Near the end of the 1967 Middle Eastern conflict known as the Six-Day War, troops from the victorious Israeli Defense Forces occupied the Sinai Peninsula. During their capture of the eastern bank of the Suez Canal, the Israeli soldiers encountered a prewar experimental agricultural station north of the Great Bitter Lake. Irrigation ditches and farming equipment filled the area, and East Asian writing was found on the station’s walls and equipment. Not knowing that the characters were Japanese, the soldiers began calling the place ‘Chinese Farm, and the name stuck.
Six years later, on October 6, 1973–the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement–Israel found itself at war again. In a concerted effort to regain the territory and restore the honor lost in their humiliating 1967 defeat, Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat sent his forces across the Suez Canal while his ally, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, attacked the Golan Heights.
Surprised by overwhelming numbers of Syrian troops, tanks and vehicles in Golan, the Israeli 7th Armored and 188th (Barak) brigades were decimated, but their sacrificial stand managed to grind the Syrian advance to a halt by the afternoon of October 9.
The most profound shock to the Israelis, however, occurred along the Suez Canal, where the once-clumsy Egyptian commanders executed a masterful assault plan with astonishing efficiency and skill. After a relatively easy crossing of the canal in the early morning hours of October 6, Egyptian troops overran the Israeli defenses on its eastern bank–known as the Bar-Lev Line–and then penetrated 10 more miles into Sinai. Stunned observers from Western nations that had sponsored Israel watched while the Soviet-supplied Egyptians were able to solidify their gains, despite massive counterthrusts by Israeli armor on October 7.
One secret of the Egyptians’ success was the abundance of anti-tank weaponry in the hands of their infantry, the most notable being the 9M14M Matlyutka anti-tank wire-guided missile (designated the AT-3 Sagger by forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). This Russian-built marvel of modern technology could be carried by one infantryman, was guided to its target by means of a sight and joystick, and was capable of penetrating the thickest armor of the day. When used in concert with close-range RPG-7 nonguided rocket-propelled grenades, AT-3s gave the Egyptian infantry an equalizer against the vaunted Israeli tanks, whenever the latter attacked without infantry support of their own.
The second key to the Egyptian strategy was the nullification of the Israeli Defense Forces/Air Force (IDF/AF, or Chel Ha’Avir), whose ground support had played such a pivotal role in the Six-Day War. The Egyptians had purchased great numbers of Soviet-built SA-2 surface-to-air missile launchers and emplaced them on the western canal bank to create a no-fly zone that extended well into Sinai. In addition to the large SA-2s, Egyptian infantrymen were able to defend themselves against Israeli fighter-bombers with the SA-7 Strela, a smaller heat-seeking missile that seldom destroyed a plane but usually caused enough tail damage to put it out of action for a day or longer. Using their new anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons with skill and growing self-confidence, the Egyptians were almost invincible when on the defensive. They threw back a succession of Israeli counterattacks and threatened to turn the Sinai campaign into a war of attrition that the Israelis would inevitably lose.
Egyptian control of the situation lasted until October 9, when newly arrived Israeli reserves threw the Syrians back to the original 1967 cease-fire line and began rolling toward Damascus, prompting Egyptian President Sadat to order an offensive with the hope of relieving Syria. His chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Saad el Din Shazli, resisted the command, fearing the consequences of a full-scale attack. Sadat overruled Shazli, however, and on October 11, he transferred the 21st and the 4th Armored divisions across the Suez Canal for an operation to extend the front 30 kilometers forward, take control of the Lateral road and the passes at Mitla and Bir Gifgafa, and thereby hobble the Israelis’ ability to bring up reinforcements.
The new offensive began on the morning of Sunday, October 14, with a 90-minute artillery barrage, followed by three attacks from Maj. Gen. Mohamed Saad el Din Maamun’s Second Field Army north of the Bitter Lakes, and an equal number by Maj. Gen. Abd el Moneim Wassel’s Third Field Army to the south. The result was a disaster; not only did the Israeli armor dominate the high ground, but the Egyptians had left the protective cover of their SAMs, upsetting their perfectly coordinated mix of mutually supporting weaponry.
The final outcome was clear in regard to the victor; Egyptian tank losses were counted at 264, compared to a mere 40 Israeli tanks–only six damaged beyond repair. In addition, the Egyptians lost some 200 other vehicles and suffered about 1,000 casualties. The 656 Israeli casualties included Maj. Gen. Avraham Mandler, commander of the 252nd Armored Division, who was killed when an Egyptian shell struck his halftrack. Brigadier General Kalman Magen assumed command of the 252nd. On that same day, Maamun suffered a heart attack and Maj. Gen. Abdel Munem Halil replaced him as commander of the Egyptian Second Army.
With Egyptian forces mauled and their reserves tapped, Israel was ready to make a decisive counterattack. Chosen to spearhead the offensive was the highly controversial Maj. Gen. Ariel Arik Sharon. After forming Unit 101, an elite commando group, in 1952, Sharon had commanded a paratroop brigade in 1956 and an armored division in 1967, and in 1969 he was put in command of Southern Command (Sinai). Sharon had retired just before the 1973 war, handing over command to Maj. Gen. Shmuel Gonen on July 16.
When the war began on October 6, Sharon was reactivated as commander of the 143rd Reserve Armored Division and joined Mandler’s 252nd Armored and Maj. Gen. Avraham Bren Adan’s 162nd Reserve Armored divisions in a series of counterattacks against the Egyptian bridgehead. In that position, Sharon defied direct orders to cease attacking the Egyptians after they had established their bridgehead. In one attack on the southern perimeter of Chinese Farm on October 9, Sharon’s 421st Armored Brigade was thrown back with the loss of 36 tanks. That type of behavior earned him a reprimand from Gonen–who was Sharon’s junior in both experience and seniority but his commanding officer nonetheless–and caused retired Maj. Gen. Avraham Joffe to ask whether [Sharon was] fighting the Arabs or the Jews. During the course of the war, at least two members of the Israeli Command–Gonen and IDF chief of staff Lt. Gen. Chaim Bar-Lev, who had assumed overall command of the Egyptian front on October 10–advised that Sharon be replaced. Minister of Defense General Moshe Dayan overruled Sharon’s critics, however, stating that he did not know a better field commander than Arik.
Although battered, the Egyptians were still too strong to succumb to a frontal assault. The Israelis therefore decided to make a localized break in the Egyptian defensive line and attempt to cross the canal. By establishing a strong force on the west bank, the Israelis could encircle the Egyptian armies and force a cease-fire.
Relying on reconnaissance reports, the Israelis located a gap in the Egyptian defenses where the Second and Third Egyptian armies met. That area north of the Great Bitter Lake was, by coincidence, where prewar preparations had been made for bridging the canal. A 200-by-500-foot marshaling yard had been cleared for the heavy and bulky bridging equipment, and roads had been built around it for easy access. Two miles south of that yard was the paved Akavish road, built by Israeli engineers to link the yard with the forward supply depot in Tasa. The secondary Tirtur road, located just north of the yard, ran parallel to the Akavish and led to the Matzmed fort, a fallen stronghold of the Bar-Lev Line.
The Israeli counterstroke, code-named Operation Gazelle, was scheduled for October 16. It called for Sharon’s division to capture the marshaling yard, the Akavish and Tirtur supply roads, Chinese Farm and a position on the Bar-Lev Line that the Israelis had dubbed Missouri. The Israelis would have to keep the Egyptians out of Chinese Farm so that Tirtur road south of it could stay open for supplies. The capture of Missouri, which dominated the heights north of the Great Bitter Lake, was important for keeping the yard and bridge out of Egyptian artillery range. Once those positions were occupied, Sharon would then move the rest of his division over the canal, starting with a paratroop brigade led by Colonel Danny Matt. Following Matt would be a division led by Bren Adan, who had helped capture the port of Eilat during the 1948 War of Independence. The major problem, said Sharon, is to reach the water and set up the bridgehead before dawn–so that the Egyptians will not discover the plan and meet us with massed armor on the west bank.
At 4 p.m. on the 15th, Sharon sent an armored brigade under Colonel Tuvia Raviv to make a diversionary feint toward the Egyptians, while the divisional reconnaissance unit and an armored brigade under Colonel Amnon Reshef swept to the southwest, toward the gap in the Egyptian line. The Israeli forces remained undetected as they made the 19-mile trek. After reaching the Lexicon road, which ran north–south one kilometer east of the canal, the reconnaissance unit continued on to capture the strongpoint at Matzmed. Reshef’s brigade divided into battalions before trying to accomplish its three main objectives: the capture of the marshaling yard, the opening of the Akavish road and the occupation of Chinese Farm and Missouri.
The Israeli 18th Battalion was the first to come under fire as it traveled northward along the right of the Lexicon road on its way to Missouri. Egyptian infantrymen, who had occupied the Tirtur-Lexicon crossroads, knocked out 11 tanks with their deadly Saggers. The 18th pushed on toward Missouri instead of attacking the crossroads. That responsibility had been assigned to a company of the 40th Armored Battalion, whose deputy commander, a Major Butel, did not know that the administrative centers of the Egyptian Second Army’s 21st Armored and 16th Infantry divisions were located in the nearby Chinese Farm. Butel and his men charged toward the crossroads and soon were surrounded by hundreds of tanks, guns and missiles and thousands of troops. To compound the problem, the Egyptians had prepared positions in the farm’s irrigation ditches. Butel was wounded, and his battalion’s attack soon dissolved under withering fire.
The 2nd company of the Israeli 40th Armored Battalion had a much easier time clearing the Akavish road. At the same time, the divisional reconnaissance unit secured Matzmed and the marshaling yard. The Israelis immediately sent bridging equipment down the Akavish road, but since they were unable to use the Tirtur road as a secondary route, a massive traffic jam developed. It took two hours for Matt’s paratrooper brigade, stuck at the rear of this jam, to go less than three miles on the road, and by the time they made it to the bank of the canal, they were hopelessly behind schedule. Sharon, who had been an ardent supporter of a Suez crossing from the beginning, ordered the paratroopers to cross the canal while the battle for Chinese Farm was growing in intensity.
Meanwhile, the 7th and 18th Armored battalions continued to advance north. The 18th soon ran into Egyptian tanks and was drawn into another costly skirmish. By 10 p.m. the Egyptians made their full presence known around Missouri and began making local thrusts. Sporadic fights whittled the 7th Battalion down to one-third of its original strength. As the Egyptians began to display the first real signs of an organized counterattack, Reshef called for a tactical retreat. The 7th and 18th battalions withdrew and formed a line half a mile north of Chinese Farm. Attacks by the Egyptian 14th Armored Brigade would keep those two battalions fighting throughout the night.
After Major Butel’s men were repulsed, the 40th Infantry Battalion and Force Shmulick–a mixed unit of paratroopers with armor support, named after a hero of the recent fighting in the Golan Heights–resumed the fight for Chinese Farm. Again, Egyptian resistance was ferocious. According to one Lieutenant Neria, Although it was night, after 15 minutes you could see everything like daylight. The Israeli troops suffered heavy casualties as a result of interlocking fire from meticulously prepared defensive positions. Part of the attacking force became trapped and was overrun by the Egyptians. The battalion commander, all of his tanks and a large number of his men were lost during the costly fight. By the morning of October 16, Reshef’s brigade had lost 60 tanks and more than 120 men.
At 4 the next morning, Reshef tried to attack the Lexicon-Tirtur crossroads and Chinese Farm once more, this time maneuvering his forces to strike at the Egyptians from the rear. That strike failed as well, but Reshef scheduled another push to begin shortly after dawn. Instead of charging the fortifications head-on, this time he ordered his tanks to keep their distance but also to continue laying a barrage. By keeping his armor on the move and having it fire from a distance, Reshef was finally able to wear down the Egyptians. He captured the Tirtur-Lexicon crossroads but was unable to clear Chinese Farm. Sharon’s division, with Reshef’s brigade bearing the brunt of the fighting, had now lost about 300 men killed and 70 tanks destroyed or disabled. Reshef left a battalion to hold the line west of Chinese Farm and withdrew his brigade south to the shores of the Great Bitter Lake.
Meanwhile, Matt’s entire paratroop brigade had crossed the canal by 3 a.m. on October 16–five hours behind schedule. With a foothold established, both Sharon and Adan prepared to move the bulk of their divisions over the canal, but the night’s battle was to affect the Israeli plans. Sharon believed that securing the Chinese Farm and Missouri positions was less important than the actual canal crossing, and to that end he downplayed both the losses and the intensity of the fighting around the farm in his combat report. The Israeli Command, however, questioned the value of the operation and was appalled by even Sharon’s lowered figures. Dayan proposed not only extracting the paratroopers but also giving up the idea of crossing the canal altogether. In response to those suggestions, General Gonen, with Bar-Lev in agreement, stated: Had we known that this would happen in advance, we probably would not have initiated the crossing. But now that we are across we shall carry it through to the bitter end. In an attempt to minimize its losses, the Israeli Command ordered that no more tanks or men were to cross the canal until a suitable bridge was built. Sharon was ordered to clear Chinese Farm and Missouri, while Adan kept the Akavish road open.
Sharon, who believed that his breakthrough on the west bank needed to be exploited at all costs, was not pleased with the new orders. He went over Gonen’s head to complain directly to Bar-Lev, who denied Sharon’s request to continue his advance. What had been created, according to Dayan, was an absence of mutual trust. Sharon later questioned the perception of his superior officers: Am I surrounded or surrounding? Danny Matt is encircling the Egyptians but according to you they’re encircling him. Amnon [Reshef] is surrounding the enemy–but as you put it, the enemy is surrounding him…when will you finally understand that in mobile desert war, at one stage you encircle, and at another you are encircled?
Whatever Sharon believed, it was quite clear that the Israeli forces on the east bank were in genuine danger of being encircled. The Tirtur road was still closed, due to the Egyptian presence at Chinese Farm, and a strong counterattack soon closed the Akavish route. I suddenly saw four tanks burning within seconds, Adan said. The column was caught by surprise….It was now clear that the Akavish road was totally blocked. Adan knew that he had to recapture the road as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, Sharon managed to delay a heavy assault on Chinese Farm, stating that his forces were out of ammunition and fuel–empty bellies, as he put it. Gonen was concerned that Sharon might use this grace period to sneak more armor across the canal. He radioed one of Sharon’s brigade commanders with explicit orders not to cross the Suez without personal permission from Southern Command. Adan noted that this was yet another sign of the mistrust that had developed between [Gonen] and Sharon.
With Sharon’s troops out of the battle for the next 24 hours, the burden of the fighting shifted onto Adan’s forces. He split his division three ways: One unit was sent north to clear the Akavish road, another was sent west to Chinese Farm, and the last went south to stop any reinforcements from the Egyptian Third Army. The preliminary attacks on Akavish were unsuccessful. The Saggers once again foiled the armor attacks, while Egyptian tanks to the north kept Adan’s forces from maneuvering. After a hard day of fighting, Adan regrouped his division and rethought his strategy.
Adan finally decided on a night infantry assault, which was to be carried out by a paratrooper battalion under Colonel Uzzi Yairi, which Israeli Command had transferred from the south. The elite troopers’ only preparation, however, was a quick briefing of the situation by Adan. Adan told Yairi: It is unclear exactly where the enemy was deployed and in what strength….The main problem lay in the broad irrigation ditches….The soldiers of the Egyptian 16th Division were making good use of the ditches. Due to the traffic jam, the paratroopers arrived late. Beginning their operation at midnight, Yairi’s men advanced east from the Lexicon-Tirtur junction toward Chinese Farm.
Almost immediately, troops from both sides found themselves engaged in hand-to-hand fighting, and casualties began to mount. Yairi sent a company to try to flank the Egyptians, but the latter had established an in-depth defense with good interior lines, and repulsed the Israelis, wounding or killing all their officers. Adan finally ordered his men to pull out–only to learn that heavy Egyptian fire was preventing the paratroopers from retreating.
At the height of the fighting, Adan sent a force of armored personnel carriers down the Akavish road to assess the situation and learned, to his surprise, that the road was clear. The heavy fighting in Chinese Farm had drawn the enemy away from the vital road. Taking advantage of this new boon, Adan began moving bridging and pontoon equipment down the Akavish road, while a paratrooper battalion took up positions about 100 meters away from the Egyptians, with orders to cover the bridging operation at all costs. Heavy fire from an Egyptian division to the north soon began to inflict casualties on the paratroopers, but the battalion held.
By dawn of the 17th, the bridge sections had reached the canal and construction began. Yairi’s paratroopers, who had fought incessantly through the night, were finally relieved in the morning by a tank battalion, which breached the defenses long enough for Yairi’s men to escape. Ten tanks were hit by Saggers, killing 10 men and wounding 15. Yairi’s losses were also heavy, with 40 of his paratroopers dead and about 80 wounded. Egyptian losses for the past two nights had been grievous as well–they had lost 160 tanks on the morning of October 17 alone–but they still doggedly held Chinese Farm.
The Israeli presence on the west bank of the Suez did not arouse much alarm in the Egyptian high command at first. President Sadat deemed it a television operation to boost Israeli morale, and the Egyptian general staff seemed determined to commit all forces to the destruction of the Israeli hold on the east bank. On the other hand, General Shazli–who sensed the military importance of the Israelis’ crossing–wanted to shift the Egyptian 4th Armored Division and 25th Armored Brigade over the canal to contest the Israeli bridgehead on the west bank. The minister of war, General Ahmed Ismail, countermanded him and planned a major attack on the east bank. The 16th Infantry and the 21st Armored divisions were to sweep south toward the Tirtur and Akavish roads from Missouri and Chinese Farm. General Wassel’s Third Army would complete the three-pincer attack with a northward probe by the 25th Armored Brigade. Wassel was less confident; upon hearing the order to attack, he grimly replied, I will carry out the instructions, but I must advise you that this brigade will be destroyed.
As the Egyptians maneuvered to attack, the Israelis detected their intent. Adan and Sharon combined forces to concentrate three armored brigades on the Egyptians. Colonel Natke Nir’s brigade of Adan’s division would attack north across the Akavish road while the brigades of Colonel Gaby Amir, also from Adan’s Division, and Colonel Tuvia Raviv, from Sharon’s Division, forayed from the east. Lieutenant Colonel Amir Jaffe, whose battalion held the line west of Chinese Farm, was also in position to make feints into the enemy’s rear. Coming toward them was a massive column of Egyptian vehicles from the 21st and 16th divisions.
With their forces already depleted by the earlier fighting, the Egyptian offensive was doomed from the start. The 16th Infantry Division incurred heavy casualties from experienced Israeli tankers before finally retiring. The 21st Armored struck hard near Serapheum, killing 12 Israelis and wounding 22, but the assault soon lost momentum and the 21st was overwhelmed by Israeli armor. The Egyptians then commenced a long-overdue bombardment of the Israeli bridge from Missouri, but they had missed their chance to sever the Israeli hold on the Akavish road.
Observing the Egyptian losses and the ongoing construction of a bridge over the Suez Canal, the Israeli Command, Sharon and Adan conferred at Adan’s headquarters. As always, Sharon expressed the need for lightning strikes on the west bank. Adan, on the other hand, felt that no forces should be sent westward until the east bank had been cleared. The Israeli Command agreed with Adan, with Bar-Lev stating, in counterpoint to Sharon’s optimism, There is no resemblance between our aims and what has actually happened.
Relations between the commanders at that point were frigid at best. Not only did the Israeli Command dislike Sharon, and vice versa, but Adan also felt animosity toward his aggressive colleague. Adan believed that Sharon wanted to hog the glory of the canal crossing, and that his men had done the job that Sharon himself had fumbled. Cooler heads prevailed, however, in the form of Maj. Gen. David Dado Elazar, the Israeli chief of staff. He decided that, Sharon will continue with the task of consolidating the bridgehead, and Bren [Adan] will cross westward according to the plan. To Sharon, who considered the decision unreasonable, Elazar said, Arik, complete the task assigned to you and then you can cross too. Sharon never was able to fully capture Missouri, nor would he have much success on the west bank when the Israeli Command finally did allow him to cross the canal.
While that conference was going on, an aerial reconnaissance and a sighting by Reshef–who was still reorganizing on the shores of the Great Bitter Lake–confirmed a column of 96 brand-new T-62 tanks approaching from the south. Boasting a 115mm main gun and a maximum speed of 50 kilometers per hour, the T-62 was the cream of the Soviet export crop. The tanks were from the 25th Armored Brigade–the final pincer of the Egyptian attack. It was supposed to have attacked in concert with the 16th Infantry and the 21st Armored Division, but had been delayed.
Before Adan left the meeting to take command of his forces, he obtained permission from Bar-Lev to take an armored brigade, led by Colonel Arieh Keren, out of reserve. With two full brigades, Keren’s and Nir’s, along with part of Reshef’s brigade, Adan scrambled to meet the Egyptian attack. The outcome would seal the fate of either the Israeli bridgehead on the west bank or the Egyptian stronghold at Chinese Farm.
Nir’s brigade, minus one battalion left to hold the Akavish area, shifted south on Adan’s command. Nir’s men were arrayed to the east of Lexicon road, facing the Great Bitter Lake. A minefield located between the lake and the Lexicon road prohibited movement in that area, and Reshef’s force blocked the road to the north near Lakekan, a town on the shores of the Great Bitter Lake. Meanwhile, the reserve brigade under Keren took a road south to the southern shores of the lake. The plan was to draw the 25th Armored up the Lexicon road toward Reshef’s force and then ambush it with the other brigades. Nir would attack from the right and Keren from behind, completely boxing in the Egyptian armor.
Reshef’s tanks opened the skirmish by firing on the Egyptian column at an extreme range. The first two T-62s were knocked out, but the column proceeded north, oblivious to Keren’s force behind them. When Nir made his presence known with a sharp flank attack, the Egyptian forces began to panic. Part of the column turned left and ran straight into the minefield. The remaining section turned right and charged into Nir’s forces. After half an hour of fighting at close range between the 25th and Nir’s brigade, Keren finally shut the door behind the Egyptians.
With artillery support thrown in from another division, the Israelis devastated the column, completely destroying 86 out of the original 96 T-62s, all the armored personal carriers and the 25th’s entire supply train. Four T-62s and the brigade commander escaped into Botzer, an Egyptian-held position on the Bar-Lev Line. Only four Israeli tanks were lost during the operation, after blundering into their own minefield while pursuing the Egyptians.
Adan’s victory did much to enhance the reputation that he was building during the war, prompting Elazar to comment, He’s worth gold, that Bren. With the Egyptians having played their final card, Adan was now free to cross the canal. His division made the move over the newly completed bridge during the night.
On the morning of the 18th, the artillery commanders for the Egyptian Second and Third armies, Brig. Gens. Mohamed Halim Abu Ghazala and Munir Shash, coordinated their efforts in an attempt to destroy the bridge, but although they scored several damaging hits, they failed to put it out of action. Adan would have the most success on the west bank, advancing toward Cairo and encircling the Egyptian Third Army before the cease-fire.
On October 18, Reshef’s brigade reorganized itself to finish what it had begun. Attacking Chinese Farm from the rear, the Israelis finally broke the Egyptians and continued three more miles north. Dayan, who visited the field that afternoon, was visibly disturbed by the destruction. Reshef commented to the minister of defense, Look at this valley of death. To that, Dayan responded, What you people have done here!
On October 24, a United Nations cease-fire ended the Yom Kippur War. With the Egyptians still on the Sinai and the Syrians still constituting a potential threat to the north, Israel would have had nothing to bargain with had it not been for the canal crossing. As it was, due to the vision of Sharon, the tenacity of Adan and the prudence of the Israeli Command, the audacious operation turned out to be a success. Once again, the tiny Jewish nation had survived the storm and won a great military victory, but at a cost it had never known before. Moshe Dayan expressed the grief of his nation as he recalled Chinese Farm in his memoirs: I am no novice at war or battle scenes, but I have never seen such a sight. Here was a vast field of slaughter stretching as far as the eye could see.
This article was written by Christopher Robert Lew and originally appeared in the October 1998 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!