Israeli Armor Pre-1973

Following World War II the opposing Arab and Israeli armies were among the primary practitioners of armored warfare, largely because the terrain and conditions were so suitable. Long before the partition of Palestine, Israeli agents began the covert purchase of heavy weapons including ten old French R39 light tanks. The newly created Arab states were arming themselves with whatever surplus weapons could be procured on the black market or were abandoned in place by the colonial powers. Egypt had a mixed bag of American M4s and M22 Locust light tanks, British Crusaders and Matildas, and even 1930s vintage British Mark VI light tanks. The Syrians had French H35 and H39 tanks. The Lebanese were stuck with venerable French FTs. Tanks played little role in the 1948–49 War of Independence.

Eager to gain a foothold in the Mediterranean, the Soviet Union cultivated relations with Egypt, and supplied about 230 T-34/85 and IS-3M tanks, seriously skewing the balance of power. By 1955, France was selling weapons to Israel, including M4s and later AMX13 light tanks.

In November 1956, Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser decided to restrict access to the Suez Canal. French and British petroleum tankers were the most affected, prompting both nations to intervene militarily. On November 6, a squadron of AMX-13s from the 2e Régiment Étranger de Cavalerie disembarked at Port Fouad and Port Saïd to reinforce airborne forces.

Israel invaded the Sinai peninsula in an operation heavily influenced by the old blitzkrieg model. The attack came as a complete surprise, advancing into the Sinai. As the major powers increasingly aligned themselves with local powers, the stage was set for a confrontation between the equipment if not the armored doctrines of the United States and the Soviet Union.

With Russia threatening direct military support to the Egyptians and the Americans condemning the “expedition,” the Franco-British troops were forced to withdraw, ending the shortest war in history. In this short and undeclared war the AMX13 was unable to test its full potential. A pattern had been set for heavy Israeli reliance upon armored and airborne forces.

By 1967 both sides were armed to the teeth as part of a sort of proxy war. Egypt, Syria, and Iraq were equipped with a mix of Soviet T-34/85, T-54, T-55, and PT-76 tanks, the newest Soviet T-62s, and self-propelled guns. The Jordanian Army was equipped with American M47, M48, and M48A1 tanks. Israel was far better equipped, with about 250 American-built M48 and M48A1 tanks, many upgraded with the 105-mm L7 main gun used in the Centurion. The Israelis had also upgraded many old M4 tanks to their M50 and M51 “Super Shermans,” with a 105-mm main gun. AMX13s and Centurions remained part of the mix.

Israel Tal had served in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army in World War II, and as a junior officer in the War of Independence. In 1964 Tal assumed command of Israeli armored forces, and set about making it into the centerpiece of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). His doctrine was based upon a triad of mobility, relentless attacks, and exploiting the greater striking range of Western-supplied tanks.

Tal’s armor-heavy doctrine, with emphasis on preservation of Israel’s limited military manpower, held considerable appeal to Israel’s politicians. As a practical matter, Tal’s doctrine would of necessity be aggressive yet strictly tactical in scope, and this led Israel into a strategic trap. Tactical success led to conquest of additional territory that Israel would never be able to completely control, and consumed manpower to defend successively extended borders. The result was a war of low-intensity attrition that continues to the present day.

Egyptian and Syrian armor doctrine imitated that of the Soviets: overwhelming numbers and acceptance of massive losses in pursuit of a clear strategic goal, the elimination of Israel. Tactically, tank crews were trained to advance in a rapid rush to within about a half-kilometer of the enemy before opening fire. This granted Israeli tank gunners, trained to fight at ranges up to 1,500 meters, an enormous advantage in a defensive battle.

Tal was a primary architect of the surprise attack known as the 1967 Six Day War. On the main southern front the Israelis massed six armored, three parachute, one infantry and one mechanized infantry brigades, to face four armored, two infantry, and one mechanized infantry divisions of the Egyptian Army. In all, the Israelis deployed about 70,000 men and 700 tanks, the Egyptians about 900 tanks and 100,000 men. In the critical battle of Abu-Ageila the Israeli 38th Armored Division with about 150 AMX13s, M50s, and Centurions outnumbered and outmatched the Egyptian 2nd Infantry Division supported by only 90 old T-34/85 tanks and 20 SU-100 tank destroyers.

Israel made extensive use of the AMX13. Casualties among crews were high, but the front-mounted engine augmented crew protection, and probably influenced later Israeli tank design. In the north the Israelis faced a smaller Syrian force, and the fighting in the Golan Heights was at shorter ranges that favored the defenders. Here Israeli airpower proved the decisive factor.

In the center the Jordanian Arab Legion took the offensive with American M47 and M48 tanks concentrated between the Jordan River and partitioned Jerusalem. The Israelis launched a counteroffensive that encircled and captured Jerusalem. Among the booty were M47 tanks that the Israelis considered obsolete, and about 100 of Jordan’s M48 and M48A1 tanks that the Israelis happily absorbed into their own army.

The rapid Israeli victory captured the attention of the world, but the ineptitude of their opponents disguised the fact that the IDF was making the same mistakes as many victorious armies. The quick and easy victories led their military to shift too much emphasis onto the tank forces at the expense of infantry.

The victory had gained Israel a broad swath of useless desert, but the only real gain was that Jordan would no longer actively engage Israeli forces. Victory in fact left Israel in a more precarious position, facing Egyptian forces along the 150-km length of the Suez Canal in the 1967–70 War of Attrition, the type of struggle to which Israeli forces were least suited.

In 1968–69 Israel built the Bar Lev Line, a chain of fixed defenses along the Suez Canal. Behind it lay an elaborate road network to allow an armored division with over 300 tanks and an infantry force to deploy, and slow Egyptian penetration until a general mobilization could be effected. Generals Ariel Sharon and Israel Tal objected to a fixed defense, since static positions could be pre-targeted.

In 1970 the Israeli government decided that overseas armaments supplies might be slow in coming or uncertain in future wars, so the country needed an indigenous tank industry. By 1973 Tal was the team leader in the development of a tank design that became the Merkava (Chariot).

The Yom Kippur War

In this general offensive by Arab forces the strategically decisive foe would be Egypt. While the Israeli government mulled over a preemptive attack, on October 6, 1973, the Egyptians breached the berms of the Bar Lev Line in less than three hours, using highpressure pumps mounted on barges to wash away the loose sand of the berm. The strongpoints were inundated by artillery and air attack. Israel had only one armored brigade forward deployed, and piecemeal counterattacks had little effect. Once through the Bar Lev Line the Egyptians advanced quickly into the Sinai. On October 8, the Israelis were finally able to organize a major counterattack to relieve units holding out across the canal from the city of al-Ismailya, only to be driven back with heavy losses to new Soviet 9M14 Malyutka (NATO “Sagger”) antitank missiles and RPGs.

The use of Soviet antitank missiles exposed the weakness of Israel’s excessive reliance upon armored forces, and brought their military close to disaster. The offensively oriented armored force was unable to cope with a massive infantry onslaught, and tank losses were heavy until the Egyptian offensive stumbled to a halt in part because of logistics, in part because of Egyptian reluctance to move beyond the protection of their heavy surface-to-air missile batteries. This respite and a massive American airlift of more modern weapons like the M60 tank staved off disaster for Israel.

On the northern front Syrian forces made significant gains, but an Israeli counteroffensive soon threatened Damascus. In a series of small battles both sides fought to near total exhaustion; the Israeli 7th Armored Brigade was reduced to six tanks. When the Israeli brigade was reinforced by 15 tanks, the debilitated Syrian forces were forced into retreat. In an effort to reduce pressure on Syria, the Egyptians resumed their stalled offensive.

With American weapon resupply assured, Israel shifted back to a familiar offensive posture. On October 15, the spearhead of an Israeli counterattack by two armored divisions crossed the canal, and ran amok among the undefended missile batteries and logistical units in the sort of battle that Israeli doctrine dreamt of but seldom achieved. By October 24 the Israelis had surrounded Suez City and the Egyptian Third Army, but Egyptian air and artillery attacks on the pontoon bridges limited Israeli resupply to a trickle.

Increasing tensions between the Americans and Soviets threatened a widening of the war and the patrons forced a cease-fire that left the two sides intermingled across a huge battle area and virtually assured local resumptions of fighting. Israel Tal—now commander of all ground forces on the southern front—was ordered to resume the attack, but refused the order as unethical, ending his command career in all but name.

As part of the Camp David Accords Israel returned most of the Sinai to Egyptian control and withdrew from around Suez City.

One of the lessons of the war was that excessive Israeli reliance upon armor, small elite infantry forces, and offensive action had left the IDF ill-prepared to repulse major infantry attacks. A more balanced force with a larger infantry component would prove crucial in the ongoing struggles with Palestinian irregular forces.