Stemming the tide

The IDF’s failure to mobilize the reserves left it up to young conscripts and their officers to block the massive attacks on Yom Kippur.

THE TAPLINE ROAD (photo credit: Courtesy IDF)
(photo credit: Courtesy IDF)
From his half-track, Col. Avigdor Ben-Gal scanned the Syrian plain through binoculars at noon. There was a large army out there, but nothing was stirring.
At the sound of chirping, Ben-Gal looked up at birds in a tree. There was nothing odd about the birds. What was odd was that he could hear them. The unnatural stillness seemed confirmation that war was imminent.
Commanders had been notified at 10 a.m. that an Egyptian-Syrian attack was expected this day. The troops were told to break their Yom Kippur fast. The warning had come in London from a Mossad source.
At 1:30 p.m., a lookout on Mount Hermon reported that the Syrians were removing camouflage netting from their artillery. The Israeli command ordered tanks to pull back from positions likely to be targeted.
Three hundred miles away in the Sinai Peninsula, Col. Amnon Reshef, a tank brigade commander, was in his Tasa headquarters at 2 p.m. when he heard the alarm signaling an air attack.
Suddenly the desert floor began to tremble. Twenty miles to the west, 2,000 Egyptian guns and heavy mortars had opened up on the Bar-Lev Line along the Suez Canal.
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Battalion commander Yair Nafshi was near the abandoned town of Kuneitra on the Golan Heights when the Syrian barrage struck. Even inside his tank, he could feel the ground shake. “Capital,” he said on the radio net, the code word to take battle positions. “Repeat, Capital.
Good luck.”
A Syrian plane returning from a bombing run passed so low that Nafshi could see the pilot grinning.
Ben-Gal drove along the front but dust and smoke reduced visibility to almost zero. The shelling abruptly halted and he could make out a distant growling.
It grew into a mass of tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) emerging from the dust cloud. In the lead were bridging tanks capable of throwing a span across the anti-tank ditches. Israeli tanks immediately opened fire at long range, up to 3,500 meters.
The last elements of Ben-Gal’s Seventh Brigade had arrived on the heights only this morning to reinforce the 188th Brigade holding the Golan line.
His brigade more than doubled the number of Israeli tanks on the heights, to 180. This reduced the ratio of tanks in Syria’s favor from 18-1 to 8-1. Along the length of the 64-km-long border Israel also had 10 strongpoints – igloo-like stone bunkers surrounded by trenches.
Each fort, with a dozen or so men, was defended by three tanks deployed on adjacent ramps.
The Syrians intended to capture the Golan in less than 24 hours. Given their strength – five divisions with 1,400 tanks – they anticipated little difficulty.
The task of the Israeli soldiers on the line was to delay the Syrians until the reserves arrived. On this Day of Atonement it would be up to the 19- and 20-year-old conscripts and their officers to atone for the sins of their elders who had failed to mobilize the reserves and left them facing impossible odds.
Maj. Shmuel Askarov, at 24 the army’s youngest deputy battalion commander, led six tanks through the artillery barrage rippling across the landscape to reinforce Strongpoint 111 on the southern part of the line. Climbing one of the ramps overlooking the fort, he saw a swarm of approaching armor.
Five bridging tanks had reached the anti-tank ditch. Askarov hit the three within range.
The other tanks had not followed Askarov up the ramps. He ordered his driver to reverse down the slope. They pulled up alongside the nearest tank and Askarov climbed up. Pulling his pistol, he pointed it at the commander.
“Get up there or I shoot,” he said.
Given the number of tanks and APCs passing under the Israeli guns it was like shooting fish in a barrel – except that some were shooting back. The upward- sloping ramps permitted the Israeli tanks to fire with only their turrets and guns exposed. But one by one, most of the tanks on the ramps were knocked out and crewmen killed. Askarov’s tank was hit four times but remained operational.
He had no illusions about surviving the day intact.
His gunner, Yitzhak Hemo, from Kiryat Shmona, was the winner of brigade gunnery competitions. Askarov would choose a target and Hemo did the rest.
Within two hours, Askarov would count 35 tank kills.
At 4 p.m. his tank was hit again and he was blown out of the turret. Still alive, he was retrieved by men from the strongpoint. A few tanks still remained on the ramp as the Syrian flow shifted south.
In Sinai, Col. Reshef’s tank brigade sped toward a war it was unprepared for. The Egyptians had sent thousands of infantrymen armed with anti-tank weapons across the canal in small boats to engage the Israeli armor until Egyptian tanks could be brought across.
The infantrymen raced inland and ambushed the approaching Israeli tanks, hitting them close-up with RPGs or, at long distance, with the new Sagger missile.
Attempting to break through to the beleaguered garrisons on the canal, the Israelis lost two-thirds of an armored division in 12 hours.
The decision not to dismantle the Bar- Lev Line had proved disastrous – sucking the tanks into a death trap and condemning most of the line’s defenders to death or captivity.
On the Golan, where there was only a tank ditch to cross, the Syrians did not have to rely on infantry to tie down Israeli armor. Paradoxically, this would benefit the Israelis who were able to bring to bear their superiority in tankversus- tank warfare despite their gross inferiority in numbers.
SECOND LIEUTENANT Yossi Gur, a paratrooper commanding Strongpoint 116 at the southern end of the line, ordered his 13 men into bunkers with the opening barrage. He kept watch through a periscope from a fortified “rabbit hole” built into one of the trench walls. When Syrian tanks began bridging the tank ditch 400 yards away, he notified Lt.
Yoav Yakir, who commanded the tanks assigned to the fort.
Yakir was several miles away, battling 25 Syrian tanks crossing the cease-fire line along an old Roman roadway. Leading his three tanks back to the strongpoint, he saw dozens of Syrian tanks and APCs on the Israeli side of the tank ditch and opened fire as he moved.
At 9 p.m., Yakir informed Gur that he would have to pull back for ammunition.
Two of his tanks had fired all their shells, while the third had only five remaining.
The two officers, both 20 years old, realized that withdrawal of the tanks put the outpost’s survival in serious jeopardy. When Yakir requested permission from his company commander to pull back, the reply was negative. So desperate was the hour that Yakir was told to use his machine guns against the Syrian tanks in the hope that this sign of an Israeli presence, however pathetic, would give the enemy pause.
Yakir was soon killed by machine- gun fire himself. A sergeant in another tank, assuming command, told Yakir’s gunner to tie the officer to the gunner’s chair and take command from the turret. At this point, the 188th Brigade commander, Col. Yitzhak Ben-Shoham, cut into the radio net and ordered the sergeant to fall back for ammunition.
An hour later, three Syrian tanks approached the strongpoint. They moved slowly, their commanders evidently uncertain whether the position had been captured. The lead tank crashed through the gateway 10 yards from Gur.
The lieutenant told his bazookist to fire. The soldier pulled the trigger but nothing happened. “Misfire,” he said.
Gur removed the defective shell and inserted a new one. The bazooka shell struck the tank’s turret. As the crewmen leaped out, Gur fired at them, hitting two.
The second tank had reached the entrance and the bazookist, without prompting, set it aflame. This time Gur hit all four crewmen as they emerged.
The third tank turned and made off as artillery called down by Gur began to strike. Fearing that the two escaped crewmen were inside the strongpoint, Gur told his men to remain in their positions while he ran through the trenches firing to the front. He encountered no one. A wounded Syrian near the gate could be heard weeping all night.
About 2 a.m., a Syrian supply convoy reached the ditch and halted. With first light, 10 Syrian soldiers detached themselves and approached the fort. At 30 yards, the garrison opened fire. The shooting stirred a hornet’s nest, APCs disgorging infantrymen who charged.
After a protracted battle, the attackers pulled back. Three of Gur’s men were wounded but there were no fatalities. The paratroop garrison had won this round.
BY EVENING, the Syrians had penetrated the southern Golan in strength through gaps between the strongpoints.
Green signal flares sent up by Syrian commanders to assemble scattered tanks could be seen behind the Israeli lines.
The Syrians’ primary objective was Nafakh, the main military base on the Golan and divisional headquarters of Gen. Raful Eitan. The direct route to Nafakh from the southern Golan was a service road paralleling the Tapline, an oil pipeline stretching from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon.
Unaware of the Syrian breakthrough, the Israeli command was oblivious to the threat from the Tapline. Lt. Zvika Greengold, unattached to any unit when the war began, had hitchhiked from his home in Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot to Nafakh. At 9 p.m. he was given two tanks which had returned from the front with dead crewmen and ordered to proceed via the Tapline to take command of tanks scattered near strongpoint 111. All officers there were casualties, he was told. His two tanks were given the radio designation “Force Zvika.”
The 21-year-old officer told his gunner to keep the gun off safety. After three miles a column of trucks approached with headlights on. The vehicles stopped and an officer ran forward.
The supply convoy had been on its way to the southern Golan, he said, but turned back when it encountered Syrian tanks. The Syrians had not identified them in the darkness.
Proceeding cautiously, Greengold topped a rise and saw a speeding tank almost upon him.
“Fire,” he shouted.
The approaching tank exploded, barely 20 yards in front of them. In the light of the fire he was relieved to see that it was a Syrian T-55. The vibration from the firing had caused a short circuit.
Greengold switched tanks and told the other officer to take the damaged tank back to Nafakh.
The terrain ahead was swarming with tiny running lights the Syrians placed at the edges of their tanks. A large Syrian formation had halted, perhaps for refueling.
Opening fire on nearby targets, he could sense that fire was being returned but it was ineffective. His advantage was that any tank he saw was a target. The Syrians had difficulty identifying him, even with night sights, since he kept mostly to rear slopes, with only his turret and gun exposed.
Listening to the radio net Greengold grasped the gravity of the situation for the first time. The battalion defending the southern half of the line was calling urgently for ammunition and fuel. Col.
Ben-Shoham, somewhere in the field, became aware of “Force Zvika” from the radio net and contacted Greengold to ask his strength. Greengold avoided a direct answer so as not to reveal to the Syrians that his was the only tank between them and Nafakh. Urged to press forward, Greengold said only “the situation isn’t good.” The Syrians to his front in fact constituted a brigade with close to 100 tanks.
After an hour of solitary skirmishing, Greengold was joined by 10 tanks from a “rapid reaction” reserve battalion which reached the Golan at 10:30 p.m., just 13 hours after mobilization began.
It was the first reserve unit to reach the front.
Greengold briefed the unit’s commander, Lt.-Col. Uzi Mor, who ordered an immediate advance. As the tanks descended the first dip in the road they were met with devastating fire. All eight tanks that had started the descent were hit. Mor was blinded and lost an arm but his men managed to carry him back up the hill. Greengold’s face was peppered by shrapnel and his clothing caught fire, but he leaped clear of his burning tank and rolled on the ground to extinguish the flames.
Wounded and dead were loaded onto two of the three tanks which had not been hit. Greengold climbed onto the third tank and sat there to regain his composure. The pain from his wounds was now registering but he was not disabled.
“I’ve been fighting here all night,” he said to the tank commander. “I know the area. Let me take your tank.”
The reservist looked at him a moment, then climbed down. Greengold told the crewmen that he was now their commander. “I’m Zvika. What are your names?” The two other tanks turned back to Nafakh, leaving Greengold alone again on the Tapline. He put his tank’s radio onto Ben-Shoham’s wavelength. “Zvika here.” The brigade commander’s sigh of relief was audible. He asked for a situation report. Greengold’s reply was again oblique. “We need a general here.” As he waited in the darkness for reinforcements, he would later say, he thought of the Holocaust that his parents had survived.
He himself, he felt, now stood between an enemy and the prospect once again of his people’s annihilation.
IN AN army base at the foot of the Golan, a reserve tank brigade commanded by Col. Ori Orr was hastily organizing.
Shortly after midnight, Lt. Nitzan Yotser was ordered to take a platoon up the Yehudia road. His three tanks would be the only reserve force to be dispatched to the southern Golan that night.
As his tanks started climbing, Yotser was gripped by the surrealism of the moment.
A few hours before, he had been spending a leisurely Yom Kippur with his girlfriend in his student apartment in Tel Aviv, remote from any thought of war. In bed when the sirens sounded, he assumed it was a technical glitch until his mother called. On his way to his base, Yotser admitted to himself that he had underestimated the Arabs. But, he thought, “we’ll soon show them.”
He was no longer sure it would be easy.
There had not been time to take on a full load of shells. Only as his tank began to move did someone throw him an extra box of ammunition for his machine gun. This was not the way to be going to war. There had not even been time for the crew to learn each other’s names. He addressed his men by their job designations – “driver, straight ahead.”
Looking at the road in the moonlight and listening to the sound of the tank engine, he found himself undergoing a strange metamorphosis. Imperceptibly disconnecting from his “make love, not war” mind-set, he began to focus on the task at hand – namely, making war.
He was a civilian wearing a uniform at the bottom of the heights. When he reached the top he was an army officer.
His tours of reserve duty had been mostly spent dealing with logistics and he had forgotten basic tank skills. He was not sure, for instance, which way to push the switch on his radio headset if he wished to speak only to his crew and which way to speak to the other tanks.
Unlike the Six Day War, when the reserves had three weeks in which to hone skills and prepare themselves psychologically, they were going into this war stone cold.
Topping the plateau, Yotser saw a fire in the distance. Drawing close, he saw a column of burning ammunition trucks.
Shells suddenly exploded around him.
The Syrian tanks that had ambushed the trucks were still out there.
Yotser’s training now kicked in. He barked a litany of commands directing the tanks to take up positions dominating the road. In the coming hours, Yotser and his men exchanged spasmodic fire with the Syrians, aiming at gun flashes. A shell struck Yotser’s tank a glancing blow but caused little damage.
Meanwhile, Orr was dispatching tanks to the northern Golan via the Bnot Ya’acov Bridge as fast as they could be readied. Officers matched up gunners, loaders, drivers and tank commanders to form pick-up crews. Tanks that had even half their shells were sent up in groups of three without regard to company or battalion affiliation. Before first light, Orr himself set out at the head of 20 tanks, leaving the remainder to follow.
Even as reservists were beginning to mount the heights, Northern Command was preparing for the Golan’s evacuation. At 4:30 a.m., it ordered documents brought down from army bases lest they fall into Syrian hands.
Bulldozers were readied to cut the roads from the heights and engineers began to mine the Jordan bridges for possible demolition.
Arriving at Northern Command at dawn, defense minister Moshe Dayan was taken aback by the gloom. Gen.
Yitzhak Hofi, the front commander, told him bluntly that the heights might have to be abandoned. Shortly after dawn, an Israeli radioman picked up a transmission from the commander of a Syrian tank unit at the edge of the Golan plateau. “I see the whole Galilee in front of me.”
AS THE day brightened, Major Haim Barak noted large dust clouds moving towards Hushniya, four miles to his south. He led a small number of tanks in that direction, taking A WOUNDED soldier is removed from the the narrow Sindiana road. Cresting the ridge above Hushniya, Barak saw hundreds of Syrian tanks milling about in what had been a major Israeli base only yesterday. Syria’s First Armored Division had arrived. Barak ordered his tanks to open fire. “Just point the gun anywhere and shoot,” he said to his gunner.
“You’re sure to hit something.”
Barak’s tank managed to get off two rounds before itself being hit. Barak was blown out of the turret and temporarily blinded. His operations officer, who had been alongside him in the turret, and two crewmen were killed. Casualties were placed in a half-track and the small force beat a hasty retreat as an angry swarm of Syrian tanks began to climb towards them.
Leading a dozen tanks from Orr’s brigade up from the Bnot Ya’acov bridge, Lt.-Col. Ron Gottfried was passing the Nafakh camp when he was contacted by division headquarters. A jeep came out and brought him to the command bunker.
Gen. Eitan greeted him with a smile which seemed out of sync with the apparent confusion in the rest of the war room.
He was detaching Gottfried’s tanks from Orr’s brigade, said Eitan. There was trouble on the Sindiana road and an Israeli force needed help. “Get there fast.”
Reaching the road, Gottfried deployed his tanks on either side of him and told them to be ready to meet enemy forces at any moment. Topping the very first rise, they saw the spearhead of Syria’s First Division just 1,000 yards away and closing fast. “Fire,” barked Gottfried. He saw several Syrian tanks hit before he was blown out of his turret.
When he woke, his face was so puffed by burns that he could barely see. His injured driver lay nearby. The two other crewmen were dead. Half a dozen of his tanks lay gutted around him. There were Syrian hulks as well. Gottfried took the stunned driver by the hand and walked back to the road. As they turned towards Nafakh, a mile away, Gottfried heard tanks approaching. He raised his hand, palm outward. The lead tank stopped just in front of him. Gottfried’s vision was blurred but he could make out the officer in the turret, a man about 30 with a mustache. He appeared to be smiling at the sight of the two soot-covered tank crewmen demanding a ride.
It was a moment before Gottfried realized that the tank he was leaning on was a Syrian T-62. Grabbing the driver, he scrambled into a ditch. The Syrians recovered from their own surprise and began spraying machine-gun bullets, but the two men were not hit.
In the Nafakh command bunker, intelligence officer Dennie Agmon heard an alarming new sound about noon – tank shells exploding close by. From the entrance, he saw a score of Syrian tanks outside the camp fence. One of them swiveled its gun and hit one of two halftracks parked outside the command bunker. It was Agmon’s half-track. The other was that of Gen. Eitan.
Agmon hurried back to Eitan. “It’s a minute before midnight,” he said.
“We’ve got to get out.” The general thought otherwise. “From what you tell me,” he said, “it’s a minute after midnight.
We can’t go out now.”
Eitan raised Orr on the radio. Soviet advisers were known to be handling radio intercepts for Syrian intelligence and it was believed that they recognized the voices of Israeli commanders. Eitan therefore kept his message elliptical so as not to let the enemy know that the Israeli divisional commander was trapped inside Nafakh. “I’ve got lice in my hair,” he said to Orr, who was near Kuneitra, eight kilometers east. “Maybe you can help me scratch.”
The battle for Nafakh was taking on the shape of an impromptu street brawl.
As Orr’s 15 tanks approached from the east they saw 40 Syrian tanks heading for Nafakh and struck them from the flank. Other elements from Orr’s brigade drifting up from the base camp joined the battle around Nafakh itself from different directions.
Lt. Hanan Anderson was approaching the camp when he heard an order on the radio to stop Syrian tanks nearing the garage area. He was not sure for whom the order was intended, but he knew the camp and climbed the steep garage road with another tank. Syrian tanks were moving a few hundred yards away. He hit one. The rest took cover and exchanged fire. Attached to a nearby fence by a long leash was a beautiful German shepherd.
Anderson, a farmer’s son with an eye for dogs, noticed that every time he fired the dog was propelled by the blast into a somersault. After a lengthy exchange the last of the Syrian tanks was knocked out.
The commander of the tank alongside him was dead. The dog was still on its feet, its barking inaudible in the battle din.
Meanwhile, Col. Ben-Shoham, who had been fighting on the Tapline, was cut down in his turret by machine gun fire from a disabled Syrian tank as he raced for Nafakh. Greengold, who had been following the brigade commander, saw his tank turn over. Greengold did not pause.
Reaching the camp’s perimeter fence with one other tank, he fired until there were no more moving targets.
Absorbing the silence for a moment, Greengold called the command bunker.
It was all right to come out, he said.
Eitan’s staff piled into the general’s halftrack and headed down to the bridge with documents they had scooped up. Eitan himself took a jeep and headed north to set up headquarters in a field. He had resolved not to descend from the Golan.
On his tank intercom, Greengold heard strangled breathing. The sounds were coming from the driver’s compartment.
Greengold helped lift the driver out. There were tears in the reservist’s eyes. Nothing was physically wrong with him but the stress had finally overcome him. A young soldier who had apparently never driven a tank volunteered to replace him.
Faint from his wounds and emotionally drained after 20 hours of continuous combat, Greengold started for the rear. It was clear to him that the fall of the Golan was imminent and that there was nothing more he could do.
The scene along the road reminded him of films of the Second World War – burned-out vehicles, wounded men walking towards the rear supporting each other, trucks filled with soldiers escaping the Syrian onslaught. His new driver managed to brake awkwardly at a roadblock. Greengold descended and collapsed but an officer caught him. “I can’t anymore,” said Greengold. He was placed in a jeep and driven to the hospital in Safed.
The main Syrian force had pulled back under the pressure of Orr’s tanks, although not far. As darkness fell, Orr succeeded in forming a thin defense line on high ground parallel to the Nafakh- Kuneitra road.
The Israeli forces had been staggered by the Syrian attack, whose scope was beyond anything imagined. Small groups and even individuals, operating independently of each other, had repeatedly moved into the path of larger Syrian forces. The battle had crescendoed with the convergence of tank forces at Nafakh in which Ori Orr and his reservists lifted the sword from Col. Ben-Shoham even as he fell.