At 2 p.m. on October 6, 1973, during the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, Israel’s neighboring Arab states of Egypt and Syria launched a powerful, two-front surprise attack, targeting the Sinai in the south and the Golan Heights in the north. As both assaults proceeded during the opening hours of the Yom Kippur War, the Egyptian and Syrian armies greatly outnumbered the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) units thinly spread across territory Israel had occupied since its stunning victory in the 1967 Six Day War. (See Sinai and Golan Fronts map, p. 57.)
On the Sinai front, an initial force of five Egyptian divisions totaling 100,000 troops conducted a surprisingly effective assault crossing of the Suez Canal. They were opposed by fewer than 500 Israeli soldiers who were garrisoning the string of forts along the canal known as the Bar-Lev Line and backed up by a single IDF tank brigade. Yet the vast, desert expanse of the Sinai Peninsula served as a defensive barrier, preventing the Egyptian army from swiftly advancing from the Suez Canal to Israel’s southwestern border. This provided the IDF the vital time it needed to mobilize reservists and bring them to battle against the Egyptians on the southern front.
During the war, the most immediate and dangerous threat to Israel proper was the Syrian attack in the north, on the Golan front. The narrow, Israeli-occupied Golan Heights region separated the borders of Israel and Syria by only 15 miles. Unless the heavily outnumbered Israeli defenders positioned there could delay the Syrian army’s attack until IDF reservists could be mobilized and sent to turn back the assault, northern Israel would be invaded.
Aware that IDF reserve units required 24- 48 hours to begin arriving in strength, the Syrians aimed to attack through the Golan region and across the Jordan River to invade northern Israel within the next 24 hours.
Armchair General® takes you back to the night of October 6-7, 1973, on the Golan Heights, where you will play the role of Israeli Captain Meir Zamir, commander of a company of 10 main battle tanks in 82d Tank Battalion, 7th IDF Tank Brigade. Your mission is to defeat a much larger Syrian mechanized force of 40-50 tanks and armored vehicles moving northwest toward your company along the Ramtania-Nafakh road. If your company fails to halt the enemy force, the Syrians not only will overrun the IDF major headquarters command post at Nafakh but also quickly move on and invade northern Israel before IDF reservists can arrive to stop them. In the face of these daunting odds, you must develop a plan for your vastly outnumbered tank company to defeat this Syrian threat.
SYRIAN ARMY ATTACK
All along the Golan, the Syrians have amassed powerful forces that are attacking in two echelons. The first echelon, from north to south, consists of 40,000 infantrymen of 7th, 9th and 5th infantry divisions. These divisions, however, are not pure infantry forces. Instead, their organization is similar to that of the forces of the Soviet Union, Syria’s principal superpower supporter, military adviser and arms supplier. Each Syrian infantry division contains an organic armored brigade of 130-200 tanks, plus other mechanized elements such as BMP-1 fully tracked armored fighting vehicles and BTR-60 wheeled armored personnel carriers.
Arrayed behind the infantry divisions, the Syrian attack’s second echelon consists of 1st and 3d armored divisions, with 250 tanks each. The number of tanks in both echelons combined totals about 1,400. Although the Syrians are using mostly older models – T- 54/T-55s mounting 100 mm main guns – they also have about 400 T-62s. The latter are the latest model Soviet main battle tanks, which mount 115 mm main guns. In an armored attack, the firepower of these tanks is supplemented by the 73 mm guns of the BMP-1s and the 14.5 mm heavy machine guns of the BTR-60s.
The Syrian army’s supporting weapons include 1,000 artillery guns and heavy mortars and (for air defense) 100 fully tracked SAM-6 surface-to-air missile launchers, plus numerous mobile ZSU-23-4 anti-aircraft artillery systems that fire 50-round bursts from four 23 mm radar-guided cannon that are mounted in fully enclosed, tank-like turrets.
The immediate threat to your tank company is the Syrian force advancing northwest along the Ramtania-Nafakh road. Approaching in a single column, the enemy force consists of a tank battalion and a mechanized battalion from 43d Mechanized Brigade, 9th Infantry Division. Its 40-50 armored vehicles are a mixture of T-54/T-55 and T-62 tanks, BMP-1 armored fighting vehicles and BTR-60 armored personnel carriers. The column also includes a substantial number of unarmored wheeled vehicles transporting ammunition and supplies.
Until the mobilized reservists arrive, the IDF units manning the 40-mile-long Golan front will be greatly outnumbered in tanks, infantrymen and artillery. To oppose the massive Syrian attack, the IDF has only about 170 tanks, 60 155 mm artillery howitzers and two infantry battalions (one north and one south on the Golan Heights). Most of the 200 Israeli infantrymen man a line of 10 strongpoints situated on hillsides facing the Syrian border, each garrisoned by about 20 soldiers.
Yet to the IDF’s advantage, the Golan region’s terrain favors the defenders and is not ideal for mechanized warfare. To the far north it is mountainous, while the center and south give way from hills to basalt rock fields dotted with the tops of old volcano cones. Additionally, IDF engineers have constructed an antitank ditch that runs 20 miles along the center and south sectors, the areas most vulnerable to mechanized attack. The region’s topography therefore will channel any enemy movement and limit a rapid advance to the few roads and tracks in the area.
The terrain also favors the defenders in other ways. Most significantly, from the Syrian border the ground gradually rises to a ridgeline that runs like a spine along the center of the Golan before sloping back down to the Jordan River, which forms the eastern border of Israel proper. The IDF has integrated all of the terrain features into its defensive scheme, which is designed to buy time until the reservists can arrive. It has pre-registered the artillery to strike the roads and their junctions, positioned large minefields to channel enemy attacks, deployed engineering assets to cut the roads leading out of the highlands, and wired the bridges over the Jordan River for demolition as a last resort.
Unfortunately, the Golan’s terrain will not appreciably affect your immediate tactical mission – engaging and defeating the powerful Syrian force whose tanks outnumber yours by about 5-to-1. Yet these daunting odds do not shake your confidence in the skill, efficiency and courage of your crewmen and the combat power of your 10 Centurion main battle tanks.
Israeli soldiers call the British-built Centurion tank “Sho’t” (Hebrew for “scourge” or “whip”), and it is more than a match for any Syrian tank. (See Centurion/Sho’t Tank, pp. 62-63.) Weighing over 50 tons and boasting armor up to six inches thick, it mounts an L7 105 mm main gun and a .30-caliber machine gun and is manned by a four-person crew (commander, gunner, loader and driver). The IDF has modified the Sho’t tank by replacing the original gasoline engine with an American-made diesel engine, which is less susceptible to catching fire if the tank is hit during combat.
The IDF’s Sho’t tanks, however, have no night vision optics, so when fighting in the darkness, the crews rely on powerful xenon searchlights to illuminate the targets for their gunners. Three of your tanks have these searchlights mounted on them, and they no doubt will prove vital to winning this nighttime battle on the Golan.
After spending all day October 6 sitting in a reserve position, your company finally received the call to action at 2:30 a.m. on October 7. Your brigade commander, Colonel Avigdor “Yanush” Ben-Gal, radioed you with an order to move immediately to the Ramtania-Nafakh road south of Nafakh to defeat the large Syrian tank-mechanized force advancing northwest along it. Your company sprang into action at once, arriving at the road moments ago at 2:45 a.m.
You estimate that the Syrian force will arrive in about 20 minutes, and thus you have little time to develop and implement a tactical plan. You quickly summon your deputy commander and company sergeant to join you beside your tank, where you will brief them on three possible courses of action and request their feedback.
“First of all,” you explain, once the men have arrived, “we all know that the three main elements of combat power tanks bring to armored warfare are maneuver, firepower and shock action. Therefore, each plan under consideration will capitalize on one of these elements.
“Second, since we have to rely on the tanks’ searchlights to illuminate our targets during this night fight, we must remind our gunners that they will need to act quickly to acquire and engage multiple enemy tanks and armored vehicles since the beams will give away our positions and subject us to return fire. In short, to win this fight, our gunners will have to fire faster and more accurately than the enemy gunners.
“Now listen carefully, men. We only have one chance to get this right!”
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: HAMMER AND ANVIL
“The first course of action,” you begin, “capitalizes on maneuver. Under this plan, the deputy commander will lead half of the company to engage the head of the enemy column while I maneuver the rest of the company to swing southwest of the road and execute an enveloping flank attack – thus trapping the Syrians between my ‘hammer’ and the deputy commander’s ‘anvil.’ His force will include one tank with a searchlight, and my force will take the other two.”
The company sergeant responds first. “I think a ‘hammer and anvil’ maneuver would work well during the daylight,” he says, “but since this will be a night fight, I’m concerned that our two forces may accidentally fire on each other as the ‘hammer’ hits the enemy flank.”
The deputy commander, however, disagrees. “In my opinion,” he replies, “the psychological advantage that we gain by hitting the enemy from two directions outweighs the risk of casualties from friendly fire. It’s not as if our gunners will be firing blindly into the darkness – their targets will be illuminated by the searchlights.”
COURSE OF ACTION TWO: AMBUSH
“The second plan,” you continue, “relies on firepower. We will ambush the Syrian column and overwhelm it with rounds from our tanks’ main guns. I will lead a blocking force consisting of four tanks positioned on the road and the nearby hills, and the deputy commander will lead our remaining six tanks, including the three with searchlights, in firing positions extending along the east side of the road. Once he judges that the enemy column is well into the ‘kill zone’ formed by this L-shaped ambush, he will turn on his searchlight, thus signaling the tanks to prepare to open fire. Upon receiving this signal, the tanks with the other two searchlights will immediately switch them on, illuminating plenty of targets for all of our gunners to engage.”
The deputy commander replies, “But Sir, like their Soviet advisers, the Syrians know that the best way to escape an ambush is to race forward and leave the kill zone as quickly as possible, thereby keeping their losses to a minimum. If their commander realizes what’s happening and reacts instantly, my ambush force might not be able to knock out the enemy vehicles quickly enough to destroy the column before it escapes. The sheer number of enemy tanks could overrun our blocking force, allowing dozens of the Syrian vehicles to continue their advance.”
The company sergeant disagrees. Shaking his head, he says, “The Syrian column won’t be advancing anywhere once our opening fusillade blocks the road with the burning hulks of knocked-out enemy tanks and armored vehicles. Our blocking force will quickly take out the lead vehicles while our ambush force blasts the rest of the column strung out on the road behind them.”
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: SPOILING ATTACK
“The aim of my final plan,” you conclude, “is to defeat the Syrian column through shock action. I will lead the entire company in a swift attack down the Ramtania-Nafakh road to smash the column head-on, disrupting its advance as far south as possible. The Syrians won’t be expecting us to launch such a bold attack, so their surprise at seeing our 10 Sho’t tanks – with their guns blazing and their searchlights blinding the Syrians as they bear down on them from out of the night – will give us the tactical advantage we need to overcome the enemy’s greater numbers.”
Frowning, the company sergeant replies, “Sir, I agree that a spoiling attack straight down the road will confuse and disorganize the Syrians when we first hit them. However, if they can quickly recover from the initial shock, then our bold attack might end up being a suicide charge as our tanks race directly into the teeth of the Syrians’ fire. Moreover, the greater the number of enemy tanks and armored vehicles we knock out on the road, the more difficult it will be for our tanks to keep moving. Our attack could bog down, and then we’d lose the ‘shock action’ that is necessary for this plan to succeed.”
After thanking the men and briefly considering their input, you announce, “Listen closely, gentlemen, as I have decided which tactical plan we will implement.” What is your decision, Captain Zamir?
Andrew H. Hershey holds a doctorate in medieval history from the University of London. He contributes to the “USMC Gazette” and is a four-time winner of its Tactical Decision Game design contests. He also designs World War II tactical-level wargames for Heat of Battle and Le Franc Tireur.
Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Armchair General.