40 Years Since the Yom Kippur War #1: The First Strike

40 years ago, during Yom Kippur, Israel faced one of the biggest challenges of its history. On October 6, hundreds of thousands of troops, thousands of tanks and fighter jets attacked simultaneously, surprising Israel at its northern and southern frontiers. Syria and Egypt were determined to get back what they had lost during the Six Day War. For the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, follow our series and learn about the major milestones of the conflict.

The historical context

After the Six Day War in 1967, Israel gained new territories and therefore faced new challenges. The IDF had to guard the Sinai border along the Suez Canal, where it installed numerous posts on what was called the Bar-Lev line. The Golan Heights was also new territory for the IDF to defend.

After they were swiftly defeated in the Six Day War, the Arab countries surrounding Israel wanted to redeem themselves, and sought to regain lost territories. From 1972, the Egyptian and Syrian militaries rebuilt themselves from the ground up. They acquired up-to-date equipment, mainly through the USSR: MiGs, T-55 and T-62 tanks, anti-aircraft missiles (SA2-3-6-7) and Sagger anti-tank guided missiles. By October 1972, Anwar Sadat, President of Egypt, was already speaking about attacking Israel in private meetings with his army staff.

Israel October 1 1973

By May 1973, it was clear to the Military Intelligence Directorate of the IDF that the Egyptian army was planning to attack by crossing the Suez Canal. They knew that the Syrians would join the fight if Egypt attacked, but they were also convinced that the Egyptian army would not attack unless they received MiG-23 fighter jets and Scud-D missiles from the USSR. Since the IDF knew that the Egyptians did not possess such weapons, their assessment was that war was not imminent.

Deceptive exercises

In May and August 1973, the Egyptian army conducted large-scale exercises near the border. The IDF mobilized its troops and was preparing for war, but nothing happened. When they saw the same kind of movement again in October, the IDF assumed it was a similar Egyptian exercise.

On September 25, King Hussein of Jordan met with Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir. The king had met with Sadat and Assad and had warned Meir of the likelihood of a Syrian attack on Israel, with Egypt possibly joining them. Other sources were pointing to an imminent attack, but IDF intelligence together with the Minister of Defense, Moshe Dayan, and the Prime Minister, stuck to their assumptions.

Hours before the attack, on the 6th of October, Meir, Dayan and Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. David Elazar met. They decided to call up the Israel Air Force reserves and other Armored Reserve divisions. There would be no preemptive strike.

Opposing forces on the eve of the Yom Kippur War

October 6, 2:00 p.m.: First sirens

The Syrian and Egyptian armies, together with their allies, chose to attack on a Saturday, during Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Precisely at 2:00 p.m., the artillery of both armies began to shoot at IDF positions on the Golan Heights and in the Sinai. IDF troops on the ground were outnumbered and overwhelmed.

On the Sinai front, Egyptian infantry crossed the Suez Canal in five different places. Their artillery and air forces hit the Refidim air base in the Sinai along with many IDF artillery posts. By 5.30 p.m., ten thousand Egyptian soldiers had reached the east side of the Suez Canal. By nightfall, Egyptian tanks had crossed the canal. The presence of IDF infantry and armored brigades was not enough to stop them. The 252nd Sinai Division and underneath it the 14th Armored Brigade suffered heavy losses, notably because of Egypt’s use of the Sagger anti-tank guided missile.

The Israel Air Force was called on to act but the Egypt anti-aircraft missiles took down planes and limited the Air Force’s ability to strike. They did succeed in targeting the helicopters of Egyptian commandos infiltrating the Sinai, and seven Egyptian MiGs were hit by IAF phantoms in a rare aerial fight in south Sinai.

Map of the Egyptian Invasion October 6 1973

On the Golan Heights front, five Syrian divisions advanced to the border while the artillery and air force of Syria fired non-stop for an hour. Two IDF armored brigades of the 36th Division were present on the front, the 188th Brigade, which protected the southern part of the Golan, and the 7th Brigade, responsible of the Northern part. While at first Israeli tanks were not able to strike simply because the Syrian tanks were not in range, tank fights started within couple of hours. With night falling, the Syrians gained the advantage because of their night vision system. While the northern front could hold its ground, Syrian tanks had breached the southern Golan Heights. By the next morning, 600 tanks had entered Israeli territory, and they rushed for the bridges over the Jordan River and the Northern Command base in Nafah. The strategic IDF post on Mount Hermon was lost to Syria. At sea, the Israeli Navy had far more success and destroyed Syrian missile boats in its first ever sea battle.

Unlike the Sinai, many Israeli cities were nearby the Golan Heights frontier. Villages near the border were evacuated and the IDF had to deal with an enemy threatening all of Northern Israel.

Map of Syrian Invasion October 6 1973

For the next 18 days, Israel would fight what was later called the Yom Kippur War. The element of surprise and the effective weaponry the enemy had acquired would prove to be lethal for the Israeli forces. Nevertheless, the IDF would regroup and strike back, regaining control of Israel’s territory and even reach further.

Follow the progress of the Yom Kippur War as if you lived it today in a series of articles on the IDF blog and via Twitter, where important events of the war will be tweeted at the exact same time as if it happened today.

For part 2, click here