The Six Day War (Part 1)

Posted on Thu 08/07/2008 by


We’ve all heard about the famed ‘Six Day War’, when the tiny nation of Israel took on the might of the surrounding nations aligned against them. It is absolutely inconceivable that such a tiny nation could be so stupid as to do something like this, when those surrounding Countries had numerical superiority in numbers vastly outnumbering them. It would seem a totally futile thing to do.
The fact that it was then all over in six days with that tiny nation the most comprehensive of victors is the thing that is most astounding.
The reasons behind the lead up to the outbreak I won’t go into, but they were many, foremost among them being the proposal to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River by those Arab States, removing one eighth of Israel’s total water supply. There were other reasons and all of these coalesced and the result was that War.

76 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force Mirage lll Fighter Interceptor. Click on image to open in a larger window.

As for me personally, the year when that war was fought was my first year in the Royal Australian Air Force. The dream we all had was that after training, we might be one of the few who actually got posted to a Fighter Squadron where we could work on Mirages like the one shown. Even in the RAAF, there was prestige in being a member of one of these Squadrons.

I was a 16 year old young man, one in a group of 71 others undergoing trade training, and for that purpose we were attending the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. This was a very large public college and is now classified as a University. We were 72 young Air Force trainees among almost a thousand civilian students, undergoing all manner of trade related schooling. So even though we made up the bulk of the trainees in one area, there were some civilian students in our class streams as well. In the class stream that I was in there were nearly 20 of my Air Force friends and there were also 5 civilian trainees, young guys straight out of high school, a couple of years older than we were, but because we were all undergoing training together we all became close friends. Like all young men at that age, what was actually happening in the World was of little consequence, other than the local sport and, well, you get the idea. Two of those civilian guys were Australian citizens of Israeli extraction, and they were actually interested in what was happening in their home Country in the lead up to the outbreak of hostilities. They tried to interest the rest of us, but, well, boys of that age have much more important stuff on their minds.

When hostilities broke out on June 5th 1967, it became partly interesting to all of us, but, really, only because those two guys were on our course, and that was all they talked about. On the morning after the news broke here in Australia, they actually visited the Melbourne offices of the Israeli Embassy in Canberra in an effort to immediately sign up. The rest of us just couldn’t understand this at all, and the consistent response from all of us when they told us of their intention was, “Are you crazy?”

As it transpired the whole thing was over even before their paperwork was instigated at this end. Our two friends were still highly interested, and even though Australian citizens, both of them only stayed with us for another couple of months, and then they both went back to Israel to enlist in their Air Force. In the interim they followed daily events back in Israel. The rest of us could never really understand why they would even think about running off to actually enlist in what could actually turn out to be a real shooting war. This thinking from a group of young men who were already members of a military service, in our case the Air Force, but to us as young men, to that point we were just trainees going for a trade, and the thought of what the implications of that might mean were as far from our minds as a war on the opposite side of the Planet.

To that end, that was the last I even thought of this Six Day War, well, for another 5 years anyway.

After I got my trade, I was posted to a flying training squadron and then on to a maintenance squadron. My first posting to what was ‘the sharp end’ was to 76 Squadron, one that had a distinguished and famous history. The mindset at fighter squadrons was different to other units in the Air Force, and I might tend to say that would be the case with all fighter squadrons.
76 Squadron flew the famed North American P51 Mustang in the Second World War, and the early stages of the Korean War. During that conflict in Korea, 76 Squadron converted to the English Gloster Meteor, and a 76 Squadron pilot was credited with the first combat kill for a Meteor on a MiG 15, the MiG considered vastly superior to the Meteor. Later in the 50’s, 76 Squadron converted to the legendary North American F86 Sabre. The model we had here in Australia was specially constructed for Australia. Its main difference was the engine, and for our Sabre’s we used the more powerful Rolls Royce Avon engine. This necessitated some major modifications to the airframe and meant that the pilot’s cockpit sat higher up than on the US versions, making for a noticeable bulge that the US Sabres did not have. We also included the larger cannon instead of the 50 Cal machine guns and 20 mm Cannon on the older Sabre’s. I got to work on the Sabre when I was in the training Squadron. They were the in between step for the pilots between the trainer aircraft and the ‘fast jets’ of the fighter squadrons. I just loved my time working out on the Flight Line on these wonderful old ‘Swords’, as they were affectionately referred to.

In 1963, Australia converted from the Sabre to the French built Mirage lll O. This was a model also custom built for Australia, and here’s the interesting part. They were given to Australia for free as part of the war debt that France owed to Australia for our part in the liberation of France. They gave us 100 fighters and eight dual seat trainers, the same basic design as the fighter but with front and rear seats in one extended cockpit. At a later stage Australia purchased, at the going rate, another eight dual seat trainers.

Now before any of you start worrying that I might be giving away military secrets here, we converted from the Mirage to the twin engined McDonnell Douglas (now consumed by Boeing) FA-18 Hornet in the early 80’s, so all this following is just a part of military history really.

The image above of the Mirage is from my personal collection, an image taken by an Air Force photographer and large copies made available to all Squadron members, something we all snapped up.
This is of a 76 Squadron Mirage, the squadron emblem, a growling black panther on the red flashes shown on the aircraft tail. It was of delta wing configuration and was capable of mach 2.2 in level flight, around 1500MPH. That delta wing configuration was similar to two US fighter aircraft from the ‘century’ series, the F102 Delta Dagger and the F106 Delta Dart both from Convair. (later General Dynamics) The inherent problem with delta wing configuration was the high stall speed, so landing speeds were consequently a lot faster, hence the need for a longer runway and the use of a brake parachute, similar to what you might see these days when the Space Shuttle lands back at The Cape or at Edwards.
They also had another foible that pilots were not all that keen on. It only had one engine, so when that flamed out, then the only option left for the pilot to do was to eject, something pilots roundly disliked. The engine itself was of French design, Atar, and was a multi stage turbine with two stages of afterburner.

Now with respect to this image, the aircraft shown is fully armed. On the centre line slung under the fuselage is a French Matra air to surface guided missile.The missile is the relatively stubby round nosed and white missile. The pointed greyish area that looks like the front of the missile is actually the underwing supersonic fuel tank attached under the port wing.

Under each wing and outboard of the fuel tank is a US Sidewinder, the heat seeking air to air missile of choice for virtually every fighter aircraft of that age. Just behind the air intake there, you can see the Air Force roundel, a red kangaroo on a white field inside a blue circle. Directly under that you can see a small black line. That is where one of the two cannon barrels are, one barrel on either side of the fuselage, the large motor driven cannon itself just behind that, slung inside the fuselage under the engine. This aircraft type utilised a 30mm cannon, and just saying that gives you little appreciation of what that really means. The actual round itself has a 30mm diameter, (around an inch and a half wide) and is around 8 inches long, and around 12 inches log with the shell casing still attached. Each aircraft carries a full load of around 120 rounds. The thinking behind this is that during air to air combat, the planes themselves are flying pretty fast. The smaller machine guns of the time had 50 calibre ammunition not much bigger a round than from a 45 handgun. These small rounds did very little damage, and to bring down a modern aircraft with these you’d have to have numerous hits and even then, planes were known to limp home. However, with the size shell used here, 30mm, only one HE shell had to hit home to virtually cause the loss of the opposing aircraft.

The Mirage was specifically designed as an interceptor only, meaning take off, shoot down the bad guy, and then land. With small underwing tanks capable of supersonic flight the Mirage held around 720 gallons which meant that maximum flying time was about an hour tops, and if ‘working’ then about 30 to 40 minutes.
It was an aesthetically pleasing, if not a beautiful aircraft, and they served Australia admirably for 20 years.
When they were replaced by the FA18, the remaining Mirages were sold off to Pakistan.

In my time with 76 Squadron, a fierce squadron loyalty became second nature, and we were all thunderstruck when the Squadron was disbanded in 1975 by the Labor Government of Gough Whitlam I mentioned in an earlier post. The thinking behind that was that Labor perceived that the defence of Australia could be just as ably managed with one less fighter squadron, and the money thus saved could be put to a better use.

Now why I went into all this in some detail is that it has a relevance back to the Six Day War, which I’ll go into in the next post.