'I was willing to die to stop the Syrian advance'

Zvika Greengold recalls fighting off invasion in a single tank during Yom Kippur War; his successor reviews modern Syrian threats.

ZVIKA GREENGOLD (left) and Lt.-Col. Aryeh Berger, commander of the 74th Armored Battalion, pose at the Armored Corps Memorial at Latrun (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
ZVIKA GREENGOLD (left) and Lt.-Col. Aryeh Berger, commander of the 74th Armored Battalion, pose at the Armored Corps Memorial at Latrun
Zvika Greengold, the tank officer who played a decisive and fateful role in fending off the Syrian assault on the Golan Heights in the Yom Kippur War in 1973, slowly took a seat at the Armored Corps museum in Latrun last Thursday, before recounting his incredible tale.
Forty-two years ago, the Syrian army launched an invasion on the Golan Heights, and easily broke through a section of the Israeli defenses.
Despite being desperately outnumbered, Greengold engaged the Syrians, and held them back.
Greengold, 63, is witty, and his humor is as sharp as it is dry. His eyes, however, burn with intensity, decisiveness and clarity. The war that he barely survived had taken Israel to the very edge of being invaded, and left a trauma on the public psyche that can be felt to this day.
Greengold’s role as a tank officer in the 188th Armored Brigade, 74th Battalion, helped save the North from conquest. He is, however, a reluctant war hero. Greengold tells the Post that he sought “every opportunity” to opt out of his professional military service before the Yom Kippur War erupted. All he wanted to do was return to his home in Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot in the pastoral western Galilee, where he dreamed of tending to his fish pools. Fate had other plans.
The IDF set up the 74th Battalion in the fall of 1971, when Greengold was a platoon commander.
He then joined the battalion as an officer, becoming part of tank Company G, Platoon 3.
“When I joined, I did routine operational duties. We held a line,” he said, referring to the deployment of forces to a front line for daily security missions. “We would sit in tank staging areas, behind the infantry, on the lines.”
Based at the Nafah military base on the Golan Heights, Greengold took part in raids in Lebanon, and in Syria. He also fired on enemy targets in Jordan.
As the surprise conflict was approaching, the tank battalion left the front line and began training. “The company commander became sick and had to leave. We started to train. The brigade commander asked me to stay. I wanted to go back to the kibbutz. But I extended my service, and completed my deputy company commander’s course.”
Why did Greengold’s superiors keep asking him to stay? “Because I was a good tank man. I didn’t say I was a great company commander. But I was always in demand in the tanks, as a driver, a gunner or a commander.”
At that time, the IDF had Centurion British-made tanks, which underwent upgrades in Israel, including the installation of new engines and transmissions to speed up the platforms. Just before Yom Kippur of 1973, Greengold went on leave, and headed home to relax.
On October 6, from the vantage point of his peaceful kibbutz, the officer saw that war had arrived.
“I saw plumes of smoke. I saw our planes fly north in formations of four, and come back in pairs. We heard sirens from nearby Acre and Nahariya. The radio didn’t say it was a war [yet], but I knew.”
Hitching rides, Greengold reached his unit headquarters, where he found an operations officer, and just two tanks in poor condition. After making rapid repairs, he led the tanks and their crews out of the base and headed towards the Syrian border. The two tanks would infamously later be known as the Zvika Force.
“I gave the company commander, Hagai Tzur, the better tank, and went into the more damaged tank [as the tank commander],” Greengold said. “That’s how I headed out.” With shells loaded, the tanks drove along the Petroleum Road [which stretches from the Golan Heights to the Syrian border]. We headed out, southbound, to scan the Heights.”
“It was very dark. We were at the Kudna Road. As we drove, I ran into a Syrian tank. I immediately opened fire, and the tank burned.”
Following the encounter, Greengold’s Centurion tank broke down, from the force of its own attack.
“I took Hagai’s tank, and he drove the other tank back to base,” Greengold recalled.
Greengold was sure there were other Syrian tanks that had broken through into Israeli territory.
He headed off the road and drove on. “I was determined to continue the mission,” he said.
Greengold reached the village of Huseiniya, deserted by its Syrian residents during the Six Day War. From there, he saw “many vehicle lights shining. There were trucks and tanks there. The whole of the Syrian army had arrived.”
Greengold reported the alarming discovery to his superior officer. “He had a conceptual problem. He could not grasp this information suddenly. He asked me how many forces I saw. I said, four times as many as you have. I’m too small for them.”
“How many of there are you?” Greengold’s commander asked. “I could not say I was just one tank. They were listening to our broadcasts. So I said, ‘We are not enough.’” Greengold concluded that his superiors were too involved in the range of developing battles to understand the significance of his radio warning.
In his lone tank, Greengold and his crew opened fire on the Syrians, changing positions frequently to dodge return fire.
“I’m giving open-fire orders. Then I instruct the driver to go up [a mount] and descend – to avoid exposure. My sense was of responsibility. I stood there, facing the Syrian army, which was about to conquer the State of Israel. What kept going through my head was: I cannot fail.”
In subsequent years, Greengold said, that moment became part of a wider sense that the Jewish people’s back is “against the wall. We have no other option. We have nowhere to run to.”
Returning to his inconceivable one-tank battle against advancing Syrian armor, Greengold said, “I was not scared of dying. I was scared of failing. On the contrary, sometimes I thought that night, let them hit me already.” But Greengold kept fighting, striking Syrian tanks, and doing his best to stop the Syrians from overtaking the strategic Nafah base.
Towards midnight, Greengold’s superiors became aware of the scale of the threat to Nafah, and sent an initial backup force of eight tanks.
“They came straight from the armament warehouses,” Greengold said.
In the battles that raged, five Israeli tanks were destroyed, and just three remained.
Then, Greengold’s tank was hit. “At first I saw fire. Suddenly, I realized we were hit,” he said.
Greengold dived head first out of his tank, together with his gunner. The driver was killed inside.
“We lost consciousness. After we woke up, we started running. I asked for more tanks from the commander. My brigade commander told me: ‘Don’t move from Petroleum Road.’”
A reserve force led by the deputy brigade commander of 188, Col. David Yisraeli (who was later killed in action), arrived to guard the road leading to the base. Toward sunrise, a hastily assembled fresh tank force started moving to block the Syrian advance.
Greengold was back in a tank.
“I improved my position. I was prepared to die on this road,” he said. “Opposite us, we saw a Syrian armored division, made up of some 100 tanks and 40 armored personnel carriers. They began firing [Soviet-made anti-tank] Sagger missiles. We were 14 tanks. We headed up to our positions and began a fresh battle. Hagai and I gained experience in dealing with the Syrians and their Saggers from past raids. I passed on instructions to the other crews over the radio on how to dodge them. The brigade commander kept the ammunition supply going.”
“We hit a lot of [enemy] tanks,” he said.
Radio instructions went out for all IDF units to storm the Syrian forces near Nafah, and save the base from invasion.
“By chance, a situation developed in which the Syrians came under fire from three to four directions. They interpreted this as an ambush, and began to retreat. This is where the battle for the Golan Heights was decided. Underline that sentence four times in your article. This is where the battle was decided,” Greengold stressed.
Had the Syrians taken Nafah, they could have continued to push south, taking the rest of the Golan, and begin an advance down the Jordan Valley.
The results would have been catastrophic.
“Brigade 188 stood on the first line and blocked the Syrian armor,” Greengold said.
The brigade paid a very heavy price. Its commander, Col. Ben Shoham, deputy commander, Col. Yisraeli, and many of Greengold’s fellow soldiers had been killed in action.
Forty-two years later, the 74 Armored Battalion continues to train on the Golan Heights, but it is today made up of Merkava 3 tanks, and it is no longer facing the threat of a Syrian military invasion. Instead, the battalion must prepare to encounter a range of nonstate, heavily armed terror organizations, from Islamic State to Hezbollah, which are active in Syria today.
Lt.-Col. Aryeh Berger is the current commander of the 188 Brigade’s 74 Battalion of tanks. This reporter asked him if he agreed with the premise that modern command and control and intelligence systems, which today provide his tank crews with continuous situational awareness, mean that a strategic surprise on the scale of the 1973 war could never be repeated.
Berger disagreed.
The new systems “are excellent tools, and they give a lot, but they do not give us everything,” he said. “We educate our soldiers to create [their own] combat intelligence, through fiction, movement, and searches. Very good systems are being created, but we do not want to rely just on them.”
“We are very careful not to be dependent on these systems,” the battalion commander said.
Looking at events across the border, he said, “What is happening in Syria is that there is less military and lots of organizations.”
Yet dealing with sub-state hybrid terrorist entities is familiar turf for the IDF of 2015, Berger argued.
“We know this from Lebanon and Gaza. This is the enemy that we know better, compared to regular armies. Yesterday, we held a company commanders meeting, and discussed the goal of striking enemy military [armored] vehicles. But when was the last time we actually did this? We are much more familiar with fighting with terrorists on a street.”
Berger’s tanks were the first to enter Gaza during last year’s Operation Protective Edge, and fought, in close coordination with the infantry, artillery, air force and navy, for two weeks against Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
“We were not surprised by the style of the enemy. We knew how to fight, and we trained a lot for this. When you enter a situation that is uncertain, and you know what to do, what the threats are, what to search for, this gives you a sense of certainty,” he added.
Long gone are the days in which tanks fight in wars by themselves, the commander said. Cross-forces cooperation is an integral part of the modern combat doctrine.
Today, the 74 Battalion is training on the Golan Heights. It includes a company that moves on foot to provide support for the Merkava 3 tanks. “This is a part of the change we underwent,” Berger said.
Zvika Greengold’s actions in 1973 are an inspiration to the new generation of tank crews, the battalion commander added. His forces today secure fronts from the border with Syria to the southern regions near Eilat.
“We maintain contact with past fighters. Greengold’s conduct is a shining example of the fighting spirit and initiative. It is an example of how the individual soldier can have a big impact.”
Additionally, his achievements are relevant to the increasingly decentralized combat that the IDF’s Armored Corps must adopt, to deal with decentralized foes.
Smaller units have increased battlefield autonomy, and will likely wage a collection of small battles in any future war.
Low-ranking officers, like platoon commanders, who are in charge of two to three tanks, will have a crucial influence on the outcome of future engagements.