Centurion “Shot Kal” MBT- IDF Tank Corps
Among the most respected armored corps in the world is that of the Israeli Defense Force and Israel is often perceived as one of the leaders in modern tank technology. It was not always so. In its initial combat engagement, on 16 October 1948, the then-battalion-strength Israeli tank organization was ordered into battle against an Egyptian force that had gained control of Lod Airport. In the brief action, Israel’s ten French 1930s-era two-man Hitchkiss H39 light tanks all failed embarrassingly, breaking down or ending up in anti-tank ditches, without getting within range of their enemy. These tanks were World War II leftovers, obtained in the Middle East after the conflict. Their two British Cromwell infantry tanks were also quickly out of action.
In those days the Israelis didn’t know much about tanks or armored warfare. They did know that they faced a prolonged fight for their very survival against the Arab enemy. They knew that they would have to hold their tiny territory with an unrivalled tenacity and play for time in which to gather strength and improve their fighting capability. They knew, too, that in the coming years they could not possibly prevail in a war of attrition. They were the few; the Arabs the many.
The Israelis were extremely limited in equipment, weaponry, ammunition, technology, geography, money and manpower. Their enemy had all the advantages in numbers. Knowing this about their opponents, the Arabs determined to force the Israelis into fighting that defensive war of attrition. The Israelis realized that their only hope was always to control the situation and strike swiftly and powerfully in short campaigns that would be decisive. They had to take and keep the offensive in the struggle to come.
To control the situation, and survive, the Israelis needed to ensure that their land battles would take place in wasteland regions whenever possible, far from the hard-won cultivated areas where most of their population resided. Somehow, they had to develop a highly effective, technologically sound, well-trained and disciplined armored fighting force, a tall order for a small country with severely limited resources.
Since 1948, the state of Israel has fought six wars with Arab nations of the region. In the course and aftermaths of these conflicts, the Israelis have learned many lessons about tanks and tank warfare. It was in the Sinai Campaign of 1956 that the Israel Armored Corps began to transform itself from a rather rag-tag outfit to something resembling an efficient and effective war machine.
Late in 1955 the Egyptian government under Gamal Abdel Nasser, the former army officer who had served as prime minister and president of Egypt, and later as president of the United Arab Republic, negotiated a large arms agreement with Czechoslovakia, which led Israel to fear it would have to embark upon a Middle East arms race.
Because the Egyptians were also providing support to the anti-French elements in Algeria, France was disposed to provide armaments to the Israelis in the form of 250 tanks, most of them Shermans. Noting how effective some Shermans had become against German Tigers and Panthers during the 1944 Normandy campaign when the British had retrofitted them with a seventeen-pounder gun, the Israel Armored Corps followed suit and had their Shermans mounted with French CN75-50 guns.
The Israelis attacked the numerically stronger Egyptians in the Sinai desert in late October 1956, following a pattern of horrific attacks and reprisals, and the nationalization of the Suez Canal by Nasser in July—an action which infuriated Britain and France. While there was substantial disagreement among the various Israeli army commanders about how, and even whether, their tanks should be used in the conflict, their 7th Armored Brigade moved out to the southern front of its own volition and quickly spearheaded the initial assault on the Egyptian forces. Impressively, the 7th advanced more than 250 kilometers to the Suez Canal in under 100 hours. On the way, they engaged and destroyed a larger Egyptian armored brigade. The surprising, extraordinarily effective Israeli blitzkrieg contributed mightily to the defeat of the enemy forces by early November, but the victory was also due to the intervention of the French and British whose forces destroyed Egypt’s air force on the ground within three days and went on to land at Port Suez in an attempt to seize the canal. The intervention of the United States led to a U.N.-brokered ceasefire on 5 November. But the Sinai Campaign was the turning point for the Israel Armored Corps. The tank had been accepted as a key player in the future defense of the young state.
In the 1967 Six-Day War, the Syrian Army had 70,000 men in six infantry and two armored brigades, as well as one mechanized brigade. They were well deployed along the Golan Heights and were backed up by a sizable mobile reserve. Their armor at the front consisted of forty Russian T-34 and T-54 tanks from a total force of 750 tanks. Most of the early action took place in the Sinai Peninsula while the Syrians confined their activity to shelling Israeli settlements from the Golan positions.
The escarpment of the Golan rises 1,000 meters above the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan Valley. In 1967, three roads climbed the Golan, all of them heavily defended. The slopes had been turned into a virtually impregnable fortress by the Syrians, with defensive positions and fortifications, roadblocks and minefields.
The head of the Israeli Defense Force Northern Command, Major-General David Elazar, had only three brigades available to him when he was called upon to seize the Golan. They were supported by Sherman tanks of the 8th and 37th Armored Brigades on 9 June when General Elazar set out to climb the Golan and clear the Syrian positions.
Syrian resistance was intense as the Israeli infantry and tanks pressed along the mountain track. It was a slow advance with the Israelis suffering many casualties along the way, but the Syrian fortifications were gradually overcome. Several of the Shermans received hits from deadly accurate enemy fire, but they pressed on.
The leading tank battalion was supposed to outflank the heavily defended fortification at Qala, but was hampered by substantial artillery fire as it approached. Instead of being able to outflank the Qala site, the Israelis were held up and engaged with it, and were taking many more casualties.
At this point the second Israeli tank battalion, realizing the predicament of the first, came forward and assaulted the rear echelon stronghold of Zaoura. After securing it, they turned west and attacked the Qala position from the rear. Now the Israeli tanks of the pinned-down battalion were rallied by a young officer and redirected in a renewed attack on Qala. They not only came under intense defensive fire, but encountered a mined anti-tank barrier. The young officer continued the advance, however, and soon three of the Shermans, including his own, were hit. He scrambled down from the tank, ran to another and continued to command from it. The fight went on into the night when, at last, the two tank battalions managed to join up and defeat the Qala fortification, leading to the end of Syrian resistance along the Golan front. The Syrians were in full retreat and the war on the Syrian front was at an end.
The war had begun when, following lengthy skirmishes along the Sinai frontier and the withdrawal of U.N. observers, the Israelis found it necessary to launch a pre-emptive assault on Egyptian positions in the Sinai. The Israelis were taking their own version of blitzkrieg to the Egyptians, who were set in a Soviet-style defense, having been schooled and equipped by the Russians. By 1965 the Israel Armored Corps had accumulated about 1,000 tanks, a combination of American Shermans and Pattons, British Centurions, and French AMX-13s, while the Egyptians had 1,300 tanks, mostly Josef Stalin 3 heavies and T-34s, but their total also included 450 more modern Russian T-54s and T-55s.
Until 1964, the quality of Israeli tank gunnery, and tank maintenance, was at best uneven. With the arrival of the Pattons and Centurions, such a casual approach was no longer tolerable. These vehicles were far more sophisticated and demanding than the IAC’s old Shermans and suddenly a great deal more was required of the crews and personnel. This was the moment when Major-General Israel Tal took command of the IAC and forced through a program of reforms that completely revitalized it. He showed his men how to operate and fight their new tanks with confidence and inspiration. He instilled a high level of discipline, standardized and tightened training procedures and introduced an expertise that had been unknown in the Corps before his arrival. By 1967 the crews of the IAC no longer feared their tanks; they had mastered them and developed a great respect for their capabilities.
In the early action the Israeli Air Force attacked the Egyptian airfields with the aim of eliminating the enemy air arm on the ground, while three IAC tank columns rolled in a surprise attack on Egyptian positions. The Israeli plan called for frightening the Egyptian defenders into retreat. The IAC would then maintain the pressure until the fleeing enemy was exhausted. The Israelis smashed through Egyptian defenses, incurring some losses to enemy tanks, mines and anti-tank guns. But these were essentially token actions on the part of the Egyptians who appeared to lack the will for the fight and tended to crumble after offering only marginal resistance.
The mobility and excellent gunnery of the Israeli tank crews, the surprise factor in their attack, and the immobile defensive stance of the Egyptians in their JS3s and T-34s both contributed to the Israeli triumph in little more than twenty-four hours. By the time Egyptian T-54s and T-55s appeared on the battlefield, it was too late. Although the situation had the makings of a major tank-versus-tank confrontation, the Egyptian tank crews were all but hypnotized by Israeli tanks that were outflanking them, rolling through terrain that the Egyptians had thought impassable for tanks. Under massive attack on their exposed flanks, they lost seventy tanks to the Israeli action in less than three hours.
In less than four days of fighting, IAC tanks had defeated and captured 850 Egyptian tanks as well as knocking out thirty-five Jordanian Patton tanks during the invasion of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.