The Yom Kippur War has not lent itself to much speculation about how things could have been different. The sheer weight of errors by the High Command in the years before the war – errors based entirely on dismissal of the Arabs as unworthy opponents – makes every alternative scenario seem frivolous. A senior commander explained to me the cavalier attitude toward the enemy and corner cutting. It all came down to one irreducible point: “We figured we were fighting Arabs, not Germans.”
Nevertheless, after 43 years it might be worth considering how things might have been otherwise if someone had thought matters through just a bit more seriously.
Intelligence What if the Intelligence Corps (AMAN) had behaved intelligently; that is, with an open mind and without fixations? This is the part of Yom Kippur War lore that is probably best known to the public: how AMAN’s chief, Gen. Eli Zeira, and a few of his senior aides, insisted until the last moment that Egypt and Syria would not attack despite warning signs as big as Times Square billboards. They had fixated on information received by the Mossad long before from a highly placed source in Cairo. That source believed Egypt would not go to war before it received advanced aircraft and Scud missiles from the Soviets.
Less well known is the revelation by Mossad chief Zvi Zamir that the same Egyptian source, with whom he met periodically, informed him early in 1973 that president Anwar Sadat had changed his mind. Sadat would not wait for new weapons but go to war with what he had. Zamir maintains in a book that he personally informed AMAN of this far-reaching policy shift.
But AMAN ignored it and continued to issue projections until the last moments based on the outdated “conceptzia” – no new weapons meant a low probability of war.
In similar circumstances on the eve of the Six Day War, when Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser began to move troops into Sinai, AMAN, led by Gen. Aharon Yariv, dismissed it as political muscle flexing. Within a few days, however, Yariv concluded that Nasser did intend to go to war. The IDF prepared itself accordingly, with spectacular results.
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The Bar-Lev Line What if Gen. David Elazar had rethought the IDF’s deployment along the Suez Canal on the basis of worstcase scenarios? At his first meeting with the General Staff after taking command in January 1971, he placed the Bar-Lev Line on the agenda. The so-called “line” was in fact a string of 30 small forts, each garrisoned by only 20 to 30 men, located along the 160-kilometer-long Suez Canal. It had not been built up as a defense line but to provide protection from Egyptian artillery during the War of Attrition.
Two of the army’s most prominent generals (Ariel Sharon and Yisrael Tal) viewed the Bar-Lev Line as a death trap. It was too thin to serve as a barrier, but too thickly manned to be a disposable tripwire. Sharon, who was then commander of the southern front, called for sealing the forts and maintaining Israel’s presence in the canal zone with mobile patrols and by observation posts set well back from the waterline. Tal called for evacuating the garrisons if war broke out.
Elazar overruled them. Since the forts already existed and could interfere with any crossing in their vicinity there was no point in dismantling them, he said. In addition, flying the flag on the canal was an important political consideration. “Even if I thought the forts were worthless from the military point of view, I would be in a quandary about whether to abandon them because of the political aspect.”
But what would happen to the garrisons if the Egyptians crossed the canal in strength? AMAN assured Elazar that it would provide more than enough warning time to enable mobilization of the reserves to meet such an attack.
That assurance proved worthless.
On Yom Kippur afternoon, the 450 Israelis manning the Bar-Lev Line watched as 100,000 Egyptians began to cross the canal while mobilization in Israel was just starting.
The line would indeed prove to be a death trap, not only for the garrisons but even more for the tank crewmen who rushed to their aid. The Egyptians, who had observed Israeli exercises for years, knew that tanks would attempt to reach the forts. Hundreds of Egyptian tank hunting teams were dug into the sand waiting for them with the devastating new Sagger anti-tank missile. The Armored Corps had not yet come up with a tactical solution to the Sagger or even informed tank crews about its existence. By 2 a.m. on October 7, just 12 hours after the war began, two-thirds of the only armored division then in Sinai, some 180 tanks, had been knocked out. Hundreds of soldiers, in the forts and among tank crewmen, were dead, wounded or heading for captivity.
The Bar-Lev Line had proven a strategic albatross.
“Gorodish” What if Elazar had not appointed Gen. Shmuel Gonen commander of the southern front a few months before the war despite warnings about his unstable character? The staggering operational and psychological impact of the surprise Arab attack would be significantly amplified by Gonen’s eccentric performance. Better known as “Gorodish,” he was a genuine hero who would become a classic, and tragic, example of someone promoted beyond his capabilities.
In the Six Day War, his tank brigade broke through the Egyptian lines and was the first to reach the Suez Canal.
However, his crude personal behavior should have brought into question his suitability for high command. A senior officer who observed the way Gorodish terrorized his subordinates during a field exercise – to the point that they sought to avoid reporting to him – told Elazar “Gorodish has no place in the IDF.” He was appointed nevertheless.
On the third day of the war, after Gorodish received explicit directions from Elazar for a limited counter-attack, he contravened all that was told him and issued a series of bizarre, conflicting and constantly changing orders that left his generals in despair.
Instead of the Southern Command pulling out of the hole the Egyptians had prepared, Gorodish sank his men deeper into it.
The Friday warning During the week before the war, Elazar grew increasingly concerned about the massive buildup of Egyptian and Syrian forces along the borders despite assurances by AMAN that the Egyptians were just staging an exercise and the Syrians were bracing for an Israeli attack. Elazar was particularly concerned about why the Soviets had suddenly begun evacuating the families of their thousands of military advisers in Syria and Egypt, but were not evacuating the advisers themselves. On the eve of Yom Kippur, an hour before the Kol Nidre prayer, the intelligence duty officer at army headquarters in Tel Aviv was informed that a message had been picked up from a credible Arab source saying that Moscow’s decision to evacuate the families was because the Arabs were about to attack Israel.
Elazar was still in his office, one flight up, waiting for a report precisely like that, one that would make sense of all the military movements across the border. Instead of passing the intercept on to Elazar, the duty officer contacted his superiors in AMAN. Intelligence chief Zeira told him not to distribute the information. He wanted first to hear from Mossad chief Zvi Zamir, who had flown to London that day to meet with the Egyptian super-source.
Elazar would later say that if he had received the intercept he would have started the mobilization process immediately. It would have needed the approval of defense minister Moshe Dayan and prime minister Golda Meir.
Going by Dayan’s subsequent behavior, he would likely have opposed a broadscale mobilization, but it is unlikely that he would have totally rejected the chief of staff’s request. A minimal callup would probably have involved an armored brigade which would have been sent to the Golan, the most vulnerable front. The Syrians broke through the next night in the southern Golan and captured 40 percent of the heights. Both the Northern Front commander and Elazar would testify afterwards that if there had been an additional brigade in place the Syrians would not have broken through. The implications of the Syrian breakthrough may have affected the entire war, not just the dire situation on the Golan.
Elazar was forced to resign after the war when the Agranat Commission concluded that he had not properly prepared the armed forces and for errors in assessing the situation on the eve of the war. There is consensus, however, that he was an exceedingly able war leader who kept his head in the most extreme of circumstances and made the correct strategic decisions.
The air force Gen. Benny Peled, meeting with Dayan and the general staff when he was appointed air force commander five months before the war, told them that the air force had no electronic solution for the latest version of the Soviet surface-to-air missile, the deadly SAM 6. Neither did the Americans, who had encountered them over Vietnam where they had lost hundreds of warplanes.
The IAF, however, had come up with a plan that sought to make up with tactics what was lacking in technology.
The plan, called “Tagar,” would involve virtually the entire air force, hundreds of planes, attacking in four waves that would be unleashed over the course of a day. The highly complex choreography, based on recent surveillance photos, would be carried out at top speed and stopwatch precision. Some formations would attack from high level, some from low, some would dive, some would “toss bomb” from a distance. At the same time, helicopters would send false electronic signals from the periphery and drones would overfly the batteries to clutter the enemies’ radar screens.
The ground generals were delighted to hear that the air force had a plan, Peled would say in an interview. But before the meeting ended he told them: “You should know that these plans aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on unless we strike first.” The air force would need 36 hours to prepare the attack, he said.
It was the Arabs who struck first.
Peled and his commanders nevertheless decided to carry out Tagar the next day, even though the critical element of surprise had been lost and even though it did not have 36 hours to prepare. Tagar was their only hope of subduing the SAMs and enabling the air force to provide close support for the embattled ground forces.
Senior air force commanders whom I subsequently interviewed said the price would have been high, perhaps very high, with dozens or scores of planes and pilots lost. But all maintained that the SAMs would have been eliminated, first in Sinai, then in the Golan. Israel’s ground force deployment was built on the supposition that the overwhelming odds the tank divisions faced would be made up for by air force support.
On Sunday morning, the first Tagar wave attacked shortly after dawn.
Dayan had meanwhile helicoptered to the Northern Command to assess the situation there. He was shocked to learn that the Syrians had broken through and that senior commanders believed that the Golan might fall. Dayan had himself patched through to Gen. Peled and ordered him to call off Tagar and send the entire air force north. There would not be another chance to carry out Tagar.
In the interview, Peled acknowledged that the air force had not controlled the SAM-saturated skies over the Golan and Sinai battlefields. If Tagar had been successfully executed, giving the IAF dominance over the battlefield, it would have been an entirely different war.
But in the end the Yom Kippur War would be one of Israel’s greatest victories. The eventual turnaround on the battlefield merits its own place in military history. The painful war was won by the grit and skills of the soldiers and commanders in the field, despite the blunders of their betters.
Abraham Rabinovich is the author of The Yom Kippur War. email@example.com
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