In our pocket
Below, some of the commanders and men of the October War recall the heady days of heroism and sacrifice, as well as the expert planning and plain dedicated hard work, without which October '73 would have been impossible
The late Lt. Gen. [retr'd] Saad Maamoun fought in the 1948, 1956 and 1967 wars. At the beginning of the October War he was commander of the 2nd field army, and later commander of the forces charged with destroying the Israeli wedge west of the canal. He subsequently served as minister of local government and governor of Cairo.
After the Egyptian forces had penetrated the Bar Lev line and occupied its fortifications, the Israelis mounted a powerful counterattack in an attempt to stop our assault and restore the status quo ante. In this they totally failed, suffering in the process severe losses.
Within a few days of the crossing, Egyptian forces had managed to push their bridgeheads 10-12 kilometres east of the canal and, by 11 October, had heavily mined our forward line. They did not try to advance with large numbers of mechanised and armoured forces beyond the air defence network.
But on 13 October, the General Command decided to expand the assault eastward in order to draw off Israeli pressure on the Syrian front. Orders were therefore given on the morning of 14 October. The Israelis had organised an anti-tank missile wall and assembled large numbers of tanks and mechanised infantry. When the tanks and mechanised infantry engaged, great losses were incurred on both sides.
As a result of the Egyptian offensive eastward, the Israelis sought to exploit the gap between the 2nd and 3rd armies at El-Devresoir -- a gap which they had discovered from photos provided by a US reconnaissance satellite -- in order to drive a wedge between the Egyptian forces, cross the canal and take up positions behind our lines. Their aim was to force us to halt our advance and turn back westwards in order to confront them.
On the night of 15 October, a small group of Israeli armoured forces did indeed succeed in crossing the canal. Because the Egyptian command did not react in force, the Israelis were able to go on and fortify their positions in certain areas. Then they began to draw large numbers of their armoured and mechanised forces away from the other fronts and gradually bring them through the breach to take up positions behind Egyptian lines. Eventually, they assembled the equivalent of three armoured divisions, the bulk of them on the western side of the canal under the command of General Ariel Sharon.
Egypt then launched a number of limited counterattacks against the Israeli forces to the west and succeeded in stopping their advance towards Ismailia. The Israeli forces then turned south towards Suez, but were unable to occupy that city due to its fierce resistance. When information became available on the size and disposition of Israeli forces west of the canal, President Sadat appointed me to command the Egyptian forces in this area, with instructions to destroy the enemy beachhead on the western bank.
During the period of 23 to 28 October, the Israeli forces, under cover of a ceasefire, continued to push south and north. Though unable to take Suez, they surrounded the city and cut it off from the third army to the rear. Before noon on 28 October, an actual ceasefire came into effect, but only after Israel had already substantially broadened the beachhead.
In light of the new strategic situation, the Egyptian military command issued instructions, firstly, to get an update on the capacities of the Egyptian forces at the bridgeheads to the east of the canal and, secondly, to move in forces and equipment, some of which came from other Arab countries, in order to contain the enemy in their positions to the west of the canal and establish defences which would prevent them from advancing further in any direction.
The Egyptian General Command also decided that if there was one thing they could do, it was to make life hell for the Israeli soldiers who were now almost trapped in the pocket they had secured to the west of the canal. This we did. We did not give them a moment's respite, as a result of which some people dubbed this phase of the war "the second war of attrition". Indeed, our objectives in this phase were to inflict the greatest number of losses possible on their forces, to harry them continually from all sides and force them to mobilise additional reserves, thus placing strain on their economy and paralysing life inside Israel. We also meant to prevent the Israeli forces from further improving and fortifying their positions to the east and west of the canal.
During this period there were approximately 1,500 combat engagements, including 439 operations that were publicised. The engagements resulted in the destruction of 11 Israeli planes, 41 tanks and armoured vehicles, 10 heavy machine guns and 36 bulldozers along with large quantities of engineering equipment. We also severely damaged an Israeli oil tanker and sank a naval landing craft. These engagements claimed the lives of 187 Israeli soldiers and hundreds more were wounded.
On 24 December 1973, the situation to the west of the canal stood as follows. The Israelis had three armoured divisions consisting of seven armoured brigades, a paratroopers brigade and a brigade of mechanised infantry. Egypt had two armoured divisions, three mechanised infantry divisions, commando and paratrooper units, as well as specialised forces from the General-Command who were standing ready to engage in order to eliminate the Israeli pocket. In other words, the Egyptian forces had a two-to-one advantage over the Israeli forces. In addition, Egyptian forces had constructed anti-tank trenches along most of the line of confrontation. The trenches were six metres wide and protected to the front by some 750,000 mines. While the morale of Israeli forces in the pocket was very low, our morale was very high and we felt secure in the fact that we had the protection of our air defence network, while the bridgeheads that had been established by our third army to the east of the canal were holding strong.
As a result of this situation, the Israeli forces to the west of the canal were forced to go on the defensive and never took the initiative in opening fire. Not only had they failed to occupy any major Egyptian city along the canal, but the pocket was almost entirely cut off from Israeli bases, with the exception of a narrow 10-kilometre wide passage which our forces surrounded on both sides and could easily sever whenever they wished. In order to keep hold of that pocket, Israel had to maintain a much higher level of mobilisation for a much longer period than its military strategists would have liked. That so much administrative effort, too, had to be allocated to this task also contributed to bringing life in Israel to a standstill.
Clearly, the only reason for maintaining the pocket to the west of the canal was for propaganda purposes, as it could never have posed a military threat to either the Delta or Cairo.
Meanwhile, we had drawn up a plan that, if implemented, would have entirely eliminated the Israeli pocket. In doing so, we had taken care to optimise the forces allocated for the task, and specialised units had undergone intensive training exercises geared towards the missions they would be assigned to accomplish. According to the plan, Egyptian forces were to attack the Israeli pocket from five directions, with the primary objective of first cutting off its links to Israeli bases in the Sinai and then dividing and dispersing the energies of the forces inside the pocket so as to enable us to pick them off bit by bit.
Although the General Command had approved the plan on 18 December 1973, the diplomatic initiative which had been commandeered by US secretary of state and national security adviser Henry Kissinger was also still in progress. Kissinger had told President Sadat that the US was aware of the Egyptian plan to destroy the Israeli pocket and that he knew that we were capable of succeeding. However, he threatened that if we went ahead with the plan the US would intervene on behalf of Israel.
At 9pm on 17 January 1974, the disengagement agreement between Israel and Egypt was announced. The treaty came into effect as of noon on 25 January, at which point Israel began to withdraw its forces from the areas stipulated. The subsequent disengagement of forces proceeded according to the specified timetable until the political leaders on both sides ordered the situation to be frozen.
By Interviewed by Galal Nassar