They shared recollections that testify to selflessness, courage, and faith in the ability of the Egyptian army to reverse the defeat of 1967.
On the 50th anniversary of the glorious Crossing, the Weekly republishes excerpts from these testimonies.
The engineer behind it all
A peaceful and jovial man is the first impression visitors have of Baki Zaki Youssef, a retired military engineer whose name is forever associated with one of Egypt’s moments of glory: the fall of the Israeli Bar Lev Line defences on the first day of the 6 October 1973 War.
Youssef dedicated the best years of his life to two of this nation’s most significant events: the construction of Aswan’s High Dam in the 1960s and the liberation of Sinai in the 1973 War with Israel.
It was his years working as an engineer using powerful jets of water to remove blocks of sand during the construction of the dam that inspired his genius, explosive-free and cost-effective plan to use water to break the invincible “Bar Lev Line” sand wall.
The 100km fortification was built by Israel on the Eastern side of the Suez Canal after the 1967 war and prevented Egyptian tanks from entering Israeli-occupied Sinai for six years.
“I remember when I first mentioned the idea at a meeting which I was attending with my head of division in 1968. Those sitting in the meeting looked at me with a great deal of surprise but eventually listened as I outlined the technical details behind my plan,” Youssef continues, “then the suggestion was put to the army’s top commanders before it went to Nasser who decided to turn the idea into practice. The army was trained to execute it on 6 October 1973 finally.”
For this modest man it was clearly the way he proffered his idea that made the commanders sit up and listen, however, Youssef maintains “it was the vision that Nasser had that prompted the army to work on this otherwise too simple plan.”
“This is what I mean when I say that leaders have to have a vision,” he continues, “I don’t mean that they need to come up with ideas to solve all the problems themselves but they need to have the imagination to see a good idea and to make the best out of it.”
Nasser had his shortcomings, admits Youssef but hastens to add that “he was a great leader for a great country like Egypt and all this nonsense about the public support for him after the 1967 defeat being fictitious is not true at all.”
Youssef also believes that Nasser’s successor the late Anwar Al-Sadat was “different than Nasser for sure but a leader in his own way.”
The plan for the October War, Youssef says, was almost complete when Nasser passed away in 1971: “Most of the training had been completed too but still it took leadership to take the decision to go to war.”
Later, Youssef adds, it took further vision and “courage to pursue peace and allow for the full liberation of our territories through negotiations after having gone through war.”
Youssef passed away in 2018.
Dambusters on the Bar Lev Line
The late Major General 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 demolishing the enormous fortified artificial sand barrier that extended along the Bar Lev Line.
This barrier ranged from eight to 20 metres in height and was eight to 10 metres deep. The barrier was equipped with tank and direct fire positions and interspersed with fortified positions at approximately four kilometre intervals along its entire length from Port Tawfik 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 metres 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 205kg each from a German company. These we fitted out with hoses and placed them in 1.5 tonne 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.
‘I was just an Egyptian soldier’
He has numerous medals to testify to his heroism during Egypt’s War of Attrition and October War; he has handwritten notes and letters from the nation’s most prominent ministers of defence; he has photos with fellow soldiers, both those who survived and those who fell; and, above all, he has memories — both joyous and painful — that make him and his wife Nagat smile and cry.
Magdi Bishara, a retired army officer, is indeed one of the heroes of Egypt whose names are not often, if at all, celebrated.
Bishara’s name is most associated in the history of Egypt’s military with the ‘Battle of the Green Island’ — an Island situated in the middle of the Suez Gulf that was left under Egyptian control after Israel had occupied the Sinai Peninsula during the 1967 defeat.
On that day in July 1969, at the head of a small and humbly-armed force, Bishara — an air-defence fighter by training — managed to wage a tough and costly battle with much better equipped Israeli soldiers and ultimately save the small island from occupation.
“It was hard; it was tough; I saw brave and determined soldiers fall as martyrs, but we managed to do it,” Bishara recalled.
Bishara’s recollections of the battle are many: the fearless men who wanted to go into battle even though they knew their chances of survival were close to zero; the civil volunteers who took the soldiers in small boats across the Suez Canal; the selflessness of soldiers who were willing to die; and the pain that Bishara felt — and still feels — when Abdel-Hamid was so badly injured he almost died; and the wounded man whose arm had to be amputated by Bishara himself.
Indeed, tears came to Bishara’s eyes when he remembered how, in the middle of operations, he demanded that the Island be bombarded from the Egyptian side to flush out Israeli troops — even if a huge cost was paid in the lives of Egyptian soldiers. He did this knowing that the bombardment would inevitably come from a unit in which his own brother Wassef — “who had known that I was taking part in the island operation” — was serving.
“I knew something that very few people knew: that we had an excellent hiding place that was built on this island by the British Army during World War II, and that I had no choice but to ask for this bombardment since I knew the Israelis would retreat,” he recalled. “I knew that if I was killed it would have been very hard for Wassef, but I had no choice — when you’re a soldier you don’t think of anything except of the call of duty”.
After all, this was not the first time the Bisharas had been engaged against one another during the war. Also during the War of Attrition, Magdi Bishara nearly killed another brother, Kamal Bishara, a jet fighter, whose plane was mistaken for an Israeli jet as it tried to land at a military base after sunset.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes when the plane finally landed and he came out and waved at me,” Bishara recalls.
Bishara, who in 1956 joined volunteer fighters at the age of 14 to chase out the soldiers of the tripartite aggression in his city of Port Said, joined Egypt’s Military Academy a few years later and was there through both the good days and the bad.
He survived the bitterness of the 1967 defeat — for which he blames Field Marshal Abdel-Hakim Amer far more than Nasser — and experienced the joy the October War. Throughout his sojourn in the Egyptian Armed Forces, Bishara never felt that he was a Coptic-Christian as opposed to an Egyptian — a sentiment that he continues to feel.
“I just saw myself as a soldier — an Egyptian soldier and that was all,” he said.
Bishara passed away in 2019.
Victory or death
6 October was not the first time Egyptian forces had crossed the Canal. Brigadier General Youssri Emara’s platoon had run raids across the canal and into the Sinai on several occasions, capturing a number of enemy soldiers in the process.
On 6 October, the General recalls, “Cries of ‘God is Great’ thundered in the air. Colonel Hamdi Al-Hadidi, who was brigade commander at the time, had crossed the canal to bring back the rubber boats in order to take another wave of soldiers to the other side. I will never forget the scene of hundreds of soldiers rushing to jump into the boats and move forward as the engineers, knee-deep in mud and water, pummelled the sand barrier with their hydraulic guns. I saw the first Egyptian flag lifted over the Sinai as the troops, their morale growing with every moment, chanted Quranic verses inspiring our forces to advance to victory or to die.”
On the third day of the war, the enemy had begun to move in its strategic reserves. Brigadier General Emara continues, “we continued to press forward, destroying all enemy tanks, artillery and soldiers that came in our way.
At the same time, the fourth brigade which was advancing parallel to us, had managed to demolish the enemy at Tibbet Al-Shagara. We received orders to turn east and, as we advanced, I began to count the enemy losses on the road from where I was sitting on the camouflage net on the Jeep. Suddenly, I heard gun fire and felt a bullet tear through my left hand. I looked and saw a group of enemy soldiers, led by the man who shot me. We opened fire on them and rushed to attack. Soon, four enemy officers emerged to announce their surrender.
Letters from a soldier
Abdel-Aal Ayyash, a soldier during the October War, talks about letters, photographs, and magazine pages he kept from his days at the front.
“If days were to wrench us apart, memories will always be our bond,” wrote one soldier to another during the War of Attrition that came after the 1967 military defeat and before the 1973 October Crossing of the Suez Canal.
They appear in a letter sent from the front from Ahmed Abbas, a soldier, to Abdel-Aal Ayyash, another soldier, who was on leave in his village near Sohag in Upper Egypt.
“It was not typical of soldiers to write letters to one another, but I was close to the members of my unit because I helped them to write letters to their families while we were at the front,” Ayyash, now an old man, said in an interview he gave to mark the anniversary of the October War.
Ayyash still lives in Sohag, and in his house he keeps souvenirs from his days at the front.
“They are just a few souvenirs in memory of those days. Some were sent to me when I got a few days leave every few months, and some I brought back home with me, including the picture of soldiers from my unit,” Ayyash said.
For Ayyash, it is “in memory of the war and of the men who fought and died at the front” that he keeps these photographs and letters and also copies of a magazine that was distributed to soldiers between the death of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser 51 years ago and the day of the Crossing of the Canal three years later.
“I am not in touch with anyone who was on the front with me today. I don’t know who is alive and who is not. I don’t even recall any specific names. The war was about everyone really. We were not individuals. We were soldiers in the war,” Ayyash said.
It was in 1972 that Ayyash started his military service, almost 18 months before the crossing. His military service continued until the end of 1976. During these years, he sent many letters home to his family.
“I would send them a letter once every two weeks or so. They were very brief — I would just tell them I was alright and send my greetings to members of the family,” Ayyash said. He added that in the letters he would never mention anything about other soldiers or anything relating to the front. “Never — not a word,” he said.
Ayyash used to ask his family to tear up the letters or to burn them once they had read them. He feared they could end up in the wrong hands if not. Even though he would never mention any news from the front, he still feared that they could offer some indications.
He knows that other soldiers did the same, and he has no regrets that all his letters were destroyed. “It was the war that counted. It was all about the war,” he said.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 5 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly