Yom Kippur War- The tragedy and triumph of Tel Saki

The incredible tale of a group of 28 soldiers trapped inside a bunker on Tel Saki, surrounded on all sides by Syrian forces.

Menachem Ansbacher, a first lieutenant in the IDF Paratroopers Brigade (photo credit: SHLOMO MAITAL)
Menachem Ansbacher, a first lieutenant in the IDF Paratroopers Brigade
(photo credit: SHLOMO MAITAL)
The median age of Israelis is 30.2 years. We are a young and vibrant society, compared to, say, Japan, where the median age is 48.
But one consequence is that a majority of Israelis have no personal memory of events like the 1973 Yom Kippur War – or any event before 1990. And, as Santayana warned, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. Some 2,656 Israeli soldiers were killed and 11,056 were wounded in the 1973 war.
My own memory of the war is vivid. At 2 a.m. on October 7, a Volkswagen honked loudly outside our home in Ramat HaSharon. I grabbed my kitbag and went off to join my artillery unit. Even before reaching it, I saw tragedy.
Traffic lights and streetlights had all been blacked out, due to fear of aerial attack. As reserve soldiers drove desperately to reach their units, there were massive horrendous traffic accidents at the dark intersections. As a consequence, many died even before reaching the battlefront.
There were many such bad decisions, like the blackout, before, during and after the war, that cost lives. Many still bear the scars.
Documentaries about the Yom Kippur War tend either to glorify the heroism orlike Channel 11’s series, Valley of Tears, castigate the folly. But war is always both – a combination of tragedy and triumph. This is captured well in the two-part podcast produced by my son, Yochai Maital, together with his Israel Story podcast co-founder Mishy Harman, about Tel Saki.
Here are a few episodes about Tel Saki, based on the transcript of the podcast – how, after a long day of bloody battles against overwhelming odds, to delay the Syrian advance so reserves could mobilize, soldiers fought to their last bullet with heavy casualties. Then, 28 survivors, most of them wounded, hid for 36 hours in a Syrian bunker on a hilltop, surrounded by Syrian forces, until they were rescued.
The dry facts:
Tel Saki is a dormant volcanic hill in the southern Golan Heights. It was the site of one of the most critical battles of the Yom Kippur War. Some 11,000 Syrian infantry soldiers and 900 tanks attacked on October 6. A thin red line of 60 paratroopers and 45 tanks held off the Syrian army, at heavy loss of life, with desperate bravery, for three days – until the reserves could be mobilized and deployed and counterattack.
A group of 28 soldiers were trapped inside a bunker on Tel Saki, surrounded on all sides by Syrian forces. Their commanding officer was Menachem Ansbacher. This is the story, triumph and tragedy, of how they survived.
‘Go to Tel Saki to direct artillery!’
Menachem Ansbacher, a 20-year-old first lieutenant in the paratroopers, is part of a regiment stationed in El-Al, southern Golan, which had arrived just a few days earlier. He was told to take four men – Leizi, Shlomo, Shaike and Ronnie, and go to Tel Saki, to direct Israeli artillery in case a small skirmish develops. Together with Moshe, the driver, they drive northeast in an armored personnel carrier to Tel Saki.
 When they reach their destination, all is quiet and serene. On the hill is a small concrete bunker, only 2.6 by 3.7 meters – 100 square feet, or a third the size of an average American living room. Room enough for six soldiers to sleep.
 Ansbacher: “I and Leizi, who is also observant, continue to pray, on Yom Kippur, because nothing is happening. Suddenly I hear the low frequency boom of shells going into the air. I shouted to my soldiers, get into the bunker. I did not know what was beginning…but here they are, there they come. Heavy smoke, fire. My mission was to observe and identify from where they are shooting but the smoke was so thick, I couldn’t see even my shoes.”
An estimated 30,000 Syrian artillery shells land in the Golan, or about a thousand shells a minute.
Overwhelmed by the sheer number of troops headed their way, the unprepared Israeli forces on the Golan watch as columns of tanks roll westward on an old Roman road, much as Ahab, Cyrus, Saladin, the Crusaders, the Mamelukes and the Ottomans all had done before them. Menachem has the questionable fortune of having a front row seat to what is perhaps the biggest tank battle since Rommel and Montgomery clashed at El-Alamein.
Throughout the night IDF soldiers fleeing burning tanks sneak up Tel Saki in search of shelter. Meanwhile Menachem and his small crew fire all the ammunition they have at the Syrians down below. Menachem takes a bullet to his leg. Ronnie, one of his soldiers, quickly takes his place at the machine gun and keeps on firing.
Ansbacher: “Before I finished dressing my wound, the heavy machine gun stopped shooting…”
Ronnie was shot in the head and chest and died shortly after. With the additional soldiers who fled to Tel Saki, the original force of five paratroopers grows to more than two dozen. After a long night of fighting, the motley crew of 28 wounded and tired soldiers on Tel Saki hide in the small bunker. They take the bodies of their fallen friends with them and place them at the two entrances.
 It is Sunday morning, October 7, 1973. After staving off Syrian assaults all night long, 20-year-old First Lieutenant Menachem Ansbacher prepares his men for the end. He radios a parting message, destroys maps and intelligence documents and leads the 27 soldiers on the hill into the tiny bunker.
 And then, Ansbacher suddenly has one last desperate idea.”
 Ansbacher: “To ask our artillery, IDF artillery, to shell us. If it falls directly on the bunker, it destroys it. Definitely. No doubt about it. But I think it’s better than to meet the Syrians. It’s quicker and less painful.”
 Three shells fall. Ash and rocks shower down. Ansbacher radios, “now you will shoot five or six shells a minute. Shoot! Fire!” Firing one shell every 10 seconds is pure desperation, damaging to artillery barrels and rarely done. But they answer, quietly, politely, that they have no more ammunition. And switch off.
 Ansbacher: “In the quiet, in the silence, we could hear the Syrians shouting outside. I read a small prayer from Psalms. Then – a burst of shooting in the right entrance. Everyone in the army knows the way to clear a bunker is to shoot inside and then throw a hand grenade. The Syrians toss one. It falls on the ground. One of the soldiers, Shlomi, is hit in the head and dies on the spot. I am thrown into the air and begin to lose consciousness. Just before blacking out, I shout into the black space, “if anyone is alive, he should go out, surrender, and tell the Syrians that all the soldiers inside the bunker are dead.’”
 Grenades in hand, the soldiers wait tensely for the Syrians to enter the bunker. But no one does. It seems they had taken them all for dead. Every now and then another group of Syrians would reach the hill, toss in a grenade and shoot some bullets into the bunker.
 They have no food or water. And no medical supplies.
“Strangle Shaike!”
Ansbacher: “All of us were wounded again, hit by grenade fragments. And now begins a second story of simply surviving in a room inside Syrian territory. They think we are dead. We are careful not to give them any hint they are wrong. When I awaken, we can hear Syrians all around, talking to themselves, giving orders.”
 The trapped soldiers swallow their pain because they know they have to keep silent!
 Suddenly Shaike, who was severely wounded, regains consciousness. He starts shouting. I want more water! I want more water! Ansbacher says, “Shtok! Shtok! Quiet! Quiet!” But in his distress, Shaike does not stop, endangering the entire group.
Ansbacher: “I... I order Leizi to strangle him.”
 Ansbacher gives an order to execute one of his soldiers, whom he loves very much, with whom he had prayed hours earlier, in an attempt to save the rest. This is one of the hardest decisions a commander can make. Commanding officers spare no effort to lead their soldiers into battle and to bring them back safely. So, Ansbacher’s order was desperate, agonizing and traumatic.
 Ansbacher: “Leizi tries to comply, but with a shattered, dislocated shoulder, he simply can’t press down hard enough. So I order Avital to do it. Avital, who had a good sense for solving problems, says, ‘Wait, I have an idea.’ He takes his cigarette box and writes on it, ‘Shaike! Shut up! Syrians outside. No water!’ He lights a match near the paper. Shaike sees it. He keeps quiet until the end of the war!”
 The Syrian forces who had captured the hill eventually leave Tel Saki and move on west, leaving only a couple of foot soldiers to guard the post. In a moment of quiet, three soldiers creep out of the bunker, sneak in to one of the destroyed tanks on the hill and take water and four blankets. One of them uses the radio to alert the regional command. He is told, help is coming. He brings water, blankets – and hope back to the wounded soldiers in the bunker.
 But regional command deceives. No rescue is under way, because there are no forces to spare. Regional command instills hope in the soldiers, but no help comes.
 Ansbacher: “Even if you are very low, you can always collect some motivation to withstand, another half hour, another few minutes.”
 On October 8, the soldiers on Tel Saki, now an enemy position, are holding on by a thread. They have been in the bunker now for 36 hours. The hill starts to shake. But this time it is the IDF shells doing the shaking. The Syrian soldiers left to guard the bunker scramble to find shelter.
 Ansbacher: “Two Syrian soldiers enter the bunker, with their back to us. They are looking to see what’s happening outside. They were three feet or so from me. I point my Uzi at them and very slowly reach for a hand grenade. I gesture to my men. I show them that I am taking the pin out of the grenade. They understand – we throw the grenade at the entrance and shoot at them, we are going to die and take them with us. I say to myself, I was lucky once – I got a bullet in my head. I was lucky twice – there was a grenade and I am alive. Now, we’re going to die. I know that in a few seconds I am going to die!”
 As soon as the shelling ceases, the Syrians dash out of the bunker, having never turned around to see Menachem and his men. But before they leave, one of them rolls a hand grenade into the bunker. It rolls under the stretcher where the body of Shlomi, the tank soldier who had died in the first grenade explosion, lies. The corpse absorbs most of the impact and saves many lives.
Ansbacher: “We hear shooting and engines. I shout, it’s Syrians, it’s Syrians! The tank soldiers shout, no, it is Israeli. There is a call from outside. ‘Yesh po shiryonaim?’ [Are there tank soldiers here?]
 One of the soldiers reports, ‘we thought the Syrians are playing a trick on us. We did not answer. And again, we did not answer. The third time, I went up with two hand grenades. That is the moment that were all were born again.’
Rescue had arrived.
Leizi recounts, “when they tore off our bloody uniforms, I noticed that my prayer book – the one I’d been using when we set out for battle – was still in my breast pocket. And look, it saved my life! A piece of shrapnel hit it, went through all the pages, and by the time it reached my body it barely scratched me!”
The aftermath
Understandably, many of the soldiers who survived Tel Saki suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms may include disturbing thoughts, feelings, or dreams and mental or physical distress. But – what exactly was it like for the Tel Saki veterans?
Ansbacher: “I think my wife could describe it better, because she suffered from it. I don’t think I was a bad husband or a bad father. But I was tough. I’m not a happy person.”
 Dr. Reuven Gal, former chief psychologist of the IDF, observes that PTSD is a kind of oxymoron, an internal contradiction, because trauma is never post. It stays with you. For those who have the PTSD, the trauma is with them, they carry it all the time. Gal served as the chief psychologist of the IDF from 1975 to 1982. In the Six Day War, he was already a reservist officer, and took part in the battle for Jerusalem, serving then as a company commander. He lost four soldiers in his company. So, he observes, his experience in combat-related aspects comes not only from articles and research, but most of all from personal experience.
Gal continues: “The Yom Kippur War created an earthquake. Until the Yom Kippur War, really nobody talked about combat shock, shell shock. Even if there were very few cases of combat reactions, they were put aside and were not given too much attention -- a) because it was very non-normative; b) because it was against the glory and the great heroic stories; and c) because there was not too much knowledge, professional knowledge. After the Yom Kippur War, suddenly we were faced with high numbers of combat reactions. Roughly a quarter of the more than seven thousand IDF soldiers wounded in the war were classified as ‘psychiatric casualties.’ “
 As broad as the PTSD term is, it only includes those who sought help. Menachem, along with many of the other soldiers from the Tel Saki bunker, weren’t even counted in that figure. Because, for the most part, they did their best to block everything out.
Ansbacher: “To lock it. To lock it, not to touch it because it would hurt you. Don’t touch. Don’t... Keep away.”
Many found jobs, got married, had children – and continued playing the role of macho Israeli men.
Tragedy – human suffering, loss of life and limb. And triumph – sacrifice, heroism, camaraderie and the will to live.
Israel has gone to war many times in its short history. Each time, young men and women go into battle. Many of those who return, do so with scars on their souls. These scars are mostly invisible – but wrenching, destructive and corrosive.
The narrative of war must be told and retold, truthfully, the dark and the light together, to honor and cherish those who defend our country. Let us remember Tel Saki and the band of brothers joined forever by a searing 36 hours spent in a dark bunker. (The Tel Saki podcast can be found at: https://www.israelstory.org/episode/tell-saki-part-i/ and www.israelstory.org/episode/tell-saki-part-ii/).
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com