“Seeking Treasure Island”: the purchase of arms and aeroplanes in Australia, 1948 – 1949

April 16, 2018 by Suzanne Rutland
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With the celebration of Israel’s seventy anniversary, it is important to remember the role played by the Diaspora in the creation of the Jewish state, and especially their key contributions to the War of Independence…writes Suzanne D. Rutland.

Michael Faktor, president of World UIA Avraham Avichai, Max Freilich, George Bloomfield and Joseph Brender. Courtesy: UIA

Between 1948 and 1950, the Australian Zionist leaders, particularly Max Freilich and Horace Bonheim Newman in Sydney and Jack Skolnik in Melbourne, were fully aware of Israel’s precarious position following the immediate invasion of Israel by five Arab armies after  the declaration of independence. They worked actively to secure aeroplanes, arms, and manpower for the newly established state of Israel even though this was illegal. Thus, even distant Australian Jewry, at the “edge of the Diaspora”, made its contribution, not only through some Australian Jews making their way to Israel and joining Machal (acronym for Volunteers from Abroad), but also by sending planes and arms.

In undertaking this significant underground operation, Haganah/IDF operatives came to Australia to coordinate this endeavour. They included Danny Agronski, the son of the founder of the Palestine Post (now the Jerusalem Post), Gershon Agronski (later Agron), as one of the main operatives.

I came across this story when researching for my PhD on Australian Jewry dealing with the period from 1945-1960. The files of the Department of Internal Security – later ASIO – proved to be a goldmine. Sydney Zionist leader, Max Freilich, was being tracked by government security agents, because at the time they equated Zionism with Communism, and so were a threat to Australia. In Freilich’s file  I found a reference to the military purchases with intriguing three pages about the arrest of Danny Agronski in 1949. He was described as followed:

Name:                          Daniel Agronsky

Address Overseas:      49 West 53rd Street, New York, U.S.A.

Occupation:                 Journalist

Date of Birth:               10.1.1922, New York

Passport issued:           Jerusalem, Palestine, 17/3/49

Height:                                     5’ 11”.

Marital Status:             Married

Hair:                            Brown

Eyes:                            Brown, wears glasses

Race:                            Jewish

Length of stay in          Three months

Wife:                            H. [Hassia] Agronsky, at present, Hotel San Giorgio, Rome

This aroused my interest, and some years after completing my doctorate I began to research further, including interviewing my late cousin, Theo Freilich, and researching in the archives of the IDF, which revealed a wealth of information.

Dr Suzanne Rutland

When the war broke out in May 1948, Israel did not have an air force, yet was facing the full brunt of her neighbours, particularly from the Egyptian bombing raids. Yet, the United Nations immediately placed an arms embargo on both sides of the conflict.

Most people know that Czechoslovakia secretly sold planes, arms and ammunition to the nascent state, clearly with Soviet support, but much less is known about how the Jewish communities in the US, South Africa, Britain and even Australia sent both planes with their pilots and armaments to Israel.

Immediately after the end of the World War II in 1945, a small team of Haganah operatives travelled to the United States to acquire aircraft there, ostensibly for domestic use, which they smuggled out of the  States. They worked with American Jewish businessman and aerospace engineer, Al Schwimmer, who later went on to found the Israeli Aerospace Industry. South African pilots who had fought in the air force during World War II played a very key role not only flying the planes to Israel but immediately volunteering to join the Israeli air force – central to Israel’s military victory. Understandably, Australia’s role was smaller, yet still important.

The initiative for involvement in purchasing planes and ammunition came from Zionist leaders led by Freilich, who established contact with Rekhesh (lit. acquisitions) in Rome where the key representative was Danny Agronsky. Born in the United States in 1920, Danny Agronsky volunteered in 1939 and fought in the British army and the Jewish Brigade. In late 1947 Agronsky was sent to New York, ostensibly to buy printing equipment for the Palestine Post, but in reality to work with the other operatives, who were acquiring arms and aeroplanes in the United States. Agronsky (an aviation enthusiast, according to his son Amos) was then sent to Rome to help coordinate the European activities. His main role was to organise the acquisition of aeroplanes and coordinate the placement of the volunteer pilots arriving from the United States, Canada, England and South Africa.

Following Japan’s surrender in August 1945, a significant supply of army equipment, including different types of aeroplanes, was abandoned in Australia and the Pacific area, particularly in New Guinea. A number of Lockheed Hudsons and Lodestars found their way into the hands of Australian businessmen, who transformed them into civilian planes which were then hired to bring immigrants to Australia. Members of Israel’s nascent air force sought to take advantage of this supply.

One type of aeroplane, the VHA RR, was built in Australia; a company called New Holland Airways, which was bringing immigrants from Italy to Australia, purchased these planes after 1945. One of its pilots was Gregory Hanlon, a non-Jewish Australian of Irish descent whose uncle was the factory foreman of Freilich’s paper manufacturing company. Through this connection, Hanlon met with Freilich and expressed his willingness to fly planes to Israel.

Before his next trip to Europe, Agronsky arranged to meet him in Catania, Sicily, in May 1948. Hanlon told Agronsky about a VHA RR plane that was available. Agronsky agreed to buy the plane but to pay for it only when it had safely arrived in Israel. Hanlon returned to Sydney, collected the plane and organised an export licence for it to Italy. He successfully delivered the VHA RR to Agronsky in June 1948, and from there he flew the plane to Israel. When he arrived in Israel, Hanlon met the commander of the Israeli Air Force, Israel Zlodovsky (Amir) in Haifa, and told him about an Australian DC5 which had been flown to Haifa in early June and was available. The DC5 was purchased on 5 June and was already in use on 6 June. The DC5 was in poor condition and needed constant repairs, but the official history of the Israel Air Force notes that its purchase was fully justified.

A further four planes were sent to Israel. These included a Lodestar flown by Raymond Penny and three Lockheed Hudsons that were purchased by arrangement with Levi Eshkol, who agreed to pay £10,000 per plane. The Australian Department of External Affairs later interviewed one of the Australian non-Jewish pilots involved, A. J. Hurst, who stated that Southern European Transport, registered in Sydney in the name of George Marcel, a non-Jewish pilot who had served in the RAAF, owned two of the Hudsons, which left for Israel in February/March 1949, one flown by Penny and the other by Marcel. According to Hurst, Guinea Air Traders delivered a third Hudson in February 1949 on charter to the Israeli government. In fact, from the evidence available, it seems as if Hurst, himself, may have been the pilot who delivered this third Lockheed Hudson for Guinea Air Traders, flying it from London to Israel. All financial transactions went through Max Freilich and the pilots sometimes had to wait some weeks to receive payment.

It is difficult to ascertain what motivated non-Jewish pilots to fly planes to Israel; but their motives included being moved by the plight of the Jewish people; anger at the policies of the British Empire;  a general anti-imperialist outlook; a belief in the strategic importance of Israel for the Western world; and a sense of adventure. Hanlon’s Irish background and a general sense of Australian “larrikinism”—a characteristic attitude to disregard the law—may have also contributed. The profit motive would have been another factor, as these ex-Australian airmen were paid for bringing the planes to Israel. Although these Australians flew planes to Israel, they did not actually join the Israeli Air Force, unlike a number of non-Jewish volunteers from other English-speaking countries.

Jewish volunteers for Machal were also canvassed in Australia. In January 1948, Theodor ‘Teddy’ Kollek took over control of the acquisition of arms and ammunition in the United States. He described his role during this period as that of ‘the traffic cop’. Writing from the United States, Kollek advised that only experienced soldiers should be selected, but the Israeli shlichim in Australia opposed this policy, arguing that young idealistic Zionist volunteers should not be discouraged.

Such recruitment activities were considered important as a means ‘to raise the morale of Australian Jewry and to incorporate them in the war effort.’ Two groups, HaShurah and Hagam, were established to institute physical training activities for potential recruits. However, the cost and length of the journey from Australia to Israel made it impractical to send large numbers. As well, the government threatened to withhold the passports of volunteers who went to Palestine to fight on either side. In the end a group of about 20 Australians volunteered and travelled to Israel.

In early 1949, after the closure of Rekhesh in the United States, other locations for the illegal purchase of arms were sought. The Israeli Air Force together with Internal Security (Shai) decided to send Agronsky to Australia as an undercover agent, posing as a freelance journalist. In May 1949 he arrived in Sydney where he sought to buy arms in Kings Cross, Sydney’s ‘red light’ district. Max Freilich’s daughter-in-law, Diana Freilich, an attractive, blue-eyed blond who had married his elder son Theodore in 1946, often accompanied him, acting as a decoy. He wrote that ‘in contrast to my preliminary pessimism, when I arrived I found a treasure of goods,’ and that the problem was “not in purchase but in delivery.’ Agronsky stressed that the plan was to purchase planes and other material, dismantle them, and send them as scrap metal, a type of shipment for which government approval could be sought.

The concerns which Agronsky expressed about delivering his purchases to Israel were well founded. Even though he was successful in making significant purchases, his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, due to the official opposition of the Australian government, the active interference of the Department of External Affairs, and the close monitoring of the Australian security service.

This untold story fits into the broader picture of arms deals that started in the United States and spread to other key Diaspora centres. Despite the risks of this undertaking, the relationships between Israel, the Australian government and the Jewish community leadership were not damaged. As we celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary, it is important to remember the Diaspora’s role, including this largely unknown story of Australian Jewry’s contribution to Israel’s founding in 1948 and 1949.

References:

Rutland, Suzanne D. ‘Seeking Treasure Island: Manpower and Arms from Australia and the South Pacific to Israel, 1948-1950

Bacon, Gershon C., Baumgarten, Albert, Barnai, Jacob, Waxman, Haim & Yuval, Israel (eds), Iggud – Selected Essays in Jewish Studies, Vol. 2, History of the Jewish People and Contemporary Jewish Society, Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2009, pp.203-217.

 

 

Comments

One Response to ““Seeking Treasure Island”: the purchase of arms and aeroplanes in Australia, 1948 – 1949”
  1. Harvey Cohen says:

    A fascinating and inspiring story. Images of the planes sourced from Australia and some other details may be found from the links on
    http://jewishhistoryaustralia.net and from the web page

    http://jewishhistoryaustralia.net/TheHistoryOfNow/AmbiguousRelationship.htm

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