Brik's Wall

Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik played a major part in stopping the Egyptian advance during the Yom Kippur War.

By ABRAHAM RABINOVICH
September 17, 2010 12:51
Yitzhak Brik's unit streaming over the Suez Canal.

311_Suez crossing. (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson Unit)

 
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Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik, who was briefly designated by Defense Minister Ehud Barak last month to investigate the Galant document affair, commanded the very first battle fought by reservists on the Egyptian front in the Yom Kippur War, and the very last. He won the Medal for Courage, but his story has remained virtually unknown to the public. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has meanwhile frozen Brik’s investigation until the police has completed its own probe.

Brik was at his kibbutz in the Negev on the afternoon of Yom Kippur 1973 when the sound of planes overhead signaled that something unusual was afoot. With another kibbutz member who served in the tank company Brik commanded in the reserves, he drove to his unit’s mobilization point. At 10:30 p.m., little more than six hours after the war began, Maj. Brik was ordered to load his company’s tanks on transporters and head down the Sinai coastal road to Baluza, a major staging point behind the Suez Canal front. There he was to be flagged down, his battalion commander, Assaf Yaguri, told him, and directed into action. His company was the first reserve unit to be dispatched to the Sinai front.

It was dawn when they approached Baluza, but there was no one to be seen. Fearful of an ambush while the tanks were still immobilized, Brik ordered the transports to halt and unload the tanks. Accompanied at the rear by armored personnel carriers bearing infantry, the tanks had proceeded only a mile when fire opened up on the length of the column.

Egyptian commandos who had landed by helicopter the evening before were dug in on either side of the road. Most of the fire was coming from the right, and Brik directed his driver there.

Commandos rose from the sand all around him, firing and throwing grenades. The tanks moved with difficulty through the dunes, and commandos tried to clamber aboard from the rear in order to drop grenades through the open turret hatches. Brik and the commander of a tank 40 meters away fired their machine guns at each other’s tank to knock commandos off.

The other tank commander was hit and his crew pulled back, leaving Brik’s tank alone in his sector. He fired his machine gun from the turret without pause until a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) literally brushed him, its heat igniting his shirt. Shouting to his gunner to take command, he leaped from the tank and rolled in the sand as the gunner turned the machine gun on Egyptians closing in. One commando fell dead a few feet from Brik. Intact except for a badly singed face, he scrambled back aboard his tank.

Cautiously resuming movement westward, he saw a solitary IDF tank with its crew standing alongside. The crewmen, young draftees who had survived the night’s fierce battles along the canal, appeared stunned. From their account, and from what he himself had just experienced, Brik understood that the Egyptian army they were up against was not the one they knew from the Six Day War.

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THE NEXT DAY, Southern Command ordered the two reserve divisions that had reached the front to counterattack. The order was premature and would be woefully executed. Brik was moving south several kilometers inland from the canal as part of Gen. Avraham Adan’s division when he spotted two men approaching from the direction of the canal and prepared to fire. Looking again through his binoculars he saw them waving something white and recognized it as a tallit. The men had escaped from one of the besieged strongpoints on the Bar-Lev Line. One of them, a tank platoon commander and son of a general, asked for command of a tank. He declined Brik’s suggestion that he rest from his ordeal for a day or two before going back into battle. He joined Brik’s company later in the day with a damaged tank that had been repaired.

The shock of the surprise Arab attack had disoriented the IDF command, particularly Southern Front commander Maj.-Gen. Shmuel Gonen who, unlike the men in the field, still thought he was fighting the Six Day War. Oblivious to the strength of the Egyptian crossing, he ordered Adan to fight his way through to the canal at a strong point code named Hizayon and send a force to the other side on a captured Egyptian pontoon bridge.

In the general confusion, a battalion commanded by Lt.-Col. Haim Adini, a lawyer in civilian life, was ordered to attack Hizayon without the knowledge of Adan, who was awaiting air support. Egyptian infantrymen rose from shallow foxholes and fired RPGs from close range, knocking out seven tanks. Of the 14 that managed to pull back only half were still fit for combat.

A few hours later, the scenario was uncannily repeated by Assaf Yaguri’s battalion when it reached the area, this time with even worse results. Surveying Hizayon from a ridge 10 kilometers off together with Brik and his other officers, Yaguri was uneasy about the order to break through to the canal. He had not been informed of Adini’s failed attack, but dust clouds around Hizayon suggested that Egyptian tank forces were crossing the canal in strength. “If you’re going, I’m going with you,” one of his officers said. “But this is suicide.”

Yaguri’s tanks descended from the ridge and deployed, three companies abreast. Yaguri told his men to maintain wide dispersal, move fast and keep up constant fire when they closed with the enemy. Brik’s company was on the left flank.

As the tanks picked up speed, dust swirled up around them, making it difficult to see. The ambush on the coastal road flashed across Brik’s mind. Adini, the commander of the earlier attack on Hizayon, would later compare a tank charge to an orgasm. There was nothing, he would say, like the smell – a mixture of gunpowder, sweat and grease – and the sight from a tank turret of the enemy fleeing before you. Yaguri glanced over at his deputy in the adjacent tank as they raced toward the canal, and the officer smiled back. Suddenly, with a deafening crash, shells exploded all around them – tank shells, artillery, Sagger anti-tank missiles and RPGs. A dense cloud of smoke and dust closed in. From what Brik had been able to see, they were plunging into the center of a tight divisional defensive deployment with fire coming from three sides. A shell hit the tank next to him, killing the kibbutz friend with whom he had gone to war two days before.

To a battalion commander providing covering fire from the south, the scene looked like a Soviet propaganda film from World War II – tanks racing heroically at the enemy across a broad front and spewing fire. A more apt comparison would have been to the Crimean War’s “Valley of Death” into which the Light Brigade – “theirs but to do and die” – charged to its doom.

In the lead were the tanks of Yaguri, his deputy and one of the company commanders. The ambush this time was sprung 730 meters short of the point that Adini’s battalion had reached and the fire was much heavier.

Tank after tank was hit. Yaguri survived the opening salvos, but when he called his company commanders on the radio only Brik responded. Yaguri realized that his worst fears had come true. His tanks were attacking the main bridgehead of the Egyptian Second Army with no artillery or air cover and were absolutely alone. “Pull back,” he called on the radio.

“Keep firing and pull back.” Amid the smoke and noise he didn’t know who besides Brik was left to hear him. His own tank lurched as it was hit in the treads and he ordered the crew to get out. They were quickly taken prisoner.

IT WAS CLEAR to Brik that they could not make it. A battalion of tanks was not going to stampede an entrenched bridgehead. A shell had hit Brik’s gun early in the charge, rendering it inoperable, but he continued forward. It was with relief that he heard Yaguri’s pullback order. He told his driver to reverse and not waste time turning. Through openings in the drifting smoke, he saw two men abandoning a disabled tank and paused to take them aboard. Of the 18 tanks that had charged only four returned.

Brik came upon his brigade commander, who was trying futilely to raise Yaguri on his tank radio. The company commander asked for permission to go forward again to see if he could pick up more crewmen. “It’s suicide,” said the colonel. He finally relented and Brik moved forward in his tank about a mile, sheltering in a depression from which he could scan the landscape by standing in the turret. He saw burning Israeli tanks surrounded by hundreds of Egyptian soldiers. Beyond them were 100 Egyptian tanks as well as armored personnel carriers that were forming into line and were plainly about to attack. Brik hurried back to the ridge from where they had started. Rounding up four tanks, he descended again to the edge of the plain and opened fire as the lead enemy tanks approached.

Seven other Israeli tanks took up firing positions on the low hills behind him.

The impromptu defense line Brik initiated thickened as stray tanks and nearby units joined it. Some 50 tanks from different units, mixed in with each other, were soon engaging the Egyptians.

The moment the sun slipped below the horizon and out of the gunners’ eyes, the tank fire accelerated and became more precise.

Columns of smoke marked burning Egyptian tanks all along the front. Israeli tanks were burning too, but in much smaller numbers.

In the last remaining light, scores of Egyptian personnel carriers wove their way around knocked-out tanks and approached the Israeli line. Many were hit and men could be seen leaping from the burning vehicles. The Israelis braced for an infantry attack with Saggers and RPGs. But the Egyptians had had enough.

Infantrymen could be seen fleeing to the rear, dark figures receding into a darkening desert.

TEN DAYS AFTER the war began, Brik’s unit was among the forces streaming over the Suez Canal on a bridge thrown across the waterway by Ariel Sharon’s division. Passing through a seemingly abandoned Egyptian army camp, Brik’s tank was fourth in line. Without warning, the three tanks in front of him were hit by shells almost simultaneously and burst into flame. Brik’s tank was hit too but not disabled. Scanning the surroundings, he at first saw no sign of the enemy. Then he saw tank guns protruding from the windows of mud huts 550 meters away where Egyptian tanks had broken through the rear walls. They were swiftly destroyed.

With the announcement of a cease-fire at the end of almost three weeks of combat, the new commander of the Southern Front, Lt.-Gen.

(res.) Haim Bar-Lev, ordered his division commanders to achieve territorial continuity east of the canal between Ismailiya and Suez so as to shape a coherent cease-fire line. “If they don’t shoot at us,” said Bar-Lev, “we won’t shoot at them. If they open fire, of course we’ll respond.”

Brik was ordered to take the five tanks remaining to him and “steal ground,” that is to get as far as he could without firing to establish facts on the ground before UN observers arrived in the morning. His company had been fighting from dawn to dusk for the past five days, and the nights had been given over largely to preparations for the next day’s battle. There had been only an hour or an hour and a half for sleep each night inside the tanks. Sleep deprivation caught up with them now as they rolled through the night. About 2 a.m., Brik could fight it no longer and ordered the tanks to halt. “Let’s rest for 15 minutes,” he said. They were too weary even to post guards outside, although they were deep inside Egyptian territory. Within a minute, all were sound asleep in their seats.

When Brik opened his eyes, he saw pale blue sky through the hatch. It was 5:30 a.m.

Rising up in the turret, he saw an astonishing sight. They were in the center of a large Egyptian logistical depot aswarm with hundreds of soldiers. The encampment had shown no lights at night which is why they had driven into it without noticing. The Egyptian sentries had apparently assumed the arriving tanks were their own. Around Brik were at least 100 vehicles, including fuel trucks, but no tanks. The Egyptian soldiers in the vicinity paid no particular attention to them.

After awakening his crews, Brik beckoned to an Egyptian captain nearby. The officer approached and was taken aback when Brik announced to him, through one of his crewmen who spoke Arabic, that they were Israelis. Tell your superior, said Brik, that he must evacuate all this equipment toward Cairo. Sorry, said the Egyptian officer, we were here before you. Brik asked him to summon the commander of the encampment. The officer returned with a colonel to whom Brik repeated his demand. The colonel said Brik could not give him orders. “There’s a cease-fire,” he said.

“Don’t get me angry,” said Brik. “I have tanks and I can shoot. You, with these vehicles, can’t. I will fire if you don’t pull out.”

The colonel assembled his officers and within an hour the Egyptian vehicles started to move off. A truck driver whose path Brik was blocking honked his horn and his tank obligingly moved aside. This relatively civil encounter would soon prove an anomaly as the Egyptians began to challenge Israel’s interpretation of the cease-fire.

ALTHOUGH ALL ROADS had been cut to the city of Suez, command center for the trapped Egyptian Third Army, IDF forces had still not established a presence in a 10 km. stretch along the Suez Canal north of the city. At first light on October 25, Brik and his five tanks were dispatched to close this gap. The cease-fire was officially in effect, but the IDF command was not interpreting it to mean cease-movement.

At the rear of Brik’s tanks was a personnel carrier with a squad of paratroopers. Halfway to Suez, the commander of the lead tank reported Egyptian tanks amid trees to their front. Before Brik could react, a shell hit his tank, the second in line, destroying the machine gun and antenna alongside his head but causing him only a face cut. “Move left,” he shouted to his driver, but there was no response. “He’s dead,” called the loader. Brik and the other two surviving crewmen leaped from the tank before it was hit again.

Meanwhile, the paratroopers raced through the shrubbery toward the Egyptian tanks. They found them with hatches opened, abandoned by their crews, and threw grenades inside. Brik shifted to another tank, his seventh since the war started, and led the column on to the outskirts of Suez. It had been the last skirmish of the war and his driver, the son of lawyer Zvi Tal, a future Supreme Court justice, was the last fatality.

Brik would join the regular army after the war, rising to division commander and serving as deputy commander of land forces and commander of military colleges. During a visit to Russia, he was invited to a military academy to discuss his Yom Kippur War experience. In civilian life afterward, he served as a member of the Ministerial Committee for Galilee and Negev Affairs and as chairman of the Jezreel Valley College’s executive committee. He is currently IDF ombudsman.

Of the 120 men in the battalion which had started out on Yom Kippur under Yaguri, only seven were still in action at war’s end, including Brik and his gunner. Of the original battalion members and their replacements, 80 had been killed and close to 100 wounded – a casualty rate of 150 percent.

The writer is author of The Yom Kippur War. abra@netvision.net.il.

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