BATTLE OF THE CHINESE FARM, OCT. 15-17, 1973

Egypt’s October 6 cross-canal attack achieved near-total surprise. The thin line of Israeli defenses was no match for the five infantry divisions and 1,000-plus tanks that poured across the Suez into Sinai. Leading the attack were antitank units, while surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries kept Israeli planes at bay. By October 9 Egypt controlled most of the east bank. Then, on October 14, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat pushed his forces out beyond the SAM umbrella, with disastrous results.

On October 15 Israel counterattacked. The plan called for Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon’s armored division to strike down the central Akavisb Road, secure a key crossroads anchored by the abandoned agricultural station dubbed Chinese Farm and establish a bridgehead. Israeli armored divisions under Maj. Gens. Avrabam Adan and Kaiman Magen would then leapfrog past Sharon, cross the Suez and fan out inside Egypt. Waiting for them at Chinese Farm were entrenched Egyptian armor and infantry.

The Egyptians won the first part of the war, but their success now emboldened President Anwar Sadat, who decided on a deeper penetration of the Sinai. In taking this step, Sadat overruled General Shazy’s arguments that such a step would take his forces beyond the range of SAM cover. The Egyptian offensive began on 14 October and involved more than 2,000 tanks on both sides, making it second in history only to the World War II Battle of Kursk in numbers of tanks engaged. The Israelis brought up reinforcements but were still outnumbered 2:1 in numbers of tanks, a disadvantage that was offset by superior hardware and training and the involvement of the Israeli Air Force. The Israelis not only stopped the Egyptian advance but also destroyed some 500 tanks.

Israeli forces now moved toward the canal in an effort to cross over it and take the Egyptian forces from behind and to destroy the SAM sites. In the process, a large tank battle took place in the area known to the Israelis as the Chinese Farm. The Israelis managed to get some troops and a brigade of paratroopers across the canal, and once a bridge had been thrown across there numbers of tanks followed. The Israelis excelled at rapid maneuver warfare, and they now came up against second-echelon Egyptian troops. The advancing Israeli tanks cut off the Egyptian Third Army at Suez City and were moving north to cut off the Egyptian Second Army when Sadat managed to secure a cease-fire.

Israel won the Yom Kippur War but at a high cost, including the loss of 830 tanks. Sadat had, however, restored Arab pride and went on to visit Israel and conclude a peace settlement with the Jewish state. Many analysts concluded that the Yom Kippur War spelled the end of the tank era: small wire-guided missiles and RPGs had inflicted about a third of Israel’s tank losses. Such a conclusion, however, proved to be premature.

Battle

Pivotal battle on the Egyptian Front during the Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War of 1973. The battle was fought to secure the gap be – tween the Egyptian Second and Third Armies and the crossing site over the Suez Canal used by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) during Operation GAZELLE (October 18-23). The incorrectly named Chinese Farm was a failed experimental station that had been run by a Japanese agricultural assistance mission to Egypt. Israeli soldiers mistook the Japanese lettering on signs and building walls for Chinese. The farm dominated the intersection of two critical roads through the Sinai. The Lexicon Road was the main route parallel to the canal, running roughly north and south from the Great Bitter Lake to Lake Timsah. The Tirtur Road ran roughly east and west, from the canal back into the interior of the Sinai, and was a main axis of advance for the IDF. The two roads crossed just north of the Great Bitter Lake and just south of Chinese Farm.

Following the surprise Egyptian crossing of the Suez Canal on October 6, the IDF committed two hastily mobilized reserve divisions: the 162nd Reserve Armored Division under Major General Avraham Adan and the 143rd Reserve Armored Division under Major General Ariel Sharon, recently retired from the IDF and called back for the mobilization. Sharon from the start pushed his forces toward the enemy, and he had to be restrained constantly by the commander of the IDF Southern Command, Major General Shmuel Gonen. Sharon’s last assignment before retiring only months earlier had been commanding general of Southern Command, and there was constant friction between the two generals.

As early as October 9, reconnaissance elements from Sharon’s 14th Armored Brigade, commanded by Colonel Amnon Reshef, penetrated to the Chinese Farm sector and discovered a gap between the two Egyptian armies. Sharon continued to push for permission to cross the canal and exploit the gap. On October 10, former IDF chief of staff Lieutenant General Chaim Bar-Lev was brought out of retirement and made an adviser to Gonen, effectively superseding the latter in command. Apparently the real reason for the change in command was to keep Sharon under control. Although many in the IDF and the Israeli government considered Sharon to be a loose cannon, all recognized that they desperately needed his fighting abilities at this point in the war.

On October 14, Egyptian forces on the east bank of the canal launched a major offensive along a 100-mile front. More than 1,000 Egyptian tanks faced 750 Israeli tanks. But the Egyptians committed the fatal mistake of moving out beyond the protective umbrella of their relatively immobile surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries, becoming easy prey for the Israeli Air Force. In the ensuing combat, the Egyptians lost more than 250 tanks and hundreds of men. The IDF lost only 25 tanks.

Driving along the Tirtur Road and just south of Chinese Farm, Sharon reached the canal on the night of October 15. He established a bridgehead with his 247th Reserve Paratroop Brigade, under Colonel Dani Matt. Meanwhile, major elements of the Egyptian 16th Mechanized Division under Brigadier General Fuad Aziz Ghali and the 21st Armored Division under Brigadier General Ibrahim Urabi reached Chinese Farm and dug in. Both divisions had been badly mauled in the fighting on October 14 but still had significant remaining combat power. Initially unaware of the size of the Egyptian force at Chinese Farm, Sharon sent a company of the 14th Armored Brigade’s 40th Armored Battalion to secure the crossroads and clear the area. The IDF company was decimated, and the Egyptians closed the corridor behind Sharon.

On the night of October 15, the remainder of the 40th Armored Battalion and a paratroop unit designated Force Shmulik resumed the attack on Chinese Farm, where they encountered withering interlocking fire from Egyptian armored vehicles dug into the farm’s old irrigation ditches. By morning the Israelis held the crossroads but still had not taken Chinese Farm. The 14th Armored Brigade lost 60 tanks and more than 120 men in the fighting up to this point.

Although cut off, Sharon continued to push to be allowed to exploit his crossing, while the IDF high command insisted that Chinese Farm first be cleared. Leaving one battalion to hold the line west of Chinese Farm, Sharon nonetheless disengaged the remainder of the 14th Armored Brigade and started to cross the canal in force. By early on October 16 Sharon had managed to get 27 tanks and 7 armored personnel carriers (APCs) across the waterway on improvised rafts. Adan, meanwhile, pushed forward with his division to break through the corridor and move up a pontoon bridge. He also committed one battalion from the 35th Paratroop Brigade to clear Chinese Farm. This battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel Amir Jaffe, battled for more than 14 hours, suffering 40 dead and 80 wounded, but the Egyptians still held the farm.

Ignoring IDF high command orders, Sharon continued to focus on exploiting his crossing, moving his headquarters to the west bank of the canal. Adan managed to reach the canal with the bridge on October 17. Finally, after Sharon and Adan clashed sharply over who had the responsibility to take Chinese Farm, Sharon redirected the 14th Armored Brigade to clear out the Egyptians once and for all. At the same time, the Egyptians made one final effort to close the corridor again, pushing from the north with the 16th and 21st Divisions and from the south with the Third Army’s 25th Independent Armored Brigade. Sharon and Adan concentrated three armored brigades against the Egyptians. After a day and a half of savage fighting, the Egyptians had lost another 250 tanks.

Chinese Farm finally fell on October 18. By that time, Adan’s division had two brigades on the west side of the canal. The Israelis expanded the bridgehead as the 146th Reserved Armored Division under Brigadier General Kalman Magen started to cross behind Adan. By October 19 the Israelis had about 350 tanks across. They broke out the next day, with Adan’s division heading south toward the port of Suez, Magen’s division following behind that of Adan, and Sharon’s division heading north toward Ismailia. Within days the 63,000 soldiers of the Egyptian Third Army, commanded by Major General Muhammad Abd al-Munim Wasil, were completely cut off.

References Dunstan, Simon. The Yom Kippur War, 1973. 2 vols. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005. Herzog, Chaim. The War of Atonement: The Inside Story of the Yom Kippur War. London: Greenhill, 2003.

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