Published on March 20, 2020
By Thomas Van Hare
Week after week on Saturdays — the Jewish sabbath — at roughly noon, the pilots of the newly founded Israeli Air Force (IAF) watched helplessly as a tiny speck of a plane cut a contrail high above the newly declared state of Israel. Nobody knew whose plane it was. It always flew in on one day from the west, passed over central Israel and directly across the Negev desert, and then disappeared toward the northeast. The next day, it would fly in over the Sea of Galilee, pass over Ramat David AB again, and then turn south to disappear over the Negev. Some ground-based observer reports relayed that the plane appeared to head generally toward Egypt.
It had to be a reconnaissance plane, but whose? Was it Iraqi? Egyptian? Was it from Trans-Jordan? The IAF’s pilots, mostly foreign volunteers known as Mahalniks, knew only one thing with certainty — it wasn’t one of their own. Lacking a name for the mysterious flight, they dubbed it “Shufti Kite”.
As one, they made a vow to shoot it down — if they ever got the chance.
Setting the Stage
On November 20, 1948, Israel was in the closing months of the Independence War. The pilots of their newly founded air force, the IAF, watched helplessly week after week as the Shufti Kite made its way over Israel’s newly sovereign skies. They surmised that it was taking photos of troop movements and preparing imagery for future raid planning that might target airfields, fuel and ammunition depots, and even civilian centers. The photos might even aid the Arabs in the planning the next invasion. The Shufti Kite had to be stopped.
For months, intercepting the Shufti Kite had been far beyond the IAF’s capabilities. The Israelis had an odd collection of plane types, essentially whatever they could find and convert to military use. For cargo and utility flying, the IAF had a Beech Bonanza, a Dragon Rapide, a few Piper Cubs, a Republic RC-3 Seabee flying boat, some Curtiss C-46 Commandos (these doubled as bombers with crews simply rolling bombs out of the open cargo door while flying over targets), and even a Lockheed Constellation. For fighters, the IAF had the tired ex-WWII era and much despised Czech-built Avia S-199, known as “The Mule”, a variant of the Messershmitt Bf 109G, and the Czechs had just provided a few dozen Spitfire LF IXs.
None of the IAF’s planes could fly high enough to shoot down the intruder, let alone even get close to identify it. When they took off to intercept, the pilots could only watch helplessly as the Shufti Kite would hum along well above their maximum altitude of around 20,000 feet. The Shufti Kite was flying easily above 30,000 feet and possibly even a mile higher.
Compounding the problem, the IAF’s few planes lacked oxygen systems. Thus, they could not hope to fly that high without the pilots blacking out from hypoxia. The “air up there” was simply too thin to breathe. However, in November 1948, that changed.
The First P-51D Mustangs
In the autumn of 1948, the IAF had received its first pair of smuggled, demilitarized North American P-51D Mustang fighter planes. As described in Boaz Dvir’s book, “Saving Israel” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), a Jewish-American citizen named Al Schwimmer bought them in the United States from an arms dealer, then disassembled and smuggled them to Israel in unmarked crates. The planes were USAAF/USAF surplus aircraft that Schwimmer had shipped to Israel in defiance of a near global arms embargo that had been levied against the new Jewish state. After the planes had arrived, the foreign volunteer ground crews of the Mahal had worked tirelessly for weeks to assemble them and get them ready for combat.
The two P-51D Mustangs were fitted with home-built oxygen systems and a set of either Czech-built machineguns (as some sources indicate) or four (rather than the usual six) Browning .50 caliber machineguns (as described in other sources). As the USAAF/USAF gunsights had been removed when the planes had been demilitarized, the Israelis fitted Czech-made Revi gunsights that had been removed from some of the wrecked Avia S-199 fighters.
With the arrival of the P-51D Mustangs, the IAF pilots started planning how to intercept the Shufti Kite. Neither the oxygen system nor the guns had been tested in the air, however. While the guns could be expected to be fairly reliable, the oxygen system was another matter. Flying it to altitude to test it was risky. The pilots knew exactly how to perform their first flight test of the oxygen system — they would go after the Shufti Kite.
The Arab Air Forces and the Shufti Kite
Opposing the Israeli Air Force with its foreign pilots were the combined air forces of a half dozen Arab states. The best equipped were the Royal Egyptian Air Force (REAF), which flew British-supplied Supermarine Spitfire LF IX fighters and former Italian WWII surplus Macchi MC 205 fighter planes.
However, while the Egyptians had multi-engine cargo planes (and these were being used as bombers), they had no advanced aircraft that could fly as high as the Shufti Kite. The REAF was also starting to receive more advanced fighter planes, like the Hawker Tempest and some of these were being deployed to Egypt. On paper, the REAF was vastly superior to the IAF. In reality, the volunteers of the Mahal were making clear that the important part of every plane was its pilot.
Identifying the Shufti Kite
The term, “Shufti Kite”, was an apt name for a reconnaissance aircraft. It derived from an old military slang term from the Arabic word for “look”, as in to have a look around and see what was up — ex. “take a shufti while you’re out there” — and the British slang for airplane — “kite”. Whatever “looking around” the Shufti Kite was doing wasn’t welcome.
The IAF’s Mahal pilots guessed that the Shufti Kite was likely either some kind of high altitude, British-built, four-engine bomber or perhaps a de Havilland Mosquito. However, they couldn’t be sure. Even when viewed with high-powered binoculars, the Shufti Kite was just a dot at the front edge of what was often a long double or possibly quadruple contrail. Sometimes, if the atmospheric conditions weren’t right, there wasn’t even a contrail.
Who flew it was question mark. It seemed that the British had supplied the Arabs with a high flying reconnaissance plane of some sort.
Although Israel had no way of knowing, the plane was actually not in service with the Arabs, but actually owned and operated by the British RAF. It was a de Havilland Mosquito PR34. Naturally, it carried a British military aircrew. The Mosquito was a twin-engine, high speed, light bomber and reconnaissance plane that had proven its worth during WWII. It flew so fast and so high that often even the vaunted the German Luftwaffe had trouble catching it — even with their early jets. For the IAF, to intercept it was a sheer impossibility — until the arrival of the first P-51D Mustangs.
The Shufti Kite’s Mission
Although the British weren’t supposed to have chosen sides in the 1948 War of Independence, in fact, they had done so in almost every way except publicly. When the REAF lost a Spitfire to one of the IAF’s Czech-built Avia S-199 Mules or Spitfires, the British were quick to send them a newer, more updated model as a replacement. When the tide had started to turn against the Arabs, the RAF had even taken to flying escort missions for Egyptian combat planes — up to, but not across the border of Israel. For that mission, the RAF flew its newer model, Supermarine Mk XVIIIs and Hawker Tempests, one of the finest planes in the early post-war era.
Not only was the RAF flying the Shufti Kite, it was also providing the photo reconnaissance intelligence images that were taken during the missions to the Arabs. The plane was based out of Iraq and Egypt. The missions were in support of what was then called Trans-Jordan Treaty (nowadays Trans-Jordan is simply known as Jordan). The British provided equipment, training, and even officers to command the ground and air forces of Trans-Jordan’s army.
Agreements were in place to assist each key Arab country in time of war. With the 1948 War of Independence in full swing, the agreement with Trans-Jordan, code-named “Barter”, was in full force and effect. Under “Barter”, the Shufti Kite was tasked with flying its regular missions in support of the Arab forces in their fight against the new-formed state of Israel.
The RAF’s Mosquito recce plane was providing regular intelligence imagery of Israel’s disposition, including military aircraft, and its ground forces to the Arab armies. This included detailed photographic imagery of cities like Tel Aviv. The Arabs used these photos to plan bombing raids.
A Fateful Day in RAF History
On November 20, 1948, an RAF Mosquito PR34 VL 625, carrying the call sign “Graphic III”, took off from RAF Habbaniyah Airfield in Iraq on a standard overflight of Israel, exactly as they had done for months prior. The reconnaissance mission plan called for a 48 hour pair of flights with stops for refueling, crew rest, and offloading of photographic imagery at either end of the flight in Iraq and Egypt.
Typically, the first of the two flights would originate from an RAF base in the Egyptian territory called Fayid Airbase (approximately 14 miles south of Ismailia and 72 miles northeast of Cairo) that was manned so as to protect the Suez Canal. From there, the plane would fly east across the southern Negev desert before turning north to land at RAF Habbaniyah. After a crew rest, the following day, the Mosquito would make its second flight over Israel, this time heading down the center of the country from north to south after passing directly over Ramat David AB. It was this mission that the IAF was most familiar with, having watched it numerous times.
That day, “Graphic III” was flown by Pilot Flight Officer Eric Reynolds, RAF, and his navigator, Flight Officer Angus Love, RAF. They were executing the second of their two assigned flights, heading back to their home base in Egypt. They were assigned to RAF 13 Squadron that was located at that time at Kabrit Airfield in the Suez Canal Zone with some planes flying out of Fayid Airfield. After departing RAF Habbaniyah, “Graphic III” climbed to 28,000 feet of altitude and took its usual heading toward Israel’s Ramat David AB.
As often happened, that day the Shufti Kite was spotted by the volunteer network of Israeli kibbutniks who manned small towers around the country and served as air observation posts. With their eyes peeled skyward, the kibbutzniks served as a human stand-in for radar. Whatever they saw, they identified (if they could), and reported back to a central IAF base. They reported the contact’s position, estimated altitude, estimated speed, and heading. That information was then disseminated to the IAF’s few squadrons and to ground units. At one of the kibbutzim, a farming community called Ramat HaShofet, one of the kibbutzniks named Menachem had been manning the observation towers for months — he had been sent there because the other kibbutzniks were tired of him always challenging them with music history questions and telling endless stories. He took it in good humor, of course, and soon excelled at spotting the Shufti Kite as it flew overhead.
A few weeks prior to the mission against the Shufti Kite, the IAF’s only dedicated fighter squadron (the 101st Squadron) had moved from its hidden base at Herziliya, a dirt strip located near Tel Aviv, to another location farther south in the desert at Kastina (now known as Hatzor AB). This new base afforded the squadron a bit of extra time to get off, climb to altitude, and possibly intercept the Shufti Kite with one of the two new P-51D Mustangs. It was also better positioned to defend the border with Egypt.
That day’s mission against the Shufti Kite had been planned carefully in advance. An IAF P-51D Mustang — a specific plane that the Israelis had designated as “Mustang Number 40” (one of only two that they had flying) — was to take off and climb in wide circles over the base until reaching an altitude of around 30,000 feet. Since Israel had no radar systems to provide vectors for the interception, the pilot would turn north toward Ramat David AB and then tune in the radio to listen to a running narrative provided by a second pilot who would stay on the ground. That second pilot would be scanning the skies from Ramat David AB with a pair of binoculars. The idea was that he could guide the P-51D Mustang toward the Shufti Kite until it was spotted. As well, the second pilot on the ground would relay any position reports he received from the kibbutzniks who were to be reporting in.
Squadron leader Syd Cohen chose to play the key role on the ground with his binoculars at Ramat David AB. He selected a North Carolina WWII USAAF veteran pilot from among the other Mahal volunteers, Wayne Peake, to fly the newly reassembled P-51D Mustang. The choice was made simply because Peake had the most time flying P-51s during WWII — in fact, he was a highly experienced after flying combat missions against the Nazi Luftwaffe.
The Mission — A Tragic Ending
The day of the interception, the RAF Mosquito pilot, Pilot Flight Officer Eric Reynolds, apparently had grown complacent. Months of easy reconnaissance missions had led him to probably downplay the risk of interception. Therefore, rather than climbing to the best altitude of 36,000 feet, F/O Reynolds leveled off instead at 28,000 feet. Perhaps he wanted to get better resolution photography. We’ll never know.
His confidence that he would not be intercepted, if that was indeed the cause, would not have been unwarranted. RAF intelligence reports were clear, the IAF had no aircraft that climb up to even that height and intercept his plane. As it was, the RAF had no idea that that IAF had fielded its first P-51D Mustangs. This was an intelligence failure, as a few of the Mustangs had already flown a few missions over several Arab countries, including one in which a Mustang escorted a Spitfire on a reconnaissance mission.
When the first sign of the Shufti Kite was called in from the kibbutzniks, Wayne Peake was already in the air and heading north. He climbed rapidly to intercept. As the Shufti Kite neared Ramat David AB, it was level at 28,000 feet. Peake, expecting to intercept the other plane at around 36,000 feet — and if not intercept, then at least get close enough to identify it — had reached his maximum altitude of 30,000 feet.
With the running commentary from the ground, he was closing fast on the position of the RAF plane. However, F/O Reynolds spotted the P-51D first. From the ground, Syd Cohen watched as the Shufti Kite made a turn and headed west toward the Mediterranean Sea. We can also surmise that probably F/O Reynolds had rammed his throttles forward and started into a climb as well, hoping to reach the safety that he might have been found at higher altitudes.
He was too late.
As Peake closed in from behind, however, he had his own problems. Critically, the homebuilt oxygen system in the P-51D Mustang had failed. As a result, Peake was suffering from blurry, tunnel vision as well as double vision. Hypoxia was rapidly setting in. Nearly blinded from a lack of oxygen, at first Peake could not see the Mosquito at all.
From the ground at Ramat David AB, Cohen watched through his binoculars as Peake drew in from behind. Suddenly, Cohen realized that Peake must be too high, somehow above the Mosquito. He called to Peake on the radio and instructed him to descend. Immediately, Peake rolled the plane inverted and pulled back on the stick to drop the nose into a diving split-S. As he did that, there right in front of him, the Shufti Kite loomed into view. The RAF Mosquito was speeding westward toward the sea. Peake was lined up perfectly for a shot.
Peake realized he could only make one firing pass before diving to lower altitudes so that he could breathe again. Still upside down and in a fast dive, he was coming up quickly directly from behind the Mosquito. He rolled out and lined up his Revi gunsight on the blurry plane, completely unsure what type it was. With the double vision he suffered from hypoxia, he thought he saw four engines, not the two that the Mosquito actually had. He concluded that the plane was probably a Hawker Halifax bomber. With only seconds to attack, he pulled the trigger anyway and fired a quick burst with his four machineguns. Then, he continued down to dive away as he gasped for air and, reaching lower altitudes, he slowly came out of hypoxia.
Peake had fired just 45 rounds from the four machineguns. His aim, however, was spot on. Peake saw strikes along the fuselage and on one of the port engines (again, he thought he saw two engines on each side). He also saw what he thought was the beginning of an engine fire.
In 1993, author Ehud Yonay interviewed Syd Cohen for his book, “No Margin for Error: The Making of the Israeli Air Force”. Remembering the Shufti Kite incident, Cohen related how the Mosquito continued onward after Peake’s firing pass. “It was going away and Peake cursing like hell on the radio and almost crying because he couldn’t fire another shot, but suddenly I noticed that the vapor trails were getting thicker and thicker, and then I saw fire, and the next thing I knew that thing just disintegrated in the air.”
Aboard the the RAF Mosquito, F/O Reynolds at first had continued flying toward the Mediterranean Sea, perhaps intending to turn south and skirt the coast offshore toward Ashkelon and beyond to Egypt. Or perhaps he had been injured or killed. Unable to maintain altitude due to the damage it had sustained, the Mosquito was descending fast. When the plane reached approximately 20,000 feet, quite suddenly and apparently without warning, it exploded in midair. Neither F/O Reynolds nor F/O Love survived to bale out. The wreckage fell into the Mediterranean just off the coast near the farming moshav of Dor, southwest of Haifa.
Immediately after the shootdown, one of the other IAF pilots, Ezer Weizman, took off in his squadron’s Republic RC-3 Seabee flying boat, a small single engine plane that they were using at the time for amphibious flights. He flew to the crash site and spotted what appeared to be wreckage on waves below. He circled at low altitude but could find no survivors.
Back in Iraq, when reports came in that the Mosquito had not made it to Egypt, the British Commander in Chief consulted with his CAS. The decision was made to temporarily halt any further overflights. Thereafter, the C-in-C decided that London should be asked to confirm ministerial approval for resuming the reconnaissance flights. Given the risk, however, his request was denied. Ultimately, the RAF never resumed flying the Shufti Kite missions. Sadly, the bodies of F/O Reynolds and F/O Love were never recovered. The shootdown of the Shufti Kite marked the final mission that RAF flew.
Reconnaissance missions continued, however, but not by the RAF. Rather, the IAF had started a new tradition of flying over all of the Arab capital cities and airfields in the region, taking photographs of Damascus, Cairo, Beirut, Amman, and key Iraqi airfields. Not long afterward, the IAF itself received its first Mosquito twin-engined “wooden wonders”, planes that would also serve in reconnaissance for the Israelis. The IAF continues those reconnaissance missions to this day with every new generation of aircraft — including more commonly used nowadays remotely piloted aircraft (stealth drones).
As for Wayne Peake, after he finished his volunteering with the IAF, he returned to the USA and joined Flying Tigers Airline. Over time, he rose to become the airline’s chief pilot. In January 1991, he passed away, the victim of cancer. Fulfilling his dying wish, his body is buried in Israel.
To read more about Wayne Peake and the other foreign volunteers who helped form the Israeli Air Force (IAF), check out Boaz Dvir’s new book, “Saving Israel”!