The Yom Kippur War is the fourth armed conflict between Israel and the neighboring Arab countries, triggered on October 6, 1973, Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. It is the start of a month of war, where Israel, as never since its war of independence, will be threatened in its very existence. Regional tussle this conflict will also have important global repercussions, whether in the Soviet Union or in the United States, quickly overtaken by events. High Intensity Mechanized Conflict The Yom Kippur War will also be a test bed for a whole host of materials and doctrines that still reign on the battlefield today.
The march towards war
When the cannons of the Six Day War fell silent on June 10, 1967, Israel appeared triumphant. Having defeated a pan-Arab coalition in less than a week, its armed forces are considered invincible. With the occupation of the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Tel Aviv has endowed itself with a protective glacis and borders much easier to defend. However, Israeli leaders are well aware that their main Arab adversaries (namely Egypt and Syria) reject this state of affairs and intend to reclaim their territories with their heads held high. Thus, the end of the 1960s saw the region sink into armed peace, the prelude to a new confrontation. On the Israeli side, this translates into the establishment of fortified positions, particularly on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal: the Bar Lev line.
In Damascus and Cairo, intense preparation is also being undertaken for this new round of the long Israeli-Arab war. While the Israelis are abundantly equipped with Western equipment, the Soviet Union provides the equipment and advisers necessary for the rebirth of the Arab armies. MIG 21 fighters, T 55 and T 62 tanks and above all thousands of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles were delivered, on generous terms to the Egyptians and the Syrians. However, the calculations of the various actors are ambivalent and sometimes contradictory.
If the Soviets maintain the preparation and the Arab war effort (the Israelis and Egyptians then wage a low-intensity war of attrition from 1967 to 1970), they do not wish to allow an open crisis to erupt. Skeptical of the Arab powers' chances of success, they are trying to maintain a relative status quo, more favorable to maintaining their influence in the region. In Damascus, the team ofHafez El Assad, the Baathist dictator and Alawite, we are resolved to a new war to recover the Golan. Cairo's motivations are more complex.
Nasser's successor (died 1970), Anouar El Sadat saw the extent of the political crisis caused by the humiliating defeat of 1967. Aware of the country's economic difficulties and the relative failure of a whole section of Nasser's policies, Sadat knows a possible collapse of Egypt. He envisages deep reforms, probably unpopular, to ward off him. Realizing that pro-Western alignment could be more beneficial in the long run than Nasser's flirtation with Moscow; the new Egyptian president sees a new war against Israel as a way to get his country out of a difficult situation. It is not only a question of reclaiming the Sinai, but also of providing it with the legitimacy necessary for the conduct of its major domestic and foreign policy projects.
For both superpowers, the prospect of a new Arab-Israeli conflict is not cheerful. Both Nixon and Brezhnev fear serious economic repercussions, particularly on the price of oil (fears reinforced by the decision of OPEC to drastically increase the price of a barrel in 1973). Israel's unofficial but real nuclearization is a further cause for concern. In the summer of 1972, for example, the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to support a peaceful settlement of the conflict and the temporary maintenance of the status quo. In Cairo, where war was being prepared intensively, the reaction was immediate: the Soviet military advisers left the country (they remained in Syria, however). During the next year tension gradually mounts as each of the belligerents fine-tunes their war plans. Both Moscow and Washington are proving powerless to defuse a crisis that has become inevitable.
It has often been written that the attack on Egyptians and Syrians on October 6 came as a total surprise to Israel. In fact, even if it is triggered on a public holiday, the IDF staff has long planned an Arab offensive and the means to deal with it. However, one can only note the failure of the Israeli intelligence services to grasp the modalities and the timetable of the Arab offensive. Disoriented by the repeated maneuvers of the Egyptian and Syrian armies, the Israeli leadership is also paying the price of an intoxication campaign led by Cairo and Damascus. It is thus assumed in Tel Aviv that the Arab powers are playing for time while awaiting the delivery of new Soviet equipment. The Egyptian army, deprived of its Soviet advisers, is considered weakened (in reality, it has gained in quality, notably thanks to the purges which are being paid for, the incompetent generals of 1967). Moreover the prime minister Golda Meir refuses a new preemptive attack for fear of cutting itself off from the United States and the West. Result on this day of the great forgiveness of 1973, the Israeli army finds itself in a delicate situation, caught in a vice on two fronts.
Yom Kippur War: The Sinai Front ...
October 6, 1973 at two o'clock in the afternoon on this sacred day in the Judaic calendar, the Egyptian army, sure of its numerical superiority, launched theBadr operation. 200 combat planes brutally strike the IDF device in the Suez Canal area and in the south of the Sinai. Far to the north, the Syrian army begins its assault on the heights of the Golan Heights. Operation Badr launched by the Syro-Egyptians is the fruit of intense reflection on the failure of 1967. Convinced that the air force represented the Israelis' greatest asset, the Egyptians set up a real anti-terrorist shield. -aircraft using SAM missile battery, supposed to cover the troops they are going to engage against the Bar-Lev line. To break through the latter, Cairo is lining up an assault genius, equipped with innovative equipment (including water cannons designed to destroy the sandy flats developed by the Israelis). Finally anticipating an armored response from the IDF, the Egyptian army abundantly provided its units with 1time line (which will remain without armored support for nearly 12 hours) of anti-tank missiles whose potential is neglected on the opposing side.
Result when the eastern shore of Suez Canal Canal The IDF's defense was taken by storm on October 6 and proved relatively ineffective. Deprived of the usual air force support, faced with daring raids by helicopter-borne commandos to their rear, the Israeli units can only retreat in the face of the 2e and 3e Egyptian armies. By the morning of October 7, nearly 850 Egyptian armored vehicles had already crossed the Suez Canal. The forces of General Gonen (commander of the Sinai forces) and in particular the 162e armored division (led before the war by a certain Ariel sharon) must counterattack alone, Tel Aviv prioritizing the Golan Front. This counterattack proved to be a complete failure, not only the few Bar Lev line positions still held by the IDF remained isolated, but the 162e division suffered heavy losses. The Egyptian infantry, well aided by their anti-tank missiles, demonstrated a fighting spirit and competence far superior to those of 1967. They proved it in the days that followed by sinking deeper into the sea. Sinai, but at the cost of increasing losses.
The defeat suffered on the Bar-Lev line by the Israeli army has indeed caused a salutary shock in its ranks. Under the leadership of Chief of Staff Eleazar, the command was reshuffled with the recall of forceful officers like Sharon. On the other hand, the favorable development of the situation vis-à-vis the Syrians, allows the IDF to release the necessary reserves for a counter-offensive. An operation made possible by the airlift that the United States then put in place (see below). The Israelis, recovered from their surprise, devise a plan intended to gamble their maneuvering superiority over an Egyptian army which has already paid dearly for its initial successes. Learning from the critical importance of the Egyptian anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, they form infantry teams destined for their destruction. Combined arms tactics for cooperation between infantry and armor are reviewed and improved.
On the 14th and at Sadat’s insistence on who to ease the pressure on the Syrians, the Egyptian army set out again to assault the IDF lines. The offensive, however carried out with large reinforcements of tanks, was a bitter failure. The botched plan having boiled down to a head-on collision on well-disposed Israeli positions, it resulted in terrible losses (over 400 tanks destroyed in a single day, ten times less for the Israelis). The IDF's response is dazzling. Exploiting a breach between the 2e and the 3e Egyptian army, the 143e Ariel Sharon's armored division (reservists, reinforced with parachute units) manages to seize a bridgehead on the African side of the canal (Operation Gazelle). Meanwhile, two other Israeli armored divisions are working to cut the Egyptians off their retreat routes. The anti-aircraft shield of SAM missiles having partially neutralized, the air force from Tel Aviv carries its full weight in the battle.
It was only on the 17th that Sadat (using satellite images provided by the Soviets who feared a total defeat of Egypt) understood that the 3e army in danger of being surrounded and wiped out in southern Sinai. The Egyptian reaction, although slow and stiff (with the officers struggling to break free from the original, very strict plan) is no less costly for the Israelis. Sharon was stopped near Ismailia by a force of light infantry and struggled to regain the initiative. This convinces Eleazar to opt for a slower pace of operations, which will allow the Egyptians to commit their remaining armored reserves to the battle. So in the last Israeli advance on the 23rd, they could barely contain them. However, when the guns fell silent, the IDF's top units were 100 km from Cairo and 70,000 Egyptian soldiers were cornered on the other side of the Suez Canal ...
... and the Golan Front
On the Golan Heights, the Syrian army deploys an impressive force on October 6. Five divisions, supported by artillery and powerful air force against just two Israeli brigades. However, several factors are working against the Syrians. Firstly, the terrain on which they enter, which is hilly and compartmentalized, is much more favorable to the defense. Second, if Israel is prepared to cede space in Sinai, it considers maintaining the Golan control as a top priority. Indeed, if ever the Syrians were to seize it, they would be able to emerge in plains overlooking the large towns nearby: Haifa, Netanya and Tel Aviv. So when it comes to sending reinforcements and reservists, the Golan front takes precedence over Sinai.
For two days, the Syrians managed to obtain moderate success against the opposing forces, at the cost of heavy losses, especially in tanks. The two IDF brigades initially engaged, sacrifice themselves in order to allow the reservists to go to the front (often transported by helicopters). Despite the capture of Mount Hermon, whose monitoring station is a crucial issue, the units of Damascus do not manage to emerge from the heights of the plateau. On the 8th the Israelis could mount a counteroffensive with the aid of three divisions (including two armored vehicles), on the 10th they reached the pre-war positions.
After a heated debate (Gonen's failures in Sinai are on everyone's mind) the Israeli leadership decides to push its advantage against the Syrians. If this is a risky option on the military level, it is above all a political will, that of seizing adversary territories with a view to future talks (on that date, an Egyptian defeat in the Sinai is still a distant prospect). From 11 to 14 Tsahal continues its attack against the Syrians. The overwhelmed Damascus army retreats precipitously and manages to stabilize the front line only at the cost of great sacrifice (and with the help of foreign units, but we'll get to that). Ten days after the start of hostilities in the Golan Heights, Israeli units reached 40 km from Damascus, a highly satisfactory result for Tel Aviv. The Israelis are satisfied with scarcely any further offensive action on this front (except the recapture of Mount Hermon) until the ceasefire.
An internationalized conflict
From the outset, the Yom Kippur War appears to be a conflict that goes well beyond the triangle Israeli-Syro-Egyptian. On the one hand it is an episode in the long Israeli-Arab confrontation and as such unleashes passions and initiatives in the Arab-Muslim world. Thus Damascus and Cairo can count on the financial and material support of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (the equivalent of a brigade and large sums of money). Algeria is sending several air units to Egypt (as well as an armored brigade which will arrive at the front too late), as are Morocco and Libya. A brigade of Palestinians is also participating in the conflict on the side of Sadat's army. Pakistan and Bangladesh are content with mainly medical aid. As for Jordanian and especially Iraqi aid (2 armored divisions), it enabled Syria to contain the IDF offensive in mid-October.
On the other hand, we cannot ignore the implication of the two Cold War superpowers in the conflict. Although opposed to Sadat and Assad's decision to go to war, the Soviets have no choice but to support them once the conflict begins. From the 9th, Moscow undertook to supply by sea (and this despite the resounding successes of the Israeli navy which defeated the Syrians off Latakia on the 7th and the Egyptians at Damietta on the 8th and 9th) and by air in Syria and in to a lesser extent Egypt (sometimes via Libyan ports). It is near 400 tanks which are thus delivered to Damascus in three weeks as well as a large number of spare parts, ammunition etc ... Added to this is the sometimes direct military aid from allies of the USSR, whether it is Cuba or North Korea.
On the other hand, the American contribution to Israel's war effort is just as important. During the darkest hours of the conflict (and especially on October 7, 8 and 9) Tel Aviv was able to skillfully put pressure on Washington by openly activating the plan for the use of nuclear weapons. This is to convince the president Nixon (besides weakened by the Watergate affair and under the influence ofHenry kissinger) the seriousness of the situation. The United States, which fears above all a nuclearization of the conflict, agrees to provide substantial aid to Israel to compensate for its losses of the first days. A gigantic air bridge is set up (Operation Nickel Grass) supplemented by naval assistance. The thousands of tons thus delivered allow the IDF to fuel offensives, while replenishing material reserves.
While the Soviets and Americans supply the armies of their respective clients and allies, they nevertheless share the common conviction that this conflict risks taking them to extremes which they try at all costs to avoid. It is therefore with their unconditional support that a united nations resolution (resolution 388) enjoins, on October 22, the belligerents to stop fighting. When it appears that the Israelis are neglecting it in order to push their advantage in Egypt, the Soviets are quick to put their military on nuclear alert, plunging the US National Security Council into panic. The American pressure which then fell on Israel was sufficient to make Tel Aviv accept the terms of a cease fire on October 25. After a few twists and turns, it comes into force on October 28. In the end, the well-understood interests of the super greats won out over the Middle Eastern issues.
Lessons and consequences of the Yom Kippur War
Barely a month's war, the 4e Arab-Israeli war is one of the most intense mechanized conflicts post-World War II. The material losses are impressive and revealing of the power of modern armaments. Nearly 2,500 tanks destroyed (80% of them on the Syrian-Egyptian side), more than 400 planes shot down (including a hundred Israelis). On the human level, the losses amount to 30,000 men on the Arab side (about 10,000 dead), 11,000 on the Israeli side (about 3000 dead). The fighting has rehabilitated the role of the infantry in combined arms tactics and armor cooperation. They also proved theimportance of anti-tank and anti-aircraft resourcess modern, relativizing the role of the tank-plane pairing. They finally gave pride of place to special forces and intelligence services, whose role has grown steadily since.
On the Arab and especially Egyptian side, the fact of having challenged Israel more than at any time since 1948 has been considered (and notably by propaganda) as a victory. Defeated militarily, Sadat nevertheless won his bet and legitimized his power with the Egyptians (with the notable exception of the Islamists, which will be fatal to him ...). Egypt has once again become the flagship nation of the Arab world and has free rein to negotiating against an Israel in full doubt.
Indeed for the Jewish state, the Yom Kippur War was a bitter disillusionment. The myth of the invincibility of the IDF has been severely tarnished, as has that of the infallibility of intelligence services. The ensuing political crisis costs their domination to the Labor Party who will eventually give way to the Likud, a young right-wing party, in 1977. To this must be added a deep moral questioning of the Israeli nation, where early secular Zionism is gradually giving way to the influence of the religious. Disoriented Israel, has also seen itself internationally isolated, its relationship with Washington shaken by events.
This tends to explain why the settlement of the Israeli-Egyptian dispute was so quick. Sadat, building on his success in 1973, took the initiative in direct negotiations with the Likud government to Menachen Begin in 1977. For Cairo, as for Tel Aviv, this was an opportunity to end a costly conflict and to make a gesture in the direction of Washington. Two years later with the Camp David Accords, the Israelis and Egyptians definitively embarked on the path of peace, resulting in the gradual handing over of Sinai to Egypt.
Sadat's triumph will be short-lived, however. Criticized by his former allies (especially Syria, which persists in its opposition to Washington), the Egyptian president will see his country excluded from the Arab League. He was assassinated on October 6, 1981, the anniversary of the launch of Operation Badr, by Islamist soldiers revolted by his pro-American turnaround and by peace with Israel.
- The Yom Kippur War of October 1973, by Pierre Razoux. Economica, 1999.
- The Yom Kippur War will not take place: How Israel Was Surprised, by Frédérique Schillo. André Versaille Edition, 2013.
- The Yom Kippur War: The Israeli-Arab conflict at the origin of the first oil shock. 50Minutes, 2014.