Overlooked, but not forgotten

The Yom Kippur War's 14th Armored Brigade is finally starting to get the recognition it deserves.

October 3, 2007 20:38
Overlooked, but not forgotten

14th armored brigade. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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On the first night of battle in the Chinese Farm during the Yom Kippur War, a tank crewman searching for wounded picked his way on foot past smoldering Israeli and Egyptian vehicles. Dark shapes of men, dead or wounded, lay on the desert floor, but it was unclear who was Israeli and who Egyptian. The crewman bent over each and asked "Are you a Jew?" An answer to that eternal question finally came from one of the prone figures. "Yes and it's hard to be a Jew in the land of Israel." The use by the badly wounded soldier of this wry punch line which has accompanied the Jewish people on its long march - "Es iz shver tzu zein a Yid," in the original Yiddish - was evidence that whimsy is possible even in hell. That October night 34 years ago was recalled last week by Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Amnon Reshef, who led the 14th Armored Brigade into the cauldron of the Chinese Farm. Reshef's living room in Tel Aviv's upscale Ramat Aviv Gimel quarter, bereft of military mementos, is normally filled with the tranquil sounds of choral or baroque music. But Reshef this morning was busy answering telephone calls from wartime comrades. In addition to seasonal well-wishers, many of the callers vented frustration to their former commander at the unit's virtual anonymity amid the plethora of anniversary accounts of the war in the Israeli media. "They were 19- and 20-year-olds in the war," said Reshef. "Now they're in their mid-50s with children and grandchildren, and they feel that they don't exist in the national consciousness." Many of these veterans have only recently been able to talk about their experience. Some have begun to write memoirs now that the enormity of that traumatic experience has receded to somewhat manageable proportions. The 14th lost 305 men in the Yom Kippur War, more than any other brigade. It was the brigade's lot to fight the most disastrous battle in the war - the failed attempt to block the Egyptian crossing of the Suez Canal - as well as the epic battle in the Chinese Farm 10 days later that began to turn the war around. Most Israelis, when asked today about the Chinese Farm, associate it with a highly publicized fight by a paratroop battalion commanded by Lt.-Col. Yitzhak Mordechai on the edge of the area - an ambush from which the paratroopers had to retreat after being mauled. There is scant awareness of the fierce battle a day earlier in the heart of the Chinese Farm by the tanks of the 14th that cracked the back of Egyptian resistance in the heart of the sprawling area. The Yom Kippur War was one of uncommon intensity, with more than 2,000 tanks left behind by the contending sides on the battlefields of the Sinai and Golan in 18 days. To this day, many veterans are wakened virtually every night by nightmares. "I've been trying to get one of my battalion commanders to talk about the war for the past 34 years," says Reshef. "A couple of weeks ago he agreed for the first time in connection with a Web site I'm setting up for our unit, but he will talk only about factual matters, not his feelings. He says that he gets together with his feelings on Yom Kippur and doesn't share them with anyone else." Reshef himself emerged from the war apparently unimpaired. "A good friend of mine from the brigade who is now a professor of psychology says he doesn't understand how I came out of it normal." In the months immediately after the war, when the unit was posted at a captured Egyptian airfield, Reshef made a point after sharing the Shabbat eve meal with his men to retire with his officers to a bunker. Each week, he would choose two of them to share a bottle of whiskey with him. He would insist that the pair drink until drunk, until they danced or laughed or cried. Sometimes they shouted at him in a drunken fit and blamed him for letting their friends die. In every unit, men and officers vented their feelings in endless discussions. Why had they been surprised? Why had they entered the war so unprepared? THE 14TH BEGAN the war as a regular army unit made up of conscripts, one of three armored brigades constituting the Sinai Division commanded by Maj.-Gen. Albert Mendler. As Yom Kippur 1973 approached, the brigade was deployed in the vicinity of the Suez Canal, the rest of the division's 300 tanks having been rotated to bases hours away in central Sinai. With just 56 tanks at his disposal, Col. Reshef was responsible for a 200-kilometer front. His standing orders were to prevent the Egyptians from gaining a toehold on the Israeli bank, which was guarded by a string of small forts making up the Bar-Lev Line. The forts were manned by garrisons of 20-30 men and separated by as much as 20 kilometers, making them more a tripwire than a defense line. In the event of an attack, the tanks were to link up with any threatened fort and drive back forces which may have succeeded in crossing the canal. The arrogance induced by the spectacular victory in the Six Day War six years before was encapsulated in that mission which, Reshef acknowledges, violated a cardinal principle of warfare, especially tank warfare - concentration of forces. If Egypt staged a massive crossing along the length of the canal - and it had the manpower to do so - the few dozen tanks at Reshef's disposal would be widely dispersed if they were to try to reach the forts. Ariel Sharon, who had until a few months before been commander of the southern front, recognized the Bar-Lev Line as a death trap. He urged that it be abandoned and a new defense line established on high ground to the east so that the defenders could delay a head-on engagement with the Egyptians until reserve divisions had arrived. He succeeded in shutting down 14 of the 30 Bar-Lev forts before his term was completed, but the depleted line remained the pivot of the Israeli defenses. A view similar to Sharon's was held by Maj.-Gen. Yisrael Tal, the country's leading armor theorist. But Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. David Elazar decided to keep the defense line he had inherited because, as he saw it, the IDF's presence on the canal bank constituted a political card to be utilized in any future negotiations with Egypt, while also offering some tactical and intelligence advantage. Underlying this catastrophic decision, which tied Israeli strategy to the fate of the irrelevant forts, was the notion that the Egyptians were unlikely to dare a major canal crossing and that if they did they would be dealt with swiftly as they had been in 1967. As one general put it: "We're facing Arabs, not Germans." It was the conscripts of the 14th Brigade who were the first to sense the enormity of the mistake. A few minutes before 2 p.m. on Yom Kippur, October 6, a swarm of low-flying Egyptian planes bombed the Israeli positions, followed by a massive artillery barrage that made the desert floor shake. Reshef's crews, on alert in staging areas half an hour from the front, mounted their tanks and raced towards the canal as they had done in repeated exercises. The Egyptians, from high ramparts they had built on their side of the canal, had monitored those exercises closely. The Egyptian commandos who crossed the canal in rubber boats moved inland rapidly. As the leading tanks arrived, they were met by swarms of Egyptians rising out of shallow foxholes with rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). The tanks which escaped pulled back a few hundred meters out of RPG range. It was, however, not far enough. Red lights seen wafting lazily towards them proved to be wire-guided Sagger missiles, the operators aligning the bright light on their targets. The missiles had roughly the range of tanks, 3,000 meters, and were as lethal. At these ranges the Sagger operators lying in the sand could not be seen. The IDF tankers had not been told of the missile's existence and did not know what was hitting them. Intelligence had learned months before of the Sagger's arrival in the Arab arsenal, but the Armored Corps, not overly concerned, had not yet passed the warning on to field units, let alone proposals how to cope with it. The overall concept of the IDF high command before the war in contemplating the possibility of a surprise Arab attack was that the standing army units on the front lines, together with the air force, would keep the enemy at bay until the reserves - two-thirds of the country's fighting strength - were mobilized and reached the front. The command knew about the formidable array of surface-to-air missiles that had been provided the Arabs by the Soviet Union but it failed to think through the implications. Air force commander Benny Peled warned the General Staff that he would not be able to assist the ground forces for 48 hours if war broke out because he would first have to eliminate the Arab air defenses. But as with the Bar-Lev Line and the Sagger, the command did not take the Arab threat seriously and continued to rely on the standing army and the air force to contain a surprise enemy attack. Left to their own devices, the young tankers in Reshef's brigade came up with an answer to the Sagger, at least partially effective, that first day of war. Taking note of the missile's slow flight - the slowness necessary to enable the Sagger operator to guide it onto target - they tailored a new tactic. As soon as any tank commander spotted a red light, he would shout "missile" into the radio. Every tank in the area would begin moving to throw up a cloud of dust and obscure the view of the aimer and in order not to be a stationary target. They would also begin shooting in the general direction from which the missile was coming in the hope that it would throw the Sagger operator off his aim even if it was unlikely that they would hit him. Reshef's platoon leaders explained the tactic to reinforcements reaching them during the day and it would spread through the rest of the army. On this first day of war, Reshef's brigade, and a sister battalion commanded by Lt.-Col. Yom Tov Tamir at the northern end of the canal, without air support and virtually no artillery, found themselves confronting an attack by four Egyptian divisions displaying new weaponry and a determination that came as a total surprise. Mendler and the commander of the southern front, Maj.-Gen. Shmuel Gonen, failed to grasp the new reality and ordered the counterattack to continue. Despite the lopsided odds, which were now apparent, the tankers continued to press forward, albeit more cautiously. "There are a thousand reasons not to move forward in such a situation," says Reshef. "It's an unnatural act. But they did it." Other units joined Reshef's brigade during the night and the tanks continued to attempt to reach beleaguered forts. The tanks were hard hit in the darkness by RPG teams. When they managed to reach a fort, they were forbidden to evacuate the garrison even though its situation was clearly untenable. By dawn, the suicidal nature of these piecemeal attacks had finally been internalized by senior officers and the tanks were ordered to pull back. Less than 24 hours had passed, but Reshef had only 14 of his 56 tanks left and 90 of his men were dead. Tamir had only two tanks left. Of the division's 300 tanks, only 100 were still operational. The one bright spot of the day had been the courage, professionalism and initiative displayed by the young soldiers and their officers despite the disastrous tactics imposed upon them. WITH THE ARRIVAL of the reserves, the 14th Brigade was shifted to Gen. Sharon's division and beefed up with reinforcements. The brigade remained on the front line during the coming days, but the intensity of the opening battle had given way to distant skirmishing as both armies reorganized and prepared for the decisive encounter. During this interlude, Reshef suggested to Sharon that his brigade's reconnaissance battalion probe an area just north of the Bitter Lake in which no enemy activity could be detected. Sharon approved and the battalion made a nighttime foray across high dunes. Reaching almost to the canal, the force commander found himself on the flank of the Egyptian Second Army without having encountered enemy soldiers. Sharon realized that they had discovered the "seam" between the Egyptian Second and Third armies, an ideal corridor for an Israeli counterattack. He pressed for an immediate effort to reach the canal. The high command decided, however, to wait until the Egyptians had brought across two armored divisions still on the west bank of the canal. To try to bridge the canal earlier would be to risk being overwhelmed by the Egyptian tanks on the opposite bank before a foothold could be secured. The Egyptian armored divisions began to cross on Saturday, October 15. On Sunday, the Egyptians for the first time attempted to push out of their bridgehead toward the Gidi and Mitla passes. Five hundred Egyptian tanks moved forward in six widely separated columns. In the central sector, Reshef posted his brigade on the rear slopes of two ridges toward which the Egyptians were expected to push. He and his battalion commanders, standing in their turrets, moved up the slopes until they were able to see over the ridgeline, although their tanks remained out of sight from the Egyptian lines. When the Egyptian tank column burst into view, moving fast, Reshef ordered his tanks into firing positions on the ridge. In this and parallel skirmishes by other units along the line, the Egyptians lost between 150 and 250 tanks, the Israelis a score. With the bulk of Egyptian armor now in Sinai and substantially weakened, the way was open for the IDF to try for the canal. The task fell to Sharon in whose divisional area the seam lay. He assembled his brigade commanders in an underground command bunker at dawn the morning after the tank battle. Their attack, he said, would begin with the onset of darkness. Reshef's force would lead the way and penetrate the flank of the Second Army in the Chinese Farm, a massive desert tract being developed for agriculture. Under cover of the ensuing melee, a paratroop brigade under Col. Danny Matt would skirt the battle zone and cross the canal on rubber boats to secure the far bank. Another brigade, commanded by Col. Haim Erez, would bring up bridges. Reshef spent the day poring over maps and aerial photos to plot the complex choreography of the battle. This time he would have 97 tanks as well as paratroopers in halftracks and they would be fighting as a concentrated force. But his brigade would be up against one and a half divisions. Convention calls for an attack force to have at least a 3-1 superiority over dug-in defenders, but it was the Egyptian defenders who would have the advantage, a whopping 5-1 by Reshef's estimate, including tanks and infantrymen with RPGs and Saggers. However, surprise this time would be on the Israeli side. Reshef hoped to penetrate the Egyptian lines silently in the darkness and get deep inside their perimeter before launching battalion attacks in several directions like an exploding grenade in the hope that this might stampede the enemy. IN LATE AFTERNOON, the brigade formed up by battalions 10 kilometers from the canal, near the point from where they would set out across the dunes. Delivering a pre-battle exhortation to each unit separately, Reshef emphasized the importance of the coming encounter for the outcome of the war. Taking aside Yoav Brom, the commander of the reconnaissance battalion which would lead the force across the dunes, Reshef said, "What matters is stubbornness. Stubbornness. Do you understand what I mean?" Brom, a boyish looking lieutenant-colonel who had been a school principal at his kibbutz, said he did. Another battalion commander, Lt.-Col. Amram Mitzna, ordered his men to call home on a radio-telephone that had been made available. The men, battle hardened by now, knew that their chances of returning intact from this plunge into the heart of the Egyptian defenses were limited. Mitzna himself wrote a farewell letter to his wife, to be delivered by his jeep driver, who was remaining behind, in the event he did not return. In Southern Command headquarters, Chief of General Staff Elazar studied a map as the operation got under way. "If the history of how we pulled this off is ever written," he said, "it will be seen as the height of hutzpa." Under the large moon of the Succot season, Brom led the brigade column across the undulating dunes. As it neared the canal, his battalion peeled off to secure a stretch along the waterway from which Matt's paratroopers would attempt to cross. Mitzna now led the column, with Reshef just behind him, followed by two other battalions. The entry point into the Egyptian lines was the intersection of two roads - Lexicon, which paralleled the canal, and Tirtur, an east-west road which marked the southern perimeter of the Third Army. The Egyptians positioned around the intersection initially took the tanks coming out of the darkness to be friendly. Mitzna's battalion had crossed the intersection and half of the battalion behind him before the Egyptians opened fire. Several tanks were set aflame, blocking the road. The tanks which had already entered the Egyptian lines pushed into the heart of the defenses, firing in every direction. Egyptian soldiers covered with blankets against the desert cold could be seen emerging from foxholes in the reddish light of burning vehicles and the flaring of exploding ammunition dumps. A large anti-aircraft missile, hit by shellfire, took off in wild gyrations. As the tank gunners hit vehicles, artillery pieces and fuel tankers, the commanders in open turrets hurled grenades at infantrymen and fired Uzis, the tanks' machine guns joining in. Tank commanders took to crushing ammunition crates under their treads instead of shooting at them, in order to avoid the glare of explosions that would expose the tanks to RPG teams. The Egyptians quickly recovered from the surprise and began fighting back. The two sides were soon thoroughly intermingled. An Israeli medic climbed onto a tank to ask for help in evacuating wounded. The tank, however, was Egyptian. Its commander fired a pistol at the medic but missed. A similar mistake was made by the soldier who climbed onto the tank of Rami Matan, who had halted after knocking out an Egyptian tank at 50 meters. "Do you have a cigarette?" asked the soldier in Arabic. Matan, a company commander in Mitzna's battalion, bent down into the turret and tossed a grenade instead. The tanks Matan led into battle had been involved in fierce fighting, hitting numerous Egyptian tanks and other targets, but were steadily being whittled down. Matan brought out a dozen wounded men atop his tank to a casualty assembly point and sent another tank to bring out remaining wounded. It was hit. Matan sent a second tank and it was hit too. Matan now had no other tank but his own. Asking a tank commander from another company to follow him, he drove a kilometer back to the area of the intensive fighting. The ground around the burned-out Egyptian and Israeli tanks was covered with dozens of bodies, the bulk of them Egyptian. Matan ordered the gunner in the second tank, Bertie Ochayon, to descend and search for Israeli wounded. It was Ochayon who thought of asking "Are you a Jew?" Besides the darkness, almost all uniforms and faces were blackened by soot, making ready identification impossible. The answer "Yes, but it's hard to be a Jew in Eretz Yisrael" came from Sgt. Yiftah Ya'acov, 21, of Kibbutz Manara, nephew of Yitzhak Rabin. (Ya'acov, who had lost a finger and had bullets in his abdomen and knee, recovered. Ochayon is today head of operations for the Israel Police.) Mitzna, attacking northward, halted when intelligence reported an Egyptian counterattack headed his way. Three Egyptian tanks crossed his path, just 20 meters distant. He set one aflame, but before he could fire again his own tank was hit. Two of his crewmen were killed and Mitzna was propelled from the turret. His knee shattered, the future mayor of Haifa managed to pull himself aboard another tank. Battalion commander Avraham Almog, who had turned eastward into the heart of the Chinese Farm with 10 tanks, halted to form a stationary battle line. The tanks destroyed ammunition dumps, cut down infantrymen and engaged enemy armor. At one point, an Egyptian tank approaching from the rear mistakenly joined the Israeli line. The startled commander of the neighboring Israeli tank turned his gun on him. The gunner squeezed the trigger but nothing happened. "Misfire," he shouted. The Egyptian tank commander glanced over and found himself looking down the barrel of a tank cannon. Realizing his error, he began swiveling his own gun toward the Israeli tank. By this time, however, the commander of the tank on the other side of the Egyptian had backed off to gain sufficient room to fire and destroyed the intruder. RESHEF HAD POSITIONED himself in the middle of the chaotic battlefield, coordinating his far-flung forces by radio. At the same time he was firing his machine gun so relentlessly at targets all about him that his hands were cut from the grip and from cocking the weapon. At one point, five Egyptian tanks lumbered out of the darkness, oblivious to the single stationary tank which they may have presumed to be part of the battlefield debris. Reshef ordered his gunner to prepare for rapid fire by assembling shells. At Reshef's command, the gunner hit four of the tanks, the fifth escaping. The brigade commander informed Sharon on the radio that he had just destroyed four tanks. It was not customary to report tank kills on the radio, but his men would be listening and Reshef wanted them to know that their commander was fighting alongside them. Hundreds of gutted vehicles, from jeeps to tanks, were strewn over the desert floor by now, along with the bodies of Egyptian and Israeli soldiers. Charred Israeli and Egyptian tanks lay alongside each other, some with their turrets blown off, some upended. Despite repeated attempts to subdue the Egyptian forces blocking the Tirtur-Lexicon intersection, it remained closed, surrounded by an ever expanding semicircle of destroyed Israeli tanks. Col. Brom was killed in one of the attacks. At dawn, another attack, in company strength, was launched. In the early light, the Israelis could make out the formidable Egyptian disposition for the first time. Eight Egyptian tanks sheltering behind earthen mounds 500 meters away were hit, as were infantrymen firing from the lips of deep irrigation trenches where they had found ready cover. The Israeli tanks, firing from behind the dead tanks littering the intersection, were unscathed. But the attack force was almost out of ammunition and withdrew. Reshef himself now gathered remnants of the reconnaissance battalion and led a final attack on the intersection. This time, the defenders who had stood all night against repeated attacks raised the white flag. More than a third of the tank crewmen and paratroopers Reshef had taken into the Chinese Farm were casualties - 128 dead and 62 wounded. Of his 97 tanks, 56 were lost. The Egyptians, although suffering far heavier losses, had not panicked and continued to block the rest of Tirtur and to keep Akavish Road under harassing fire from a distance. The bridges could not get through to the canal until both roads were safe from enemy fire. More Israeli blows would be required, but the fierce attack of the 14th had eroded the main underpinnings of the Egyptian defenses and self-assurance. The following night a paratroop battalion under Yitzhak Mordechai was ordered to clear Tirtur Road from its eastern end, several kilometers from its junction with Lexicon. With no time for reconnaissance, the battalion walked into an ambush and was severely mauled - 41 dead and more than 100 wounded. But the battle drew the Egyptians away from positions dominating Akavish Road, and pontoons were pushed through to the canal. Incremental pressure finally drove the last of the Egyptian defenders from the Chinese Farm. This enabled the creation of a corridor down which Maj.-Gen. Avraham Adan's division could cross the canal and rout Egyptian forces on the west bank, reaching to within 101 kilometers of Cairo. The 14th, which had been in the thick of the war since its opening moment, would cross the canal and continue the fight on the west bank where it killed some 300 commandos in a concluding battle. RESPONDING 34 YEARS later to the increasingly felt need by veterans and by the families of the deceased for remembrance, Reshef has organized a brigade Web site which he believes unique, not only in Israel. Every soldier killed has his own page with his picture, a biography of his short life, recollections of family members and a description by comrades of the circumstances in which he fell. There are also writings left by the soldier himself, sometimes even poems. The site, which goes on-line next month, will include an account, approved by the army's historical division, of the battles waged by each of the 18 battalions which fought at times within the framework of the 14th Brigade during the war when units were readily attached and detached as operational needs dictated. There will also be accounts of smaller units that choose to provide them. The most interesting feature for many will be 20 hours of taped recordings from the unit's radio net during the battles, including conversations between Reshef and Sharon. Visitors to the site will be able to read a transcript in Hebrew as they listen to the recordings. Like other veterans of the Yom Kippur War, Reshef was dismayed by the performance of the army in last year's war in Lebanon. He attributes the poor showing to inadequate preparation of officers and to grievous lack of combat training in recent years because of policing duties in the territories. Particularly grating was the tendency of senior commanders to direct the fighting from rear headquarters while monitoring the battle on plasma screens. "Technology does not prevail over battlefield leadership," said Reshef. "The commander has to let his men know 'we're in this together.'" The writer is author of The Yom Kippur War. abra@netvision.net.il

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