Saved from above

Stranded behind enemy lines during Yom Kippur War, then-major Shaul Mofaz remained calm.

Shaul Mofaz521 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Shaul Mofaz521
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As a politician, Shaul Mofaz, the new leader of Kadima, lacks charisma and is difficult to read.
However, his performance in the Yom Kippur War as a paratroop officer offers an insight into his character.
On two successive nights, Maj. Mofaz led commando teams on helicopter-borne raids deep behind Syrian lines. Thanks to his doggedness and coolness he managed to get them back.
As the first week of the war was ending, Israel became aware that Iraq, with surprising speed, had begun dispatching armored divisions to Syria’s aid. The Syrians had come close to capturing the Golan Heights on the first night of the war but, in grueling battles, had been driven back across the Purple Line separating Israeli and Syrian forces since the Six Day War. Israeli tank forces were almost within artillery range of Damascus when the lead elements of an Iraqi division suddenly appeared to their front, stabilizing the battered Syrian army.
The air force, engaged in fierce battle over the battlefields of Sinai and Syria, had failed to detect the Iraqi move. Mofaz at this point was ordered to take a 25-man paratroop team to ambush under cover of darkness any tank convoys traveling on the main road from the Iraqi border to the front.
A helicopter piloted by Lt.-Col. Yuval Efrat set them down 150 kilometers northeast of Damascus. The force marched several miles from the landing point to a bridge where they took up positions. For an hour they waited but nothing crossed except for occasional trucks traveling in pairs. With the need to get back before first light, Mofaz ordered the bridge wired with explosives and prepared to depart when a solitary tank trailer carrying a T-55 lumbered into view. As it mounted the bridge, the explosives were detonated, sending the bridge and vehicles crashing into the wadi. The force rendezvoused with the helicopter and returned to base.
The next night, Mofaz was dispatched again behind Syrian lines, this time with orders to blow up a bridge on the road from Homs to Damascus. The road was being used to transfer anti-aircraft missiles which were preventing the air force from providing effective close support to ground forces in the battle zone. The raiding party numbered 40 men. Lt.-Col. Efrat was again the pilot. He set them down several kilometers from their target and returned to Israel to await their call when they had completed their mission.
An hour later, the men were moving through a wadi when a truck traveling without lights stopped on the road above. Thirty Syrian soldiers alighted and opened fire at 200 meters. The paratroopers fired LAW antitank missiles, newly arrived from the US, which exploded among the Syrian soldiers and sent them to cover. Mofaz led his men up onto high ground and prepared to call for an emergency rescue. As he got higher, however, he could make out the bridge in the moonlight. After consulting with his officers, he decided not to call for rescue but to complete the mission.
As they started to move off, the paratroopers saw that the road below had filled with vehicles and soldiers. A Syrian plane circled overhead and dropped flares. The paratroopers froze in place until the orange light died.
There were by now some 500 Syrian soldiers scouring the terrain and floodlights had been set up. The barking of search dogs could be heard. Mofaz assumed that the bridge must also be swarming with soldiers. He led his men higher into the hills and called for rescue.
Efrat was more than halfway back to base when he heard the call. His gauge showed that he did not have enough fuel to return for the men and make it back to Israel. He continued to the Ramat David air base where he, his copilot and the flight engineer hastily transferred to an already fueled helicopter that had been kept in reserve for an emergency rescue.
Exhausted after seven days of intensive action, Efrat fell asleep as soon as he was airborne. Snapping awake, he removed his helmet and emptied a canteen over his head, letting the water soak his uniform and run down his back. The mission they were about to undertake, he told his two crewmen, would be a difficult one, probably conducted under fire.
The Syrians on the road, believing that they had the Israeli intruders trapped but uncertain exactly where they were, moved cautiously. At one point, some of them began to climb in the direction of Mofaz’s force and the paratroopers prepared to fire. Mofaz stopped them. No one was to fire without explicit orders, he said. The Syrians still didn’t know where they were.
Two hours had passed since his call for evacuation and the prospect of rescue before dawn was rapidly receding.
Mofaz was thinking of breaking the force up and hiding out until a rescue attempt could be made the next night – a desperate plan with virtually no chance of success – when the radio came alive. It was Efrat.
“I’ll be with you in 15 minutes.”
Mofaz set off with one of his officers to find a relatively flat landing surface shielded from view of the Syrians. The best he could find was a moderate slope with rocks.
The moon offered Efrat a good view of the landscape below – a gray, lifeless expanse he found depressing to look at. It offered neither the greenery of Israel nor the golden sheen of the Sinai desert. One of his monitors flickered as he activated an electronic signal beacon.
They were only a few kilometers away now but the beacon offered only a general direction.
Approaching closer, Efrat asked Mofaz to flash a light but the paratroop commander said he could not. The Syrians were only 800 meters away. Suddenly Mofaz shouted, “They’re firing at you.” Efrat saw nothing but a moment later he heard the thud of bullets and thought he smelled gunpowder.
Below he could see the Homs road and beyond it a line of low hills. Mofaz was up there somewhere. Efrat took his craft on a wide swing so as to approach the hills from the other side, away from the Syrian troops.
Slowing down and lowering his wheels, he headed for the rear slope of a hill where he thought Mofaz might be, given the location from which the Syrians had fired.
Mofaz now flashed a hooded light that projected a narrow beam not visible from the sides. Efrat was looking right at it when it went on a kilometer away. “I see you,” he said. Keeping his eyes fixed on the spot, he asked his copilot to read the gauges and give him a running account of speed and altitude. Reaching the hill, Efrat looked down and saw the paratroopers just below.
He set the helicopter straight down without taking the time to check whether the site was clear of men.
“Count them as they come in,” he said to his engineer.
The paratroopers swiftly entered the craft, Mofaz and the other officers at the rear.
“Forty,” shouted the engineer.
“Close it,” said Efrat, “We’re taking off.”
As they rose, one of the officers yelped. A bullet had penetrated the floor and hit his backside. A paratrooper looking out the window saw a mortar barrage blossoming on the hilltop they had left seconds before.
An hour and a half later, the helicopter made an emergency landing at the Ramat David air base.
Emerging, Efrat and Mofaz saw that the helicopter skin and rotor were peppered with bullet holes.
Efrat would in time become an El Al pilot and Mofaz chief-of-staff.