October 6, 1973. Israel has been bitten by victory disease. Confident in its supremacy over the Arab nations that surround them, the IDF has allowed most of its soldiers off for the holy day of Yom Kippur. But they have underestimated their enemy, and their enemy has learned something. The Egyptian Army is preparing to cross the Suez Canal, and Israel is not ready. Welcome to the last Arab-Israeli War.
At 6:30pm on June 10, 1967, a United Nations ceasefire had ended the Six Day War. In one of the most incredible military victories of the modern era, the nation of Israel defeated its encircling Arab enemies and seized control of enormous amounts of territory. By the end of the campaign the Israelis held critical territory to the east on the West Bank and the Golan Heights, and the west in Gaza and the vast expanse of the Sinai Peninsula. The Sinai alone tripled the amount of territory under Israeli control. The Egyptians, Syrians and Jordanians were utterly defeated, their air forces destroyed in a preemptive strike and their armies shredded. The speed and scope of Israeli victory sent shock waves across the Muslim world.
These conquests and victories freed Israel from the immediate threat of invasion by any of its major foes and granted her defensible frontiers in case of another attack. However, these territories were a poison pill for several reasons. Some, like Gaza and the West Bank, contained large populations of Palestinians whose mutual enmity with Israel remains a great problem to this day (but outside the scope of this post). The others – especially the Sinai – meant that for the Arab powers, the shoe was on the other foot. Now the Israelis were the aggressive neighbor on THEIR doorstep, rather than the other way around. The Israeli Army was poised on the east bank of the Suez Canal, Egypt’s greatest strategic asset and the key to its economy. Military action by the IDF could destroy Egypt’s trade and commerce in an instant.
Faced with Israeli military dominance, but unable to bear the political consequences of backing down, the Arab leaders refused to accept the new status quo. In August 1967, the Arabs declared in unison “no recognition, no negotiations, no peace.” This tone set the status quo for the next six years. With the Arabs stubbornly refusing to recognize Israel or engage in diplomacy with the Jewish state, and the Israelis refusing to withdraw from the Sinai without these conditions, the Six Day War had resulted in a military and diplomatic stalemate. The Israelis and Egyptians glared at each other across the Suez Canal, both in a position from which they could not back down.
President Nasser of Egypt was prepared to apply military pressure to remove the Israelis from the Sinai. Within days after the Six Day War ended, shiploads of Soviet-supplied war material were arriving in Egyptian ports, including advanced SAM antiair missile systems, 4500 tanks, 1000 aircraft and large numbers of handheld rocket launchers. The Soviets also supplied personnel who were to man the missile systems – although in Egyptian uniforms.
With these new munitions, Egypt clashed with Israel from 1967 to 1970 in a protracted conflict known as the “War of Attrition.” This low-intensity struggle was characterized by airstrikes, commando raids and artillery bombardment all along the Suez Canal. Israel sought to damage Egypt’s recovering military power and force them to the bargaining table, while the Egyptians tried to force Israel to withdraw from the Suez. The War of Attrition rose sharply in intensity after 1969, when Nasser felt his military was more ready, and grew even fiercer before the United States forced a ceasefire in 1970.
Ultimately, the long conflict sapped both sides. Egypt suffered far more military casualties and also high civilian losses, but regarded the War of Attrition as a great success – they had not buckled and drew confidence from the fact that they could withstand the mighty Israeli Air Force. Even though the Israelis had “won” in terms of sheer body count, their morale had been drained by the drawn-out struggle as the euphoria of victory in 1967 gave way to the long agony on the Suez. Their military victories soon gave way to a dangerous complacency about the capability of the Egyptian military and the strength of their defenses along the Suez. These defenses – the Bar-Lev Line – would become the focal point of the war in 1973.
The Israelis had built a series of defensive fortifications along the Suez during the War of Attrition, and began strengthening this line after 1970. It spanned 93 miles from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, and came to be named after Israeli Chief of Staff Haim Bar-Lev. The “Bar-Lev Line” incorporated an enormous sand wall that stretched the length of the canal, supported by a concrete wall, to block observation and provide an enormous obstacle against any attack across the canal. Israeli planners estimated that it would take two days for Egyptian engineers to cross the Bar-Lev Line, by which time Israeli armor and reinforcements would arrive to stop their advance. To garrison the Line, fortress strongpoints were scattered behind the wall, with networks of trenches and tank positions farther back. The Bar-Lev Line was supposed to be impregnable. And we know what happens to impregnable walls.
Because the Egyptians were not sitting idle. After 1967, the Egyptian Army was confronted by an 0-3 record against the Israelis: 1948, 1956, 1967, all major defeats. The Egyptians had repeatedly displayed military incompetence in the realms of tactical leadership, command and control, technical skills and maintenance. These were not solely Egyptian failings; they were long-observed problems with all Arab militaries. From the Arabs in 1948 to Saddam’s armies in 1991, Arab armies have proven generally inept at maneuver warfare, even when other non-Western countries – like the Indians in 1971, or the Vietnamese in 1975 – managed much better. There’s no room in this post for a long cultural analysis, probably revolving around Arab culture and attitudes towards modernity – but suffice to say that Arab armies had a problem in the 1970s, and they knew it.
In steps the hero of this story. With the death of Nasser in 1970 and the rise of his successor Anwar Sadat, major reforms came to the Egyptian military – among them the new Minister of Defense, Ahmed Ismail Ali. Ismail Ali recognized that “Western” methods of warfare could not be grafted onto Arab soldiers. By focusing on acquiring new technology for the last few decades, Arab leaders had neglected the man in favor of the machine.
Instead of trying to adapt his people to modern warfare, Ismail Ali would adapt modern warfare to his people. Instead of casting them adrift on the winds of free-flowing maneuver warfare – where they performed poorly – Ismail Ali would institute intricately planned, rehearsed and timed plans. The tough and resolute Egyptian infantryman was not a flexible and aggressive fighter, but he was a solid and courageous one.
Ismail Ali decided to force the Israelis to fight on his terms, in a battle determined by his tempo. He also recognized that the outnumbered Israelis were unusually sensitive to casualties, so forcing them into a defensive attrition battle that caused severe losses might force them to the bargaining table.
There was only one thing that was going to force the Israelis into the battle Ismail Ali wanted. He would have to break the Bar-Lev Line. Then the Israelis would have to come to him – right where he wanted them.
Intensive training was the key. In order to compensate for Arab soldiers’ lack of initiative and adaptability, the operation was highly scripted. Each soldier learned a single task and practiced it incessantly. Engineer units assembled and dismantled their bridging equipment twice a day for four years. Anti-tank units trained with their missiles half an hour a day…for four years. Every action became reflex, practiced on extensive mock-ups of the Israeli defenses. Ismail Ali planned the operation to a T, so when the time came the Egyptian troops would know exactly what to do and how to do it.
As the Egyptians prepared for the great attack that would regain their honor and force an Israeli settlement, the Israeli intelligence services completely dropped the ball. Thanks to Egyptian deception plans – such as fake mobilizations and training exercises that lulled the Israelis into a false sense of security – the IDF failed to pick up on the growing amount of men and munitions concentrated near the Canal. Multiple warning signs were missed, and Prime Minister Golda Meir herself rejected several predictions of an imminent attack; the Egyptians had allegedly sent many troops home for Ramadan, after all! Besides, if such a thing did occur, the brave IDF troops at the impenetrable Bar-Lev line would easily repel it.
Unbeknownst to them, the attack was scheduled for the Jewish fasting day of Yom Kippur.
On October 6, 1973, Ismail Ali launched Operation Badr - forever remembered in the Muslim world as “The Crossing.” Five Egyptian infantry divisions poured out from preplanned positions as the Air Force and artillery units hammered the thin string of isolated outposts on the east side of the Suez Canal. 32,000 infantrymen crossed in twelve waves at five separate points all along the canal, then ascended the sandbank to assault the Israeli forts. At the same time, engineers came up behind them to breach the sand wall. Without the Bar-Lev Line broken physically, tanks and supplies could not cross the river and the infantry would be isolated.
As the Egyptian ground forces overran the Israeli reserve brigade garrisoning the Bar-Lev forts, killing each strongpoint one by one, the Egyptian engineers unveiled their secret weapon. The planners had been experimenting with methods to breach the sand wall for years. The Israeli sand wall was 59 feet tall with a 60-degree slope and reinforced concrete at the water’s edge; explosives only knocked the sand around, and bulldozers would fail to gain any footing. The sand seemed like it would be impossible to overcome in time to get tanks across the canal.
A junior officer had seen the obvious, brilliant solution. The Egyptian engineers deployed water cannons powered by light generators to blast away at the sand wall. Where bulldozers and explosives failed, high-pressure streams of water melted the Bar-Lev Line away, and within hours the bridges were up and the tanks were across. The impenetrable Bar-Lev Line had proven – with some ingenuity and planning – to be no tougher than a sand castle.
At the same time as the Egyptians were striking across the Suez, the Syrians had launched their own coordinated attack on the Golan Heights. Israel was completely and traumatically taken by surprise. All Israeli war planning had relied on launching a preemptive strike prior to any major war – but with the Egyptians, not Israelis, having the element of surprise this time that was no longer in the cards. The vaunted Bar-Lev Line was gone, and Egyptian troops were pouring into the Sinai. But Ismail Ali was not sending his troops streaming into the vast open desert. He pushed forward a few miles, consolidated his positions, set up his defenses, and waited.
The Israelis gave him exactly what he wanted. On October 8, only 48 hours after the Crossing, the Israeli 162nd Armored Division launched a counterattack against the Egyptian forces now arrayed on the ruins of the Bar-Lev Line. Israeli air strikes hit the Egyptian rear areas, but the IAF suffered heavy losses from the new Egyptian SAM missile batteries. In the meantime, the 183 tanks of the 162nd Division charged into the entrenched Egyptian positions. They were met by blazing, well-coordinated fire from tanks, artillery, and the new RPG weapons of the Egyptian infantry. In the worst battlefield defeat ever suffered by the IDF, they lost 50 tanks and eight captured (!) within 13 minutes. The Egyptians crunched forward a few more kilometers, causing a precipitate Israeli retreat. So far, Ismail Ali’s plan had worked perfectly. They had bitten deep and held. The Israelis were NOT invincible after all.
But victory disease could work against the Egyptians just as well as against the Israelis. With the Hebrews seemingly on the run, and after almost a week of stalemate in front of the Suez, the Egyptian high command decided to launch an attack with their own tanks. This spur-of-the-moment decision violated Ismail Ali’s entire concept of carefully controlled and planned offensives, and operated without the benefit of the SAM missile cover that had overseen every previous Egyptian attack. The result on October 14 was a decisive defeat, with the Egyptians losing almost 250 tanks in the failed attack.
The failed Egyptian offensive turned the tide of the war. With the situation on the Golan Heights against Syria finally stabilized, and with Egyptian offensive power spent, the Israelis decided to launch a counterattack of their own. On October 9, with the stalemate still unbroken, the 143rd Armored Division of Ariel Sharon found a gap between the two main Egyptian armies. Sharon held his forces in readiness until the Egyptian attack had failed, and only a few hours later – October 15 – launched his sudden counterblow. A paratroop brigade crossed the canal by night, soon joined by tanks and infantry. Soon Sharon’s armored division was loose on the west side of the canal, tearing up SAM sites and allowing the Israeli Air Force to operate freely once again. The Egyptians panicked: with most of their army on the east side, they had been split in two and faced serious dangers to their supply.
At this point, the old failings of Arab armies emerged once again – and the Israelis were able once again to play to their strengths of flexibility, rapid decision, and maneuver. The Egyptian high command was surprised, and their flailing counterattacks failed to crush Sharon. From October 16 onward, the two armies launched a swirl of armored battles across both sides of the canal that left the Arabs decidedly worse off. More Israeli forces poured west across the Suez Canal, resulting in battle lines that looked something like a jigsaw puzzle. What was clear was that even if the Egyptians had gained the first victories in this war, they had not managed to maintain their streak.
It took more than a week for the UN to finally get both sides to agree to a ceasefire, and by then Sharon and the other Israeli generals had marched south along the canal and completely surrounded the Egyptian 3rd Army. Had the war gone on longer, Egypt would undoubtedly have suffered a decisive defeat – but the United States and Soviet Union were placing intense pressure on their allies to make peace. Soviet attempts to send more weapons to Egypt, and American attempts to Israel, had caused a flare-up in the Cold War that no one wanted. The Yom Kippur War (or the October War to Egypt) finally came to an end with a real ceasefire on October 25, 1973.
On paper, at least, Israel had won. This was hard to deny; after initial setbacks, the IDF had come back and achieved spectacular victories against the Egyptians. However, the shock of the strike on Yom Kippur and the breaching of the Bar-Lev Line was the first Israeli military defeat in their existence. This was a political disaster for the Golda Meir government and eventually caused its fall. The surprise of the Arab attack had struck deep chords of fear in the Israeli population, and rather than celebrating their victory they were faced with the realization that their enemies were learning, and learning fast – and they might not always be on top.
The converse was true in Egypt. On paper, the Arabs had lost – BADLY. The success of the Crossing, though, and the subsequent fight that the Egyptians gave the Israelis gave them back their dignity after a string of humiliating routs. Even if Egypt had not beaten Israel, they had finally given them a fair fight, and all across the Muslim world the psychological trauma of the Six Day War started to heal. On the flipside, the later Israeli successes convinced many Arab leaders that Israel simply could not be defeated through force alone.
So as strange as it may seem, the Yom Kippur War ended up being one of the best things that could have happened to both the Arabs and Israel. Without catastrophic losses to either side, both Egypt and the Jewish State realized that the current military standoff was unsustainable. The Israelis realized they could not rely on their military strength to maintain peace forever, and the Egyptians both salved their wounded pride and finally faced reality: Israel was here to stay. The results were the 1979 Camp David Accords, which finally began the long process of peace between these two great rivals. There is still not peace in the region – there never can be, as long as the Israel-Palestinian situation persists – but the Arab-Israeli Wars were finally coming to an end.
Today, Israel and Egypt are probably each other’s closest allies in the region. Strange how these things work out.