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

Field Marshal Ahmed Ismail Field Marshal Ahmed ismail, defence minister and general commander of the armed forces at the time of the October war, inspecting the front on the eve of hostilities

Building a wall of missiles

By Abdel-Malek Khalil

We sat around our cups of red tea, warming ourselves against the chill of Moscow's autumn. Field Marshal Alexei Smirnov, former assistant commander of the Soviet Missile Forces and Air Defence, and Brig. Gen. Constantine Popov, former commander of the Missile Battalion and head of the Association of Veteran Fighters in Egypt, had agreed to meet me to discuss the role they played in Egypt -- a role which, though previously unknown, was instrumental in shaping history.

"It was December 1969 when Field Marshal Patetsky, commander of the Soviet Missile Forces at the time, chose me to accompany him and a group of specialists to Egypt," began Smirnov. On their arrival, no less a personage than President Gamal Abdel-Nasser came to meet them. "At the time, Israel was conducting continuous air raids against Egypt. The country's defence system had been seriously weakened by the Six Day War. Israel was aiming to destroy the majority of Egypt's airports so as to deny Egyptian fighter pilots the opportunity of defending their country," explained Smirnov. Hence the mission they were assigned was to protect the Egyptian skies. Immediately after his return to Moscow, Smirnov set about choosing the men who would join him in Egypt to undertake the construction of a "missile wall".

"Our mission was, of course, undertaken on the orders of the Soviet government and the political bureau of the Soviet Communist Party, in execution of the agreement between us and the Egyptian leadership. On our return to Egypt, we began to implement the plan; our only form of communication with Egyptian soldiers was sign language; there were no translators available." Despite this handicap, the communication was fruitful. "I don't remember that I ever argued with an Egyptian soldier; we worked in total cooperation and great friendship and that is why we still today have great friends in Egypt," added Popov.

As a result, a protective shield was put in place that covered Egypt from Marsa Matrouh through Alexandria all the way down to Aswan. Egyptian troops and military sites in Ismailia were also given particular consideration.

"We knew that Israel had Phantom, Skyhawk and Mirage warplanes and hence we focused on preparing Egyptian fighters to confront these types of aircraft. We also requested missiles which were able to track a plane at altitudes as low as 25 metres -- a capability the Israelis did not expect," he recalled. Some 300 missiles were soon in place ready to bring down enemy warplanes 24 hours a day.

Paradoxically, the first plane brought down by the newly installed system was a Soviet fighter plane piloted by two Egyptians. "The pilots did not give the necessary signals and so we shot them down. We wanted to reprimand the Soviet officer [who fired the missile], but the Egyptians said, 'No, it was the pilot's mistake'," Smirnov recalled.

The system scored a major success on 30 June 1970 when the first Israeli Phantom plane was brought down, followed by another five on 3 August. It was Popov who was responsible for this feat which earned him the highest military medal -- "Hero of the Soviet Union".

Popov pointed out, however, that for 20 years this episode remained a military secret. "We were not allowed to talk about our presence or work in Egypt," explained Popov. "How the world has changed!"

According to the military agreement at the time, both Smirnov and Popov worked in Egypt wearing Egyptian uniform but without rank. "They [the Egyptians] gave us uniforms which shrank with every wash. I had a pair of pants that was about to turn into a pair of shorts!" said Smirnov. They worked in difficult conditions. "The temperature would reach 70 degrees C and it would be impossible for us to touch the metal as it would burn us immediately. There was dust which looked like snow but was as hot as fire," he remembered, adding, "Once, one of our officers was completely covered in dust and I could not tell who he was. Only when he smiled, there was a line of white teeth. Yet he said to me: 'The weather today is a lot better than yesterday!'"

Eight Soviet soldiers died on 18 July 1970 and 4 pilots and a brigadier-general, recounted Smirnov.

He pointed out, however, that as a result of the success of the missile wall, Israel noticeably decreased its air raids and limited itself to high altitude flights.

Smirnov concluded, "I never forgot Abdel-Nasser's words to us in 1969. He said: 'Do not forget you are defending the skies of Cairo, Alexandria and the whole of Egypt'. I would remember these words whenever Israel bombed a city, school or village. That's why we did our best to defend the military positions, factories, urban centres and the people of Egypt."

Both expressed great admiration for the success achieved by the Egyptian forces in 1973, after they had left Egypt. "The Egyptian army is modern and courageous and the 6 October War is a glorious one for sure," said Popov.