Israeli operational planners had long before developed contingency plans for war against Syria with code names such as Operation Pincers to conquer the Golan Heights, and Operation Whip designed to seize the West Bank and Jerusalem from Jordan. “For five years,” IDF chief of operations Gen. Ezer Weizman recalled, referring to the surprise air strike against Egypt, “I had been talking of this operation, explaining it, hatching it, dreaming of it, manufacturing it link by link, training men to carry it out.”
On the Egyptian front, the Israeli plan of attack was to knock out Egyptian aircraft and bases while the IDF punched into Gaza and the Sinai. A task force of armored brigades and paratroops, commanded by Brig. Gen. Israel Tal, was to take Rafah and al-Arish, and head toward the Suez Canal, while in the center, through sand dunes thought impassable by the Egyptians, Brig. Gen. Avraham Yoffe would support Tal’s flanks with two armored brigades. Yoffe’s force would also back up Brig. Gen. Ariel Sharon’s tank, paratroop, and infantry brigades, which were to overrun initial defenses at Abu Ageila and then take the strategic Mitla Pass before moving on toward the canal.
Against Jordan, the Israelis planned two pincer movements: one to snip off Jerusalem, the other at the juncture of Janin and Nablus; a third strike would expel the Jordanians from the Qalqilyah-Tulkarm area. Syria would be dealt with later.
Benefiting from fine intelligence, King Hussein informed Nasser that the Israelis would attack Egypt by June 3, and Nasser warned his commanders to brace themselves. Hussein then placed his small forces almost exactly along Israel’s invasion routes. There, they awaited the onslaught.
Early in the morning of June 5, almost the entire Israeli air force, more than 180 planes, went on an apparently routine patrol over the Mediterranean Sea; Egyptian radar monitors thought nothing of it. Suddenly, the Israelis dove below radar level, banked, and roared toward UARAF bases in the Sinai and northeastern Egypt. They bombed Egyptian airbases for over three hours, coming in flights of four. The Egyptians, just in from their morning patrols and enjoying breakfast, were caught completely by surprise. “There were explosions everywhere,” Egyptian flight commander Tahsen Zaki said later, “but we kept going and managed to save a few planes.”
The attacks occurred just as Field Marshal Amer went airborne in an unarmed transport. He could not land for obvious reasons, and was afraid to issue radio commands for fear of being shot down. The Egyptian forces were effectively paralyzed.
Of the 12 Egyptian MiGs that managed to get off the ground, 10 were shot down. Losing only four Mystères, the Israelis destroyed 304 Egyptian aircraft, along with most of Egypt’s radar installations and 17 airfields. At 12:15 p.m., the IAF ripped into Jordan and Syria’s air arms as well, wrecking 53 Syrian planes and virtually the entire Royal Jordanian Air Force. Israeli planes even swept over Iraq, downing five Hawker Hunter fighter-bombers and destroying another 10 on the ground after the Iraqis bombed Israeli territory. On this day, one of the most destructive and effective aerial first strikes in history wiped out 70 to 80 percent of Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian frontline air power.
As oily plumes of smoke from the burning wrecks of UARAF planes curled into the sky, the IDF launched its invasion. To the north, General Tal hurled the elite 7th Armored Brigade against the Rafah fortifications behind which the Egyptian 7th Infantry Division waited. The Egyptians fought hard, inflicting many casualties, but superior Israeli tactics eliminated each defensive line as the Egyptians failed to maneuver their forces effectively. The sole Egyptian counterattack consisted of a headlong rush of T-55 tanks, plowing forward without infantry or artillery support. They were decimated.
Tal’s men now rushed toward the 13-kilometer-long Jiradi Pass, the only access to al-Arish. Here the Egyptian 6th Infantry Brigade and two battalions of T-55s were dug in. To outflank this position, Tal sent a unit to the south, which got bogged down in sand dunes. The Israelis’ only option at that point was to pound their way through, in the type of frontal, straightforward fighting they disliked because the attrition it produced was disproportionately harmful to their small nation. Although initially taken by surprise by the speed of the Israeli advance, the Egyptians fought fiercely, eventually knocking out 13 IDF tanks. In some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, the battle raged until nightfall. Nevertheless, after hand-to-hand combat, Israelis cleared the pass.
Meanwhile, General Sharon’s brigades stood before the crack Egyptian 2nd Infantry Division at Abu Ageilah, dug into trenches protected by minefields and sand dunes. With typical Israeli boldness and creativity, Sharon ordered an armored task force under the command of Lt. Col. Natke Nir to cut through the dunes to the north, into the Egyptian rear. Helicopters then brought in paratroops to strike at Egyptian artillery positions.
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