Yom Kippur War: 50 years'The weight of the war was on his shoulders'

Did Moshe Dayan secretly want to die on the front lines during the Yom Kippur War?

Reports of seemingly reckless visits to the battlefield and a rumored mental breakdown in the war’s early days may cast light on the defense minister’s feelings of responsibility

Then-defense minister Moshe Dayan makes a speech during the 1973 Yom Kippur War in an undated photograph. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit/Defense Ministry Archive)
Then-defense minister Moshe Dayan makes a speech during the 1973 Yom Kippur War in an undated photograph. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit/Defense Ministry Archive)

After leading his armored division across the first pontoon bridge to span the Suez Canal, Gen. Avraham Adan watched a helicopter descend close to his mobile command post and then-defense minister Moshe Dayan emerge.

Virtually every day since the Yom Kippur War began two weeks before, Dayan had visited the battlefronts — either the Egyptian front or the Syrian or both. After receiving a report on the crossing from Adan — known to all as Bren — the minister wandered off for a look at the lush agricultural zone they were in, watered by the Sweetwater Canal from the Nile. The bodies of numerous Egyptian soldiers lay scattered about, their anti-tank RPGs alongside them. Dayan praised the courage of the Egyptian infantrymen in confronting the Israeli tanks.

As the minister moved away, Bren called to Dayan’s aide: “Keep an eye on your boss. Some of them might still be alive.”

Two Egyptian helicopters skimmed over palm trees, heading for the nearby bridge. From their open doors crewmen pushed out drums filled with napalm that sent up clouds of dense black smoke when they hit the ground. One drum exploded just 50 yards from Dayan. The bridge was not hit and the helicopters were downed by machine gun fire.

In an interview with this reporter 30 years later, Bren said he was convinced that Dayan, in wandering off into a front-line area that had not been cleared, was deliberately courting death. “I felt that he wanted to die and that he wanted to die on a battlefield.”

A similar tale was told by Gen. Uri Ben-Ari, deputy commander of the Egyptian front. He escorted Dayan several times to “the yard,” a roofless enclosure where units waiting their turn to cross the canal hunkered down, often under heavy Egyptian shelling. Scores of men would be killed or wounded there.

“The yard was hell,” said Ben-Ari in an interview years later. “Dayan went there so often that I, and others too, came to believe that he wanted to be hit. I believe he felt all the weight of the war was on his shoulders.”

Both men were aware of reports that Dayan had had a breakdown the first two days of the war.

Then-defense minister Moshe Dayan visits the Sinai Peninsula during the Yom Kippur War, on October 20, 1973. (Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archive)

Dayan’s transition from the country’s military icon — cool, articulate, far-seeing — to someone apparently contemplating suicide was never made public, and therefore remained a hidden part of the trauma gripping Israel. His feeling of personal responsibility for the war’s catastrophic opening lay first of all in his job title — defense minister. Beyond that, he had failed to challenge a major mis-assessment by the Military Intelligence chief, Gen. Eli Zeira. A former aide de camp of Dayan’s, Zeira insisted that the Arabs would not go to war just six years after their monumental defeat in the Six Day War.

In the week before Yom Kippur, numerous reports were received from sources abroad that an Arab attack was imminent. There were also warnings from Israeli troops on both fronts about ominous changes in the enemy’s deployment. All of this was dismissed by Zeira.

Dayan himself was not dismissive. At his prodding, 20 tanks were dispatched as reinforcement to the Golan Heights. “Now we have 100 tanks up there compared to their 800,” said the army chief of staff, Gen. David Elazar, at the next meeting of the General Staff. “That should be enough.” His remark reflected the disdain felt by the Israeli military leadership toward the Arab armies they had overwhelmed in 1967 in less than a week.

Prime Minister Golda Meir, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Minister Yisrael Galili visit the Suez Canal ahead of or during the Yom Kippur War, October 1973. (State Archives)

A few days before Yom Kippur, Dayan flew with several members of the General Staff to the Golan for a look at the Syrian lines. A tank major serving on the front was summoned to brief them. The major pointed toward the camouflaged tanks and artillery pieces deployed across the Syrian plain in the distance and said “war is certain.”

Dayan gave Zeira the right of response. “There will not be another war for 10 years,” said the intelligence chief to the tank major, an officer in the regular army. Despite his own growing unease, Dayan did not press for mobilization.

The surprise Arab attack began at 2 p.m. Saturday, October 6 — Yom Kippur. It caught Israel with its reserves — two-thirds of the army — unmobilized. Within 12 hours, most of the only armored division in Sinai was knocked out — not by tanks, but by Egyptian commandos wielding anti-tank weapons. On the Golan, Syrian tanks during that night gouged a huge hole in the center of the Israeli line.

Dayan helicoptered to Northern Command before dawn Sunday and was told bluntly by the commanding officer that the Golan Heights might have to be abandoned; there were no forces available for a counterattack. “Only the air force can stop them,” he said.

Former chief of staff Haim Bar-Lev, center left, consults with Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon (with bandage) and Moshe Dayan, center, during the Yom Kippur War. (photo credit: GPO/Flash90)
Former chief of staff Haim Bar-Lev, center left, consults with Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon (with bandage) and Moshe Dayan, center, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. (photo credit: GPO/Flash90)

Dayan had himself patched through to the air force commander, Gen. Benny Peled, who had just launched the first stage of Tagar, an operation involving almost the entire air force aimed at destroying all anti-aircraft missile bases on the Egyptian front in a single day. Dayan ordered him to call off the operation and send the air force north. “The Syrians have broken through,” he said.

Peled tried to argue that only destruction of the missiles would permit the air force to provide support for the ground army but Dayan cut him short. “This is not a request,” he said. “It’s an order.”

When Peled’s command staff reacted angrily to the order, Peled slammed the table and said, “You didn’t hear Dayan’s voice.”

For the first time, Dayan had used a phrase he would repeat often in the coming two days — “the Third Temple is in danger,” an allusion to the first two Temples that were destroyed some 2,600 and 1,900 years earlier by Assyrian and Roman armies respectively. The Third Temple was clearly the State of Israel.

The warning by no less than the defense minister that the country was in danger of destruction demoralized all who heard him. Fortunately, the public was not made privy to Dayan’s thoughts. But prime minister Golda Meir was not spared, and thoughts of Dayan harming himself crossed her mind. She had Dayan’s plan to address the nation that night canceled, fearful of what he might say.

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, left, visits the Suez Canal ahead of or during the Yom Kippur War, October 1973. (State Archives)

The disparity of forces along the front lines was surreal. On the 100-mile-long Southern Front, Egypt had 100,000 soldiers, 2,200 tanks and 1,150 artillery pieces ostensibly engaged in an exercise. On the Israeli side of the canal were 500 soldiers on the Bar-Lev Line, 100 tanks and 44 artillery pieces.

On the Golan, the disparity in tanks was 8-1 in favor of the Syrians. Losing planes profusely to the Soviet-made missiles when the war got underway, the air force could not stop the Syrians. It was reserve tank units that did, racing to the Golan like firetrucks to a five-alarm fire and meeting the Syrian divisions head-on — slowing them, stopping them, then turning them around in a series of grueling battles. The major who had briefed Dayan’s party the week before, Shmuel Askarov, was seriously wounded but his gunner had hit numerous Syrian tanks.

Dayan recovered his bearings in the coming days, at least outwardly, while operational control of the army remained in the steady hands of Gen. Elazar. At the war’s tensest moment, when an Israeli division was preparing to cross the canal at night less than a mile from much larger Egyptian forces, Gen. Ariel (Arik) Sharon, who was to lead the crossing, asked on the radio net, “What’s happening elsewhere?”

Dayan, at Southern Command headquarters, took the microphone. “Arik, there is no elsewhere.”

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, left, and Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon, second from right, who suffered a slight head wound, visit Israeli bridgehead on the West Bank of the Suez Canal with other staff officers, October 18, 1973. (AP Photo)

Dayan was the only one of Israel’s generals who thought strategically, said Gen. Dov Tamari, who played an important role in the canal crossing and would in time become Military Intelligence chief. “The others thought tactically. And Dayan had wonderful ideas.”

Three years earlier, he had proposed to Meir a substantial pullback in Sinai, which would have permitted Egypt to reopen the canal to international shipping. Meir rejected Dayan’s idea as a pointless giveaway. If implemented, Dayan believed, it would have reduced Egypt’s incentive for war. It also would have avoided the imbroglio in which Israel would find itself when fighting on the bank of the Suez Canal on Yom Kippur day from tactically inferior positions.

Dayan would continue to bear the brunt of the Israeli public’s anger at the government’s unreadiness. Shouts of “murderer” by bereaved relatives of fallen soldiers would greet him when he appeared in public.

If the views of Bren and Ben-Ari about his suicidal inclinations were correct, there was no one angrier at Moshe Dayan than Moshe Dayan himself. Yet he went on to become foreign minister in the government formed by Menachem Begin, where he played a key role in negotiating a peace treaty with Egypt, a country he had fought against in four wars, that would become an anchor for all future Israel-Arab peace initiatives.

The writer, a former reporter for The Jerusalem Post, covered the Yom Kippur War as a journalist and is author of “The Yom Kippur War,” “The Boats of Cherbourg” and “The Battle for Jerusalem.” He can be reached at abra@netvision.net.il.

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