Overlord'S Blog: The Oncoming Tempest
Two weeks ago we looked at the events of the morning of 7th of January 1949. Here's the Afternoon of that ill fated day.
Back at Fayid Airfield the leisurely pace of operations continued unaware of the crisis they were hurtling towards. The two Tempest squadrons based at the airfield had returned from their morning flights, and the pilots had retired to the mess for the afternoon.
However normal operations were disturbed during lunch when it was realised that the four Spitfires on reconnaissance were overdue, and all four pilots were missing. The Squadron Commander for the missing planes immediately started preparations for another flight of four Spitfires to look for their colleagues.
However understandably he wanted to bring along as much fire-power along as he could, so he started phoning around the messes of the Tempest squadrons looking for pilots still fit to fly.
Unsurprisingly the search mission soon had fifteen Tempest pilots volunteering to join in, along with the four Spitfires. The formation rendezvoused above the airfield and set off to look for the lost Spitfires at 1500. The formation flew with the Spitfires at 500 feet, followed by a flight of Tempests, with seven at 6,000 ft and eight at 10,000 ft, each formation was staggered back from the previous one to cover the rear of the previous flight.
As they neared the area where the missing flight had seen the convoy, the middle flight of Tempests were bounced by four Israeli Spitfires diving out of the sun. One of the pilots spotted the attack and yelled a warning. However the tail end Charlie of the Tempests was a a very new and inexperienced pilot. The lead Israeli Spitfire riddled his plane with gunfire killing the pilot before he could react, his plane was seen to flip onto its back and crash into the ground.
The Tempests suddenly found a new problem, none of their guns were working. So even when they had a Spitfire in their sights they were unable to fire. The reason for this seems to have been the drop tanks. For some reason the ground crews had over tightened the locking pins on the drop tanks to keep them secure, this prevented the tanks from being released. In turn the added weight and drag from the tanks during high G manoeuvres meant that it stressed the wings more than normal, preventing the guns from firing.
Upon hearing the shouted warning the high cover Tempests dove into the fight, and the Spitfires clawed their way up to altitude as well. In the ensuing short brawl the IAF Spitfires got hits on one Tempest, causing light damage. However one IAF Spitfire dove on a Tempest, but the Israeli pilot was carrying too much speed. The IAF Spitfire flashed underneath the Tempest and then pulled up in front of the RAF plane allowing the British pilot to put several bursts into the passing IAF Spitfire.
In the dogfight that followed the RAF Spitfires realised they were in as much danger from their fellows in the Tempests as they were from the Israelis. In a dogfight you only have seconds to react, and so the Tempest pilots would see a Spitfire's silhouette and treat it as hostile, and attempt to shoot it down. Upon realising this the order went out over the RAF radio for the four RAF Spitfires to waggle their wings so they could be identified.
At this moment the IAF Spitfires disengaged and broke for home. Once over the nearby border they were safe from pursuit. We don't know if they ran because they realised their enemy were getting organised, or if they spotted the RAF roundels and realised their mistake.
The remaining RAF planes all made it back to base safely. With the news of five missing pilots, presumably dead, tensions at the RAF base were running high. Everyone on the base stood too and prepared to throw everything they had at the fledgling IAF, to wipe it out of existence. Needless to say if the British forces had gotten involved the balance of power would have been changed and its likely the Arab nations would have attempted to wipe Israel out of existence.
That night the four IAF pilots involved in the incident stood down and agreed in the face of an RAF retaliation strike they would not offer resistance. Although these feelings were not shared throughout the IAF, and preparations were made for the upcoming strike. The IAF pilots also sent a message, intended as a conciliatory gesture. It read:
"Sorry about yesterday, but you were on the wrong side of the fence. Come over here and have a drink sometime. You will see many familiar faces."
However as you can imagine this just served as a goad and seemed like a taunt to the RAF. Luckily for everyone involved the RAF command refused flat out to authorize the strike, and history took the course we're all familiar with.