Forty years ago–6 October 1973 – Egyptian forces stormed the supposedly “impregnable” Israeli Bar Lev fortifications along the Suez Canal. Syrian forces advanced onto the Israel-occupied Golan Heights.
In spite of scores of warnings, Israel was taken by surprise. Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan sneered at the Arabs as incompetent bunglers and could not imagine that the Syrians and Egyptians who had been quickly routed in the 1967 war could have the audacity to attack Israel.
Israeli armored units counterattacked with their usual panache. Israel’s air force, among the world’s best, pounced on the advancing Egyptians and Syrians. To their dismay, new, Soviet-supplied Sagger AT-3 anti-tank missiles and Egyptian infantry with shoulder-fired RPG missiles shattered Israel’s armored thrusts that rashly lacked infantry support.
New Soviet SA-6 and older SA-2 and SA-3 anti-aircraft missiles, and hundreds of AA guns, shot down almost 20% of Israel’s air force. On Golan, close to 1,000 Syrian tanks advanced.
As a veteran war correspondent, I had been able to inspect Egypt’s Suez Canal deployments, and both Syrian and Israeli positions on Golan. Both sides fought like lions. But Israel enjoyed major advantages: its superb air force, its highly-trained tank crews, and British and American tanks that were much superior to the Soviet T-54/55 or T-62’s of the Egyptians and Syrians.
On Golan, 100 Israeli Centurions held up close to 800 Syrians tanks. Using their deadly 105mm cannon, Israel’s tankers picked off advancing Syrian armor at ranges of over 3 kms.
Small Israeli forts on Golan played a key defensive role.
Israel’s defense of Golan was a second Thermopylae.
Eventually, overwhelming Syrian forces pushed almost to the edge of the Golan Heights above the strategic B’not Ya’acov Bridge. Northern Israel lay exposed.
Then, mysteriously, Syria’s armored juggernaut halted. To this day the reason is uncertain. The Syrian high command may have been frightened of advancing into Israel, fearing its exposed flanks would be attacked (this was the French theory of allowing gaps in their defensive line to encourage the enemy to cross them and then be attacked on three sides).
I was told by Soviet military intelligence that the Syrian halt was caused by Moscow’s warning to Damascus that Israel was deploying its nuclear armed missiles to strike the advancing Syrians.
By contrast, Prof. Alon ben-Meir, a highly respected Israeli intelligence and military analyst who was there tells me that Israel would never use nukes so close to its populated areas. By why then does Israel reportedly still have nuclear land mines? Is this what Pulitzer-prize winner Seymour Hersh calls Israel’s “Sampson Option” ?
Or, it may be that Syria’s strongman, Hafez al-Assad, was confused, and fearful of losing his army. Syria’s plan was to retake Golan, not advance into Israel proper. Meanwhile, Israel was rapidly mobilizing its reserved armored units and rushing them up to Golan.
At the same time, a massive US military airlift was under way to resupply the Israelis who were critically low on missiles, bombs, spare parts and other war gear. President Richard Nixon authorized the air bridge that saved Israel on the 11th hour. Ironic since he was reputed to be an anti-Semite. Nixon and his foreign policy chief Henry Kissinger worried that failure to resupply Israel could cause the Republican Party to lose votes and funding.
The US aided Israel in another critically important way. A US SR-71 Blackbird Mach 3 recon aircraft and satellites spotted a yawning gap in Egypt’s lines that separated its two armies on the east side of the Canal. Israel’s brilliant Gen. Ariel Sharon exploited this gap, rushing his armor across the Suez Canal and destroying much of Egypt’s anti-aircraft guns and missiles on its west side that had been fending off the Israeli Air Force. Israel’s crossing the canal cut off Egypt’s two armies on the other side of the Canal.
Egypt and Syria fought ponderously as they were trained by Soviet advisors. Israel’s tank forced fought in the German style of lightening movement. In the end, both sides won victories: Egypt at least restored its pride by the daring Suez Canal crossing; Israel proved it could smash its Arab foes.
Israel went on to prosper and grow stronger. Egypt slide deeper into dictatorship and near total US influence.