Thunder on the Suez

65YomKippurWar Tracks over water: Israeli tanks at the bridgehead on the Suez Canal. Yom Kippur War, 1973 | IDF

Tanks played a crucial role in the Arab-Israel wars


THE ISRAELI armour corps has participated in all our wars, right from the Independence War (1948-49) to Operation Protective Edge (Gaza, 2014). In 1948-49, the role of the corps was limited—as were the number of armoured vehicles. And, the orientation of the commanders was infantry-centric.

The change came with Operation Kadesh (Egypt, 1956) and with the Six-Day War (Egypt, Jordan and Syria, 1967). During these wars, the armoured corps raced to the Suez Canal and defeated the enemy armies. The corps also conquered the Golan Heights, Judea and Samaria.

In the Yom Kippur War (1973), too, the corps demonstrated its ability to change near-defeat into an impressive victory. The war started with a surprise attack by Egyptian and Syrian armies. When the war ended, Israeli tanks were 100km from Cairo and 40km from Damascus. Since 1973, Israel has had several operations, mainly against terrorist organisations in Lebanon and in Gaza. The biggest were Operation Peace for Galilee (Lebanon, 1982) and Operation Protective Edge; several armour divisions and some hundred tanks were active in each operation.

The nature of the war has changed over the years—from facing enemy armour to fighting an enemy that you do not see, from facing regular units to facing terrorist organisations. So, what is the 'secret' of Israeli armour's continued success? Some of the factors behind the success are:
1. The geographic situation of Israel: ringed by hostile countries and lack of “strategic depth”.
2. The tank's role as a war machine that carries a protected source of overwhelming fire power.
3. Soldiers who understand that unless we fight and defend Israel, we will not exist.
4. Well-trained tank commanders.

Before the Six-Day War, I fought from the turret of tanks as a platoon leader. I was company commander during the Six-Day War, battalion commander in Yom Kippur War, brigade commander during the 1978-79 operations in Lebanon and division commander during Operation Peace for Galilee.

In the Yom Kippur War, I commanded the 9th tank battalion. We were deployed on a 75km-long front along the northern sector of the Suez Canal, around 25km from the canal itself. Immediately, the Egyptians began air strikes and attacks with artillery and anti-tank missiles. We moved towards the enemy soldiers crossing the canal.

I cannot describe the bravery and determination of my commanders and crew. During the engagement, we realised that there would be no one behind us till the reserve divisions came. In 48 hours, I lost 34 of my 36 tanks; 67 soldiers died and about 100 were wounded. We then joined other units and crossed the canal with them. There I built my battalion again and we fought till the ceasefire, which caught us 100km from Cairo. I fought under five brigade commanders and three division commanders—all in about three weeks' time.

So, one can say, 'OK, that was in the past. But, what about the present and the future?' Armour played an important role in all the operations in Lebanon, in a unique and tough terrain, and against totally different enemies. In Gaza, too, a combined force of tanks, infantry, combat engineers and other ground forces did a great job. It is proven that tanks can secure a victory fast and with minimum casualties on enemy ground.

An armoured corps veteran, the author is a retired brigadier of the Israeli Defence Forces.

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