The road to Naksa
Until now, on the Arab side, silence engulfs the catastrophic mistakes that led to the loss of Sinai in 1967, writes Abdou Mubasher
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Clockwise from top: a pensive Nasser touring the front with his commanders during the war of attrition that followed the Naksa; Dayan and Rabin during a military parade, in exultation of their victory; Egyptian POWs transported to detention camps
Forty years have passed since the defeat of June 1967 and yet the overwhelming majority of Egyptians still wonder, how did things go wrong? What did we do to deserve such a humiliating defeat? To answer these questions, we have to review the external and internal conditions that existed at the time. I will start with the external conditions.
First, Egypt was militarily involved in Yemen as of September 1962. Almost half of our ground troops, as well as numerous navy ships and airplanes, were engaged in operations in Yemen up to a few months before the war. Egypt was spending about $5 million a day on its war effort in Yemen.
Second, the Arab world was divided into two camps and tensions were escalating between the revolutionary regimes and the so- called reactionary ones. The first camp included Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Yemen and Iraq. The second included Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco. The two camps used rhetoric, plots and conspiracies in a protracted struggle for dominance.
Third, following the Czech arms consignment of 1955, Egypt began drifting towards the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. In the following years, the US withdrew its offer to finance the High Dam. Egypt retaliated by nationalising the Suez Canal. The Tripartite Aggression of 1956 increased tensions between Egypt and several Western countries, especially Germany, which was selling weapons to Israel. Eventually, Egypt severed its diplomatic ties with several Western nations and came under various forms of economic sanctions and political pressures.
Fourth, tensions mounted between Syria and Israel following an air battle in Syrian airspace during which Israeli planes shot down 13 Syrian planes.
Fourth, the Soviet government pressured Gamal Abdel-Nasser to sign an agreement of joint military defence with Syria.
The domestic situation was just as grim.
First, after young army officers took power in 1952 they expelled their experienced superiors. Major Abdel-Hakim Amer was given command of the armed forces and promoted four ranks at once, to a general. However, he didn't receive the training needed for that post. A similar case is that of Shams Badran, the office manager of then-Field Marshal Amer, who was made defence minister right before the 1967 War. Badran's military education had stopped at his last army rank, that of lieutenant. So the top military command in June 1967 was inexperienced with a novice for defence minister.
Second, with the rise of the 1952 officers to power, Egypt entered a phase of dictatorship. Words such as freedom and democracy disappeared from the lexicon, and the president became the sole decision-maker.
Third, trust between ruler and the people ebbed due to the deteriorating economic situation. Egypt's involvement in Yemen, and its financial support to the Algerian revolution and liberation movements in Africa, was taking its toll on the economy.
Fourth, spending on infrastructure declined significantly and Egypt started suffering from a near-collapse of public services including drinking water, sewage, transportation and roads. The shortage of resources enticed military command to reduce the size of the armed forces, limit recruitment, and slash training budgets.
In brief, Egypt was suffering the economic doldrums of the Yemen war. With half the army caught up in Yemen and the other half suffering a lack of men and training, the outlook was bleak. And when a power struggle ensued between Amer and Nasser, things got worse.
In November 1966, the army put the final touches on Qaher, its strategic plan for the war. The plan was mainly a defensive one, and yet it made clear that the army needed additional weapons and equipment. Planners underlined that Egypt was in no place to fight an offensive war, but Nasser decided to deploy Egyptian troops in an offensive formation.
In April 1967, Russia told Egypt that Israel was amassing troops on the Syrian borders. Israel had no strategic or tactical motive to do such a thing. And an emissary sent by Nasser to Syria reported back that the information was false. Still, Nasser declared full mobilisation in Egypt as of 14 May 1967, citing the joint defence agreement with Syria.
In a tragic decision, Egypt asked the UN to pull out its emergency forces from the borders with Israel. That move put Israeli shipping in full view of the Egyptian forces, which now replaced the UN forces in Sharm El-Sheikh. On 22 May 1967, Nasser declared a ban on Israeli shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba, a decision that arguably made war inevitable.
As Egypt proceeded erratically on a warpath, Israel was waiting for the right time to strike. An interlude of political manoeuvring ensued; with Egypt hoping to capitalise on its closure of the Gulf of Aqaba, the US making sure Israel would achieve its objectives, the Syrian Baath Party intending to push Nasser into a corner, and the Soviets loving a conflict that would strengthen their grip on Egypt. The war soon started.
In the early hours of 5 June 1967, the Israeli air force attacked Egyptian airports and air bases, destroying Egyptian planes, which had been left in the open with no protection. "This is better than my wildest dreams," exclaimed Mordechai Hod, then-Israel's air force commander.
At the same time, Israel started a three-pronged attack on the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian fronts. On the Egyptian front, Israel sent three formations westwards to drive the Egyptians back to the mountain passages in north, central and southern Sinai. A fourth formation proceeded along the coast from Arish to the Suez Canal, hoping to perform a pincer movement and cut off the retreat of Egyptian troops. The Israeli ground attack proceeded with relative ease, now that Egyptians were without air cover. A sudden decision by the Egyptian command to pull out troops from Sinai threw the army in a state of chaos, for no plans for withdrawal had been made earlier. The Israelis succeeded in destroying two Egyptian tank divisions and five infantry divisions in quick battles.
The decision to pull out troops from Sinai was one of the most bizarre things about this war. The decision was taken and enforced without the knowledge of the front commander, Brigadier General Abdel-Mohsen Mortagi. When a military police sentry standing guard at the gates of the command headquarters told Mortagi that the troops were ordered to withdraw and that he was the last man left on the front, the commander was shocked. He tried to contact Brigadier General Salah Mohsen, commander of the eastern front, or any of the other commanders, but failed, because Israel had disrupted the communication network. After several attempts, Mortagi got through to the leadership and learned that an order to withdraw had been issued.
According to available information, President Nasser, having learned of the results of the air strike, discussed the matter over with Field Marshal Amer. The two men came to the conclusion that the troops in Sinai had no chance of surviving without air cover. So Nasser asked Amer to pull out the troops from Sinai, in repetition of what happened during the 1956 War. The decision to withdraw was passed, but no detailed instructions were given concerning the manner and sequence of withdrawal. Troops were simply ordered to withdraw within 24 hours. Troops that took from 15 May till 5 June to deploy in Sinai were now expected to pull out within one day, from a peninsula that had only three exit roads and while under aerial and ground bombardment.
We had over 100,000 men in Sinai at the time and their orders were to leave their weapons, equipment, ammunition, supplies and fuel behind and just leave. The decision was made orally and passed by word of mouth from one commander to the other. I have made several attempts over the years to find a written text for this order, but couldn't find one piece of paper to verify it. An order to a massive army to withdraw from the front while under enemy fire was made only orally -- a precedent in the history of warfare.
Were there any acts of heroism? Did our troops make any glorious last stands? The answer is yes. Despite Israel's bombardment of the airport, in which the Israelis used a combination of regular and timed bombs, many pilots rushed into their planes and took off to fight with no hope of coming back. Some of them later managed to land on highways. Such acts are all on record, but the nation was in no mood to celebrate.
Some of the ground units fought bravely against the odds. The 14th Armoured Brigade, commanded by Abdel-Moneim Wassel, inflicted heavy losses on an Israeli armoured division, but the battle turned when the Israeli air force came to the rescue of the Israeli ground troops.
The story of the Egyptian Fourth Armoured Division is quite extraordinary. When the order to withdraw was issued the division was still close to the eastern bank of the Suez Canal. It managed to cross back to the western bank without suffering any substantial losses. The division, which included a limited number of tanks and armoured vehicles, made it to Cairo and deployed along the wall of the Al-Tahra Palace. Some people imagined that it was about to stage a coup, so President Nasser ordered the division back into Sinai, and it went. Egyptian troops were all leaving Sinai, but this one division was heading in the opposite direction. The division knew that it would have to fight without air cover, but followed orders, moving along the central route into Sinai. Once in Sinai, Lieutenant General Kamal Hassan Ali led the Egyptian force into battle against an Israeli armoured formation, a battle in which the Fourth Division, considered at the time to be the jewel in the crown of the Egyptian army, acquitted itself brilliantly, though ending up losing many of its tanks and armoured vehicles.
At the beginning of the war, Egyptian troops went into Israel. Brigadier General Abdel-Qader Hassan was at the head of a force and his orders were to occupy the port of Eilat. When the war broke out, the Egyptian force advanced for 50 kilometres inside Israeli territories, then receiving the order to withdraw. The force had already overcome several Israeli units and was close to achieving its aim, and yet it had no option but to comply and return.
Another Egyptian force, commanded by Ibrahim Al-Rifaei, managed to stop the Israeli advance on the coastal road. At the time, the Egyptian political leadership had left the headquarters building, intending to blame the defeat entirely on Field Marshal Amer. The chain of command had fallen to pieces. One man who still had a sense of what was happening was Brigadier General Mohamed Sadeq, chief of Military Intelligence. Sadeq knew that the Israelis were marching on the coastal road to perform a pincer movement around withdrawing Egyptian troops. A delaying tactic was needed, so Sadeq asked Al-Rifaei to head back into Sinai and engage the Israelis. Al-Rifaei took two reconnaissance units and crossed to the east bank of the canal. At that time, the Egyptian army was starting to rig all crossing points with explosives in case the Israelis arrive. Al-Rifaei took his small force along the coast to Rommanah, where he arranged them in a defensive formation and waited. Soon after, advance units of an Israeli armoured brigade arrived and a battle ensued in which the Egyptians fought so bravely that the Israelis were convinced they hit a fortified stronghold. They stopped their advance. This gave thousands of Egyptian troops the chance to withdraw safely across the Suez Canal.
Westerners and Israelis have written much about the 1967 War. Several Israeli commanders recorded their memories about this war. But nothing was ever written by Egyptian commanders, the only exception being a courageous book released by the Military Research Agency. The book mentions in detail the errors committed before and during the war. The book, entitled The Third Round, was only distributed among the top military commanders. But as soon as he was appointed war minister, General Mohamed Fawzi ordered all copies of that book collected and banned the officers from reading it. So we're left with no substantive material on the Arab view of the war as all its accounts, with the exception of a few comments from the Arab side, have to come from Western and Israeli sources.
Egyptian fact-finding committees sprang to action after the war, with investigators diligently collecting documents and testimonies of the commanders who took part in the war. For some reason, the findings remain unpublished.
Following the war, Soviet top defence official Marshal Zakharov came to Egypt with a high-level delegation to probe the causes of the defeat. A few months later, he gave two copies of his report to President Nasser and Defence Minister Fawzi. After Nasser's death, the two copies disappeared.
In the Arab world, the 1967 defeat was called a setback, or Naksa. But the euphemism failed to allay the bitterness of the catastrophe. When the Egyptian army pulled out of Sinai, it left behind 25,000 motorised vehicles, ranging from motorcycles to planes. And it also left a trauma that lasted until the 1973 victory set things right. But to this day, the Golan, the West Bank and Gaza remain under Israel's occupation. And no amount of peace agreements could bring us back to where we were before June 1967.