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Slugfest on the Suez

By David T. Zabecki
11/1/2017 • Military History Magazine

Egypt caught Israel by surprise on Yom Kippur 1973 with a brilliant cross-canal attack. Then IDF armor counterattacked…

Major General Ariel Sharon assumed command of the Israel Defense Forces’ 143rd Reserve Armored Division on Oct. 6, 1973, the same day Israel mobilized the unit in response to the multiple surprise attacks that started the Yom Kippur War. The old warhorse wasn’t especially happy with his new assignment. Only two months earlier the hero of Israel’s first three wars had finally retired from the IDF. He’d immediately entered politics as a major figure in the Likud Party, in opposition to the Labor Party of Prime Minister Golda Meir. During the 1967 Six-Day War, Sharon had commanded the IDF’s most powerful armored division on the Sinai Front, and since 1969 he’d led Southern Command, one of the IDF’s three corps-level regional headquarters. Now he was back in uniform, but this time as a divisional commander, subordinate to his old headquarters, now commanded by Maj. Gen. Shmuel Gonen.

Sharon didn’t like it, and there would be constant friction between him and Gonen, and between Sharon and his fellow divisional commanders. Many IDF generals considered Sharon a loose cannon, but because of his political connections Israel’s military and civilian leaders chose not to confront him. Besides, he did know how to command an armored division during a war in Sinai. Defense analysts often cite Sharon’s eventual thrust across the Suez Canal into Egypt on October 16–17 as one of the more brilliant pieces of operational maneuver in modern military history—though opinions still differ.

Either way, Sharon’s dash across the canal was only made possible by the protracted, bloody battle between Israeli and Egyptian forces at a place called Chinese Farm.

The start of the 1973 war shocked the IDF. After its stunning victory in 1967 the Israeli military largely rested on its laurels, and its leaders committed the cardinal sin of warfare—underestimating one’s enemy. Meanwhile, the Arab states had refocused their fundamental approach to warfighting, and with massive support from the Soviet Union the Egyptians in particular did a first-rate job of it.

In 1967 the IDF won through a combination of tactical air superiority and tanks. The only way for the Arabs to overcome Israel’s military superiority was to adopt the doctrine of asymmetric warfare. The Egyptians understood that in any future war they had to separate the IDF’s armor and fighter-bombers and then follow up with effective alternative means to attack the tanks.

Large numbers of Soviet-supplied S-75 Dvina surface-to-air missiles—designated SA-2 by NATO—was the first key. These SAMs had limited mobility and a range of only about 28 miles, but as long as Egyptian forces stayed within the SAM umbrella, the sky overhead would be a very deadly place for the Israeli Air Force. The second key was the large-scale fielding of antitank guided missiles (ATGMs), especially the Soviet weapon known to NATO as the AT-3 Sagger. Ground launched, wire guided and deadly out to nearly two miles, the Sagger enabled Egyptian infantrymen to target Israeli tanks from covered positions, thus helping to even the odds.

Artillery fire is the best way to support tanks against attack by enemy infantry. But the IDF had little conventional tube artillery in 1973, and when the war broke out, most of that was in reserve units back in Israel. Following the 1967 victories the IDF drew the faulty conclusion that it could deliver fire support for its tanks largely from the air, thus it downsized its field artillery.

Syria and Egypt attacked Israel on October 6, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most solemn of all Jewish holy days. Arab deception measures had been superb. When the war started, only thin IDF forces occupied the Golan Heights in the east and the Sinai Peninsula in the west—territories Israel had captured in 1967.

In the west Egyptian armed forces chief of staff Lt. Gen. Saad el Shazly staged a masterful assault crossing of the Suez Canal at five sites. Under supporting fire from more than 2,000 mortars and artillery pieces, the initial assault wave of Operation Badr used high-pressure water hoses to blast some 70 holes in the massive sand wall of the IDF’s Bar Lev Line, along the canal’s eastern bank. Egyptian infantry started crossing the waterway at 1415, and within two hours the lead elements of five divisions—some 23,500 troops— had crossed. They faced fewer than 500 reservists in the Bar Lev positions, and the Israelis lost their few tanks almost immediately. By 2030 the Egyptians had their first pontoon bridge over the canal and started moving tanks across.

The attackers consolidated their crossing points and established a cohesive bridgehead on the east bank. They then pushed forward up to six miles into Sinai and dug in, sitting relatively securely beneath the SAM umbrella and behind their ATGM shield. In addition to the SA-2s and Saggers, the Egyptians also fielded large numbers of shoulder-fired antitank rockets and anti-aircraft missiles. Fired individually, the 9K32M Strela-2M SAM (NATO designation SA-7b) and the RPG-7 antitank rocket seldom did serious damage, but fired en masse or in conjunction with heavier systems, they added another layer of threat to Israeli tanks and planes. The Egyptians repulsed the IAF’s initial attacks with huge losses—49 aircraft in the first four days of the war. The Egyptians had been prepared to take 30,000 casualties to establish the bridgehead but reportedly lost only 280 killed.

When the Egyptians attacked, the IDF had only a single understrength armored division (AD) in Sinai, but the main body of Maj. Gen. Avraham Mandler’s 252nd AD lay significantly back from the canal. As Mandler’s units moved forward to establish a screen in front of the Egyptian bridgehead, the IDF mobilized two more armored divisions in Israel. The 162nd Reserve AD, under Maj. Gen. Avraham Adan, and Sharon’s 143rd Reserve AD started forward almost immediately. By October 8 the IDF had pushed nearly 500 tanks to the western edge of Sinai, launching an armored counterattack with Adan’s division supported by Sharon’s. But the attack was poorly coordinated, and the Israeli commanders—still underestimating their enemies—assumed the Egyptian defense would collapse on first contact. But the Egyptians held, and by day’s end the IDF had lost 180 tanks in one of its worst-ever tactical defeats.

By October 9 the Egyptian forces in Sinai consisted of two field armies, the Second Army in the north and the Third Army in the south; the inter-army boundary flanked the northern shore of the Great Bitter Lake. By then the Egyptians controlled almost all of the Lexicon Road, the primary north-south route skirting the east bank of the canal from the Great Bitter Lake north to Lake Timsah. The main eastwest routes in that sector were the Akavish Road, a major axis of advance for IDF forces, and the shorter Tirtur Road, which ran roughly parallel to and about a mile north of the Akavish Road. A long-abandoned Japanese experimental agricultural station dominated the critical junction of the Lexicon and Tirtur Roads, just north of the Great Bitter Lake. Mistaking the Japanese ideographs on the building’s walls, the IDF troops called the station Chinese Farm.

Despite the previous day’s tactical defeat, Sharon pushed his forces toward the enemy so aggressively that Gonen had to restrain him. As early as October 9 Sharon’s 14th Armored Brigade (AB), commanded by Colonel Amnon Reshef, advanced reconnaissance elements as far as the Chinese Farm sector and identified a gap along the boundary of the two Egyptian field armies. Sharon demanded immediate authorization to cross the canal and exploit the gap, but the IDF high command thought tactical conditions were unfavorable. Sharon disobeyed orders to remain on the defensive and continued to push forward. Fed up, Gonen asked for authority to relieve Sharon. Instead, the IDF brought Lt. Gen. Haim Bar Lev, its former chief of staff and namesake of the Suez defensive line, out of retirement and made him an “advisor” to Gonen, effectively assuming operational control of Southern Command. Bar Lev’s primary function, of course, was to control Sharon.

By October 13 the IDF had deployed its three armored divisions in Sinai on line facing the canal, with Adan’s division in the north and Sharon’s in the center. To the south was the 252nd AD, now under Maj. Gen. Kalman Magen (Egyptian artillery units had targeted and killed Mandler).

On the Syrian front, meanwhile, the fight had turned against Arab forces. On October 10 two IDF reserve armored brigades on the Golan Heights halted the Syrians and destroyed more than 800 Syrian tanks and armored vehicles (see “A Line in the Sand,” by David T. Zabecki, in the May/June 2008 issue). The following day Golda Meir authorized the IDF to head toward Damascus. That, in turn, triggered the turning point of the Sinai campaign.

Damascus desperately appealed to Cairo to do something to relieve the pressure on Syria. Shazly and many of the Egyptian senior commanders adamantly opposed any shift to the offensive in Sinai. But President Anwar Sadat overruled them and ordered the army to attack deeper into central Sinai in a bid to seize the strategic mountain passes at Mitla, Gidi and Khatmia.

On the morning of October 14 the Egyptians attacked along a 100-mile front with the 21st AD, under Brig. Gen. Ibrahim Oraby, and 16th Infantry Division (ID), under Brig. Gen. Abd Rab el Nabi Hafez, in the north, and the 4th AD, under Brig. Gen. Mohamed Abd el Aziz Qabil, in the south. The Egyptians fielded more than 1,000 tanks against the IDF’s 800, and the resulting fight was the largest tank battle since the 1943 Soviet-German slugfest at Kursk.

But when the Egyptians moved beyond their SAM umbrella, their tanks became easy prey for both IAF planes and dug-in IDF tanks. Within hours the Egyptians lost 264 tanks and more than 1,000 men, while the IDF lost only about 40 tanks; 34 of the latter were soon back in service (among the IDF’s strengths was its ability to rapidly repair knocked-out tanks). After the battle Bar Lev reported to Meir: “It has been a good day. Our forces are themselves again—and so are the Egyptians.”

Egypt’s offensive completely disrupted the integrity of its bridge- head, and by prematurely committing most of its operational reserve, the entire Egyptian force was out of position and off balance. Late on October 14, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. David Elazar finally gave the orders to execute Operation Valiant, starting the following night. The IDF had prepared for such a crossing years in advance by positioning bridging stocks just behind the canal at three potential crossing sites. One was at Deversoir, north of the Great Bitter Lake, which coincided with the gap between the Egyptian Second and Third armies. The bridging park was at the east end of the Tirtur Road. There the IDF had prefabricated a massive roller assault bridge (RAB), 600 feet long and weighing 400 tons. Towed by 12 M48 tanks, with four more acting as brakes, the bridge rested atop 100 steel rollers—each more than 6 feet in diameter and 40 feet long—which doubled as pontoons once in the water.

After the debacle of October 14 Shazly wanted to pull the remnants of the 4th and 21st ADs back across the canal to form a mobile reserve against the IDF crossing he was sure would come. He was overruled by Egypt’s minister of war, General Ahmed Ismail Ali, who feared the move would trigger a collapse in political support for Sadat. Remaining in Sinai, the 21st AD and surviving elements of the 16th ID moved toward Chinese Farm and dug in. Though the Israelis had mauled both units, they retained significant combat power. Irrigation ditches and ruined buildings at the station made it a textbook piece of defender’s ground.

Operation Valiant called for Sharon’s division to open the attack corridor, establish the initial bridgehead with inflatable boats and a simple pontoon bridge, then roll in the massive RAB. Adan’s division would then pass through Sharon’s, cross the canal, turn south and move toward the city of Suez at the waterway’s south entrance. Magen’s division would cross next and support Adan. Sharon would cover the rear of the other two divisions and hold the crossing corridor against Egyptian counterattacks. IDF commanders were aware of the enemy armor along the Lexicon Road but had apparently underestimated the force building up at Chinese Farm, a mile north of the crossing corridor.

Late in the afternoon of October 15 Sharon committed his 247th AB, under Colonel Tuvia Raviv, to a spoiling attack against what he assumed were the main forces of the Egyptian 16th ID in the north. An hour later Reshef’s 14th AB started down the Tirtur Road to secure both the crossing site and a Bar Lev Line strongpoint codenamed Missouri that dominated the high ground north of the Great Bitter Lake. Reshef had three tank battalions, an armored reconnaissance battalion and three parachute battalions mounted in World War II–era halftracks. As Reshef’s 18th Tank Battalion (TB) reached the Lexington-Tirtur road intersection, it came under heavy Sagger fire and lost 10 tanks, but the battalion pushed on toward Missouri.

Reshef’s 40th TB was to secure the intersection. But only one company initially moved to clear the area, and the alerted Egyptians wiped it out. Meanwhile, Reshef’s 87th Armored Reconnaissance Battalion reached the crossing zone at about 2300. Sharon ordered Colonel Dani Matt’s 243rd Paratroop Brigade to immediately cross and establish the bridgehead. But with the Tirtur and Akavish Roads under heavy fire, the IDF units jammed up, and Matt’s paratroopers were far behind schedule.

The 18th and 7th TBs continued north toward Missouri, but by 2200 both units were engaged with Egyptian tanks, and the 7th was down to a third its original strength. Pushed back, the IDF units made a stand a half-mile north of Chinese Farm. Under cover of darkness the main body of the Israeli 40th TB, supported by paratroop Task Force Shmulik, resumed the attack from the south. The Israelis encountered withering interlocking fire from Egyptian armored vehicles and infantry dug into the irrigation ditches. After several hours of fighting the Egyptians had wiped out most of the 40th, and the Israelis had still not taken the crossroads.

Around 0200 on October 16 Reshef sent a company of tanks and his reserve paratroop battalion to clear the intersection. But within two hours the Egyptians had knocked out the tanks and pinned down the paratroopers; some were cut off, and Reshef was never able to extract them. At 0400 Reshef resumed the attack on Chinese Farm, trying to outflank it from the rear. That attack also failed, but starting at dawn Reshef again launched a series of attacks; his tankers finally managed to seize the crossroads by 0900.

Reshef’s brigade was in shambles, and although he had pushed the Egyptians from the crossroads, they still held Chinese Farm and Missouri. Adan sent a tank battalion from Colonel Gavriel Amir’s 460th AB to relieve what was left of the 14th. For the remainder of that day and part of the next that battalion, under Lt. Col. Amir Jaffe, fought off continuous counterattacks by the Egyptian 1st and 14th ABs. Reshef, meanwhile, positioned one of his battalions to screen the west side of Chinese Farm while he withdrew the remainder of his brigade south to the Great Bitter Lake. By that point Reshef’s casualties numbered 128 dead, 62 wounded and 56 of 97 tanks knocked out. But the Israelis had destroyed some 150 Egyptian tanks.

Matt’s paratroopers started crossing the canal in rubber boats at about 0135. By dawn on October 16 his brigade was across, and IDF engineers had moved 27 tanks across on rafts. The tanks fanned out to destroy Egyptian SAM batteries on the west bank. With the bridgehead established, Sharon wanted to cross in full force, even though the Egyptians still held Chinese Farm. The vital roller bridge, meanwhile, had broken down somewhere back along the Tirtur Road.

IDF senior leaders were appalled by the losses. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan even considered canceling the operation. To Sharon’s frustration, Gonen ordered him not to send any major units across the canal until he’d cleared Chinese Farm, secured Missouri and deployed the RAB. Sharon went over his head to protest, insisting they keep pushing tanks across on rafts. But Bar Lev backed Gonen—and they were right. Without adequate crossing bridges and secure approach corridors any large IDF force on the west bank would have ground to a halt within 24 hours.

Sharon wasn’t buying it and put his efforts into expanding the west bank bridgehead rather than securing the east bank approach corridors. At midmorning on October 16 Southern Command directed Adan’s division to open the Tirtur and Akavish roads and get the RAB to the canal. Gonen ordered Sharon to clear Chinese Farm and Missouri. Adan sent Colonel Natan Nir’s 600th Reserve AB and Amir’s 460th AB to the high ground north of the Akavish and Tirtur roads, but they ran into Sagger fire. Realizing his tanks needed infantry support, Adan called forward Colonel Uzi Ya’iri’s 35th Paratroop Brigade.

But the paratroopers didn’t arrive until almost midnight and were then hastily committed. Lt. Col. Yitzhak Mordecai’s 890th Paratroop Battalion moved down the Tirtur Road on halftracks, but by 0245 on October 17 they, too, were pinned down by heavy fire. About then Adan’s scout company reported that the Akavish Road to the south was open. He ordered the paratroopers to hold the line along the Tirtur Road while he sent pontoon bridging equipment down the Akavish Road to the crossing site. The pontoons reached the canal at 0630, and construction of the floating bridge started immediately.

With the bridging operation underway, Adan ordered two armored brigades to clear the Akavish Road and then move north to clear Tirtur. Just before noon a tank battalion under Lt. Col. Ehud Barak, who would later become prime minister of Israel, finally relieved the paratroopers. In nearly 14 hours of close-quarters fighting they had suffered more than 40 dead and 100 wounded. The Egyptians, meanwhile, launched one last attempt that morning to cut off the Israeli corridor, striking south from Chinese Farm and Missouri with the 16th ID and 21st AD.

Adan deployed Nir’s brigade from the south and Amir’s brigade from the east to fix the attacking Egyptian force between Tirtur and Akavish. With Colonel Tuvia Raviv’s 247th AB from Sharon’s division attacking from the north, Adan had the Egyptians caught in a three-way vise. Simultaneously, Jaffe’s tank battalion harassed the enemy force from the rear. After losing some 160 tanks, the Egyptians fell back to Missouri and the northern sector of Chinese Farm. The IDF lost about 90 tanks, but most were soon back in operation.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian 25th Independent AB was moving up the Lexicon Road from the south, behind schedule for what was supposed to have been a coordinated pincer attack against the IDF corridor. Instead of taking on both forces at once, Adan had the luxury of dealing with them in turn. With elements of Reshef’s 14th AB, Nir’s brigade and Colonel Aryeh Keren’s 500th Reserve AB, Adan set an ambush along the shore of the Great Bitter Lake, with a minefield between the Lexicon Road and the shore. Within an hour the Egyptian 25th lost 86 of its 96 T-62 tanks and nearly all of its armored personnel carriers, artillery and support vehicles. The Israelis lost just four tanks (two to mines).

Though IDF forces had not wholly cleared Chinese Farm, the corridor was secure enough, and Adan prepared to cross the canal. The pontoon bridge was in place by 1600, and his forces started crossing that night. Sharon pushed two of his own brigades across, despite not having secured either Chinese Farm or the Missouri ridge, per Gonen’s orders. The 247th AB reverted to Sharon’s control, and at midday on October 18 Raviv attacked Chinese Farm, only to find that most of the Egyptians had withdrawn. Littering the site were burned-out and smoldering tanks, wheeled vehicles, half-tracks and armored personnel carriers. In many places destroyed Israeli and Egyptian tanks stood just yards apart, having taken out one another at point-blank range.

By nightfall on October 18 the RAB finally reached the canal’s edge and entered the water north of the first pontoon bridge. By October 19 the Israelis had crossed about 350 tanks. They broke out the next day, Adan’s division heading south toward the port of Suez, Magen’s division following in support, and Sharon’s division heading north toward Ismailia.

Sharon successfully badgered the IDF leadership into giving him his own exploitation mission. When the cease-fire went into effect on October 24, elements of Adan’s division were on the outskirts of Suez. Sharon’s advance north, however, had gained relatively little ground.

If Adan bears primary responsibility for the IDF’s setback of October 8, he also gets the lion’s share of the credit for winning the battle for the crossing corridor on October 17—even though that had been Sharon’s mission. Throughout the battle Sharon had been too fixated on the crossing itself to pay proper attention to his more important mission. But looking at the battlefield tactically, rather than operationally or strategically, was typical of Sharon’s approach. His three decades in politics following the Yom Kippur War would be characterized by such short-term thinking.

 

For additional reading, David Zabecki recommends On the Banks of the Suez, by Avraham Adan; The Arab-Israeli Wars, by Chaim Herzog; and Elusive Victory: The Arab-Israeli Wars, 1947– 1974, by Trevor N. Dupuy.

Originally published in the July 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here

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