Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
8 - 14 October 1998
Issue No.398
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

The crossing of the Suez Canal

Dambusters on the Bar Lev Line

Interviewed by Galal Nassar

Maj. Gen. [retr'd] Gamal Mohamed Ali fought in the 1948, 1956 and 1967 wars and was commander of the military engineers corps before and during the October War.

The crossing of the Suez Canal -- the largest water barrier ever traversed in the history of warfare -- could not have been completed successfully without overcoming another barrier on the eastern bank. This was the enormous fortified artificial sand barrier that extended along the Bar Lev line.

This barrier ranged from eight to 20 meters in height and was eight to 10 meters deep. The barrier was equipped with tank and direct fire positions and interspersed with fortified positions at approximately four kilometer intervals along its entire length from Port Tawfiq to East Qantara. It was made of a highly compact mixture of sand and mud.

The sand barrier was one of the greatest challenges before the Egyptian command and military planners. We would have to create breaches in order to allow for the passage of forces and military equipment, without which we would not be able to mount a successful penetration of the other side. So formidable was it that Moshe Dayan, former Israeli minister of defence, said, "It would take the American and Soviet engineer corps, together, to break through the Bar Lev line." Soviet experts at the time said that what was needed was an atom bomb.

We conducted numerous experiments in order to determine the best way to overcome the barrier at a site on the Damietta branch of the Nile. First we tried explosives, which were ineffective. Then we tried artillery and mortar fire, to no avail. Mechanical equipment was too slow and clumsy. It was at this point that we thought of water guns. Many of our officers had participated in the construction of the High Dam where they helped transport five million cubic metres of sand using enormous hydraulic pumps that could suck up 50 square meters of Nile water per hour, directing it in a powerful stream onto mountains of sand which quickly turned into a very liquid mud that could then be piped into sedimentation beds. It was this same technology that we would bring to bear on the sand barrier at the Bar Lev line.

We conducted our first experiment with water guns at the Wardan Canal near Qanater. It was a great success, but the equipment we had brought up from the High Dam was too bulky. We therefore purchased several 100 horse power turbine pumps weighing 205 kg each from a German company. These we fitted out with hoses and placed them in 1.5 ton capacity boats.

Within five hours of the beginning of the crossing, we were able to break through the barrier in the area of the second army. The process had taken somewhat longer in the area of the third army because of the densely compact consistency of the barrier at that point. At all events, our second and third armies were able to move through the barrier with their heavy equipment at virtually the same time, which threw the enemy off because they had no idea how to direct a counterattack against the enormous onslaught of Egyptian forces.