Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 October 2008
Issue No. 917
Focus
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Galal Nassar

'We shall not lose'

To mark the 35th anniversary of the October War Galal Nassar reviews its conduct and strategic objectives

I had the pleasure of meeting the late Field Marshall Mohamed Abdel-Ghani El-Gamassi, former deputy prime minister and minister of war, chief of operations at the outset of the October War and then, on 12 October 1973, chief of staff of the Armed Forces, only a few times. The last time I met him was in the Heliopolis Club where he enjoyed spending his free time, but every time I met him, whether there or in the corridors of the Nasser Military Academy, our conversation would revolve around the October War. How and why did it occur, I would ask him. Was the picture of Egypt's surprise victory as clear cut as it has been made to appear? El-Gamassi was always keen to present as accurate an account as possible, convinced that future generations had the right to know the truth in its entirety.

Click to view caption
Egyptian troops in Sinai after triumphantly crossing the Suez Canal; El-Gamassi; October 1973 brought the first use of the Arab oil weapon, marking the first practical demonstration of Arab solidarity in centuries

The political and military objective of the war, he said, was to wage a strategic offensive against Israel in coordination with Syrian forces. Egyptian forces were to cross the Suez Canal, defeat the forward concentration of enemy troops in the Sinai, advance to the Bar Lev Line, secure their positions and remain on the alert for further combat missions. Simultaneously, Syrian forces were to penetrate and destroy enemy defences in the Golan Heights and advance towards, and then hold, the Lake of Tiberius-Jordan River line. These objectives coalesced in the form of Operation Badr, drawn up by the United High Command led by the General Commander of the Egyptian Armed Forces General Ahmed Ismail. According to this plan Egypt and Syria would launch simultaneous air strikes against military targets in the Golan and Sinai, then beneath artillery cover on both fronts, Egyptian and Syrian forces would move into the Sinai and Golan Heights respectively. It was estimated that Syria could liberate the Golan within four or five days and continue to hold its positions until Egyptian forces reached designated positions in the Sinai.

On the Egyptian side, El-Gamassi continued, the 2nd and 3rd armies would advance on the canal zone along the entire front (approximately 175 kilometres) and establish several army bridgeheads to depths of between 15 and 20 kilometres, using five divisions and the Port Said Sector Force, and aerial defences to secure them. Then, following a tactical pause, the army would advance eastward in order to seize and secure the mountain passes, thereby stranding Israeli forces in open ground in central Sinai, where topographical features would hamper their ability to form new defence lines and where they would then be vulnerable to further Egyptian offensives as the situation progressed. Meanwhile, under Operation Badr, the Egyptian navy would secure our coastlines and disrupt Israeli maritime communications in Bab Al-Mandab, halting shipping to and from Eilat and preventing Iranian oil from reaching that Israeli port.

However, El-Gamassi said, the first step towards implementing Operation Badr was for Egypt to get rid of the Soviet advisors, which occurred in July 1972. Egyptian-Soviet relations had been gradually worsening due to Moscow's refusal to supply Egypt with the weapons it needed to fight Israel. In his memoirs El-Gamassi recounts that President Anwar El-Sadat told the Soviets: "You've been keeping me two steps behind Israel. I'm the victim. Even so, I don't ask for superiority over Israel, only parity."

El-Gamassi resumed: "You could say this was the cause of the rift between Cairo and Moscow. This rift broadened during the war and became irreparable afterwards."

The second step was for Sadat to meet with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. In this meeting, which took place in Sadat's home in Giza, the president told them: "I am not prepared to accept capitulation solutions. I will not sit at a negotiating table with Israel while we're still in this disgraceful situation. To do so would be taken as surrender, by our people, by the enemy and by our friends. We have to prove that we can fight, that we're ready to make sacrifices and that we have the means to get the situation moving in a way that gives us greater control, through careful planning and cool-headed action. As long as we continue not to act the Arab position will not only remain as it is it will get worse, with the Americans, with the Russians, with our people. Failure to act means silence and death. As I have said before and will say again, neither America nor Syria nor anyone else can fight our battles or get us what we want. We have to get the Russians moving to give us arms. We have to get the Americans moving to solve the conflict. We are the impetus. We have reached a phase in which the cause is in peril. If we enter the next round from our current position of stagnation we can kiss our cause good-bye. And if the cause on our front dies, the cause of the Arab nations dies. Israel knows that if it can guarantee silence on our front the Arab cause is lost. As long as we remain silent, as long as we fail to act, the Arab cause will fade and die as of the beginning of 1973. For history, I regard this meeting as history. The battle will end somehow. With the will of God and the will of this people, we shall not lose."

Step three was the appointment, on 26 July 1972, of Lieutenant General Ahmed Ismail as minister of war and commander general of the Armed Forces. General Ismail took up Sadat's call which he proclaimed to the troops as follows: "You must be prepared for war at a moment's notice. Peaceful efforts have failed. The only alternative for liberating our land is war. We cannot wait until new arms arrive. The missions with which our forces will be charged will be within their capabilities."

The fourth step, as El-Gamassi described it, was to coordinate with Syria. As the deputy prime minister and minister of war put it, were it not for the spirit of cooperation between the political leaderships of the two countries -- Presidents Sadat and Asad -- it would never have been possible to formulate and implement plans for military cooperation and take the joint decision to declare war.

THE WAR OF ATTRITION: For the sake of accuracy, it must be said that the tactical victories scored during the war of attrition had been crucial to making the strategic victory of 6 October possible. The Egyptian people and army had been geared up for war, the minor battles they waged formed the vaccination that ensured the highest levels of preparedness in the ranks of Egyptian soldiers. The war of attrition established a specific set of political-military principles:

Firstly, there could be no giving in to the status quo. The military front had to be kept alive in order to keep the cause alive. In addition, Egyptian soldiers had to have the opportunity to experience active engagement with the enemy in order to overcome the psychological effects of the defeat in the June 1967 War and to lift morale, self-confidence and confidence in their leadership.

Secondly, Israel could not be led to believe that in having reached the eastern bank of the canal it was entitled to stay and that Egypt and the Arabs would come to accept its easy victory. The most powerful means for asserting this principle was through military action, which could continually create new realities on the front. Israel had to be convinced, beyond any shadow of doubt, that the price of perpetuating its occupation of Egyptian territory would be intolerable. The aim of the war of attrition, therefore, was to inflict the greatest possible material and human losses upon enemy forces in the Sinai.

Thirdly, we had to continue to explore all military, political and diplomatic avenues towards budging the political standoff and reviving efforts aimed at the realisation of a just solution.

'The first Egyptian flag was planted on the eastern bank of the canal at 2:30pm on 6 October. The first enemy fortified point fell at 2:46, after which others followed. Meanwhile, under cover of the infantry forces and artillery fire, the engineering corps began construction of 10 heavy pontoon bridges and another 10 foot bridges. Israeli aircraft attempting to halt the crossing were intercepted by Egyptian air defences which, by 5pm, had succeeded in downing 13 enemy planes, compelling Israeli air command to instruct its forces not to approach within 15 kilometres of the canal'

COUNTDOWN TO WAR: Any retrospective of the 1973 War must consider how the country was prepared for war, especially given that such preparations had not taken place prior to 1967, one more cause of that defeat. Retired Major General Hassan El-Gretli, who became chief of operations of the Armed Forces on 12 October 1973, recalls that preparations for war proceeded along five trajectories. While the training and upgrading of the armed forces went into full gear, in accordance with carefully planned phases, the national economy was also being geared up for war. The third trajectory entailed mobilising the public through awareness-raising campaigns and the creation of civil defence networks. Fourthly, portions of Egyptian territory had to be prepared as potential theatres of operations while, lastly, foreign policy focussed on laying a diplomatic groundwork conducive to the ultimate political objectives of the forthcoming armed confrontation.

It was also essential to bring other Arab countries into the picture. Sudan, the PLO, Algeria and Morocco contributed token units and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries offered financial support.

Meanwhile, at the level of Africa and the Non- Aligned countries Egypt accelerated the drive to isolate Israel diplomatically. Through his personal communications with the heads of state of these countries, President Sadat succeeded in obtaining assurances of their support for Egypt's right to "eliminate the effects of [Israeli] aggression". In September 1973, only three weeks before the outbreak of war, Sadat proclaimed to the Summit of Non-Aligned Countries, meeting in Algeria, that war was now the only alternative. Although Egypt had resolved not to depend on assistance from the Soviet bloc, a similar drive was launched in that sphere. In 1973 National Security Advisor Mohamed Hafez Ismail and Minister of Defence General Ahmed Ismail undertook numerous visits to Moscow and other capitals in the Soviet orbit to press home the notion that any peaceful settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict could not be realised until the balances of power in the region were redressed. These efforts succeeded in producing one of the largest arms deals Egypt ever concluded with the Soviets.

Egypt also turned its attention to the West, where it was coming under intense pressure to make concessions to Israel. Indeed, in meetings in February and May 1973, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger not only made no reference to the need for Israel to withdraw from occupied Arab territories but said "there are no better defence lines for Israel than the Suez Canal and the Jordan River, and necessity requires that Israeli forces remain in Sharm El-Sheikh."

To counter this campaign Sadat visited many Western capitals in the hope of reducing the intensity of their pro-Israeli bias. Of particular concern to him was France, which had recently imposed an embargo on the sale of weapons to Egypt. He also reestablished relations with Germany, scoring a diplomatic coup on behalf of the Arab cause. Meanwhile, in the UN Egypt lobbied for a clear and unequivocal resolution calling upon Tel Aviv to withdraw from occupied Arab territories. The Security Council passed a resolution to this effect with an absolute majority in July 1973.

The Arabs' political and diplomatic drive had a major impact on the shape the war would take. It was to have a clear political objective that was stated as follows: "To break the current political stagnation in the Middle East crisis and to end the state of no- war no-peace by working to shift the current strategic balances in the Middle East in a manner that would create the political and strategic circumstances most conducive to using the rest of Arab forces to realise our ultimate national aims".

A specific political objective required specific military objectives. Since battle would need to accomplish something decisive, continuing the war of attrition was no longer a possibility though a full- scale war along the entire length of the lines of confrontation was neither feasible nor desirable. The solution was a "limited engagement" that would entail powerful strikes on two or more fronts in order to accomplish specific strategic objectives up to a limited depth beyond current enemy lines. Israel, it was anticipated, would seek a kind of blitz war, relying for this end on its superior power to control the skies. In order to prevent Israel from recourse to this strategy and to neutralise its tactical advantages Arab forces would attempt to keep Israeli forces engaged as long as possible on more than one front and to maximise their air cover for this purpose.

In Egypt the ground was being rapidly prepared for the forthcoming engagement. The areas of the preliminary assault were sites of the most intensive activity. Within a relatively short span of time the 2nd and 3rd Armies constructed 200 heavy gun installations, 500 anti-aircraft artillery installations and a large number of missile batteries. Egyptian forces also constructed 89 tank platforms, 2,000 kilometres of roads, dozens of central, intermediary, forward and rear command and control centres, not to mention a new airport network complete with 20 new airports, steel-reinforced hangars and runway repair teams.

THE TIMING: It remained for the Egyptian-Syrian command to set the precise time for the assault which, naturally, required considerable deliberation. The decision fell on October, well before snowfall on the Syrian heights and when temperatures would be moderate on the Egyptian front and the Suez Canal waters would be relatively calm. It was also decided to launch the assault in advance of Israeli elections which were scheduled for 28 October. The choice fell on 6 October, the date of the Jewish celebration of Yom Kippur, which also coincided with 10 Ramadan when the waxing moon would provide sufficient nighttime vision.

That military command set the time of attack at 2pm was a stroke of genius that heightened the element of surprise. Most wars in history began at the crack of dawn or some three hours before the last glimmer of daylight. From the Egyptian perspective, a midday attack would enable a repeated battery of aerial strikes and give time enough to open breaches in enemy defences and accomplish other strategic objectives before the enemy had time to rally a counter attack. In addition, the light at the time would be behind the Egyptian forces. That would not be the case, however, for Syrian forces advancing westward, which was why the Syrians initially objected to the timing. The matter, however, was settled during a secret visit by Ahmed Ismail to Damascus on 3 October.

At 14:00 hours on 6 October, 220 Egyptian aircraft took off simultaneously to cross the canal and deliver the first barrage of strikes. Their targets were three Israeli airports in the Sinai, 10 Hawk missile sites, three command and control centres and several long-range artillery installments. The opening aerial strike, which was accompanied by artillery bombardment sustained for 53 minutes, accomplished 95 per cent of its objectives with losses at less than five per cent. Simultaneously, on the Golan front, Syrian forces initiated a similar aerial assault accompanied by artillery fire.

At the same time Egyptian ground forces began the epic crossing of the Suez Canal. The assault was spearheaded by commando forces, after which came successive waves of five infantry divisions, using some 1,000 rubber rafts to transport 8,000 troops to the eastern bank, where they began the assault on the Israelis' earth rampart.

The first Egyptian flag was planted on the eastern bank of the canal at 2:30pm on 6 October. The first enemy fortified point fell at 2:46, after which others followed. Meanwhile, under cover of the infantry forces and artillery fire, the engineering corps began construction of 10 heavy pontoon bridges and another 10 foot bridges. Israeli aircraft attempting to halt the crossing were intercepted by Egyptian air defences which, by 5pm, had succeeded in downing 13 enemy planes, compelling Israeli air command to instruct its forces not to approach within 15 kilometres of the canal.

Also under air cover dozens of helicopters transported commando forces to a depth of 40 kilometres east of the canal with the purpose of preventing the intervention of enemy reserves. Within six hours of the onset of operations five infantry divisions, or more than 20,000 soldiers, had crossed to the other side of the canal along a 170-kilometre front and succeeded in capturing 15 enemy strongholds and in securing bridgeheads to depths of three to four kilometres.

By nightfall, according to El-Gretli, all company, battalion and regiment commanders were on the eastern side of the canal. "During the night," he recalls, "we reinforced our positions. Then, the following day, 7 October, our forces succeeded in extending their bridgeheads to eight kilometres while withstanding powerful enemy assaults. On the night of 7-8 October the 18th infantry regiment succeeded in liberating Qantara and occupying all enemy stations. The next day witnessed the great tank battle in which our forces took out so many enemy tanks that the Israelis dubbed the day Black Monday. By 9 October the 2nd and 3rd Armies had accomplished their immediate mission and continued to destroy enemy tanks. On that day, too, the 2nd infantry division destroyed the Israeli 190th armoured brigade and captured its commander, while forces from 3rd army succeeded in seizing enemy artillery stations in Oyoun Moussa, from where the enemy had subjected Suez to day and night artillery bombardment before the war."

On 9 October the bridgeheads were united and there began a four-day tactical pause to reorganise, compensate for losses and contemplate the next step. Not that fighting ceased entirely, for Egyptian forces had to contend with numerous enemy counter attacks. Indicative of the tenseness of this period was that between 9 and 13 October Egyptian air forces undertook 2,765 sorties to perform various air support, transport and defence functions.

In spite of these successes, El-Gretli relates, the forces of Sharon and Etan succeeded in driving a breach between the 2nd and 3rd armies, broadening that breach and crossing the canal to the west bank. Israeli forces then seized and attempted to hold Ismailia and Suez, which the Israeli command believed would win them a political victory as well as powerful negotiating cards. Their mission failed. On the one hand they encountered powerful military and popular resistance that kept them embroiled in violent confrontations in these cities. On the other, even before a plan could be put together to close the breach in our forces with minimal losses, international powers intervened to halt the engagement and compel Israeli forces to withdraw again to the other side of the canal.

Although Israeli propaganda had made much of the breach in Egyptian forces, documents and testimony emerging from both Israel and the US this year confirm that Egyptian forces had the capacity to eliminate it. Perhaps the most telling documents were Kissinger's personal testimony and those that contained the results of the studies on this war conducted by the Israeli military establishment, which leads us to a closer examination of the other side of the portrait of 6 October -- the Israeli front.

"THE END OF ALL WARS!": Even as Egypt and Syria were preparing for war Israelis remained smug in their belief that 1967 had been the last Arab-Israeli war. They were certain that their military superiority was absolute and unshakable, that they had no need to enhance their defensive capacities because the Arabs could never mount a successful assault across such difficult natural barriers. June 1967 had also taught them ñ or so they thought ñ that the Arabs must inevitably recoil before Israel's superior artillery forces and its capacity for rapid manoeuverability.

This complacency led Israeli leaders to set certain interim political goals. They would force the Arabs to accept Israel's existence in the region, recognise the state and release restrictions on development, in fulfillment of its expansionist designs. Their aim was also to keep Arab countries and the PLO from regaining their occupied territories by force and from threatening Israeli security until the Arabs could be bent to Israel's will. These objectives coalesced into a five-pronged strategy on the Egyptian front: to raise the level of Israeli armed forces to such a degree of superiority over its adversaries that Egypt would not so much as contemplate an assault; to keep the Suez Canal as Israel's western frontier since that waterway formed an easily defendable barrier; to devise and, if necessary, implement plans for preemptive strikes to contend with any indication of an Egyptian offensive; to maintain control over the straits at Sharm El-Sheikh and secure its naval communications in the Red Sea; and, lastly, to upgrade intelligence and early warning capacities to enable rapid mobilisation and deployment before a potential attack.

Intelligence information has since revealed that between 1967 and 1973 Israel concentrated its efforts on enhancing the combat capacities and primary armament systems of the IDF. Through various military contracts Israel obtained quantities of M-60 tanks and M-113 armoured vehicles, reequipped its 14th artillery battalion with a range of the latest howitzers and other artillery, fitted out its navy with new missile gunships and state-of-the-art radar equipment, and purchased for its air force numerous Phantoms and Sky Hawks, the most advanced fighter aircraft at the time.

Israeli land forces comprised 34 brigades. Its navy had a fleet of 25 ships and its air force possessed 483 warplanes, 50 transport planes and 67 helicopters. Some 65 per cent of these forces were concentrated on the Egyptian front, where their task was to forestall any attempt on the part of Egypt's armed forces to regain occupied territories, to alter the status quo or to threaten Israeli security in any way. In addition to securing occupied territories forces would be expected to mount preemptive actions. At the same time Israeli strategy in the Sinai was governed by several principles. Above all, Israeli military and political leaders were determined to keep mobilisation at a minimum and to engage the minimum volume of forces in the defence of the Sinai during periods of relative calm. This meant limited preemptive or retaliatory strikes, capitalising on the Suez Canal barrier, consolidating and fortifying forward and rear defences and strongholds to enable them to resist prolonged siege, and optimum means for the rapid deployment and manoeuverability of reserves and equipment.

From a military standpoint, the October War established a model for the conduct of a new type of war and for the optimum management of forces and resources. It was also unique for its political projections, all the more so as its results helped lay the foundations for the framework of future negotiations between the Arabs and Israelis.

What precisely did the October war achieve?

Perhaps the most important consequence of the war was that it put paid to the Israeli theory of security. Until October 1973 Israel had been content in the illusion that the Arabs were too backwards and inept to pose a serious threat. Our victory in the October War shattered the illusion and along with it the racist precepts that had denied the Arabs as states, societies and individual rights equal to those of Israel. The collapse of the Israeli theory of security also brought the collapse of the long-touted Israeli myth. This myth held that Israel was a small, peace-loving nation surrounded by a sea of hostile Arabs, that this small nation could never withstand a single defeat unlike the Arabs with their 180 million people and vast tracts of territory, and that this disparity gave Israeli security a special sanctity that other nations had to respect. The corollary to this myth, of course, was the claim that Israel not only had the right to maintain military superiority over its neighbours but also to acquire the capacity to strike in depth and preemptively if need be. It also followed that Israel was entitled to dictate its security needs at the expense of the Arabs' security needs and, moreover, Arab territory. Such is the Israeli sense of right on this issue that Israel is the only nation in the world not to have committed itself to set boundaries, even after having appropriated 33 per cent more of the land of Palestine than was granted it under the UN partition Resolution of 1948. To Israeli leaders, perhaps inspired by the Zionist dream of a Greater Israel, the concept of borders is defined as those areas that Israeli forces can reach, seize and hold.

THE END OF POLARISATION: The Middle East has always been vulnerable to severe polarisation. The phenomenon manifested itself acutely in the Cold War era when many Arab parties were drawn into the Soviet orbit while Israel turned westward and, specifically, to the US, from which it received constant and virtually unlimited moral and material support. In expelling Soviet advisors before the 1973 War the Egyptian leadership brought an end to a situation in which Washington perceived that its interests were exclusively tied to those of Israel.

The October War also established an enduring period of political stability. Until then a new war had erupted on the average of every seven to 10 years. One of the results of the war was to reorder the balances of power in a manner that ensured that all parties would henceforth strive for a means or mechanism to prevent the outbreak of another war. It was this climate that made a peace process possible.

The October War was instrumental in altering notions that had long been entrenched on both sides. It marked the point at which the Arabs began to realise the need to recognise Israel and work to achieve a formula for a lasting peace, and at which the Israelis began to realise the need to work towards peaceful coexistence with the Arabs. These realisations should have engaged both sides in the exploration of ways to establish networks of mutual relationships and interests that would inherently obviate renewed warfare. Unfortunately, not all in Israel were prepared to abandon the outmoded opinions on national security. Epitomising this attitude is the current Israeli prime minister who continues to give greater priority to security than to peace and who remains determined to impose a settlement on his own terms.

In the aftermath of their victory over Israel in October 1973, the Arabs came to accept a new concept of peace and security, one founded upon a voluntary commitment to an equitable peace process to pave the way to normalised relations. One can only hope that the 30th anniversary of this war will remind the Israeli public of the hope for peace that the October 1973 had kindled and that a concept of security founded upon perpetuating an illegal occupation is tragically fragile. How reminiscent is Sharon's Apartheid Wall of the Bar Lev Line, which did not need a nuclear weapon to destroy it, as its designer had imagined, but only ordinary soldiers armed with determination and hoses.

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