The fighting from the Six-Day War in 1967 had left the Arab states around Israel smarting. They were anxious to save face and wipe the young state of Israel off the map.The Israelis, for their part, were edgy, since their victory, terrorism had increased, the threat of war grew with each passing day and peace was no closer to the region despite their successes. All of those fears would come true on the holy day of Yom Kippur
The Soviet Union, anxious to expand their influence and counter the Americans support for Israel, threw their weight behind all of the regimes that surrounded the tiny Jewish state. This was as on the surface, the Soviets were doing their best fake impression of observing the détente with the United States.
Anwar Sadat and the Egyptians were itching for payback with Israel, having been humiliated against the Israeli’s twice, he wanted to revenge for the insult of being bested by their biggest enemy.
Prelude to War: Early in 1973, the threats of war were everywhere in the Middle East and yet nearly every observer and even the intelligence agencies all failed in predicting it was about to happen. The CIA told President Nixon right up until the day before hostilities began that the chances for war was “unlikely.”
Even more importantly, it was a failure and uncharacteristic one for the Israeli intelligence service Mossad. They had a source inside of Egypt, the son-in-law of ex-President Nasser and he reported that an attack was imminent. Zvi Zamir, the Director of Mossad subsequently learned from Military Intelligence that Soviet scientists were preparing to leave Syria and Egypt, which added weight to the report of pending war. But rather than inform the Prime Minister, he did nothing, expecting the military to sound the alarm. By the time Zamir briefed the government, it was just hours before the attack. Reports were surfacing that the Russians had equipped the Egyptians with SCUD missiles
On October 6, Chief of Staff David Elazar requested that PM Golda Meir authorize a full call-up of the reserves and order a pre-emptive strike. Meir was reluctant to order an airstrike first for fear of losing the support of President Nixon. She advised Henry Kissinger, the US Secretary of State and he approached both Sadat and Syrian President Hafez Assad not to ignite the powder keg.They ignored his advice and would pay the price.
War Begins on October 6: Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated assault on Israel on October 6, 1973, during Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish days and during the Muslim month of Ramadan. But the two countries were hardly alone. Iraq furnished a division of 18,000 men and several hundred tanks which attacked later on the Golan Heights and their MiGs were operating over the battlefield as early as October 8.
Saudi Arabia sent 3000 men who fought in Syria. Other non-Middle Eastern states furnished men, tanks, and aircraft including Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, and Morocco.
The Israelis were ridiculously outnumbered. On the Golan Heights, the Israelis fielded 180 tanks, 3000 troops and 60 pieces of artillery. They were faced with over 28,000 troops, 1400 Syrian tanks and 600 artillery pieces who attacked using the Soviet-style tactics. Along the Suez Canal, Israel had 500 troops spread out over several forts and just three tanks on the line. There were an additional 290 tanks in reserve. The Egyptians had 100,000 troops, 1350 tanks, and 2000 artillery pieces.
Operations in the Suez: At the opening of hostilities, the Egyptians established large bridgeheads across the Suez and easily defeated the uncoordinated and piecemeal Israeli counterattacks. They were heavily armed with RPGs and Sagger anti-tank missiles which took a toll on Israeli armor in the early going. But the Egyptians rightfully feared the Israel air force and were reluctant to venture far from their protective SAM (Surface to Air Missiles) belt around their troops.
The attack began with a coordinated air strike with more than 200 aircraft attacking strategic locations, radar sites, and airfields. After the initial shock, Israel responded and shot down 18 aircraft which prompted Egyptian leaders to cancel the follow-on air strike. Two Israeli F-4 Phantom jets took on 28 MiGs and shot down eight with no losses.
Despite this, 32,000 assault troops attacked and set up about a dozen bridgeheads. Initial air attacks by Israel were met with accurate and deadly SAM fire.
The plan was to launch several commando units by helicopter in the Israeli rear areas to disrupt reserves coming to the front. This met with disaster. Fourteen of the helicopters were shot down, most with a total loss of life. Of the 1700 commandos launched, 740 were killed and 330 taken prisoner. The Egyptians had pushed their bridgehead 10 miles into the Sinai, but the fighting was beginning to get bloody. By the end of October 10th, the Egyptians had lost nearly 250 tanks.
On the 14th two Egyptian armies were to attack the vital Israeli city of Refidim with 1000 tanks but beyond their protective SAM cover, the Egyptian air force would have to provide cover for the troops. The Israelis had 700 tanks opposing them. Egyptian command and control were hampered when Israeli commandos hit a signal center at Jebel Ataqah destroying it. The attack was decimated, Egypt lost 250 tanks and 200 armored vehicles. The Israelis lost just six tanks destroyed with 34 others damaged.
After the failed attack, the Israelis detected a gap between the two armies. General Ariel Sharon led a combined armored, commando attack that drove a wedge between the two. The paratroopers rowed across the Suez in rubber assault boats and got behind the lines and attacked SAM sites creating holes in the Egyptian coverage. The Israeli air force pounced and began to effectively provide deadly close air support.
A counterattack by Egyptian armor on October 16 wasn’t properly coordinated nor given proper reconnaissance. The two main pincers were decimated. The Egyptians lost 146 tanks and all of their APCs against the loss of just three Israeli tanks.
The Israelis began pouring troops into the gap.
After a series of bloody engagements, the UN had arranged a ceasefire on October 22. But fighting broke back out, whether it was Arab or Israeli who fired the first shot, no one knows but during this time, the Israeli armored forces broke thru and captured the road south of the Suez and encircled the Egyptian Third Army. By the time the ceasefire truly took effect, Israel had advanced within 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Cairo and had encircled the Third Army, which was in danger of being annihilated.
Bloody Fighting in the Golan: When the Syrians attacked on October 6, the Israelis gave the Golan first priority due to the proximity of major population centers of Haifa, Safed, Tiberias, and Netanya.
Heavy fighting raged between the vastly outnumbered Israelis and the Syrians who, despite horrendous losses kept pressing their attack forward. The Syrians would take a strong point and the Israelis would counterattack and take it back.
By the afternoon of the 9th, the Israelis were down to just six tanks, the road to northern Israel appeared ripe for the taking. Just then, 15 tanks arrived, having been patched up with crews who were already wounded. The Syrians, exhausted after four days of bloody fighting, began to withdraw. A few years ago on a visit to the Golan, I met one of the Israeli tank commanders who survived the battle. He said the Armored Brigade assigned there had tremendous prepared positions and had trained hard for years. The Israeli armor was able to inflict terrible casualties on the advancing Syrians by shooting, moving and communicating where it seemed their numbers were vastly higher than they actually were.
As more units began to arrive, the tide turned for Israel. By the end of the day on October 10, the Syrians were pushed back beyond the line where the war began just five days before. On the 11th, they advanced towards Damascus where they breached two lines of defense in heavy fighting. They were shelling the outskirts of Damascus just 25 miles away.
On October 23, the Syrians were planning a large offensive to drive the Israelis back. But that was when the UN ceasefire took effect. Assad considered still attacking but thought better of it. Artillery barrages still, however, rained back and forth
Casualties: The bloody fighting during the short war took a toll on both sides. Israel lost between 2500-2800 dead, 8000 wounded and 293 captured, many of whom were tortured and killed in captivity. They lost 400 tanks destroyed with 600 more damaged and 102 aircraft. Estimates for Arab casualties were horrific. Combined the Syrians and Egyptians lost between 8,000 -18,000 dead, 35,000 wounded with 2300 tanks destroyed with another 300 captured and put to use. Aircraft losses numbered between 350-514. Air to air combat was a rout. The Israeli pilots shot down 334 aircraft against just 5 in air combat.
Aftermath: Even after having been decimated with an army encircled and the enemy marching on Cairo, the Egyptians acted as if they won. This shift in thinking made it possible for Sadat to come to the table and sign a peace treaty with Israel. Sadat was assassinated on the reviewing stand of a parade honoring Egypt’s “victory” in the Yom Kippur War in 1981.