THE HUMBLING OF THE TANK II

The surprise attack had a paralyzing effect on much of the Israeli command. “You break into a cold sweat and your mind freezes up,” a deputy division commander would later say. “You have difficulty getting into gear and you react by executing the plans you’ve already prepared, even if they’re no long relevant.” Mental circuits shorted as commanders tried to simultaneously grasp what was happening, how it could have happened, and what had to be done.

The men in the field, soldiers and officers, were spared these excruciating deliberations. They only had to figure out how to stop the enemy and stay alive. Battalion commander Emanuel Sakel would relate that his men went through the difficult battles “like Prussians,” without despair. “If your men see you in your turret, everything is all right.” A brigade commander would later say that officers in his category, even when they continued to function and seemed unaffected, generally needed two days before the shock wore off.

General Gonen, still at his headquarters in Beersheba, more than 150 miles from the front, tried to discern from the reports pouring in where the main Egyptian crossing points were. Around midnight, he asked Elazar for permission to attack an Egyptian position half a mile north of Orkal. He was oblivious to the fact that the causeway leading to Orkal was a death trap that had consumed every tank that reached it. His proposal, which would have put Israeli forces in a better position to attack Port Said, was totally irrelevant to the desperate defensive battle under way along the canal. Permission was not granted.

At 1:30 a.m., with most of Mendler’s tanks already knocked out, Gonen told the journalists attached to his headquarters that the Egyptian crossing was a failure since they had not moved their armor across the canal. In fact, several hundred Egyptian tanks attached to infantry divisions had already crossed, although they would not go into action until the morning. “Gonen arrived at conclusions without taking counsel,” General Adan would write. “Instead of having his staff officers take part in the process of assessing situations, he relied on his intuition, based on his previous experience with the Egyptians, whom he held in deep contempt.” Not until 2 a.m., twelve hours after the war’s start, did Gonen fly by helicopter to his forward command post at Umm Hashiba.

Division commander Mendler did not share Gonen’s illusions but he too did not draw the necessary conclusions from the picture unfolding before him. In the war room of the Sinai division, General Mendler sat quietly to the side, his eyes fixed on the large wall map which his staff was constantly updating. Having issued his brigade commanders their marching orders—basically, to defend the canal line—he gave hardly any further instructions and rarely spoke on the radio net. His injunction to Shomron—“Do the best you can”—was the last directive the brigade commander received from him this day. To an officer in the room, Mendler seemed to wear a thin, bitter smile as he stared fixedly at the map. “I said to myself,” the officer would later recall, “why doesn’t the man talk? A whole world that he built and trained for is collapsing in front of him and he keeps silent.” The red circles and arrows his aides drew on the map were a parody of Dovecote, showing Egyptian bridgeheads expanding and Israeli units being pushed back. Periodically, Mendler would disappear into his office until the next staff meeting. He did not have the authority to order the evacuation of the forts but he did not request it.

The garrisons on the Bar-Lev Line could not understand why they were being asked to remain in the beleaguered forts when the circumstances were clearly hopeless. The decision not to evacuate them would prove calamitous for both the garrisons and the tanks trying to reach them. In some forts, most of the men were already casualties. Those who weren’t were mostly service personnel, not combat troops. They pleaded with the tankers who reached them to take them out. The request was passed up the command chain but the response was negative.

Darkness provided cover for the Egyptian tank hunters who were now covering all approaches to the forts. Capt. Yaron Ram, commanding a force at Lituf, sent two tanks to locate a disabled tank. The rescue tanks were ambushed and communication with them lost. Shortly before dawn, one of their gunners came on the radio. Keeping his voice low, he said that only he and another crewman were still alive. They had been fending off Egyptian soldiers for more than an hour but ammunition was almost gone and they were now using grenades whenever enemy soldiers drew close. Captain Ram asked him to indicate his whereabouts by firing a shell. A moment later, a flash could be seen two miles away.

Three tanks were sent to the rescue. As they drew close, one was disabled by an RPG and the others driven back. Ram asked Major Shuval for permission to go himself with the three tanks remaining. Shuval refused. Ram’s tanks were the only force blocking the road to the Gidi Pass. Ram told the trapped gunner that his only chance was to play dead when the Egyptian soldiers climbed aboard. Two minutes later, the tank’s radio went silent. When the tank was recovered the next day, the gunner and his comrade were dead inside.

Reshef received the last of the division’s reserves at 1 a.m., a battalion under Lt. Col. Amram Mitzna. On its way toward Hizayon, fire was opened from the side of the road. The tanks’ projectors revealed several dozen soldiers firing from shallow foxholes. “Attack,” ordered Mitzna. The Egyptian infantrymen rose with RPGs as the tanks charged. They were tall black men, apparently Sudanese. Some managed to get off shots but all were cut down. One tank officer was killed.

Close to the canal, the battalion passed between two rows of stationary tanks, some of whose crews were sitting on the ground drinking coffee. It was an encampment of Egyptian T-55 tanks which had just crossed. The surprise was mutual. After a brief exchange of fire, Mitzna broke contact.

Air attacks on the bridges were called off at midnight. It was more dangerous flying at night because the pilots could not gauge the distance of the SAMs fired at them in the dark and thus could not outmaneuver them.

Twice during the night, Israeli tanks broke through to the canal and inflicted damage on bridges and ferries. “Through the night, commanders of [Israeli] sub-units, even individual tanks, fight on,” General Shazly would write in his war diary. “They are evidently made of better stuff than their senior commanders.”

A battalion commanded by Lt. Col. Amir Yoffe was ordered to link up with Forts Mifreket and Milano in the northern sector. The thirty-three-year-old Yoffe, nephew of a distinguished general, had a reputation as a hard-bitten, punctilious professional—the kind of officer, General Adan would say, whom you would not want to serve under in peacetime but to whom you would readily entrust your life in war. During the hasty organization of combat formations at the armor school the day before, he had not noticed that his younger brother, Eyal, a cadet in an officer’s course, had been assigned to him as a tank commander.

Yoffe was guided through the boggy terrain by Yom Tov Tamir, whose battalion had been destroyed a few hours before. Yoffe first proceeded with half his tanks to Mifreket where they engaged RPG teams swarming over the approaches. Entering the fort, Tamir found that the radioman was now in command. Tamir’s request by radio that the garrison be evacuated was denied.

Firing at a bridge north of the fort, a tank stalled on the canal embankment but continued shooting even though it was now a sitting target. The gunner, Sgt. Yadin Tannenbaum, a flautist, had been hailed before his army service as a musical prodigy. The nineteen-year-old had been singled out for praise by conductor Leonard Bernstein. After hitting the bridge, Tannenbaum knocked out a bulldozer widening a passage through the Israeli rampart and then hit an Egyptian tank coming through the opening. A shell hit his tank, killing him and his tank commander.

Sgt. Eyal Yoffe’s tank followed that of his platoon commander, Lt. Michael Vardi, through a narrow, S-shaped entrance into the Mifreket compound. He could hear shouts in Arabic in the trenches. He and his men fired into the darkness around them with their machine guns and Uzis. As they approached the main bunker, members of the garrison ran out and climbed atop Vardi’s tank. The officer descended and led them back to the bunker. He had orders, he said, to evacuate only wounded. He tried to assure the remainder that rescue would shortly come. Eyal Yoffe, in his tank outside, heard his brother on the radio ordering Vardi to join him north of the fort. Without identifying himself, Eyal said he would pass on the message.

It was difficult for him to grasp that this was reality, not an exercise. Darkness added to the disorientation. As Eyal followed Vardi northward, he saw an Egyptian tank thirty yards away. In his excitement, he forgot the protocol for issuing a fire command. “Ehud,” he shouted to his gunner. “Quick. A tank to the right. Fire.” The first shot hit. In the light of the burning tank, its four crewmen descended and ran toward his tank. Eyal stopped them with his machine gun. His tank hit an Egyptian bulldozer and fired at the bridge. Reality had begun to disentangle itself.

From time to time, Eyal Yoffe and Vardi reentered Mifreket to strike at Egyptians who had returned and to encourage the men in the bunker with their fire. Before dawn, the garrison’s wounded, together with wounded tankers, were placed aboard Eyal’s tank for evacuation. One man had lost both legs and an arm. Eyal saw his brother issuing orders nearby. The battalion commander did not recognize him in the darkness until he heard his voice. He was startled to discover that his kid brother was serving under him.

“How you doing, Ili?” he asked.

“Doing fine,” responded Eyal, taking off his tanker’s helmet for this moment of intimacy.

Transporting the wounded to the rear, he returned to Mifreket as it began to dawn. Lieutenant Vardi, he discovered, was dead. Most of the remaining tanks were either mired in marshes or trying to extricate others which were.

The Yoffe brothers, together with another tank commander, fired on enemy vehicles moving inland until Eyal’s tank was hit by a Sagger. His brother placed him inside his own tank. Eyal had suffered burns on his face and could not speak but nodded to indicate to his brother that he would be all right.

As Tamir had done, Yoffe requested evacuation of the Mifreket garrison. Colonel Shomron was likewise asking permission to evacuate the forts in the southern sector. “If we don’t do it now we won’t be able to do it in the morning,” he said. Mendler said he had not been authorized to evacuate the forts.

Tamir had gone back to guide brigade commander Amir and the rest of Yoffe’s battalion to Milano. The fourteen-tank column moved through East Kantara, a ghost town since its abandonment in the Six Day War. But Egyptian troops had now returned. Two tanks became lost in side streets and were destroyed by RPGs.

Reaching Milano, Colonel Amir found the situation surprisingly calm. The fort commander, Captain Trostler, said they had beaten off several attacks during the day and had sunk a number of boats crossing the canal. He had lost four men but the defenses were intact and he was not in need of help. Tamir led the tanks out before first light by a route that avoided Kantara. Of the fourteen tanks, only five returned. Of the eighteen tanks Yoffe had brought to Mifreket, another five returned. Had they been authorized to evacuate the forts there would have been purpose to their sacrifice.

In the southern sector, the commander of a lone tank reported that he had stalled. He was told to put his gear into reverse and fire a shell. The recoil succeeded in starting the engine and the tank rejoined the remnants of Shomron’s brigade, which had fallen back to the Artillery Road.

Mendler finally received permission late Sunday morning from Gonen to evacuate the forts, more than twelve hours after Elazar had authorized evacuation of most of the Bar-Lev Line. But it was too late. All the forts were surrounded now by masses of Egyptian infantry, and tanks as well. Mendler asked Shomron if he was able to evacuate the forts in his sector. “Any attempt will cost a battalion,” replied the brigade commander. “It’s your decision.” The decision was negative. The battle for the waterline was over and the Egyptians had won it.

The conceptual failure of the Bar-Lev Line had been brutally exposed. By the early hours of Sunday, the import of the past day’s events was beginning to be absorbed by the IDF command. In twelve hours, almost two-thirds of the Sinai Division’s tanks had been knocked out, the bulk by Egyptian infantry. Of the division’s 280 tanks, only 110 were still operational. Reshef’s brigade had only one-quarter of its tanks left.

Virtually every assumption by the Israeli command about the nature of the coming war had proven wrong—that AMAN would provide ample warning, that the air force would somehow cope with the SAMs and save the day, that the IDF could get by with limited artillery and infantry, that “armor shock” would stampede the enemy, that the Arab soldier was a pushover and the Arab military command inept.

The Israeli command had permitted itself to believe that given the nature of the enemy—“we’re facing Arabs, not Germans,” as one officer put it—Dovecote could somehow cope with a five-division crossing. The General Staff failed to think through the implications of the massive amount of antitank weapons known to be in the hands of Egyptian infantry. Duels at fifty paces between tanks and individual soldiers wielding RPGs was not what armored warfare was about.

The tank crews, conscripts mostly aged nineteen to twenty-one, and their field commanders had fought with supreme courage and exemplary skill. But they had been thrown into a meat grinder. The Bar-Lev garrisons, including those of the Jerusalem Brigade, had fought outstandingly but their situation was hopeless from the start.

Of all the fuzzy thinking in the high command, reliance on air support was the fuzziest. Air Force Commander Peled had made clear that he would need the first forty-eight hours of war to deal with the SAMs. Yet Elazar and his generals permitted themselves to believe that the air force, still wreathed with the magical aura of the Six Day War, would somehow find a way to deal with enemy ground forces as well. Compounding the problem, the IDF deployed only a few dozen artillery pieces and heavy mortars on a hundred-mile-long front because it relied on the air force. Without meaningful artillery and air support, the IDF lacked firepower even more than manpower.

AMAN’s failure went deeper than the failure to warn of war. It failed to prepare the IDF for the kind of war that might overtake it. It failed to suggest the innovative tactics the Egyptian army would employ or point to the motivation and training that would make the Egyptian soldier of 1973 different from the soldier of the Six Day War. A common factor behind all these failings was the contempt for Arab arms born of that earlier war, a contempt that spawned indolent thinking.

The surprise of the Arab assault would be a staggering psychological blow for Israel that would impact on the rest of the war. However, it was not surprise that was most responsible for the debacle on Yom Kippur day but basic unpreparedness and inept generalship on the southern front. Even if there had been no surprise, the IDF was not prepared to cope with the Egyptians’ new antitank tactics, the air force was unable to provide assistance to the ground forces in areas dominated by SAMs, and Dovecote would still have been a suicidal response.

For Israel, there was one bright spot—the performance of the tank crews and their field commanders despite the disastrous tactics imposed on them.

The Sinai Division had been mauled but not destroyed. Most of its damaged tanks would be returned to action, some within a day, and its command structure was largely intact. Many of the wounded would return to duty, replacements would fill the gaps, and appropriate lessons would be drawn.

The reserve divisions now approaching the battlefield would have to learn these lessons for themselves.

Exhausted by the day’s battle, the surviving tank crews pulled back before dawn to refuel and rearm. The men had hardly eaten since the onset of Yom Kippur, which seemed a lifetime ago, and they had not slept. Thinking about what they had been through and what the morrow might bring, thinking about their dead and wounded comrades, they fell into a brief and troubled sleep.

In the Egyptian lines this night, soldiers who could doze off did so on the wings of euphoria. There had not been a feat of Arab arms like this since Saladin defeated the Crusader army near the Sea of Galilee in the twelfth century. No matter what was yet to come, Egypt’s soldiers had restored Arab honor.

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