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

Worse than the worst-case scenario: The dreadful hours before the Yom Kippur War

A leading chronicler of the 1973 war traces the harrowing final hours as Israeli leaders realized, far too late, that they’d refused to read the signs of imminent conflict

Main image by Eitan Harris / GPO: Israeli troops rushing up to the northern frontier with the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, October 7, 1973

The London streets they walked through after midnight were empty. It was Yom Kippur eve but the sacredness of the hour was not uppermost in the minds of the small group of Israelis. One of them, Zvi Zamir, had just met with his most important source in the Arab world and was formulating a memo in his head to be transmitted by telephone. Zamir was head of the Mossad.

The memo was intended to sound like a dull business report in case anyone was eavesdropping. In reality it was a call to arms, notifying Israel’s leadership in coded phrases that the nation was in its most perilous situation since its founding 25 years before. Two Arab armies, trained by the Soviet Union and armed with a profusion of modern weapons, would launch a two-front attack on Israel before the day was done.

Israel was not ready; it had not even mobilized its reserves, two-thirds of the army’s strength.

Arriving at the home of the local Mossad station chief, Zamir wrote out the memo in longhand and asked the international operator to connect him to the number of his bureau chief in Israel, Freddy Eini. There was a problem getting through. “I think it’s a holiday in Israel,” said the operator.

Zamir confirmed that it was. Finally he heard a familiar but sleepy voice on the other end.

“Put your feet in a tub of cold water,” advised Zamir.

Zvi Zamir (Courtesy)

He told Eini he would give him the gist of his meeting. Then, dictating slowly, he described a talk with foreign business executives. “They speak about the contract in terms we are familiar with.” (That meant the Egyptians would be executing the updated war plan the Mossad had acquired from its high-priced Egyptian agent, Ashraf Marwan, son-in-law of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser.)

“The executives intend to come to Israel even though they know it is Yom Kippur.” (The attack begins today.)

“They think they can land before darkness.” (An attack at dusk.)

“They don’t have partners outside the region.” (The Soviets will not be involved.)

Saturday, October 6, 1973 — Yom Kippur

Translating Zamir’s message into straightforward Hebrew, Eini made his first call at 3:40 a.m. to Gen. Yisrael Leor, Golda Meir’s military aide. Mrs. Meir had spent a restless night. Leor woke her into her nightmare.

“We have information that there will be war with Egypt and Syria by tonight,” said Elazar. “Are you ready?”

Next was defense minister Moshe Dayan’s aide-de-camp. It was only at 4:30 that IDF chief of staff David Elazar, upon whom time would press most of all, was wakened by his own aide-de-camp. The pace now quickened. Gen. Elazar asked that members of the General Staff be at headquarters by 5:15. The heads of Northern and Southern Commands were to be there by 6.

Elazar himself telephoned from home the air force commander, Gen. Benny Peled. “We have information that there will be war with Egypt and Syria by tonight,” said Elazar. “Are you ready?”

“Ready,” said Peled.

“What do you want to do?”

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

Peled gave priority to Syria’s SAM (surface-to-air missile) batteries since the Syrian front, close to the Golan settlements and Israel proper, presented a more immediate danger than the relatively distant Egyptian front. Elazar agreed. “Roll it,” he said. “I’ll get permission.” Authorization for a preemptive strike would have to come from both Dayan and Meir. Peled said the air force would be ready by 11 a.m. –noon.

As Elazar dressed, his wife, Talma, sleepily asked what was happening. “This is it,” he said. ”War.” The look on his face, almost ceremonial, was one she had seen before.

Driving through the empty streets of Tel Aviv, Elazar made a quick scan of the situation. It immediately registered “extreme.” It had been a basic assumption of the high command that Military Intelligence would provide a five- or six-day warning of war. This would permit full mobilization and allow time for reservists to feel the heft of their weapons. Two days’ warning was the least expected but enough for mobilization. The present timetable – half a day’s warning, if that — was something he had never imagined.

Gen. Eli Zeira, chief of military intelligence, arrived at headquarters shortly after Elazar. He assured the chief of staff that Egyptian president Anwar Sadat would not go to war, a theme he had consistently been expounding despite numerous reports from reliable sources in recent weeks that war was imminent. These sources included Jordan’s king Hussein who had secretly helicoptered to Tel Aviv the week before to alert Meir. Elazar chose to humor Zeira. “Let’s act as if there will be a war.”

The certainty of war had, for Elazar, at last cleared the air. He was totally focused now on what lay ahead — “like a bulldog,” his aide would say. There was as yet no authorization for mobilization but Elazar told his deputy, Gen. Israel Tal, to activate the network that would carry it out, thus saving several hours. Without waiting for authorization, he himself ordered the call-up of several thousand key personnel, including staff officers at various command levels; also, some commando units.

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)

At 5:50 a.m., Elazar met with Dayan. An officer who took notes of the meeting was surprised at Elazar’s jauntiness. When Elazar said he wanted to quickly smash the Syrians, the defense minister asked what his hurry was. Elazar replied with a Jewish joke. An early riser in an East European shtetl is surprised to see a friend coming out of a brothel at 6 a.m. Why this early? he asks him. I have a busy day ahead of me, says the friend. I just wanted to get this out of the way.

To Elazar’s astonishment, Dayan rejected a preemptive strike

To Elazar’s astonishment, Dayan rejected a preemptive strike. Dayan said he was not at all sure war would break out, despite Zamir’s call. “We don’t order full mobilization just on the basis of Zvika’s report.” There had been similar warnings in the past that had proved false. The CIA was reporting no sign of war.

“We’re in a political situation in which we can’t do what we did in ’67,” said Dayan, referring to the preemptive airstrike against Egypt that opened the Six Day War. To attack, particularly when the Americans were saying the Arabs were not going to war, would be seen as initiating hostilities regardless of what the Arabs were planning. Dayan had assured air force commander Peled a few months before that the government would authorize a first strike if the Arabs were seen preparing for war but the promise had not stood the test of reality. The only circumstance in which he was prepared to approve a preemptive strike, said Dayan, was if information was received that the Arabs were planning to attack Tel Aviv.

Prime minister Golda Meir and defense minister Moshe Dayan meeting with troops on the Golan Heights, on November 21, 1973. (Ron Frenkel/GPO)

The minister also opposed Elazar’s proposal for an “almost full” mobilization of 200,000-250,000 reservists. In the absence of active hostilities, mobilization on this scale would itself be perceived as an act of war. At this stage, Dayan said, only forces needed to buttress defense, 20,000-30,000 men, should be mobilized.

Elazar said that defense alone would require 50,000-60,000 reservists, double Dayan’s figure. Certain that war was coming, he urged that the entire reserve combat force be mobilized – four armored divisions plus ancillary units – in order to be ready to counter-attack as soon as the initial Arab drive had been stopped.

Dayan agreed to accept the 50-60,000 figure for defense. But the approval of the prime minister was needed. Since they would be meeting with Meir shortly, the two left the overall decision to her, together with the decision on a preemptive strike.

Elazar put off the planned meeting with Meir in order to confer with the generals who would lead the coming battles. He wanted to be sure that they were all thinking within the same parameters. He met separately with the commanders of the northern and southern fronts. The warning of war, he told them, was shorter than they had ever imagined. “We’ll mobilize whatever they permit. The rest we’ll call up when the shooting starts.”

Elazar asked them to return to their headquarters and set their commands in motion. They were to come back at noon to tie up loose ends with him. Elazar then met with the commanders of the air force, navy and armored corps. He told them that war was expected to break out about 6 p.m. Summoning the army spokesman, Elazar told him to attach foreign correspondents to both fronts so that they could report which side opened fire first.

Elazar was anxious about Sinai. Dovecote, the standing plan for coping with a surprise attack on that front, was based on full mobilization, which had not even started. It had also had not been designed to hold off an attack by five divisions, which now seemed imminent. “We’re in for a difficult war,” he said.

Meeting the PM

The meeting with the prime minister got underway at 8:05 a.m. Dayan began by saying that war was not a certainty. Children in the Golan settlements would be evacuated in the afternoon, a couple of hours before the mooted Arab attack, on the pretext that they were being taken on an outing. A reduction in tension during the day might make evacuation unnecessary and thus avoid a public outcry at a government-sponsored excursion on the holiest day of the year.

Acting under her mandate as a grandmother rather than as prime minister, Meir ordered that the children be brought down immediately. (This would save them from being trapped when the Arabs opened their attack with a massive artillery barrage at 2 p.m. rather than 6.) Dayan and Elazar then presented their respective cases.

“If we strike first we won’t get help from anybody,” Meir said

It was admittedly bizarre to have two generals, veteran war horses at the pinnacle of Israel’s military establishment, bringing their differences over vital military matters to a 75-year-old grandmother who admitted to not knowing what a division was or much else about military matters. Dayan had always treated her with the deference due her position. Meir lit one cigarette after another as they spoke, filling the room with acrid smoke that caused those present to squint. Elazar expressed readiness to compromise on mobilization of 100,000-120,000 men at this stage. Gathering from Meir’s questions that she was leaning toward his view, he dispatched his aide to make a phone call that would get mobilization started for two divisions.

Golda Meir (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Golda Meir (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When the presentations were done, the prime minister hemmed uncertainly for a few moments but then came to a decision. She ruled against a preemptive strike. Israel might be needing American assistance soon. “If we strike first we won’t get help from anybody,” she said. As for mobilization, she agreed to Elazar’s compromise proposal. “If war does break out, better to be in proper shape to deal with it, even if the world gets upset with us.”

Summing up, Dayan said, “The chief of staff will mobilize the entire force he has proposed.”

It was now 9:25 a.m. A sense of relief descended on those in the room despite the somberness of the moment. Indecision was over. The wheels had begun to turn. Elazar sent his aide to start mobilization of two more divisions. There was less time left than anyone knew.

Meir left the running of the war to Dayan and Elazar but her instincts would continue to serve well whenever her input was required, which it would be

When Meir had been awakened a few hours before by her aide Yisrael Leor’s call, she asked “Yisrael, what do we do now?” He advised calling Dayan and going to her office. Her step had been heavy when she arrived at her office and her face gray. But she continued to function well.

Her decisions at the meeting with Dayan and Elazar had been sound, based on common sense and political instincts, and they would determine Israel’s operational profile for the critical opening phase of the war. There would be no preemptive strike but the weight of Israel’s reserve army would be brought to bear as quickly as possible. She left the running of the war to Dayan and Elazar but her instincts would continue to serve well whenever her input was required, which it would be periodically.

Elazar called Peled to inform him that a preemptive strike had been ruled out. Peled warned his base commanders that if the situation developed into a full-blown war and the ground forces were in difficulty, the air force might have to go to their assistance even if the SAMs had not been taken out. “Be prepared to go into the fire,” he said.

At 9:30, American ambassador Kenneth Keating and his deputy, Nicholas Veliotes, arrived at Meir’s office in response to her urgent summons. The diplomats were stunned when she described the situation. They had been assured by the CIA and the Israelis themselves only the day before that there was no danger of war.

Meir told them that Israel would not carry out a preemptive strike. If the Arabs initiated war, she said, Israel would respond forcefully. As Veliotes rapidly made notes, the silver-haired Keating asked whether he could be sure that Israel would take no preemptive action. “You can be sure,” Meir said decisively. Keating said he would send his report with the highest security designation, which meant that US secretary of state Henry Kissinger would be wakened to read it.

The Middle East crisis jarred Kissinger out of a deep sleep in New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Without standing on ceremony, Assistant Secretary of State Joe Sisco burst into his suite at 6:15 a.m., local time, to announce that Israel and the Arabs were about to go war. Sisco had just read the message from Keating. The ambassador quoted Meir as saying “We might be in trouble.”

Half an hour later, it was Kissinger’s turn to waken Soviet ambassador to Washington Anatoly Dobrynin to pass on Meir’s assurance that Israel was not planning offensive action. Kissinger asked Moscow to urgently get this message to the leaders of Egypt and Syria. He then called the Israeli charge d’affaires in Washington to ask Jerusalem “to avoid any rash moves”.

Silenced warnings

Israel’s senior-most leaders had had their ears cocked all week for a message that did not come. Early in the year, four Israeli helicopters bearing a commando unit and communications specialists had lifted off from Sinai at night and flown into Egypt. According to one account, they landed at a point between Suez City, on the canal, and Cairo.

With the commandos securing the periphery, the technicians planted listening devices on communication lines leading to selected military and government offices that would be at the hub of war preparations.

A description of the system has never been made public, but the devices were not ordinary taps. A senior minister would describe them as “major achievements in electronics” and Meir would say that their operation involved “fantastic sums of money”. Installing and maintaining the taps involved risky forays into Egyptian territory. Those involved in the project regarded it as the nation’s insurance policy, one that would warn of a surprise attack if all else failed.

Except for periodic tests, the listening devices remained dormant because their activation risked detection. They were to be turned on, by pushing a button in Tel Aviv, only when there was tangible fear of an enemy attack. The system was referred to by the few who knew about it simply as “special means”. The taps were activated operationally for the first time in April 1973 when Egypt seemed about to attack. They reportedly provided evidence that the massed Egyptian forces across the canal were only conducting an exercise.

During the summer, the Egyptians discovered some of the taps. A fallen telephone pole, riddled with Israeli listening devices, would after the war be displayed in a military museum in Cairo. But other taps remained undetected.

Yoel Ben-Porat (Wikipedia)

In a telephone conversation with Military Intelligence’s deputy chief, Arye Shalev, five days before Yom Kippur, Col Yoel Ben-Porat, head of the all-important SIGINT (signals intelligence) section, which monitored radio communications in the Arab world and beyond, asked whether the “special means” had been activated. Shalev said he himself had asked Zeira to activate them, as had other senior figures in Military Intelligence, but that the reply thus far was negative. It was the first time Ben-Porat had heard Zeira’s deputy expressing unease about the current situation as well as a difference of opinion with Zeira.

The same night Ben-Porat was wakened by a war warning at 3 a.m. from a credible source. He asked his duty officer to assemble key staff members at SIGINT headquarters in an hour. The consensus of the meeting was that there was an urgent need to substantially increase monitoring of Arab communications. When Ben-Porat got through to Zeira, he asked permission to mobilize 200 intelligence reservists for that purpose. Zeira’s reply was firm. “Yoel, listen well. I don’t permit you to think about mobilizing even a fraction of a reservist. It is Military Intelligence’s job to safeguard the nation’s nerves, not to drive the public crazy, not to undermine the economy.”

This definition of intelligence’s role was one Ben-Porat did not accept. Despite the annoyance in Zeira’s voice, he asked for activation of the special means. Zeira refused.

“The situations you see,” said Eli Zeira, “are not the ones I see”

“What do these special means exist for,” asked an exasperated Ben-Porat, “if not for situations like the one we’re facing?”

“The situations you see,” replied Zeira, “are not the ones I see.”

Like others puzzled by the refusal of Zeira to bend to the accumulating evidence, Ben-Porat resigned himself to the notion that the intelligence chief must have other information that painted a different picture.

Because of Military Intelligence’s “low-probability-of-war” mantra, Elazar in the week before Yom Kippur had been forcing the mounting evidence of Arab war preparations into molds – Egyptian exercise, Syrian nervousness – that were too shallow to contain them.

Eli Zeira (IDF)

Twice during the week, the chief of staff asked Zeira if the special means were activated. He was given to understand that they were. In fact, they weren’t. Zeira had not activated them because he was certain that Sadat would not attack. To activate them unnecessarily, to his mind, risked exposing the taps. Zeira had rejected pleas from his own senior staff to activate them. He was acting as if he, not Elazar, was the ultimate decision-maker in the IDF. His extraordinary behavior meant that the special means, which had been devised to alert the IDF of a pending enemy attack, were being used in effect to put the IDF to sleep.

Shortly after taking over at Military Intelligence in 1972 after a stint as military attaché in Washington, Zeira had given a lecture to senior officers. On the way out of the hall afterward, a paratroop brigade colonel, Danny Matt, (who would later play a key role in Israel’s crossing of the Suez Canal,) said to a general walking alongside him, “I’d prefer an intelligence chief who was less certain about things.”

Arrogance is an inadequate word to describe Zeira’s behavior. Israel’s key decision-makers – from Dayan and Elazar to Meir and her ministerial advisers – were psychologically immobilized in the crucial week before Yom Kippur by their understanding that there was a fail-safe mechanism in place that would give timely warning of war. But it was giving no warnings. Had they known that the taps were not activated they would of necessity have focused on other warning lights flashing about them. And there were many. Arab war preparations were clearly visible even to the troops on the front lines, and warnings of an imminent Arab attack were arriving every other day from credible intelligence sources.

Zeira would sometimes explain his attitude by referring to “the concept” he had inherited when he took over Military Intelligence, namely that Egypt would not go to war before it had received from the Soviets long-range bombers capable of hitting Israel’s air bases and Scud missiles that would deter Israel from bombing Cairo. But he also alluded to a personal “gut feeling” that Sadat would not risk another humiliating defeat, which might be a better explanation for his behavior.

Drastically outnumbered

At 10 a.m., Yom Kippur morning, after the decisive meeting with Meir, Elazar descended to the underground war room – “the Pit,” in popular parlance – to meet with the General Staff. Gen. Zeira opened with a review of the Egyptian and Syrian war plans which the Mossad had obtained. The Egyptians, he said, intended to cross the 100-mile-long Suez Canal with five divisions – 100,000 men. On the Syrian front, there were three enemy divisions on the line and two in reserve.

Only one Israeli brigade was in the proximity of the Suez canal. The Bar-Lev Line, a string of small forts along the canal, was manned by 450 second-line troops from the Jerusalem Brigade and a small contingent of young Nahal soldiers

Dayan, who had joined them, asked for details of Israel’s deployment in Sinai. The Sinai Armored Division, the only permanent Israeli force in Sinai, had two of its three brigades, each with 100 tanks, at training grounds deep in Sinai, a three-hour drive from the canal. Only one brigade, commanded by Col. Amnon Reshef, was in the proximity of the canal. The Bar-Lev Line, a string of small forts along the canal, was manned by 450 second-line troops from the Jerusalem Brigade and a small contingent of young Nahal soldiers.

When will the reserve divisions arrive? asked Dayan.

“At a very rough estimate,” said Elazar, “there will be 300 tanks by tomorrow (Sunday) night, 300 on Monday and another 300 on Tuesday.”

Fully mobilized, the IDF numbered 350,000 men. Egypt had 650,000 and Syria 150,000. The Jordanian and Iraqi armies, if they were to join in, numbered 60,000 and 250,000 respectively but not all were expected to reach the battlefront. Other Arab countries would also send contingents.

Earlier in the morning, Elazar had raised the possibility with Dayan of reaching Damascus in a counter-attack. The defense minister was not enthused by the idea. He now made it clear to the generals that if war came, Israel had no territorial ambitions.

“I want to remind everyone that our main objective is destruction of enemy forces. Any move in the direction of Damascus would be in order to destroy forces, not to capture places that we’ll be obliged to pull back from. This is the line that will guide this forum.”

Certainties had crumbled

Zeira’s senior staff, summoned to an urgent meeting by the Military Intelligence chief, took their places at a conference table. Zeira turned to his deputy, Arye Shalev, to his immediate left. “Tell me, Arye, will there be war today or not?”

Gen. Shalev did not look his usual confident self. “I have no reason to change my view that the chances of war are low,” he replied.

Zeira pointed at the next person, Yona Bandman, head of the Egyptian desk, and asked the same question. “I stand behind Arye,” Bandman responded.

Zussia Kaniezer, head of the Jordanian desk, intervened angrily. “Say what you think, not that you stand behind someone.” Kaniezer had been convinced war was coming since monitoring King Hussein’s conversation with Meir two weeks before. Military Intelligence’s official assessment about the chances of war remained “low probability” but the colossal nature of their mistake had begun closing in on Military Intelligence’s hierarchy.

When Health Minister Shemtov went out to the corridor briefly, an army officer said to him, “They caught us with our pants down”

For Health Minister Victor Shemtov, driving through the streets of Jerusalem on Yom Kippur was an unsettling experience even though he was far from religiously observant. For his government driver, however, a religious man, it was excruciating. On Yom Kippur no vehicle normally moves unless it is carrying a pregnant woman or stricken person to hospital. Shemtov had been called earlier at home by the cabinet secretary who informed him that an emergency cabinet meeting was to be held at noon in the prime minister’s Tel Aviv office. He was expected to be there but must tell no one of the meeting.

Military vehicles with high antennas were parked outside the building when Shemtov arrived. He bounded up the stairs and entered the cabinet room to find most of his colleagues already seated. Only the religious ministers from Jerusalem had not come. Faces were taut and no one was speaking, itself ominous. As Shemtov eased himself into his chair, the minister next to him leaned over and whispered “There’s going to be war.” Shemtov was flabbergasted. Meir had not yet emerged from her office by the scheduled noon starting time, which was unusual. When Shemtov went out to the corridor briefly, an army officer said to him, “They caught us with our pants down.”

Then-prime minister Golda Meir speaks at a press conference during the 1973 Yom Kippur War in an undated photograph. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit/Defense Ministry Archive)

Meir entered the cabinet room at 12:30, together with Dayan. She was pale and her eyes were downcast as she walked slowly to her chair. Her hair, normally neatly combed and pulled back, was slightly disheveled and it looked like she had hardly slept. For the first time, the ministers saw an old woman, slightly bent, sitting in the prime minister’s chair. She lit a cigarette, leafed briefly through a pile of papers in front of her and declared the meeting open.

The prime minister began with a detailed report of events over the past three days –the Arab deployment on the borders that had suddenly taken on ominous color, the sudden evacuation of the families of Soviet advisers from Egypt and Syria, the air photos that showed an astonishing deployment of Egyptian forces waiting to cross the canal, the insistence by Military Intelligence that there would be no war despite the mounting evidence. The military leadership was divided, she said, over whether there would be a war or not, whether there should be mobilization and a preemptive strike.

Ministers had been told for years that even in a worst-case situation the IDF would have at least 48 hours to call up the reserves before fighting began. Now they were being told that a two-front war was less than six hours away, with the army still unmobilized

She spoke in a monotone that sounded like a judge reading out a sentence. Then she reached the bottom line. In the early hours of this morning, she said, word was received from an unimpeachable source that war would break out at 6 p.m. today on both the Egyptian and Syrian fronts.

The ministers were stunned. They had not been made privy to the Arab buildup on the borders and there had not been a discussion of the possibility of war for months. Furthermore, they had been told for years that even in a worst-case situation the IDF would have at least 48 hours to call up the reserves before fighting began. Now they were being told that a two-front war was less than six hours away, with the army still unmobilized.

Meir asked Dayan to describe the situation on the two fronts to the cabinet. Despite her depressed look, her voice had been firm. But there seemed to be a tremor in Dayan’s voice. He looked like a man whose certainties had crumbled.

‘Gentlemen, war will break out today’

Soldiers in the Bar-Lev forts had heard activity across the canal all night and many had not slept. Egyptian soldiers could be seen dragging objects down to the water’s edge and work was going on intensively in storage areas to the rear. In the morning, stacks of orange life preservers could be seen alongside bridging equipment near the water’s edge, telling their own story.

Col. Avigdor Ben-Gal, commander of the 7th Brigade, which had arrived on the Golan piecemeal over the past 10 days, was a commanding presence with a craggy, Lincolnesque face, large shock of unkempt hair, and a tall frame. Born in Poland in 1938, he lost his family in the Holocaust and arrived in Palestine in 1944 with a group of orphaned children via the Soviet Union and Iran. In the absence of a family of his own, he had adopted the army. To his officers and men he radiated authority and professionalism. He had a cutting tongue but some saw his toughness as a mask. Since assuming command of the prestigious brigade the previous year, he had insisted that training exercises emulate war conditions as closely as possible. He drilled his men intensely in gunnery and held exercises lasting a week or more in which the brigade operated only at night.

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)

Ben-Gal was informed of the war alert at 10 a.m. Yom Kippur morning. He ordered his battalion and company commanders by radio to meet him immediately in an army camp in the northern Golan. All present rose when he entered the room and he waved them back to their seats. “We don’t have much time,” he said. “Who’s here and what’s the state of your tanks.”

“My deputy and five company commanders are in the room,” said the senior battalion commander, Lt. Col. Avigdor Kahalani. “The tanks are under camouflage netting.”

The other two battalion commanders, whose units had arrived during the night, reported that most of their tanks were in place but that some were still moving up from the supply depots at the foot of the Golan.

“Alright,” said Ben-Gal. “Let’s get down to business. Gentlemen, war will break out today.” The faces of the officers reflected disbelief. “Yes, just what you heard,” he continued. “A coordinated attack by Egypt and Syria.”

After issuing instructions, Ben-Gal told the commanders to return to their units and prepare them for action. The men were to be ordered to break their fast. The officers would assemble again at 2 p.m. for a final briefing.

Tank platoon commander Yoav Yakir at the southernmost end of the line tried to persuade crewmen observing the fast to break it. To encourage them to eat, Yakir and his first sergeant made breakfast for the platoon, a treat to which most of the men succumbed.

At Strongpoint 107 in the northern sector, Lieutenant Avraham Elimelekh spent an hour, twice as long as usual, reviewing with his men what each would do in the event of a Syrian attack. The garrison, normally numbering 12, had been increased to 19 in the past day. Of the 10 strongpoints along the line, 107 was the only one not located on a rise that dominated its immediate surroundings. It sat on a plain that extended deep into Syria. The reason for the position’s inferior siting was that it covered the key Damascus-Kuneitra road, 200 yards away.

In the event of a serious attack, the strongpoint’s survival would likely depend on the three tanks attached to it. In his few weeks at 107, Elimelekh had had intensive sessions with the tank platoon commander, Lt. Shmuel Yakhin, to work out coordination. The two officers chose names for elements of the topography so that each would quickly understand what the other was referring to in a battle situation. They agreed that the tanks would deal with Syrian armor and the strongpoint with infantry. The battalion intelligence officer visited in the morning and told Elimelekh that the Syrians might attempt to capture a strongpoint in the coming battle and take its garrison prisoner. A likely target was Strongpoint 107, said the officer, making a snatching movement with his hand.

At noon, Col. Ben-Gal drove to the front where he scanned the Syrian lines through binoculars. There was a large army out there but he could see nothing stirring. At the sound of chirping he lifted his head and saw birds on a nearby tree. It was odd that he could hear them. The unnatural stillness seemed final confirmation that war was imminent.

IDF chief of staff David Elazar during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. (Defense Ministry Archive)

At 12:20 p.m. on the Suez Canal a listening post picked up a message from a UN observation post on the Egyptian side of the canal– “special time check.” It was, the Israelis knew, a warning intended for UN observers in the Suez area that an Egyptian artillery barrage was imminent. The canalside forts on the Bar-Lev line were ordered to call back men from outlying observation posts and prepare for heavy shelling. A sergeant at an outpost started towards the halftrack sent to fetch his squad when he saw an Egyptian soldier across the canal trying to catch his eye. The Egyptian tapped his watch and spread his hands in a mocking gesture of ‘Why?’

At 12:30, Military Intelligence issued an updated bulletin noting extensive military preparations in Egypt and Syria and acknowledging reports that war was imminent. However, noted the bulletin, “we assume that the strategic level in Egypt and Syria is aware of the absence of any chances of success.” Even at this hour, Military Intelligence was not to be stampeded by events into abandoning the clear logic of Sadat’s strategic concept as Gen. Zeira misunderstood it.

‘It is inscribed…’

For Jerusalemites, it was the sound of a plane that offered the first intimation of unusual developments. Early worshippers at the Western Wall on Yom Kippur morning were startled by the sudden roar of a single Phantom low overhead, as if the air force was depositing a prayer.

As the morning progressed, the awesome silence of the holy day was increasingly broken by the burr of tires as military vehicles turned into residential neighborhoods. Couriers carrying mobilization orders stepped out to scan house numbers. Generally, they were directed by neighbors to one of the local synagogues.

At a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Ramat Eshkol quarter, a young man wearing a prayer shawl rose from his seat when his name was called. His father, seated next to him, embraced him and refused to let go. The rabbi approached and said gently to the weeping father “His place is not here today”

Services were halted to permit the courier or a synagogue official to read out names of reservists from the podium. It was apparent to all that if mobilization was being carried out on Yom Kippur it must be because of a surprise Arab attack.

At a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Ramat Eshkol quarter, a young man wearing a prayer shawl rose from his seat when his name was called. His father, seated next to him, embraced him and refused to let go. The rabbi approached and said gently to the weeping father “His place is not here today.” The father released his son and the rabbi placed his hand on the young man’s head to bless him.

In the Bait Hakerem quarter, a courier consulted with a sexton. Mounting the podium, the sexton called on the congregation for silence and then read out the names given him, pausing almost imperceptibly as he reached the name of his own son. Rabbis told their congregations that it was permissible for all those mobilized to break their fast and drive a car, something strictly forbidden on Yom Kippur except in life-or-death situations.

Throughout the country, men wearing skullcaps and prayer shawls could be seen incongruously driving cars, something they had never done in their lives on Yom Kippur, or trying to hitchhike to assembly points. Many family men drove their wives and children to relatives before heading to their units.

Resonant in the minds of all – those being called up and those left behind — was the “Unetanai Tokef” prayer with its poignant melody that they had chanted this morning. “On Rosh Hashana it is written and on the fast of Kippur it is inscribed .. who shall live and who shall die, who in his allotted time and who not, who by water and who by fire, who by the sword…”

More than 200,000 civilians would be transformed into soldiers this day. The process had been set in motion shortly after 9 a.m. with the transmission of code words to brigade mobilization centers. Designated couriers from each brigade were summoned by telephone to receive the call-up orders which they would distribute.

Most of the civilian bus fleet had been mobilized to carry reservists from local assembly points to bases around the country which some reached by early afternoon. Others, living in parts of the country where the buses had to stop at many rural settlements, did not arrive until after midnight. Some men who had not received a call-up notice came to their base on their own, sometimes even by taxi. Veteran war horses long since mustered out of service showed up at their old units and asked to sign in, a request usually granted. All were required to fill out forms designating relatives or others to be informed “if something happens.”

Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat is seen as he peers through a telescope during a visit at the frontlines to Israel, at Sinai Peninsula, on June 4, 1973. (AP Photo)

In Cairo, President Sadat donned his military uniform and was waiting at home when War Minister Ahmad Ismail Ali arrived in a jeep at 1:30 to drive him to Center Ten, the army’s command post. Officers of the Supreme Command sat on a low dais overlooking the operations room where the leaders of each branch of the armed forces and senior staff sat by communication consoles. The room was dominated by situation maps projected onto a large screen.

Echoing Israel’s directive to its soldiers this morning to break the Yom Kippur fast, the Egyptian high command repeated its previous order to break the Ramadan fast. Clerics ruled it permissible also to smoke. Sadat could see no one in the command center doing either. He ordered tea and lit up his pipe and soon others were doing the same. All eyes now were on the clock.

Syria’s President Hafez Assad with soldiers, 1973 (The Online Museum of Syrian History)

In the underground Syrian army command center beneath an orchard outside Damascus. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad emerged from the room where he would bed-down during the war to exhort his generals before they launched their attack on the Golan.

The war begins

At 1:30, soldiers on the Bar-Lev Line were ordered to don flak jackets and helmets and to enter bunkers. Only fort commanders remained outside as lookouts, mostly in tiny “rabbit holes” built into an outer trench wall, safe from anything but a direct hit, where they could observe the surroundings through a periscope. At Budapest, the northernmost fort, the commander climbed the observation tower. For the first time, the Egyptian lookout towers opposite were empty.

Egyptian troops crossing the Suez Canal on October 7, 1973 (Photo credit: Wikicommons)
Egyptian troops crossing the Suez Canal on October 7, 1973 (Photo credit: Wikicommons)

On Mount Hermon overlooking the Golan, an artillery observer reported that the Syrians had begun removing camouflage netting from their artillery and tanks. A battalion commander on the Golan recalled that the Syrians usually started their periodic “battle days” at 2 p.m. He ordered his tanks to distance themselves from their regular positions. If the Syrians opened fire they would hit every fixed Israeli position marked on their maps.

At 1:50, an officer at air force headquarters in Tel Aviv monitoring Syrian communications announced, “We have liftoff in Damir (a Syrian airbase).” Within moments reports were pouring in of planes rising from Egyptian bases.

On the street outside sirens began to wail. Meir declared the cabinet meeting closed. Zeira was seen walking towards the war room looking pale

Dayan was nearing the end of his briefing to the Cabinet a few minutes before 2 p.m. when an aide entered and handed him a note. The defense minister announced that Egyptian airplanes had begun to attack in Sinai. On the street outside sirens began to wail. Meir declared the meeting closed. Zeira was seen walking towards the war room looking pale.

Listening to his radio net in Sinai, Col. Amnon Reshef heard the undulating signal for enemy air penetration. Emerging from his headquarters, he saw Egyptian planes diving on a nearby encampment from which black smoke was already rising. The desert floor beneath his feet suddenly began to tremble.

Twenty miles to the west, 2,000 Egyptian guns and heavy mortars had opened up on the Bar-Lev Line. Five Egyptian divisions would soon start to cross the 100-mile-long canal with 100,000 men. The only Israeli force in position to meet them for the next three hours, when the division’s other two brigades would arrive, was Reshef’s brigade with 96 tanks.

IDF chief of staff David Elazar (with both hands on map) visits the IDF Northern Command ahead of the Yom Kippur War, on October 1, 1973. Pointing at the map is Northern Command chief Yitzhak Hofi. Seated between them is Motti Hod. Perring over Elazar’s right shoulder is Eli Zeira. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit/Defense Ministry Archive)

Elazar’s long-time strategy was to prevent the Egyptians from gaining a foothold on the Sinai bank. “Kill them on the canal,” is the way he put it. That dictum was now clearly detached from reality.

With the sounding of the sirens in Tel Aviv, Elazar descended to the air force control center to ask Peled if he could attack the Syrian air bases in the roughly three hours of daylight remaining. Now that war had started there was no issue of preemption.

To Peled’s infinite regret, it was no longer possible. Only an hour before, he controlled the most formidable concentration of power in the Middle East – 326 warplanes loaded for bear and experienced air crews primed to go. However, in anticipation of an attempt by the Arab air forces to swarm Israeli air space as part of the pending surprise attack, Peled had ordered the versatile Phantom fighter-bombers converted to interceptors. At air bases around the country, Israel’s Phantoms now resembled plucked chickens as ground crewmen stripped them of bombs and other accoutrements and fitted them out for aerial combat, a task that would take another three hours. Peled ordered all aircraft not yet stripped of their bombs to take off, drop the bombs in the sea and begin patrolling.

There would be no Egyptian attempt to enter Israeli air space this day except for a missile fired from a plane offshore towards Tel Aviv. The Israeli planes would engage in uneventful patrols. It was a striking contrast to Israel’s preemptive airstrike that opened the Six Day War.

Feverish mobilization

While mobilization was going smoothly, the scenes at tank bases were of barely controlled pandemonium. The tanks had been stripped when put into storage and they now had to be equipped and armed from scratch. Tanks assigned to reserve brigades were used by various units for training and, like borrowed books, they were not always returned in their original condition or to their proper place. Sometimes they were not returned at all. One brigade commander had to send men to six bases to retrieve his tanks.

Police in Beersheba, near which many bases lay, asked storeowners Saturday night to open their shops for the sale of items like binoculars and flashlights

Small but important pieces of equipment were missing almost everywhere. Entire brigades had to set off for the front without machine guns, which would be more important in Sinai than tank guns in the encounters with infantry that lay ahead.

At the request of the army, police in Beersheba, near which many bases lay, asked storeowners Saturday night to open their shops for the sale of items like binoculars and flashlights. At a base in the south where no forklifts could be found to transfer crates of shells from ammunition bunkers, soldiers “borrowed” forklifts from an adjacent industrial area after breaking through a fence. Gen. Ariel Sharon, the recently retired head of the Southern Command now called back into active duty with his reserve armored division, telephoned a millionaire friend in the US for binoculars. A shipment would arrive by air within a few days and rushed directly to Sharon on the Suez front.

Israeli tanks take positions in the Sinai Peninsula during the Yom Kippur War, on October 15, 1973. (Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archive)

The reservists worked feverishly into the night to turn the behemoths into fighting machines. Crews swarmed over the tanks fitting optical sights, drivers’ periscopes, radio sets and other equipment into their places. Water and battle rations were put aboard and shells, passed from hand to hand, were stored in the turrets and bellies of the tanks. Officers constantly pressed the men to move faster. “We’ll lose the war because of you” was a standard spur. “Hurry. Hurry.”

Despite the problems, 85 percent of units would reach the front within the time planned. Some would reach it in half the time but lacking pieces of equipment.

The air force neutralized

News from the front was scant but the reservists were aware that the small forces holding the line, including for some of them younger brothers, must be fighting a desperate battle. In the south the first small tank convoy heading for the Suez front departed at 10:30 p.m., just 13 hours after mobilization had begun. The convoys grew longer and slower as the night progressed and more units joined from camps dotting the Negev.

Men drew reassurance from the line of tanks, their commanders upright in the turrets. Others, however, sensed that this war was different

Men drew reassurance from the line of tanks, their commanders upright in the turrets. “The Egyptians have made the mistake of their lives,” said one soldier, contemplating the sight. Others, however, sensed that this war was different. It was the Arabs who had seized the initiative which suggested they were confident of newfound abilities; the results could not be predicted.

The men fell silent as they traveled west, lost in their thoughts. A doctor with Sharon’s division was struck by the surreal nature of what had overtaken them. “Only yesterday,” he wrote in a letter home, “it was high rise buildings, grassy lawns, synagogue and children. Now it’s armored vehicles, desert, khaki and an endless road leading to war.”

At times, the convoys had to pull over to make way on the narrow roads for vehicles heading back from the front. These were mostly empty tank transporters or buses carrying young women soldiers ordered out of the war zone. The women made the V sign to the soldiers moving up to the front.

On both the Golan and in Sinai the fighting between the troops on the line and attacking forces was fierce and unrelenting, continuing well into the night. Within 12 hours after combat began, two-thirds of the Sinai Division’s tanks were knocked out. (Some would be repaired and returned to combat.) More than half the soldiers on the Bar-Lev Line would be killed or captured. An order was given before dawn Sunday to pull back until the reserve divisions arrived.

An Israeli M60 Patton tank destroyed in the Sinai. (Public domani)

On the Golan Heights, the Syrians made a major breakthrough on the first night but the next day the lines began to stabilize as reservists, with shorter distances to travel than in Sinai, started pushing back.

The Arabs displayed a fighting spirit that surprised the Israelis who knew them from the Six Day War. They held their ground when faced with a tank charge and responded with massive numbers of RPGs.

They also employed for the first time a Soviet-made anti-tank weapon – the Sagger – which proved a game-changer. Unlike the ubiquitous RPG which was effective up to 300 meters but vulnerable to counterfire from the tanks, the Sagger had a range of 3,000 meters, about as long as a tank’s, and its operators could not be seen. It was a small but deadly missile guided by an aimer with powerful binoculars and a joystick. Lying in the sands at a sizeable distance, the aimer was invisible to the tank crews he was shooting at.

Within a few days Israeli tank crews in the field, independently of each other, worked out tactical solutions that substantially mitigated the problem. But Israeli tanks were now keeping a prudent distance from concentrations of infantry.

Israel had no response to the new SAM-6. More than 60 planes were knocked down in six days

More serious was the challenge of the SAMs. Although Israel had come up with electronic countermeasures to earlier versions of the anti-aircraft missile, it had no response to the new SAM-6. More than 60 planes were knocked down in six days. The Israeli command had presumed that any problem of the ground forces, including coping with a surprise attack, could be set right by the air force but the SAM-6 largely neutralized the air force over the battlefield.

Between the Sagger and the SAM6, the Arab armies had managed with Soviet weaponry to significantly mute the impact of two of the most important arms of the IDF – its tank corps and air force. However, they could not diminish the skills of Israeli tank crewmen, who, according to a senior armor officer, were able to get off two shots for every one from an Arab tank, and with more accuracy. Likewise, the leadership of officers in the field and air force commanders made up for much of the discrepancy in numbers.

With Israel consuming munitions at a prodigious rate, President Nixon ordered a massive airlift of supplies to Israel in American military airplanes, a major psychological boost for Israel. The first planes landed on the ninth day of the war. The Soviets had started an arms airlift to their proxies several days before, replacing most of the tanks lost by Syria on the Golan. Of its 1,600 tanks, Syria had lost 1,000.

The Israeli attack that wasn’t ordered

Two weeks after the Yom Kippur War, air photos that Gen. Peled had not seen before passed across his desk. Such photos were taken by reconnaissance planes, and were developed by Military Intelligence which would then send them out to relevant units. This batch had apparently gone astray.

What Peled saw astonished him. Taken on the war’s second day, they were pictures of an Egyptian division – hundreds of tanks as well as trucks and other vehicles — lined up for some 10 miles virtually bumper to bumper waiting to cross the canal. They were well back from the canal, perhaps 30 miles, and had not been spotted by Israeli pilots dodging missiles and focused on hitting the pontoon bridges being built on the canal. But they were clearly visible in the enlarged photos. Had he seen them in real-time, Peled said in an interview decades later, he would have ordered an attack even if it would have cost planes and airmen. “There were other crossing points too. I could have destroyed two divisions.”

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

As it happened, his predecessor, Motti Hod, who commanded the preemptive attack in 1967, had drawn up a detailed plan for dealing with precisely such a situation. He had studied air photos of a large-scale Egyptian army exercise the previous year in which a division simulated a crossing of the Suez Canal. The dense concentration of vehicles was stationary as if waiting for bridges to be completed. The chosen crossing point made tactical sense and it was a fair assumption that it would be used by Egypt if war came.

Hod’s plan, labeled Srita (scratch), called for an air armada to attack such concentrations. The planes would come in low over the desert floor on the Israeli side of the canal. Two miles short of the waterway they would pull up sharply and fling their bombs across the canal, the angle and speed of the plane’s ascent and the timing of the bombs’ release carefully calculated beforehand.

This “toss bombing” technique would reduce danger from the SAM batteries but was notoriously inaccurate against small targets. However, the concentration of tanks, trucks and troops shown in the photos was so broad and dense it would have been difficult to miss. Each plane would carry up to 24 small bombs to make for a wider spread which meant 2,400 bombs in a single run by 100 planes. Hod’s plan called for at least two attack cycles, perhaps three. Losses from anti-aircraft fire would be minimal, Hod contended.

The dynamics of Peled’s situation were somewhat different but in an interview decades later Hod would still be lamenting Peled’s failure to order the attack. Had he done so, Hod believed, it would have thrown the entire Arab attack off stride, taken the wind out of their psychological sails, restored Israel’s sagging spirits and enabled a robust and self-confident air force to move on and destroy the SAM missile sites. In short, a different war.

“He had only to say ‘Srita. Execute.’”

That scenario would remain one of many “what-ifs” that marked the war.

Decades of trauma

In view of the heavy losses and psychological blow suffered by Israel in the early days of the war, Elazar decided that only a dramatic move, like crossing the canal, could throw the Egyptian army off balance and change the course of the war.

Major General Ariel Sharon, head bandaged after an injury, stands with Defense Minister Moshe Dayan on the western side of the Suez Canal in October 1973 (Israel Ministry of Defense)

The crossing was a hazardous enterprise but Ariel Sharon’s division managed to pull it off, infiltrating at night on October 15 through a gap between two Egyptian armies encamped on the Israeli bank of the canal.

Once across, the Israeli tank forces began freewheeling through the Egyptian rear and threatening to descend on Cairo.

Israeli paratroopers march along the Suez-Cairo road after crossing the Suez Canal, October 1973. (Ron Ilan / GPO)

The initiative now was Israel’s. With Israeli tanks only 60 miles from Cairo and within artillery range of Damascus, US secretary of state Kissinger found fertile ground for negotiations.

An abandoned Syrian T-55 tank on the Golan Heights (IDF archive)

The ensuing talks would lead to a historic Israel-Egypt peace treaty six years later and to a disengagement agreement with Syria which would keep that border the quietest of all Israel’s borders.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, left, US President Jimmy Carter, center, and Prime Minister Menachem Begin clasp hands on the North Lawn of the White House after signing the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, March 26, 1979 (photo credit: AP/Bob Daugherty/File)

But the national trauma over the war’s impact would persist. For many Israelis it would be years before they were able to accept that the Yom Kippur War, given the circumstances, was perhaps Israel’s greatest military achievement.

Yom Kippur War — the figures

Israeli casualties
Dead: 2,656
Wounded: 7,250

Arab figures for their own casualties (Egypt and Syria)
Dead: 8,528
Wounded: 19,500

Israeli estimates of Arab casualties
Egypt
Dead: 11,000
Wounded: 25,000

Syria
Dead: 4,000
Wounded: 10,000

Tanks
Israel destroyed or captured 2,250 Arab tanks, mostly Egyptian, Syrian, and Iraqi, with a small number of Jordanian tanks. Hundreds of Arab tanks were abandoned intact, mostly on the Golan. Israel incorporated 400 of them into its tank corps. Virtually every Israeli tank was hit during the fighting; many were hit several times. Maintenance teams made most of the damaged tanks serviceable, often overnight. Some 400 Israeli tanks were total losses.

Israel began the war with 2,100 tanks, half the number of Egyptian tanks (2,200) and Syrian tanks (1,650) combined. The Arab forces would be reinforced during the war by tanks from Iraq (600) and Jordan (200).

100,00 Egyptian soldiers and 1,350 tanks crossed into Sinai at the beginning of the war. On the Israeli side, 91 tanks and 450 infantry reservists were manning the Bar-Lev Line. Two hundred more tanks would reach the canal a few hours later. But two-thirds of the total were knocked out within 12 hours. Most of the reservists on the Bar-Lev Line were killed or captured.

Troops
Israel: 375,000, of whom 240,000 were reservists
Egypt: 650,000
Syria: 150,000

Aircraft
Israel: 326 planes when the war started. 102 were shot down, almost all by anti-aircraft fire, including SAM missiles.
In dogfights, Israel shot down 277 aircraft and lost only 6. This 46-1 ratio compares to a 9-1 ratio in dogfights in the Six Day War.
Egypt: 400 planes
Syria: 280 planes
Israeli airmen killed (including backseat navigators): 53
Israeli airmen captured: 44

Territory captured
When the war ended, Israel held 1,600 square kilometers west of the Suez Canal and was within 50 miles of Cairo, 12 miles closer than it had been before the war.
Egypt captured 1,200 square kilometers in Sinai, east of the canal, at the beginning of the war and held most of it at the end.
Israel captured 500 square kilometers beyond the pre-war border with Syria and was also 12 kilometers closer to Damascus than it had been pre-war.

POWs
Syria held 65 Israelis and Israel held 380 Syrians.
Egypt held 230 Israeli POWs, Israel held 8,300 Egyptians.

This article is partly based on Abraham Rabinovich’s book, “The Yom Kippur War.” The writer is also the author of “The Boats of Cherbourg” and “The Battle for Jerusalem.” abra@netvision.net.il

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