Sunday, October 06, 2013

40th Anniversary Of The Yom Kippur War

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur war between a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria against Israel that started on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.

That year the Muslim holy month of Ramadan occurred during that time period, so it's also known as the Ramadan War in the Arab world.  

It had its roots in the devastating and humiliating defeat the Arab coalition of Egypt, Syria and Jordan suffered in June 1967 during the Six Day War.  It resulted in Israel not only obliterating the air forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria in a surprise preemptive attack but also capturing East Jerusalem and the West Bank of Jordan, Syria's Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt in a swift combined arms ground attack supported by an Israeli Air Force with uncontested control of the skies. 

The decisive Israeli military victory and subsequent occupation of all that previously Arab held territory four time the size of Israel itself made the stinging 1967 blitzkrieg defeat handed them by the IDF impossible to forget for the Arab coalition.   Meanwhile the ease of their victory in addition to making it clear to the world Israel was the preeminent military power in the region led to the Israel Defense Forces becoming complacent and arrogantly dismissive about the military capabilities of their Arab neighbors.  

In the years leading up to 1973 new leaders took over during that period in the faces of Anwar Sadat in Egypt and Hafez al-Assad in Syria.   Egypt and Syria rebuilt their military might with the latest Soviet weaponry in preparation to take on Israel and regain their pride and honor.  As they did so the IDF continued to train and hone their tactics as their combat engineers built the Bar-Lev Line along the Suez Canal's east bank complete with an 18 meter high (59 feet) sand wall sloping at a 60 degree angle reinforced by concrete at the waters edge.  

In the Golan Heights Israeli combat engineers dug a 32 km (20 mile) long anti-tank ditch from Mount Hermon to Rafid along the length of the Purple Line, the UN monitored cease fire line between the two nations.  

Egypt also erected a dense SAM missile belt along the entire west bank of the Suez Canal designed to keep the Israeli Air Force at bay as they secretly rehearsed their plans to rapidly cross the Suez Canal and seize the Sinai.  Syria did the same on their side of the Purple Line augmented by the latest Soviet anti-aircraft artillery and SAM's as they planned their military campaign to recapture the Golan Heights.

Bridge Crossing.jpgAt 2:00 PM on October 6, 1973 Egypt and Syria launched Operation Badr, their coordinated surprise attack on the Sinai and Golan Heights fronts on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. It caught the Israeli Defense Forces off guard and away from their posts.

Even worse for the IDF, there were skeleton forces defending both the Bar-Lev Line and the Golan Heights because of the holiday and no time to call up their reserves or calibrate their equipment before immediately deploy them to both fronts.  Neither was their time for the Israeli Air Force to launch effective suppression missions against the Egyptian and Syrian SAM belts. 

On the Sinai front facing the five Egyptian divisions totaling 100,000 soldiers, 1,350 tanks and 2,000 guns and heavy mortars tasked to regain the Sinai were 450 soldiers of the Jerusalem Brigade, spread out in the 16 Bar-Lev Line forts along the length of the Canal and 290 Israeli tanks in the entire Sinai peninsula divided into three armored brigades.  Only one of those armored brigades was near the Suez Canal when hostilities started.

The Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal at five points, breached the steeply sloped sand banks and quickly overwhelmed 15 of the sixteen spaced out forts guarding the eastern bank of the canal.   After repelling several piecemeal Israeli counterattacks and the Egyptian SAM umbrella does its job of keeping the Israeli Air Force at bay, after three days of fighting they settle into a stalemate as Israeli reinforcements arrive in the combat zone and the IDF elects to build up their forces before resuming the battle. 

In the Golan Heights, two Israeli brigades of 3,000 troops, 180 tanks and 60 artillery pieces faced a classic Soviet-style combined arms frontal assault conducted by the Syrian 5th, 7th and 9th mechanized infantry divisions with large armour components comprising 28,000 Syrian troops, 800 tanks and 600 artillery pieces with the Syrian 1st and 3rd Armored divisions deployed in the follow up attacks.   

At 2:00 PM Syria begins their portion of the coordinated attack with a massive artillery barrage and supporting air strikes.along the entire 57 km (36 mile) Golan front. A heliborne troop assault is also launched at the Israeli outpost on the slopes of Mt. Hermon that oversaw the entire area  

While the Syrian units attacking in the northern Golan were held up for four days because of the rocky terrain and heavy losses inflicted on them by Israel's 7th Armored Brigade, the Syrians successfully overwhelm the Mt. Hermon garrison and their southern units break through and obliterate the 188th Barak Armored Brigade in the flatter terrain of the southern Golan.  

The Syrians get within an agonizingly close 10 minute drive to their targets, the Bnot Yaakov Bridge over the Jordan River and the Arik Bridge near the northern Sea of Galilee that lead into northern Israel before an inexplicable overnight pause by the Syrians and Israeli reserve forces arriving in the area in the nick of time save the day.  They contain the Syrian advance, push them back to the pre-war start lines and Israel then launches on October 10 a four day counteroffensive that eventually brought them within 40 km (25 miles) of Damascus 

In the early days of the Yom Kippur War with the successful Egyptian canal crossing, Syrian tanks approaching the Jordan River and northern Israel and fearing the war was lost, the conflict almost went nuclear.  The orders were given to assemble thirteen 20 kiloton tactical nukes at two airbases on the night of October 8-9 and use them on the Sinai and Golan fronts. 

The Israeli nuclear preparations alarmed both the Soviets and the US and triggered Operation Nickel Grass, a resupply airlift to Israel that commenced October 10 after the Soviets did the same via air and sea for their Arab client states. The US also launched an SR-71 recon mission over the area that gave the Israelis critical intel for future military operations.

President Sadat, worried about the success of the Israeli Golan Heights offensive and the military cohesion of his Syrian ally, ordered a massive Egyptian armored offensive on October 14 to capture the Mitla and Gidi passes in the central Sinai that was quickly repulsed with heavy losses.   

The Israelis on October 16 launched Operation Gazelle, an offensive to split the gap between the Egyptian Second and Third Armies detected by the SR-71 mission and cross the Suez Canal at Deversoir on the northern edge of the Great Bitter Lake.  Once ensconced on the west bank, the 20 tanks and 7 APCs that made the initial crossing formed a raiding party that attacked Egyptian SAM sites and military columns with impunity. By destroying the SAM's,  it allowed the Israeli Air Force to join the fray and flex its power as the ground forces continued to widen, deepen and expand their African Egypt bridgehead.   

The Israeli offensives on both fronts continued to the point that on the Golan front they were in the process of retaking all the positions they lost on Mt Hermon. and were 16 km (10 miles) from Damascus.

On the Egyptian front the IDF was 64 km (40 miles) from Cairo, had the Egyptian Third Army surrounded and trapped with the Great Bitter Lake to their rear, and in the Ismailia and Suez City outskirts.

October 20 saw the unanimous passage of UN Security Resolution 338, which called for an immediate cease-fire, the implementation of Security Resolution 242, which called for an exchange of land for peace and negotiations between the “parties concerned” aimed at establishing a “just and durable peace.”

The first cease fire attempt fails with both sides accusing the other of violating it.   The UN Security Council then passes Security Resolution 339, which basically restates what 338 said with the addition of UN observers. Syria accepts that cease fire on October 23, but the fighting still continues between Egyptian and Israeli forces on their front.  

It almost escalated into an armed clash between US and Soviet forces.  The Soviets activated their seven elite paratroop divisions, sent 40,000 naval infantry troops to the Mediterranean Sea on seven amphibious warfare ships, put some southern USSR air units on alert and threatened to intervene on behalf of the Arab nations and the surrounded Egyptian Third Army.  The US responded by going from DEFCON 4 to DEFCON 3, putting nuclear forces on alert and threatening to intervene on behalf of Israel.

That also caused the IDF to put their nuclear forces on alert again before cooler heads prevailed to ratchet down the tension and seek a Soviet-US brokered solution that led to a October 25 cease fire on the Egyptian front 
On October 28 Egyptian and Israeli military met at the Kilometer 101 marker in the Sinai to conduct their first meeting in 25 years to discuss plans for implementing the cease fire. 
While the Yom Kippur War was a short duration one of three weeks, it was a costly one with far reaching ripple effects. The Israelis lost 2800 soldiers with over 8800 wounded.  The Arab coalition forces suffered 18,500 dead with 35,000 wounded.

The Arab OPEC nations launched an oil embargo on October 17 aimed at the United States, Japan and Western European nations that wasn't lifted until March 1974.   

Because the IDF was caught off guard, Prime Minister Golda Meir's Alignment Party paid dearly for it in the December 1973 Israeli elections, losing five Knesset seats.  Meir later resigned along with her entire cabinet and Defense Minster Moshe Dayan on April 11, 1974.  It resulted in Yitzhak Rabin beating Shimon Peres for the leadership of the Alignment Party and later becoming Israel's Prime Minister in June 1974.  It also to increased respect for the military abilities of the Arab nations and decreased confidence in the abilities of the IDF to defeat the Arab coalition in a subsequent war despite being the preeminent military nation in the Middle East.

That new reality and status quo in the Middle East led to Egypt and Israel heading to the negotiating table for the 1978 Camp David Accords and signing the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty a year later 

For the Arab coalition, it shattered the Israeli military invincibility myth, healed the psychological wounds from the 1967 defeat and earned them the political capital of negotiating with the Israelis as equals.  It also made Anwar Sadat a hero in Egypt.

I say Arab coalition because there were nine other nations involved besides the Egyptian and Syrians.  Iraq sent a squadron of Hunter jets to Egypt, deployed MiG's as early as October 8 and deployed a division comprised of 18,000 men, and several hundred tanks in the central Golan.  Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were fiscal underwriters of the war along with the Saudis sending a 3000 man brigade to Syria.  Jordan and King Hussein were reluctant participants in Syria and Libya sent Mirage fighters to Egypt. .        

The late reversals in the war also convinced the Arab coalition and many in the Arab world that despite their improved fighting capability since 1967, Israel couldn't be eradicated by force of arms, strengthening the hand of peace movements seeking negotiated settlements in the Middle East. 

Both sides would honor and bury their dead and tend to their wounded warriors as another Arab-Israeli conflict came to a close. 

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