Fifty years on: The realities of the October War — IV

Khaled Okasha , Tuesday 10 Oct 2023

Khaled Okasha continues his account of the 1973 October War as seen through the Israeli military documents of the time

Fifty years on: The realities of the October War   IV
Fifty years on: The realities of the October War IV


A full translation of the text of the consultation session held in the Israeli prime minister’s office on 7 October 1973 at 2:55pm is included in the first part of the Israeli book “The October Victory in Israeli Documents.” The document is classified as “top secret,” and the meeting was attended by prime minister Golda Meir, her deputy Yigal Allon, cabinet minister Israel Galili, and defence minister Moshe Dayan, among others.

From the context of the session, it appears to have been dedicated to listening to the defence minister’s assessment of the situation after the first 24 hours of the war. Especially noteworthy was his report on visiting the northern front (the Golan Heights) and returning from the southern front (the Sinai Peninsula).

Dayan’s statement included a proposal: to establish a defensive line at the Mamlah Passage. On the southern front, Israel should abandon the Suez Canal and hold positions about 30 km away, he said. He proposed issuing orders to evacuate positions that Israel had no hope of holding. Those positions that could not be evacuated should be used to house the wounded, and if they decided to surrender, they should be allowed to do so, he said.

They should be informed that they could not be reached, and they should either break the siege or surrender. There were about four or five positions like this, Dayan said, and there were hundreds of Egyptian tanks on the east bank of the canal. Any attempt to reach these positions would be like walking into a tank-crushing zone, he said, and as a result Israel should abandon the canal line and withdraw to the Mamlah Passage.

The war would continue, Dayan said, and while the Mamlah line had advantages, it also had drawbacks. Regarding the balance of power, he said that it was not the right time for self-assessment. He said he had not assessed the enemy’s strength and fighting capabilities, though he praised the Israeli forces and their ability to withstand attacks. There were problems related to a severe imbalance in power, with the enemy fighting well and having a good missile umbrella.

After this meeting, ending around 4:30pm, those present reconvened later on the same day just minutes before midnight at 11:50pm. Another highly classified document emerged from this meeting, which this time was joined by Israeli cabinet ministers Pinhas Sapir and Yitzhak Rabin. The document says that the discussion occurred after Rabin’s return from a visit to the southern front accompanied by the military chief of staff.

“We met with all the leaders of the military divisions in Um Hashiba,” Rabin’s statement to the meeting reads. “There are three divisions: the Northern Division – Biran; the Southern Division – Albert; and the Central Division – Eric. Albert’s division suffered many losses. I won’t specify the numbers, but around 150 tanks were lost in the mud, as they were unable to reach them.”

“According to estimates, our strength until tomorrow morning will amount to 650 tanks. Regarding casualties and wounded, the situation is complex; there are 400 injured and 80 dead. The situation is as follows: Egyptian infantry forces have crossed the canal and advanced. Most of our tank losses were not due to tank fire, but rather infantry fire and anti-tank missiles.”

“According to today’s estimates, at least 350 tanks have crossed the canal, and the number is likely to approach 500.”

 The fifth chapter of the Israeli book “The Shortcoming” provides numerous details about the events along the southern front (Sinai) at the same time during the first days of the war on 7 and 8 October. Called “Fortress of Stone,” this chapter says that the Egyptian forces advanced through the 10 km gap between each fortification on the canal, assuming that they would fall into their hands like ripe fruit.

In the hours before evening on 7 October, signs of this dire possibility also appeared to the top leadership of the Israeli army. Advanced wireless devices made available at the supreme command headquarters for all the attendees allowed those present to hear what was happening in the fortifications that were still connected to the communications network.

During the night, General Samuel Gonen, commander of the Southern Region, arrived at his frontline position in Sinai, and General Albert Mandler also hurried towards the frontline of the Israeli armoured forces in Sinai. The situation that emerged on the maps in those hours indicated that about a hundred tanks were engaged in combat along the frontlines in a desperate attempt to rescue those trapped in the fortifications.

The final decision regarding the fate of these was not made until the afternoon of 7 October, when the commanders of the two reserve divisions, Ariel Sharon and Abraham Adan, took up their positions. Sharon proposed sending out a formation of 100 tanks from his division to create a breach in the Egyptian encirclement and rescue those besieged within, while Adan ordered the fighters in the fortifications sector to attempt to rescue themselves.

Dayan, also present at the command headquarters, then suggested that there was no alternative to abandoning the soldiers in the fortifications on the canal. Let those who can escape do so, he said, and let the rest, including the wounded, stay in the fortifications. Many considered this decision to be contrary to the principles of the Israeli army, but there was no other choice.

The same chapter of “The Shortcoming” contains testimony from an Israeli soldier in the southern sector, who said that the tanks sent to the fortifications were preoccupied with saving themselves. Some of them had been set on fire, and others had been hit, he said. The price of trying to rescue the soldiers would be extremely high, and the number of losses was terrifying.

There were many casualties, and no one could estimate their number, he said. Some soldiers had been burned to death inside their tanks, while others had been lost in the desert, encountering Egyptian troops with whom they had clashed or had been taken prisoner.

* The writer is director of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies (ECSS).
* A version of this article appears in print in the 12 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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