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Wednesday, 19 December 2018

'A shield and a sword’: The inside story of Egypt's 1973 victory over Israel

War veterans Mohamed Abbas Mansour and Mahmoud Khalaf, who served in the 1973 October War, tell Ahmed Eleiba about the role played by the artillery corps to liberate Sinai and what is needed to protect Egypt

Ahmed Eleiba , Friday 12 Oct 2018
War veterans
War veterans Mohamed Abbas Mansour (L)and Mahmoud Khalaf, who served in the 1973 October War
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General Mohamed Fawzi, who served as minister of defence after the June 1967 War, wrote in his memoirs: “The War of Attrition [1967-1970] was an urgent necessity for Egypt and the Arabs and its value was demonstrated in the expertise acquired by the leadership, the Office of the Chief-of-Staffs and other agencies which, once they were reorganised on modern scientific bases, began to ready themselves to liberate the territory that had been usurped by force.”

Fawzi’s remarks provide the context for General Chief-of-Staff Mohamed Abbas Mansour’s account of the artillery corps’ preparations for the battle to liberate Sinai. He was a lieutenant colonel at the time, and appointed as an artillery commander in 1973.

Firm in his conviction the Egyptian army had already begun to destroy the myth of Israeli invincibility during the preparation phase, he relates: “On 8 September 1968, president [Gamal] Abdel-Nasser instructed then artillery commander Major General Abdel-Tawwab Hadeeb to rebuild the morale of the army and Egyptian people. On that day artillery forces opened fire against the enemy. We were left wondering how so many artillery battalions could have been assembled given we returned from the 1967 War almost without weapons.”

It was a question Mansour later put to Brigadier Mohamed Said Al-Mahi, the commander of the artillery forces in the October War who, after an artillery drill, president Anwar Al-Sadat nicknamed the Fearsome Silent One.

Al-Mahi told Mansour that preparations had begun with a radical reorganisation, rearmament and the creation of new units. Gruelling training sessions were held for the joint forces which had begun to rebuild their ranks west of the Suez Canal in the immediate aftermath of June 1967.

General Mansour says this stage provided essential preparation for the eventual victory and he was very fortunate “to have had the opportunity to participate with Brigadier Abu Ghazala [Mohamed Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazala, later field marshal and defence minister] in the planning, especially for the preparatory artillery fire.”

The army performed with consummate professionalism in the October War, says Mansour. He has numerous anecdotes of the courage and valour of individual soldiers in the army which defeated Israel in 1973, avenging the tripartite invasion of 1956 and the defeat in June 1967.

Yet rather than draw comparisons with those two earlier wars, he uses as a precedent the Second Battle of Alamein in which General Montgomery led the Allied forces to victory in the North African theatre.

1973 October War

“Montgomery’s preparatory fire — a powerful artillery strike to weaken the enemy before the start of an offensive operation — lasted 35 minutes. Ours, in the October war, lasted 53 minutes,” he says.

The war to liberate Sinai began on 6 October 1973 at 14.00 with an aerial strike. “This was the first time since I had graduated from the military academy in 1956 that I saw Egyptian fighter planes over the Suez Canal and the Bitter Lake.

The artillery, which provided the ground force’s main fire power, opened the offensive 20 minutes later and the navy moved in along north Sinai’s coast.”

“We used some artillery fire as a decoy. There were four rounds. The first, lasting for 15 minutes, targeted the Israeli front, the Bar Lev Line, and then struck deeper at enemy artillery, command and control centres and radar stations. The second round lasted 22 minutes and the third was divided into two rounds of five minutes with a six-minute interval.”

Before the war the Russians had predicted Egyptian forces would sustain 70 per cent losses if they attempted to cross the Suez Canal.

But nothing of that sort occurred: “Each hero of the crossing had his mind on his target, be it a tank, an observation post or a breach in the Bar Lev Line. The artillery fire was sustained for 22 minutes, firing 175 rounds a second.”

When dealing with fast moving targets, artillery needs to fire ahead of the target. General Mansour recalls that “an enemy tank brigade was coming from the Qantara zone, so we advanced a kilometre.”

“According to the calculations it was moving at 20km an hour. We hit the mark, as was confirmed by the operations centre, but it turned out that the tank commander had better judgement. The enemy tanks were moving at 30km an hour, not 20km as we had thought.”

Among the countless heroes of the artillery corps during the October War Mansour singles out Mohamed Abdel-Ati — “the most famous tank hunter in the world” — and the members of artillery division 16 which destroyed a total of 72 enemy tanks.

There were, of course, painful moments. On 16 October, as Israeli forces moved into the breach a young captain was killed. The person who reported the news to Mansour did not know that the victim was a relative of his.

The Egyptian artillery corps has come a long way since those days thanks to the introduction of modern armament systems and systematic upgrading which Mansour says was instigated by his classmate at the Higher Nasser Military Academy, Minister of Defence Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. The modernisation process is ongoing, and has been accelerated in terms of pace and quality.

“Don’t fear for Egypt,” says Mansour, “for it has a shield and a sword.”

President Anwar Al-Sadat’s words before the People’s Assembly on Tuesday, 16 October 1973, continue to ring in the minds of the members of the October War generation.

“I pledged to God and I pledged to you that our generation would not pass on our flags to the next generation at half-mast or degraded. We will hand over our banners raised high, on august masts. They may be drenched with blood, but we will have held our vows aloft even as our brows bled and the pain seared.”

General Mahmoud Khalaf, military advisor at the Higher Nasser Military Academy, who served as a commando in the war, took inspiration from Sadat’s speech as he began to recount his battle memories.

“I speak from my heart as a victor who had tasted defeat, as a victor who can speak with confidence, as a man whose generation shouldered the responsibility at an early age, at the outset of the third decade of our lives, at the age of 20 or 21. I see nothing in Egypt today that is cause for fear. I speak from my heart to that generation that has the future before it and must assume responsibility,” he said.

Graduating from the Military Academy in 1964, General Khalaf took part in the war in Yemen, in the June 1967 War, in the War of Attrition (1967-1970) and the victorious war of October 1973.

The defeat of 5 June 1967 delivered a bitter blow to a generation that suddenly found itself on the western bank of the Suez Canal staring despondently at the flag of the Israeli enemy planted on the opposite bank.

“We had a long way ahead of us,” General Khalaf recalls. “But it was the spirit of defiance and resolve, self-confidence and will and grit that changed the course of history and forged the victory. Defeat was not the end of the road. It was the beginning of the War of Attrition which became the school in which we learned how to manufacture victory. We taught the enemy a lesson he would never forget.”

Linking the past with the present, Khalaf lauds the quantum leap forward the army has achieved through its comprehensive modernisation programme which means that a catastrophe such as that which occurred in 1967 can never happen again.

“The Egyptian Armed Forces are at the forefront of the armies in the Middle East and one of the strongest armies in the world,” he says proudly.

But do foreign territorial ambitions in Sinai still pose a threat?

“Egypt is a major power. We’d break the hands and legs of anyone who so much as thinks of approaching our borders, even in their dreams. With our military strength we are a cornerstone in the region. Were it not for Egypt everything around us would have been lost. Libya would have been lost, and other countries too. Our long reach protects the country and safeguards international shipping, ensuring maritime routes remain open.”

General Khalaf lists “five commandments” which the generation that crossed the Suez Canal during the October War have handed to a younger generation, that of the second crossing who are engaged in development and progress.

The first commandment, he says, is knowledge, because “ignorance remains the road to defeat”.

The second is hard work to ensure Egypt remains strong. “Egypt’s strength resides in the men of its Armed Forces and the labour of its honourable people,” he says.

The third commandment is a national media that is patriotic and exercises responsibility. The media shouldered its responsibilities during the War of Attrition and the October War but is now side-tracked by marginal issues, he says.

The fourth commandment is to succeed in other domains. “Just as we won the October War, we need to succeed in the economy, politics and sports.”

The fifth commandment is to exercise caution when it comes to social networking sites which Khalaf describes as “extremely dangerous” platforms for rumours and are a tool of unconventional warfare.

“Rumours destroy morale and spread despair. Sometimes I see the terrorist group [Muslim Brotherhood] using false words and images on social networking sites to infiltrate society and spread despair.”

“Does it make sense for us to have extended pontoon bridges across the Suez and broken through the Bar Lev Line in six hours yet still have all the problems we see today in Egypt,” he asks rhetorically.

1973 October War

“A lot of people talk without knowledge or awareness. Only a few act. Most just talk, criticise and complain.”

In Khalaf’s opinion the Israeli enemy is easier than the enemy at home which “uses lies, deceit and negligence”.

General Khalaf served in Sinai for most of his military career, from the time he graduated as a lieutenant and joined the commandos until he became a general. He regards serving in Sinai as a great honour and is pleased with the development process the peninsula is now experiencing.

Attending the opening ceremony of the new Suez Canal in Ismailia, Khalaf says he felt as though it were a second crossing.

“I once fought in that area. Today, I see a new generation of young people crossing the Suez Canal in units carrying the Egyptian flag in the battle for development. A new Bar Lev Line is being crossed.”

National solidarity was instrumental in raising the morale of Egyptian troops in the 1970s as they fought to win back Sinai and national dignity.

“The Egyptian people bore considerable hardships for the sake of this goal. Women stood in long queues for hours to obtain basic goods. The Egyptian people didn’t complain about difficult circumstances. They rallied around their leadership. Everyone wanted to get the land back, it wasn’t just a slogan.”

Ultimately the enemy admitted defeat. General Khalaf recalls that the Egyptian Ministry of Culture translated documents from Agranat Commission which conducted around 200 hearings with military leaders in Israel.

Israel has since circulated reports to cast doubt on Egypt’s success, including leaked admissions by Ashraf Marwan, son-in-law of Gamal Abdel-Nasser and a close associate of Sadat. Khalaf scoffs at such propaganda.

“How can I believe for a second that they knew when the war was going to start, which they now claim, but took no action? They could only have behaved that way if they were traitors. The Avraham Mandler artillery brigade, with 200 tanks, was stationed north of Ismailia. They had radars. If they had advance intelligence, as they claim, why didn’t they act?”

Khalaf also recalls that on 6 October 1973 Israeli Chief of Military Intelligence Major General Eliyahu Zeira held a press conference during which he dismissed rumours of troops amassing on the Egyptian front as nonsense.

“They fell into a state of depression because of that war. Look at Moshe Dayan, Israeli defence minister at the time, before and after the war. Before, he swaggered, afterwards he had his tail between his legs. I saw what happened with my own eyes after our aerial strike, our artillery strike and during the crossing. Israeli soldiers were in their tanks in their underwear. They were caught unprepared. No one had expected anything. If they had information even five minutes beforehand they would have taken some action. In the end, they were defeated. There can be no other conclusion.”

Turning to the current war against terrorism, Khalaf says: “It’s a difficult war but in the end we are not afraid and we will win.

Conventional warfare follows a known pattern. Armies meet. You see the enemy with your own eyes. Unconventional warfare has brought the enemy into our midst.

This enemy is characterised by treachery and betrayal. His aim is to spread terror. But we are not intimidated, nor are we afraid.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: ‘A shield and a sword’  and ‘Five commandments’

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