Polish Battle of Britain pilots Kazimierz Sporny and Jan Zumbach were involved in an operation that also smuggled gold across Europe, according to the files.
The smuggling ring was uncovered by a secret inquiry launched by the Metropolitan Police and the then-Ministry of Civil Aviation into a firm called Airspan Travel Ltd, which advertised as an operator of pleasure flights to Corsica.
The company employed both Sporny and Zumbach after the end of the War.
Airspan’s managing director was former RAF Squadron Captain Basil Betts, while another director was F/Sgt Cyril Kenneth Smith, documents released at the National Archives in Kew reveal.
Battle of Britain pilot Jan Zumbach, left, participated in a smuggling ring that brought weapons to Israel during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence
Smuggling was uncovered following an investigation by the Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Metropolitan Police into a firm called Airspan, run by former RAF Squadron Captain Basil Betts
This pair had relatively obscure wartime records, but Sporny and Zumbach were among the most daring heroes of the Battle of Britain. Spitfire pilot Zumbach shot down at least eight Messerschmitts while ace Sporny was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for downing at least five Luftwaffe planes.
According to the Met report, Special Branch suspected that Betts had been ‘supplying war materials to Jewish forces in Palestine’ when Israel was engaged in the first Arab-Israeli war. A US-imposed arms embargo was in place at the time on Israel.
‘It is quite clear that the directors of the company in question, and some of the pilots employed by them are engaged either wholly or in part in smuggling activities, in which aircraft owned by them play a principal part,’ the report said.
Betts and Smith both lived luxuriously in Dolphin Square, Pimlico, even though the nominal capital of Airspan was just £1,000 (around £30,000 today).
Jan Zumbach, flying a Supermarine Spitfire, around 1943. The aircraft bears his distinctive Donald Duck symbol
While Airspan offered a light aircraft travel service to Corsica via Paris, Lyon and Nice in its first year, a probe was undertaken at the ministry’s request when it applied to extend the service to La Baule-Escoublac in Brittany in 1949.
A subsequent police report laid bare a litany of wrongdoing. In May 1948 Smith was caught up in a smuggling case in France on board a ship named Venture.
The vessel had been purchased by F/Lt. Douglas Barton Perry and Sporny.
When Venture landed in Dieppe, Smith and four other crew members were arrested and charged with smuggling gold.
They were kept in custody until February 1949, when they were released unconditionally after an anonymous donor paid bail of 10,000 francs.
French police named Betts as a financial backer of the scheme and he was asked to attend Bow Magistrates’ Court to give evidence to their inquiry.
The Met’s report describes how as the case widened, Smith, Betts and a man named Fred Ebel were suspected of operating a cross Channel trade in gold, share certificates and currency.
Ebel was active during the wartime black market in France, and later employed as Airspan’s Paris agent.
By the time of the Dieppe affair, Smith had already been caught up in another smuggling probe in February 1948.
After landing a light aircraft at Gatwick, his baggage was searched by Customs officers, who found certificates for shares in a precious metals mining company.
Smith suggested Betts might have placed them in his bag by accident. The certificates were found to belong to an unnamed vice-consul in Switzerland.