Templer tunnels under the Sarona complex in Tel Aviv were used to reconstruct ‘stolen’ planes in pre-state days.
Visitors to the restaurants and shops at the Sarona complex opposite the Kirya Defense Ministry compound in Tel Aviv are unaware of the secrets of the past that are concealed in the cellars. One of the secrets is the Templer tunnel that was opened before Independence Day, which connected the cellars of two wineries. The story is being told here for the first time by two veterans of the air force and civil aviation in Israel, who participated in the operation to dismantle, smuggle, renovate and reassemble 15 planes that were used by the pre-state Yishuv before and during the War of Independence.
“In 1943-44 I was very active in a flight club. We flew model airplanes, heard lectures and started gliding on Givat Hamoreh. Later we joined the pilots in Ramle – the location of the Royal Air Force headquarters and the planes that were used by the flight school. There were several planes, some of them Polish. That’s where the members of the Palmah, the elite commandos from nearby Kibbutz Na’an, trained. At the end of 1947 they were transferred to Sde Dov because they were afraid of the Arab gangs who controlled the area. They transferred six planes and one was undergoing repairs.
“After the Arabs discovered that they had transferred the planes they managed to burn them in Lod. Those planes were used by the Haganah (the pre-state undeground army) for reconnaissance above places controlled by Arab gangs, and to bring provisions to locations in the Negev. They would even throw 50-kilogram bombs from them because the plane was a two-seater,” Asher Gerson, 86, a graduate of the second Israel Air Force pilots’ course and later the chief pilot of Arkia Israeli Airlines, told Haaretz.
“At a certain point, early in 1948, because we were involved in volunteer work helping the teams of mechanics and loading bombs onto the planes, we were asked to come the next day with a few sandwiches and to tell our families that we would be gone for two or three days. The next day we came and they explained to us that in present-day Tel Nof, then called Aqir after the nearby Arab village, there were 15 Oster planes in the hangar – a three-seat British plane similar to a Piper.
“There are several theories, one that they bribed the commander of the British air base to disappear when we came and stole the planes. We arrived with the Rapid – a two-engine plane that held eight passengers.
“They picked us up from Sde Dov to Tel Nof. The plane made two trips – 15 people. They took us into the hangar that was secured outside by our forces. The place was a secret and they didn’t know that we were inside. We started to dismantle the planes – to remove the tail, wings, and then trucks came to transport them to the north. We worked there, none of the Brits approached. It was important for the Arabs not to find out. We dismantled what we needed and in the evening the trucks arrived. Since we didn’t finish all the work they loaded six planes onto trucks that drove toward Tel Aviv that same evening – to Sarona, to the winery, and dismantled them there,” he continued.
A second group stayed in the hangar and continued until midnight to dismantle and load so that they would set out in the morning with trucks to Tel Aviv again. At the exit from Tel Aviv there was a village, an area of Arab rioters who regularly attacked traffic going from Tel Aviv to the south. They saw that a lot of trucks left and only a few returned and realized that they would come back in the morning. They set up a big barrier at the exit from the village and then in the morning a van with watchmen – Jewish policemen – started out in order to break through the barrier. They encountered an ambush, a barrier through which we had to pass, and were all murdered. For that reason the community at the site was called Mishmar Hashiva (“the watch of the seven”).
“We were supposed to return and the road was closed. They brought us back via Nes Tziona and the coast. The trucks passed and we reached Sarona via [the agricultural school] Mikveh Yisrael. They put all the planes into the cellar that was the winery, and in effect my work was over. They brought experienced teams and mechanics who repaired the planes there at night. Each plane that was repaired was transferred in parts to Sde Dov, and there they were assembled and made usable. Every civilian plane has a registration number. In order to camouflage the 15 planes they all had the same registration number and that’s how they flew fictitiously. Those planes did all the work of the War of Independence until planes arrived from Czechoslovakia. They secured convoys and communities that were cut off. We continued to work at Sde Dov until we were drafted on May 13, 1948,” said Gerson.
Gerson participated in an air force course in Italy. “I was a pilot for a short time. I completed the course and then American Jews sent a gift to the flight club – 10 brand-new Pipers. They had to start a flight school. Because I was known and active they asked the army to release me in order to establish the flight school. Two years later I started working for Arkia. I was the first Arkia pilot and the second commercial pilot in Israel. I retired in 1995.”
His colleague, Yossi Gidoni, 85, who also participated in the secret operation, expands: “In January 1948 about 15-20 Oster planes were brought, with American engines from World War II, which were purchased from a junkyard. The planes were hidden in the cellar of the winery in Sarona. Upstairs there were workshops where we worked. We dismantled them and removed the fabric from the wings and body. The wings were made of wood. We repaired the planks, did carpentry work and stretched new fabric. They dismantled the engines and sent parts to workshops in Tel Aviv. We also had a department of instruments, engines and paint, which was run by two girls.
“They let us learn how to do the work. I was 18, a high-school student who left in my senior year, and I was drafted in March 1948. They let me travel home for the matriculation exams. The place itself was four times the size of today, and was reduced in order to build the highways below, the Begin Petah Tikva Highway, and that’s where all the wagons to unload were – where you see cafes today – they took up three halls. One cellar and Templer tunnels that connected the old winery to the distillery remained.”
Gidoni didn’t participate in transferring the plane parts, but he did help to build and renovate them. Eventually, when the Air Service became the Israel Air Force, “I was in a unit with nine soldiers that was transferred to Tel Yosef. We were the first mechanics who flew the planes from Czechoslovakia that arrived with the first light. In 1948 I attended the fourth pilots’ course. I was in the first course taught in Israel. I stopped and returned three years later.”
After serving in various capacities, Gidoni decided that he had had enough. He flew Dakotas until the age of 48 and then transferred to the Hawkeye as a reservist. After his discharge from the army he studied at the Technion-Israel Technological Institute and worked for Israel Aircraft Industries.