On 6 October 1973, Israel was attacked by its Arab neighbours on two fronts. Syria attacked from the Golan Heights, Egypt attacked from the Sinai Peninsula with 100,000 soldiers. Facing them across the Suez were 450 Israeli reservists with no combat experience. The Syrians had 1,400 tanks –eight times the number on the Israeli side.
Israel suffered heavy losses but ultimately overcame the attack. Fighting ended 20 days later, with the Israeli army well on the way to Cairo and Damasus. It was acknowledged as one of the most remarkable turnabouts in military history. But, according to author Abraham Rabinovich, Israel emerged from the war more chastened than triumphant. Here, we analyse one of the defining moments in the Jewish state’s history.
• Why was Israel so surprised by the attack? A special commission was set up to ask that very question. What they found was interesting. For a start, the Arab states had organised the attacks with a surprising degree of secrecy. Of the Egyptian officers captured, 95% had no idea they were going to war until the morning of the attack, believing instead that they would be conducting a military exercise. The commission also found that Israeli army chiefs had incorrectly evaluated the threat. They assumed Syria would never attack Israel without Egypt, and they thought Egypt wouldn’t attack without a strong air force, which it lacked. Dr Simon Agranat, former President of the Supreme Court and head of the commission, said afterwards that Israel’s military leaders continued holding this “conception” despite mounting evidence of Arab armies massing on the border.
• So when did Israel know? Not until just hours before, and only then because the head of Mossad sent a coded message from Paris, where he had gone in the utmost secrecy to obtain first- hand, incontrovertible knowledge of the plans.
• What happened then? His telegram arrived at 10am, warning that the Arab attack would come later that day. Chief of Staff David Elazar asked for permission to launch a pre-emptive attack, but this was denied by Defence Minister Moshe Dayan. Elazar then asked for permission to order a full mobilisation, but again Dayan said no, reluctant to have Israel seen as the aggressor. Dayan agreed that 50,000 could be called up, but Elazar wanted 150,000, so both men went to see Prime Minister Golda Meir, who suggested a compromise call-up of 100,000. Elazar agreed, then left the meeting and mobilised his preferred 150,000 soldiers anyway. This, together with the fact that most soldiers were at home or at shul, has been described as hugely decisive.
• How did Israelis find out what was happening? Sirens and radio announcements began early in the afternoon but news of the army call-up had already begun to spread, with messages being passed to soldiers in synagogue and cars appearing on roads, carrying troops to base. Many tuned in to their wireless after the first sirens sounded around 2pm.
• What did they hear? There was no radio broadcasting on Yom Kippur, so in the main they listened to silence, but at 2.30pm the first announcement was made. It said the sirens were not a false alarm and that people should make their way to the shelters. At 3.30pm a second announcement came, explaining that the Egyptians had attacked and that a partial mobilisation had been ordered. At 4pm another announcement was made, banning all non-essential travel from the roads and ordering the petrol stations to open, to help get soldiers to base. Then, at 4.20pm all non-emergency patients were told to leave hospital.
• What happened in the north? It was equally easy for enemy forces at first. With 1,400 tanks, the Syrians drove the Israelis back, over-running an intelligence station on Mt. Hermon as they did, where the Soviets got their hands on advanced Israeli radar technology. Israeli soldiers arrived to find their colleagues lying dead in tanks, but helped organise a fierce resistance, defending Israeli camps. While these bases ultimately fell, the entrenched fighting slowed the Syrian advance, allowing for Israeli reinforcements to arrive. Over the coming hours and days the Syrians were pushed back, with the loss of hundreds of enemy tanks. Meanwhile, a vicious air battle was being waged in the air over Upper Galilee, involving Syrian and Israeli jets.
• Was it just Egypt and Syria? Mainly, but they were part of a wider effort. As soon as the fighting began, Algerian air force units were sent to Egypt, the king of Morocco urged his reservists to fight for “the battle of destiny,” Idi Amin of Uganda sent his officers to Cairo and even Bangladesh pledged its support. Moscow gave a helping hand, not least by earlier providing the Soviet weapons now being used against Israel, but the war was an Arab effort first and foremost.
• Did anyone rally to Israel’s aid? American Jews sent money – some $100 million in the first few days – and Diaspora Jews came from as far a field as Australia to fight. But Israel was seriously outnumbered: Egypt and Syria had more than a million soldiers, when the entire population of Israel at the time was only three million. When 8,000 Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal, 436 Israeli reservists from the Jerusalem Brigade were all that stood in their way.
• How did Israel turn things around? In short, by fighting like hell. This battling spirit was summed up by General Yariv, who said: “We are going to press and we are going to push and we are going to bomb and we are going to punish them as long as we can until the enemy understands the rules of the game.”
• Who had a ‘good war’ for Israel? Very few. Israel turned it around in only a few days. Ariel Sharon, a commander in the Sinai who took the fight to the Egyptians, made a name for himself. But the iconic Moshe Dayan had a terrible war. He ignored warnings from General Ze’evi. He disagreed with General Zeira, Chief of Military Intelligence, that war was imminent. He refused to mobilise reservists. Yet only six months earlier, Dayan had been boasting about Israel’s defences. “The moment we see a glint of war in their eyes, we will blow them away,” he said.
• Sourced from Martin Gilbert’s Israel – A History (£16.99, published by Black Swan).