A lifetime warrior

Adan was responsible for the encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army during the Yom Kippur War.

Avraham (Bren) Adan 521 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
Avraham (Bren) Adan 521
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
He was “the other general” who led a division across the Suez Canal in the Yom Kippur War – the one who was not Ariel Sharon.
Avraham (Bren) Adan, who died recently at age 86, was a modest, soft-spoken officer who could never compete with the flamboyant Sharon for public recognition. Sharon won fame for bridging the Suez Canal, but it was Adan’s division that did most of the fighting once the bridge was crossed and it was his division that surrounded the Egyptian Third Army, the move which determined the war’s endgame.
Born in Kibbutz Kfar Giladi in the Upper Galilee, he was a company commander with the Palmah in the War of Independence. A picture of him then, shinnying up a pole to raise the Israeli flag on the future site of Eilat, became a national icon. Adan would in time become commander of the Armored Corps. He was a month away from retirement from the army when the Yom Kippur War broke out.
The surprise Arab attack and the unexpected grit demonstrated by the Arab armies threw many Israeli commanders off balance in the first few days of the war, Adan among them. On the third day, Monday, October 8, 1973, the commander of the Southern Front, Gen. Shmuel Gonen, ordered Sharon and Adan to counter-attack the Egyptian forces which had established a bridgehead on the Sinai bank of the canal.
Adan attacked in the northern sector with his reserve division, Sharon in the center.
Conflicting orders and misleading reports from Gonen, who would be shunted aside a few days later, added to Adan’s lack of focus.
His failure to adequately coordinate his forces led two of his tank battalions to separately attack overwhelming masses of Egyptian troops without artillery or air support, close replays of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War. Both battalions were mauled.
In the ensuing days, the Israeli army recovered, and so did Adan. As the army was preparing to cross the canal on a pontoon bridge that Sharon’s division had thrown across, intelligence reported that the Egyptian Third Army to the south was sending an armored brigade northwards on a route that would reach the bridging site. Adan hastily organized a rare, division-size desert ambush, hiding his tanks among the dunes for several miles along the flank of the Egyptian route along the Bitter Lake. At a signal, they sprang, destroying the bulk of the Egyptian force in half an hour at a cost of two Israeli dead.
ADAN’S DIVISION was chosen to cross the bridge first. For three days, it fought in the heavily defended agricultural strip bordering the canal and raided SAM surface-to-air missile batteries which had paralyzed the Israel Air Force over the battlefield. For the first time in the war, the air force now had a hole in the sky through which it could attack Egyptian ground defenses, enabling Adan to lead his tanks through to the open desert beyond.
Adan sent his division charging across the flat expanse, the first time in the war that Israeli armor had shaken loose. The division moved southwards on two axes, with battalions splitting off to attack missile sites and army camps, then rejoining to do battle with Egyptian tank formations.
This was the vision that Israeli tank officers had conjured up for years. The featureless terrain, the immense clouds of dust thrown up by the fast-moving tanks, and the smoke rising from burning SAM bases and dummy missile sites hit by the tanks obliged periodic halts and radio checks to enable commanders to establish their locations and ensure that they did not fire on each other.
As Sharon’s division battled slowly northwards through the agricultural strip in an attempt to reach Ismailiya, Adan’s forces raced south as rapidly as possible in an attempt to cut the roads and rail line between Cairo and Suez City, thereby severing the Third Army’s supply lines.
With a cease-fire approaching, chief of staff Gen. David Elazar doubted that Adan’s move could be completed in time. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Gen. Haim Bar- Lev, de-facto Southern Front commander, urged Adan to turn east to stake out an Israeli presence along the southern part of the canal before the cease-fire went into effect.
But when Adan said he wanted to continue south until he reached the main Cairo- Suez road both Dayan and Bar-Lev accepted his argument that he could do that and still capture the canal bank on time. Unlike with Sharon, both were inclined to accept Adan’s views even when it differed from theirs.
“You can let him decide on the spot,” Dayan said to Bar-Lev. “He’s thorough and sound.”
Adan had taken to greeting his brigade commanders jauntily every morning on the communications net with a take-off on Israel Radio’s start to its broadcasting day – with the date and a reading from the Psalms, in his case a pseudo-reading.
“This is Monday, October 22, the 17th day of the war,” he said on the day the cease-fire was supposed to go into effect. “On this day the Levites would chant in the Temple, ‘And you shall strike the Egyptians and pursue them to the end. Should it come to pass that you do not hurry, you will not finish the task.’ Prepare for orders. Over.”
Against desperate Egyptian attempts to block his southern drive, Adan managed to sever rail and road connections to Suez City and move his forces back through the agricultural strip to the southern bank of the canal in the final hour before the cease-fire was to take effect. Attempts by Third Army units to resist after the cease-fire deadline meant resumption of the fighting in Adan’s sector.
Southern Command was ambiguous about attacking Suez City, which lay on Adan’s side of the canal. It was a major logistical base for the Third Army, the bulk of which was in Sinai on the other side of the canal. Southern Command told him to take the city “provided it doesn’t become a Stalingrad.”
During the previous two days, Egyptian soldiers had been surrendering in masses, including many officers. Adan believed that the fight had finally gone out of the Egyptian army. It was an assumption he would have cause to deeply regret.
A paratroop battalion he sent into the city was the same unit that had fought on Jerusalem’s Ammunition Hill six years before. Halfway down the main street, the paratroopers and an accompanying tank force were ambushed by a large force of Egyptian commandos hiding inside the buildings. More than 80 Israelis were killed and 120 wounded before they were able to extricate themselves before dawn the following day and infiltrate back out through the Egyptian lines.
After the war, Adan remained in the army for a final posting as military attache in Washington. He managed to avoid the “war of the generals” that followed the war. During two long interviews with this reporter, he attempted to avoid criticism of his fellow generals, except for Gen. Gonen.
The latter was a consummate armor professional and a legendary field commander who had led the breakthrough brigade in northern Sinai in the Six Day War. Adan, however, had long been disturbed by his coarse behavior and his bullying of subordinates.
Observing him during a large exercise before the war, Adan saw how Gonen’s subordinates were afraid to report to him and avoided giving straight answers for fear of Gonen’s reaction.
“He has no place in the IDF,” Adan told Chief of Staff Elazar. Gonen, however, remained and would be appointed Southern Front commander, a position well beyond his capacities, as Adan would witness closeup during the botched counter-attack of October 8.
For Adan the pinnacle of his career was his last act on the battlefield – the encirclement of the Third Army, the wedge which opened the way to peace talks.
The writer is author of The Yom Kippur War.