Soviet-backed Egypt fought U.S. ally Israel in a fierce three-year proxy battle now known as the War of Attrition.
The opening clash in the three-year War of Attrition came just three weeks after the end of the Six-Day War, when Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal on July 1, 1967, to attack Israel Defense Forces units on the eastern bank 10 miles south of Port Said. An IDF mechanized-infantry company drove back the attackers, despite heavy fire from Egyptian artillery on the western bank. The IDF commander, Major Uriel Menuhin, was killed and 13 Israeli soldiers were wounded in the battle. The following day, Israeli aircraft hit back at Egyptian artillery positions.
What is known today as the War of Attrition included large-scale crossborder air and artillery strikes, clashes at sea, massive buildups along the Suez Canal, fierce air battles above the canal and some of the most daring special-operations raids ever conducted. Yet it was not even officially designated a war until years after it ended.
When the Six-Day War ended on June 10, 1967, Israel had more than doubled the territory under its control. Taking the Golan Heights, the IDF advanced more than 20 miles into Syrian territory to within striking distance of Damascus. For the first time in the young nation’s history, the towns and farms of northwestern Israel lay beyond the range of Syrian artillery. Along Israel’s eastern border, the IDF captured from Jordan the West Bank of the Jordan River. In the west, Israel took the entire Sinai Peninsula to the Suez Canal, affording strategic depth against any further attack from Egypt.
Stung by his nation’s defeat, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was forced by military necessity to agree to the cease-fire demanded by the United Nations on June 8. Unwilling to accept what he considered a humiliating peace, however, Nasser resolved to resume the fight by applying continuous low-level pressure against Israel. As he later told Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, editor of the Cairo newspaper Al-Ahram: “If [Israel] succeeds in inflicting 3,000 casualties in this campaign, we can go on fighting nevertheless, because we have manpower reserves. If we succeed in inflicting 10,000 casualties, he will unavoidably find himself compelled to stop fighting, because he has no manpower reserves.”
Israel’s reply to Nasser’s cold-blooded calculus of attrition was what Golda Meir, who became Israeli prime minister in March 1969, called “asymmetrical response.” Any Israeli retaliation would be disproportionately large compared to any Egyptian attack. Israel’s military policy has remained unchanged ever since. Thus, the stage was set for the War of Attrition.
Nasser had the backing of the Soviet Union, which had been deeply embarrassed by the dismal performance of Arab armies during the Six-Day War—armies trained and organized along Soviet lines and equipped almost exclusively with Soviet weapons. Encouraging the Egyptians to maintain an aggressive posture against Israel along the Suez Canal, the Soviets re-equipped shattered Egyptian units with the latest equipment and weapons and sent thousands of military trainers, advisers and support technicians to Egypt.
As the conflict ground on, the United States supplied weapons and equipment to Israel to counterbalance the support Arabs received from the Soviets. The War of Attrition thus became one of the more overt of the Cold War–era proxy clashes between the Soviet Union and the United States. Moscow, however, went far beyond the training and support role. Actively manning sophisticated air defense radars and missile systems, Soviet technicians shot down several Israeli planes, and Soviet pilots even flew Egyptian MiGs in direct combat against the Israeli Air Force.
The Israeli government had insisted that the cease-fire line established by the UN-mandated truce run down the center of the Suez Canal rather than along the Israeli-occupied eastern bank. To assert that position, the Israelis on July 11, 1967, launched a number of small boats into the canal. They drew fire from the Egyptian side, as tanks in defensive positions on either bank engaged each other. The fighting escalated over the following days, with both sides launching air strikes. Meanwhile, on the night of July 11, the Israeli destroyer INS Eilat sank two Egyptian torpedo boats in the Mediterranean near the north end of the canal.
Among the most heavily fortified Egyptian positions along the Suez front was a small artificial island barely 150 yards long and 50 yards wide in the Gulf of Suez near the south end of the canal. (The British had built the Green Island fortress during World War II to protect the canal.) In September, Egyptian forces on the island started firing on Israeli shipping in the Gulf. The fighting escalated to largescale artillery exchanges along the canal, during which the Egyptian cities of Kantara, Ismailia and Suez were hit, prompting the evacuation of some 700,000 civilians.
On October 21, Eilat was operating off Port Said, at the north end of the canal, when an Egyptian fast-attack craft hit the destroyer with two Soviet-supplied Styx missiles. An hour later, a second Egyptian missile boat hit Eilat with two more Styx missiles. The destroyer sank within minutes; 47 of her 190-man crew died, and another 90 were wounded. On October 25, the Israelis retaliated by shelling Egyptian refineries and depots in Suez. The artillery fire killed or wounded 103 Egyptians and caused more than $100 million in damage to the Egyptian oil and petrochemical industry.
The situation on the Suez front settled into a standoff for the next several months as new Soviet equipment poured into Egypt, particularly large numbers of modern, long-range artillery pieces. At least 1,500 Soviet military advisers also arrived in Egypt. Traditionally short of conventional field pieces, the Israelis increasingly had to rely on their aircraft as flying artillery. But in reaction to the Six-Day War, the French government had embargoed arms shipments to the Middle East—an embargo applied more stringently to Israel than Arab countries. French aircraft had long been the mainstay of the IAF, but now —as the United States provided increasing military support to Israel— the American-built F-4 Phantom and A-4 Skyhawk became the IAF’s first-line combat aircraft.
On Sept. 8, 1968, the conflict boiled over again when the Egyptians initiated a three-week-long artillery barrage along a 65-mile stretch of the canal that killed or wounded 28 IDF troops. Retaliating on the night of October 30, Israeli Sayeret Matkal special-operations soldiers conducted a heliborne commando raid against Egypt’s main power station on the Nile, north of Aswan. The attack plunged Cairo into darkness. Awakened to the vulnerability of their infrastructure, the Egyptians scaled back their attacks for several months as they fortified and reinforced hundreds of critical sites within Israeli striking range.
The IDF, meanwhile, used the lull to build a new defensive line on the Suez front. The Bar-Lev Line, named for Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Chaim BarLev, was a string of 35 small strongpoints anchored several stories into the sand. A high sand berm along the canal thwarted any direct line-of-sight observation of Israeli forces moving along the waterway, while IDF mobile patrols maintained an around-the-clock watch of Egyptian units on the opposite bank. The Israelis also fielded strong armored reaction forces in assembly areas behind the canal and out of Egyptian artillery range.
On March 8, 1969— about the time the BarLev Line was completed —the Egyptians initiated a massive artillery barrage along the canal. The IDF struck back the next day with a counter-barrage, followed by deep air strikes. Israeli mortar fire killed Egyptian Chief of Staff General Abdul Munim Riad and several of his aides as they watched the action from a bunker close to Ismailia.
The Egyptians hoped their repeated artillery barrages would grind down the Israelis and blast an opening through which they might cross in force. But the Bar-Lev fortifications proved effective. And in retaliation for Egyptian artillery strikes, the IDF continued its commando raids across the waterway. The targets of many of those incursions were power stations, relatively easy targets whose destruction brought the pain of the war directly to Egypt’s civilian population.
On July 19, the IDF’s maritime special-forces unit, Flotilla 13, assaulted Egypt’s Green Island fortress, blowing up much of the radar installation before withdrawing. The following day the IAF launched Operation Boxer, taking out Egypt’s Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missile installations along the northern sector of the canal. By the time that operation ended on July 28, the IAF had flown more than 500 sorties, all but crippling the Egyptian air-defense network. The air battle cost the IAF two aircraft; the Egyptian Air Force lost 11.
After another weeks-long lull, Israel increased the pressure by launching an amphibious assault against Egypt itself. On the evening of September 8, Israeli naval commandos on a preparatory raid sank two Egyptian torpedo boats in the port of Ras Sadat, 16 miles from the planned primary landing site in the northern Gulf of Suez. In the predawn hours the next day, Israeli landing craft put ashore an armor-reinforced task force at A-Dir, 25 miles south of Suez. Supported by IAF fighter-bombers, the task force moved south down the coast toward the Egyptian army base at Ras Abu-Daraj.
Caught by surprise, the Egyptians reacted slowly. Virtually unchallenged for almost 10 hours, the Israelis destroyed a dozen Egyptian military positions and inflicted some 150 casualties, including a Soviet general run over and killed along the route. The IDF then evacuated the task force, which suffered only minimal losses. Nasser suffered a heart attack from the shock of the news. In a rage, he relieved most of the senior officers responsible for that sector. The sluggish Egyptian response, however, stemmed from poor communications and a rigid, top-down, Soviet-inspired command system that left little room for individual initiative by low-level leaders. Most Egyptian commanders were simply hesitant to commit their forces without specific orders.
Fearing an escalation that would spill outside the Middle East, the United States and the Soviet Union started direct talks on October 17 to seek an end to the War of Attrition. On December 9, U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers proposed a settlement, which both Egypt and Israel promptly rejected. The IDF, meanwhile, conducted nearly two dozen raids across the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Suez between October 1969 and July 1970.
On the night of Dec. 26, 1969, Israeli aircraft started pound- ing Egyptian positions along the south end of the canal and across the Gulf of Suez. The attacks were a diversion for a flight of three French-built Super Frelon helicopters carrying IDF paratroopers toward the Egyptian radar site at Ras Gharib. The Israelis quickly captured the position and then started rigging the Russian-supplied P-12 radar equipment for sling load.
About 0200 on December 27, two U.S.-built IAF CH-53 helicopters came in. One lifted the communications van and the antenna, while the other picked up the main body of the 4-ton radar. Immediately after liftoff, the lead CH-53 lost its primary hydraulic system. Ignoring the warning lights on his instrument panel, pilot Nehemiah Dagan continued across the Red Sea at low altitude until able to touch down in Israel. At the time North Vietnam was also using the P-12 radar, and the Israelis shared with Western intelligence agencies the information their technical experts gleaned from the equipment.
The Egyptian high command, meanwhile, was increasingly concerned that their expensive, Soviet-built SAM systems were incapable of deterring the IAF. That December a team of Soviet general officers arrived in Cairo to evaluate the situation. When Nasser traveled to Moscow the following month, the Soviets committed to supply the newer SA-3 system and deploy more of their own technical experts to Egypt.
Designed specifically to engage low-flying aircraft, the SA-3 system comprised three-missile mobile launch platforms, which increased the flexibility of the air-defense umbrella. Soviet personnel manned many of the new SA-3s. Indeed, by early 1970, the Soviets had some 4,000 military advisers in Egypt, including pilots in frontline aircraft.
The new equipment made little difference, however, as the IAF simply adjusted its tactics. Shifting away from targets along the canal, the Israeli pilots struck deeper into Egypt, in some cases just 25 miles from Cairo. As the Egyptians took hits to their reserve units far in the rear, morale took a nosedive. Cairenes, realizing how incapable their own air force was of defending the Egyptian capital, also despaired.
The EAF lost 20 aircraft to the Israelis between February and March 1970. The IAF suspended its air offensive after an April 8 strike on an Egyptian military base at Bahr el-Baqar killed 47 children at an elementary school on the compound. The respite gave the Egyptians the breathing space to re-establish SAM batteries along the canal. Soviet advisers, meanwhile, assumed direct overall control of Egypt’s air defenses. When the Egyptians resumed offensive operations, Israeli ground units suffered relatively high casualties in April and May, losing 64 killed and 149 wounded.
By June 1970 the number of Soviet military personnel in Egypt had grown to almost 12,000, including more than 100 pilots. Rather than attempt to defend the entire 100-mile length of the canal, the Soviets concentrated the SAM batteries within a 25- by 45- mile footprint to protect the waterway’s southern and central sectors. They clustered the batteries in small packs and defended them with shortrange anti-aircraft guns. This configuration gave the Egyptians the advantage of engaging IAF aircraft with both multiple missiles and gunfire. Despite the increased risks of attacking such positions, the Israelis still managed to knock out five SAM sites in July.
The increased level of Soviet direct participation in the war meant it was only a matter of time before Soviet and Israeli pilots would clash headon. Soviet pilots in Egyptian MiGs had been approaching IAF aircraft over the canal since April, but the Israeli pilots—following their standing orders—had immediately broken off all such contacts. Then, on June 25, two Soviet-piloted MiG-21s fired at an Israeli A-4, hitting the plane and forcing it to make an emergency landing in the Sinai.
The IAF struck back on July 30 when eight Mirage IIIs and four F-4s ambushed an equal number of MiG- 21s. During the ensuing dogfight, the Egyptians scrambled a dozen additional MiG-21s. IAF pilots destroyed four of the Soviet-piloted MiGs, while a fifth was hit and crashed before it could return to its base. Four of the Soviet pilots died. The MiGs managed to hit just one IAF aircraft, inflicting minor damage. Both sides maintained silence about the engagement, but a badly shaken Soviet military immediately sent a team of senior air force commanders to Egypt to investigate the disaster.
Although the War of Attrition was fought primarily between the Israelis and Egyptians along the Suez Canal, Israeli forces did clash with the Jordanians along the Jordan River and with the Syrians in the Golan Heights. Immediately following the Six-Day War, Israel had forced the Palestine Liberation Organization from the West Bank. Operating from bases across the river in Jordan, the PLO launched a number of raids, with the Jordanian army often providing artillery support.
The major battle on that front erupted on March 21, 1968, when the IDF launched a large-scale assault into Jordanian territory to destroy the key PLO base at Karameh, near the Dead Sea eight miles from Jericho. Karameh was a complex of heavily fortified positions with artillery emplacements. The IDF sealed off the sector with three armored thrusts across the Jordan River, while a force of paratroopers took Karameh itself. The PLO fighters were entrenched in the village and surrounding caves. The IDF paratroopers bogged down in protracted house-to-house fighting, killing 120 PLO fighters before withdrawing. Both sides claimed victory, but the Karameh raid forced the PLO and the Jordanian army to withdraw east, beyond the effective range of Israeli artillery, and subsequent fighting on that front was limited to small-scale PLO raids and sporadic shelling by Jordanian artillery.
The Syrian border remained relatively calm for more than a year and a half following the Six-Day War. But when PLO fighters started infiltrating Israeli-held territory in early 1969, the IAF launched punishing air attacks against their bases in Syria. In July the Syrians started exchanging cross-border fire with the IDF to relieve pressure on their Egyptian allies, and in March 1970 they began sending commando units into Israel. In retaliation, the IAF struck targets deep in Syria, but the Syrians only stepped up their attacks.
The day following the Soviets’ stinging defeat at the hands of the IAF, the Israeli government accepted the cease-fire plan advanced months earlier by U.S. Secretary of State Rogers. Taking effect on August 8, the agreement required an immediate three-month freeze on all military activity and improvements in a zone extending some 30 miles to either side of the canal. But almost as soon as the cease-fire went into effect, the Egyptians were installing SAM sites in the zone and within two months had some 100 installations in place. By the time the Yom Kippur War started three years later, the Suez air-defense system was among the strongest in the history of warfare.
Nasser remained determined to regain control of the Sinai, but he died of a massive heart attack on Sept. 28, 1970. His successor, Anwar el-Sadat, halted direct hostilities with Israel almost immediately. Sadat instead concentrated on reconstituting the Egyptian military and planning a future full-scale offensive to regain control of both banks of the Suez Canal and push the IDF well back into the Sinai desert.
The War of Attrition cost Israel 1,424 soldiers and 127 civilians killed and some 2,000 soldiers and 700 civilians wounded. Egypt sustained losses of 8,000 to 10,000 troops and several thousand civilians. The IAF lost little more than a dozen aircraft while claiming 98 Egyptian planes shot down. Jordan lost approximately 130 soldiers, and the PLO suffered at least 250 fighters killed. In addition to the four pilots killed on July 30, 1970, the Soviets lost perhaps 50 military advisers on the ground.
Defeat, as the saying goes, is warfare’s greatest teacher, and the three years between the end of the War of Attrition and the start of the Yom Kippur War followed one of the most recognizable patterns in military history. With continuing massive support from the Soviet Union, Egypt rebuilt its army, strengthened its air defenses and stockpiled large numbers of new antitank guided missiles. Israel, succumbing to a classic case of “victor’s disease,” largely rested on its laurels. When the Egyptians and their Arab allies attacked on Oct. 6, 1973, the IDF was caught by surprise and wholly unprepared. Almost overwhelmed, the Israelis managed to recover, fight back and prevail in the end. But the Yom Kippur War was a close-run thing.
For additional reading, David Zabecki recommends Yaacov Bar-Simon-Tov’s The Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition, 1969–1970: A Case-Study of Limited Local War; Chaim Herzog and Shlomo Gazit’s The Arab-Israeli Wars; and David A. Korn’s Stalemate: The War of Attrition and Great Power Diplomacy in the Middle East, 1967–1970.
Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.