|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
8 - 14 October 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Into the breach, dear friends
Maj. Gen. [retr'd] Hassan El-Gretli was Chief of Operations during the October War.
However, this left unanswered the urgent question of what form the war should take. Our political and military leaders ruled out both a return to the war of attrition and a full-scale war. Instead they opted for a limited war, whereby Arab forces would mount a powerful assault along several different fronts in order to attain specific strategic targets. The war effort would then be sustained as long as possible so as to deny Israel the opportunity to make effective use of the major components of its military power.
Israeli strategy had always favoured a war of short duration, consisting of a powerful assault in which it could bring its air superiority into full play. To minimise that threat, we also knew that we had to provide our forces with powerful air cover.
So as to define more clearly our strategic objectives, it was essential to clarify the political aims we hoped to achieve by resorting to force of arms. These ultimately crystallised as the need to break the political stalemate in the Middle East and the state of "no war-no peace" by so altering the strategic balance of power as to create a situation in which it would be possible to rally all the Arab forces.
We began by coordinating with the Syrians, as we would at every moment throughout the war. The most important point in the planning process was to analyse the strong and weak points of our enemy. Our planners drew on numerous, highly confidential studies regarding the size and capacities of the enemy forces. This led to a lengthy process of deliberation that ultimately coalesced into a plan which was originally known as "Granite 2" and was later renamed, once completed in coordination with the Syrians, "Badr".
The theatre of operations under Badr, though focused on the canal, extended across the entire nation. The preliminary assault areas soon turned into a hive of activity. The second and third armies built 200 heavy artillery platforms, 500 anti-aircraft artillery platforms, an enormous number of missile platforms, 89 tank shelters, not to mention bridge ramps and 2000 kilometers of roads. They also built command and control centres as well as 20 airports. All this work was completed in the period from January to August 1970. In addition to these preparations, this period also saw the physical, cultural and moral preparation of our fighting forces, the primary ingredient of our war effort.
It remained for us to set the exact date and time for the war. We settled on October 1973 because then temperatures on the Egyptian front would be moderate and the snowy season on the Syrian front would not yet have begun. The water in the canal is also relatively calm at that time of year, which was another consideration. More significantly, it was a period of religious holidays in both Israel and the Arab World, Yom Kippur coinciding with Ramadan. The Israeli elections scheduled for 28 October, and 6 October (10 Ramadan) would fall on a Saturday, when a nearly full moon would provide good visibility through the night. We chose 14:00 hours to launch the attack because we thought that hour would compound the element of surprise. Most wars in history began either with the first light of day or about three hours before sunset. From the Egyptian perspective, beginning at 2:00 p.m. would allow us to make a double air strike, to determine the directions our forces should take in order to open breaches and achieve our first mission before the counter-attack. The sun would also be at our backs. The Syrians originally objected to the time because their forces would be facing into the sun. The matter was finally resolved on 3 October when President Hafez Al-Assad made a secret visit to Cairo and met with Field Marshall Ahmed Ismail.
The crossing began at 2 pm on 6 October and was carefully staged. A wave of 220 Egyptian fighter planes crossed the canal, making their first strike against three airports, ten Hawk missile sites and three command, control and long-range artillery centres. Our pilots accomplished 95 per cent of their mission with less than 5 per cent losses. The air strike was followed by artillery fire from more than 2000 guns for a period of 53 minutes. At precisely the same time, the Golan Heights burst into action with a Syrian air assault and artillery fire.
Meanwhile, Egyptian soldiers began to cross the canal. In the initial wave, commando units followed by five infantry divisions, using around 1,000 rubber dinghies, landed 8,000 fighting men on the eastern bank. The soldiers climbed up the artificial sand barrier and, at 2.30 pm the Egyptian flag was raised on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal. By 2.46 pm we had taken the first fortified position of the enemy, after which the rest of the positions fell into our hands one by one. Then, under artillery cover and with infantry support, our engineer forces began to assemble ten heavy bridges and ten foot bridges. Enemy aircraft attempted to intercede, but were impeded by our anti-aircraft defenses. From the beginning of the crossing until 5 pm we downed 13 enemy planes, forcing the Israeli air command to issue instructions to its pilots not to approach within 15 kilometres of the canal.
Once the crossing was complete, dozens of helicopters transported commando units up to a depth of 40 kilometers east of the canal in order to prevent the intervention of enemy reserves. By 7.30 pm that evening -- less than six hours after the operation had commenced -- five infantry divisions operating along a 170km-long front had taken 15 enemy fortifications and occupied bridgeheads at a depth of three to four kilometres.
It is important to recall too that within an hour and a half of the beginning of operations, all the company, battalion and division commanders were on the other side of the canal. That night, under their command, our forces consolidated their positions. The following day, we succeeded in moving the bridgeheads an additional four kilometers eastwards, in spite of a powerful enemy assault. On the evenings of 7 and 8 October, the 18th infantry division liberated the city of Qantara. On 8 October, too, we engaged in a great tank battle in which we destroyed so many enemy tanks that the day was known in Israel as "Black Monday". The following day, our second infantry division succeeded in destroying the Israeli 190th artillery brigade and captured its commander. That same day, forces from the third army seized enemy artillery positions at Ain Mousa. It was from this strategic position that Israeli forces, before the war, used to bombard Suez day and night.
By the end of 9 October, we had united our bridgeheads and we called a halt to the fighting for four days as a "tactical pause", in order to regroup, calculate our losses and plan the next step. Of course, fighting did not come to a stop entirely, because we still had to riposte to many enemy counter-attacks. Thus, from 9 to 13 October our air force made 2,765 sorties, including logistical, transport and air defence support sorties.
It is true that the Israeli forces were able to drive a wedge between our forces in the Sinai and cross over to the western side of the canal where they tried to occupy Ismailia and Suez, which they hoped to be able to use as a bargaining chip in negotiations. The strategy failed, however, because of powerful military and popular resistance. We had devised a plan with which we could have closed the breach with the minimum number of losses. However, before the plan could be put into effect, political activity brought about a disengagement and the withdrawal of Israeli forces to the east of the canal, after which negotiations began at kilometer 101.