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Yom Kippur War

Yom Kippur War - (In Hebrew - Mil'hement Yom Kippur) 'Yom Kippur' is pronounced approximately Yohm Kee poor'). It is called the October War or the Ramadan War by Arab states.

In October 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a war against Israel, after the Israeli government headed by Golda Meir rebuffed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's offers to negotiate a settlement. The Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal on the afternoon of October 6, Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish religious calendar. The Israeli government had ignored repeated intelligence warnings. The quick victory of the 6-day war, reinforced by well planned Egyptian disinformation, had lulled the Israeli government and well as most of the army and intelligence service, into a false sense of security. They were convinced that Israeli arms were a sufficient deterrent to any aggressor.

Note - Accounts of the battles, particularly in Sinai, are still shrouded in some secrecy and are often contradictory. Several accounts of the war have been censored heavily or were not allowed to appear at all by Israeli authorities. The following account is based primarily on the account in "Righteous Victims" by Benny Morris, and supplementary information from "The Eve of Destruction" by Howard Blum, and on other sources.

Prologue

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had twice announced his intention to go to war, but nothing had happened. In 1971, he had announced a year of decision, and claimed he was ready "to sacrifice a million Egyptian soldiers" to recover the lands lost in the 6-day war.

Egypt pressed the USSR for large quantities of sophisticated weaponry. The Soviets were skeptical about Egyptian military capabilities, unenthusiastic about another war after the debacle of 1967, and slow to deliver arms. Sadat was disenchanted with the Soviets and in July of 1972, expelled thousands of Soviet military advisors. This move reinforced the disinformation Israel was getting from Egypt, giving the impression that Egypt was not ready for war.

The Egyptian war plan was the conception of General Saad El Shazli, who was promoted to Chief of Staff. Shazli's plan compensated for Egyptian deficiencies in air-power and coordination in battle in several ways. Chiefly, it would set a limited objective - to cross the canal and recover a small strip of land in Sinai. Staying close to Egypt would give the Egyptians the umbrella of the SAM-3 surface to air missiles. The plan would be rehearsed until every detail was perfect and carried out with the benefit of complete surprise, so that the battle would go exactly as planned, without enemy interference that would require improvisation.

Egypt and Syria agreed on a coordinated attack in April of 1973. However, the Syrians required, as a condition of their cooperation, that the Egyptians penetrate deeply into Sinai. A plan of this nature was apparently shown to the Syrians, but it was never meant to be implemented.  The date of October 6, 1973 was chosen to begin the war, supposedly because on that evening the moon would shine from sunset to midnight, thereafter giving total darkness to allow the Egyptians to hid their canal-crossing bridges, and because October 6 promised a minimal difference between high and low tide, facilitating the bridge building. The Egyptians thought the Yom Kippur holy day, the most solemn day of the Jewish religious calendar, would ensure minimum Israeli readiness. Israeli TV and radio stations would be shut down,  making a speedy mobilization, usually carried out by broadcasting the code words of different units, much  more difficult. In reality, the fact that roads are empty on Yom Kippur and everyone is at home may have facilitated mobilization, but it was an unsettling blow to morale. 

Egyptian war planning was precise and methodical. The Egyptians had met with heads of Arab states and coordinated support. President Sadat met secretly with Saudi Arabian King Feisal on August 23, 1973, to inform him of the planned attack and to get cooperation in the form of an Arab oil boycott. [1] The combined Egyptian-Syrian air-force, reinforced by squadrons from Iraq, Libya and Algeria as well as some North Korean pilots, outnumbered the Israelis 2 to 1. Deficiencies in armor were compensated by huge numbers of hand-held Sagger anti-tank missiles. To compensate for Israeli air-superiority, Egyptian and Syrian armor would stay under the protective umbrella of the Soviet SAM-3 surface to air missiles, stationary installations that depended on ground radar stations. The canal was lined with two huge earthen embankments, on the Egyptian and Israeli sides. To cross effectively, the Egyptians would need to make holes in the embankments. Experiments showed that the most efficient method of destroying the embankment was the use of water cannon. 450 huge water cannons were acquired from Germany. Specially engineered Soviet pontoon bridges were purchased for use in crossing the canal. This activity was partly covered by the announcement of a training exercise, Tahrir 41. This provided cover not only against Israeli intelligence, but also to keep the knowledge of the attack from Egyptian soldiers. Very few in Egypt knew they were about to go to war.

None of this activity, the preparations, the procurement, the training or even the announcement on September 11 on Cairo Radio that Egyptian President Sadat and King Hussein of Jordan were "discussing the preparations for the fateful battle against Israel," made any impression on Israel's intelligence assessment. The Israelis ignored a specific and detailed warning by King Hussein of Jordan, delivered in secret, as well as CIA warnings. Repeated announcements by Sadat that war was imminent had come to naught, reinforcing Israeli opinion that he was bluffing. After the swift victory of 1967, Israel intelligence and military were over sure of themselves. In May and August, Sadat had mobilized the Egyptian army in apparent readiness for an attack. Israel mobilized, but the attack never occurred. Either these were deliberate bluffs, or Egypt had been deterred by Israeli mobilization. However, each of these mobilizations was costly, and Israel was reluctant to undertake another mobilization for yet another false alarm. Moreover,  a carefully nurtured Egyptian double agent, code named "the in-law," had also convinced Israeli intelligence that Egypt was unready to go to war, and continued to disseminate disinformation up to the outbreak of hostilities. In the last days before the war, it was no longer possible to hide that fact that families of Soviet advisers were leaving. Egyptians were certain that Israelis knew by now that there would be war, and this was relayed by the double agent, but nonetheless ignored by Israel. On the day before the attack, the agent transmitted the  false information that the attack would begin at 6 PM. In fact, the attack was to begin at 2 PM, and the Israelis lost four hours of warning.

When the intelligence reports were finally believed, on the morning of the attack, PM Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayandecided not to mobilize reserves. At dawn on October 6, Chief of Staff David (Dado) Elazar pressed for total mobilization, which would require 48 to 72 hours. Elazar also wanted an air-strike against the SAM missile protective umbrella. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan agreed only to mobilization of two divisions and their support troops - about 50,000 men and refused the air-strike. According to some accounts, he did not want to give the Arabs a pretext for saying Israel had provoked the war. According to other accounts, he simply didn't believe there would be a war. The decision was postponed to about 11 AM. It was decided to mobilize about 100,000 troops, a compromise.

The Egyptian Front

The Israelis were caught by surprise in more ways than one. Israel had conquered the Sinai peninsula and Suez Canal in the 1967 Six Day War. Along the  canal, the Israelis had constructed what should have been formidable defenses. A series of 31 forts, the Bar Lev line, had been built, and a network of gas operated flamethrowers was supposed to be activated in the event of Egyptian attack. However, Ariel Sharon had objected to the static defense concept, and about half the original forts had been closed down, to be replaced by a mobile defense that was not yet fully developed. The remainder of the forts were manned with skeleton crews and were  intended to act as watch posts A huge exercise held the previous spring to simulate the response to an Egyptian crossing of the canal proved to be a disaster in many ways, but the faults were not corrected. Israeli intelligence had an intricate electronic listening network beneath the streets of Cairo, but apparently, due to an oversight, it was not activated. When the attack came, it was discovered that there was no gas for the flame-thrower network. The US had also apparently  held up defense procurement for key items because it was dissatisfied with Israeli intransigence in responding to Sadat's peace overtures.

Yom Kippur war - Map of Initial Egyptian Attacks, Israeli Counter attacks

Yom-Kippur War - Map of initial Egyptian attacks and Israeli Counter Attacks

The Egyptians poured huge numbers of troops across the canal unopposed and began setting up beachheads. The Israel army had neglected basic maintenance tasks and drill. As troops mustered, it became apparent that equipment was missing and tanks were out of commission. A tiny number of soldiers faced the Egyptian onslaught in the few forts of the Bar Lev line and were wiped out after stubborn resistance. The Soviets had sold the Egyptians new technology - better surface to air missiles (SAM) and hand held Sager anti-tank weapons. Israel had counted on air power to tip the balance on the battlefield, and had neglected artillery. But the airforce was initially neutralized because of its failure to deal with the SAM missiles. At the time this was thought to be due to objective factors, but analysis later analysis (Gordon 2008) seems to show that the failure was due to poor command decisions and deployment of the aircraft at critical times.

Futile counterattacks continued in Sinai for several days as Israeli divisions coped with traffic jams that prevented concentration of forces, and with effective Egyptian resistance.

The Egyptians began  with an aerial attack. About 200 planes attacked IDF camps, radar installations, airfields and other bases along the canal and deep in Sinai. They lost 37 aircraft in dogfights and ground fire. A massive Egyptian artillery bombardment rained hundreds of thousands of shells and mortar rounds. The Egyptians estimate 10,500 artillery and mortar rounds fell on the Bar Lev line in the first minute. In about two hours, the Egyptians had sent about 25,000 soldiers across the canal, ten brigades, in five bridgeheads. The Egyptians originally crossed in dinghies. However by 20:30 hours, the first bridge was completed, and by 23:00 the Egyptian Second Army had six functioning bridges. The Israelis had about 500 soldiers in the outposts along the canal, and not much more in reserve in Sinai. Perhaps 10,000 troops in all. 

Overnight, the Egyptians put across about 500 to 700 tanks, and 3,000 other pieces of heavy equipment: trucks cannon, Armored Personnel Carriers (APC) etc. Israeli armor from further inside the Sinai peninsula should have been stationed on the canal, but was not, apparently due to an error of General Gonen. Ariel Sharon kept insisting that not enough was being done to rescue the soldiers trapped in the outposts, and that they could still be extricated. Eventually, the tanks rallied to the rescue of the isolated outposts, but too late. Egyptian infantry, equipped with Sagger missiles, destroyed about 60% of the 270 tanks that were available. Lone rescue missions were successful in extricating a few men, but often more people were killed in the rescue than were saved by it.  Israel Air Force sorties flown during the night were likewise ineffective in destroying the pontoon bridges.  On the morning of October 7, the Israel Air Force was supposed to launch a massive air attack on the Egyptian antiaircraft missile network, which would solve the air-cover problem. This began, but was cancelled because the IAF was urgently called to halt the Syrian advance in the southern Golan.  

Yom Kippur War - Egyptian Front - Zionism-Israel ctr

By the evening of October 7, the Egyptians had put across about 100,000 men, 1,020 tanks and 13,500 vehicles. They had destroyed over 150 Israeli tanks, losing only 20 tanks and 280 men. By this time, Moshe Dayan, who had been utterly indifferent and supremely confident the day before, had panicked and was talking about "the destruction of the Third Temple." Others did not lose their cool. Notably, Chief of Staff Elazar radiated calm confidence and stability. Ariel Sharon was insisting on effecting an immediate crossing of the canal as early as October 6, but Israel lacked the ability to do so.

The first Israeli counter-attack fails - By October 8, Israel had massed two armored divisions in Sinai and planned a counterattack, north to south, beginning from Ismailia. Chief of staff David Elazar planned the attack in phases, with Avraham ("Bren") Adan spearheading the attack on the second army  with one division, and Ariel Sharon's division to be held in reserve until success was achieved coming in to attack the third army. Controversy exists about the plan and the orders. General Gonen, chief of the southern command, had ambitious plans to cross the canal. Elazar, on the hand, supposedly  cautioned his generals to stay away from the canal and the swarms of anti-tank missiles that were there, not to attempt rescues of the soldiers in the Bar Lev fortifications and certainly not to cross the canal (Blum p 204).

According to another source (Morris p 413) Elazar wanted the generals to roll up the bridgeheads. It was unclear how they could do that without approaching the canal. It is certain however that Gonen changed Elazar's plan and attempted to attack the Egyptian positions along the canal with both Adan's and Sharon's divisions, and to rescue the men holding out in the forts along the canal. The counterattack was a miserable failure.  It was also unnecessary. One objective of the attack was to stop the further advance of the Egyptians. The Israelis were sure that the Egyptians would build on their success and launch an attack deep into Sinai. The Egyptians however, had no such plans. They planned to consolidate their gains before making an additional, modest advance. The Israeli command was out of control. Ariel Sharon, ordered to stay put for the time being, had tried to advance part of his division  to the Great Bitter Lake, between the Egyptian Third Army in the south, and the Second army in the north, always trying to implement his plan to cross the Suez canal.  Sharon lost about 50 tanks, but a small patrol under Amnon Reshef had, unnoticed, managed to slip between the Egyptian armies and arrive at the shores of the Great Bitter Lake. He had discovered a way to get around the armies. Bouyed by this news, Sharon wanted to exploit Reshef's discovery to cross the canal immediately. General Gonen was furious at Sharon's insubordination, but he was no longer capable of controlling the situation and his officers. Retired General Haim Bar-Lev, serving as a cabinet minister, was mobilized and sent to "advise" Gonen, effectively replacing him as southern commander on October 10. Sharon was dissuaded from attacking.

However, the next days  were relatively quiet, as the Egyptians consolidated and prepared for the second phase of their attack. This gave Israel time to organize their forces in Sinai and to deal with the Syrian threat, which was liquidated by October 11.

The airlifts - During the pause in their offensive, the Egyptians and Syrians asked the Soviets to resupply their depleted armies. From October 10, the Soviets mounted the biggest airlift in their history. During and immediately after the war, 63,000 tons of supplies were brought to Egypt and Syria by sea and 15,000 tons were flown by air. The Egyptians and Syrians got about 1,200 tanks, 300 Mig-21 fighters and a great deal of other equipment.

Responding to equally urgent Israeli pleadings, President Nixon decided to resupply Israel in order to prevent a triumph of Soviet arms. The order was given October 9, but the start of the implementation was mysteriously delayed until the night of October 13. Israeli generals suspected political manipulation. The Americans apparently had no real understanding of the state of Israeli supplies. Kissinger wrote in his memoirs that Israel was engaging in "hysteria or blackmail." In any case, beginning October 14, American planes brought 22,400 tons of supplies, and El-Al Israel airlines brought another 11,000 tons from the US and bases in Europe. Israel got 40 F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers, 36 Skyhawks, and 33,000 tons of materiel by sea, mostly tanks. The ships began arriving November 15, too late to influence the war. However, they did influence Israeli combat decisions. On October 10, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told Israeli ambassador Dinitz, "The IDF must attack with all its strength, as if it had another 40 aircraft in hand, and not stint on ammunition or aircraft, because the United States will supply everything." (Morris, page 434).

The Israelis accept a cease fire, but Egypt refuses - On the night of October 12, the Americans persuaded the Israelis to accept a cease fire. The Soviets had begun pushing for an armistice because of the Syrian collapse. However, the Egyptians, intent on the second phase of their attack, refused. Ariel Sharon was once again pressing to cross the canal. But Israel army intelligence picked up the news that in two days the Egyptians would begin their offensive. Chief of Staff Elazar understood that the time to attack would be after this offensive.

The Egyptian second phase, a fatal error - At this point, the Egyptians made a fatal error. Ignoring Shazly's original plan, they launched an offensive that went beyond the cover of their SAM missiles, aiming for the Mitla and Gidi passes. This opened their armor to Israeli air attack and left the canal unguarded.

The Egyptian Twenty First Armored Division, parts of the Fourth Armored division, two mechanized divisions and mobile SAM-6 antiaircraft missile batteries crossed the canal. On October 14, they launched an offensive in six separate thrusts along a 100 mile front. At dawn, a massive Egyptian artillery barrage rained down on Artillery road, which ran from Baluza in the north to beyond Ras Sudar in the south. Massive air attacks hit Israeli headquarters at Baluza in the north. The Egyptians sent about a thousand tanks against the 750 Israeli tanks.  As the tanks moved out beyond the cover of the SAM-3 stationary missiles, they were attacked by the IAF and Israeli armor. The Egyptian armor was virtually defenseless against superior Israeli gunnery and the IAF, losing over 250 tanks and hundreds of men. The Israelis lost 25 tanks. The battle of October 14 was a disaster for Egypt, and proved to be turning point of the war.

Yom Kippur War Map- Failed Egyptian phase 2 and Israel Counter Attack

Yom-Kippur War - Map of failed  Egyptian second phase attack and Israeli Counter Attacks

The Israelis cross the canal - With Egyptian armor no longer guarding the canal, Sharon's plan to cross the canal was finally approved on October 16. The Israelis would cross at the Matzmed fort, just north of the  Great Bitter Lake. Supposedly, they would sneak around the Egyptian forces guarding the canal and erect two huge bridges on pontoons. The Egyptians had other plans however. They had two  divisions, which were holding the "Missouri" fortifications and a former Japanese operated training farm misnamed the "Chinese Farm. The Israeli attack was discovered. Bitter fighting raged at the junction of two axes, Lexicon and Tirtur. The Israelis lost about 60 tanks and over a hundred men. Egyptian losses were greater. The bridges that were supposed to reach the crossing point didn't get there. One fell off its transport and was sitting in the desert. Meanwhile, Col. Danny Matt led the Israeli 55th Paratroop brigade around the defenders to the south, reaching the canal with half tracks and rubber dinghies. By 5 AM, October 16, 750 Israeli troops were across the canal and digging in. Improvised rafts  ferried about 37 tanks and seven APCs across. The code word "Acapulco" was sent to signal success.

Ariel Sharon, as usual, wanted to continue the attack, despite the lack of bridges. He was told to stay put and concentrate on taking the Chinese farm, but disobeyed, moving his headquarters across the canal.

The Egyptians were initially unaware of the Israeli crossing. Strangely, Golda Meir announced it from the floor of the Knesset on the afternoon of October 16. Chief of Staff Shazli wanted to withdraw forces from the East, Israeli side of the canal and box in the Israelis. Anwar Sadat and War Minister Ismail refused to withdraw any troops, which might be an admission of weakness. Instead, they ordered an attack by a brigade of T-62 tanks, on the east side of the canal.  The attack ran afoul of Israeli armor and about half the tanks were destroyed.

The Israelis bridge the canal - IDF engineers were busy assembling a bridge across the canal, under murderous air and artillery fire. The bridge was complete by the afternoon of October 17, and before dawn, General Adan had put two brigades of tanks across the Canal. By October 18, the major part of Adan's and Sharon's divisions were put across the canal.  In the coming days, the IDF continued to develop the bridgehead, with Adan sweeping. The IAF began destroying the SAM missile sites, initially losing 6 Phantoms. By October 19 , Israel had about 350 tanks on the west bank of the canal. Generals Adan and Magen would push south and west to surround the Third Army, gaining about 40 kilometers. Sharon's division  pressed north toward Ismailia, to at least partially cut off the Second Army. However, Sharon ran into stiff resistance and managed to advance only a few kilometers. In Egypt, Shazly again demanded withdrawal of forces to the Egyptian side of the canal, to help contain the Israelis. Sadat apparently fired Shazly and replaced him with General Gamassy, though Shazly claims he was fired only on December 13.  The Egyptians ultimately did remove troops from the east bank, but they were unable to stop the advance of Adan and Magen.

The Egyptians call for cease fire  - As the Egyptian situation deteriorated, they implored the Soviets to arrange a cease fire. Initially, the Egyptians had made it a condition that Israelis withdraw to the lines they held before the war. This demand was abandoned by October 21. Anwar Sadat twice called Vladimir Vinogradov, Soviet Ambassador in Cairo. He made a "desperate appeal" to "take all possible measures to arrange an immediate cease fire." US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Leonid Brezhnev had worked out the wording of a cease fire resolution, which became UN Security Council Resolution 338, providing for a cease fire in place within twelve hours and peace negotiations. Israel had no choice but to accept the cease fire, since it was enforced by the threat of Soviet intervention.

Resolution 338 was adopted October 22 at 00:52 New York time, which was the morning of October 22 in Sinai. Adan and Magen cut off the Cairo-Suez road, but the third army could still be supplied via the gulf of Suez.. Adan  curved back to reach the Suez Canal, hampered by minefields and stiff resistance, including Libyan Mirage fighter-bombers. In a race against time, Adan reached the Bitter Lake about 18:50 hours, though the cease fire had supposedly been in effect since 18:00 hours. Both sides continued firing, violating the cease fire, though Egyptian fire was very likely the local initiative of encircled troops. The Israeli cabinet decided to exploit the situation and continue the advance of Adan and Magen to complete the encirclement of the Third Army. Adan reached the outskirts of Suez city by 20:00 hours on October 23, while Magen Ras Adabiya on the Gulf. Egyptians were indignant about what they considered Israeli cease-fire violations, forgetting the continued resistance of their own troops, and the fact that they had refused a cease fire on October 12.

See additional maps: Map of Operation Gazelle - Israel Crossing of Suez Canal in Yom Kippur War - (First Part)    Map of Operation Gazelle - Israeli crossing of Suez in 1973 Yom Kippur War (Second Part)

The Battle of Suez City - Encouraged by the lack of resistance, the Israeli government then decided to order Adan to conquer Suez city, which was believed to be weakly defended as well. In fact, the Egyptians had a substantial force in Suez, as the Israelis were to discover to their cost. The battle was disastrous for Israel and required the extrication of a trapped paratroop battalion by an armored column. Dozens of troops were killed in fighting in the built up areas of the city. 

The international crisis - The continued Israeli advances precipitated a serious international crisis. The Soviets were alarmed by Israeli advances and apparently believed or claimed that they believed that Israel could and would advance on Cairo. Given the harrowing experience of Suez City, this was unlikely, and the Soviets must have known it. Apparently a Soviet ultimatum was issued on October 24, resulting in a USA DEFCON-3 nuclear alert, meant to scare the Soviets. As recalled by two US officials:

Alexander Haig, then White House chief of staff: "[A]ll you had to do was read the ultimatum to know that we had World War III in the making. They were saying: Either you intervene with us in the Sinai to impose neutral forces, or else. The Russians and the Egyptians thought that the Israelis were going to Cairo, which they could have done. Henry [Kissinger] sent Harold Saunders into the next room to draft a reply, and Hal sat down at the typewriter and came up with a draft. In effect, we said: No way. And in order to make it credible to the Russians, we knew that we had to take some dramatic steps to reinforce the message we sent, which would be unequivocally understood that we meant business; that is why we went into that alert."

Kenneth Rush, then deputy secretary of state: "The alert was Kissinger's idea, and was effective. We had information that the Soviets were putting nuclear weapons en route to Egypt. We wanted to scare them; Watergate didn't have a damn thing to do with it. Kissinger claimed he had checked with Nixon and gotten approval, but we never did know whether Nixon approved; all we knew was that Kissinger said so."[3]  

UN Security Council Resolutions 339 of October 23 and 340 of October 25 again called for immediate cease fire. They were finally obeyed, and UN observers were in place along the canal by October 27.

The Syrian Front

When the war began on October 6, Syria had  three oversized  infantry divisions about 930 tanks and 900 artillery pieces in forward positions facing the Golan heights. Two additional armored divisions and 460 tanks held the rear. These were protected by 30 batteries of anti-aircraft missiles. Israel held the Golan heights with 177 tanks and one infantry division, 44 artillery pieces and a SAM battery. Thus began what was to be the largest tank battle since World War II.

The Syrian offensive began at 14:00 hours simultaneously with the Egyptians. An initial wave of aircraft and massive artillery barrage was followed within an hour by the advance of tanks and infantry.

Northern Golan - In the north, an elite Syrian commando attacked and captured the key Israeli electronic surveillance base at the top of Mt Hermon. Two Syrian divisions and hundreds of tanks attacked in the north, where Israel had placed about 130 tanks of the Seventh brigade on high ground before a deep antitank ditch, facing a plain that become known as the "vale of tears." During the day, the Israelis had a slight advantage because the Sun was in the eyes of the Syrians. At night however, this situation was reversed. Israeli tanks did not have night-vision sights or binoculars. The Soviet tanks did. Israeli tank commanders had to find "sleeping" Syrian tanks, often yards away, from the sound of their motors. The crucial battle in the north was fought on October 9th. Israeli tanks, reduced to a few dozen by Syrian artillery and tank fire, annihilated about two hundred  Syrian tanks as they attempted to advance in the vale of tears near Quneitra. The Israelis were out of ammunition and many tanks were damaged. However, the Syrians, considering their own losses and failing to estimate the situation accurately, halted their attack.

Yom Kippur War, Syrian Front, Zionism-Israel.com

Syrian advances in southern Golan - In the southern Golan, Israel had about 40 tanks.  The Syrians rapidly pushed through three brigades by the evening of October 6. An additional four Syrian brigades entered the southern Golan that night.

A Syrian tank brigade passed through the Rafid Gap and  turned northwest along the Tapline Road. The Tap line was the pipeline that carried oil from Iraq to Haifa bay. The road led to Nafekh, location of Israeli divisional headquarters and a vital crossroads. Lieutenant Zvika Greengold, who arrived at the battle alone, fought them off with a single tank until help arrived. Zvika, who came to be known as "The Zvika Force (koach Tzvika)," fought alone or with others for 20 hours, changing tanks half a dozen times when his tank was destroyed.  He stayed in action despite wounds and burns, saving the situation time and again.

Another Syrian force raced to the ridge overlooking the Jordan valley, but was held by three tanks of Israeli reserve divisions. The situation became desperate for Israel as the Syrians pushed more and more tanks and men into several salients in the south. Settlements were abandoned. Israel contemplated total withdrawal from the Golan, as well as considering arming aircraft with nuclear weapons.

Initial Israeli air attack - Early on the morning of October 7, at 3 AM, Israel intercepted a radio message sent by the commander of the 132 Syrian Armored Brigade. The message said "I see the whole Galilee in front of me, Request permission to proceed." Syrian armor had smashed through thin Israeli tank defenses in the occupied Golan heights and was poised to cross into Israel. (Blum, P 186). After the intelligence had been evaluated, the gravity of the situation was eventually understood. The planned IAF assault in Sinai, which had already begun in fact,  was halted. Israeli jets were turned around to pound the Syrians. The IAF met some success in halting Syrian armor. However, the attack was mounted in haste. According to the prewar plans, all of the IAF was to attack the missile batteries. Now the force had to be divided between the attack on the batteries and ground support for desperate Israeli armor. The Israelis were not will prepared to deal with the SAM missile defenses either.  Israel lost 35 aircraft.

Desperate hours - The situation in the Golan during the first days of the war was desperate. Israeli forces were grossly outnumbered and ill equipped. In some cases, tank commanders had to be cajoled to fight, sometimes at gunpoint. The situation was often retrieved only by the bravery and tenacity of a very few officers and men, who held off hundreds of Syrian tanks with forces of one,  three or seven tanks that were only partly operational.

Yom Kippur War - Map - Syrian attack Zionism-Israel ctr

 

The turnaround - Beginning on October 8, Israel had managed to put together three divisions and to regain air-superiority. Foreign sources simply note that "Israel had managed to bring its forces up to strength by October 8th." This bland phrase masks an incredible effort and exceptional bravery by relatively few men. Deputy tank battalion commander Shmuel Ashkarov of the 188th brigade had destroyed 30 tanks with his own tank. His brigade was wiped out. His commanding officer had been killed. He stopped fighting when his tank was destroyed by a direct hit, and was hospitalized in Safed. Early on the morning of the 8th, he and a battalion commander, Yossi Eldar, escaped from Safed hospital. Bandaged and rasping through damaged vocal chords, he made his way back to the battlefield and reassembled a tank battalion from repaired tanks. Colonel Yossi Ben Hanan returned from his honeymoon in Nepal by a tortuous air route, landed in the midst of the battles, and ultimately was trapped and almost given up for dead, and dramatically rescued from behind Syrian lines by Yanosh Ben-Gal.

Yom Kippur War - Map- Golan Israeli counterattack Zionism-Israel ctr

A counterattack launched that day in the south rapidly pushed the Syrians out of the Hushniye pocket. By October 10, the Syrians were retreating beyond the 1967 armistice lines (the "purple line") leaving behind hundreds of tanks and other equipment. The Syrians still retained the Hermon.

Israeli bombing in Syria - At the same time, the IAF began bombing inside Syria as well as in the Golan. On October 9, six Israeli Phantom F-4s bombed the Syrian General Staff and Air Force headquarters in Damascus, inflicting heavy damage. They also accidentally damaged the Syrian TV building and the Soviet cultural center, losing one aircraft. Subsequent bombings destroyed an oil refinery and power plants, a radar station in Lebanon,  the entire electricity generating capacity of Damascus and other targets.

Conclusion of the ground war - However, the Syrian army remained a formidable force on the ground and was able to put up tenacious resistance, unlike the situation in 1967. An Israeli attack that began October 11 was initially aimed at Damascus, but stopped well short of the city, meeting heavy resistance from Syrians, with some reinforcements from Jordan and Iraq. The attack stalled and the front was stabilized October 14. The Iraqis fought poorly, but their presence proved to be somewhat of a deterrent. With a cease fire looming, the Golani brigade scaled the Hermon on foot and in half-tracks on  the night of the 21st, retaking it against dogged resistance by 11 AM on October 22. Most of defenders escaped.

Leadership and Judgment

All of Israel's political and military leadership clearly had some responsibility for the multiple failures that preceded the war:

1- Intelligence failures - failure to predict the attack

2- Organizational failures in the army - poor maintenance of equipment, slow reserve call up process

3- Failures in strategic evaluation - adoption of static defense strategy, fixation on the concept of taking the war to the enemy immediately when Israel did not have that capability.

4- Failure of leadership - simple loss of nerve. Defense minister Moshe Dayan was the sorriest example, having declared that there was a danger of the "fall of the third temple." During the first critical days of the war, it was Chief of Staff David Elazar who constant optimism maintained morale.

5- Failure of statesmanship - The biggest failure of all was that of Prime Minister Golda Meir, who refused to consider Anwar Sadat's peace feelers in 1971.

It was however, impossible for historians, at least, to evaluate all of these different problems at the time of the war and the subsequent Agranat Commission investigation. The existence of the spy Ashraf Marwan was not revealed for many years. He was responsible for the Israeli evaluation that there would be no war. If he was a double agent, he performed one of the greatest feats of espionage of all time. If he was truly an Israeli agent, the Egyptian intelligence apparatus must be credited with an elaborate and sophisticated coup.

Much was written about the "holding action" battles of the first days of the war in the Sinai. A great deal of effort and blood was expended with troops who were not entirely ready in chaotic and ill-prepared battles, for the purpose of preventing an Egyptian advance deep into the Sinai desert that would threaten Israel proper. What was not understood was that the Egyptians had no such intentions, at least not initially. The "holding actions" were not holding against anything. The SAM-6 missiles provided them with an aerial defense umbrella extending about 12 KM on the Israeli side of Suez Canal, and they could not really get beyond that umbrella. IDF probably should have focused on bringing the front line defenders in the forward outposts to safety, which they failed to do, and then on solidifying an defense line and organizing for a counter attack, without the initial counter attack and without the "holding actions."

Chief of Staff Elazar was made the fall man for many of the decisions that were not directly his fault and a few that were not his fault at own. His idea of taking the war to the enemy in the first hours was standard IDF doctrine, but he failed to appreciate that in the situation of the Yom Kippur war it was simply out of the question to implement it. Elazar had been widely faulted for calling up reserves in May, when intelligence had indicated a probably Egyptian attack. Such an attack was really planned but never materialized. The false alarm made Elazar too cautious in September.

The earnestness of President Anwar Sadat in proposing disengagement and eventual peace could not have been appreciated until it was actually proven in the peace agreement that was eventually signed.

Failures in the Air War

According to Gordon (2008) the Israel Air Force, unlike other branches, had sufficient warning of the outbreak of the war. Air force commander Benny  Peled did have advance warning of the war. Despite the statement of the Agranat Commission, the IAF had its own independent intelligence research division which had reached certain conclusions in September of 1973. But several factors prevented the IAF from using this information properly.

The problem began in the War of Attrition, during which the USSR had progressively escalated its involvement in protecting Egyptian forces fighting on the Suez Canal, until at one point Israeli pilots had to break off engagements because they heard Russian in the communications channels of the enemy aircraft. The final cease fire of the war of attrition allowed the Soviets to advance SAM 3 anti-aircraft missiles, and more important, the shorter range but mobile SAM 6. The SAM 6 missiles presented a difficult problem because determining their location requires constant intelligence updates. Unlike the stationary installations they cannot be destroyed easily by a planned attack that puts their radar out of commission and then destroys the missiles.

The air force had an inadequate strategy for dealing with the missiles and was also unduly afraid of them, because their range was estimated at twice the actual range of 20 KM. Until appropriate radar jamming and long range missile weapons could be developed, this threat could only be met by a mass attack. The airforce also did not fully recognize that an attack on enemy air fields such as Operation Focus that opened the Six day war by destroying the Egyptian air force on the ground, would no longer be effective. The Egyptians had housed their aircraft underground and therefore attacks on air fields had only secondary importance.

Though the airforce had adequate warning time, no warning was given to speed the repair of grounded aircraft, and insufficient maintenance crews were called up, so that many aircraft were not operational by October 6. The air force did call up about 1,400 reservists in the days before the war, and in the briefing of October 5, Commander Peled emphasized his feeling that there would shortly be a war.

However on the day of the attack, Peled hesitated between bombing air fields and bombing missile sites. Precious hours were lost in which no aircraft were in the air, because each change in plan required reconfiguring the armament of the Phantom jets, a long and involved process. The attacks that were carried out were ineffective because of poor intelligence and confusion in command. On the morning of the 7th, the air force was on its way to bomb the Egyptian front, but was called back to provide air support to ground troops in the Golan, on the Syrian front. This was probably an error. Air support in the Golan was not very effective because of lack of ground intelligence. In subsequent days, the air force expended its energies in more or less vain efforts to bomb Egyptian pontoon bridges on the canal. These were easily replaced each time, but air command didn't seem to notice. According to Gordon (2008), at no time did the air force attempt a proper full scale attack on the SAM 3 and SAM 6 missiles  with updated intelligence as to the location of the SAM 6 missiles and sufficient forces to neutralize anti-aircraft batteries. As a result, the airforce sacrificed air superiority and a myth was born that the SAM 6 system was invincible.

YOM KIPPUR WAR: Military Achievements and Losses

Loss of Life - Israel suffered 2,300 dead, 5,500 wounded and 294 prisoners. Egyptians lost about 12,000 dead, 35,000 wounded and 8,400 prisoners. Syria lost about 3,000 dead, 5,600 wounded and over 400 prisoners, of whom about 20 were Iraqis and Moroccans. 

Loss of Military Equipment - Egypt lost about a thousand tanks, Syria lost 1,150 and Israel lost about 400. Israel retrieved and repaired a large number of their own tanks as well as hundreds of Arab tanks and Armored Personnel Carriers (APC). Israel lost about 105 airplanes and 5 helicopters, a third of its combat strength, mostly to anti-aircraft fire. Egyptians lost 235 airplanes and 42 helicopters, while the Syrians lost 135 airplanes and 13 helicopters. Most of the losses occurred in dog fights. Forty-three Egyptian and four Syrian SAM missile batteries were destroyed and 16 additional Arab SAM missile batteries were damaged. Israel lost one anti-aircraft missile battery. The Israeli navy incurred no losses, sinking seven Egyptian and five Syrian missile boats, four Egyptian torpedo boats and several coastal defense boats. 

Israel had won a clear victory against Syria, conquering considerable territory beyond the cease fire lines of 1967 and advancing to within about 20 miles from Damascus. . In Sinai however, the Egyptians were still on the Israeli side of the canal, with their second army, while the Israelis had surrounded the third army and advanced toward Cairo.

Diplomatic and Political Situation

Despite their huge losses of men, equipment and territory, both Syria and Egypt considered themselves victorious in the Yom Kippur war. Even after signing a peace treaty with Israel, Egypt annually celebrates this "victory" with military parades and victory speeches. In 1981, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated while reviewing one such victory parade.  On the anniversary of the war, Egyptian television broadcasts racist cartoons of huge Egyptian supermen crushing little hooked-nosed Jewish soldiers marked by Stars of David.

In postwar negotiations, Israel and Egypt disentangled their troops and Israel withdrew several kilometers. Negotiations with Syria took somewhat longer.

In Israel, the relative incompetence of the government and military made evident by the war caused a political upheaval and widespread dissatisfaction. Motti Ashenazi, a survivor of the only Bar Lev line outpost left standing, demonstrated daily opposite the defense ministry in Tel-Aviv, and was soon joined by others. All demanded the resignation of Dayan. Ariel Sharon [2] demanded the resignation of Chief of Staff David Elazar, while general Gonen charged Sharon with disobeying orders.

On November 18, the Israeli cabinet set up a commission of judicial inquiry under judge Shimon Agranat. The Agranat Commission issued an interim report on April 2, 1974 and a final report on January 20, 1975. It faulted Amman, the IDF intelligence branch for overconfidence. Meir Ze'ira, who had recklessly disregarded all intelligence indicating an attack, was to be dismissed along with several other officers. Chief of Staff Elazar was likewise recommended for dismissal for incorrectly handling intelligence and lack of preparedness, though subsequent opinion holds that he was not at fault. Elazar had wanted to call out the reserves. it was Dayan who held back. General Gonen was to be suspended. The report avoided casting blame on Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, who seem to have played a pivotal role in events. Nonetheless, public opinion forced Golda Meir and the entire cabinet to resign. Yitzhak Rabin, who was not involved in the failures, formed the new government.

The war shattered the Israeli self-image of invincibility that had been cultivated since 1967. Israel had won a military victory at a terrible cost. The  failure of Golda Meir to take Sadat's peace proposals seriously led to a costly war, and at the end Israel was forced to accede to Sadat's demands in  much more unfavorable conditions. If Israel did not believe Sadat wanted peace, then obviously it should have been prepared for war, but it was not. In part, American failure to grant Israeli weapons requests may also have been at fault.

Though it lasted only a few months, the oil embargo initiated immediately after the war made Europeans conscious of their dependence on Arab oil, and amenable to a series of anti-Israel moves at the UN, including acquiescence in the invitation to Yasser Arafat and the infamous Zionism is Racism resolution.

While the war set the stage for peace with Egypt a few years later, it also set in motion a political process that moved Israel to the right. The faith of the nation in the wisdom of the founding generation was broken. The power of the Israel Labor party was eroded both by resentment and distrust caused by the war and by anger at the failure of the government to address social problems. In 1977, the Likud party under Menachem Begin  came to power. Begin made peace with Sadat, but stepped up Israeli settlement efforts in the West Bank.

Ami Isseroff

Updated February 28, 2010

Notes

1. It was widely thought that the embargo was decided upon on about October 10, but according to Robert Copaken:

One of the best kept secrets of the eventful period leading up to the October attacks was the agreement by Egypt’s President Sadat and Saudi King Faisal to use the oil weapon in conjunction with the surprise attack. This accord was reportedly reached during an unannounced meeting between the two leaders in Riyadh on August 23 1973. (Copaken, 1973, p. 7). Copaken cites Yergin, D. The Prize (New York, Simon and Shuster, 1991), p. 597.

[2] Sharon has made extensive political capital out of his real or supposed role in the war. At the time, he insisted that had his plan been followed, the war would have been shortened considerably. Rumors persist that still classified information paints a less than flattering report of his actions.

[3] Strober and Strober, pp 154-6. Rabinovitch, 2004, 479-480. Rabinovitch put the alert on the night of October 23-24. According to him, Brezhnev's letter had said,  "I will say it straight that if you find it impossible to act jointly with us in this matter, we should be faced with the necessity urgently to consider taking appropriate steps unilaterally. We cannot allow arbitrariness on the part of Israel." In that version, Nixon was discomfited because of Watergate. Some claim he was drunk. According to Rabinovich, the White House Chief of Staff refused to wake Nixon.

 Sources

Ashkenazi, Motti, "Just a scared Soldier," Jerusalem Post, 2003

Blum, Howard, The Eve of Destruction, Perennial, 2004.

Cohen, Stuart, A., A sober look at how the war was won, Jerusalem Post, Sept 25, 1998

Copaken, Robert R.  THE ARAB OIL WEAPON OF 1973-74 AS A DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD: ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR FUTURE ENERGY SECURITY, Durham Middle East Paper No. 75 June 2003.

גורדון, שמואל, 30 שעות באוקטובר, החלטות גורליות: חיל האוויר בתחילת מלחמת יום כיפור, מעריב, ירושלים, 2008.

(Gordon, Samuel, 30 Hours in October: Fateful decisions: The Air Force at the start of the Yom Kippur War, Maariv, Jerusalem, 2008 - in Hebrew)

Morris, Benny, Righteous Victims, Alfred Knopf 1999.

Rabinovich,   Abraham, "Shattered Heights: Part 1," Jerusalem Post, September 25, 1998.

Rabinovich,   Abraham, "Shattered Heights: Part 2," Jerusalem Post, October 2, 1998

Rabinovich, Abraham, The Yom Kippur War : The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East, New York, Schocken, 2004. (see Excerpt here: http://info.jpost.com/C003/Supplements/30YK/new.02.html

Strober, Gerald S. and Strober, Deborah H., Nixon: An Oral History of His Presidency,  Harper Perennial edition, New York, 1996.

http://www.mideastweb.org/briefhistory.htm A brief history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at MidEastWeb Middle East Resources

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Synonyms and alternate spellings:  October war, Ramadan War.

Further Information:


Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:

'H - ('het) a guttural sound made deep in the throat. To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.

ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."

u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.

a- sounded like a in arm

ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.

'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.

o - close to the French o as in homme.

th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.

q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.


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