Reversal of fortunes

With the arrival of the reserves, the army fights its way back to the 1967 border and beyond.

AVIGDOR KAHALANI (right) and Yossi Ben-Hanan  521 (photo credit: IDF Archives)
AVIGDOR KAHALANI (right) and Yossi Ben-Hanan 521
(photo credit: IDF Archives)
Summoned to Tel Aviv the morning after Yom Kippur by Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. David Elazar, Maj.-Gen. Moshe “Musa” Peled was told that his reserve armored division would not be going to Sinai as planned but to the Golan. “The Syrians have broken through,” said Elazar. “Get up there fast.” As his tanks started north, Peled drove ahead to Northern Command headquarters on Mount Canaan near Safed to coordinate with Maj.-Gen. Yitzhak Hofi, the front commander. He found him in a darkened room trying to nap. “My division arrives tonight,” said Peled. “Where do you want me?” To his astonishment, Hofi said he wanted him to form a defense line along the Jordan River inside Israel proper. The implication was that Hofi expected the Golan to fall. Hofi looked calm, but Peled believed he was laboring under the strain of the apocalyptic developments of the past day. “I don’t believe in defense,” said Peled. “I believe we have to attack.”
Former chief of general staff Lt.-Gen. Haim Bar-Lev arrived in the evening at Elazar’s behest to review the situation with Hofi. Peled was invited to join them. He proposed pushing north from Moshav El Al on the southern Golan, which had not yet fallen, towards Rafid, 20 miles northeast. This route would cut across the main Syrian supply lines. By moving his division in compact formation he could overcome anything the Syrians threw at him, he said.
Bar-Lev conferred by phone with Elazar, who asked to talk to Peled. “We’re going to attack,” Bar-Lev said to Hofi.
AS DARKNESS descended this Sunday night, 12 Israeli tanks on Tel Faris, the last tanks remaining on the southern Golan, prepared to infiltrate through the Syrian lines. With them were 60 soldiers who were also cut off – paratroopers, intelligence personnel and crews of disabled tanks. They would ride atop the tanks.
Capt. Uzi Arieli took the lead as they moved out. Avoiding roads, the convoy halted before cresting every rise, the drivers shutting their engines to permit Arieli to listen. The way was clear until the last rise before the Tapline. Four tanks straddled a dirt track ahead of them, just short of a fence marking the route of the buried oil pipeline.
Arieli said they would try to pass between the tanks without firing, in order not to alert other Syrian forces in the area. It was possible that the crews were sleeping. Even if awake, they might not identify the Israeli tanks in the darkness. They would then break through the fence and proceed cross-country. The terrain there was wild and trackless – but Arieli knew it well.
His tank and the one behind passed between the Syrian tanks without incident.
As the third tank approached, one of the Syrian tanks fired. The shot hit low, damaging the Israeli tank but not disabling it. A volley set the Syrian tanks aflame. Arieli smashed through the Tapline fence and led the tanks into a wadi beyond, as Syrian units nearby sent up flares.
Arieli navigated cautiously through the boulder-strewn terrain. As the wadis began to deepen, precipices appeared. Regaining high ground, the column was confronted by a mile-deep stretch of brush fires. Arieli could have gone around but feared that if he did, his tanks would offer tempting silhouettes to any Syrian tanks in the area. It would be safest, he decided, to pass through the fire.
Lt. Oded Beckman, in the tank behind, could smell the scorched earth as they plunged into the flames. Soon he could smell burned rubber near the treads. Between patches of burning scrub, the charred earth glowed. Soot-covered soldiers clinging to his tank’s superstructure a few feet away were detectable only by the whites of their eyes and the orange color of the flames, reflected by the bandoliers draped across their chests. Looking back, he saw the tanks forming a half crescent – a line of armored behemoths plunging through a field of fire like riders of the apocalypse. It was a scene he would still remember vividly decades later.
With frequent pauses to look and listen, it took 10 hours to cross the narrow width of the Golan. It was dawn when the tanks reached Arik Bridge. Reservists in half-tracks heading toward the Golan called out to them. The reservists fell silent when they drew close and saw the worn faces of the young soldiers, blackened by gunpowder and dust. After unloading their passengers, the tank crews were ordered to refuel, rearm and return to the battalion’s base, Camp Jordan, on the heights. Their war had just begun.
In two days of battle, the conscripts posted on the Golan had succeeded, with the help of the first reserve units, in blunting the enemy onrush. The Syrian attack had not yet peaked, but a cordon of reserve units was beginning to form around the enormous hole gouged in the Israeli lines. Northern Command, which had on Sunday morning made preparations for abandoning the Golan, was preparing by evening to counter-attack.
THE ABANDONMENT of Tel Faris left Strongpoint 116 as the only Israeli position along the southern half of the cease-fire line still manned. Feeling the evening chill, Lt. Yosef Gur donned a flak vest for warmth. At 8 p.m., five Syrian tanks turned off the border road toward the strongpoint. The lead tank pushed aside disabled vehicles and fired.
With only two bazooka rounds left Gur decided to try a rifle grenade, though uncertain of its efficacy. When the tank reached the gateway, he rose and fired.
He could not see its impact, but the tank stopped moving and stopped firing. He hit the second tank with another rifle grenade. It too stopped but the other three tanks opened fire.
When Gur called down artillery one shell exploded behind him. The flak vest absorbed most of the impact but shrapnel cut a deep hole in his right shoulder, where the vest ended. He lost feeling in his arm and passed out. His men carried him to a bunker, where a medic bandaged the wound.
During the night, the young officer felt himself floating near the tempting shores of death, but towards dawn his mind began to clear. From time to time, soldiers came down to see how he was.
They reported driving off several attacks.
There were only ten men still on their feet.
In mid-morning, Syrian tanks began pounding the fort. Dust coming in through air vents filled the bunker.
Released from responsibility, Gur felt strangely calm, until he heard what he feared most – shouts in Arabic. The Syrians were inside the fort.
He pulled himself to his feet and made his way to the bunker entrance.
It was drizzling outside. In the courtyard were three Syrian soldiers. One held a machine gun in both hands and sprayed bullets in an arc. Propping his left leg on a jerrycan just inside the entrance, Gur rested the rifle on it and fired on automatic with his left hand. The Syrians were not hit, but disappeared from view. Suddenly, he heard grenades and small arms fire.
The other Israelis had been sheltering in the trenches from the tank fire and were unaware of the penetration until they heard gunfire in the courtyard.
They now counter-attacked, killing some of the attackers and driving off the remainder. His adrenalin flowing, Gur resumed his post at the gateway.
WITH HIS brigade on full alert Sunday night, Col. Ori Orr could not summon his officers from their posts. Instead he walked along the line to talk to them on their tanks. In view of the heavy casualties, virtually all officers were to be appointed to new tasks.
Orr paused in the darkness to listen to the soldiers’ conversations.
The one common rallying point, it became apparent, was Orr himself.
His voice on the radio net, calm and authoritative, was central to the brigade’s cohesiveness.
In a book written by Haim Sabbato, a yeshiva student who served as a gunner in Orr’s brigade, the author describes the brigade commander climbing onto his tank in the darkness. Introducing himself, the colonel pulled a bar of chocolate from his shirt pocket and distributed it among the crewmen. “I know it’s difficult for you. You’re young.
It’s difficult for me too. I’ve fought in a tough war [the Six Day War], but this is something else altogether. Before dawn we’re going to attack towards Hushniya. Your company will provide covering fire. We’ve lost a lot of tanks. You’ve lost your battalion commander and company commander. But we’re going to win. We’ve got no choice.”
In Safed Hospital, Maj. Shmuel Askarov had been receiving reports from visitors about the dire situation.
His brigade, the 188th, had in effect ceased to exist. Its senior commanders were dead. Soldiers had begun to retreat on their own.
In the next bed lay an officer whose face and blond hair were blackened by burns and soot. He seemed to be sleeping, but kept tossing and muttering, “What a mess.” Askarov recognized Zvika Greengold, with whom he had served.
Early Monday morning, Askarov slipped out of the hospital without being spotted by doctors and headed for the Golan in a jeep. He stopped off at a tank base at the foot of the heights.
With his brigade no longer functioning, he had decided to organize a new force and lead it into battle. There were 150 men at the base. Calling them together, he spoke as loudly as his damaged vocal cords permitted. He was going back up the heights, he said. Every man was needed and there were trucks outside to transport them.
It seemed for a moment that his listeners were with him, but then an officer spoke up. “I’m a major and I ran away.
You can put me in prison but I’m not going back to that hell.” That sounded to the others more like the voice of reason than Askarov’s plea for heroics. He drove off alone.
At Camp Jordan, he found the tanks that had returned from Tel Faris. Most were damaged. Askarov called the men together. They were visibly dispirited. The situation was desperate, he said, and the tanks must be readied for battle by morning.
Despite his raspy voice and wounds, his determination came through. The response this time was enthusiastic. Mechanics began swarming over the damaged tanks, cannibalizing some in order to repair others. At one point, a colonel from Northern Command arrived. Shocked at Askarov’s appearance, he ordered him to return to hospital. “I’m commanding the brigade now,” replied Askarov. The colonel backed off.
Shortly before dawn, someone tapped Askarov on the shoulder. It was Lt.-Col. Yossi Ben-Hanan, who had been commander of Askarov’s battalion until a month before. He was on his honeymoon in Nepal when he heard the BBC report the outbreak of war. Askarov readily handed over command of the force – 11 tanks – to Ben-Hanan. Their old battalion was emerging from the ashes.
Gur led his men out of Strongpoint 116 early Monday morning to collect Kalashnikov rifles and ammunition from dead Syrians. The approaches were strewn with tanks and APCs. There were 70 bodies left by two days of battle. Late in the afternoon a jeep turned down the track leading to the fort. Two reconnaissance personnel from Moussa Peled’s division stepped out and said that half-tracks were on the way to evacuate them.
Peled moved his division north on a narrow front to present a mailed fist as he approached the main Syrian supply route. The Syrians wasted no time responding.
Clouds of dust signaled the approach of two tank columns, one from Hushniya to the west and one from across the border to the east. For three hours Israeli and Syrian tanks battled at close quarters. When it was over, scores of Syrian tanks lay inert on the battlefield and the remainder had pulled back.
To stop Peled’s division, the Syrians for the first time deployed large numbers of infantry with Saggers and RPGs as well as anti-tank guns. Peled ordered a rolling artillery barrage laid down in front of his tanks. This was the effective response to tank hunters that had been missing in Sinai.
AT THE northern end of the Golan, the Seventh Brigade was engaged in its own war, detached from what was happening elsewhere. The brigade had successfully blocked the Kuneitra Gap, a winding valley through which the Syrians were attempting a major thrust. The brigade had lost more than half its tanks, but the critical juncture was only now at hand.
The Syrian high command had assembled the largest force yet mustered in this sector. It included 70 tanks from the Presidential Guard commanded by Rifat Assad, president Hafez Assad’s brother. Syrian tanks in this sector outnumbered Col. Avigdor Ben-Gal’s 4-1.
President Assad monitored the climactic battle from the war room of the Syrian General Staff and exhorted the field commanders by radio.
Ben-Gal’s men were exhausted. A staff officer fell asleep as the commander was talking to him. Here and there, tanks were beginning to pull back without authorization.
The contending armies had reached the endgame. One final effort, one minute more of endurance, could make all the difference.
Tuesday began with the most massive barrage the brigade had yet experienced. Ben-Gal called battalion commander Avigdor Kahalani.
“Position your tanks in my area. You’ll be my reserve.”
“On my way,” said Kahalani.
Ben-Gal had taken up position near Kibbutz Elrom on a hill two miles behind the main tank ramps overlooking the valley. Kahalani could see heavy artillery fire in the area and heard calls for ammunition.
There could be no more than a dozen or so tanks left intact there.
Ben-Gal had ordered the tanks back from the ramps because of the intensive shelling, but he now could get no response from them. After four days of hands-on direction, his control was unraveling, as officers were hit and orders were not passed on. He decided on a last bid to shore up the front.
“Kahalani, this is Yanosh. Move out. Fast. Over.”
Kahalani had been waiting impatiently for the order. As he started forward, the central ramp came into view. The Israeli tanks were scattered 500 yards to the rear.
Ignoring them for the moment, Kahalani headed toward a wadi to the left. It was through there that Syrian tanks had penetrated onto the Israeli high ground in previous days. Kahalani wanted to make sure it was empty before reoccupying the ramp. Rounding a stone wall, he came on three Syrian tanks. His gunner, David Killion, hit them before they could fire.
A Syrian tank came up out of the wadi and Killion punched a hole in it. A few moments later, another T-62 emerged and Killion stopped it as well. Kahalani looked around for a tank he could position at the head of the wadi. Seeing none, he ordered his driver to a knoll overlooking the wadi’s length. Within minutes, Killion notched up five more kills. This cleared the wadi, but Kahalani could see into the valley beyond.
Heading towards the Israeli line was a mass of tanks.
The Israeli tanks behind the firing ramp were scattered like lost sheep a few hundred yards from Kahalani, their crews unaware of the approaching danger. It was essential to get them up the ramp before the Syrians reached it in force. Only from there might the disparity in numbers be offset by superior firing position. When Kahalani called them on his radio he got little response. He realized that most of the tank commanders chose not to hear him. This was their fourth straight day of battle. They had been under heavy artillery bombardment and the Syrian Air Force had had several goes at them. More than half their comrades were dead or wounded, and they had hardly slept since the battle started. They could no longer bring themselves to face the curtain of fire on the ramp. They had reached their breaking point.
In the tank with Kahalani, Lt. Gidi Peled, his operations officer, had since the start of the war felt fear knotted in his stomach. He had seen fear in Kahalani’s face as well. But until now the battalion had operated like a well-tuned racing car, with fear only along for the ride. Now, it seemed to have moved into the driver’s seat.
A nightmarish dilemma gripped Kahalani.
Only he could see the approaching danger and only he could muster the crews to regain the ramp. Nothing but his personal example would get the paralyzed tank commanders to move.
But he could neither abandon the wadi, through which Syrian tanks could debouch, nor make radio contact with most of the tanks. He tried to review his options, but there didn’t seem to be any.
“Kahalani, report.” Ben-Gal’s voice was tense.
“This is Kahalani. I’m not managing to control the tanks and they’re constantly drifting to the rear.”
In his reports since the war started, he had tried to avoid sounding alarmist so as not to add to the brigade commander’s burden. Even this report was phrased moderately but the facts were stark. Ben-Gal said he would try to get more tanks to him.
Starting towards the tanks behind the rampart, Kahalani said: “This is the battalion commander. Whoever hears me, raise your flag.” There were 10 tanks that he could see. Most raised flags. “We must regain the ramp. Otherwise...” His remarks were interrupted by two planes dropping bombs. The explosions were powerful, but none of the tanks was hit.
As the second plane pulled up, Kahalani saw a Star of David on its tail.
Despair threatened to overwhelm him.
A company commander on his right flank, Maj. Meir Zamir, was reporting to Ben-Gal that he had only three tanks left and almost no ammunition. “Help is on the way,” said Ben-Gal. “Just 15 minutes.”
“I don’t know if I can hold on 15 minutes.”
Kahalani reached the tanks behind the ramp. “This is the battalion commander,” he began again. “A large enemy force is on the other side of the ramp. We are going to move forward. Move.”
His tank started forward and a few others began to follow hesitantly. Two Syrian tanks came over the top of the ramp. Killion fired along with other tanks, destroying both Syrian tanks.
The Centurions that had moved forward now pulled back.
Ben-Gal came on the radio to inform Kahalani that he was sending him a number of tanks under the command of Eli Geva. Ben-Hanan was leading other tanks to relieve Zamir. Looking behind him, Kahalani could see the dust cloud of approaching tanks in the distance. For the first time since the day’s battle began, points of light were appearing.
“This is the battalion commander,” Kahalani said, having realized that straightforward commands would no longer work. “Look at the courage of the enemy mounting the position in front of us. I don’t know what’s happening to us. They are only the Arab enemy we have always known. We are stronger than them. Form a line with me. I am waving my flag. Move.” He had spoken in an even tone but shouted the last word.
A platoon commander at the rear had been sitting in his tank shaking with fear. The rest of his crew was in the same condition, their nerves shattered. He had not fled, the lieutenant told himself repeatedly, he had not fled. He had heard Kahalani’s calls on the radio but had not responded. This time the battalion commander’s words stung. Was he suggesting they were cowards? “Move,” the lieutenant said to his driver.
“Don’t stop,” Kahalani called, as he watched the tanks form into line. “Keep moving.”
The hatches were open now but the commanders kept low in their turrets, their eyes just above the edges. Everyone was fearful of what awaited them.
As they climbed abreast they had to make their way around knocked-out tanks. Not until they pushed up the final yards into the firing positions could they see the valley.
The Kuneitra Gap was dark with vehicles.
In among the mass of tanks and personnel carriers knocked out during the previous days of fighting, scores of tanks were moving doggedly forward.
The furthest were about 915 meters distant, the closest only about 45 meters.
The Centurions opened fire. Each tank crew now fought its own battle, unleashing pent-up fury and fear.
“Aim only at moving tanks,” called Kahalani. Syrian crews could be seen jumping from tanks and running to the rear. Geva’s Centurions now reached Kahalani’s ramp and joined in the shoot. For the first time, the Syrian tanks seemed to waver. Finally, there were no more moving targets.
The Syrian attack on Ben-Gal’s right flank was likewise moving towards its climax. Zamir, down to two tanks, began to pull back. The force led by Ben-Hanan arrived at precisely that moment. Ben-Hanan waved a nonchalant “Shalom” to Zamir as they passed each other. Topping a small rise just ahead, Ben-Hanan saw a T-55 heading towards him 45 meters away.
“Stop,” he called. “Fire.” His war had begun.
Askarov took up position alongside Ben-Hanan as the rest of the unit formed a battle line. Shell splinters cut Ben-Hanan’s face and broke his eyeglasses.
He passed command to Askarov and retired briefly to be treated by a medic.
Askarov hit a tank 37 meters from him, but he was struck in the head by a bullet and seriously wounded. Once again, he was carried from the battlefield.
Ben-Gal, who except for catnaps had not slept for four days, came forward to watch as the Syrian wave ebbed. The valley below had been turned into a vast junkyard that included 260 tanks, as well as APCs.
Elsewhere on the Golan that Tuesday, the last Syrians were driven back across the 1967 cease-fire line. The high command decided to give the exhausted troops a day’s rest before pushing towards Damascus.
Kahalani assembled his officers before the counter-attack Thursday morning.
He scanned their faces as they sat on the ground. Most were replacements. “For all those who have just joined us and still don’t know where they are, this is the 77th Battalion of the Seventh Brigade.
Battalion commander Kahalani stands by chance before you.” A hesitant smile appeared on the tense faces. “Before I explain our mission, I want to know who you are and what your tasks are.”
Each new man was asked to tell which company he was assigned to, what he had done since the beginning of the war and from what organic unit he came. A number were reservists. Kahalani asked each of the latter personal questions – what part of the country they were from, what they did in civilian life, whether they were married, how many children they had.
Peled, accustomed to the spartan tone of briefings in the standing army, found these personal questions puzzling. What had they to do with the business at hand? Only later would he understand that Kahalani was spinning a human web, creating of this disparate group of strangers thrown together on a remote battlefield a brotherhood that was willing, in the moments of danger that would shortly be upon them, to risk death – because he asked them to.
Only when this bonding was done did Kahalani turn to Peled and ask him to unroll the map. “The brigade has been ordered to break through the Syrian lines,” said Kahalani. “Our battalion will spearhead the attack.”
He pointed out their route and spelled out the order in which the units would move. “I wish you success. And, the main thing: fight like lions. We’re moving out in 20 minutes. On your tanks.”
THE TURNAROUND on the Egyptian front would come a few days later, with Israel’s crossing of the Suez Canal. Gen.
Avraham Adan’s division raced across the desert to cut off the Third Army and eliminate anti-aircraft batteries along the way, opening the skies to the air force.
An American general who carried out an extensive study of the Yom Kippur War and its implications for the U.S.
army, Maj.-Gen. Donn Starry, found the conflict to have been of unprecedented intensity. It involved more tanks than in any World War II battle, except possibly the Battle of Kursk in the Soviet Union.
Beyond that, tank guns were now more lethal, more accurate and had far greater range. Entire tank battalions were consumed within hours.
Starry’s report focused on tank performance, but he permitted himself conclusions about the human element and its role in Israel’s success. “It is strikingly evident that battles are yet won by the courage of soldiers, the character of leaders and the combat excellence of well-trained units,” he wrote. “In a modern battle, the outcome will be decided by factors other than numbers.”
Israeli officers came to a somewhat less comforting conclusion. Both Ben-Gal and Adan noted in interviews that if quantity – as in quantity of enemy tanks – is big enough, “quantity becomes quality.”
It was Orr who put his finger on a central aspect of the army’s comeback, in his conversation with Sabato’s tank crew after the first bitter day of battle.
“We’ll win. We have no choice.” ■
The writer is author of The Yom Kippur War.