The war that nearly was

The Yom Kippur War of 1973 was arguably the IDF’s toughest test. Not far away, in the waters of the Mediterranean, US and Soviet vessels were gearing up for a clash which could have escalated to a global conflict.

USS Independence 370 (photo credit: US Navy)
USS Independence 370
(photo credit: US Navy)
It was one of the most dramatic face-offs of the Israeli-Arab war in 1973 but it involved neither Israel nor Arabs. As the largest tank battles since the Second World War threw up dust clouds over the Sinai and Golan, the Soviet Mediterranean Squadron and the US Sixth Fleet circled each other hundreds of miles out to sea in a bizarre dance, looking into the other’s eyes for the first hint of hostile intent. More than 150 vessels, including three carrier task forces and more than 30 submarines, some with nuclear warheads, maneuvered around each other, their commanders’ fingers on the button. It was the largest naval confrontation of the Cold War, much larger than the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. But with the world’s attention focused on the fierce, two-front land war, the US-Soviet encounter at sea would go virtually unnoticed.
When the Yom Kippur War started on October 5, the two superpower fleets were spread over the length of the Mediterranean, from Spain to Cyprus. The Sixth Fleet had been in these waters since the Second World War when it replaced the Royal Navy as the dominant naval force in the area. The Soviets established a fixed naval presence only in the mid-1960s when the US deployed submarines in the Mediterranean with Polaris missiles bearing nuclear warheads capable of reaching Moscow and Leningrad. The Soviets did not have permanent bases in the region but used floating anchorages in international waters which included dry dock and repair facilities. They also had access to ports in their two client states, Egypt and Syria.
Apart from occasional gunboat diplomacy, the main task of the two fleets was to keep tabs on each other. Soviet warships constantly trailed the Sixth Fleet’s aircraft carriers, whose planes could reach the southern part of the Soviet Union. The Americans dubbed these vessels “tattletales.”
Another Soviet task force consisting of six to eight submarines tracked the American ballistic missile submarines. Other Soviet warships ranged from cruisers to amphibious vessels.
The American fleet centered on two carrier task forces. In response to the Soviet “tattletales,” the Americans kept constant air surveillance over those Soviet warships armed with missiles. If there were clear signs that missiles were about to be launched, the planes were to attack. In addition, a screen of planes was maintained over the carriers themselves in order to shoot down missiles the Soviets were able to fire.
THE TWO FLEETS had already had several brushes in the confined waters of the Mediterranean. The most serious occurred during Black September in 1970, when King Hussein moved against Palestinian militants in Jordan. Syria, supporting the Palestinians, sent tank forces into Jordan. The Sixth Fleet deployed ships, including transports bearing marines, to the eastern Mediterranean in support of the king. The Soviet fleet, which increased from 47 to 60 ships as the crisis unfolded, displayed readiness for confrontation. It deployed seven missile-carrying warships to threaten the carriers, missiles ostentatiously run onto launcher rails. Sixth Fleet warships in turn trailed the Soviet vessels with orders to destroy the missiles, if the crunch came, before they could be launched. In the end, the Syrians withdrew back across the border after meeting Jordanian resistance and the two fleets pulled apart.
The absence of air cover for the Soviet fleet had persuaded it to adopt an extreme tactical doctrine called “the battle of the first salvo.” It was described in a landmark article in the US Naval War College Review in 2004 by Lyle J. Goldstein and Yuri M. Zhukov, who interviewed retired Soviet naval officers and had access to relevant documents.
In a personal journal cited in the article, Capt. Yevgenii V. Semenov, a former chief of staff of the Mediterranean squadron, summed up the doctrine as a doomsday scenario. The primary objective, he said, was to sink the carriers in a first strike before they could put planes in the air.
“Attack groups (surface vessels and submarines) need to use all weaponry – missiles, artillery, torpedoes, jet-propelled rockets – the whole lot – since it is unlikely that anything (in the Soviet fleet) will remain afloat after an air strike,” wrote Semenov. “We are kamikazes.”
AS YOM KIPPUR approached, the Arabs informed Moscow of their decision to go to war with Israel two days before their surprise attack. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sent a message to Egyptian president Anwar Sadat promising him backing and requesting permission to evacuate Soviet civilians.
At the onset of war, the Mediterranean squadron numbered 52 ships, including 11 submarines – some carrying cruise missiles with nuclear warheads.
The Sixth Fleet, commanded by Vice-Admiral Daniel Murphy, consisted of 48 vessels including the carriers Independence, then in port in Greece, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt, in Spain, each accompanied by escorts. There were also a helicopter carrier and amphibious vessels carrying 2,000 marines.
For both navies guns were no longer their principal weapon. The Americans, who had amassed vast experience in the Pacific during the Second World War, relied on the fleet’s air arm. The Russians, with no hope of matching the American aircraft carriers, had developed sea-to-sea missiles which could home in on targets as far as 250 miles away. The two fleets could thus stand well away from each other and deliver lethal strikes. The presence of 180 fighterattack aircraft on the two carriers decisively tilted the strategic balance in the Sixth Fleet’s favor. But the powerful and accurate Soviet missiles posed a mortal threat to the American vessels.
With the outbreak of war, Murphy ordered the Independence to recall all men from liberty and prepare to sail within four hours. He wanted to order the Franklin D. Roosevelt to join it but Washington demurred. The Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered Murphy to continue routine activity and avoid any move that could be construed by the Russians or the Arabs as direct involvement in the conflict. The Navy made a point of announcing that it had no ships in the war zone.
It modified its stance on the first night of the war, ordering Murphy to deploy the Independence task force in holding position southeast of Crete. From there, it would be in position to reach the battle zone quickly if needed but was far enough removed to avoid provocation or accidents such as the attack by Israeli planes on the intelligence gathering ship Liberty in the Six Day War.
A third carrier, the John F. Kennedy, which had been in the North Sea, was ordered to move close to the Straits of Gibraltar with its three destroyer escorts but to remain out in the Atlantic until further orders.
The fleet’s staff reviewed standing plans for evacuation of American citizens from the war zone. There were an estimated 60,000 Americans in the area, 45,000 of them in Israel. The planning focused on the evacuation of those in Arab countries. Within a few days it would become apparent that it was not the Arab countries that were in trouble.
Soviet ships and planes had begun evacuating their civilians from Egypt and Syria before the shooting started, thousands of military personnel remaining behind to advise and assist the Arab armies. Lookouts overlooking the Dardanelles reported ships from the Soviet Black Sea fleet streaming southwards in large numbers through Turkish waters towards the Mediterranean, both missile-armed surface vessels and missilearmed submarines. The Turkish government, opposed to Washington’s backing for Israel, eased treaty limitations on the passage of military vessels through the straits in order to let the Soviet warships through.
Murphy’s rules of engagement were, in broad terms, to defend his fleet. It was for him to determine whether to attack at the first indication of hostile intent, such as movement of Soviet launchers into firing position, or only after missiles were actually launched. In an interview with this writer a decade after the war, Admiral Murphy said that there would have been no time to consult with Washington. He reckoned the chances that the Soviets would attempt a first strike at 40 percent. Confident that naval intelligence would provide a timely warning, he hoped to emerge from the opening exchange unscathed. If hostilities commenced, he said, he intended to hunt down every Soviet vessel in the Mediterranean and sink it.
The American fleet protected Israel-bound freighters as far as its easternmost deployment near Crete. From there the vessels proceeded unescorted to Israeli waters. A massive American airlift of military supplies to Israel was launched a week into the war, but European nations refused to permit the planes to land on their territory because of fear of the Arab oil embargo.
Murphy deployed vessels the length of the Mediterranean to assist in navigation, provide air defense and be available for rescue if any plane went down. One destroyer in this chain was posted as far east as Cyprus.
MEANWHILE, another naval encounter was going on nearby – this one an actual war between the Israeli navy and the Egyptian and Syrian navies. Modest though it was in dimension, it marked a turning point in naval history, the first war in which both sides fought with missiles rather than guns – missiles that homed in on enemy vessels with their own radar. The Arab navies had been equipped several years before by the Soviets with boats firing the Styx missile. It was a Styx, fired by an Egyptian missile boat, that sank the Israeli destroyer Eilat in 1967, the first vessel ever sunk by a missile. In an intensive engineering effort, Israel had subsequently developed its own seaborne homing missile, the Gabriel, and mounted it on a dozen small craft ordered from a Cherbourg shipyard. These were the first missile boats in the West, patrol boats with the punch of powerful cruisers. The Styx had twice the range of the Gabriel – 45 kilometers versus 20 kilometers – but the Israelis had developed electronic warfare (EW), countermeasures which it hoped would thwart the Styx radar.
In a clash off the Syrian coast on the first night of the war, Israeli missile boats engaged three Syrian missile boats that came out of Latakia harbor to give battle. The Syrians fired their missiles well before the Israeli craft reached Gabriel range but the Israeli antimissile defenses, which included clouds of aluminum chaff that presented false images to the Styx radar, succeeded in diverting all of them. The Syrian vessels did not have countermeasures and all three were destroyed. Two nights later, Israeli missile boats sank three of the four Egyptian missile boats that ventured out from Alexandria. Again, the Israeli boats suffered no losses. From that point, neither Arab fleet ventured out to sea again for the remainder of the war.
Scores of cargo vessels bound for Haifa were able to arrive and depart safely during the three-week conflict.
THESE CLASHES between their proxies had no impact on the US-Soviet naval confrontation taking place beyond the western horizon. The Israelis, however, had their own encounters with Soviet vessels. Satellites and radio monitoring gave the Russians a constant reading of ship movements in the Mediterranean. Israeli vessels on clandestine long-distance missions inevitably found themselves picked up and followed by Soviet escorts before reaching their objective.
Six days into the war, Israeli boats firing missiles at the Syrian port of Tartus inadvertently sank a Soviet freighter, the Ilya Mechnikov, which had arrived before the war. Soviet destroyers had begun escorting Soviet merchant ships emerging from the Dardanelles with war supplies for Syria when the war began but the warships did not proceed past Cyprus for fear of provoking the Americans or of a Liberty-like attack from the Israelis. However, after the sinking of the Ilya Mechnikov naval vessels escorted Soviet merchant ships to Syrian ports. In at least one instance a Soviet minesweeper guarding a merchantman fired at, but did not hit, Israeli jets attacking at Latakia.
The commander of the Israeli navy, Admiral Binny Telem, assumed that the Sixth Fleet would neutralize any threat posed by the Soviet fleet to his forces. In an interview years after the war he said that if Russian warships had acted belligerently he intended to meet them head-on. It was not clear whether the Russians had EW defenses on their own vessels. The Americans had no seaborne missiles that would have obliged the Soviets to develop EW. In any case, the sweeping success of the Israeli missile boats off Latakia and Alexandria against Soviet missile boats was an unsettling factor for the Soviet squadron to add to its operational concerns.
AS THE WAR progressed, nerves in both fleets grew increasingly frayed. The tattletales, which had before consisted of a single destroyer, were now reinforced by other warships. Although ranking officers had never been seen before on the tattletales, the Americans now became aware of the presence of two admirals on ships following them. “The object of this presence may simply be to let us know that they are aware of our activities and to make us aware of theirs,” wrote Murphy in a message to Washington. Soviet submarines began monitoring the approaches to Israel’s ports.
On October 19, two weeks into the war, Capt. Semenov wrote in his diary: “Over the last few days the situation has become so complicated that it seemed we were on the verge of becoming engaged in war.” Pressure on exhausted crews was constant and some senior officers, including Semenov and the deputy commander of the squadron, were standing 12-hour watches. Semenov wrote that the life of the fleet’s staff had become one of “wild, frantic work.” He described the squadron commander, Admiral Yevgenii Volubuyev, and his deputy as “emotional persons.” Wrote Semenov: “They go berserk in unison. The mind of a staff officer works better under calm circumstances.” Given the hair-trigger situation, it was a dangerous mind-set.
The Russians were riding herd on the American vessels so aggressively that Admiral Murphy sent a semaphore message to Admiral Volobuyev asking him to adhere to an accord between the two countries signed the previous year obliging their vessels not to point guns or missiles at the other. The State Department sent a note to the Soviet Foreign Ministry in the same vein and Volobuyev was ordered by his superiors to comply. Compliance, however, was short-lived.
AS ISRAELI FORCES began crossing the Suez Canal, the commander of the Soviet navy, Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, ordered the Mediterranean squadron to form a naval infantry force made up of volunteers from the fleet. They were to be deployed in Port Said at the mouth of the Suez Canal in a demonstrative show of support for Egypt and, if need be, to defend the port city where Soviet vessels regularly docked. The Israelis would presumably be reluctant to attack a Soviet force. (Israel indeed considered crossing the canal at Port Said at one stage of the war.)
The most dangerous phase of the Soviet-American confrontation would come after the fighting on land had virtually ceased, with the Egyptian Third Army surrounded by Israeli forces on the Sinai bank of the Suez Canal. Responding to appeals from Sadat, Brezhnev warned Washington that the Soviet Union would consider intervening unilaterally unless the siege of the Third Army was lifted. On the same day, Soviet vessels, including landing ships believed to be carrying the volunteer force, arrived in Port Said. “Seems we’re going to save Port Said from Israel,” noted Semenov in his journal. In the Soviet Union itself, several airborne divisions were put on alert. The CIA reported that the Soviet arms airlift to Egypt and Syria had unexpectedly stopped that morning. This could mean that the large transports were being reconfigured to carry troops.
The tension was ratcheted up to its peak in Washington where, after an all-night meeting in the White House, the Pentagon issued a worldwide alert, Defcon (Defensive Condition) 3 – the highest state of readiness in peacetime – in response to Brezhnev’s warning of unilateral Soviet intervention. An airborne division was put on standby for departure to the Middle East and more than 50 B-52 strategic bombers were recalled from Guam to the United States. Admiral Murphy was notified by the Pentagon that the John F. Kennedy would be entering the Mediterranean and he was authorized to have the Roosevelt join the Independence off Crete. Murphy kept the two carriers 75 to 100 miles apart, close enough to render mutual assistance but far enough apart to determine which was being targeted electronically by Soviet missiles.
The transports carrying the marines joined the two carriers’ task forces south of Crete, closer to the conflict area.
The Soviet squadron had grown by now to 97 vessels, including 23 submarines. The Sixth Fleet had grown to 60 vessels, including nine submarines. Murphy calculated that if the Soviets attacked first they could launch 40 missiles and 250 torpedoes. The Soviet tattletales trailing the carriers now included first-line missile-carrying warships and vessels capable of supplying midcourse guidance onto the carriers for missiles fired from over the horizon.
If either side believed war between them was imminent it would have no option but to launch a preemptive, all-out, attack if it wished to survive.
On October 30, Semenov noted in his journal that the fleet’s missiles would be aimed at only five targets in a first strike – the three American aircraft carriers and two helicopter carriers.
“All other (targets) are secondary. Everybody’s waiting only for a signal. The pressure has reached the breaking point.” A few missiles would be saved for the ships carrying the marines.
Admiral Murphy would write later that the two fleets were “sitting in a pond in close proximity and the stage for the hitherto unlikely war-at-sea scenario was set.”
The fate of the beleaguered Third Army had become linked, without almost anyone in Israel or Egypt being aware of it, to the fate of the superpower fleets which were confronting each other out in the Mediterranean for geo-political reasons of their own. Moscow, with its own credibility at stake, would do all it could to spare its client the humiliation of having the trapped army captured. For Israel, the encirclement of the Third Army was psychological nourishment, a desperately needed reaffirmation of strength after the severest and most costly testing in its history. It was reluctant to accept American requests not to destroy the Third Army or force its surrender. If it came to it, defense minister Moshe Dayan was willing to let the trapped army withdraw without its weapons, except for officers who would be traded for Israeli prisoners of war. On second thought, he was willing to let the army go even with its weapons as long as it gave up the foothold it had won in Sinai in an acknowledgment of defeat. As the days passed and the trapped army’s water supply dwindled, a Defense Department official in Washington snapped at the Israeli military attaché, Gen. Motta Gur: “I hope you know you’re playing with a superpower confrontation.”
In fact, the Third Army’s entrapment would prove a gift to American diplomacy. It made Sadat dependent on the Americans if he wished to save it from annihilation or surrender. The Egyptian Second Army was still holding firm in its Sinai bridgehead along the northern half of the Suez Canal. But Israeli division commander Gen. Avraham (Bren) Adan believed that the Third Army to the south could be smashed in one night’s battle.
US secretary of state Henry Kissinger would adroitly exploit the situation to preserve the Third Army and Egyptian honor and thus open the door to direct dialogue between the warring parties, something a defeated Egypt would have rejected. Kissinger was also opening the way to America’s displacement of Soviet influence in Egypt. Summoning Israeli ambassador Simcha Dinitz to his office close to midnight, Kissinger said that the destruction of the Third Army “is an option that doesn’t exist.”
Kissinger warned, in president Richard Nixon’s name, that unless water and food were permitted to reach the beleaguered army the US would support the UN demand for an Israeli pullback. He demanded a reply by 8 a.m.
A few hours before his ultimatum expired, a message was received from Egypt agreeing to prime minister Golda Meir’s earlier suggestion that Egyptian and Israeli officers meet face-to-face to discuss the fate of the Third Army and a prisoner exchange. The Egyptians demanded, in turn, a complete cease-fire and the immediate transfer of non-military supplies, particularly water, to the Third Army. Mrs. Meir accepted both conditions.
As the cease-fire took hold, the Sixth Fleet and the Mediterranean squadron slowly disengaged and sailed over the horizon – almost totally unnoticed by the proxies on land in whose cause they had come so close to the edge.
The writer is author of The Boats of Cherbourg (Naval Institute Press) and The Yom Kippur War (Schocken).