The Yom Kippur War (also known as the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the October War and Ramadan War), was fought from October 6 (the day of Yom Kippur) to October 22/24, 1973, between Israel and a coalition of Egypt and Syria.
President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt died in September 1970. He was succeeded by Anwar Sadat, who resolved to fight Israel and win back the territory lost in the 1967 Six-Day War. The plan to attack Israel in concert with Syria was code-named Operation Badr (the Arabic word for "full moon").
Egypt and Syria attempted to regain the territory Israeli forces gained during the 1967 war. Their armies launched a joint surprise attack on October 6, 1973, on the tenth day of the Muslim month of Ramadan, which coincided with the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur that year. Syrian forces attacked fortifications in the Golan Heights and Egyptian forces attacked fortifications around the Suez Canal and on the Sinai Peninsula. The troops inflicted heavy casualties on the Israeli army. After three weeks of fighting, however, and resupplied with ammunition by a large-scale U.S. airlift operation, the IDF pushed the Arab forces back beyond the original lines.
According to Israeli accounts, 2,688 Israeli servicemen were killed in the war and several thousand more (estimated at between 5,000 - 10,000) were wounded. 314 Israeli soldiers surrendered or were taken prisoner by the Arab forces (242 by Egypt, 68 by Syria and 4 in Lebanon) and 8,783 Arab soldiers were captured by the Israelis (8,372 Egyptians, 392 Syrians, 13 Iraqis and 6 Moroccans). All POWs had been exchanged by mid-1974. It is estimated that a total of around 19,000 Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis and Jordanians were also killed in this conflict. The Egyptian and Syrian air forces together with their air defences shot down 114 Israeli warplanes during the conflict for the loss of an estimated 442 of their own, including dozens which were accidentally shot down by their own surface-to-air missile batteries.
During the war, the Barak Armored Brigade played an important role defending Israel's borders against the Syrian attack in the southern Golan Heights. 112 soldiers were killed in action there.
On October 22, a cease-fire was declared, but the Israeli public's confidence had been severely shaken. Israel had been unprepared for the surprise attack and unable to repulse it quickly. The nation's lack of preparation was blamed on the Defence Minister Moshe Dayan and an outraged public demanded his resignation. The president of the Supreme Court set up a commission to investigate the performance of generals during the war. The commission recommended the resignation of the Chief of Staff, but reserved judgement on Dayan. The press and the public, however, condemned him. After attending a military funeral at which bereaved parents had called him a murderer of their sons, Dayan submitted his resignation to Golda Meir in 1974.
In Egypt and Syria the October War was seen as a victory. The "impregnable" Bar Lev Line had been broken, the Israeli air force had suffered serious losses and the myth of the invincibility of Israeli arms had been smashed in Sinai and the Golan Heights. The Israelis were forced to disgorge some of their conquests through a series of "disengagement" agreements with Syria and Egypt, brokered by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, though the comprehensive peace envisioned by the joint Soviet-American sponsored Middle East Peace Conference did not occur.
As a result of the Yom Kippur War, an international agency known as the "Multi-National Force and Observers" were established to monitor the ceasefire between Egypt and Israel and to patrol the border between the two nations. A special military decoration, the Multi-National Force and Observers Medal, was established for service members who performed border and security patrols along the Egyptian-Israeli border.
This battle was part of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a conflict which has included many battles and wars since 1948. In the Six-Day War in June 1967, Israel had occupied the Golan Heights in the north and the Sinai Peninsula in the south, right up to the Suez Canal.
In the years following that war, Israel erected lines of fortification in both the Sinai and the Golan Heights. In 1971, Israel spent $500 million fortifying its positions on the Suez Canal, a chain of fortifications and gigantic earthworks known as the Bar Lev Line, named after Israeli general Haim Bar Lev. After the surprise attack that defeated the Egyptian and Syrian armies in 1967, and having emerged undefeated from the three-year long War of Attrition with Egypt in the south and several border incidents with Syria in the north, the Israeli leadership had grown somewhat complacent.
Flush with a sense of their own overwhelming military superiority, they failed to recognize the aggressive effort made by their enemies, Egypt in particular, to rearm and reorganize their armies into a far more disciplined fighting force that could challenge the IDF.
In 1971 Anwar Sadat stated that if Israel were to unilaterally withdraw from all land it conquered during the 1967 war, Egypt would consider a comprehensive ceasefire or truce. Israel was reluctant to withdraw from so much territory without any guarantee of a peace treaty from Egypt and, at that time, with no chance at all of a peace treaty with any of its Arab neighbors.
In response, in 1972 Anwar Sadat publicly stated that Egypt was committed to going to war with the State of Israel, and that they were prepared to sacrifice one million Egyptian soldiers. From the end of 1972 Egypt began a concentrated effort to build up its forces, receiving MiG-23s, SA-6s, RPG-7s and especially the AT-3 "Sagger" ATGM (Anti-tank Guided Missile) from the Soviet Union and improving its military tactics.
In 1972 and 1973 Sadat publicly declared again that Egypt would go to war with Israel unless it unilaterally withdrew from all the territory it conquered in 1967. In 1973 Sadat went on a diplomatic offensive to convince African nations, European nations and the Soviet Union to back his war against Israel. Since the Soviet Union was trying to better relations with the US through détente, the Soviet Union refused to accede to Sadat's demands for yet more weapons and public backing for a war against Israel. In response, Sadat expelled some 20,000 Soviet advisers from Egypt.
The role of the great powers, too, was a major factor in the outcome of the two wars. The policy of the Soviet Union was one of the causes of Egypt's military weakness. While the US supplied Israel unrestrictedly with the most up-to-date assault weapons in the world, the Russians supplied Egypt only with defence weaponry, and then only with great reluctance. Indeed, Abdel-Nasser was only able to obtain the material for an anti-aircraft missile defence wall after having visited Moscow and threatened the Kremlin leaders that he would have to return to Egypt and tell the Egyptian people Moscow had abandoned them and then relinquish power to one of his peers who would be able to deal with the Americans because the Americans would have the upper hand in the region.
One of the undeclared objectives of the War of Attrition was to force the Soviet Union to supply Egypt with more advanced arms and war material. It was felt that the only way to convince the Soviet leaders of the deficiencies of most of the aircraft and air defence weaponry they had supplied to Egypt following 1967 was to put them to the test against the advanced weaponry which the US had supplied to Israel.
Abdel-Nasser's policy following the 1967 defeat conflicted with that of the Soviet Union. While Abdel-Nasser acted according to the belief that what has been taken by force must be regained by force, the Soviets sought to push Egypt towards a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. At all costs they wanted to avoid a new conflagration between the Arabs and Israelis so as not to be drawn into a confrontation with the US.
The reality of the situation became apparent when the superpowers met in Oslo and agreed to maintain the status quo in the region, regardless of the continued Israeli occupation of Arab territories.
This was unacceptable to Egyptian leaders. And when it was discovered that the Egyptian preparations for crossing the canal were being leaked, it became imperative, in order to preserve the element of surprise, to expel the Russians from Egypt. This step also helped ensure that the victory in October was purely an Arab one.
In an interview published in Newsweek (April 9, 1973), Sadat again threatened war with Israel. However, as this threat had been repeated many times since 1971, the Israeli military did not take it seriously. Blinded by the success of the Six-Day War, the Israeli civilian leadership and military intelligence were unable to treat the possibility of an Arab attack seriously. Several times during 1973, the Arab forces conducted large-scale exercises that put the Israeli army, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), on the highest level of alert, only to be recalled a few days later. The Israeli leadership already believed that if an attack took place, the Israeli Air Force would be able to repel it easily – and now they became increasingly convinced that the attack would simply not take place.
Most analyses of the Egyptian intentions in the war assume that they involved the reconquest of all or most of the Sinai, which was indeed the publicly stated objective. However, certain Egyptian writers later maintained that Sadat's instructions to his generals were only to capture a strip of a few kilometers wide on the east side of the Suez Canal. As Israeli military archives, and Egyptian documents captured by Israel during the war, started to become available, a number of Western historians have begun to support this version. For example, this is the opinion of Dani Asher, whose book was published by the Israeli Ministry of Defence in 2003. Absolute certainty may need to wait until the Egyptian archives are opened.
Participation by Arab States
Other Arab nations were involved in this war, providing additional weapons or financing. Exact amounts of support are uncertain. According to some sources, Iraq sent a squadron of Hunter jets to Egypt. During the war itself, Iraq sent a division of 18,000 men and a few hundred tanks, which were deployed in the central Golan; these forces, including some of Iraq's MiG fighter aircraft, did play a role in the war. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait gave financial aid and sent some token forces to join in the battle. Saudi Arabia sent a small number of troops to Syria and a Jordanian armoured unit engaged Israeli forces to halt the Israelis in the Golan Heights.
Between 1971 to 1973, Qadhafi's Libya sent Mirage fighters to Egypt, and it gave Egypt some $1 billion to arm Egypt for war. Algeria sent squadrons of fighters and bombers, armored brigades, and dozens of tanks. Tunisia sent over 1,000 soldiers, who worked with Egyptian defence forces in the Nile Delta. Sudan sent 3,500 soldiers; Morocco sent three brigades to the front lines.
On the Golan Heights
In the Golan Heights, the Syrians attacked the Israeli defenses of two brigades and eleven artillery batteries with five divisions and 188 batteries. Initially, approximately 180 Israeli tanks faced an onslaught of 1,400 Syrian tanks. Every Israeli tank deployed on the Golan Heights was hit and 250 were knocked out, of which 150 were able to be repaired. Syrian tanks had night fighting equipment whilst the Israeli tanks did not. Syrian commandos dropped by helicopter also took the most important Israeli stronghold at Jabal al Shaikh (Mount Hermon) which had a variety of surveillance equipment.
In response to three Syrian infantry divisions (each reinforced with an armoured brigade) and two armoured divisions, the Israelis were only able to muster one under-strength armoured brigade and two infantry battalions supported by four batteries of self-propelled artillery.
Syrian forces were initially safe from attack by the Israeli air force due to a protective umbrella of almost 200 SAM launchers (SA-6s).
Over three days of fighting, the 7th Israeli brigade in the north (commanded by Yanush Ben-Gal) managed to hold the rocky hill line defending the northern flank of their headquarters in Nafah. To the south, however, the "Barak" brigade, bereft of any natural defenses, was badly mauled, and its commander Colonel Shoham killed, as the Syrians pushed inwards towards the Sea of Galilee.
At one point, the only obstacle between the Syrian attackers and Nafah was a single tank (the so called Zvika force). However, the tide in the North soon turned, as the arriving Israeli reserve forces were able to contain the Syrian offensive. The tiny Golan Heights was too small to act as an effective territorial buffer, unlike the Sinai Peninsula in the south, and the Israelis gave the northern front first priority for their still-mobilizing reserves. By October 11, the Syrians were pushed back beyond the 1967 frontier.
In the following days, the Israeli forces pushed into Syria. From there they were able to shell the outskirts of Damascus, only 40 km away, using heavy artillery. A ceasefire was negotiated on October 22, based on a return to pre-war borders.
In response to the Israeli success and the US support of Israel, on October 17 the Arab states declared an oil embargo against the west.
In the Sinai
The 1973 War in the Sinai
The Egyptians burst across the Suez Canal and had advanced up to 15 km into the Sinai desert, with the combined forces of two army corps. They were opposed by the Israeli "Sinai" division, which they overcame with relative ease and whose counter-attacks they repelled. The Israeli counter-attacks in air and on land were unsuccessful due to the new anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles used effectively by the Arabs.
For Egypt, the capture of Col. Assaf Yagouri, commander of the Israeli 190th Armoured Brigade, was one of the most successful operations of the war. One of its chief effects was to lift the morale of the armed forces and the Egyptian people. On that day the newspapers were filled with reports of the intense battles that had been waged against Israel's counter-attacks in the Sinai. On the morning of that day, Egyptian forces had destroyed an entire Israeli brigade and taken its commander and hundreds of soldiers captive. Later that afternoon, 102 Israeli tanks were destroyed in the central and southern sectors.
However, the Egyptians had not planned to develop on their initial success, and their forces were now thinly spread along the Canal, vulnerable to a counter-attack.
On October 15, a division led by Ariel Sharon managed to breach the line between the Second and the Third Egyptian armies and to create a bridgehead; on the night of October 16/17, an Israeli bridge was deployed across the Suez Canal. The divisions of Avraham Eden (Bren) and Sharon passed over this bridge into Africa advancing to within 101 kilometers of Cairo. They wreaked havoc on the lines of supply of the Third Army stretching to the south of them, cutting off and encircling the Third Army. With the Third Army's situation being hopeless, only the intervention from the USSR and the United States saved it from imminent destruction.
The ceasefire did not end the sporadic clashes along the ceasefire lines nor did it dissipate military tensions. On March 5, 1974, Israeli forces withdrew from the canal's west bank, and Egypt assumed control. Syria and Israel signed a disengagement agreement on May 31, 1974, and the UN Disengagement and Observer Force (UNDOF) was established as a peacekeeping force in the Golan.
U.S. efforts resulted in an interim agreement between Egypt and Israel in September 1975, which provided for another Israeli withdrawal in the Sinai, a limitation of forces, and three observation stations staffed by U.S. civilians in a UN-maintained buffer zone between Egyptian and Israeli forces.
The battle of Latakia, a revolutionary naval battle between the Syrians and the Israelis, took place on October 7, the second day of the war, resulting in a resounding Israeli victory that proved the potency of small, fast missile boats equipped with advanced ECM packages. The battle also established the Israeli Navy, long derided as the black sheep of the Israeli services, as a formidable and effective force in its own right.
See also: History -- Military history -- War
- Maps : Egypt (http://www.jajz-ed.org.il/100/maps/egypt.html)
- Maps : Syria (http://www.jajz-ed.org.il/100/maps/syria.html)
- The October War and U.S. Policy (http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB98/index.htm) - Provided by the National Security Archive.
- Legal Status of West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem (http://www.globalpolitician.com/articles.asp?ID=132)