Yom Kippur: The tide turns

A week after reeling from the surprise Arab attack on Yom Kippur 1973, the IDF musters its own surprise; a daring plunge through the heart of the Egyptian army and the crossing the Suez Canal.

Yom Kippur War (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)
Yom Kippur War
Along the Suez Canal front Saturday, it was quieter than it had been since the Egyptian crossing exactly a week before.
But in both Cairo and Tel Aviv decisions were being made this day that would determine the war’s outcome.
Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was wakened shortly before dawn and informed that the British ambassador had arrived with an urgent message.
US secretary of state Henry Kissinger had asked the British to submit a cease-fire resolution, after being assured by the Soviets that Sadat would welcome it. Dubious, London instructed its envoy to verify Cairo’s position. Sadat rejected the proposal out of hand. There would be no cease-fire, he said, unless Israel agreed to withdraw from all of Sinai.
Egypt was controlling the battlefield. It was making small-scale pushes eastward every day, with some success. Arab strength was steadily increasing as the Soviet arms airlift hit its stride and the Arab world dispatched sizable reinforcements to Syria and Egypt. Even Pakistan sent pilots, and a score of North Korean pilots were patrolling over Egypt’s hinterland.
Israel’s assessment of the situation was not far from Sadat’s. It was receiving no supplies from abroad except for what the small El Al fleet could carry from the US (the American airlift would begin the next day). The only reinforcements were reservists abroad returning for the war. The day before, the Mossad station chief in Washington, Ephraim Halevy, met with Kissinger and found him agitated.
Confidently expecting an Israeli counterattack to undo Egypt’s gains, Kissinger had been stalling Moscow’s efforts to achieve a cease-fire. Now a message from prime minister Golda Meir had just arrived saying that Israel was prepared to accept a cease-fire without even conditioning it on an Egyptian pullback.
“Kissinger almost tore his hair out,” Halevy would recall years later. “He said, ‘You’re declaring that you lost the war. Don’t you understand that?’” An impression of an Israeli defeat would undermine Israel’s deterrence of the Arabs, he warned, not just now but into the future.
Chief of staff David Elazar had initially proposed a canal crossing not because he believed it would lead to victory but because he could think of no other way of prodding Sadat to a cease-fire.
But the looming tank battle in Sinai, forecast by the Mossad, held out for the first time since the war began the possibility of a reversal of fortune, perhaps on a major scale. If Egyptian tank strength was sufficiently eroded in the clash, the mooted Israeli crossing could turn out to be more than a desperate lunge. It could be the key to winning the war. This line of thought was beginning to work its way into Elazar’s consciousness as imperceptibly but inexorably as a tide turning.
Flying over the Israeli lines in a helicopter, the chief of staff had a view of the vibrant army that had sprouted on the dunes of western Sinai – thousands of vehicles, endless encampments, figures moving purposefully. Egypt had staggered the IDF, but it had expended its bag of surprises. Arrayed against it now was an army whose fighting ability was honed and its psychological balance restored.
The energy became even more tangible to Elazar after landing. Maintenance units were swarming over damaged tanks and Gen. Avraham “Bren” Adan’s division was taking up position behind Gen.
Ariel Sharon’s, ready to cross the canal once the bridges were up.
Confirmation finally had come after dark that the Egyptian armored divisions on the west bank had begun to move.
“It’s about time,” Elazar said to OC Southern Command Haim Bar-Lev. “We need a big, beautiful offensive with lots of Egyptian tanks – wipe them out east of the canal and then cross. That’s today’s program.”
Bar-Lev termed Israel’s bridging equipment “a joke” and the crossing itself brazen. A few shells hitting the bridges and the army would find itself stranded west of the canal with no way to get back – at least not the tanks. But, Bar-Lev reiterated, it was a risk he was willing to run.
Returning to Tel Aviv and the dour confines of the underground war room in Tel Aviv, Elazar shared his uplift with his staff. “Whoever feels depressed in these dark corridors should go into the field and see the boys. You’ll come back in a grand mood. We’re eight days into the war, but when you meet the tankers they talk as if this is the third year of World War II. They know what the Egyptians are up to and have an answer for everything. The best of our people are down there.”
That night, Sharon tried to reach defense minister Moshe Dayan to argue his case for an immediate crossing. Unable to track him down, he telephoned Dayan’s daughter, Yael, who had served in Sharon’s headquarters in the Six Day War. “Tell him that the whole division here is stamping its feet. The horses are ready for battle. You remember the picture – like the eve of the Six Day War. Explain this to him. He must understand that there’s enough spirit here to break the Egyptians.”
BEFORE DAWN Sunday, Israeli armored units lay athwart major routes leading eastward from the Egyptian bridgeheads. Col. Amnon Reshef kept his brigade on the rear slopes. He and his battalion commanders moved up in the early light to observation positions, their tanks edging up until only the heads of the officers, standing in the turrets, protruded above the ridgeline.
At 6:30 a.m., Egyptian tanks suddenly appeared to his front, an enormous flow of fast-moving armor that reminded Reshef of the flash floods that erupt in the Negev after rain.
“Firing positions,” he ordered.
The empty ridges in front of the Egyptians began to be dotted with dark shapes as company commanders moved up to stake out their sectors, then platoon commanders, then the rest. With the Israelis’ first volley, Egyptian tanks began to burn.
Egyptian losses along the line this day would be estimated at 150 to 250 tanks. A score of Israeli tanks were hit, but most would soon be repaired.
Elazar had hoped to destroy many more tanks.
“We blocked them too early,” he lamented.
But the day’s battle had changed the psychological equation on both sides. Until now, Egyptian field commanders – and even the Egyptian media – had been sticking to more or less credible reporting, a far cry from the “oriental imagination” Israel had chortled at in previous wars. Toward the end of the day, however, wishful thinking dominated the Egyptian radio net.
Bar-Lev would sum up the situation succinctly in a telephone conversation with Meir: “We’ve returned to ourselves and the Egyptians have returned to themselves.
Elazar appeared Sunday night before the cabinet to request approval for a canal crossing. Meir trusted Elazar’s judgment.
The cabinet, in turn, relied on hers. She had recovered her composure and become a source of strength for the ministers, although her daily cigarette consumption had increased from two packs to three. Shortly after midnight, the crossing was approved.
THE IDF’S sorry state had derived from one basic sin – holding the enemy in contempt. Hubris accounted for the appalling failure of the Military Intelligence chiefs to sound the alarm when intelligence sources were warning every other day of war and every frontline soldier on the Golan and in Sinai could see the Arab war preparations. Hubris led the army to permit one brigade to defend for hours against five Egyptian divisions crossing the canal along a 160-kilometer-long front. The air force had been assigned the major role in the defensive battle, even though its vulnerability to the Soviets’ latest antiaircraft missiles made it almost suicidal to fly over the front lines. Confident that tanks would stampede infantry, the planners failed to imagine that infantry – Arab infantry – using new weapons could stop a tank charge dead in its tracks.
The surprise attack had put the wind at the Arabs’ back and shaken the ground under the IDF. After a week, the ground had finally steadied. It was now Israel’s turn to surprise.
The crossing operation had a name – Stouthearted Men. It would be launched from Fort Matsmed just north of the Bitter Lake, roughly the canal’s midway point. Matsmed lay on the open seam between the Second and Third armies.
This meant that the waterway could be reached without having to plunge through eight-kilometer-deep Egyptian bridgeheads dense with mines, antitank missiles and 100,000 soldiers. However, Matsmed was only 800 meters south of the so-called Chinese Farm, the flank of Egypt’s Second Army. A major effort would be needed to push the Egyptians northward to protect the crossing point.
The task of Sharon’s division was to establish two bridgeheads – on the Sinai shore and then the far shore, lay two bridges across the waterway and expand the corridor to Matsmed.
The attack would be moving through a hole in the center of the Egyptian deployment in Sinai, and there were hundreds of Egyptian artillery pieces within range on both sides of the canal.
The best that could be hoped for was to secure the crossing point and its approaches from direct fire.
Given Sharon’s fixation on having his division be the first to cross, Bar- Lev made a point of emphasizing that Sharon’s primary responsibility after gaining a foothold on the west bank was widening the corridor on the Sinai bank.
“Securing the bridgehead remains your responsibility, Arik. Before you get to the Cairo Hilton,” he said sardonically, “you will need to be released from your assignment at the bridgehead.”
The task ahead of them was intricate, said the front commander, but solutions would be improvised. “If we begin shoving one another, it will become a mess.” It was clear to all present whom he was talking about.
Getting across the Suez Canal had been on the IDF’s mind since it reached the waterway in the Six Day War. Western countries sought to discourage the thought by refusing to sell Israel military bridging equipment. The best that it could acquire was a British system consisting of floatable iron cubes, intended for civilian use in harbors, that could be linked together into pontoons.
Also acquired in Europe, in a scrapyard, were rafts called Gilowas. Their main advantage was that they were amphibious and could travel on their own to the water’s edge, instead of being towed. Their disadvantage – and the reason they had been abandoned by every army that had them – was their vulnerability. They were kept afloat by inflatable rubber belts that were easily punctured. In the end, only half the junked rafts acquired were refurbished.
(They were destined to play a critical role – ferrying dozens of tanks across before the bridges could be brought up.) The IDF also developed a bridge of its own – the Roller Bridge, a 200-meter- long construction towed on floatable rollers. Preassembled, it could be thrust intact into the Suez Canal and pushed across by tanks to the opposite bank without having to be put together in the water.
MONDAY, OCTOBER 15, had not yet dawned when Lt.-Col. Danny Matt, commander of the 247 paratroop brigade, designated to seize the western bridgehead, set out to attend Sharon’s final briefing. Matt had fought in all of Israel’s wars and numerous skirmishes in between, but never had he felt the weight of history as he did now.
The battlefield was still fitfully slumbering.
Jagged flashes pierced the darkness and slowly falling flares decorated the night sky like Chinese lanterns.
From the distance came an occasional rumble of artillery. Matt set aside the map he was studying and removed from his breast pocket a tiny book of Psalms given him the day before by the chief army chaplain. Turning a page, he read “Happy is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the wicked….
He shall be like a tree planted by streams of water that bringeth forth its fruit in its season.” As always, the words soothed him.
A sense that the turning point of the war was at hand was shared by all the officers assembling at Tasa. Rarely in history had a nation recovered from so massive a blow so swiftly and attempted to seize the initiative. The swings of fortune that in great wars often take place over months or years as nations muster their resources were taking place along the Suez Canal in days.
The attack, Sharon told his commanders, would begin at dusk. One brigade would stage a diversionary attack on the forward edge of the Egyptian bridgehead. As it noisily kicked in the front door, Reshef’s brigade would quietly sideslip the Egyptian deployment for eight kilometers and erupt through the back door of the Chinese Farm. Under cover of the battle, Matt’s paratroopers would cross in rubber boats half a mile south of the Egyptian enclave. It would be up to Sharon’s third tank brigade to get the bridges through the gridlocked roads to the canal.
It was a monumental operation in which potential mishaps lay at every turn.
“I looked at the faces of the commanders and wondered if, after all that had happened, they believed we could pull this off tonight,” Sharon would write. “They believed.”
Bar-Lev called Sharon to say he could delay the attack by a day if he needed more time to organize. Sharon declined.
He had his own doubts about being able to bring the bridges up on time. But he feared that if the attack was put off, the Egyptians might discover what was afoot and concentrate forces on the opposite bank, or that the Israeli high command might have second thoughts. At 3 p.m. he told brigade commander Erez that both the pontoons and the roller bridge were stuck in a miles-long traffic jam.
The paratroop brigade was also entangled.
But at 3:45 p.m., Sharon was informed that the Gilowas were getting through. This meant that a few dozen tanks might be ferried across, instead of the 300 tanks the bridges were to carry. Calling back Erez, he said “We attack tonight.”
MATT’S PARATROOP brigade had arrived in Sinai in civilian buses which were too vulnerable to enter the combat zone. Capt. Hanan Erez, a company commander, was ordered to take a busload of drivers and rustle up halftracks within four hours. If there were no half-tracks to get them to the canal, there would be no crossing. “Don’t come back without them,” he was told.
Erez had seen rows of new half-tracks at the Refidim base two days before.
He found them still there. His drivers were getting into the vehicles when he was stopped by a white-haired lieutenant- colonel. The vehicles were urgently needed by Matt’s paratroop brigade, said Erez.
No problem, said the logistics officer.
Just show me your orders.
“We’re the force crossing the canal. I don’t have written orders.”
No orders, no vehicles, said the lieutenant- colonel.
Erez attempted to persuade the officer.
Running out of arguments, he cocked his Uzi.
“Enough nonsense,” said the paratrooper.
“If you try to stop me, I’ll shoot.”
Persuaded, the lieutenant-colonel stepped aside.
“Onto the half-tracks and follow me,” shouted Erez to the drivers.
Excitement was palpable as the units moved up for the war’s decisive battle. A chaplain appeared on the roadside distributing copies of the Psalms, which were snatched up even by avowed agnostics.
Reshef spent the day going over maps and air photos and designing the choreography of the coming battle. He intended to hold fire until his force had penetrated the heart of the Egyptian deployment in the darkness and then “explode like a grenade.” He reckoned that if he got deep enough into the Chinese Farm, his brigade might be brushing up against forces five times larger than his.
Late in the afternoon, the brigade formed up near the point where they would cross the dunes after dark. Battalion commander Amnon Mitzna tried to sound matter-of-fact as he outlined the unit’s mission to his officers.
But after nine days of combat, they understood that a brigade attack into the heart of an Egyptian army was an adventure from which many would not be returning. A radio-telephone had been made available and Mitzna asked every man to call his family.
Making the rounds of his units, Reshef first visited the reconnaissance battalion commanded by Lt.-Col. Yoav Brom, which would lead the force across the dunes. It was they who had found the seam between the two Egyptian armies.
Taking aside Brom, a boyish-looking former kibbutz school principal, Reshef said: “What matters is stubbornness.
Stubbornness. Do you understand what I mean?” Brom said he did.
Adan visited his three brigades at dusk. At each encampment, 2,000 men rose at the shout of “attention” and then sat on the ground as the division commander mounted a tank. Illuminated by vehicle headlamps, Adan said he had often wondered how the younger generation, which had known only short wars, would bear up to the kind of setbacks he and his generation had known in the War of Independence.
In the past nine days, he said, they had demonstrated their grit in a series of engagements tougher than any experienced in 1948.
AT 5 P.M., the operation began with an artillery barrage along the length of the Egyptian line. The diversionary tank attack began in the last light. At 6:05, Reshef ordered Brom to move out. Following at fixed intervals were Reshef’s tank and the two half-tracks serving as his forward command post, then three tank battalions, one behind the other, followed by reconnaissance troops and paratroopers in half-tracks.
In the light of a large moon, the armored vehicles moved in line over the pristine dunes toward the canal, six miles to the west, looking from a distance like a dark necklace undulating across the white sands. Sharon was gripped by the beauty of the scene. To help orientation, Reshef called for phosphorous shells to be fired over Fort Lakekan, the point where they were to emerge onto Lexicon Road, a mile inland from the canal.
In the crowded war room at Southern Command headquarters, Gen. Shmuel Gonen, a former yeshiva student, quoted to those around him an obscure passage from the Talmud that compared the sweetly scented world of the spice merchant with the malodorous leather trade: “The world cannot function without perfumes and without tanneries,” he recited.
“Happy is he who works as a spice merchant and woe to him who works in a tannery.”
Reflecting his sense of the momentous nature of the enterprise they were embarking upon, Gonen added, “As for me, I consider myself a spice merchant.”
Gen. Aharon Yariv, a former intelligence chief, reflected on the magnitude of the moment. “I don’t remember a night this fateful in all our wars.”
Elazar, studying the large wall map, was moved to a reflection of his own.
“If the history of how we pulled this off is ever written,” he said, “it will be seen as the height of chutzpah.” 
Abraham Rabinovich is a former staff reporter for The Jerusalem Post who has researched and written about the Yom Kippur War.  abra@netvision.net.il