Yom Kippur War: Against the odds

Of the all surprises on Yom Kippur 40 years ago, the most difficult for Israel to come to grips with was the least tangible.

The simultaneous attacks by Egypt and Syria were the basic surprise, catching Israel with the bulk of its army not yet mobilized. Egyptian troops unveiled new infantry tactics and a new Soviet anti-tank missile that, in the first 12 hours of fighting, knocked out 180 tanks, the bulk of Israel’s only armored division in Sinai. Israeli leaders were astonished at the audacity of the Arabs in going to war only six years after the Six-Day War seemed to have ushered in Israeli military domination in the Middle East for the foreseeable future.

What jarred the Israel army beyond issues of strategy and tactics — matters that could be attributed in part to Soviet advisers and technology — was the fact that Egyptian infantrymen were holding their ground in the face of repeated charges by Israeli tanks and fighting well.

An iconic photo from the Six-Day War was of boots left behind in the sands of the Sinai by fleeing Egyptian soldiers. This came to symbolize a societal divide between a powerful modern nation and a backward Third World nation that would not be bridgeable for generations to come.

“The Arab soldier lacks the characteristics necessary for modern war,” declared Gen. Haim Bar-Lev, the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) chief of staff at the time. These characteristics, he said, included rapid reaction, technical competence, a high level of intelligence, adaptability, “and, above all, the ability to see events realistically and speak truth, even when it is difficult and bitter.”

Disdain for the Egyptian soldier was shared even by their military mentor, the Soviet Union. Marshal Andrei Grechko, the Soviet defense minister, told Egyptian President Anwar Sadat that there were three prerequisites if Egypt intended to go to war: arms, training and the will to fight. “The first two you have,” Grechko said.

Defeat, however, can be a great motivator. The Egyptian army had been upgraded by Anwar Sadat after he became president in 1970. He purged the general staff of political appointees and chose a charismatic paratroop general — Saad el-Shazly — over 30 more senior generals as chief of staff. Illiterates were removed from tank crews and the army as a whole subjected to intense retraining in the desert. The Soviet Union supplied weapons and thousands of military advisers.

Soberly analyzing Israel’s advantages, the Egyptian command and the advisers developed ways to counter them. Soviet anti-aircraft missiles, which had been introduced a few years before in small numbers, were now woven into a virtually impenetrable network of batteries protecting the front line along the Suez Canal and over the Syrian lines opposite the Golan Heights.

To deal with Israel’s tanks until Egypt could bring its own tanks across the canal on pontoon bridges, Shazly sent over masses of infantrymen in rubber boats armed with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and the deadly new Sagger missile. Each of the five Egyptian divisions that crossed the canal threw up a shield of 800 anti-tank weapons, perhaps the densest such array ever seen.

Israel had not rested on its laurels after the Six-Day War. It doubled its warplanes and tanks by 1973, but victory had made it careless. “We’re fighting Arabs, not Germans,” as one general said when asked about Israel’s war plans. The bunkers of the so-called Bar-Lev Line along the Suez Canal had originally been intended only to provide shelter from artillery fire during the War of Attrition. However, it evolved into a defense line even though it was too thin and ill-suited to serve as one. Ariel Sharon was among the generals who warned that it would prove a death trap for its garrison and for any units that tried to reach it if the Egyptian army staged a major crossing before Israel had mobilized its reserves. The huge number of Israeli tanks knocked out on Yom Kippur were indeed lost trying to relieve the garrison.

Israel’s air force had warned that it would need two or three days at the start of war to attack anti-aircraft batteries. During this period they would be unable to provide ground support for the army. The small standing army along the borders could not hope to block an all-out Arab offensive without air assistance or unless the reserves — two-thirds of Israel’s army — were mobilized first. Mobilization depended on a warning from military intelligence. This failed to come. Thus it was that the Arab onslaught on Yom Kippur was met by 19- and 20-year-old conscript soldiers and their officers facing odds of 8:1 or higher.

On the Golan Heights, the Syrians broke through the first night and at some points reached the edge of the plateau overlooking the Galilee. In Sinai, the Bar-Lev Line fell. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, Israel’s military icon, warned colleagues of Israel’s possible destruction. So shocking was the surprise attack and the efficiency shown by the Arabs that senior commanders could not think clearly.

“You break into a cold sweat and your mind freezes up,” a deputy division commander — a veteran warhorse — would recall. “You have difficulty getting into gear, and you react by executing the plans you’ve already prepared.” These plans proved disastrous in the new circumstances.

Within days the shock passed and the battered Israeli forces found their feet. The recovery of the Israeli army in the Yom Kippur War deserves a place in military annals as an achievement far greater than the glittering victory of the Six-Day War. It is a story of raw courage, professionalism and improvisation.

The war ended with the IDF on the roads to Cairo and Damascus. Only the intervention of two Iraqi armored divisions prevented the depleted Israeli forces on the Golan from reaching the Syrian capital. Cease-fire talks on the Egyptian front, for which U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger opened the way, would lead six years later to the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab country. Egypt had recovered its pride in the first half of the war. Israel had recovered its deterrence in the second half.

The price for Israel in 19 days of fighting was 2,600 fatalities — three times as many men per capita as the losses suffered by the United States in a decade of fighting in Vietnam.

Abraham Rabinovich is the author of “The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East” (Schocken, 2005).