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A Line in the Sand

By David T. Zabecki
5/30/2018 • Military History Magazine

As darkness settled over the Golan Heights on Oct. 7, 1973, Israeli defenders were in a desperate plight. The Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) 7th Armored Brigade, responsible for defending the northern half of the strategically vital Golan Heights, could field only about 40 operational tanks against some 500 Syrian tanks and other armored vehicles. Compounding their woes, the Israelis had lost local air superiority, and the Syrians’ Soviet-built tanks were equipped with night-vision sights far superior to anything on the IDF tanks. If the Syrians punched through the thin Israeli line, they would control the high ground and have a clear shot at cutting Israel in two.

When the Syrians resumed their attack at 2200 hours, the lone force standing between them and Israel’s possible destruction was the IDF’s 77th Armored Battalion, known as Oz 77, under the command of 29-year-old Lt. Col. Avigdor Kahalani.

Fought just six years earlier, the June 1967 Six-Day War had recast the entire strategic map of the Middle East. The combined Arab armies’ utter rout at the hands of the IDF left Israel in control of vast swaths of Arab territory, including the Egyptian Sinai to the banks of the Suez Canal, Syria’s Golan Heights and all Palestinian land in Gaza and the West Bank. That conflict had also established the IDF as undisputed master of Middle Eastern warfare.

The Arab powers did not accept defeat. In July 1967, Egypt, supported by the Palestinian Liberation Organization and backed by the Soviet Union, initiated a series of small-scale actions against the Israelis, mostly along the line of contact across the Suez Canal. When Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser died in September 1970, his successor, Anwar Sadat, quickly agreed to end what had come to be called the War of Attrition. Yet even as the ink dried on the cease-fire agreement, Sadat began planning the next war.

With massive logistical support and Soviet military advisors, the Egyptians and Syrians rearmed with the latest Eastern Bloc weapons systems and rebuilt their shattered forces. The Israelis, meanwhile, succumbed to a classic case of “victor’s disease,” failing to carry out a rigorous lessons-learned analysis of the Six-Day War. As that victory had rested primarily on lightning-strike tank warfare supported by overwhelming tactical air power, other elements of the traditional combined-arms team, particularly conventional artillery and dismounted infantry, were relegated to second-class status in the IDF—ironically, the same mistake made by the German Wehrmacht following its stunning victories in Poland and France in 1939 and 1940.

While the Arabs did build up their air forces, they realized they could never defeat the Israeli Air Force (IAF) in direct air-to-air combat. However, their Soviet advisors explained that it was possible to neutralize Israeli air superiority by concentrating large numbers of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) along a front, enabling them to engage IDF tanks on the ground without air opposition.

Similarly, the superbly trained Israeli tank crews were almost impossible to defeat in direct tank-on-tank combat, but the Israelis had never faced the type of ground-launched antitank guided missile (ATGM) the Soviets were now supplying by the thousands to their Arab clients in the form of the 9M14M Malyutka (known to NATO as the AT-3 Sagger). In the absence of traditional close infantry support, Israeli tankers would be vulnerable to Arab infantry forces armed with large numbers of ATGMs.

Committing the cardinal sin of warfare, Israeli strategic and intelligence planners underestimated their enemy, convincing themselves that the Arabs lacked the ability to alter their combat methods. They assumed that any future conflict would be a rerun of the Six-Day War against the same opponents. It was taken for granted that the IDF would conduct offensive operations from the outset of any conflict and that Israel would have sufficient advance warning to mobilize and deploy its largely reserve army.

Israeli intelligence, comfortably surrounded by such assumptions, concluded that the Arabs would not initiate a major war because they knew they could never defeat the IDF head-on in battle. It never occurred to the Israelis that the Arabs might settle for a more limited military goal to achieve a broader strategic objective. But that was exactly what Sadat had in mind: Operating no deeper than the range of the massive SAM umbrella the Egyptians could throw up within a few miles of the Canal, Sadat planned to have his well-balanced combined-arms forces establish a relatively shallow bridgehead on the far bank and then use the wall of ATGM fire from his infantry forces to secure the newly won ground and establish a solid defensive perimeter. If Egypt could accomplish that, it would send a powerful political message to the rest of the Arab world that the IDF could be beaten. The plan also called for Syria to attack simultaneously from the east, thus locking Israel into a two-front war.

Despite indicators of an impending attack, Israeli intelligence refused to believe the Arabs were preparing to launch a full-scale invasion, until the morning of October 6, Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. During this most solemn annual religious holiday, the entire country comes to a standstill as Israelis remain at home to reflect; Orthodox Jews will even refrain from turning on a radio or TV or using a telephone, a practice that had serious consequences when the nationwide mobilization order was finally issued.

Although Israeli officials recognized the imminent attack as early as 0430 hours, Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered mobilization of just four reserve divisions rather than the entire IDF in the midst of high holy days. (Full mobilization came four hours later, little more than six hours before the Egyptians and Syrians attacked.) Meir also refused to authorize the IAF to launch preemptive strikes, as it had done with devastating effect in 1967. She was concerned about political fallout if the Israelis were to attack first, particularly the reaction of the Soviet Union, which had military advisors in the potential target areas. Meir also worried that an Israeli first strike might alienate the United States, from whom Israel might need massive support before the fighting was over. She was absolutely right on that point.

The Egyptians launched the first attack of the Yom Kippur War at 1350 hours. Following their operational plan with exacting discipline, they stormed across the canal and quickly overwhelmed the thin IDF forces manning the Bar-Lev Line. Advancing less than 10 miles into the Sinai, the Egyptians dug in beneath their SAM umbrella and behind their wall of ATGMs. For the next several days, the strong defenses successfully repelled all Israeli counterattacks.

Syria then attacked at 1405 hours with three mechanized divisions in the first line and two armored divisions and the elite brigade-size Assad Republican Guard in reserve. The Syrians had obtained a massive supply of Soviet military hardware in the wake of the Six-Day War, and their first line had some 900 tanks, mostly Soviet T-54/55s, supported by 140 artillery batteries, plus another 600 Soviet T-62 tanks in reserve.

The Syrians had begun with an hour-long artillery barrage and also advanced beneath an umbrella of SAM batteries. Supporting the Syrian units were dozens of the Soviet selfpropelled ZSU-23-4 Shilka antiaircraft gun; with a cyclic rate of fire of 4,000 rounds per minute, it was deadly against lowflying aircraft out to a range of 1.5 miles. Unlike the Egyptians, however, the Syrians had not worked out combined-arms coordination between their armor and infantry.

Throughout the summer, Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Hofi, chief of the IDF’s Northern Command, had grown increasingly concerned as intelligence indicated a huge Syrian buildup opposite his sector. He had continually pressed Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. David Elazar to deploy additional forces. But with national elections scheduled for the end of November, the Israeli political leadership was reluctant to authorize mobilization of a reserve brigade. Finally, the politicians relented, and Dayan ordered the 7th Armored Brigade, another of Israel’s elite regular armored units, to begin reinforcing the Golan Heights.

Days prior to the attack, just one Israeli brigade—the 188th Armored, also known as the Barak Brigade, commanded by Colonel Yitzhak Ben-Shoham—covered the entire Golan Heights. When the initial blow fell, Israel had only 177 tanks and 11 artillery batteries in position, and most of their tanks were obsolescent British Centurions and American M-48s. The Israelis had upgraded both models, but the tanks still lacked proper fire-control systems for night fighting.

The first 7th Armored Brigade unit deployed to the Golan Heights was Kahalani’s 77th Armored Battalion. Arriving on September 26, Oz 77 was to serve as a counterattacking force in support of the Barak Brigade. The remainder of the 7th Armored, under Colonel Avigdor Ben-Gal, finally started deploying to the Golan on October 4 and 5.

When Syria’s tanks attacked on October 6, the 74th Armored Battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Yair Nafshi, was waiting in preestablished firing positions on high ground that ran from 750-foot Tel Hermonit about 3 miles south to a prepared strongpoint the Israelis called Booster Ridge. The valley floor below was strewn with Israeli mines and antitank barriers. In the first wave of the Syrian attack, Nafshi’s battalion destroyed some 60 tanks of the Syrian 7th Infantry Division, commanded by Brig. Gen. Omar Abrash.

Later that day, the IDF’s Northern Command ordered the 7th Armored Brigade to assume responsibility for the Golan sector north of Kuneitra, with the Barak Brigade covering the southern sector. Nafshi’s 74th Armored Battalion was detached from the Barak Brigade and reassigned to the 7th Armored. The command element of the arriving 36th Armored Division under Brig. Gen. Rafael Eitan, which was then arriving, was meant to function as the headquarters for the two brigades. But the 36th was unable to assume effective command until the next morning, so on that first day of battle the 7th Armored and the Barak Brigade fought as independent forces, with little coordination.

IDF tactics depended on its tankers’ ability to engage with precision at long ranges and achieve first round hits on enemy armor. While the sun was at their backs, the Israelis held the advantage. But when darkness fell, they lost the ability to engage at longer ranges, and the advantage shifted to the Syrians, with their advanced night-vision sights. Israeli tactical doctrine also depended heavily on air power to counter its numerical inferiority in tanks. But from the start of the battle for the Golan Heights, it was clear that Syrian close-in air defenses would make any Israeli air attack near suicidal; Israel lost nearly two dozen aircraft in the early hours of battle. One advantage Israeli tankers on the Golan had over comrades fighting the Egyptians in the Sinai was that they were not facing thousands of infantrymen armed with ATGMs. The opening phase of the fight for the Golan was an almost pure tank-on-tank fight— which ultimately played to the Israeli strength.

That night, as the Syrians pressed their attack, they closed to within 100 yards of the IDF positions but took significant losses: by dawn on October 7, more than 100 crippled Syrian tanks littered the valley floor. Later that morning, Syria’s 78th Armored Brigade renewed the attack, and Ben-Gal continually shifted his battalions to meet the threat. That afternoon Kahalani’s 77th Armored Battalion moved to Booster Ridge. Despite his youth, the officer was already an experienced, hardened combat leader. Commander of a tank company during the Six-Day War, Kahalani had received a Medal of Distinguished Service, Israel’s third highest combat decoration, for spearheading a breakout through Egyptian lines in the northern Sinai.

At 2200 hours on October 7, the Syrians attacked again, augmented by the 81st Armored Brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Mustafa Sharba. By then, Israeli forces in the northern Golan were able to field only about 40 operational tanks against 500 Syrian tanks. Again, the Syrians exploited the darkness, this time closing to within 50 yards of the Israeli defensive positions. Syrian armored personnel carriers then deployed RPG-equipped infantrymen, who tried in vain to infiltrate the IDF positions.

At about 0100 hours on October 8, the Syrians broke off and sought to recover their knocked-out vehicles. The IDF called in artillery fire and spent the break rearming and refueling its surviving tanks. The Syrians attacked again at 0400 hours, with Abrash withdrawing his decimated first echelon and committing his second. The battle waxed and waned through the day. Abrash had planned another all-out assault for that night but was killed at dusk when his command tank took a direct hit. The Syrian night attack was postponed.

Then, in the early hours of October 9, the Syrians hit the Israeli positions with a withering barrage of artillery and rocket fire. Ben-Gal ordered Kahalani’s battalion to pull back 500 yards and then resume position as soon as the fire lifted. The Syrians, however, closed rapidly and reached the crest of Booster Ridge before the 77th could regain it. But the Israeli tankers charged headlong into the smoke and dust, firing at point-blank range. Kahalani’s own tank knocked out four Syrian T-62s within 90 seconds. In just a few minutes of ferocious fighting, Oz 77 decimated two battalions of the Assad Republican Guard.

Meanwhile, other Republican Guard elements in the north had managed to break through and were headed toward El Rom, west of Tel Hermonit. IDF General Eitan ordered the 71st Armored Battalion, under Lt. Col. Menahem Ratess, to block the thrust, but Ratess was killed almost immediately. Ben-Gal then ordered Kahalani to absorb the remnants of the 71st Armored and stop the Republican Guard. With only 15 operational tanks left, Kahalani attacked.

In back-and-forth fighting, the 7th Armored Brigade was reduced to just seven operational tanks of its original 105. Worse, each tank had only about four rounds of ammunition left as the Syrians surrounded them. Ben-Gal was about to order the surviving units to break off and attempt to escape when a scratch relief force under Lt. Col. Yosef Ben-Hanan arrived. By scrounging tanks from rear-area repair depots and pickup crews of replacements and the lightly wounded, Ben-Hanan had assembled a force of 13 tanks.

Crashing into the Syrian left, Ben-Hanan’s tiny unit knocked out 30 enemy tanks in short order. The unexpected attack stunned the Syrians, who assumed Ben-Hanan’s tanks were the point element of a large Israeli reserve. Though on the verge of punching through into northern Galilee, the Syrians broke off contact and withdrew, leaving behind 260 wrecked tanks, 500 armored personnel carriers and numerous other vehicles. The burning, smoking hulks littered the low ground between Booster Ridge and Tel Hermonit, a battlefield that would become known as Emek Ha-Bacha—the Valley of Tears. The surviving tankers of the 7th Armored Brigade had been in combat more than 50 straight hours.

On the southern Golan, the Barak Brigade also fought a desperate battle for survival. It was reduced to about 15 operational tanks by the morning of October 7. Later that day, Ben-Shoham, his deputy commander and brigade operations officer were killed in separate incidents, effectively ending the brigade’s combat cohesion. Fortunately, the previous night Dayan and Elazar had resolved to assign Israel’s last available reserve division to Northern Command.

As these reserve units poured into the Golan, Israel started to gain the upper hand. By October 11, the IDF took the offensive and drove toward the Syrian capital. In response to Damascus’ pleas for help, Egyptian units in the Sinai left their defensive positions and attacked the Israelis, seeking to relieve pressure on their Syrian allies. It was a fatal error: Once the Egyptians moved beyond their protective SAM umbrella, the IDF tore them up, and the tide in the Sinai also turned in Israel’s favor.

The October 1973 armor clashes on the Golan Heights and in the Sinai Peninsula were the largest tank battles since World War II. Egypt and Syria’s surprise attacks very nearly overran Israel. Despite committing huge strategic and doctrinal errors, however, the IDF prevailed, thanks in no small part to the courage, initiative and combat skills of its soldiers, particularly its elite armor crews and commanders.

For his actions, Oz 77 commander Avigdor Kahalani was awarded the Medal of Valor, Israeli’s highest combat decoration, becoming one of just 40 Israeli soldiers ever so honored. (Only eight Medals of Valor were awarded for service in the Yom Kippur War.) He retired from the IDF as a brigadier general in 1992 and later that year was elected to the Israeli Knesset. He served briefly as minister of Internal Security in a coalition government.

In the introduction to his highly regarded book, The Heights of Courage, Kahalani writes of his fellow tankers:

As I wrote the pages that follow, I had always before me the faces of the men with whom I fought side by side and, especially, of those who fell. It was important to me to communicate our emotions to the readers, particularly to the bereaved parents, widows and orphans, as we battled to keep the enemy at bay. I hoped that I could impart to the families some sense of their men’s devotion to duty and of the price they were willing to pay to safeguard their nation and their people.

 

For further reading, David Zabecki recommends: The Heights of Courage: A Tank Leader’s War on the Golan, by Avigdor Kahalani, and The Yom Kippur War 1973 (1): The Golan Heights, by Simon Dunstan.

Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here

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