Maj-Gen Mordechai Hod

Phlegmatic Israeli Air Force commander
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Mordechai Fein (Mordechai Hod), air force officer: born Deganya, Palestine 28 September 1926; Commander, Israeli Air Force 1966-73; married (two sons, one daughter); died Tel Aviv 29 June 2003.

At 10.35am on the morning of 5 June 1967, Mordechai Hod, the lean, phlegmatic commander of the Israeli Air Force, reported to the Chief of Staff, Yitzhak Rabin: "The Egyptian Air Force has ceased to exist." Moshe Dayan, the Defence Minister, wrote later: "A stone - just one, but of agonising weight - rolled off the heart."

It was one of the defining moments of the modern Middle East. In a surprise attack launched at 7.10am, Hod's pilots destroyed 286 of Egypt's 420 combat aircraft while their crews were at breakfast. Sweeping in from the Mediterranean at altitudes as low as 15 metres to evade detection, Israeli bombers also took out 13 air bases as well as 23 radar stations and anti-aircraft sites. Israel lost only nine of its own planes. Hod, who guzzled gallons of water in his command post, admitted later that "the first 45 minutes felt like a day".

"Operation Focus", hatched by the previous air force chief, Ezer Weizman, but refined and orchestrated by the mustachioed, cigar-smoking Hod, had been five years in the making. None the less, it remained a huge gamble. Michael B. Oren, the most recent historian of the June war, wrote:

The plan, requiring dozens of squadrons from different bases to rendezvous silently over 11 targets between 20 and 45 minutes' flying time away, was labyrinthine in its complexity and exceedingly hazardous. All but 12 of the country's jets were thrown into the attack, leaving the country's skies virtually defenceless.

It was the first strike of a six-day war that saw Israel conquer the West Bank of the Jordan, Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. The region is still coming to terms with the consequences. Followed by similar devastating onslaughts against the Syrian and Jordanian air forces, the attack gave Israel command of the skies from day one. Michael Elkins, the BBC's Jerusalem correspondent, one of the first outsiders to piece together what had happened, reported to his sceptical editors within hours that Israel had won the war.

Mordechai Hod was born in 1926, to farming stock in Deganya, the first kibbutz. His father, Joseph Fein, served in the Haganah volunteer Jewish defence force. "Motti" Hod said of him: "Whatever he did, he always did it the hard way, with infinite trouble and dedication. If I possess tenacity of purpose, I could have inherited it from one man only, my father."

He was educated at a local school, but acknowledged that the Second World War and the Zionist struggle for independence distracted from serious study. Weizman said of him: "He may not be able to quote Bialik [a Hebrew poet] or Shakespeare, but he will screw the Arabs in plain Hebrew."

Early in 1945, when he was 18, Hod volunteered for the British army and was posted (four weeks before the German surrender) to an RASC transport unit on the Italian front. While still in Italy, he was recruited as a driver for a secret Jewish organisation smuggling Holocaust survivors into Palestine, still under British rule.

He spent Passover 1946 at the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. "It was the most dreadful sight I had ever seen before," he recalled years later, "or that I was likely to see ever again. I was still young and inexperienced, and I was very deeply shaken."

His underground work kindled his passion for flying. One summer night in 1947, he helped load 50 child refugees on to a Dakota that landed on a temporary runway in southern Italy. Hod, arrested briefly on suspicion of arms smuggling, was hooked. A week later, he joined a Milan flying club. Legend has it that he terrified his instructors by buzzing a peaceful suburb on his first solo flight. After further training in Czechoslovakia, he ferried war- surplus Spitfires from there to the fledgling Israeli Air Force in December, 1948. The six-hour flight left the fuel tanks empty.

Three months later, Hod received his wings in the IAF's first passing-out parade. When he was sent to Britain in 1950 to learn to fly jets, his instructors wrote on his certificate: "Uncertain beginning, but excellent in the end."

On his return, he was soon promoted to squadron leader. During the 1956 Suez Crisis, he commanded a squadron of French-built Ouragan fighters, flying in 12 sorties, including a celebrated attack that decimated an Egyptian armoured column in the Mitla Pass. In 1960 he was appointed chief of operations and in 1966 succeeded Weizman as air force commander.

He retired in 1973 with the rank of major-general, but was recalled as an adviser when the Yom Kippur War broke out in October that year. Back in civilian life, he established the Kal airfreight company in 1975, challenging the monopoly of the national airline El Al, of which he later became chief executive from 1977 to 1979. He also served as chairman of Israel Aircraft Industries.

Mordechai Hod met and married his wife Pnina when he was a trainee pilot and she was an air force sergeant. They had two sons, Yossi and Yuval, and a daughter, Nurit.

Eric Silver