|A Spy in Machal in 1948|
Hans Alex Lehman - Pilot enlisted in Rome Agent of British Intelligence
Following are selections from a research report by Avi Cohen for the History Branch of the Israel Air Force entitled “Miragel b’hel ha’avir (A Spy in the Air Force).
Lt.Col. (Reserves) Zeev Lachish
Spying is considered one of the “oldest” professions in the world. And throughout history you will find many that were ready to sell their country’s secrets for a fee. It happened in the Israeli Air Force during the War of Independence, that a spy was actively selling Air Force secrets to whoever was interested: the British, members of the UN, and also to Arabs. It was during the War of Independence, in December of 1948, the story of the spy Hans Alex Lehman, was published in an Egyptian newspaper under the headlines “Secrets of Israel’s Air Force”. The publication is tendentious and emphasized what were then “negative attitudes” towards Israel in general and the Air Force in particular.
A. The tie with Czechoslovakia and behind it the Soviet Union, formed a dangerous proof to the Western Block of what is expected from “Communist Israel”, something far from reality.
B. The shady character of Machal (Volunteers from Abroad) Air Force crew who were active in Operation Balak (the air train which transported combat aircraft and arms from Czechoslovakia to Israel) received special emphasis in the spy’s notes. In his words, most pilots were drunkards and gamblers.
In reality, viewing the history of those days, the crews supported the State of Israel at the time when Israel’s existence was in a critical state. The transportation of the combat aircrafts – supported the air force in its early stages of the war, changing it from an inferior force then to a superior air force of today. Their contribution during that period was critical to the military, without them it would be hard to understand the history of the air force.
With that, there are many details in the article about the air force and its activities in those days. We found it right to use this “particular” story to tell about the air force during that period – of the climate it was functioning in – and especially about the Air Transport Command which was responsible for air transportation from all of Europe to Israel.
It is difficult to estimate the amount of damage caused by this spy during the period of his service with the air force on the one hand, and the influence of the information that he supplied to the Egyptian newspaper on the other hand. Yet, if he was exact and continued to send British Intelligence detailed information after each trip, altogether 20 reports containing approximately 250 pages, then it is clear that his activity caused damage. Proof will be found only when our archival examination of documents is performed (especially the British, Egyptian, and United Nations Archives) at least with what is connected to the B-17 aircraft (the “flying fortresses”) in Czechoslovakia, as Lehman reported the correct timing for a plan to bomb Cairo. This information was discovered but did not spoil the plan, in Lehman’s words, only because the Egyptians did not believe him. But it is clear that the information and the names of the American Air Crews as described in the spy’s publication, hurt them since, in those days, some of them were prosecuted for their part in helping Israel.
On December 16th 1948, in the midst of the War of Independence, the Egyptian newspaper “al Musri” published an editorial under the lead “Secrets of the Jewish Air Force” claiming a full confession by an American pilot regarding the smuggling of arms to the Jews. At the end of the article, the name of the spy was revealed: Alex Lehman. In his own words, this non-Jewish pilot was employed by the British Intelligence Service, gave details regarding the air force, in general, and the Air Transport Command, in particular. He was engaged as co-pilot during Operation Balak). Balak was the air train that transported arms and Messershmidt combat aircraft from Czechoslovakia to Israel.
The purpose of publishing the article, with accurate details, planned to show ties between Israel and the Soviet Union via Czechoslovakia. This was meant to deepen the West’s suspicions that Israel was deeply involved with Communism and therefore they would disassociate themselves from Israel and maintain an embargo against the State. All of this happened during the cold war existing between the West and the Soviet Block. Added proof to this was found in another article published by the same newspaper on December 25th – under the lead “Military Alliance between the Soviet Union and the Jews – 4 air routes between Tel Aviv and Russia”. The article argued that “the Jews could not have purchased the crafts without a Russian permit”. The Soviet Union’s involvement in Czechoslovakia’s approval to supply combat aircraft and military support to the State of Israel – has never been verified.
Yet, Lehman’s testimony was very important because it was made directly by a pilot flying for Israel from the end of June to the middle of August during the critical period of the War of Independence in the infancy of the Israeli Air Force. On August 11th, the Czechs discontinued the project and evacuated the American aircraft and crews from Zatec airport, where the Balak project was in operation Concurrently, three B-17s purchased in the US arrived in Zatec and on July 14th flew to bomb Cairo, El Arish, and Gaza.
We will investigate how much the force knew about this spy, how much of the article’s details were correct and explain Lehman’s attitude and how the Air Force conducted its security in those days. This research draws on materials from the Zahal archives and internal research documents published by the newly formed air force. These include Origins of the Air Force, First Flyers, The Air Transport Command, and other literature published on this subject, especially Secret Mission, They Took Off in the Dark, and The Faithful.
One of the major problems that the Jewish community in Israel faced on November 29th 1947 was the prospect of war with a paucity of arms. Again and Again, Shaul Mayerov (Avigdor), who headed the European active purchasing agency, needed to rush the purchase of arms that were already bought in Czechoslovakia. But the main problem was how to transfer what was already purchased. It was clear that naval transportation was not secure and needed too much time to get to its destination. Air transportation was more efficient and quicker but the amount of arms that could be transported by air was limited. Also, it was much more expensive and just as dangerous as the naval transportation, because the British were still in Israel and their agents, as well as the FBI and the American CIA, kept a strict watch with regards to the purchasing activities, and followed closely Israeli agents in Europe. The possibility of organizing a large jet transport and its crew, willing to transfer the arms to Israel, disregarding the United Nations embargo and camouflaging its departure and arrival in Israel, seemed monumental. At the same time, Ben Gurion kept requesting again and again, several times a day, to send arms.
In the end, due to the critical situation that the Israeli community faced, (especially during the month of March 1948) a Skymaster jet with its American crew was loaded to bring over 200 rifles, 40 machine guns, and a large cache of arms from Czechoslovakia to Israel. After the jet landing in Beit Daras on March 31st (Operation Balak 1) that night, the arms were transported to the fighters on the road to Jerusalem with Operation Nachshon. At the same time, the jet returned to Czechoslovakia to bring more arms to Israel, but when it landed, members of the crew were warned by representatives of the American Embassy not to perform additional flights from Czechoslovakia to Israel. This type of activity would be considered as acting against the American embargo policy for this region. And so the Skymaster aircraft and other transportation that were purchased in those days, in the United States, were mentioned in a detailed report that was given by the head of the CIA R.H. Hillencoter, to President Truman and his staff. We learned of constant effort by intelligence to follow the purchasing agents. The British were also involved in trying to foil the attempt to deliver arms from Czechoslovakia. The urgency of transporting arms appeared again on 12th of May when there was a meeting of state officials with Ben Gurion:
If we remain with the arms we currently possess, our situation seems very dangerous. My own opinion is that this situation will improve. We already have some arms that have not yet arrived in Israel. If we had all of these arms, which may be on the way, we could stand at ease…It’s not easy to transfer immediately all that we have purchased abroad. There is a chance that at least part of the purchase will be in ours hands, but when? How much? It is a difficult task to resolve these questions
In the end, a group of Swedish pilots, flying Dakota aircraft, transported arms from Czechoslovakia to Corsica, and from there to Israel, to the Air Force base at Ekron (Tel Nof) with a Skymaster used in two flights. On 12th May and 14th May, the road opened for transportation of arms that arrived from Europe using Commando aircraft purchased in the United States under a fictional aviation company called LAPSA (Lineas Aereas de Panama Sociedad Anonima). They were also included in the air train called Balak. Until then (on 23rd April) especially thanks to Otto (Uriel) Felix (Doron) who had been sent to Czechoslovakia by Ben Gurion. In November 1947, an agreement was signed to purchase 10 Messerschmidt combat aircraft. Equipping the combat aircraft was the highest priority. Until then, there was no other place to purchase combat aircraft. The purchasing agents were forced to pay a large sum of money in the amount of $180,000 for each plane. At the same time, several pilots were sent to take courses to familiarize themselves with that type of plane. The transportation of aircraft was still an issue. The planes could not fly directly to Israel, and needed to stop periodically for refueling. None of the European countries wanted to break the embargo publicly but some allowed the refueling secretly. The need of combat aircraft heightened especially from 15th May 1948, the day following the announcement of Israel’s independence, when the Egyptian Air Force started bombarding civilian communities.
The Suspect Hans Lehman
Hans Alex Lehman was born in Switzerland. He was not Jewish. He flew as a co-pilot during Operation Balak (in the War of Independence). He took part in operational flights including several with Larry Raab, one of the captains of the command. On the earliest personnel lists of crews active in Operation Balak, from 11th June 11 (1948) his name is not mentioned, nor does it appear on the list of 27th June. Lehman arrived at the Jewish Agency offices in Rome on 28th May. His story was that he had deserted from the Swiss Air Force to volunteer for the Israeli Air Force.
After waiting there for a few days he was sent first to Paris and later to Czechoslovakia. He had a visa for three months in Israel beginning 23rd June and a few days later he became part of Operation Balak. Soon after – in the first week of July – he aroused the suspicion of the organizers of the operation in Czechoslovakia who shared their suspicion with the staff of the Air Transport Command in Israel. On 9th July the Israel-based staff requested “a full report including details of the questionnaire used for his posting to his job”. On the same date a letter was sent to Yehuda Brieger, head of the communication with Israel in Operation Balak, from Meir (Munya) Mardor’s adjutant, Yaacov Feldman. “With reference to the suspect Hans Lehman; we immediately sent a wire on this matter. In the meantime we have detained him in Israel, but we cannot arrange for an investigation before receiving the details requested”.
A few days later, on 13th July, a letter in English from Mardor to Hal Auerbach, operations officer of the command, stated that regarding the investigation against Lehman the following details have been received from Zatec (Zebra): He is definitely suspected of being a spy. He had contact with a prostitute who is known to be a British agent. He often left Zatec for Prague, where he stayed in the most expensive hotels, despite being penniless when he was recruited to work for Operation Balak. Moreover, he made contact there with an unknown Swiss citizen in whom he confided that he was now working for us and that he was an agent of the Swiss Secret Service. He also showed him an order, which had been distributed in Zatec, and which had been marked, “Read and Destroy”. Mardor ordered that Lehman be sent away immediately from the base in Zatec, since a feverish effort was under way there to get Flying Fortresses (B-17) operational. According to the details of Operation Navot which had been prepared at the headquarters of the Air Force in Israel, the planes were to bomb Cairo, Gaza and El-Arish on their way to Israel. It was therefore recommended that the operations officer of the command should consult Zvi Sokolnik, the Security officer of the command as to what immediate action should be taken against the man, his arrest or any other action found advisable.
But the damage had already been done, as verified in Lehman’s article printed in an Egyptian newspaper: “In July I informed the Egyptian minister in Prague in the presence of his secretary that in Zatec there are three Flying Fortresses which are about to bomb Cairo. Unfortunately I was not believed, and I could not endanger myself further in Czechoslovakia”. And indeed, as aforesaid, Lehman was prevented from leaving Israel.
The Bombing of Cairo
On 15th July the three Flying Fortresses took off from Zatec. The captain of the plane scheduled to bomb Cairo was Ray Kurtz, as was stated in Lehman’s testimony. Bill Katz was second pilot and there were another six crew members. Also in the plane was the deputy commander of the air force Hyman Shachman (Shamir) who arrived in Zatec one day before especially for this mission.
The flight from Zatec to Cairo passed almost without difficulties and the plane dropped about two-and-a-half tons of bombs over the centre of the town – near Abdin Palace. The intelligence report accounts for 30 killed and about 55 wounded, and damage to the railway line and a few houses. The second plane indeed bombed Gaza and the third bombed Rafiah mistaking it for El-Arish. The bombing of Cairo had far reaching repercussions; it evoked widespread fear in Egypt and British concerns that Egypt would demand assistance under the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936. They also suspected that additional bombings of the town would lead to the downfall of the government and would force them to intervene militarily in Egypt. The command of the British forces in Egypt even suggested pressuring the UN to forbid the use of air warfare in the war and in the event that this demand was not obeyed – the RAF should destroy all the air forces involved.
The pursuit of Lehman continued. A report from David Fliegelman (Peleg), Administrative Officer of the Air Transport Command dated 18th July reads: “At present special attention is being paid to a pilot suspected of spying. Steps taken in this investigation include a special security agent who has been placed at the Park Hotel. In addition, in order to control direct contacts between air crews and journalists while they were housed in Tel Aviv and especially in the Park Hotel, a hotel called Bristol was rented in Ben Yehuda Street as a residence for air crews. It was guarded by the military personnel at its entrances to prevent the entry of unwelcome guests”. A report at the end of July reads: “Hotel Bristol has begun to function. All pilots of the Air Transport
Command in Tel Aviv have been placed there. The case of Lehman who is suspected of spying continues to be dealt with.”
It is not clear if there is a direct connection with the spy Lehman, but the Order of the Day of the staff of the Air Force dated 2nd August runs, “Every member of the Air Force understands well that the enemy derives significant advantages from any information they receive regarding anything concerning the Air Force. Different pieces of information gathered, such as types of planes, kinds and numbers of bombs, pilots, location of bases, etc. enables the enemy to piece together a picture of the state of our forces…All loose talk can cause the death of our flyers and destruction of bases. All Air Force personnel are herewith warned that this is a serious offence and everyone who oversteps the rules of operational security will stand trial and be punished severely”.
In the meantime Lehman was not scheduled to participate in Balak flights and not permitted to leave the country. During that period, on 11th August, the Czechs ordered the evacuation of all transport planes and the American air crews from the base at Zatec. Thus Lehman remained in Israel until the planes and crews assembled in the country. Another letter of the same date runs: “Following the American intervention threatening the Czechs we have been forced to leave Czechoslovakia tomorrow on 11th August at 11 a.m. with all equipment and American staff”.
American pressure on the Czechs to stop the airlift continued and until today the reason is not clear why, on that particular date, 11th August, the Czechs submitted to the pressure. Benyamin Kagan explains the timing and facts in his book “They Took Off into Darkness”. Until that date the Americans had been filming the base in Zatec from the air and then the State Department addressed the Czechs with proof of the operation carried out there, and even threatened to bring the subject up in the UN. In addition, according ot Kagan’s book, they hinted that if the airlift was stopped, they might lift part of the American export sanctions against Czechoslovakia. But nevertheless, there is no clear explanation of the timing.
Lehman Feigns Support of Israel
In the meantime the investigation of Lehman continued. Joseph Horngrad, from the Security Section of the Air Force, headed by Shraga Yanai, met Lehman in the Park Hotel in order to arrange for him to get an “Eretz-Israel passport’. Based on his Swiss passport, Horngrad filled n the form for an Israeli passport. At the same time Lehman told him that “he had been on active service with the Swiss Air Force and had deserted in order to join the (Israeli) Air Transport Command. While in Rome, he had met a Swiss journalist, a past acquaintance, who later published an article (including Lehman’s picture) stating that he had joined the Israel Air Force. Lehman concluded that “if he were to make a forced landing anywhere he would be delivered to the Swiss Consul and sent back to Switzerland. That was the reason he asked for an Israeli passport, but he would not give up his Swiss passport”. Summarizing the conversation with him, Horngard wrote, “I find it very difficult to imagine that this boy is a secret agent. I do have the impression that he talks a lot….I am awaiting the report from Margitay”.
Indeed Thomas (Gad) Margitay together with Benyamin Kagan, both from the Security Section of the Air Force met with Lehman on 3rd August at the Gat Rimon Hotel in order to create a small scenario to try him out. They introduced themselves to him as people interested in 20mm cannons which, as far as they knew, Lehman had ways to bring into the country. During the conversation they spoke about important weapon smugglers they knew and about transfer of weapons in Europe, and tried to give him the impression that for money they were ready to do everything. Lehman’s words convinced them “that he was not satisfied with his conditions in Israel, from the salary that we should have paid him, and that he was ready to leave the country, to work in Europe, and to do the things they asked him to”. They arranged to meet again the next day, but Margitay intentionally postponed the meeting to 5th August and then met with him again at the hotel. After a few drinks he took him to a quiet café on Ben Yehuda Street at the corner of Trumpeldor Street. There Lehman suggested “that one could do good business not only with weapon sales but also with information”. Margitay asked him ‘if I were to send you to Paris or somewhere else in Europe, would you be ready to render information you had gathered in Israel and later to return to Israel and to continue to work for me?” Lehman replied in the affirmative and for a salary of at least 600 dollars a month “plus a certain percentage of weapon sales”. Four days later they met again at the Eden Hotel in Ramat Gan. There, according to Margitay, they gave the impression that “the situation is heating up and we are leaving in a hurry”. He suggested that Lehman should leave for Paris, according to the conditions he had set at their previous meeting. They arranged to meet next day at Café Brazil where Lehman would give him pictures for his passport. However, Lehman turned to the security officer of the command – “excited and frightened” – and told him that a foreign agent wanted to buy information from him and he was frightened they would kill him. He also related all he had been told at the Eden Hotel. Nevertheless Margitay wrote “despite Lehman’s reaction to what I said, I am not sure of his trustworthiness”. He summed up, therefore:
I am not of the opinion that Lehman is a typical spy who has been sent here by our enemies, but I do find that he has the potential of being turned into a spy in the technical sense by people who are aware of his life story. Furthermore I do not think it advisable that he should be held at the Hotel Bristol in Tel Aviv. My recommendation is that he be sent to one of our bases but not to work as a pilot but rather to keep him there for some time under supervision of his comrades.
Nevertheless despite this recommendation, during the third week of August a report reached the officer in charge of the command stating “it has been decided to terminate the Lehman case with the decision to send him out of the country”, and indeed on 19th August he was obliged to leave Israel. Lehman objected to the decision that he be deported, and wrote a personal detailed letter to Nat Cohen, head of the Air Force intelligence. The date of the letter is not known. In it he stipulated that after a long conversation with Benjamin Shrager who is obviously Shraga Yannai, the head security officer of the Air Force intelligence sector, it was decided to discharge him from the Air Transport Command on 19th August. According to his words, he understood clearly the need for an investigation, but “until now I cannot imagine how the suspicion against me arose” since it can be easily explained how he got to know Lilian Hoppl (the woman mentioned in the document of July) in Prague, through Bob Citroen, who as far as we know was a navigator in the Air Transport Command. During that meeting Lehman stated that he could not return to Switzerland and, for that reason and also because of his “sympathy” for the Israeli cause, he would be willing to accept the responsibility and cost to undertake a special mission to Cairo. In his letter Lehman does not mention the Air Force reaction to his request, but in a later report written obviously by Benyamin Kagan – who was also responsible for matters relating to security of Air Force activities in Europe - we find a mention relating to the Lehman affair:
Hans Lehman was suspected of spying for the British in Ofary (Czechoslovakia) and Arnona (Israel). He was transferred for investigation to the security department of the Air Force but we would not produce facts. The higher authorities revoked our suggestion to do away with him without evidence and I was decided to return him to Europe. Before we left he offered to steal into Egypt and do some work for us there. He argued that thus he wanted to prove that he was straight and that he wanted to start a new life in Israel. Because it had been decided to return him we told him he could do as he wished, but he would not get any help from us, and that we had finished with him. As far as I know, he tried to contact Egypt but it seems that at the same time he also contacted the British.
The tracking of Lehman continued – on 11th September the commander of the Air Force, Aharon Remez, requested a French visa for Benyamin Kagan who, as stated, began to deal with matters of security in various centres of the Air Force activity, so “he can keep track of Lehman who is there”. Remez’s orders were: “Benjamin should end the Lehman affair. If this cannot be done in Europe, he should be brought to us”. On 20th September a note about Lehman was again sent to Israel stating that “he is suspected of having contact with enemy intelligence. The man is known to representatives of our air force in Europe who state that this Lerman (Lehman) was already suspect when he was in Israel and has been expelled from there. He now moves about in Europe. Do get a photo of him and let us have it”.
But Lehman returned for a visit to Israel during October and acted on behalf of Israel, supposedly directly for the Intelligence Branch of the Air Force, as he wrote in his statement which was released in the press: “Last time I was in Israel in October I fulfilled two missions for Israel in Europe and the American authorities know now what these missions were”. There is no doubt that this was correct, because in his statement he mentions the Operation Avak. On 21st October 1948, Lehman accompanied by two others, probably British intelligence) met at the Ambassador Hotel in Paris with Ralph Bunche, the mediator of the UN. There he related the whole story of his activity in the Air Transport Command, starting with his recruitment on 29th May 1948 in Rome. On the same occasion he also told all he knew about the Air Force in general. Finally he stressed that his life was in danger and asked for the protection of the UN. Towards the end of the month, a detailed interview with Mr. X. in La Monde was held in which he told the whole story of his activities in the Air Force, and a few days later this article was also published in the press in Israel. Among other things, it says: “There is a secret line of supply from a airfield in Czechoslovakia to Israel. About 200ᶦ fliers, most of them Americans, work for an organization called Israeli Air Transport Command”.
On 3rd November there appeared another reference to Alex Lehman, in a letter from Shraga Yani, head of security in the Air Force Intelligence branch, to the Political Section of the Foreign Office. Further to a letter which he sent them on 27th October he now forwarded to them two photos and stressed that “We have in our possession additional material regarding the above-mentioned, such as his passport photo, his commitment not to use information he obtained whilst in Israel, etc. which we are prepared to pass to you if you need them”. In response to these disclosures about Lehman, the Israel Foreign Office spokesman declared, according to a report in the newspaper Hamashkif:
Israel has not received military aid from Russia. The entire story is based on imagination and wicked lies…the story is typical of the defamatory propaganda which some parties have been waging against Israel since the establishment of the State. All that is missing to complete the nice little picture is a beautiful blonde spy.
At about the same time, on 13th November, information from France revealed that the source of this information was Alex Lehman, “a British Intelligence agent holding Swiss citizenship”. It stated further that Lehman “…enlisted to serve in the Israeli Air Force in Rome, from there he was transferred to Prague and carried out a number of flights to Israel. After a short stay he left Israel and returned to Europe. Today he is in Paris, we have arranged with Lehman that he will return to Israel. We will be sending him in the next few days. Arrange for his reception and for the continuation of dealing with him”. However, Lehman sensed the ongoing and tightening surveillance and did not return to Israel. On 3rd December a twelve-page stenogram with all the details which Lehman passed onto the UN was sent to Aharon Remez, Lechi Yasachar, Shaul Meirov, and to Benyamin Kagan who was in Czechoslovakia at the time. The following day Benyamin Kagan wrote from Czechoslovakia: After having investigated him my personal opinion has always been that he is capable of doing anything for money. He has no connection with the Security Branch of the Air Force. He has to be related to as a spy and a traitor. There is in the possession of the Security Branch in Israel his declaration in which he commits himself not to reveal any detail of our work. Before he left the country I warned him that he would come to an unpleasant end if he speaks. In my opinion, if the facts are sufficient he should be eliminated.
At the same time he wrote to “Yishayahu” (Aharon Remez) for Shraga Yanai, that “I have given details of the Lehman case to Nat C (Nat Cohen). I regret that the initial decision to eliminate him was not accepted. In my opinion this should be done if the facts are sufficient”.
The affair does not finish here. On 16th December the newspaper “al Musri” published “The complete confession” of Alex Lehman – “On the smuggling operations of weapons to the Jews”. Lehman repeated the story, including names of those heading the squadron, the pilots, the aircraft, and the daily routine of the transport pilots. He even mentioned Margitay and Horngard, two people of Air Force security with whom he met, as has been noted, during the course of July-August 1948. The main thrust of the article was to prove how strong the cooperation was between Israel and the Soviet Union via Czechoslovakia. In this matter there is a very big exaggeration at the end of his article. He adds: “I sent about twenty reports comprising some 250 pages to British Intelligence. It was my routine to send a report after every trip. The report that I gave to Dr. Bunche had twenty-five pages and contained my answers to the questions I was asked. I signed the report and Dr. Bunche promised me that he would keep it in his safe”. Some of what Lehman said was substantiated in a letter from the Head of Intelligence, Chaim Herzog.
The suggestion to eliminate Lehman was scrapped by “Ben Yehuda” (Shaul Meirov); in an urgent telegram to Paris he instructed, “I do not approve your plan. We will not deal with the louse. Let him go to Hell”.
It is obvious that this publication by Lehman, accurate to a fair degree, harmed the need for secrecy concerning the actions of the squadron in particular and the Air Force in general. Moreover, at the height of the trials in the United States against the flyers who participated in Operation Balak this publication, replete with details about Communist support and influence on the State of Israel, did not help the defense counsel to defend their actions or to refute them. However the importance of the details submitted by Lehman should not be exaggerated; an 8th December report of Chaim Herzog, head of the Intelligence Service states:
The Head Office of the CIA in Washington received from the FBI detailed lists of American flyers who volunteered to serve in the Israeli Air Force, inside and outside Israel. These lists reached the offices of the FBI in various places in the USA, sometimes in several copies. The senders of the lists remain anonymous.
As of today we have not succeeded in determining what became of Alex Lehmna. In a later interview, in 1985, with Hal Auerbach, Operations Officer of the squadron in those days, he recalled the affair and summarized it as follows:
We had an incident with a pilot, a European non-Jew, where one day we were informed from Czechoslovakia that he was a spy and we were instructed not to tell him anything and to bring him to Israel where he would be arrested. We did this and housed him in a room in the Park Hotel. Intelligence kept tracks on him and I had to explain to him why he had to remain in Israel and not to be flying. In the end there was a plan to kill him but for some reason he was placed on an aircraft and sent out of the country. That was the end of the affair.
During the course of the War of Independence, more details about the Air Force were revealed in the media. However it seems that the publications of Lehman were relatively the most accurate of these.
Secrets of the Jewish Air Force: Full Confessions of an American Pilot on the smuggling of arms for the Jews
Following is the text of an article published in the Egyptian newspaper al Musri on 16th December 1948. Israeli Military Intelligence translated it into Hebrew on 3rd January 1949. This is a translation from the Hebrew. The original might have been in English, French, or German. Because of the successive translations we cannot always be certain of the spelling of names of persons and places. The Hebrew version was published along with the above paper by Avi Cohen and accompanied by excessive notes on the correctness or incorrectness of Lehman’s assertions. Cohen denies Lehman’s statements that the Israelis worked hand-in-glove with the Soviets. Cohen’s comments also identify the individual mentioned where Lehman has misspelled their names or erred in their roles.
The title of this news story refers to Lehman as an American. Eddy Kaplansky, in his work “The First Fliers” reports that he was American and served in the United States Air Force. In the above report by Avi Cohen, he is reported as a Swiss citizen.
After translating this document I (Sam Klausner) found it hard to believe that Lehman could have amassed so much information. The reader may wonder about this as well. I wrote to Avi Cohen saying that I was billeted in the Bristol Hotel, where Lehman was also living, from mid-May to mid-August 1948 and had nowhere near the knowledge which Lehman displays. I suggested that either he was a master spy equipped with audio and photographic equipiment or he had accomplices. Since he did not know Hebrew and accessed numerous organizational files, that accomplice could even have been an Israeli. Avi Cohen responded as follows:
As you know I am no longer working on this subject. For the last two years I have been concerned with other matters. Nevertheless, it appears to me that your astonishment at the amount of information contained in the article published in “al-Musri” is much exaggerated. From what I learned from the many documents that I read on the history of the air force in the War of Independence, I have no doubt that they were not at all strict in maintaining security at the airfield. The pilots and other aircrew members spoke over and over again about their activities. And let the information out without any restrictions. See for example what is related in Harold Livingston’s book “The Coast of the Earth”. This is an excellent book and well-reflects the atmosphere of those days especially regarding the leaking of information and gossiping around especially among the Machal volunteers. I described these activities in detail in my book “History of the Air Force in the War of Independence’. As far as I know, Lehman did not know Hebrew at all, and I surmise, intuitively, that there were other spies in those days. I did not find any evidence that he had confederates but it is indeed possible that he did.
In all events I suggest that you not rely entirely on the article about the Spy, as published on the IAF website, but that you read all of the additional material in my works for the Air Force during the war. That is more precise material and relies on additional documents not available to me when the article was written.
ᶦ Air Transport Command – 200 fliers is incorrect. There were actually only 74 fliers according to Eddy Kaplansky’s book “The First Fliers”.
Text of the article in al Musri
Our airplane arrived in Aqir and was immediately unloaded and returned at four in the morning from whence it had come. In this way the airfield at Aqir was always free of planes during the day unless there was a technical problem with one of the planes.
Four crew members were on each plane: pilot and co-pilot, wireless operator and a navigator. These individuals were not necessarily from the same country and it sometimes occurred that one of the individuals would have no understanding of the task to which he was assigned. Since the crew members did not receive their salaries – we were told that the money was deposited for us in a Tel Aviv bank – they began to engage in their own smuggling. They would buy marijuana and exchange it in Czechoslovakia for objects of crystal and handguns. And this because the price of a pistol in Prague ws 500 crowns (about $10.00 on the black market) and in Tel Aviv one could sell it for twenty pounds (between $60 and $80).
As for the flight itself – in these circumstances there were no safety arrangements and it was very dangerous – only in rare instances did the men arrive at their destination in a composed state of mind. In Czechoslovakia and in Ajaccio one could obtain champagne and cognac very cheaply, whereupon the crew members would drink heavily to overcome their fear. It is a miracle that there were not more accidents than there were.
Until July we were forced to avoid flying over Yugoslavia. Several times Yugoslavian fighter planes attacked us offshore from Yugoslavia and Trieste. But later, around 15th July, an astonishing event occurred. A small Yugoslavian military base in the mountains near Krosifo, close to Albania, was placed under our control. From that time on we had two intermediate landing places – Krosifo and Ajaccio. In Krosifo we were not permitted to leave the airfield. Yugoslavian soldiers guarded the field, which in time became a rest stop for us.
At the same time the headquarters of the Air Transport Command was transferred from Zatec to Aqir, near Tel Aviv. The reason for this is that Aqir now became a base for planes that flew to Zatec for the sole purpose of picking up freight.
During this same period we were told that our salary was reduced to $275 per month and also that it is impossible for us to leave the service for this would cause us difficulties with the police of the country in which we were. They told us that $175 of our monthly pay would be deposited to our credit in a bank in Tel Aviv. We never saw these accounts and have no idea about what happened to them. One hundred dollars was considered our “pocket money”, accounted as one Israeli pound for each day in Tel Aviv or 500 crowns in Prague. When the pilots were angered at this deception some would take advantage of a day or two rest in Prague or Carlsbad where they would drink and gamble with cards. The aim was for one of them to spend more than he could afford, and then on the next day meet with Dr. Felix and tell him that they had amassed a debt of twenty or twenty five thousand Crowns, and each time Dr. Felix was forced to pay this to escape the scandal, but in the end they withdrew support for trips to Prague and Carlsbad.
The wives of the flyers in Europe or America received support payments. The Jews tried by all means to convince them to join their husbands in Israel. They promised them that were they to come they would live in Jewish settlements rather than receiving support payments abroad. However, they would be required to perform services in addition to that of their husbands. This is the way the Jews treated us.
The Bristol Hotel was the headquarters of the Jewish Air Force in Tel Aviv. Later the staff officers – for their own comfort – moved the headquarters to the British airfield at Aqir. The Constellation suffered an accident in Zatec and was then disassembled and the parts sent to Russia.
List of the headquarters staff of the Air Transport Command. The administrative staff worked from the Yarkon Hotel in Tel Aviv. The command for air operations was Colonel Heyman (American). In charge of the staff was Lt. Col. Monian assisted by Gutlieb from California. Department of State showed all of these names to be authentic, except for Gutlieb, which was a pseudonym. The names of the Russians were all falsified in order to protect their bearers.
The Jewish Air Force
The Jewish Air Force is composed of two groups: the Air Transport Command and the Fighter Command, following the American model and their advisers were Russian officers. The head of the Jewish Bomber Command was Major Kurtz who received awards for his operations in Germany in World War II. After the war he became a New York police officer. Lt. Albrecht from the American Air Force assisted him. Irahan served as an advisor as did Gross, a famous Canadian flyer.
The Air Transport Command
Head of Operations: Hal Auerbach; Lead Pilot: Sam Lewis; Personnel Matters: Walkowitz; Chief Engineer: Sam Pomerance; Swedish pilots: Captain Krokstead, Captain Anderson, and Caption Nilson. (Anderson was in charge of the plane of Count Bernadotte in 1945 when he was the representative of the International Red Cross). Radio operators were Liebing and Ekstrand. The American pilots were Applebaum, Captain Raab, Captain Kaufman, Captain Munitz, Captain Sisik, Captain Ribakoff, who piloted the Constellation at the time of its forced landing in Zatec, and Captain Polansky (previously Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago). Copilots included Moore, Frank and Waterhouse, Breyer, Swing and Sunderland. Flyers from Canada included Captain Levett and Captain Ilowite. Among the Russians was Laszlo Strack (an alias indicating that the was from Hungary but was, in fact, an officer in the Russian Army), and Misha Henelson. They did not fly alone but as copilots in the Constellation or Skymaster. They also served as liaison officers between the Soviet Union and Israel. I recall, for example, that Strack was instructed to prepare a memorandum on military and professional services in Czechoslovakia.
Wireless operators included Si Cohen, Saltzman, Tulchinsky, Chinsky, Fingerman, Braverman, Newman, Kilgore and Mikohan. The only French pilot was Ben Simon who served with Air France in Indochina. Among South African pilots were Al Klosner, Bal Shimoni, Widman and Bob Mead.
The Flying Fortresses were sent from Panama to Zatec via the Azores Islands. When the plane left the islands, the commanding officer sent out a distress signal and announced that the planes were lost but, in fact, they landed in Czechoslovakia. The whole incident was made up by the Jews in order to conceal the planes’ route. The Eastern Air Company purchased the Fortresses as military surplus and then sold them to the Panama Aircraft Company. The pilots who transported the Flying Fortresses were Lt.Col. James “Judge” Beane (he lost his rank in America), Major Bob Weid, Lt. Dusty Miller. The Jews sent the three of them back to America because they were drunk. Major Kurtz was appointed head of the Flying Fortresses squadron. He led the bombing of Cairo. The planes flew straight from Zatec to Cairo and from there to the Ramat David airfield, which is currently the center of the Jewish Air Forces. Kurtz says he was able to fool the people at the Cairo airfield. He contacted them by radio and announced that three British squadrons with supplies were about to arrive – immediately after this the airfield lights went on.
Defense Institutions in Europe and the United States
New York office: Administrator Steve Schwartz, Schwimmer, and Reisberg. At this time. The last was also an intelligence officer, a role that permitted him to conceal what the Jews were doing. The American government detained him for two days after receiving information from them in Paris.
Paris: Hotel California, supervisor Fred Kant.
London: Friman is not in prison. He arranged for sending airplanes to Israel.
Prague: Palace Hotel, supervision is Dr. Felix and his assistant is Dr. Pollack, Meir, and a Russian liaison officer whose name I cannot reveal for personal reasons.
Rome: Hotel Massim daSiglio. Coordinators: Danny Agronski and his wife. The assistants were Leo Shedarntaz and another person called “Joseph” who was the treasurer. Col. Green was responsible for the training of Jewish pilots who were entering the School for Pilots that opened in the south of Rome in July. He had sufficient funds to allow him to train a hundred pilots in four months. Green was considered a replacement for Spreling whom the Jews had arrested. In Rome the pilots received only primary training after which they were sent to the Skoda company in Prague to learn to fly fighter planes. And then to Russia to learn to fly jet planes or to Israel to be trained in flying transport of bombing planes. From 15th July we began to transport people, about 25-30 Jews from Israel to Czechoslovakia and from there they would be sent to Russia for a six week course and return through Rome. At the time I served as a copilot on a Skymaster, which carried Russians from Israel to Ajaccio where they would be concealed. Later I learned that these were agents for spreading Russian Communist propaganda. The American Government also knew this and detained several of these propagandists.
The Jewish Air Force
The airplanes included 3 Flying Fortresses, 5 planes types 64 (numbered 132, 133, 134, 135, 137, 139), 5 Skymasters (54), 12 Norseman’s, 4 Dakotas, C-47, 2 Constellations, 3 Spitfires, 60 Messerschmitts, 4 B-26 Marauders, 1 Halifax, 1 Lancaster, 1 Bonanza, 21 Austers, 3 Lightnings, 1 DC-5, 1 Fairchild, 1 Grumman seaplane, 1 Haviland (freight). In early October the Air Force received Russian Yak fighters and about 70 American and Russian aircraft mechanics were in the Air Force at that time. Attention was given to maintaining good relations between them.
The Jewish Security Office
The staff headquarters was in the Yarkon Hotel in Tel Aviv. The administrator was Benyamin Shrager and security was in the hands of Sh. Hahaman, of Russian descent and a member of the Russian secret service. Miss Simone Marenberg, whose country of origin is not known to me, assisted him. Her task was to take an interest in United Nations personnel, to provide them with information and deceptive announcements. She is very beautiful and looks like Hedy Lamaar. Other assistants were Margitay and Horngrad (formerly an officer with British Intelligence, an expert in falsifying passports), and “Zivi” who would make friends with new pilots and draw from them information on their experiences in order to prepare a report the next day. Horngrad would take the passports of each pilot and, in the event of an accident, use them for another pilot.
Stern and Etzel
We asked Shrager about these two groups (gangs) in relation to our personal security and he assured us that there is an agreement between all of the groups. It is desirable that the public still believes that the quarrel between them continues since it might become necessary to blame someone regarding an important matter. Shrager threatened us that the Etzel would kill us if we were considered treasonous. Etzel is a group of Jews in the Land of Israel committed to the destruction of Israel’s enemies. British Intelligence has information on this dangerous group.
It is clear that under these conditions that the UN observers are not able to move about the country. It happened that a plane due to land at Aqir was diverted to another airport since UN observers were there at the time. Once all of the planes were used to transport armaments to a place in the Negev over a period of three days. For this purpose two airfields were constructed in the Negev. At one time all of the planes were used to carry water to Jerusalem.
Ramat David was considered the center for the Jewish Air Force. Because of this American and Russian engineers using the most up-to-date equipment roved the field. This new center was ready to be converted to a Russian base. This was the Israeli’s trade-off for all the military help the Russians provided.
There are documents proving that the Israelis are paying the Czechoslovaks a third of the value of the material they purchase. It is known to British Intelligence that the Jews are obtaining dollars for the Russians, much needed hard currency, to cover the cost of Soviet espionage in the United States.
Purchase of Airplanes
Agents of Trans World Airlines or Eastern Airlines purchase planes in the United States for the Jews. For these companies a man by the name of Bilady buys the planes through Panama. In Europe the agency is KLM.
Families of the pilots send letters to two addresses in a way that permits examination of the letters: (1) Schulman, Lausanne Street 153, Geneva, and (2) Ralph Cohen, 31 December Street, 16 Geneva.
For security reasons the Jews designated names of places with nicknames, such as the State of Israel “Oklahama”, Czechoslovakia “Zebra”, Russia “New York”.
In 1943 I worked as a Deputy Agent of the Swiss Intelligence Service or for British Intelligence. When I worked for British Intelligence I would pass information to them in Prague, Paris, and Rome. I was astonished that the Arab States had no information on these matters. Recently it became clear to me that the reason for their lack of information is the dual responsibility of the staff of British Intelligence, which works to conceal knowledge favorable to Russia or Israel. In Paris I learned that the head of the special espionage group for the Middle East suppressed my report and informed the Israelis of my true task…and the Jews have me under surveillance…and therefore I was placed under the protection of the United Nations.
During the month of June I told the Egyptian Ambassador in Prague in the presence of his secretary that three Flying Fortresses are in Zatec preparing to bomb Cairo. Unfortunately, they did not believe me. I could not risk myself further in Czechoslovakia.
The last time I was in Israel in October, I carried out two tasks for Israel in Europe, and currently the American Government knows what those tasks were. I sent some twenty reports adding up to about 250 pages to British Intelligence. I usually sent a detailed report after each mission. A twenty-five page report that I sent to Dr. Bunche, the UN mediator, included responses to all questions that I was asked. I signed the report and Dr. Bunche promised to keep it in his iron box.
Signed: Hans Alex Lehman
Note for the Reader:
The Hebrew version of this article was published by Avi Cohen (IAF’s History Department), accompanied by extensive notes on the correctness or incorrectness of Lehman’s assertions. Cohen denies Lehman’s statements that the Israelis worked hand-in-glove with the Soviets. Cohen’s comments also identify the individuals mentioned where Lehman had misspelled their names or erred in their roles.
The title of this news story refers to Lehman as an American. Eddie Kaplansky in his work “The First Flyers” states that he was American who had served in the United States Air Force. In Cohen’s article he is reported as a Swiss citizen.
It is therefore suggested that the reader should not rely entirely on the article about the Spy as published on the IAF website, but should read all of the additional material available about the Israel Air Force during the War of Independence.
Source: Translation of the research report by Avi Cohen for the History Branch of the Israel Air Force (Miragel b’hel ha’avir – A Spy in the Air Force). The full 58 page report including text not shown here, explanatory footnotes, end-notes and citations can be downloaded form www.iaf.org.il). The above text was translated by Chaim (Vivian) Steinberg, Ruth Stern, Miriam Steuerman and Samuel Klausner and printed in the American Veterans of Israel newsletter: Spring 2006