Sydney Cohen, early IAF leader, dies at 90


Sydney Cohen, whose contributions to Israel’s War of Independence as an early leader in the nascent Israeli Air Force are still remembered, died Dec. 1 at 90 in his Ramat Hasharon home.

Cohen, a native of South Africa, flew Czech Spitfires to Israel in the early days of the war and was an early commander of Squadron 101, Israel’s first dedicated fighter squadron and one of the air force’s first units in the days when the IAF was a ragtag collection of planes and hotshot pilots, many of them volunteers.


According to a website that chronicles the volunteers who have fought for Israel, Cohen “had to manage the pilots, quite a collection of characters. These men volunteered to fly for Israel out of a sense of religious duty, or a sense of justice, or for a bit of excitement, or for a bit of cash. They were strong and diverse personalities, and maintaining discipline was not an easy task. They frequented and wrecked bars in Tel Aviv, and they were also notorious for stealing cars and trucks for the squadron. In fact, the airfield became known as ‘Syd’s Used Car Lot.”

Cohen, himself was considered a “colorful character” even during his tenure in the South African Air Force during World War II, in which he engaged in numerous airborne dogfights with German aircraft, according to an article about him written by Harold “Smoky” Simon, also of the Machal organization:

He had a tremendous beard and a handlebar moustache, and was known in the air force as “the flying rabbi.” He also had a wonderful sense of humor.

I was on a bomber squadron, and they used to be protected by the fighter squadrons. On one of the flights, two ME 109s (German fighter planes) jumped him, and he couldn’t shake them off. He called his formation leader and asked him: “How did these Jerrys know that I’m the only Jewish boy in this formation?”

Cohen grew up in the South African village of Bothaville, and was in medical school in South Africa before World War II. He was back in medical school after the war when he was recruited to join the new state’s air corps. Fabled 101 Squadron leader Mordechai "Modi" Alon  and longtime IAF head Ezer Weizman were among his early colleagues. In October 1948 Alon was killed in battle and Cohen took over the squadron. After the war, he was commander of the Hatzor Airbase.He  returned to South Africa to finish his medical degree. He made aliyah in 1965 at the request of Weizman and worked as a doctor at Tel HaShomer Medical Center and then as Chief Medical Officer for El Al. He retired from that post at 85. During the Six Day War and Yom Kippur War Cohen was an Airborne Combat Medic.

During the War of Independence, having reached Israel after an improbably long flight from Czechoslovakia, Cohen and two other pilots in the Spitfires carried out a successful attack on the Egyptian El Arish airbase that destroyed Egyptian aircraft on the ground and in their hangars, and put the airfield out of action.

Former Israeli Air Force Commander Dan Tolkovsky told Ynet that he always held Cohen in the highest esteem. “He was a rare pilot and human being, steady, a leader, a good commander and a man of values who succeeded in every role he filled." Another former commander, Amos Lapidot, said Cohen "was a Zionist, a guide, and was considered the highest authority on everything related to aviation medicine. He will always be remembered as one of those who shaped Israel’s combat squadron."

Click here and here to read more about the wild and woolly ways of the IAF’s early days.

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