The Six Day War Sparked Forty Years of Strife

By O'Brien Browne
8/16/2009 • Lyndon B. Johnson, MHQ

This innovative attack began at 10:30 p.m. with an artillery barrage of about 100 guns. Sharon’s infantry attacked out of the dunes, while the paratroops silenced enemy artillery, and Nir’s tanks barreled into the surprised defenders. Muzzle blasts of tanks, flashes of artillery, and the flames of demolished armor lit up the black desert night. Seemingly attacked from all sides simultaneously, the Egyptians nevertheless fought for 12 hours. When it was over, though, the 2nd Infantry Division had been destroyed.

After things had clearly disintegrated for the Egyptians, soldiers of all ranks began, in the words of military historian Kenneth Pollack, “dissembling, obfuscating, exaggerating and outright lying” instead of admitting their losses and errors. Reflecting the regime’s lack of open communication, Field Marshal Amer and his men joined in, telling Nasser and army officers that Egypt’s air force had destroyed its Israeli counterpart.

Only later in the day of June 5 did Amer tell Nasser the truth. With disastrous effect, some army commanders were not informed until the next day. Amer and most of the general staff appear to have been paralyzed with shock for much of this first day; orders were given and contradicted at a heated pace, spreading inertia and confusion throughout the ranks.

As in previous wars, the Egyptians fought with tenacity and bravery but lacked innovation, tactics, and maneuver. When two T-55 brigades of the 4th Armored Division, for example, tried to halt Tal’s advance to al-Arish, they ran smack into IDF Centurions from General Yoffe’s unit: as evening fell, nine Egyptian tanks had been reduced to blazing steel hulks while the Israelis lost only one Centurion. Renewing the assault in the morning, the Egyptians charged straight at the Israelis and were picked off by accurate gunnery and air strikes. The Egyptians retreated, leaving 30 of 80 T-55s behind, smashed. The Israelis suffered no losses.

After this catastrophic defeat, Amer ordered a general retreat from the Sinai on June 6. Bypassing normal communication channels, the field marshal called his commanders personally, ordering them to pull out. The retreat rapidly degenerated into a rout as officers fled pell-mell, leaving their men leaderless. Hundreds of soldiers simply dumped their equipment and headed homeward, many suffering agonizing deaths in the rocky wastes of the Sinai.

After disabling the USS Liberty, Israel was free to pursue its final objective, the Golan Heights, without fear of U.S. eavesdropping

Soon realizing his mistake, Amer tried to have some units stand against the onrushing Israelis. The Egyptian 3rd Infantry Division fought hard at Jebel Libni but was completely wiped out by the IDF. Similarly, the 4th Armored Division confronted and delayed Tal’s forces on June 7, but the price was huge losses in tanks, personnel, and equipment. Even so, those Egyptians at least managed to limp across the canal in an orderly fashion.

These, however, were isolated, uncoordinated engagements that could not stem the mayhem, and the Israelis captured about 5,000 Egyptian soldiers. According to Israeli historians such as Aryeh Yitzhaki, hundreds of other Arabs, including Palestinian civilians, were executed and dumped into graves, some of which they had to dig themselves, at al-Arish, Gaza, and elsewhere.

Over the battlefield, the remnants of the Egyptian air force flew ground attack sorties and engaged the much superior IAF. Some Egyptians, most notably the MiG-21 pilots of No. 40 Squadron, downed six Israeli jets in dogfights, but Israel shot down 42 UARAF aircraft.

In the confusion, relying on reports by Amer and others, Nasser and his generals informed the Jordanians that the IAF had been destroyed and that Egypt had invaded Israel. This bogus “news” emboldened King Hussein and his Egyptian general, Abdul Munim al-Riyad. Dismissing an Israeli message sent via the United Nations that Israel would not attack if Jordan remained a nonbelligerent, Hussein ordered his army to open fire. He even sent the 60th Armored Brigade to join the Egyptian “attack” in the Sinai.

Hussein and Riyad then ordered the RJAF to hit targets inside Israel. But working from abysmal intelligence, the Jordanian pilots became lost and bombed a beach resort. It was when their Hawker Hunters landed to refuel that Israeli Mirages suddenly screamed out of the sky and destroyed or badly damaged all of them.

Unable to resist taking what they regarded as the prize of prizes, the Israelis now decided to capture the West Bank and Jerusalem, although neither posed an existential threat. Brig. Gen. Elad Peled’s force, consisting of one armored, one mechanized, and one paratroop brigade, was ordered to attack the towns of Janin and Nablus. Meanwhile, Brig. Gen. Uzi Narkiss planned to overrun Jerusalem in a double envelopment, sending paratroops to strike north of the city, with the 16th Brigade sweeping in to capture the southern section of the Old City as the 10th Mechanized Brigade struck north. Other units were to advance through Latrun against Ramallah, northwest of Jerusalem.

In all these attacks, the Israelis tactically surpassed the Jordanians. The Israeli air force pummeled Jordan’s fortified positions and then thwarted Jordanian attempts to move their forces. Although individual Jordanian units fought ferociously, sometimes to the death, their shooting was generally inaccurate and their communication poor. In part this was because their officers simply fled once they realized all was lost. Although Jordanians were well-entrenched in fortified positions along the many ridges that characterize the terrain, Israelis had overrun all their positions on the outskirts of Jerusalem by June 6, in battles lasting from 20 minutes to several hours.

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