy. In 1956, four Mustangs bombed the Jordanian police station at Kalkillia.
Retirement and renewed service
In the early 1950s, the IDF/AF introduced jet fighters: the British Meteor, the French Mystère and Ouragan. The Mustang lost its role of frontline fighter and a large number of Mustangs was sent into storage in 1956. Only the 116th Squadron remained operational on the Mustang, its purpose being to train new pilots. However, the international situation was to reintroduce the Mustang in regular IDF/AF service with the outbreak of the Suez crisis in October 1956. A second squadron was formed with Mustangs taken out of storage, bringing the number of operational Mustangs to 48.
If the performance of the Mustang was inferior to that of modern jets, the P-51 still had a major advantage over more modern aircraft: its range. Thus, Israeli Mustangs were tasked with the destruction of Egyptian fighters and bombers at remote bases, at ranges that could not be reached by the jet fighters.
On the first day of operation - October 29th - another task was given to the Mustangs: disruption of enemy communications. The Mustangs were equipped with a weight attached to a cable, which was to be hung from the aircraft's tail. This device was supposed to cut the enemy's telephone line cables. Four Mustangs were equipped as "cable-cutters" and took off around noon, but upon arrival at the target, some of them had lost their equipment. Instead of aborting their mission, the pilots decided to pursue and cut the cable with their propellers and wings. This was particularly dangerous but the mission was a success.
The more conventional task assigned to the Mustang was delayed by a few days as the IAF High Command refused to allow piston-engined aircraft to enter the combat zone before air superiority was achieved. Only on October 31st did the Mustangs enter the fighting. They were mostly used on strike missions against enemy forces, outposts, fortified points, roads, shipping and other targets. The Mustangs flew 184 missions during the Suez crisis campaign, losing only 7 aircraft.
The advent of the jet-age and the improvements in anti-aircraft defenses rendered the P-51 Mustang obsolete. On January 15th, 1961, the P-51 Mustang retired from Israeli service. It was the last piston-engined combat aircraft in Israeli service and had a large influence on Israeli tactics. It helped develop the concept of multirole aircraft, being used for air superiority, strike and reconnaissance purposes, which lead to the contemporary tactical concepts of the IDF/AF. Of the 79 Mustangs that flew with the IDF/AF, only four remain (including one in flying condition), all of which are conserved at the IAF Museum at Hatzerim.
This article was written by k51d. Version 1.0. Any addition or correction is welcome.
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