Facing apocalypse

Abandoning itself to hubris, Israel kept its guard down as Arab armies massed on its borders in the weeks before Yom Kippur 40 years ago. As its front lines collapsed in a war it never planned, the IDF was obliged to fall back on raw courage

sharon dayan 370 (photo credit: IDF Archives)
sharon dayan 370
(photo credit: IDF Archives)
It was the generals who tipped Israel into the cauldron of the Yom Kippur War. It was the soldiers in the field who averted catastrophe.
After 40 years, the Yom Kippur War remains the most traumatic event in the country’s history, its apocalyptic opening still resonant in the memory of all who lived through it. It would be years before Israelis were able to recognize the achievement of the battered army on the battlefields of 1973 as far greater than the trumpeted victory of the Six Day War.
The reservists manning the Bar-Lev Line on the Suez Canal that Yom Kippur were from the Jerusalem Brigade, a second-line unit whose deployment on the front meant that no war was expected. For their month-long stint, the men brought books, playing cards, even fishing poles to while away the off-hours. When a massive buildup of the Egyptian forces across the canal became apparent, army headquarters in Tel Aviv assured the troops that the Egyptians were only conducting a field exercise.
Reconnaissance photos of the Egyptian deployment developed two days before Yom Kippur astonished the Israeli command. Intelligence analysts counted 1,350 tanks and 2,000 artillery pieces. The number of soldiers was estimated at 100,000. IDF soldiers in the Bar-Lev outposts numbered 450. They were backed by 44 artillery pieces and 290 tanks in Sinai, only 90 in the canal zone.
The picture on the Golan Heights was even starker. Five Syrian divisions had moved up close to the thin Israeli defense line in the previous weeks. The disparity in tanks was eight to one in Syria’s favor; in infantry and artillery, it was far greater. There was no broad waterway here separating the forces, only an anti-tank ditch and minefields that could delay the Syrians a few hours at best.
That the IDF General Staff did not mobilize its reserves reflected a disdain for the Arab armies, born of their swift collapse on three fronts in the Six Day War. When defense minister Moshe Dayan urged the chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. David Elazar, to reinforce the Golan Heights, Elazar ordered two tank companies transferred from Sinai. “We’ll have 100 tanks against their 800,” he told aides. “That ought to be enough.”
This self-confidence rested on three pillars: the air force, the tank corps and military intelligence. If any one of them failed, Israel would be in trouble – but such a failure was difficult to conceive. That all three pillars might collapse simultaneously could not be imagined at all.
AFTER ASSUMING command of the Israel Air Force in May 1973, Maj.-Gen. Benny Peled received a visit from Dayan, Elazar and other members of the General Staff. What they wanted to know was how Peled intended to cope with the SAM anti-aircraft missiles the Soviets had installed in Egypt and Syria. Israel had encountered SAMs on a small scale in the Six Day War and subsequent skirmishing. Unable to jam the sophisticated missile radar, the IAF suffered worrying losses. There were now 87 interlocking SAM batteries and hundreds of conventional anti-aircraft guns protecting the skies over the Golan and Suez fronts, with the potential of turning them into no-fly zones.
Peled told his visitors that a plan existed for destroying the batteries. Given the absence of jamming, it would be an extremely complex and dangerous operation that would require a preemptive strike and 36 hours of preparation before zero hour. The attack itself would last up to two days on the Egyptian front, to be followed by a day on the Syrian front. The entire air force would be involved, hundreds of warplanes attacking in carefully choreographed waves and with stopwatch precision from different directions and altitudes, with pauses to assess results. The IAF anticipated suffering heavy losses and would not be available to support the ground forces during the two- or three-day blitz, said Peled. His guests were relieved to hear that there was a solution for the SAMs, but Peled said: “You should know that these plans aren’t worth the paper they’re written on unless we get permission to strike first.” Dayan replied that permission would be given at the first sign the Arabs were going to attack.
But what if? What if no signs of an Arab attack were picked up? What if political reasons ruled out a preemptive strike? Existing plans called for the standing army and the air force to contain an attack if Egypt and Syria struck before Israel could mobilize its reserves, which would take 48 to 72 hours. Air force participation was vital because of the Arabs’ overwhelming advantage in ground strength. But Peled had stressed that he would be unable to provide ground support in the critical opening days. This hole in the defense plan was shrugged off as an unlikely worstcase scenario, given intelligence’s ability to discern enemy intentions. Whatever happened, it was felt, the IDF would cope. As one general put it, “We’re facing Arabs, not Germans.” Scorn for the enemy would prove even more disastrous than the disparity in the size of the ground forces.
MAJ.-GEN. YISRAEL Tal had left a deep imprint on the Armored Corps that he commanded for seven years. His emphasis had been on gunnery training, particularly at long range. An American general, himself a veteran tank commander, would declare the IDF’s tank gunnery the best in the world. Tal formulated a doctrine known as “The Totality of the Tank,” which deviated from the conventional doctrine of combined arms, in which tanks moved in tandem with infantry, artillery and engineers, each supporting the others. He contended that in open deserts like Sinai, there was no need for infantry to root out bazooka teams lurking in brush or urban locations. The tanks would charge the enemy on their own, stampeding them by inducing “armor shock.” The fast-moving armor would outrun artillery support, but the guns of the tanks themselves would provide the needed fire power. In addition, fewer artillery pieces and armored personnel carriers for infantry left money for more tanks.
A shadow fell over Tal’s concept in 1972, when the American army in Vietnam encountered infantrymen wielding a new Soviet anti-tank weapon, the Sagger missile. Details were passed on to Israel, which was not particularly impressed by another anti-tank weapon for infantry. The Sagger, however, was not like the bazooka or RPG, which are used at ranges of less than 300 yards by soldiers who expose themselves when firing. The Sagger could destroy a tank at 3,000 yards, the operational range of a tank gun. Israeli tank crews dealt handily with Arab tanks at that range – on average, Israeli crews fired two rounds for every one that Arab crews fired, and the Israeli fire was more accurate.
But the Sagger operator was virtually invisible. Lying in the sand in his sand-colored uniform at a distance of a mile or more, he would use a joystick and binoculars to guide the missile to target. Had Israel taken the Arabs more seriously, it might have taken the Sagger missile more seriously. The Armored Corps appointed a team to develop anti-Sagger tactics, but it did not bother to inform the corps as a whole of a new enemy weapon that was potentially a game changer. DAYAN, WHO was more cautious than his generals, was uneasy about the intelligence warnings from abroad in September telling of an imminent Arab attack. Ten days before Yom Kippur, he flew up to the Golan with Elazar and the head of Military Intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Eli Zeira. Atop one of the extinct volcanic cones behind the cease-fire line in the southern Golan, they received a briefing from Maj. Shmuel Askarov. The tank officer pointed at the Syrian plain below, dotted with tanks and artillery pieces as far as they could see, all covered with camouflage netting. “War is certain,” said Askarov.
Dayan asked Zeira to respond. “There will not be another war for 10 years,” Askarov would remember the intelligence chief saying.
If Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was the principal figure on the Arab side in the lead-up to the surprise attack, Zeira was the major influence on the Israeli side – more so than Dayan or Elazar or prime minister Golda Meir. It was he who kept Israel from mobilizing its reserves until it was almost too late.
Zeira had served as Dayan’s aide and as a senior paratroop commander. He was said to be the general whom Dayan most respected, and on track for appointment as chief of staff. He had returned the year before from a posting as military attaché in Washington to become intelligence chief. Although a brilliant officer, his overweening self-assurance troubled some of his colleagues. Leaving a hall where he had heard Zeira address a forum of senior officers, the commander of a paratroop brigade – who would, in a few months, lead Israel’s nighttime crossing of the Suez Canal – remarked to a fellow officer that he would have preferred an intelligence chief less certain about things.
Part of Zeira’s confidence was based on Egyptian documents the Mossad had procured, spelling out Sadat’s geopolitical strategy as well as the Egyptian General Staff’s actual war plans. These had been provided by a master spy in Cairo – none other than the late president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s son-in-law, Ashraf Marwan, a protégé of Sadat. It was clear from the documents that Sadat would not go to war before Moscow provided him with fighter-bombers capable of reaching Israel’s air bases. He also wanted Scud missiles with which to threaten Tel Aviv, as a deterrent to an Israeli attack on Cairo. Zeira assured the General Staff that whatever threatening noises Egypt might make, it would not go to war until these conditions were met. Syria, whose army was far smaller than Egypt’s, would clearly not go to war on its own. Zeira saw it as his duty “not to drive the country crazy,” as he put it, with false alarms of war and repeated mobilizations that would demoralize the troops and sap the economy.
In the spring of 1973, intelligence reports and troop movements indicated that Egypt and Syria were about to launch a two-front war. Elazar put the army on alert, but Zeira said there would be no war. When the Arabs did not attack, Zeira’s star rose even further. Elazar would thenceforth be reluctant to challenge his intelligence chief’s assessments, for fear of being seen as an alarmist. Some analysts would come to believe that Sadat had in fact intended to go to war, but postponed it because Syrian president Hafez Assad wasn’t ready. Thus it was that when 11 warnings of an imminent Arab attack were received in September 1973, the army did not mobilize. Zeira insisted that there was only a “low probability” of war. (One of the sources of these warnings was Jordan’s King Hussein, who helicoptered to Israel 11 days before the war to tell Meir that the Syrians and Egyptians were preparing an attack.) Nor was Zeira impressed by the alarms being sounded by troops on the front lines who could clearly see Arab military preparations, including the bulldozing of scores of descents to the Suez Canal for rubber boats. By dismissing the Egyptian preparations as part of an exercise and attributing the Syrian deployment to fear of an Israeli attack, Zeira was effectively shutting down Israel’s entire warning system.
Most critical of all, he had neutralized the intelligence branch’s most sensitive doomsday tripwire: “special means.” These were listening devices that tapped into important communication lines in Arab countries. If all other sources failed to indicate Arab intentions, the special means were seen as virtually unerring in confirming or refuting a countdown to war. The means were to be activated only if war seemed imminent. Increasingly concerned about the signs of war, Elazar asked Zeira several days before Yom Kippur if he had activated the devices, and Zeira said he had. In fact, he hadn’t, according to former Israeli intelligence analyst Uri Bar-Yosef. He was reluctant to do so, because premature activation could lead to their discovery – and he still did not believe that war was imminent. Bar-Yosef, whose book The Watchman Fell Asleep is an account of the intelligence failure, says that Zeira did not activate special means until Yom Kippur morning. The principal reason that Dayan and Elazar had accepted Zeira’s assurances in the preceding week, despite all the flashing red lights, was because they believed that special means had been activated – and were not showing any warning signs.
What Zeira did not know, however, was that the “use by” date on his information about Sadat’s intentions had expired a year before. Sadat, having concluded that the Soviets were unlikely to provide him with the planes and missiles he wanted, decided to go to war without them. He would attempt to achieve his political objectives by having his troops advance into Sinai only as far as they were covered by the SAMs on the Egyptian side of the canal. Holding on to a narrow strip of land in Sinai would be sufficient, he believed, to trigger international intervention that would lead to an eventual Israeli pullback.
The Israeli high command did not free itself from the grip of Zeira’s mind-set until the very eve of Yom Kippur, when Mossad chief Zvi Zamir met in a London apartment with Marwan. The Egyptian informed him that the Arabs would attack on two fronts the next day. (The warning, received in Jerusalem before dawn, may have played a significant role in preventing the Golan from falling, by permitting the early arrival of reserve units.) When the phone woke Elazar at 4:30 a.m., he listened to the Mossad report almost with a sense of relief. He had been increasingly uneasy about Zeira’s bland reassurances in the face of what seemed irrefutable evidence to the contrary. “This is it,” he told his wife as he dressed. “War.” Arriving in army headquarters, he found Zeira still repeating his “low probability” mantra. Elazar chose to humor him. “Let’s act as if there will be a war,” he said, as he summoned his commanders to prepare for the battle.
Elazar’s performance during the ensuing three weeks would merit him a place in the pantheon of history’s great military commanders. Despite enormous pressures, he did not lose his head as others around him did – most notably Dayan, who saw the possibility of the country collapsing. Even as the nation appeared to teeter at the edge of disaster, Elazar’s hand was steady on the tiller. He was running a two-front war, each of which demanded a strategy of its own, and his decisions were sound. Israel does not put up statues for its heroes, but if it did, Elazar would deserve one in every town square in the country.
However, he also fully deserved the Agranat Commission’s decision after the war to force him out of the army. In preparing for war, he had dangerously underestimated his enemy. Confidence in the IDF’s capabilities was something everybody shared in the wake of the Six Day War – how could they not? – but as chief of staff, it was his responsibility to make sober, worst-case, what-if calculations.
His major mistake was to reject calls to dismantle the Bar-Lev Line. Generals Ariel Sharon and Tal, among others, warned that the outposts were a death trap that would consume the small garrisons and any forces that tried to rescue them, if the Egyptians crossed in strength before the reserves reached the front. Elazar acknowledged the line’s limited military value, but believed that flying the flag on the canal had political value. In the first 12 hours of war, close to 200 tanks – two-thirds of the only armored division stationed in Sinai – were knocked out as they tried to break through a wall of Saggers and RPGs to reach the surrounded forts. The tank commanders, uninformed about Saggers, did not understand why tanks were exploding around them when no source of fire was visible. The stunning setback on the canal set the tone for the first half of the war in Sinai.
Dado, as Elazar was known to all, had also ignored the advice of colleagues in appointing Maj.-Gen. Shmuel Gonen commander of the Egyptian Front. He became a hero in the Six Day War when, as a colonel commanding an armored brigade, he bulled his way through the Egyptian front line and reached the canal. But being a front commander maneuvering several divisions in a complex war was beyond his capabilities. Gonen’s constant changing of orders during the first days of battle could be viewed as slapstick – if the results were not so tragic. As for Zeira, Elazar should have obeyed his instincts and common sense, and not remained in thrall to one man’s reading of Sadat’s mind – however brilliant and self-assured that man was.
TWO PSYCHOLOGICAL factors added to Israel’s woes in the first days of the war. By seizing the initiative, the Egyptians had the wind at their backs. They set up loudspeakers on the banks of the canal so the men crossing in rubber boats could hear cries of “Allahu akbar” urging them on. When the Israeli tanks charged, Egyptian infantrymen rose from foxholes with RPGs to meet them and held their ground. (Israel’s lack of sufficient artillery and APC borne infantry to deal with the Egyptian infantry, due to dependence on tanks, was a major failing.)
The Israelis were indeed fighting Arabs, not Germans, but these were not the Arabs they knew. Sadat had upgraded his army by drafting university students, barring illiterates from tank crews and purging political appointees from the officer corps. The other psychological factor was the reverse of the first: the paralyzing effect the surprise attack had on senior Israeli commanders. “You break into a cold sweat and your mind freezes up,” a deputy division commander – himself a veteran warhorse – would recall. “You have difficulty getting into gear and you react by executing the plans you’ve already prepared.”
Under the circumstances, that was precisely the wrong thing to do. Instead of ordering the tank units to charge repeatedly, the commanders should have paused until they could figure out how to deal with anti-tank fire of an intensity rarely, if ever, seen before. Each of the five Egyptian divisions that crossed the canal had 800 anti-tank weapons, apart from 200 tanks.
One IDF brigade commander would relate that it took him two days until the shock wore off and he returned to normal functioning. Dayan, after succumbing to apocalyptic visions for a day or two, returned to himself and offered sage military and political advice for the rest of the war. The most notable example of an officer not stunned by the surprise attack was Sharon, who had to be restrained from trying to capture an Egyptian bridge in order to cross the canal with his division, while the rest of the army was still reeling. The troops in the field, undistracted by concerns about the Big Picture, fought with verve and exceptional courage against overwhelming odds.
By the time the sun set on Yom Kippur day, the IDF’s war strategy had evaporated.
Armor shock became an anachronism in the very first encounter with Egyptian infantrymen, who wielded Saggers and RPGs and stood their ground. It was armor that was shocked and had to change tactics. The IAF had not been given the time for a preemptive attack, and in any case, the prime minister ruled it out because of Washington’s objections to Israel striking first just six years after having done so in the Six Day War. The inability to suppress the SAMs at the war’s opening meant that the IAF was unable to provide close support to the ground forces until almost the end. (Attempts to do so accounted for many of the 102 Israeli planes downed.)
IAF pilots busied themselves instead outside the missile zone. They feasted on the enemy air forces, downing 277 Arab warplanes in dogfights at a cost of six IAF planes. They kept enemy planes from the skies of Israel, protected the long supply lines to the fronts from air attack and conducted extensive raids against Syria’s infrastructure when that was deemed a political objective. But as Peled mordantly noted in an interview, the IAF controlled all the skies of the Middle East, except for two small strips over the Suez and Golan battlefields – where it was desperately needed.
As for military intelligence, its prewar “low probability” assessments and its assumption that it could give at least five days’ warning of an enemy attack would haunt it for years.
THE MYTHOS of the all-conquering IDF was shattered in the first days of the war, but as the army clawed back from near defeat, a new mythos began to emerge from the scorched battlefields of Sinai and the Golan. The performance of the troops, from tank gunners to colonels commanding brigades – and particularly the 20- to- 22-year-old lieutenants leading platoons into battle – was epic. The army’s performance reflected a cohesive society capable of both discipline and improvisation.
The answer to the Sagger came from tank crews in the field, who noted the red flare on the tail of the slow-moving missile. In a procedure adopted spontaneously, crewmen spotting a red light would shout “missile” on the radio net. All the tanks in the unit would then begin moving, both to make themselves more difficult to hit and to throw up clouds of dust that obscure. They would simultaneously fire in the general direction from which the missile came, to keep the unseen operators’ head down. Different units on the line developed this system independently of each other. (NATO would reportedly adopt it later in its training regimen.) As the initial shock wore off, the generals resumed their roles as effective battle managers, and the mood of the troops took a sharp upward turn. Returning from a visit to the southern front a week into the war, Elazar urged his colleagues in the underground war room in Tel Aviv to do the same.
“Whoever feels depressed in these dark corridors should go into the field and see the boys. You’ll come back in a grand mood,” he said. “They’re on top of things and have an answer for everything.”
A reporter happening on a tank company which had pulled back from the Sinai front to refuel in the second week, was struck by the upbeat tone of the young platoon leaders. The company commander said that the unit, which had been in action since the war’s first day, was supposed to be rotated for a rest period – but that the men had refused to come off the line.
Toward the end of the war, Dayan told his cabinet colleagues that the troops had fought wisely but too boldly. “It’s a wonderful thing and a terrible thing. We have to slow down and think what we’re fighting about. When I’m on the other side of the canal I am constantly thinking, ‘What are we doing here? This isn’t the Western Wall.’ We should not be shedding blood unless it’s necessary.”
The war ended with Israel 100 km. from Cairo and within artillery range of Damascus. Only the arrival of two Iraqi armored divisions prevented the depleted Israeli forces on the Syrian front from reaching Damascus itself. Who won? Egypt did. So did Israel. By going to war, Egypt regained its lost territory and, even more importantly, restored Arab pride. The Egyptian Second Army, which captured the northern half of the Sinai bank, was never dislodged. The new fighting spirit of the Egyptian army won the respect of the Israelis.
For Israel, the war opened the way to diplomatic dialogue with the Arab world’s major country. Paradoxically the war also enhanced Israel’s deterrent image, despite its grave initial setbacks. If the Arabs were unable to subdue Israel after such a devastating surprise attack, the chances of doing so in the future were even more remote – since Israel was unlikely ever to be caught napping like that again.
The US won, too, displacing the Soviet Union as Egypt’s superpower patron. In a dazzling display of the diplomatic art, secretary of state Henry Kissinger brought the fighting to a halt by persuading both sides that a cease-fire was in their supreme mutual interest. In the final hours of the war, Israel surrounded the Egyptian Third Army and moved forces into position to destroy it in a single night’s battle. Kissinger summoned the Israeli ambassador in Washington and told him that the US would not tolerate that. He had grasped the possibilities of an endgame in which both sides could claim victory.
Dependent on Washington for political support and for military resupply, Jerusalem had no option but to call off the attack and permit the besieged army to receive water, food and medical supplies. Cease-fire talks begun shortly afterward in a tent on the road to Cairo would lead six years later to the first peace agreement between Israel and an Arab state. The harrowing prospect Israel faced on Yom Kippur had been overcome by the readiness of its soldiers to move into the path of overwhelming odds. The price for Israel in 19 days of battle was 2,700 killed, three times more per capita than American losses in Vietnam in a decade.
The writer, a former Jerusalem Post reporter, is author of The Yom Kippur War (Schocken). Next week: The first of two parts describing Israel’s reversal of fortune on the battlefields of the Yom Kippur war.