Cold War Era

Former Egyptian MiG pilots provide an unprecedented perspective on Six-Day War “pre-emptive” Israeli strike against EAF airfields

‘I called him to ask what was happening. He answered, “It’s fantastic, they are attacking the dummy planes on the old runway! The real planes, which had been hidden under cover, weren’t attacked. None of these were hit during the first two attacks,’ EAF MiG pilot Tahir Zaki phone conversation with Wg Cdr Mamdouh Taliba

Practically everything there is to say about the Israeli assault against four Arab air forces on Jun. 5, 1967, the “Operation Moked” (“Focus”), is meanwhile well known. This strike ranks amongst the most successful and celebrated military operations of all times. In simple terms: the “pre-emptive” Israeli attack against Egyptian airfields in Sinai, on the Suez Canal and elsewhere on that fateful morning, destroyed the fighting power of the UARAF (United Arab Republic Air Force, designation of Egyptian and Syrian air forces between 1958 and 1962, and of the Egyptian Air Force until 1969). By keeping successive attack waves over major enemy airfields for most of the day, the IDF/AF also broke Egyptian resistance.

As told by Tom Cooper and and David Nicolle in their book Arab MiGs, Volume 1, early on the morning of Jun. 5, 1967, several MiG-15s and MiG-17s were airborne over Egypt. A pair of No.18 Squadron’s MiG-17s flew a CAP along the border with Israel at dawn. Around 08:00 hrs at least two MiG-15s took off for a training mission from one of the airfields along the Suez Canal not blocked by morning fog.

Around 08:45 hrs local time, el-Arish AB came under rocket and cannon-fire from Israeli fighter-bombers. The blow delivered by Ouragans was so unexpected, that most of No.18 Squadron’s MiG-17s were destroyed before their crews ever recognized what is going on. Egyptian Air Force (EAF) MiG pilot Fikry el-Gahramy could only conclude:

`There was no warning at all. The aircraft at el-Arish were completely wiped out. In the evening of that day pilots and ground crews were sent back to Cairo.’

Somewhat inaccurately, another EAF MiG pilot, Tahsin Zaki later complained: `It is important to point out that in June 1967, the Israelis attacked el-Arish air-field ten minutes before the rest of our air bases, and that the whole battle could have been different if the commander at el-Arish had contacted Meliz AB via the hotline.’

In fact, el-Arish was not attacked earlier than other UARAF airfields. At precisely the same time a formation of Mirage IIICJs attacked Bir Thamada. However, FM Fawzy (Maj-Gen, Egyptian Army Chief of Staff for Operations) later provided a possible reason for Israeli ability to neutralize No.18 Squadron and el-Arish AB so swiftly. According to him, the CO el-Arish AB was working for the Israelis for most of the 1960s and revealed them all the details of his orders.

Simultaneously with el-Arish and Bir Thamada, Kabrit, which was the main hub of UARAF MiG-15 and MiG-17 operations, was nevertheless not considered a “major target” by the IDF/AF. However, it came under a heavy attack by SMB.2s from No.105 Squadron led by Yakov Nevo. This caused enough damage for EAF MiG pilot Mustafa Hafez to find himself frenetically searching for an operational aircraft to take off and fight back:

`I was not actually due to fly that morning. Around 08:20 hrs I was in the mess, since I was due to fly later that day. No particular aircraft had been allocated to me, since this was normal in our air force. We flew what was available. Suddenly I heard explosions and went outside the mess, and asked people what was going on. Someone said that it must be practise somewhere. That was when I saw an Israeli aircraft attacking, very low from south to north, coming in towards the runway. It was a Super Mystére.

‘My first instinct was to run towards a ditch, but as soon as I got there I said to myself, “what am I doing here like an idiot?” So I ran to the squadron bus so I could get to the squadron headquarters. There I found the regimental CO. He had previously been my squadron leader at Abu Suweir. His name was Mamdouh Taliba, an excellent man. He was actually heading for his car so I went up to the passenger door. The CO drove to the nearest available aircraft, and I helped strap him in, though we weren’t absolutely sure that this aircraft was ready to go. Just as he was about to close the hood I noticed that the safety pin of the ejector seat was still in, so I pulled it out. I think he took off on a sub-runway as the main runway had already been hit.’

Wing Commander Mamdouh Taliba and another pilot from No.31 Squadron scrambled undisturbed by SMB.2s because the Israelis were busy engaging two I1-14s – the planes carrying FM Amer (Egyptian Minister of War) and his entourage – that now flew right in the middle of their attack. Both transports were claimed as shot down, before the Israeli formation was intercepted by two MiG-21s and suffered a loss of two of its own aircraft. Actually, the I1-14 carrying Egyptian Minister Hussein el-Shafie and the Iraqi Defence Minister landed safely at Fayid before the place was hit for the first time (and their 11-14 destroyed on the ground). But, the plane carrying Amer had to abort the landing after Fayid AB came under attack as well. Turning around, it arrived over Inchas. Seeing this base in flames, Amer ordered the pilot to continue for Cairo West. All the time, additional Israeli fighters were flashing by. The Supreme Commander of Egyptian military found himself cut off from his Headquarters in the most crucial moments of the war.

Mustafa Hafez used the short break following this first attack to continue his search for a serviceable aircraft:

‘Then I tried to find another aircraft. They were all either damaged or being serviced, or were not ready to go. Then I went to hangar….’

When Bir Thamada came under a second attack, around 08:50 hrs, No.25 Squadron’s pilots scrambled to get airborne. Several took off as Ouragans ravaged the base, claiming the destruction of six MiGs. The last pair of UARAF fighters trying to roll for take off was not as lucky: both MiG-17s exploded after receiving multiple hits from Israeli cannon fire. Nothing similar happened at el-Sur: all of No.24 Squadron’s MiG-15bis still parked there were destroyed on the ground, along with one or two MiG-17s from No.18 Squadron.

Although hit by Israeli Ouragans around 08:55 hrs, and despite not being a regular MiG-17-base in June 1967, Meliz AB also managed to scramble several MiG-17s. Instead of engaging inferior opponents, however, their pilots were ordered to fly towards the West. With this, the Air Group 2’s and 12’s forces consisting of the MiG-15s and MiG-17s deployed in Sinai, effectively ceased to exist.

The situation on the airfields in the Canal Zone was worsening. Kabrit came under a second attack by No.105 Squadron’s SMB.2s around 08:55 hrs. Over the base, the two MiG-17s led by Wg Cdr Mamdouh Taliba sighted the Israelis while still climbing. Engaging their afterburners, the Egyptians attempted to evade, but the Number 2 of the Israeli formation first reported hits at one MiG-17’s engine and left wing, and then claimed it as shot down in a second attack. The leader of the Israeli formation confirmed that this MiG crashed, but available Egyptian sources deny any such loss. With Israeli fighters again busy disobeying their orders and engaging in air combats, Mustafa Hafez’s search for an operational aircraft finally bore fruit:

‘By this time mechanics started coming back after running away as the first bombs fell. That was when I took off in an available MiG-17F. I didn’t even check if it was armed, but only asked if it had been refuelled. I took off on a sub-runway. By that time, Mamdouh Taliba landed. I didn’t have any plans, only to try and defend the airfield. Once I was up in the air I could see the smoke from other airfields which had been attacked. I hadn’t even cleared my take off with the control tower, I just took off. Nor did I have any idea what the rest of the squadron were doing. Then I saw something flying very low. It was a Mirage going west to east, so I half rolled in behind it. It was probably doing a reconnaissance as it was on its own and was not attacking targets on the ground. As I followed it I tried to load [cock] my guns three times, but my MiG- 17 was too slow to keep up and after a while the Mirage just flew off. Of course I was angry and frustrated because I was unable to shoot down that Mirage. There was a switch in the cockpit that changed the armament from rockets to guns. And I wasn’t the only pilot to make the same mistake. Hisham Said Abdu, who was another instructor, did the same thing.

‘Almost immediately after that I saw something else very low with a long exhaust of smoke. It crashed into the Suez Canal. I thought it might have been one of my colleagues but in fact it was probably a SAM. Then, I landed safely. Another of our pilots tried to take off using the main runway but hit some bomb damage which damaged his aircraft so that he had to eject while still on the ground. He survived but he was very lucky because the minimum height for ejecting was supposed to be 250 metres. His name was Muhammad al-Hadidi. This happened after I had landed.’

The Mirage Hafez attempted to attack was probably involved in attack on another major UARAF MiG-17 base: Cairo West. That airfield was hit precisely at 09:00 hrs, by a formation from No.101 Squadron IDF/AF, which claimed hits on at least three MiG-17s. Nevertheless a few MiGs still remained operational, since Wg Cdr Zohair Shalabi scrambled with two wingmen immediately afterwards. After remaining on a CAP for some time, he decided to divert to Helwan AB, in order to disperse his aircraft, arriving there around 09:30 hrs.

Israeli Air Force Mirage IIICJ 158 at the Israeli Air Force Museum in Hatzerim

Bir Thamada was hit for the third time in such quick succession that the UARAF pilots there believed they had been under a continuous assault for 15 minutes. The airfield ceased to be an active fighter base around 09:00 hrs, Mystéres of No.109 Squadron having destroyed the last intact MiG-17 on the ground. Flight Lieutenant Hashim Mustafa Hassan on No.25 Squadron recalled the strange situation that developed when another Israeli formation appeared overhead only a few minutes later:

`Some 30 seconds from the end of the attack, a second wave of planes arrived… We ran about the desert, looking for cover, but the planes didn’t shoot. They merely circled, their pilots surprised that the base was completely destroyed and that no targets remained. We were the only targets… weak humans scurrying in the desert with handguns as our only means of self-defence. It was a sad comedy… pilots of the newest and best-equipped jets fighting with handguns. Five minutes after the beginning of the attack, the planes disappeared and a silence prevailed that encompassed the desert and the noise that destroyed our planes and the airbase and the squadron. They completed their assignment in the best way possible, with a ratio of losses —100 percent for us, 0 percent for them.’

Meanwhile, the third Israeli strike on Kabrit struck around 09:10 hrs, followed by another at 09:25 hrs. This time, Super Mystére B.2s of No.105 Squadron and Mystére IVAs of No.109 Squadron IDF/AF respectively, claimed a total of up to 18 MiG-15s and MiG-17s destroyed on the ground, bringing the total to 30 since the war began. But their claims were almost certainly exaggerated, since Wg Cdr Mamdouh Taliba described an entirely different situation when MiG pilot Tahir Zaki called him, sometimes after 09:00 hrs local time:

‘I called him to ask what was happening. He answered, “It’s fantastic, they are attacking the dummy planes on the old runway! The real planes, which had been hidden under cover, weren’t attacked. None of these were hit during the first two attacks. But there were about eight or nine open pens and these had one aircraft in each of them. Some of these were attacked.” These were the only real planes that the Israelis attacked. We also had very big hangars at Kabrit, so we put four MiG-17s in each, one in each corner of the hangar where they were less likely to be hit. And they weren’t.’

For their part, the Israelis believed that most of Egypt’s dummy aircraft were made of inflatable rubber rather than wood and they only admitted being fooled by them at Abu Suweir and Cairo West.

Nevertheless, the later attack on Kabrit caused Mustafa Hafez to scramble for second time under most dangerous circumstances:

`Very soon afterwards I took off again in a different aircraft. This was a MiG- 17PF [serial number 2803]. There had been no time for me to report or to be debriefed. I merely changed aircraft. As I started the engine the airfield came under attack again, perhaps it was the second or third attack. I was still inside the hanger, in the cockpit, when I heard the attack. I cleared the hanger doors at full throttle and afterburner. The aircraft was swerving and rocking from side to side as I turned, first to the left to clear another hanger which was facing my hanger, then to the right along a taxiway, then to the left again to cross a small railway line which ran between the hangers and the main sub-runway, then sharp right onto that sub-runway. I was afraid the wingtips would hit the ground. I took off without a pause and climbed as steep as I could, but the enemy had gone. Taliba had also taken off during the attack.’

Once airborne, Hafez was joined by Wg Cdr Taliba, and the two established a CAP over Kabrit, remaining airborne until about the time the fifth Israeli raid on Kabrit came in, around 09:40 hrs:

‘He [Taliba] joined me and told me to accompany him as his Number Two (wingman). As I was joining him I saw a SAM coming towards us. We avoided it but Taliba ordered me to land as I only had 450 litres of fuel left. Taliba had landed and I was on my final approach at a height of about 15 to 20 metres when Taliba shouted over the radio, “Hafez! You have aircraft ahead of you!” So I retracted my undercar-riage and flap, gave the aircraft full throttle and afterburner. The Israelis were about 100 metres ahead of me. I counted them, one, two, three, four; so I pulled up and tried to follow the last one. But this meant leaving the turn a bit late. I should have turned earlier. The Israelis were a bit lower than me. All five of us started circling, then one came at me head on and opened fire. This made me so angry that I swore out loud. The Israeli turned to the right. I turned first to the left and then to the right to try and follow him. A head-on attack is very difficult.

‘That was when I was hit in the right wing. We were all flying at about 200 or 300 metres. My right aileron was damaged and I continued turning right, unable to straighten out, so I gained height. The Israeli couldn’t keep with me as a MiG-17 is better in a climb. My aircraft juddered several times and almost went into a spin. I thought it odd that it tried to spin under those conditions [this was perhaps when his aircraft was hit a second time, in the tail and rear fuselage]. While three of the Israeli aircraft attacked our airfield, the fourth one followed me. After the three have strafed the field, the fourth one did the same, then they all flew home.

Meanwhile I was still turning to the right, unable to straighten up. As I lined up on a runway I used the aileron trim to straighten out. This wasn’t standard procedure. I don’t know if I invented it or maybe it just came by instinct, but it worked. I had no communication with the ground, but I landed OK. The MiG had been badly damaged. The right wing was damaged, the lower part of the rudder had mostly been shot away, the main control rod to the stabilizer was much damaged. The rear fuel tank had also been hit but fortunately it had been almost empty and although there had been a fire in the tank, and the alarm had been set off in my cockpit, I had used the fire extinguisher and this did the trick as there hadn’t been enough fuel to cause a big fire.’

Although none of the Israelis saw Mustafa Hafez’s MiG-17 actually hit the ground, Major Asaf Ben-Nun of No.105 Squadron claimed a kill. Interestingly, he remained the only IDF/AF pilot whose claim to have downed an Egyptian MiG-17 on the first day of the 1967 War was subsequently considered as “confirmed” by the Israeli Air Force. The exact reason for this Israeli conclusion remains unknown, since the UARAF did not lose a single MiG-17 in air combat on Jun. 5, 1967.

However bolstered by this success, the Israelis then broadened their operations to cover the Jordanian and Syrian, and the Iraqi fronts. In the course of few hours they annihilated the RJAF (Royal Jordanian Air Force) and then inflicted such losses on the SyAAF (Syrian Arab Air Force) that thereafter it took virtually no active part in the war. In regard to effectiveness and significance for the outcome of the entire campaign and the future of the Middle East, no operation in history stands comparison with the IDF/AF attack on that day.

Photo credit: Francesco Gasparetti from Senigallia, Italy and Oren Rozen via Wikipedia

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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