As Major Moshe Dayan, YOU must lead your outnumbered Israeli defenders to defeat a powerful Arab attack.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations passed Resolution 181, authorizing the termination of the quarter-century-old League of Nations-approved mandate through which Britain had governed Palestine after the Ottoman Empire’s collapse at the end of World War I. Significantly, U.N.Resolution 181 also authorized the partition of Palestine into two independent states, one Jewish and one Arab. Therefore, in accordance with the resolution, on May 14, 1948,Israel was declared an independent nation under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion,its first prime minister. However, one day later, Israel’s neighboring Arab states launched powerful invasions aimed at overrunning and destroying the new country.
On May 15, 1948, about 30,000 trained and well-equipped Arab troops from the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria attacked across Israel’s northern, eastern and southern borders. The invaders not only outnumbered the Israeli defenders,they also were substantially better armed,had tanks, armored cars, heavy weapons and artillery, and were supported by several hundred combat aircraft. The Israelis, on the other hand, possessed no tanks or heavy weapons, virtually no artillery, and only a few light aircraft of limited value in combat.
At the time, Israel had only about 15,000 trained soldiers, members of the country’s organized defense force, the Haganah. Inside the Haganah was a small but elite “strike force” called the Palmach. Theoretically, Israel could mobilize another 30,000 citizens to help defend against the invasions, but that would take several days and those men and women were poorly trained and inadequately armed militia. Essentially, they were farmers living and working in the numerous collective agricultural settlements (kibbutzim) located throughout the countryside. Yet given the state of emergency, Israel had to call upon them as quickly as possible to fill the ranks of its defenders.
Despite being outnumbered and outgunned, the Israelis realized they had no choice but to take on all the invading armies simultaneously while creating the best possible defense using their limited military resources. In fact, the only reason the Arab armies did not destroy Israel in the first few days was that the enemy forces failed to properly coordinate their multiple attacks to achieve the maximum possible impact. This gave the Israelis some hope – albeit a slim one – of surviving the onslaught by opposing each attack as it developed. If they failed to defeat the invasions, their country was doomed.
Armchair General® takes you back to May 19, 1948, on the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee, where you will play the role of Israeli Major Moshe Dayan, commander of a mixed unit of local militia and Haganah fighters. Your mission is to defeat an imminent attack by a much larger Syrian force of tanks, armored cars, artillery and infantry that has already destroyed an Israeli force defending the nearby village of Tzemach, located only about a mile to the east. Having captured Tzemach, the Syrians are now well positioned to continue their advance westward and attack Degania Alef and Degania Bet, which your force now defends. If you fail to defeat the enemy attack, the Syrians will gain control of the strategic Jordan River valley and move one step closer to destroying the new state of Israel.
THE COMMANDER WITH THE BLACK EYE PATCH
Your military experience began when you were still a teenager. You joined the Haganah at age 14 and over the next decade participated in combat actions against Arab guerrilla forces that frequently attacked Jewish settlements. In 1941, during World War II, you became a member of a Palmach reconnaissance unit supporting one of Britain’s Commonwealth military units in the Middle East, Australian 7th Infantry Division. While conducting a forward reconnaissance mission on June 8 of that year in preparation for the Australian division’s attack into Lebanon to defeat the forces of Nazi-allied Vichy France, you were injured when an enemy bullet struck the binoculars you were looking through. Glass and metal fragments destroyed your left eye, and you have worn a black eye patch ever since.
Last year, in 1947, you were appointed to the Haganah general staff and worked in the Arab Affairs department in Haifa. In that position, you created a network of agents who gathered intelligence on Arab irregular forces and operations in Palestine. Yesterday, on May 18 – three days after the commencement of the Arab invasions – the Haganah sent you to Degania to take command of the defense of the key position in the Jordan River valley. Although each point where the Arabs are invading is critical, nowhere is that more true than at Degania.
Established on the south shore of the Sea of Galilee in 1909 when Palestine was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, Degania Alef is the oldest kibbutz in Israel. It is also the place of your birth in 1915. In 1920, Degania Bet was established immediately south of the first settlement. Each kibbutz consists of small clusters of stone and wooden buildings (living quarters, farm machinery sheds, crop storage structures, etc.) and is surrounded by generally flat terrain of pastures and cultivated land (grain fields and fruit orchards). A few hundred meters south of Degania Bet is a small group of buildings on a 20-meter-high hill called Beit Yerah.
Since flat terrain provides no natural defensive obstacles, the militia platoons have begun digging trenches and foxholes at the eastern approaches to each kibbutz. Fortunately, some of the fields and pastures are surrounded by stone walls that offer at least some level of protection from enemy small arms fire. The only impediment to vehicle movement in the area is the 10- to 20-meter-wide and 5- to 10-meter-deep Jordan River, which makes the bridge on the west side of Degania Alef an obvious and important tactical objective for the invaders.
The force you command at Degania is not a powerful one by any measure. Primarily, it is an infantry force composed of four platoons: 50 militiamen from Degania Alef; 50 militiamen from Degania Bet; 30 soldiers detached from the Haganah “Golan” Brigade; and 20 fighters from the Palmach “Yiftach” Brigade. Reflecting the eclectic nature of Israel’s weapons, your soldiers’ small arms are a mixture of British .303-caliber bolt-action Enfield rifles, World War II German 7.92 mm bolt-action K98 rifles, and a handful of British 9 mm Sten submachine guns. Your fighters also have a limited number of hand grenades, and the Degania settlers have filled glass bottles with gasoline to make Molotov cocktails to use against enemy armored vehicles.
Your supporting weapons amount to four 81 mm mortars, three 20 mm anti-tank guns, and two PIAT anti-tank guns with two-man teams. The 20 mm guns are only effective against light armor, such as armored cars. The shaped-charge explosive devices launched by the PIAT guns can destroy enemy tanks, but their range is limited to about 100 meters. And while the Haganah general staff has promised to send you Israel’s only artillery guns, this amounts to just four obsolete 65 mm French Model 1906mountain guns that lack aiming sights and are manned by inexperienced crews. Nonetheless, if and when these guns arrive, you will put them to the best possible use despite their serious drawbacks.
In contrast, the Syrian force opposing you is a formidable one. Its infantry component consists of two battalions totaling about 1,000 soldiers armed with bolt-action French rifles. Each battalion also has several machine guns as well as 60 mm and81 mm mortars. Furthermore, the Syrian force has two 10-vehicle squadrons of armored cars of two types: one with a 40 mm gun and a light machine gun mounted in the turret, and the other with a 37 mm gun and a light machine gun mounted in the open rear cargo compartment.
Supporting the Syrians is a battalion of self-propelled 75 mm artillery guns. Yet the enemy’s two 12-vehicle companies of French Renault R-35 tanks pose the most serious threat. Each 10-ton tank boasts a turret-mounted 37 mm main gun and a light machine gun, and the 43 mm armor plate is vulnerable only to a PIAT hit. Although the tanks’ pre-World War II design is obsolete by 1948 standards, the fact that the Israelis have no tanks at all means that the R-35s are dominant combat weapons in this war.
The challenge you now face is to decide how to employ your limited resources to defeat this much more powerful Syrian force and thereby prevent the invaders from seizing control of the strategically important Jordan River valley.
Since the Syrian attack could come at any moment, you gather your platoon commanders to brief them on three possible courses of action you have developed and to get their feedback on each. Although you don’t personally know the commanders, you waste no time on introductions. You will become familiar with them – and they with you – as you fight together to defeat the common enemy.
“You all know the situation we face,” you begin, “as well as the terrain we will defend and the size and composition of the Syrian force that’s preparing to attack us. The enemy has tanks and armored cars. We have none. The enemy has artillery. We have none – although the Haganah headquarters has said it will send us four 65 mm cannon at some point. The enemy infantry numbers about 1,000. We have no more than 150 fighters. Plus, the morale of the enemy troops has been buoyed by their victory yesterday when they captured Tzemach and destroyed our comrades who were defending it. Yet despite being outnumbered and outgunned, we will find a way to win.
“Now, listen closely as I detail the three courses of action I am considering for our defense. After each one, I will give you the opportunity to share your candid opinion of it.”
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: WEIGHTED DEFENSE
“The first plan,” you explain, “is to deploy all units in the north to defend Degania Alef, the most likely enemy target since it sits on the Syrians’ direct route to the important Jordan River bridge. The PIAT teams, backed up by the anti-tank guns, will take forward positions on the kibbutz’s outskirts on each side of the main road from Tzemach, while the mortars will emplace in firing positions on the west bank of the Jordan River. All infantry platoons will establish fighting positions in and around Degania Alef’s buildings, ensuring that their fields of fire cover the main road where it passes through the village. One squad of 10 militia fighters will establish an outpost at Degania Bet to provide early warning in case any part of the enemy force approaches from that direction.”
Meier, the Degania Bet militia platoon commander, appears concerned. “Moshe,” he replies, “this plan leaves my kibbutz and our southern flank virtually defenseless. What if the Syrians attack Degania Bet instead of Degania Alef? Or what if we turn back a strike against Degania Alef only to have the Syrians shift their axis of attack south and roll through Degania Bet?”
Aron, the Palmach platoon commander, shakes his head and says, “I disagree with Meier. We must meet strength with strength, and this plan allows us to do just that.”
COURSE OF ACTION TWO: BALANCED DEFENSE
“The next option,” you continue, “is to create a balanced defense by dividing our command into two equal-sized forces to defend both villages. The Degania Alef militia, the Palmach platoon and one of the PIAT teams will establish positions in Degania Alef. The Degania Bet militia, the Golan platoon and the other PIAT team will occupy positions in Degania Bet. The anti-tank guns will take up positions on the hilltop at Beit Yerah, giving them clear fields of fire to cover the approach to each village. Again, the mortars will emplace on the west bank of the Jordan River to fire in support of both defense forces.”
David, a Haganah officer and commander of the Golan platoon, supports this plan, saying, “Since we don’t know exactly how the Syrians intend to attack, a balanced defense seems to make the most sense. It gives us the maximum amount of flexibility to respond to however the Syrians deploy for their attack and whatever axis of advance they choose.”
Aron, however, does not concur. “Dividing our already outnumbered force,” he complains, “does not ‘balance’ our defense; it only weakens it. I still believe we must build the strongest possible defense at the most likely target, Degania Alef.”
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: AMBUSH
“The final course of action,” you conclude, “is to strike first by ambushing the enemy column as it advances along the main avenue of approach, the Degania AlefTzemach road. Our best-trained fighters, the Golan and Palmach platoons, along with both PIAT teams, will create hidden ambush positions along the road about 200 meters east of the outskirts of Degania Alef. The militia platoons, meanwhile, will occupy defensive positions at Degania Alef and Degania Bet, while the anti-tank guns will establish firing positions on the hilltop at Beit Yerah. As with the other plans, the mortars will emplace on the west bank of the Jordan River. Once the enemy tanks and armored cars enter the kill zone, our ambush force will destroy as many of them as possible along with their accompanying infantrymen. The Palmach platoon will then withdraw and join the defenders at Degania Alef, while the Golan platoon heads to Degania Bet.”
David states, “I am of two minds on this course of action, Moshe. On the one hand, I think that striking first gives us a good chance of knocking out many of the armored vehicles while they are still unprepared for combat and in a vulnerable column formation. But on the other hand, this plan puts my Golan platoon and Aron’s Palmach platoon in dangerously exposed forward positions. If our ambush fails, or if our soldiers come under heavy fire while withdrawing afterward,we risk losing our best fighters at the very outset of the battle.”
Cutting off all further comments, you announce that you have heard enough to make your final decision. “Thank you, gentlemen, for your candid feedback. Now,” you add, “go and prepare your platoons for battle. In 30 minutes I will tell you which course of action we will implement. But regardless of which one I choose, keep foremost in your minds that we must succeed – the fate of our country depends on it.”
What is your decision, Major Dayan?
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 May 2015 issue of Armchair General.