Perhaps no other conflicts of the period captured the world’s imagination as did the numerous wars in the Middle East. With the notable exception of the 1948–1949 War for Independence, the wars saw the employment of considerable numbers of AFVs and some of the largest tank battles in history. They also proved to be useful laboratories for the Western allies and the Soviet Union concerning the design and employment of AFVs (for the most part, the Soviet Union was the chief supporter and arms supplier to the Arab states; the Western powers, particularly the United States and France, at least until after the 1967 Six Day War, supported Israel). The fighting in the Middle East also saw the beginning of a new age, with the first use in warfare of antitank and antiship missiles.
In its war to gain independence, Israel initially had only a small armored force, the 8th Armored Brigade, equipped with a hodgepodge of pre–World War II French Hotchkiss light tanks, World War II–era British Cromwells, and U.S. Shermans, the latter purchased from Italy and the Philippines. These faced the far more numerous tanks of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq. During the fighting, Israel managed to form a second armored brigade, the 7th.
In the war the Israelis utilized their advantages of interior lines, higher morale, better leadership, and more effective command and control to defeat the larger and better-equipped Arab armies. The major Arab problems were in logistics and organization. The Arab armies were spread out (it was 700 miles from Baghdad to Haifa, and Egyptian forces relied on a 250-mile-long supply line across the Sinai Desert), and there was no unity of command or common military strategy.
After 1949 the Israeli Defense Forces invested heavily in tanks, and the Jewish state became one of the most skillful practitioners of armored warfare in history. Working in collusion with France and Britain against Egypt in 1956, Israel Super Shermans and French tanks rolled across the Sinai Peninsula (covering more than 150 miles in only four days) to take that vast desert area from Egypt. In the process Israeli armor defeated a far larger Egyptian force of Shermans, British Centurions, and some JS-3s, in addition to 230 Soviet T-34/85s, as well as a number of armored personnel carriers and self-propelled guns.
As in the War for Independence, in 1956 it was not superior equipment but rather better training, leadership, and motivation, as well as tactical doctrine and domination of the air, that were vital in the subsequent crushing Israeli victory. Although international pressure, largely from the United States, forced Israel (and Britain and France) to quit Egypt, the war led Israel to go over to a wholly mechanized ground force centered on tanks. The war also brought improved tanks into the Israeli inventory as well as better training. In June 1967 Israel used its highly mechanized forces to launch a devastating preemptive strike against Egypt and Syria, and then engage Jordan, in the Six Day War. Israeli tactics were similar to those employed by the Germans in their blitzkrieg of World War II. Tanks would break through the enemy front and then push forward, closely followed by mechanized infantry that would engage enemy forces. This armored thrust was followed by motorized infantry to mop up enemy resistance in order to allow the vital supply column to proceed forward. Rapid Israeli envelopments allowed the numerically inferior Israeli armored forces to take the heavier Arab tanks from the rear and make short work of the Arab armies. Israel had some 264,000 troops, 800 tanks, and 300 combat aircraft; Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq had a combined strength of some 541,000 men, 2,504 tanks, and 957 combat aircraft. Of 1,200 Egyptian tanks before the war, 820 were lost. Israeli armor losses amounted to 122 tanks, many of which were repaired and returned to battle. There was also heavy fighting involving Israeli and Syrian tanks in Israel’s conquest of the Golan Heights, although the fighting there did not see the large-scale armor engagements that had marked combat on the Sinai front.
In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the tables were almost turned, thanks to Israeli complacency and new Egyptian tactics. Israel had invested heavily in the Bar Lev Line, a static defensive front along the east bank of the Suez Canal, in effect rejecting maneuver tank warfare in which the bulk of armored forces are held back in mobile reserve. The Egyptians also subjected the canal defenses to nearly constant artillery fire, to which the Israelis grew accustomed. On 6 October 1973 (Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement) Egyptian forces struck in force across the Suez Canal while Syrian forces simultaneously invaded the Golan Heights. These offensives caught the Israeli defenders completely off-guard.
On the Golan Heights, Syria deployed five divisions and three armored/ mechanized brigades. Their 1,600 tanks included T-34s, T- 54s, and the latest T-62 Soviet tanks. To break through the thick Israeli minefields and defenses, the Syrians also utilized specialized armor vehicles such as flail tanks, bridge-layers, and engineer tanks. Antiaircraft missiles protected the attackers against Israeli aerial intervention. The Israelis initially had only some 50 Israeli Centurion tanks of the 7th Armored Brigade to oppose the Syrian juggernaut. Following the British practice of using secondary armament for ranging purposes, the Centurions scored a high number of long-range, first-round kills. Ordered to prevent the Syrians from breaking through, the few Israeli defenders did just that. At the end of four days of savage fighting, an Israeli force totaling only 177 tanks supported by infantry and artillery defeated a far larger attacking Syrian force centered on 1,400 tanks.