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'Arab armies attacked undefended borders and we had nothing'

Newly opened archives show Israel’s air force was a weak link during Yom Kippur War

In Hebrew title ‘A War of Its Own,’ Prof. Uri Bar-Joseph airs criticism that’s been kept under wraps, detailing failures that stopped Israeli operations from getting off the ground

  • An Israeli Douglas A-4 Skyhawk taxiing in front of an American Skyhawk on the Tel Nof airbase, Israel, October 1973. (IDF Spokesperson, Courtesy)
    An Israeli Douglas A-4 Skyhawk taxiing in front of an American Skyhawk on the Tel Nof airbase, Israel, October 1973. (IDF Spokesperson, Courtesy)
  • Israeli military vehicles take positions on the Sinai Peninsula during the start of the Yom Kippur War, on October 6, 1973. (Avi Simhoni/Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archives)
    Israeli military vehicles take positions on the Sinai Peninsula during the start of the Yom Kippur War, on October 6, 1973. (Avi Simhoni/Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archives)
  • An anti-aircraft gunner onboard a missile boat during the Yom Kippur War, on October 11, 1973. (Alon Reininger/GPO)
    An anti-aircraft gunner onboard a missile boat during the Yom Kippur War, on October 11, 1973. (Alon Reininger/GPO)
  • The crew of a missile boat at sea during the Yom Kippur War, on October 11, 1973. (Alon Reininger/GPO)
    The crew of a missile boat at sea during the Yom Kippur War, on October 11, 1973. (Alon Reininger/GPO)
  • Israeli paratroopers march along the Suez-Cairo road after crossing the Suez Canal, October 1973. (Ron Ilan/GPO)
    Israeli paratroopers march along the Suez-Cairo road after crossing the Suez Canal, October 1973. (Ron Ilan/GPO)
  • Israeli troops fire a cannon from a position on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War, on October 11, 1973. (Radovan Zeev/Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archives)
    Israeli troops fire a cannon from a position on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War, on October 11, 1973. (Radovan Zeev/Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archives)
  • In this October 30 1973 file photo, a huge Israeli Star of David flag flutters over the recaptured east bank of the Suez Canal. Egyptian forces had overrun the canal in early days of the Yom Kippur War. (AP Photo)
    In this October 30 1973 file photo, a huge Israeli Star of David flag flutters over the recaptured east bank of the Suez Canal. Egyptian forces had overrun the canal in early days of the Yom Kippur War. (AP Photo)
  • In this file photo taken on October 6, 1973, Israeli troops cross the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War. (AFP)
    In this file photo taken on October 6, 1973, Israeli troops cross the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War. (AFP)

Casting an acerbic look at the web of disasters and resilience that was the Yom Kippur War, a new book by University of Haifa Prof. Uri Bar-Joseph depicts the Israeli Air Force (IAF) in 1973 as a confused giant, a pale descendant of the air force that astonished the world in the Six Day War just six years prior.

The Hebrew-language book, whose title translates to “A War of Its Own: The Air Force in the Yom Kippur War,” hangs its tale on the persona of Gen. Benny Peled, then-commander of the IAF, a figure who has hitherto escaped public blame although he was bitterly criticized within the air force at the time by senior officers.

Bar-Joseph, known for his well-received earlier works about the Yom Kippur War, based his latest book on newly released archives, recordings of combat briefings during the war, and interviews with former senior air force personnel.

Peled’s appointment as IAF commander five months before the war surprised many. His background in the air force was mostly in technology and he had far less operational experience than fellow officers.

Unlike many of them, he had never shot down an enemy plane, while he himself had been downed in the Sinai Campaign by ground fire. Brilliant, self-assured and sharp-tongued, he was dismissive of air force officers who had not studied engineering or aeronautics.

According to Bar-Joseph, Peled would override the opinions of veteran staff officers on issues whose fine points he was not familiar with and insisted on having the last word in debates. He controlled the most powerful weapon in Israel’s arsenal — close to 400 top-line warplanes — but his decisions would sometimes prove costly misjudgments.

Prof. Uri Bar-Joseph, author of ‘A War of Its Own.’ (CC-BY-SA 3.0/ Uri Bar-Joseph)

Snap decisions began hours before the war started on Yom Kippur afternoon. Israel had been warned that Egypt and Syria were planning to launch an attack at about 6 p.m., but Washington cautioned Tel Aviv not to undertake a preemptive attack. The Israeli chief of staff, Gen. David Elazar, told Peled that if the Americans did not give a green light to preemptively strike by 3 p.m. he should strip his Phantoms — the core of the air fleet — of their bombs and convert the multi-purpose planes to interceptors. Peled decided to begin the complex process at 1 p.m. rather than wait until 3. The Arabs attacked just before 2 p.m. The Phantoms were now partially stripped and could not be refitted in time for the powerful attack planned for them.

The author quotes Peled’s senior staff officer: “Even in their darkest dreams the heads of the air force had not imagined such a tragic scenario — Arab armies attacking along undefended borders [Author’s note: the reserves had not been mobilized] and the air force stripped of its main weapon.”

Peled ordered all remaining planes to take off and begin patrolling in the event Arab air forces would attempt to swarm air bases in Sinai and Israel, just as Israel had done to Egypt in the Six Day War. Staff officers protested that there were already enough planes aloft for defense and that planes should instead attack Syrian air bases before the October daylight waned.

But the critical day would end without a significant Israeli attack on either front, leaving the outnumbered troops on the front lines to fend for themselves. The Arab forces, wrote Bar-Joseph, were at their most vulnerable on Yom Kippur with their troops on the move and their warplanes just returning to base after their initial strike. “The orders he gave this day trapped the air force in an impossible situation and wasted its enormous potential,” he wrote.

Because of the danger from missiles, the air force’s participation in the ground skirmishes would remain minimal until the war’s final days. Plans for dealing with a canal crossing by Egypt were not implemented in the turmoil following the surprise attack, permitting the Egyptians to establish two bridgeheads on the Sinai bank protected by anti-aircraft missiles.

Benny Peled, IAF chief at the time of the Yom Kippur War (IDF)

A first wave of some 30,000 Egyptian troops in small boats crossed the Suez Canal without interference from Israeli planes, which made no attempt to destroy bridging equipment stacked along the canal banks.

The next day, the Israeli air force was to carry out an extraordinary operation — codenamed Tagar — which it had been working on for three years. It aimed at destroying in a daylong series of attacks all the anti-aircraft missile batteries that the Egyptians, with Soviet input, had installed in the canal area.

The first stage had already begun when defense minister Moshe Dayan, shocked by the Syrian breakthrough on the Golan, ordered Peled to call off Tagar and “send the air force north.” Peled tried to argue but was overruled. Phantoms were hurriedly ordered north to attack the Syrian missile batteries.

Planners on Peled’s staff vigorously opposed the changes, arguing that there were enough planes already designated for the Syrian front and that it was vital to complete Tagar. There was no time to take air photos to check whether the Syrian missile batteries were in the same places they had been the day before, and no time to bring the electronic equipment needed to divert enemy radars up from the Sinai.

Peled nevertheless ordered the attack launched. Most of the enemy missiles had been moved and six Phantoms were shot down in the bungled operation. The failure shook the air force’s confidence. Tagar would not be resumed and the missile defenses would severely curb Israeli air activity over both fronts nearly through the end of the war. Veteran officers on Peled’s staff believed that his much-admired predecessor, Gen. Motti Hod, who had carried out the preemptive strike in 1967, would have found a way to keep Tagar alive, either by explaining the situation to Dayan more persuasively or otherwise.

In this file photo taken on November 10, 1973, Egyptians unload an amphibious vehicle carrying supplies for the Egyptian third army encircled in the Sinai on the Suez Canal, during the Yom Kippur War. (Gabriel Duval/AFP)

Two years before, Hod had witnessed an Egyptian division deployed along the Suez Canal as if preparing to cross. The Egyptian force was lined up densely for miles on a narrow road leading to the waterway — tanks, personnel carriers, fuel trucks and the myriad other vehicles of an army going into battle. Hod ordered his staff to draw up a detailed plan to attack any such formation at the beginning of a future war. The plan’s code name was “Srita,” Hebrew for “Scratch.”

When the Yom Kippur War broke out Hod expected Peled to unleash the attack on one or more crossing points to throw the Egyptians off balance. But it was the IAF that was off balance. Expressing his deep disappointment in Peled later, Hod said, “He had only to say [into the radio] ‘Srita. Execute.’ The air force knew what to do.”

An Egyptian vehicle burns in the Sinai Peninsula during the Yom Kippur War, on October 16, 1973. (Morris/Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archive)

What troubled Elazar most, writes Bar-Joseph, was the lack of adequate air support for the troops in the field. Elazar gave the air force chief a stinging dressing-down midway through the war for failing to attack agreed-upon targets. Ground commanders had complained that calls for airstrikes against Egyptian strong points blocking their way had not been heeded, the planes instead attacking peripheral targets.

“Does it suit you to go off on all kinds of missions that don’t interest me?” the chief of staff asked Peled. “Until now I believed that in war you concentrate your efforts and avoid expending strength on secondary targets. Am I to understand that in the air force it works differently? I want to be sure that you understand exactly what interests us, and by us, I mean me.”

He chided Peled for often missing the daily briefings in which Elazar spelled out his objectives for the coming day, which should have enabled Peled to tailor air operations accordingly. Instead, the IAF was pursuing its own plans.

Then-IDF chief of staff David Elazar (center) and other IDF top officers visit the Sinai Peninsula during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in an undated photograph. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit/Defense Ministry Archive)

Peled acknowledged that he sometimes pursued soft targets, like coastal radar stations, because of morale. He needed targets, he told Elazar, that would not consistently overstress his airmen, who were often making two or more combat sorties a day. “Hitting [soft] targets is in a way occupational therapy, but it also gives results,” said Peled. “The worst thing I can do is to send the air crews only on life or death missions.”

The air force had already lost close to 100 planes and scores of pilots at this point, but Peled had begun falsifying the number upwards — as he would readily admit afterward — for what he saw as strategic reasons.

Some generals opposed a canal crossing as too risky. Peled, who favored a quick crossing, told the general staff that the number of operational planes was almost at his red line of 120. If the number of planes fell below that, he said, the air force would no longer be able to support a major operation like a canal crossing: the planes would be needed to protect the nation’s skies in the event of an all-out attack by Arab air forces. Given the almost daily erosion of planes, he maintained, a canal crossing would have to be carried out by that weekend if it was to have air support.

In this file photo taken on October 6, 1973, Israeli troops cross the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War. (AFP)

But the actual number of deployable planes was still well above 120. The canal crossing would be made a few days later but for reasons unconnected to Peled’s false warning. Ben-Joseph describes Peled’s numbers game as his worst offense in the war, a distortion of the decision-making process. Peled, less than half a year on the job, had unwarranted confidence in his own wisdom as opposed to that of Elazar, Dayan and other experienced generals who understood the nuances of ground warfare much better than he did.

In a remarkable turn of events after the crossing, it was Israel’s ground troops who provided support for the air force. Tanks began rolling up on missile sites, opening patches of sky for Israeli planes, which began widening them. In the last two days of the war, with missiles now gone, the IAF offered effective ground support as in the Six Day War. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat hastily requested a ceasefire.

An Israeli cannon artillery cannon opens fire from the Sinai Peninsula during the Yom Kippur War, on October 6, 1973. (Avraham Vered/Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archive)

Elazar had said before the war that if ever there was a surprise Arab attack and the reserves had not been mobilized, the air force, supporting the troops on the line, would be the major force holding back the enemy until the reserves could reach the front. Some air commanders would claim that the IAF alone kept the Syrians from the towns and kibbutzim in the Jordan Valley in the desperate early hours of the war, and this narrative would be generally accepted.

While Israeli planes were shot down over the Golan in bold attempts to slow down the Syrians, Bar-Yosef notes a report by one researcher claiming that of 1,500 tanks left behind by the retreating Syrians it could not be determined that any had been hit from the air. Be that as it may, the Syrians were stopped by reserve tank brigades and battalions, arriving independently after speedy mobilization, and throwing themselves across the paths of the advancing Syrian divisions.

Captured Egyptians in the Sinai desert, at the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War (Courtesy David Rubinger/Knesset collection)

One of the air force’s major failures cited in the book was its inability to interdict the almost 1,000-kilometer-long (600-mile) passage of Iraqi tank brigades to the front line in Syria, a failure that halted the Israeli drive toward Damascus.

Bar-Joseph equates Peled with two generals who were dismissed after the war — military intelligence chief Eli Zeira, responsible for delaying mobilization of the reserves, and Shmuel Gonen, who proved inept as commander of the southern front and was replaced two days into the war.

Israeli troops rushing up to the northern frontier with the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, on October 7, 1973. (GPO/Eitan Harris)

Unlike them, Peled would remain at his post until his term ended four years later, playing a central role in rebuilding the IAF. But his controversial role as its wartime commander was little noted outside the air force. Bar-Joseph’s book is certain to change that. Debates among air force veterans from that period, men now mostly in their 70s and 80s, has already begun. For them and for Yom Kippur War buffs, Bar-Yosef’s insightful book is a must.

Abraham Rabinovich is the author of “The Yom Kippur War” (Schocken Press), “The Boats of Cherbourg” (Naval Institute Press) and “The Battle for Jerusalem: An Unintended Conquest.”

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