Two M60A1 tanks of the IDF’s 87th Armored Reconnaissance Battalion come under an enemy Sagger attack during the assault on Chinese Farm. The tank to the right has already been hit and destroyed by two Sagger strikes – the penetration holes are clearly visible on the rear turret, the metal surrounding the holes rippled with the sheer heat and blast of the hollow-charge warhead cutting through. Fuel and ammunition have ignited, the fire consuming the vehicle. The surviving tank is taking evasive action, steering hard left even as another Sagger missile zips past, the control guidance wire still spooling out from behind it. (One sign that a tank had been hit by a Sagger might be long lengths of the control wire snaking around the outside of the vehicle, and coiled up on the ground.) The tank is also laying down fire from its main gun onto the suspected Sagger positions, aiming to kill the exposed teams or at least disrupt the concentration required to keep the crosshairs on target during flight. The M60A1’s .50-calibre and .30-calibre machine guns would also be used to put down heavy suppressive fire.
Col. Oded Marom, a former Phantom squadron commander recently transferred to a desk job at air force headquarters in Tel Aviv, found himself superfluous Yom Kippur afternoon and drove to an air base in search of gainful employment. Two Mirages on standby were waiting at the end of a runway when his car passed. The pilots recognized him and one, who had to attend to a call of nature, signaled him to take his place. Marom did not recognize either of the pilots because of their helmet visors but he hurried to a dressing room to don flying gear and returned to relieve the pilot. The latter had just disappeared from view when the control tower ordered the Mirages to take off. The air controller started the pair toward Sinai but then ordered them to turn north on full power. Over the Golan, the Mirages jumped four MiGs attacking Israeli ground forces, shooting down one apiece. Marom only now recognized his wingman from his voice as Mirage squadron commander Avi Lanir. Twenty minutes after taking off, they were back at base where Marom handed over the plane to the original pilot, who was furious at having missed his first chance at a combat sortie. (Marom would continue flying for a few days with his old Phantom squadron, scoring more kills, before being recalled to duty at air force headquarters. Lanir would be shot down within a few days over the Syrian lines. He would die under interrogation.)
The main contribution of the air force to the ground battle in Sinai this day was the downing of helicopters trying to land commandos. Of forty-eight commando-bearing helicopters that crossed into South Sinai, twenty would be downed by the IAF and by ground fire, many loaded with troops.
A photo reconnaissance plane, flying at thirty thousand feet well inside Sinai to keep out of range of the SAMs, took photographs of the Canal Zone and beyond for AMAN. Although the air force took the photos, it was military intelligence which decided on distribution.
The canal photos taken on Yom Kippur afternoon were not seen by General Peled until two weeks later. To his astonishment, they showed Egyptian tanks and other vehicles lined up for miles, virtually bumper to bumper, waiting to cross the bridges. Had he known of this stationary target in real time, Peled would say, he would have attacked despite the profusion of SAMs in the area. It would have meant the loss of two to four planes, he estimated, but it would have wrought greater destruction than the fleeing Egyptian army had suffered in Sinai in 1967. It was precisely this picture that Motti Hod had envisioned in drawing up Srita, the plan that was never executed.
Reshef’s battered brigade had been holding the line alone for more than three hours when Mendler’s two other brigades reached the battlefield shortly before dusk. Dan Shomron’s brigade took over the southern sector from the remains of Sakel’s battalion. Gabi Amir’s brigade, made up of staff and cadets from the Armored Corps School, moved to Reshef’s northern flank, where Yom Tov Tamir’s battalion had been destroyed. Each of the brigades detached units to reinforce Reshef’s depleted force in the center.
Shomron had been unable to make radio contact with division headquarters while traversing the Gidi Pass. Emerging, he telephoned Mendler from a small army base.
“What’s the situation?” he asked.
“Grave,” replied Mendler. “The Egyptians are crossing along the entire front. Do the best you can.”
The brigade commander pressed for details. What was the status of Sakel’s battalion, which was now to come under Shomron’s command? How deep had the Egyptians penetrated?
Mendler said he didn’t know. “Do the best you can,” he repeated.
Shomron ordered one battalion under Maj. David Shuval to continue to Fort Lituf, near where Boaz Amir was still holding out. Emerging from between high dunes, Shuval’s battalion came on a score of Egyptian APCs and tanks, the northern wing of the amphibious brigade. The Israeli tank commanders were surprised to encounter Egyptian armor already more than six miles inside Sinai and made quick work of them. Captain Amir’s three remaining tanks were down to their last machine gun bullets when they saw Shuval’s battalion topping a rise two miles to their rear with lights on. Shuval continued past them and engaged more than a score of intact Egyptian APCs closer to the shore of the Bitter Lake. By 9 p.m. all were burning and Shuval’s tanks stood at the water’s edge, without having suffered a loss. The sense of easy victory would not last long.
Shomron’s other battalion had meanwhile proceeded south along the Lateral Road for an hour in the darkness and then turned west toward Mezakh, the southernmost fort on the Bar-Lev Line. Surface mines and RPG teams blocked the way.
At Mafzeah, a newly arrived company linked up with Sakel, who had been maintaining lone vigil for hours. Sakel led the tanks forward in a sweep of the embankment.
What concerned Reshef most was the unmonitored gaps between the forts. Some were wide enough to put an army through, which was precisely what was happening. At dusk, he ordered a newly arrived company to reconnoiter the twelve-mile gap between Matsmed and Purkan in the center of the line. Reshef sent one of his officers as a guide. It was almost dark when the guide, in the lead, called out, “Infantry to the front. Break right.” The day’s experience had already amended the standing order of “Infantry to the front, charge.” Infantry now merited a respectful distance.
The company commander, Maj. Avraham Shamir, saw figures rise from foxholes. His tank was hit glancing blows by RPGs three times but none penetrated and he kept pressing westward. The fourth time, he was wounded. Reshef contacted him to ask what was happening. The company commander was too dazed to respond coherently. The officer guiding them was dead, the tanks were scattered, and radio contact had been lost with most. Reshef ordered him to pull back. Shamir retired a short distance and lit his projector. The remaining tanks, all with wounded aboard, assembled on him. Scorched by this baptism of fire, the company moved off to the rear. With the failure of the patrol, Reshef ordered a tank platoon guarding Fort Matsmed to reconnoiter northward. It too was driven back, its commander wounded.
A newly arrived company commanded by Lt. Zeev Perl resumed the attack toward Hizayon. Drawing fire, the tanks charged toward the source. Most were hit, including Perl’s. He was temporarily blinded and the gunner took his place in the turret. Perl ordered his tanks to pull back but the driver lost his direction. The tank was still traveling toward the canal when it was hit again. Perl called to the loader and the gunner but got no response. Reaching out, he touched their bodies. When the driver slowed to get his bearings, Egyptian soldiers leaped on the tank in an attempt to drop grenades through the open turret. The driver swerved sharply, throwing them off, and then ran over them. The tank stopped only when it went into a bog. The driver extricated Perl, who told him to take the maps and canteens. They proceeded east on foot, the driver leading the blinded officer by the hand for eight hours. Close to dawn they reached a staging area where Perl was evacuated to an aid station. (His sight would return.)
As the night wore on, units were ordered to disengage and tow disabled tanks to the rear. Repairs were imperative if there was to be anything left of the division in the morning.
Meanwhile, in South Sinai as night descended, Israeli forces braced for more Egyptian commando landings along the two hundred miles of coastline south of the Suez Canal. The commander of naval forces at Sharm el-Sheikh, Capt. Zeev Almog, kept patrol boats at sea in anticipation of an Egyptian attempt to land supplies and reinforcements for the commandos helicoptered across the Gulf of Suez. At 10 p.m., two of the vessels picked up radar images of dozens of small craft approaching across the gulf. In the light of flares dropped by a patrolling plane, they saw rubber boats filled with commandos and opened fire. The rubber boats fled into an area of reefs where the Israeli vessels could not follow and succeeded in making their way back to the far shore.
The MiG attack in the afternoon had knocked out radio communications between Almog and two patrol boats at the northern end of the gulf. At 10 p.m., the patrol commander, Ensign Zvi Shahack, was startled to be called directly by the commander of the navy, Adm. Binyamin Telem, speaking from the navy’s war room in Tel Aviv. Intelligence had reported Egyptian plans to transport commandos to the Israeli-held shore this night in fishing boats. The admiral ordered the ensign to cross the gulf and attack any craft he found.
Feeling his way down the dark desert coast, Shahack entered a small anchorage at Marse Telemat while the other patrol boat remained outside. Switching on his projector, he saw fishing boats anchored around the rim of the bay. In the center was a large patrol boat attached to a buoy. Two rubber boats alongside it were filled with commandos in wet suits. Shahack and his crew opened fire as they moved counterclockwise around the anchorage, setting boats ablaze. Points of light showed where Egyptians were shooting back.
The boat shuddered to a stop when it ran onto a reef. Shahack switched off the projector and summoned the other boat to sweep the harbor. Shahack’s chief mechanic, taking off a boot and shoving his sock into a hole in a water pipe, managed to get the engine started. Shahack worked the boat off the reef. The other boat also hung up briefly on a reef but freed itself. The two vessels left the anchorage with half their crews wounded and one man dead but the sky behind them had turned red from burning boats.
Although beginning to grasp the magnitude of the Egyptian attack, the Israeli command had still not absorbed the disastrous nature of its preplanned response—Dovecote. The Egyptians had converted an offensive initiative—the crossing of the canal—into a defensive battle, with the odds on their side. The Israeli tank crews and commanders were fighting with exceptional bravery but their erosion was inevitable as they hurled themselves again and again at the masses of Egyptian infantry waiting for them to do precisely that. The concept of armor shock had been reversed by the Egyptians’ new weapons and tactics—it was armor that was being shocked by infantry.
At 6:30 p.m. Elazar held his first staff meeting of the war. The IDF, he noted, had never before begun a war on the defensive, something it knew about only in theory. Zeira said that according to the Egyptian plan they would push eastward the next day with their armored divisions and hope to reach the Sinai passes in three to five days. The intelligence chief made no mention of the revised plan that the Mossad had passed on from Marwan to AMAN which called for an advance of only five to six miles, not forty miles.
Elazar authorized Gonen to evacuate canal-side forts that were not an impediment to a major canal crossing. However, Gonen did not issue evacuation orders. Instead of pulling back to reorganize, Mendler and Gonen continued to try to stop the Egyptians on the waterline in adherence to a political directive whose wisdom was dubious when conceived and which made no sense at all now. Unlike the tank crews who were adjusting to the Saggers, neither the division nor front commanders were coming to grips with the new realities. They clung mechanically to Dovecote when it should have been clear that a single division could not hold the waterline against a five-division crossing and that the air force could not take up the slack.
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.