The Arab-Israeli war of 1967, known to history as the Six-Day War, began on the morning of June 5, 1967. For all intents and purposes, it was over by noon on the first day as a result of the preemptive attack by the Israeli Air Force. This aerial offensive remains one of the most stunning successes in modern warfare. In a mere three hours, the Israelis achieved air superiority by destroying much of the Egyptian Air Force on the ground. Attacks against Egypt were followed by sorties against targets in Syria, Jordan, and western Iraq, thus ensuring that Israeli ground operations could go forward unimpeded.
The Six-Day War resulted from Israeli alarm over bellicose moves by the Arab states of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. Syria stepped up border clashes with Israeli forces in 1966, and Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered a blockade of the Strait of Tiran, massed troops on the Egyptian-Israeli border, and secured the removal of the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping troops. Syria and Jordan had also mobilized their forces, and Iraqi forces had begun moving to Jordan.
Israel had previously announced that it would go to war under any of those conditions. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was heavily outnumbered in terms of men and equipment, however. Figures vary widely, but one estimate is as follows: manpower, mobilized strength of 230,000 for Israel to 409,000 for Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq; tanks, 1,100 for Israel to 2,437 for the Arab states; artillery, 260 for Israel to 649 for the Arab states; naval vessels, 22 for Israel to 90 for the Arab states; and aircraft (all types), 354 for Israel to 969 for the Arab states. The Arab states were handicapped by not having any unified plan, however.
Israeli minister of defense Moshe Dayan, IDF chief of staff Lieutenant General Itzhak Rabin, and Premier Levi Eshkol determined that war was inevitable and decided that Israel should launch a preemptive attack. Defense against an Arab air attack would be difficult because Israel was so small that early warning systems would not provide sufficient time for Israeli fighters to scramble. Tel Aviv was 25 minutes flying time from Cairo but only 4.5 minutes from the nearest Egyptian airbase at El Arish. For whatever reason, Nasser did not believe that the Israelis would strike first, despite his announced eagerness for battle.
The Israeli air attack relied on accurate, timely, and precise intelligence information. The plan called for a first strike against Egypt, the most formidable of Israel’s opponents. IDF fighters would take off from airfields all over Israel and fly under radio silence and at low altitude to avoid radar west out over the Mediterranean, and they would then turn south to strike Egyptian airfields as simultaneously as possible. Rather than attacking at dawn, the IDF strikes were timed to coincide with the return of Egyptian pilots to base from their morning patrols, when most Egyptian pilots would be having breakfast.
The Israeli Air Force (IAF), one of the best-trained air forces in the world, was well prepared for its mission. Aircrews had been thoroughly briefed as to objectives and procedures. IAF ground crews were also highly trained and able to reduce turnaround time between missions to a minimum. The operation was daring in that it would employ almost all Israeli bomber and fighter aircraft, leaving only a dozen fighters behind to fly defensive combat air patrols.
The IAF achieved complete tactical surprise. Commanded by Major General Mordechai Hod, its aircraft went into action at 7:45 a. m. (8:45 a. m. Cairo time). One unexpected development was that Field Marshal Ali Amer, the United Arab Republic (UAR) commander in chief, and his deputy, General Mamoud Sidky, were in the air, flying from Cairo to inspect units in the Sinai, when the attacks occurred. Unable to land in the Sinai they returned to Cairo, and for 90 minutes two key UAR commanders were out of touch with their units and unable to give orders.
The first wave struck 10 Egyptian airfields, hitting all of them within 15 minutes of the scheduled time. On their final approach to the targets, the Israeli aircraft climbed to become suddenly visible on radar and induce Egyptian pilots to attempt to scramble in the hopes of catching the pilots in their aircraft on the ground. Only four Egyptian aircraft, all trainers, were in the air at the time of the first strikes, and all were shot down. Subsequent waves of Israeli attacking aircraft, about 40 per flight, arrived at 10 minutes intervals. These met increased Egyptian opposition, mostly antiaircraft fire. Only 8 Egyptian MiGs managed to take off during the strikes, and all were shot down.
In all, the IAF struck 17 major Egyptian airfields with some 500 sorties in just under three hours, destroying half of Egyptian Air Force strength. Most of the Egyptian aircraft were destroyed by accurate Israeli cannon fire, but the Israeli planes also dropped 250-, 500-, and 1,000-pound bombs. Special bombs with 365- pound warheads, developed to crack the hard-surface concrete runways, were dropped on Egyptian airfields west of the Suez Canal, but none of these were employed against the Sinai airfields, which the Israelis planned for subsequent use by their own aircraft. During the war Egypt lost a total of 286 aircraft: 30 Tupolev Tu-16 heavy bombers, 27 Ilyusian medium bombers, 12 Sukhoi Su-7 fighter bombers, 90 MiG-21 fighters, 20 MiG-19 fighters, 75 MiG-17/15 fighters, and 32 transport planes and helicopters.
Later that same day, June 5, Israeli aircraft struck Syria and Jordan. Israeli leaders had urged King Hussein of Jordan to stay out of the war. He desired to do so but was under heavy pressure to act and hoped to satisfy his allies with minimum military action short of all-out war. Jordanian 155-millimeter “Long Tom” guns therefore went into action against Tel Aviv, and Jordanian aircraft attempted to strafe a small airfield near Kfar Sirkin. The Israeli government then declared war on Jordan.
Following an Iraqi air strike on Israel, IAF aircraft also struck Iraqi air units based in the Mosul area. In all during the war, the Arabs lost a total of 390 aircraft of their prewar strength of 969 aircraft of all types (Egypt, 286 of 580; Jordan, 28 of 56; Syria, 54 of 172; Iraq, 21 of 149, and Lebanon 1 of 12). IAF losses were only 32 aircraft shot down of 354 at the beginning of the war; only 2 of these were lost in aerial combat.
With its opposing air forces largely neutralized, the IAF could turn to close air support and other missions in support of Israeli mechanized ground forces, which had begun operations in the Sinai simultaneously with the initial air attacks. Israeli’s success in the war was complete. On June 7 Israel and Jordan accepted the UN Security Council call for a cease-fire. The UN also brokered a cease-fire on June 9 between Israel and Egypt. Israel accepted immediately, while Egypt accepted the next day. A cease-fire was also concluded with Syria on June 10.
On the Israeli side the Six-Day War claimed some 800 dead, 2,440 wounded, and 16 missing or taken prisoner. Arab losses, chiefly Egyptian, were estimated at 14,300 dead, 23,800 wounded, and 10,500 missing or taken prisoner. Tank losses were 100 for Israel and 950 for the Arabs. The war immensely increased the territory controlled by Israel. Israel now possessed all of the Sinai east of the Suez Canal from Egypt, the east bank of the Jordan River and the city of Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. Whether these acquisitions would enhance or impede the chances for peace in the Middle East remained to be seen.
Operation Focus: A Winning Air Strike
The Six Day War is engraved on the Israeli psyche—and rightly so to a large degree—as the most successful war in Israeli history. And although there are differences of opinion regarding the war’s social and diplomatic implications, everyone agrees on one thing—and that is the successful army campaign that led to victory. The cries “the Temple Mount is in Our Hands” following the breach and capture of East Jerusalem, the moving pictures of the paratroopers, Rav Goren blowing a shofar at the Western Wall, the famous picture of Major General (as he became) Yossi Ben-Hanan in the Suez Canal on the cover of LIFE Magazine, the conquest of the Hermon and the Golan Heights—all were carved onto the Israeli public consciousness and became symbols of the war. The conquest of East Jerusalem and the realization of the Zionist and Jewish dream of returning to the sources and the historical Jewish sites made people forget a little about other no less important events of the war.
Thus, to some extent, people have forgotten about the operation which basically enabled Israel to achieve its glorious victory in the war—Operation Focus. In this operation, which was planned right down to the last detail before the war, almost 400 aircraft, that is 70% of the Arabs air force, were destroyed in just a few hours. Besides destroying the planes, the Israeli air force bombed the Arab airfields, which left the skies free to the Israeli air force for the rest of the war, allowing ground forces could operate practically unimpeded.
Years of Meticulous Planning
Plans for the operation, which aimed to destroy the Arab air forces while still on the ground and to seriously smash their runways, began long before the war broke out. In fact, an article on the subject in the Israeli air force journal reveals that planning for the operation began in 1964 and was completed about a year and a half before the war. Among the subjects analyzed by the planning team, which was based on the British Air Force planning model of the Second World War, was the question of how many planes would be needed for the mission and how to effectively put the Egyptian air fields out of commission.
The operation signal came on June 5 1967—the day the Six Day War began—at 0745. Zero hour, the hour for the operation, was not random. It was the hour when the Egyptian air force, which Israel targeted in the first attack, was least ready. The pilots ate their breakfast at this time so their reaction time would be delayed. Surprise was of the essence and the Israeli pilots were told to maintain radio silence and not use their radios even if hit or forced to bail out.
About the Performance: “Air France”
Every kind of craft the air force had was used for the operation—from the fighter planes of the day—the Ouragan, the Mystere and the Mirage—to the long range bombers like the Vautour, and the pilot training aircraft, the Fuga Magister. The training planes were used because the air force had not choice—at the time, it had only 203 aircraft, 185 of which were used in the operation. Almost all the aircraft were French owing to the warm and friendly relationship between Israel and France until the Six Day War.
When the planes took off at 0714 from their different bases around the country, the signal was given to launch the operation and the first assault wave—against the Egyptian airfields. Over 100 Egyptian planes were destroyed while still on the ground and other planes, both on the Israeli and on the Egyptian side of air border were hit and fell in the aerial battles that developed. The second assault wave, which began at 0900 and lasted two hours, damaged 107 additional Egyptian planes. At this stage, the Israeli planes suffered less strikes than anticipated in the planning phase. At the same time, fighter planes from Syria, Jordan, and Iraq began to attack targets inside Israel. Kibbutz Deganya was attacked and attacks were recorded on Netanya, Ben Gurion Airport, and the Tel Nof and Sirkin air forces bases.
Bombing of Israeli territory by the Arab air forces led to the decision to bomb enemy planes and air strips in additional countries. The third and fourth waves of Operation Focus were broader than the initial strikes and included attacks on the Jordanian, Lebanese, Syrian, and Iraqi air forces. The Jordanian air force was destroyed in its entirety while still on the ground and half the air craft of the Syrian air force were wiped out. Sorties were flown deep into Iraqi territory, reaching as far as H3 air port in western Iraq. In addition to the strikes on the enemy air craft, anti-runway bombs were dropped. These bombs were an original Israeli invention and were labeled “Israel’s secret weapon” by the rest of the world. They were planned so that they fell at a perpendicular angle on the flight runway, gouging out a crater to make the air field unusable.
Hundreds of Aircraft Destroyed in Four Hours
The operation was an astounding success. In only four hours, hundreds of planes of the Arab air forces were wiped out. There are different opinions as to the exact number, but it is somewhere between 350-400 planes. By the end of the Six Day War, more than 450 Arab aircraft had been destroyed. The Israeli side also took losses: 48 planes were destroyed and 24 personnel killed in the operation. The Fuga Magister, the training planes used the operation for lack of an alternative, were the ones that suffered most. These planes were difficult to maneuver and outmatched by the enemy craft. They were also not fitted with ejector seats. Because so many of these planes were destroyed, it was decided not to use training craft for attack in the future.
Despite the losses in planes and pilots, Operation Focus is looked back on as one of the most heroic and successful operations in Israeli air force history. The loss of planes is also put in perspective by the rumor that the Egyptian air force was planning an operation identical to Focus, whose success would have meant a completely different outcome to the war. The military success of the Six Day War and Israel’s lightening victory was largely achieved through Israel’s absolute control of the air provided by Operation Focus.
And finally, something to consider. Israel’s air supremacy over enemy planes, which is maintained to this day, may in fact have weakened us. This is because in the years following Operation Focus, it gave way to a perception by the army and to the (perhaps overconfident) notion, that Israel could win other wars from the air, which is apparently what Chief of Staff Halutz believed in the second Lebanon war…
References Hammel, Eric. Six Days in June: How Israel Won the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. New York: Scribner, 1992. Oren, Michael. Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Rubenstein, Murray, and Richard Goldman. Shield of David: An Illustrated History of the Israeli Air Force. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1978. Van Creveld, Martin. The Sword and the Olive: A Critical History of the Israeli Defense Force. New York: Public Affairs, 1998. Weizman, Ezer. On Eagle’s Wings: The Personal Story of the Leading Commander of the Israeli Air Force. New York: Macmillan, 1976.