Six Days War – The race to The Mitla Pass, 7 June 1967
The key to the Israeli victory in the war was long-term planning. Every maneuver, every battle plan had been drilled and re-drilled for years. Intelligence had been gathered on the routine activity of Arab armies for over a decade. And Israeli planners used this information to good effect, building a strategy and war machine that could exploit the weaknesses on the other side of the border. Their achievements enabled Israel to defeat armies much larger than the IDF. There was no equivalent degree of preparation and planning in Arab countries, the primary reason for which was the differing relations that the militaries in Israel and in the Arab countries had with their respective governments. First and foremost, Arab armies were built to ensure the survival of the regime. They were better suited to serve as internal police than as a fighting force. The regimes that sustained these armies held loyalty in higher esteem than efficiency or battle readiness.
The constant purges of officers – to deter coups – prevented the development of capable cadres. In the Syrian army, for instance, 2,000 officers and 4,000 non-commissioned officers had been purged from the ranks since 1966. That was also the reason why the Egyptian and Syrian armies could not make efficient use of the military technology they had received from the Soviets. In Israel, though party affiliation did play a role in appointments within the IDF, in general officers were promoted according to their abilities and skills. Ezer Weizman, for example, had reached the rank of major general and was appointed deputy chief of staff despite being known to be a supporter of the main opposition party, Herut. The Israeli army had no other function but to prepare for the next war.
The IDF achieved all its aims in June 1967. After cracking open the Arab lines of defense, Israeli formations pushed forward at a surprising speed. As Arab generals tried to take back control of the situation, they discovered that the Israelis had already moved deep into their territory. Since the Arab armies were needed at home to ensure that the regimes would survive the humiliation of defeat, Arab leaders in Amman, Cairo, and Damascus were quick to order a hurried retreat after just a few days’ fighting. They were unwilling to sacrifice their armies to halt the Israeli ground forces. Whenever regime survival was in conflict with state interests, Arab governments chose the former. Arab regimes preferred to cede territory in order to save what was left of their Praetorian Guard.
The commander of the Egyptian Air Force, Lieutenant General Sidqi Mahmud, had known for two years that Egyptian radar systems were unable to detect planes flying at low altitude (500 meters and below). Mahmud was part of Amer’s loyal guard and he had been serving as commander of the air force for over a decade. Despite the fact that in 1956 British bombers had destroyed 200 Egyptian planes while they were on the ground, Mahmud remained in office, protected from Nasser’s rage by Amer, who valued loyalty above all else. Under Mahmud, the air force did nothing more than appeal to the Soviets for more advanced radars. No attempt was made to create a doctrine that would address this chink in Egypt’s armor.
Conversely, the IAF built its entire war plan around Egypt’s Achilles heel. For countless hours Israeli pilots trained to fly in full radio silence at low altitude. Nothing was left to chance. Numerous experiments were made in order to reach the conclusion that the best way to shut down Egyptian airfields would be to bomb runways first and planes only later. Each Israeli bomber was loaded with special bombs, purposely designed to explode after being dropped at low altitude. Various scenarios for the attack were run through a computer no less than 1,500 times, accurately predicting that at least 10 percent of Israeli aircraft would not make it back.
On the morning of June 5, two Israeli Votour planes flew at high altitude through the Sinai sky, carrying devices whose electronic signals suppressed the activity of the Soviet-made SA-2 missiles and jammed Soviet-made radar systems. Egyptian radar operators were aghast as that morning their screens went blank. Reports from Egypt also claim that on that day the Bedouin, who had been on the Israeli intelligence’s payroll, used special electronic equipment to jam radio communications between Egyptian land forces in Sinai and headquarters in Cairo. The giant military force that Amer had so painstakingly created in the desert lost its nerve system in the first hours of the war.
The Israeli air attack went smoothly and Egyptian losses were considerable: 286 out of 420 Egyptian aircraft were destroyed. After smashing the Egyptian Air Force to pieces, the IAF went ahead and did the same to the Jordanian, Syrian, and Iraqi air forces. Weizman, who was in the pit when it all happened, called his wife and declared triumphantly: “We won the war!” Reuma responded: “Ezer, have you gone insane? At 10 a.m. you finished the war?!” Weizman was partially right: the IAF performed magnificently in the first hours of the campaign and Israel did go on to win the war. Coincidence, however, does not equal causation. Fighting the IDF without air cover was certainly a major handicap for Arab armies, but had they stood their ground, they could have halted the onslaught of Israeli ground troops. Despite the looming presence of Israeli aircraft, Arab armies could move forces by night, unmolested. Israeli ground forces, wary of being hit by friendly fire, preferred that Israeli aircraft attack the rear area of the front rather than the main battle zones. As it was, the most decisive land battles on the Sinai and West Bank fronts were won by Israeli land forces in the first twenty-four hours of the war while Israeli planes were busy achieving air superiority.
A prime example of a skirmish won without air support was the battle of Abu-Ageila, which was fought during the first night of the war. For the Israeli army, everything was at stake. First was the need to penetrate the Egyptian defense line. This task was made easier thanks to an Israeli deception plan and Nasser’s and Amer’s intervention. In the tense ten days that preceded the war, the two armies had been watching each other through binoculars and conducting reconnaissance flights. The Egyptians shadowed the Israelis. They responded to any change in Israeli redeployment with a shift of their own troops. If the Israelis augmented their presence in the northern Negev, the Egyptians assumed that the Israelis would invade from that direction and moved more tanks to northern Sinai. The Israelis took advantage of that and launched Operation “Red Tongue.” Two transport planes, four or five lorries that shifted position, and several chatty soldiers who talked on the radio all the time simulated the movement of a full division to the southern Negev. They were able to fool the Jordanian and Egyptian intelligence services: the Jordanians even claimed that they witnessed the movement of 500 lorries in the direction of Eilat. The success of “Red Tongue” was impressive. On May 25, the Egyptians had positioned 663 tanks along the northern and central axis of Sinai through which the IDF planned to invade. By June 4, the Egyptians deployed only 404 tanks along these routes. While on May 25 there were only 35 tanks along the southern axis of Sinai, by June 4 there were 397 tanks.
But the fatal shift of troops to the southern axis – where they were of little use once the invasion was underway – can only partly be credited to Israeli acumen. Amer sent reinforcements to the southern axis also because he had not relinquished his plan to attack Eilat. He pushed forward units to positions by the border so they would be available for offensive operations. Nasser had also intervened in this debate on May 25 by insisting that the loss of Gaza would be harmful to Egypt’s prestige. Gaza was predominantly populated by Palestinians, explained Nasser, and if Israel conquered that territory it would seem that Egypt was not loyal to the Palestinian cause. The defense force at Sharm al-Sheikh, Nasser said, also needed to be fortified. The end result of that debate was that more troops were sent to Gaza and Sharm al-Sheikh.
As a result of all these changes, the “Qaher” (Arabic for conqueror) plan became disorderly. This elaborate defense plan devised by Soviet advisers was hollowed out. The third line of defense at the passes was thinned down to four battalions of reserve soldiers who were inexperienced in fighting. Brigades that should have been in the second line of defense were pushed forward to the first defense line, which now stretched a further 100 kilometers. The Egyptian army simply did not have enough troops to man the full length of the front and empty spaces were opened up along the border. The role of the first line of defense, according to the “Qaher” plan, was to blunt Israel’s attack. Then, units in the second line of defense were to launch a counter-offensive and wipe out the enemy. As things stood in early June, too many brigades were located in areas that were far away from the main roads in Sinai and were therefore unable to stop the advance of Israeli forces. There were not enough brigades in the second line of defense to mount counter-offensives. If the Israelis broke through the first line of defense, the road to Suez would lie open. Um-Katef, overlooking the road to Ismailia, was a prime location to target. But there was another reason to strike at Abu-Ageila: namely, the aspiration to envelop and annihilate the Egyptian army. The Egyptian compound controlled one of the shortest routes to the passes; blocking them was a key element in the annihilation plan. Arriving there before the Egyptian brigades were able to escape would be crucial.
The battle at Abu-Ageila was Ariel Sharon’s brainchild. General headquarters wanted to avoid a frontal attack on the most heavily fortified compound in Sinai. But Sharon insisted. He lobbied aggressively, as only he could, to attack along this route and demanded enough troops to carry out the mission. Sharon’s division was strengthened with forces belonging to Major General Avraham Yoffe, commander of the 31st Brigade, who was more passive. Sharon knew everything about the compound. The painstaking efforts of Israeli intelligence services to collect every morsel of information on enemy fortifications, and the numerous reconnaissance flights flown by the IAF planes over Sinai, had paid off. Sharon knew the compound so well that he was able to build a small-scale model of it. Abu-Ageila was what the Romans called pars pro toto – a part representing the whole. It was basically a miniature version of the “Qaher” plan, with three consecutive lines of trenches that were dug into the slopes of a ridge. The trenches were manned by a 16,000-strong infantry brigade. In the rear was an 87-gun artillery battalion which was fortified by 83 tanks. In the front there was a 4 kilometer-long strip strewn with mines and barbed wire. Even before the invading force reached that strip it would have to deal with further outposts and three smaller compounds at the rear. Both flanks of the rear were surrounded by two seemingly impassable terrains: one mountainous, the other consisting of treacherous dunes. Impregnable? Not for Sharon.
Israeli generals identified the key weakness of the Soviet doctrine as practiced by Arab armies: it made troops static. The best way to deal with these formidable fortifications was to attack them from the rear and to outflank them. Sharon also planned to attack by night to use darkness as another element of surprise. Both Rabin and Gavish asked Sharon to wait until early light so that the IAF could soften the area with massive bombing, but Sharon was so confident that he declined. Besides, waiting the night meant giving the enemy a chance to escape, and Sharon would have none of that.
As early as the afternoon of the 5th, an infantry brigade was ordered to start marching 15 kilometers over the dunes in order to reach their marked position by nightfall. Their mission was to attack Egyptian infantry in the trenches, and it was their actions that would decide the fate of the battle. Israeli infantry carried stick lights with them so they would not be hit in the dark by friendly fire. The enemy’s artillery battalion was to be neutralized by an airborne attack by paratroopers. A battalion of Centurion tanks was to complete a deep maneuver in the northwest and end by attacking Egyptian cavalry from the rear. Another attack was to commence from the front by Sherman tanks, but only as a deception.
At 10 p.m. Sharon told his artillery officer: “let the ground tremble.” “It will tremble alright,” said Yaacov Aknin. Within twenty minutes, 6,000 shells fell on the compound. Sharon was pleased. “This is hellfire,” he appreciatively remarked to Aknin. “I’ve never seen such an inferno.” An Egyptian officer caught in the midst of it all was interrogated after the battle and described it as “like being enveloped by a snake of fire.” Then all of Sharon’s forces attacked from all directions. There was one moment of panic when the Centurion tanks were held up by a minefield. Combat engineers kneeled down and plucked mines out of the ground with their bare hands as if harvesting potatoes. Within half an hour, the tanks could break through. By dawn the battle was winding down, and Yoffe’s brigade could pass through on the Ismailia road.
Sometime in the afternoon of June 6, the second day of the war, Abd al-Hakim Amer made the decision that sealed its fate. At this stage the Egyptian Air Force had been destroyed and the first line of defense had been breached. But the majority of Amer’s troops were yet to see a fight, including three brigades and two mechanized divisions. Amer could have pulled his troops from southern Sinai and had them regroup by the passes to stop the IDF from advancing. When Stalin found himself in a similar situation in the summer of 1941 he gave his troops a simple order that considerably slowed the advance of the German army: “Not a step back.” Anyone who dared to retreat was shot by a firing squad. The Man of Steel was willing to shed the blood of millions of Red Army soldiers to buy precious time. Then again, the Red Army was not the only source of his power: Stalin had the party, the NKVD, and the heavy industry lobby at his side. Amer, though, was nothing without his army, especially his officers, who were not simply military men; Amer was their patron and they were his clients. Without them, Amer was a Samson shorn. To sacrifice them for the sake of “Egypt” would simply mean that, immediately after Egypt’s defeat, Nasser would make Amer the scapegoat and finally get rid of him (as indeed happened). To survive politically, Amer had to bring his officers back.
In his memoirs, Fawzi – who was the chief of staff, and bore at least some of the responsibility – chose to describe Amer as suffering a mental meltdown, thus laying the blame squarely on his superior. Yet, in retrospect, Amer was simply a very political general. When he discovered, on the morning of June 5, that the pilot of his plane was flying him back to Cairo instead of landing him in Sinai, Amer suspected he was the victim of a plot. The onset of the war was far from his mind: Amer’s attention was completely devoted to political intrigue.
Further, Amer had the past in his rearview mirror, not the future. And in the past – in 1956, to be exact – Nasser and Amer had given the Egyptian army the order to beat a hasty retreat, which had meant that most of the troops returned to the Suez Canal’s western bank unscathed. In popular memory this came to be seen as an Egyptian Dunkirk. But there was one big difference between 1956 and 1967. Then, the Israelis wanted the Egyptians to escape and focused instead on taking territory. Now, the Israelis had no intention of letting the Egyptian soldiers slip away. When Amer made his decision, he did not know that.
But that was part of the problem. There was an asymmetry of knowledge on the level of command between the Israelis and Arabs. For instance, Sharon knew everything about the Abu-Ageila compound, while the Egyptian commander, Major General Sadi Nagib, had no clue as to how the Israeli attack would unfold. Israeli intelligence services were busy spying on the Arabs; Arab intelligence services were busy spying on their citizens and on each other. Israeli pilots on the morning of June 5 knew every last detail about the airfields they bombed, while all their counterparts had were aerial photos from 1948. Israel had invested millions of dollars in the years that preceded the war to create a special commando unit – Sayeret Matkal – whose main role was to attach bugging devices to telephone lines in Lebanon, Syria, and Sinai. And Israeli intelligence had at least two high-level spies working inside Damascus and Cairo. Elie Cohen and Wolfgang Lutz arrived at the Syrian and Egyptian capitals, respectively, between 1960 and 1961. Thanks to lavish funding from the Mossad, they hobnobbed with the political and military elite. Up to their capture in 1965 both were able to send back top-drawer information about political and military affairs. Their reports painted a picture of a political elite too busy with petty corruption to prepare efficiently for war. In 1961, Lutz had a frank talk with Egyptian General Abd al-Salam Suleiman. Drunk on whisky, Suleiman offered an assessment of Egypt’s armed forces that proved prescient:
We [in Egypt] have enough military equipment to conquer the whole Middle East, but equipment isn’t everything. The army right now – in terms of training, military competence, and logistics – will not be able to win a battle against a fart in a paper bag . . . the trouble is that Gamal [Abd al-Nasser] and the Marshal [Abd al-Hakim Amer], together with the other generals . . . are rejoicing in the new equipment – the new Russian aircraft and tanks – like a bunch of kids with a new football. But the best ball ain’t worth a damn thing if you don’t know how to kick it.