The story behind the gun-camera sequences featuring Syrian MiG-21s shot down by Israeli Mirage IIIs

The story behind the gun-camera sequences featuring Syrian MiG-21s shot down by Israeli Mirage IIIs

By Tom Cooper
Aug 8 2021
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Al-Masry’s jet was then hit by 30mm cannon fire from one of Mirages and exploded, killing the pilot. It was the first MiG-21 shot down in air combat over the Middle East ever.

Recently, I discussed that air combat on Jul. 30, 1970, when the Israelis set up an ambush for the Soviets deployed in Egypt.

Now let’s see how those kills from Apr. 7, 1967 – visible on the three gun-camera sequences posted on Facebook lately, yet wrongly associated with 30 July 1970 – came into being.

Backgrounds

Usually published stories stress this clash was a part of ‘Water War,‘ ‘provoked‘ by Syria in 1964, and that in a single air combat the Israelis shot down 7 Syrian MiG-21s.

Forget all of that.

The Water War began already in 1952, when Israel launched the construction of its National Water Carrier (NWC). This envisaged a diversion of Jordan River’s water. The US reacted by requesting the Israelis to stop, and developing a UN-controlled plan that would include all the neighboring states: after all, the NWC was threatening to cut of Jordan (the country) from its main source of water. Israel couldn’t care less. When Eisenhower Administration threatened to stop providing economic aid – urgently necessary by Israel that had no economy to sustain itself – it simply continued, completing its project in early 1960s with help of (West) German reparations for the Holocaust.

Eisenhower then commissioned the Tennessee River Authority to develop a plan for a similar project in Jordan. Thus, came into being the design for the East Ghor Channel, fully financed by the USA. The construction of the same began in 1958.

In February of the same year, Egypt and Syria united to form the United Arab Republic (UAR). The UAR, decided to develop its own plan for the use of water in its Eastern Province (Syria), and then Lebanon decided to do something similar. Israel reacted by a series of air and artillery-strikes, that disturbed all the construction work: in 1960, the situation reached a point where Egyptian president Nasser became convinced Israel is about to launch an invasion of the Eastern Province. He ordered a secret mobilization of the Egyptian military and its deployment on the Sinai. The Israelis completely failed to detect this deployment: when they finally found out about it, they were shocked and stopped further attacks on the construction sites in the Eastern Province.

IDF Mirage

Mind this ‘experience‘: it was to play a crucial role for Nasser’s behavior during the crisis of May and June 1967.

In September 1961, a military coup in Damascus resulted in Syria leaving the UAR.

In 1964, the Arab League then decided to re-launch the Syrian and Lebanese projects. Theoretically, the Syrian attempt to divert the River Jordan was likely to dry out the NWC. In practice, everybody knew that it was impracticable, and likely to end in a failure. Nevertheless, Israel continued attacking the Syrian project even during the years at which this was in complete standstill, in 1963, for example: most of such operations were run in form of Israelis provoking clashes by driving armored tractors into one of two de-militarized zones along the armistice line to Syria from the 1947-1949 Arab-Israeli War (‘Independence War‘ in Israel, or ‘Palestine War‘ in the Arab World). If the Syrians wouldn’t open fire at these, the Israelis would open fire at the Syrians, and when the Syrians then returned fire, the Israelis would shell and bomb not only the Syrian positions, but nearby villages and then the Syrian construction site on the Jordan River, too. Of course, their official explanation were ‘terrorist attacks‘ on the NWC (there were only two of these, and both were botched up by the PLO’s fedayeen), and ‘Syrians shelling Israeli settlements‘ (which the Syrians occasionally did, but always in reaction to Israeli provocations and never to a degree to which the Israelis were destroying Syrian villages on the Golan Heights) …

Initial Action

Once Syria regained independence, in 1961, it had to completely rebuild its armed forces. In the course of this process, it placed an order for 48 MiG-21F-13s. These became operational in 1963, and were promptly involved in at least one clash with the Israelis, during the same year, and several additional incidents in 1964. Just like the Israelis were experiencing significant problems with the weapons systems and engines of their brand-new Mirage IIICJs at the time, so also the Syrians were experiencing major problems with ineffective Soviet R-3S missiles and poor ammunition of NR-30 cannons on their MiG-21F-13s. However, while the French took Israeli complaints seriously, and helped them solve these issues on Mirages, the Soviets didn’t do anything similar for the Syrians: early 1960s were the times of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin and the Soviets rocket/missile technology was considered ‘most advanced on the World‘. Therefore, the Soviets simply ignored Syrian complaints even as MiG-21F-13s repeatedly proved unable to shot down at least one of high-flying Israeli Vautour IIBR reconnaissance fighter-jets that were frequently violating the Syrian airspace. All the blame was put upon Syrian pilots that, arguably, proved anything but keen to listen to Soviet advice.

Ambush of Apr. 7, 1967

On Mar. 31, 1967, militants of the PLO’s faction Fatah blew up an irrigation pump and railway tracks in Israel near the Jordan River. The IDF promptly drew its armored tractors into the DMZ, near the Kibbutz Ha-On. Both were hit by the Syrian anti-tank fire and knocked out. The Israelis hit back, completely demolishing the Tewfik village (largely abandoned because of earlier Israeli air strikes).

Mirage 5

Emboldened by restrained Syrian reaction, the IDF decided to repeat the exercise. On Apr. 1967, Israeli armored tractors drove into the DMZ. The Syrians opened fire, the Israelis shoot back at the Syrian artillery, and then the IDF/AF ‘retaliated‘ by bombing the village of Sigufiya, massacring 14 civilians. In retaliation, the Syrian artillery shelled the Kibbutz Gadot, and the IDF/AF then bombed the Syrian artillery again.

At 15.50 local time, the SyAAF scrambled four MiG-17s and two MiG-21s. The formation bombed the Kibbutz Ein Gev when it came under attack by several Mirages. These fired at least four Shafrir Mk.I air-to-air missiles: all missed, but one forced 1st Lieutenant Mohammad Sa’eed al-Masry into a hard break. Al-Masry’s jet was then hit by 30mm cannon fire from one of Mirages and exploded, killing the pilot. It was the first MiG-21 shot down in air combat over the Middle East ever, and the first of six (some sources are citing seven) – claimed – by the Israelis on that day.

Two additional MiG-21s were then claimed by the Israelis in an air combat near Damascus, about 30 minutes later. The UN personnel present in the country reported sighting two aircraft going down around that time, and close to the Syrian capital, but none of available Syrian sources is citing such losses: on the contrary, all of them – official or unofficial – are claiming five Mirages as shot down in return.

As next, the Israelis sent several Mirages formations deep into the Syrian airspace. Aware it was an ambush, but lacking understanding of what is going on, the commander of the SyAAF, Hafez al-Assad, attempted to hold his force back. However, as the Mirages appeared in the skies over Damascus, he was unable to resist the pressure from his superiors. At 17.10, the SyAAF scrambled four MiG-21F-13s from Dmeyr AB in attempt to engage one of Israeli formations approaching Syria via the Jordanian airspace. Predictably, these were caught by multiple formations of Mirages and cut to pieces: three were shot down. Their pilots, Captain Ali Antar, Captain Mohi ad-Din Dawood and Ahmed Quwwatli, all ejected safely over Jordan, and were subsequently returned to Syria.

Consequences

The IDF/AF flew over 200 combat sorties that day (means: it was ready for action, and this was no ‘accident’), the SyAAF exactly 28. Eventually, the Israelis claimed a total of six or seven MiG-21s for no own losses. Official Damascus confirmed a loss of four, while claiming five Mirages. As far as I know, the Israelis never published more evidence for their claims than the three gun-camera sequences that are attached. The Syrians never published any kind of evidence in support of their claims, but did publish the names of their four downed pilots: one of them – al-Masry – was posthumously decorated for bravery.

Ultimately, these three air combats (not just one) of Apr. 7, 1967 became something like an overture to the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War (or ‘Six Days War‘ as usually called in the West). Namely, because Moscow felt alarmed over the growing Israeli pressure upon Syria, it attempted to prompt Nasser into mobilising and deploying the Egyptian military on the Sinai, just like in 1960. Although his own officers told him that no Israeli invasion of Syria would be in the making, Nasser followed the Soviet advice…. Things started rolling, and then Moscow lost the control of the situation… with consequences deftly felt not only in the Middle East until this very day.

Check out Helion & Company website for books featuring interesting stories written by The Aviation Geek Club contributor Tom Cooper.

The story behind the gun-camera sequences featuring Syrian MiG-21s shot down by Israeli Mirage IIIs

Photo credit: Israeli Air Force, Tom Cooper and brewbooks from near Seattle, USA via Wikipedia


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Tom Cooper

Tom Cooper

Tom Cooper, from Austria, is a military-aviation journalist and historian. Following a career in a worldwide transportation business — in which, during his extensive travels in Europe and the Middle East, he established excellent contacts — he moved into writing. An earlier fascination with post-Second World War military aviation has narrowed to focus on smaller air forces and conflicts, about which he has collected extensive archives of material. Concentrating primarily on air warfare that has previously received scant attention, he specializes in investigative research on little-known African and Arab air forces, as well as the Iranian Air Force. Cooper has published 21 books — including the unique Arab MiGs' series, which examines the deployment and service history of major Arab air forces in conflicts with Israel — as well as over 200 articles on related topics, providing a window into a number of previously unexamined yet fascinating conflicts and relevant developments.

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