WWII aircraft in Lebanon

Sadly the military history of Lebanon will, at least for the near future, be dominated by the horrible 1970s – 1980s civil war. The country did have military history prior to that, including WWII-era warplanes in its early air force.

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(Lebanese air force Harvard, the RAF’s name for WWII lend-leased T-6 Texan trainers.)

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(Lebanese air force SM.79 bomber. The country was the last in the world to fly this WWII Italian warplane.)

Lebanon’s airspace at a glance

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(Airbases in Lebanon.) (map via Milavia website)

Lebanon is 4,036 miles² in size. For comparison, it is slightly smaller than Connecticut in the USA and about half the size of Wales in the UK. It is oblong, about 120 miles from the northern border to the southern and about 60 miles wide. For reference to the WWII types discussed below, a Harvard trainer could fly completely from one end to the other, north to south, in 56 minutes. One of the SM.79 bombers could completely cross east to west in 14 minutes.

Prior to the 1970s / 1980s civil war, one reason military aviation was considered important was that in some ways, Lebanon was the first nation in the world to decide on the airplane as the primary way by which people would enter and depart the country. The southern border was permanently closed in 1948, and road links to Syria were poor. On the other hand, Lebanon inherited Bir Hassan airport in Beirut which was decently sized for the 1940s and survived WWII completely intact. It was successful and became the gateway to the newly independent country.

In 1954 Bir Hassan was replaced by Rafic Hariri International Airport, a few miles south of downtown Beirut. Big and extremely advanced for its time, it was one of the first airports in the world built ground-up to handle high volumes of large modern passenger planes.

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(A C-46 Commando of Lebanese International Airways at the then-new Rafic Hariri IAP in the 1950s. This particular plane had flown for the US Army during WWII and later the US Air Force. LIA was bankrupted when a 1969 Israeli raid on Lebanon destroyed nearly its whole fleet on the ground.) (photo via Avia DejaVu website)

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(Middle East Airlines is, and always has been, Lebanon’s largest airline. MEA’s sizable fleet of DC-3s in Beirut were mostly demilitarized WWII C-47 Skytrain transports.)

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(The Avro York was a RAF transport powered by four Rolls-Royce Merlins. A prototype flew in July 1942 but it was a low-priority WWII project, with production not starting until 1944. By the end of WWII, one RAF squadron had converted to Yorks and others were in the process of doing so. But it is best remembered as an early Cold War type (including the Berlin Airlift) and as a post-WWII civilian airliner. MEA was one of three airlines in Lebanon to fly the York out of Rafic Hariri IAP in Beirut.) (photo via Avia DejaVu website)

Lebanon’s very constricted airspace saw tremendous amounts of civil traffic from the early 1950s through the start of the civil war in the mid-1970s. The skies around Beirut were one of the busiest airspace corridors in the world.

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(Lebanese tourism ad from the 1970s. It is hard to believe today, but at the time, Beirut looked poised to displace Monaco and Manhattan as the most desirable luxury destination for well-heeled travelers.)

Lebanon during WWII

During WWII, a few countries like Manchukuo went extinct, many others were occupied and then later liberated, but in two cases – Syria and Lebanon – they actually became independent while WWII was in progress.

In the aftermath of World War One, France was awarded a League Of Nations mandate over former Ottoman territories south of Turkey. These were organized into five Etats, or protectorate states, within the French overseas empire. In 1920 one of these was split off into Etat du Grand Liban (State of Greater Lebanon), the remainder forming Syria.

When France was occupied by Germany in 1940, the French administration in Lebanon chose the Vichy side. In contrast to how it is sometimes presented today, this was not at all half-hearted and at least the commanders were enthusiastically opposed to the British, even mounting air raids against Allied targets in what is today Israel.

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(A Dewoitine D.520 fighter of the Vichy French air force at Rayak airbase in Lebanon during 1941.)

During the summer of 1941, a commonwealth force overran the Vichy garrison in Lebanon as part of operation “Exporter”. Most of the Vichy military aviation was destroyed on the ground.

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(Allied troops with crippled Potez Po.630 bomber and Dewoitine D.520 fighters of the Vichy French forces in Lebanon.)

Operation “Exporter” concluded in July with an armistice signed near Beirut. The Vichy governorship was replaced by that of the Free French, with other Allied forces remaining in the protectorate.

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(Australian troops and Hurricane fighters with a captured Vichy Renault R35 tank at Bir Hassan airport in Lebanon after the end of operation “Exporter”.) (photo via Australian War Memorial)

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(Unwanted by anybody after WWII, the ex-Vichy R35 tanks were passed to newly-independent Lebanon and served on into the late 1950s.)

On 22 November 1943, Lebanon unilaterally declared itself a completely independent nation. The Free French administration, under Gen. Georges Catroux, initially had shown tolerance to Lebanese autonomy however (perhaps urged on by Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the Free French leader) now tried to quash full independence. The assertive Lebanese declaration was popular with voters in the USA and UK. Under pressure from Roosevelt and Churchill, de Gaulle relented and had accepted Lebanon’s independence by the end of the month. After Germany’s defeat in May 1945 French troops began departing, and continued to do so through April 1946.

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(In August 1945, the first units of Lebanon’s army were sworn in. This was 3½ months after Germany’s defeat and several weeks before Japan’s surrender and the end of WWII. The cut of the uniform is decidedly French; not surprising as most of the early Lebanese army was armed with kit of the defunct Vichy French forces, rounded out with equipment donated by the UK and Australia.)

Lebanon declared war on Germany and Japan in early 1945. There was neither the desire nor ability to actually partake in combat abroad (the first units of the Lebanese army were not even formed yet) but this guaranteed Lebanon automatic membership in the upcoming United Nations.

In some ways, Lebanon’s problems which came to roost during the late 1970s were baked into the country when it became independent during WWII. During WWII, the country was 51% Christian and 49% Muslim. To enable a government to form, it was agreed that permanently the president would be Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the head deputy minister a Shi’ite Muslim, and the parliament with a fixed 6:5 ratio of Christians to Muslims. Within these three sects further breakdowns were required of subgroups within.

The flaw was that this arrangement, while expedient in the short term, gave zero incentive for politicians to seek broad voter appeal, as they were limited to their own sect anyways. The national government was feeble at best. Instead of drawing the Lebanese people together, independence slowly pushed them further apart.

Rayak airbase

The entirety of Lebanon only has three air force bases: Kleyate, a former oil company airstrip remodeled for the ill-fated Mirage fighter unit; a military side at Beirut’s civilian airport; and Rayak airbase in eastern Lebanon.

Rayak was the original facility, being built as a sand landing strip by German engineers in cooperation with the Ottoman air force during World War One.

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(The Bavarian accents on this building at Rayak airbase are not misleading; it is indeed the former barracks of the World War One German engineers. As of 2021 it is still in use; somehow having survived both world wars and all of Lebanon’s later troubles.) (photo via Goethe-Institut)

The airbase (which now has two paved 9,700′ runways) has passed from German to Ottoman to French to Vichy French to Australian to Free French to Lebanese, then to Syrian and back to Lebanese, control over the past 100+ years.

After the French pullout after WWII, the facility sat abandoned for a few years, being looted in the meantime. Following its reactivation in the late 1940s, little was done to enlarge or modernize it, beyond improvements needed to make it suitable for jets. As of 2021 a surprising number of WWII (or even older) structures remain. Besides the building pictured above, there are several corrugated metal buildings which were hangars for Vichy fighters during WWII, a now-abandoned and overgrown French military hospital, and a WWII-era military jail which was briefly and notoriously reactivated by the Syrians during their involvement in Lebanon’s civil war. As recently as the mid-1970s, the Lebanese air force’s reconnaissance unit was still using ex-Vichy photography equipment left behind at Rayak.

During the 1970s-1980s civil war, Rayak became increasingly unusable. This was both due to Israeli air supremacy and the fact that because Lebanon is so small, the airbase was often in range of ground artillery of the various warring Lebanese factions.

As of 2021 this WWII base is again Lebanon’s main airbase, housing not only frontline aircraft but the training academy and Lebanon’s only flight simulator. A disused WWII hangar is hoped to be opened as the country’s air museum sometime in the 2020s.

creation of a Lebanese air force

Having formed a land army in the waning days of WWII, the next step was an airpower arm. In 1949, LtCol. Emile Boustany announced the creation of al-Quwwat al-Jawwiya Lebaniyya, or Lebanese air force.

Lebanon’s small size partially dictated what it would look like. For example, there would never be a need for long-range transports, as the country was so little to begin with.

During the first years after WWII, the Lebanese army benefited from an ample quantity of ex-Vichy weaponry and vehicles, plus some donated or sold at low cost by the wartime Allies.

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(A Lebanese army Staghound Mk.I armored car in the 1950s. This had been a British vehicle during WWII, the lend-leased T17E1 design which was made in America but not selected by the US Army. This version was armed with the 37mm M6 main gun, quite puny by 1950s middle east standards, and two M1919 machine guns.) (photo via Life magazine)

Other than the ground facilities at Rayak, the new air force did not see any of these benefits. Most of the Vichy planes had been wiped out, and as WWII was still ongoing after operation “Exporter”, the Allies repositioned most of their air assets elsewhere leaving little available for in-situ sale or donation. So the Lebanese air force would be starting from scratch.

WWII aircraft in the Lebanese air force

Percival Proctor IV P.31

First flown in 1939, the Proctor was a successful British design used for a number of roles by the RAF and Royal Navy during WWII, mainly radio training. It was 28’2″ long with 39’6″ wingspan, and powered by a Gipsy Queen II piston engine for a top speed of 136 kts. A total of 1,142 were built during WWII.

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(Proctor in WWII RAF use.)

After WWII, the Proctor was a popular general-duty lightplane in the middle east, flying not only with Lebanon but also the Syrian and Jordanian air forces.

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Lebanon bought three ex-RAF Proctor IVs in May 1949. They were used mainly as staff shuttle planes and utility aircraft, serving into the mid-1950s.

de Havilland Dove

The Dove is an interesting footnote of WWII British aviation. In 1942, even as the Blitz was winding down and WWII was nowhere near to being won by the Allies, the British government established the Brabazon Committee. It was to ensure a continuity of British civilian aircraft designs after peace came, whenever that might be. The Brabazon Committee’s final report, which was released 3½ months after Japan’s surrender, called for seven new airliners in various categories; superseding the five types it had recommended earlier during WWII.

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One of these was an adaptation of a private venture de Havilland had been contemplating since the middle part of WWII. The objective was a light airliner to be competitive against demilitarized transports which the United States would dump as surplus onto the world airplane market once WWII ended. The designer was Ronald Bishop, more famous as being the designer of the WWII Mosquito fighter-bomber. After Japan’s surrender this was put into production as the Dove.

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(This advertisement was run in trade journals by de Havilland during the final months of WWII, encouraging airlines to pre-order Doves for when peace came.)

The Dove had a 2-man crew and seating for 8 passengers. It was 39’3″ long with a 57′ wingspan. Powered by two Gipsy Queen 70 engines, it cruised at 162 kts.

The Dove was popular in the middle east, serving with the air forces of Kuwait, Jordan, and Iraq. Only one served in the Lebanese air force, entering service in April 1951. This plane, usually used as a VIP transport, was very well liked in service. When not needed for VIPs it also undertook photo-mapping flights of the country. The de Havilland designers intended for it to be easily maintained by mechanics of low training, for example some regular-maintenance parts came as modules which could be quickly removed and replaced. As a footnote, this also led to the Dove being a popular “upstart” military transport, later serving in the short-lived air forces of Katanga and Biafra.

dove

Lebanon’s lone Dove was successful in its role. It flew regularly up until the start of the civil war in the mid-1970s, and then intermittently a few times as the political situation and its maintenance availability allowed.

In 1993, the Lebanese air force quite remarkably considered overhauling their Dove to restore it to flightworthy status. While some civilian Doves were still flying then, Lebanon would have been (by a wide margin) the last active-duty military operator of the type. In the end this idea was rejected.

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(The abandoned Dove during the civil war years.)

T-6 Texan / Harvard

Almost without question the T-6 Texan was the best trainer of WWII and remains one of the best trainers of all time. Built by North American Aviation in Texas (hence the nickname), the T-6 was 29′ long with a 42′ wingspan. It was powered by a Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine and had a top speed of 181 kts. The Texan was docile enough to be mastered by green airmen, but agile and fast enough to serve as an intermediate fighter pilot trainer as well. Over 15,000 were built before and during WWII.

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(T-6 Texan in WWII American use.)

During WWII the Royal Air Force gave lend-leased American trainers the name of a famous American college; in the case of the T-6 Texan, Harvard University in Massachusetts. The Harvard was a main training type of the RAF and RCAF during WWII, with planes coming from both US Army stock via lend-lease and license production in Canada. After WWII ended in 1945 the Harvard remained in use with commonwealth air forces and was also a popular export item.

Lebanon obtained these planes in batches. In January 1952, six ex-RAF Harvard T.2B planes were bought from the UK. This particular model had been license-built by Noorduyn in Canada during WWII. It had a fixed rear canopy and the provision for a training rearwards machine gun (found on some early-version American T-6 Texans) deleted. The flight controls were reconfigured towards what might be found in a British WWII warplane. Otherwise it was the same as an American Texan.

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(This Harvard, L-124, was one of the original six T.2Bs bought from the UK.)

In September 1952, a second batch of six were delivered as military aid from Iraq. These themselves were second-hand ex-RAF Harvards.

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(Another Lebanese Harvard, this one possibly being from the ex-Iraqi batch.)

Another four Harvards / Texans were later added from unknown sources on the world market, apparently serving as airframe fatigue replacements for earlier Harvards.

The Harvard was a tremendously successful type within the Lebanese air force. They filled the basic and intermediate training niches simultaneously, and in fact, until deliveries of Magister jets started in the mid- to late 1960s, were the only trainers used at all. In a war setting they could have also been roled as daylight reconnaissance types or artillery spotters. Prior to the creation of a fighter force, they filled the national airspace control mission. After jet fighters were introduced they continued in use as primary trainers and flight-hour proficiency planes.

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Lebanon began phasing the WWII-era Harvard out in 1967, however some were still flying in the early 1970s. The pilot class of 1973 was the last to be trained on the type, after which deliveries of Bulldog basic trainers began.

Savoia Marchetti SM.79

More than any other type, this WWII Italian bomber is popularly associated with the early Lebanese air force and to some degree, the force’s history overall.

The SM.79, which was built in various versions during its long career, was an Italian medium bomber. It was 53’2″ long with a 66’3″ wingspan. It was powered by three radial piston engines (the types could vary) and had a top speed of 250 kts with an altitude ceiling of 24,604′. The SM.79 had a 6-man crew: pilot, copilot, bombardier, radioman, and two gunners.

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(Italian SM.79s during WWII.)

The SM.79 entered Italian service in 1936, three years before WWII started. Almost immediately, it entered combat as part of Mussolini’s assistance to Franco’s nationalists during the Spanish civil war, the “dress rehearsal for WWII”. The SM.79 was successful in combat over Spain. Despite its ugly appearance, the SM.79 was agile for its size, fast for its era, and very ruggedly built. It outclassed many republican fighters and in fact, often flew unescorted as it also outperformed the nationalist fighters which were supposed to protect it.

Some possible WWII contemporaries would be the USA’s B-23 Dragon and Japanese G3M “Nell”. Unlike those types, the SM.79 was not at all obscure and was common in the Mediterranean theatre.

As designed, the bomb bay was a half-dozen vertical cylinders, with the bombs resting upright on their tail fins. This arrangement was somewhat common worldwide on bombers of the 1920s and 1930s. During WWII it proved a hindrance, as it limited the options for ordnance loadouts when compared to a horizontal bomb bay. During WWII SM.79s were often modified with reconfigurable external bomb racks, or pylons for two air-dropped torpedoes, which is what the SM.79 is probably most remembered for today.

Defensively the SM.79 had three SAFAT 12.7mm machine guns, one fixed forward in the dorsal “gaboo”, one flexible backwards in the same place, and a third in the ventral bombardier’s pod. Sometimes two smaller infantry machine guns were mounted in the fuselage.

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(The SM.79’s “gaboo” (“hunchback”) had retractable panels for the dorsal SAFAT to extend out of and fire. These took time to move and during WWII, were often left open. The front face of the “gaboo” housed the fixed forward-firing SAFAT, which as WWII progressed was less useful. One might think that the unsightly “gaboo” would slow the plane, but with the shutters closed it redirected airflow over the SM.79 in an advantageous way.)

One curious feature was in the ventral pod. For the bombardier’s face to align with the Jozza bombsight, his head had to be roughly flush to the cabin floor. To accomplish his, he sat with his legs in retractable metal “pants” that protruded down during the bombing run.

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(The “pants” in their lowered position.)

All in all, the SM.79 was a successful design for WWII’s early years. As Allied fighter opposition stiffened, some of the shine started to come off its reputation and by the end of the war in 1945, time had largely passed it by. Compared to types like the RAF’s Lancaster or the American B-17 Flying Fortress, it was way too small for strategic use anymore and was outclassed by the speed and flexibility of medium tactical types like the B-25 Mitchell.

to Lebanon

Lebanon bought four of these WWII bombers from Italy in September 1949. They were given the flightline numbers L-111 through L-114.

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How specifically they were paid for and at what price is open to conjecture, as the early Lebanese government was, besides being weak politically, also fairly corrupt and not always forthcoming with details on contracts. Different sources quote the price at various sums, all the way down to free. The SM.79s entered service alongside a full-price order for one factory-new Macchi MB.308 utility plane, one of post-WWII Italy’s first new aircraft designs. Most likely, the four WWII bombers were nominally priced by the Italians as a “sweetener” for the one MB.308.

In the export paperwork, the four were referred to as “SM.79L”. They were similar to the WWII Italian configuration, however had no waist machine guns in the fuselage sides, no torpedo pylons, and other minor changes.

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(Lebanese SM.79 during a visit to an Iraqi air force base during the 1950s.)

While the Lebanese air force’s first acquisitions were being planned during the late 1940s, there was a notion that a country’s bomber force might be “scale-able”, which is to say, that a small air force opposing another small air force with small numbers of fighters; might make gainful use of a small number of bombers. It should be noted that in the region, the Egyptians flew a small number of WWII-veteran Lancasters; and the Israelis, a handful of B-17 Flying Fortresses.

By the time the four SM.79s had entered Lebanese service (1949) and been fully worked up (1950); this was no longer thought of as a sure thing. There now seemed to be a “critical mass” for a bomber force, beneath which it was not really worth it to have one at all. The fact that the Israeli air force was growing and advancing much faster than anybody had ever anticipated pretty much finalized this thinking in Lebanon.

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(The WWII SAFAT machine guns were soon removed. The SM.79’s defensive layout had been planned against biplanes or basic 1930s monoplane fighters. By 1950 the Israelis were already flying P-51 Mustangs and would have jets by 1953. The SAFATs were not wasted; they were transferred to the Lebanese army for ground use.)

It is uncertain how much ordnance was ordered from Italy with the planes and how often, if ever, bombing training was done. By the early / mid-1950s, the four SM.79s were not really viewed as viable frontline bombers anymore. None the less, they were bought & paid for, and remained in use.

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(The SM.79’s range and multi-engine safety made it useful for the Lebanese air force to “show the colors” at places more distant than the single-engine types could handle. This one was visiting Cyprus in 1959.)

The Lebanese took very good care of these airplanes. Some minor modifications were done. They received an American radiocompass in place of the WWII Italian RDF loop. At least two of the four had additional rectangular windows added.

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(Lebanese SM.79 in November 1958.)

By the late 1950s, there was no question that the SM.79’s days as a frontline bomber were over. The Lebanese planes were used as ad hoc transports, and utility planes for a number of roles. One was experimentally trialed as an anti-malaria DDT sprayer. The SM.79s were also kept in use with a view towards the air force’s future, as they offered pilots experience with landing aircraft that weighed as much as potential future designs.

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These aged planes were finally withdrawn from use in 1965. For a few years, they sat unattended at Rayak as seen above. In 1968 and 1970, two were sold to Italy for use as museum displays. Much of a third airframe still exists, partially disassembled and in private hands; while the fourth no longer exists.

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(Two of the retired SM.79s at Rayak in the mid-/late 1960s.) (photo by George Trussell)

This was the first and the last bomber which Lebanon ever flew. Lebanon was also the final country worldwide to operate this WWII Italian design.

the force-down incident

On 27 May 1959, a pair of Mystere IVA jet fighters of the Israeli air force’s 109th Squadron intercepted and force-landed one of the Lebanese SM.79s after it strayed into Israeli airspace.

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(The SM.79 on the ground in Israel after it was forced down.)

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(Mystere IVA fighter of the IAF. This illustrates the almost comical technology gap between the WWII Italian bomber and then-current Israeli fighter designs in 1959.)

The Israelis normally kept any Arab warplane they got their hands on, but in the case of the SM.79, it was so old and woefully obsolete that it was decided to just let it fly home.

This was not the only incident of this type in 1959. Three days later, a WWII-vintage C-47 Skytrain of the United Nations force in Lebanon was force-landed in Israel by the same IAF squadron after it strayed across the border. In November, a civilian Lebanese biplane was force-landed after it too strayed into Israeli airspace.

One takeaway from all of this is the difficulties presented to aviation when two neighboring countries with very constrained airspace are mutually hostile to one another.

initial absence of a fighter unit

During the Lebanese air force’s early years, it had trainers, utility planes, and even the four bombers; all WWII designs. One thing that was missing early on was a fighter wing, which in many cases worldwide was one of the first things newly-created air forces after WWII sought to obtain.

While the air force was being created and shortly thereafter, there was consideration given to purchasing a handful of used WWII-era fighters so that the country might immediately defend its airspace.

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(A Spitfire – in this case, a photo-recon model – of the Royal Australian Air Force in front of an ex-Vichy hangar at Rayak during WWII.)

The Spitfire was one of the types considered and rejected. Had Lebanon elected to form a fighter squadron right off the bat, the Spitfire is the most likely candidate to have been chosen.

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(A Fiat G.55 Centauro fighter of the neighboring Syrian air force after WWII. This WWII Italian fighter was offered both in its original wartime G.55 form and as the G.59, powered by the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. This powerplant had been used on the Centauro’s rival during WWII, the Spitfire.)

Another type briefly considered was the G.55 Centauro. After WWII this Italian fighter was flown in the middle east by the Syrian and Egyptian air forces. Here the main attraction would have probably been price, as Italy was keen to showcase itself as an arms exporter again and Lebanon already had a preexisting relationship with Italian arms imports.

After consideration, it was decided to not buy any WWII propeller fighters at all and instead devote the limited funds available to pilot training. The country would bide its time for a few years without fighters, and then jump straight into Cold War-era jet fighters.

Especially for a small country like Lebanon, aircraft buys are not done on the drop of a hat. In the 4-year interim between the creation of a national army and the creation of an air force, one factor was the very low expectations the Lebanese initially had of the air arm belonging to their new enemy to the south.

aviaS199

Above is the Avia S-199 fighter, of which the early Israeli air force bought 23 during 1948, its first year of existence. The S-199 was an abomination produced in post-WWII Czechoslovakia. It was the airframe of WWII Germany’s Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter, but powered by a Junkers Jumo 211 (as on the Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber and He-111 medium bomber), turning a paddle-bladed propeller as used on He-111s during WWII. This was because Czechoslovakia’s supply of DB 605 engines (the Bf-109’s WWII engine) and propellers had been exhausted. The S-199 was not a great fighter but none the less held the line for Israel in its critical time of independence.

The IAF soon began to replace the S-199s with Spitfires and P-51 Mustangs; soon followed by jets. In Lebanon and elsewhere in the region, the speed with which the IAF enlarged and modernized was quite a rude surprise.

Lebanon began flying Cold War-era Vampire jet fighters in 1953, and then Hunters half a decade later.

In hindsight, the Lebanese decision was actually wise. Little would have been gained with second- or third-hand propeller fighters in 1949 or 1950, and a concentration on trainers and pilot skill served the nation well. Sadly this accrued advantage was wiped out by the civil war which started in the mid-1970s.

Lebanese air force in action

Lebanon as a whole joined the other Arab states in the 1948 attack on newly-independent Israel. This ended in a debacle and nearly in disaster; as the Lebanese thrust into Israel’s Galilee region was repulsed and the Israelis pushed back across the prewar border, at one point advancing as far as the Litani river in Lebanon, about a sixth of the way up the whole country. The Israelis pulled out after the cease-fire. As the Lebanese air force didn’t exist in 1948, it obviously couldn’t take part.

Lebanon (quite wisely) sat out the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars, although it has remained technically in a state of hostilities with Israel since the late 1940s. One Lebanese air force plane which had the misfortune of being airborne when the Six Day War started was shot down by an Israeli Mirage.

As such, the Lebanese air force never saw international combat.

WWII aircraft in U.N. service over Lebanon

In 1958, brief political instability in Lebanon was resolved with the assistance of a US Marine Corps landing (which went unopposed) and UNOGIL, the United Nations Observation Group In Lebanon. One of several U.N. endeavors in the country over the decades, UNOGIL was the shortest-lived and the only one which can objectively be considered a success. It was also the only one to utilize WWII-era warplanes.

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Sweden was one of the air forces which donated aircraft to the UNOGIL effort. The Swedish air force had begun flying the Texan / Harvard in 1947, under the designation Sk 16A. The Sk 16A pictured above over Lebanese farmland was a Noorduyn-built Harvard T.2B, no different than the ones the Lebanese air force was flying at the same time. As the UNOGIL mission was non-combat observation, the Harvard was ideal as it was reliable and could cover decent amounts of visual area in good time.

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The Douglas C-47 Skytrain was the greatest of WWII transports and in its civilian form, the DC-3, perhaps the greatest era-adjusted airliner ever made. The C-47 was instrumental in the U.N.’s first forays into peacekeeping, both in the middle east and in Africa.

In the above photo from Life magazine, Lebanese troops watch a UNOGIL C-47 Skytrain unload. The machine gun on the dashboard is a WWII French model, the FM 24/29, a 7.5x54mm weapon fed from an overhead 25rds box magazine. This might have been a leftover from the Vichy forces during WWII, or an early postwar buy from France.

Despite their appearance the helmets are not ex-Vichy. This helmet is the Mle. 1945 Jeanne d’Arc. Designed as WWII ended in 1945, its not thought that any of these saw combat before Japan surrendered. This helmet was overshadowed by remaining Mle. 1915/26 Adrians and lend-leased M1 pots which came before it, and then by the Mle. 1951 which replaced it only six years later and went on to be France’s main Cold War helmet. As such, the Mle. 1945 is France’s “forgotten helmet”. It was the Lebanese army’s headgear into the late 1960s.

The Harvards and Skytrains of WWII were joined in UNOGIL by Cold War-era lightplanes and helicopters provided by the United States. Officially, none of UNOGIL’s aircraft of either generation saw combat. However there were intermittent reports from pilots of Lebanese civilians on the ground taking pot shots at them. UNOGIL ended in December 1958.

end of the road for WWII types

As time went on, as with any air force, the WWII-era designs faded. First to go were the Proctors, then the SM.79 bombers, then the Harvards, until only the lone Dove remained.

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(An abandoned WWII-era Proctor at Rayak. Behind it is the carcass of a Cold War-era Vampire, Lebanon’s first fighter type.) (photo via Key Aero Forum website)

The air force got its first fighters in the form in the form of Vampire jets in the early/mid-1950s, followed by Hunter jet fighters.

In 1968, a dozen Mirage IIIs were bought as the next-generation fighter; quite a jump from the WWII types only two decades previous. This was possibly the first procurement miscue as the type was hard to use in Lebanon’s small airspace and quite certainly unaffordable. They were later grounded and eventually sold to Pakistan.

During WWII, Lebanon had a razor-thin Christian majority. By 1975, demographics and an influx of refugees from the middle east’s wars had drastically changed this. Muslims outnumbered Christians by about 2:1 and Shi’ite Muslims were a plurality compared to any and all other sects. Within the sects, various sub-factions were already opposed to each other. In April 1975, the friction between this new reality and the old 1940s system erupted into a civil war. In the midst of this, Israel made a minor invasion in 1978 and a larger one in 1982; while the Syrian army occupied the north and east parts of the country. The famous air engagements between the Israeli and Syrian air forces during the summer of 1982 happened, in large part, within Lebanese airspace.

Helicopter flights continued off and on but the majority of the Lebanese air force sought refuge at a small airstrip in Byblos. Fixed-wing operations ceased in 1983, by which time the Lebanese air force was just a shell anyways, with mass desertions of personnel along sectarian lines and no funds coming from the defunct national treasury.

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(Quite remarkably, Rafic Hariri IAP undertook two runway repaving projects during the civil war, even though the airport itself sometimes came under attack and was closed intermittently. Traffic dropped to nearly nothing. There were periods during the civil war when Lebanon’s entire national airspace was closed.)

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(With no airpower available, the “high ground” of the warring factions became rooftops of urban high-rises, like the gutted Holiday Inn in Beirut.)

The civil war ended in 1989 and during the 1990s, the Lebanese air force began the process of rebuilding itself. Any links to the WWII types flown before the conflict were long gone, other than the remaining ex-Vichy buildings at Rayak. By 2021, a new generation of personnel is making good strides to restoring the force, now with an array of helicopter types and several turboprop ground attack planes.

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(The remains of the Dove after the civil war. As of January 2021, it is still parked at Rayak.) (photo via milavia website)

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(Memories of the early Lebanese air force, with personnel posing with one of the SM.79 bombers.)

8 thoughts on “WWII aircraft in Lebanon

  1. As an aside the Lebanese soldiers in the Jeanne d’Arc helmets appear to be driving a British Land Rover, showing the multinational origin of Lebanese equipment. As a further topic, from the mid 70s until they were expelled in 1982 the PLO were a major faction in Lebanon and had some WWII equipment including T-34 tanks.

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  2. Hello I would like to thank you for an excellent article however I noticed an error in your Lebanese Air Force in action section during the six day war a group of four Israeli Mystere where flying over Lebanon in route to Syria when they were intercepted by four Lebanese Hawker Hunters leaving one Mystere shot down with the pilot ejecting and being captured on the ground by the Lebanese army at this point two Israeli Mirages arrived and shot down one Hawker Hunter as you mentioned which resulted in the death of the pilot.

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