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Remembering the war in October

Forty years on, we explore the story of what Egyptians call the October War and Israelis the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Shortly after midnight on October 5, 1973, the telephone rang in the London home of Dubi Asherov, an Israeli case officer handling an Egyptian spy referred to as ‘The Source’. It was ‘The Source’ and his message was simple: “I need to meet the boss, urgently.”

Asherov called Tel Aviv to wake his superior, Zvi Zamir, the director of Israel’s intelligence service, Mossad. Within just a few hours, Zamir was on his way to the British capital, where he met ‘The Source’ in a Mossad safe house. The information he heard there was astonishing – but what made it all the more important was the identity of the man delivering it.

“Ashraf Marwan was one of the best spies in espionage history,” explains Ahron Bregman from the department of war studies at King’s College, London. “He was the perfect spy. He was not only clever and very, very efficient but he was also very close to the information. He was a relative of [Gamal Abdul] Nasser [the Egyptian president from 1956 until 1970] and he was the right hand man of President [Anwar] Sadat [who ruled Egypt from 1970 until 1981].”

So, when Marwan told Zamir that the following day at 6pm Egypt and Syria would launch an attack on Israel, there was every reason to believe him. But was this a genuine leak from the very centre of Egyptian power or was ‘The Source’ delivering information that was designed to deceive?  

All-out war

On the morning of October 6, 1973, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the Israeli cabinet met in an emergency session. It decided on the immediate mobilisation of reservists and devised a defence plan, codenamed ‘Dovecote’, which would be triggered two hours before the start of the battle.

At 2pm, 6,220 Egyptian air force jets crossed the Suez Canal, heading for Sinai, while Syrian jets simultaneously began a massive aerial strike on Israeli positions in the Golan Heights.

The two countries had launched an all-out war against Israel – and they had done it four hours earlier than ‘The Source’ had led the Israelis to believe they would. Their aim: to liberate the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights – territories occupied by Israel six years earlier during the Six Day War.  

Despite earlier intelligence warnings of an upcoming Arab attack, the head of Aman, Israel’s military intelligence, General Eli Zeira, was convinced there was nothing to worry about. As a result, Israel was completely unprepared. Its regular army was outnumbered and its reservists were not yet in place.

While Sadat’s close relationship with the Soviets guaranteed a supply of military hardware, the Israelis knew that he had been unable to obtain the latest generation of attack weapons and that without them their military might outweighed that of Egypt.

But, ever since the humiliation of the Six Day War, Egyptians had longed to see their country fight back. “There was a devastating feeling of crisis and defeat then,” explains Egyptian author and journalist Gamal El-Ghitani.

And while the Egyptian people agitated for war, the most powerful constituency of all, Egypt’s army, was also desperate to show that it could take on – and defeat – the enemy it faced across the Suez Canal every day.

A point to prove

Aware that his country’s weapons were dated and that it lacked the ability to liberate the Sinai in its entirety in a military operation, just four months after taking power, Sadat had offered the Israelis a peace deal if they would withdraw from Sinai. Golda Meir, the then Israeli prime minister, rebuffed the offer.

So, left to contemplate a war, Sadat found an ally. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad had come to power through a coup d’etat in 1970, and he too had a point to prove to his people.

The War in October: The Heat of Battle – Featured Documentary

Hisham Jaber, the director of the Middle East Studies Centre in Beirut, explains: “Hafez al-Assad was the defence minister during the 1967 defeat, and was held mainly accountable …. So, since al-Assad came to power in Syria, he started to absolve himself of the 1967 defeat, and to prepare the Syrian army for the next battle.”

In a series of meetings throughout 1973, Sadat and Assad refined their war plan, giving it the codename ‘Badr’ after the Prophet Mohammed’s first victorious battle.

Crossing the Suez Canal

Syria began concentrating its troops in the Golan, while Egypt did the same on the Suez Canal. But, having responded to a similar build-up five months earlier only to find that the Egyptians had gone no further than the edge of the Canal, Israeli military intelligence was determined not to make the same costly mistake.

“In a document that Aman published at noon … [on] October 5, it was a perfect description of the Egyptian army [getting] ready to go to war,” says Israeli military historian Uri Bar-Joseph. “The bottom line was we nevertheless believed that there was no change in the Egyptian estimate regarding the balance of forces with the IDF, and therefore the likelihood for war is low.”

Within minutes of the first aerial attacks, a massive artillery barrage began. Under the cover of artillery fire, the first wave of Egyptian ground troops crossed the Canal – 4,000 men in 720 rafts. With the war already half an hour old, ‘Dovecote’ was rushed into action. But, by 5pm, 45 Egyptian infantry battalions had crossed the Canal. ‘Dovecote’ had failed.

By sunrise on day two, the war appeared to have been an unequivocal success for Egypt’s armed forces; 100,000 men, more than 1,000 tanks and over 10,000 other vehicles had crossed the Suez Canal with only minimal losses.

An advantage lost

On the Golan front, three Syrian infantry divisions crossed the 1967 ceasefire line known as the Purple Line. And, two hours into the war, the Syrians gained their first significant victory when they captured ‘Israel’s Eye’ – a key Israeli vantage point 2,000m above sea level on top of Mount Hermon.

The Syrians were overtaken by enthusiasm during the first two days, thinking they can overpower Israel.

by Hisham Jaber, the director of the Middle East Studies Centre in Beirut

By nightfall on October 6, pushing through unguarded holes in the Israeli line, Syrian tanks entered central Golan. But by midnight, with the Syrians having made major gains, the order came to stop the advance and to regroup for another assault in the morning.

Before them, the roads stretching down to the Jordan Valley and the heart of Israel lay undefended. Just a few kilometres to the east, on the edge of the Golan, were positions which, had they been taken, would have been virtually impregnable. But al-Assad controlled the Syrian army with an iron grip and no one was allowed to deviate from his original plan.

Within hours, almost a quarter of a million Israeli reservists were mobilised. The Syrians had calculated that it would take the Israeli reserves 24 hours to reach Golan. But, the first tanks were there by midnight – just 15 hours after they had been mobilised.

Shortly after dawn, ignoring the fact that the Israelis had successfully mobilised to meet them, the Syrians launched their planned tank assault. Their main target was Nafakh, the Israeli advanced command centre and the strategic crossroads that controls the Golan. The Israeli forces managed to stop the Syrians but paid a high price in soldiers and tanks.

By the end of day four, in a place in northern Golan that became known as the ‘Valley of Tears’, the Israelis had destroyed hundreds of Syrian tanks.

“The Syrians were overtaken by enthusiasm during the first two days, thinking they can overpower Israel. That means taking over the Golan, and approaching occupied Palestine. They thought they could end the war,” explains Jaber. “But they overstretched themselves, and suffered huge losses of tanks during those first three days.”

On the defensive

In Sinai, however, the Egyptians had used their success on day one to secure defensive bridgeheads, and were subsequently prepared for the inevitable Israeli counterattack when it began on October 8.

Yosri Omara from the Egyptian 2nd Infantry Division recalls: “We received orders to fire. We fired at them with every weapon we had …. It was a massacre … in the true meaning of the word …. The Egyptian RPG soldiers were moving like birds, like birds jumping from one tree to another. They would hide behind a ramp till the tank was 50m away and within range, then they fired at it. They would knock that one out then move on to the next tank.”

For the first time in its 25-year history, Israel was on the defensive. And, as the first week of the conflict concluded, it suffered another serious blow. On October 13, in front of the world’s media, the last of Israel’s Bar-Lev line of fortresses along the eastern coast of the Suez Canal surrendered to the 43rd battalion of Egyptian commandos.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes, seeing the Israeli soldiers waving the white flag, and humiliated,” says Hamdy El-Shorbagy from the Egyptian 43rd Commando Battalion.

The streets of Cairo filled with Egyptians reveling in their military’s triumphs and the first liberation of land occupied by Israel in the Six Day War provoked an enthusiastic response across the Arab world.

But in less than 24 hours, Israel had mobilised two armoured divisions, which soon turned the Syrian advance into a retreat. The Israelis advanced, capturing territory deep inside Syria.

Two different wars


Eight months earlier Sadat and Assad had forged the plan to launch a war against Israel on two fronts. But it now seemed that the two presidents had entirely different concepts of the war they had planned together.

“Assad told me that from the moment of his seizure of power, his ambition, his dream, was to avenge the defeat of 1967 when Syria had lost the Golan to Israel and when Assad himself was the defence minister,” says Patrick Seale, a British journalist and Hafez al-Assad biographer. “So I think he felt it as a personal responsibility for the recovery of the land. Assad saw the war, which he was planning, as a war of liberation.”

Sadat, on the other hand, had sought a limited war to focus the minds of the world’s superpowers, and to jump-start the stalled peace process.  

A week into it, Sadat’s personal target had already been surpassed, and a swift victory appeared to be in sight. So when, on October 13, the British ambassador to Egypt delivered an offer to broker a UN ceasefire resolution, which he said the Israelis were prepared to accept based on the current positions, seduced by success, Sadat refused. He would, he stated, only accept a ceasefire if Israel withdrew from the whole of Sinai.

“Things were going very well for Sadat,” explains Abraham Rabinovich, the author of The Yom Kippur War. “He didn’t want to stop the war. Something dramatic had to be done to persuade him to agree to a ceasefire; maybe even to get him to request a ceasefire, and the only thing that could work was [the] crossing of the Canal. That might scare him enough.”

On the morning of October 14, the Egyptian armour moved east. But the Israelis were waiting in pre-prepared positions and, within the first few minutes of battle, the Egyptians suffered significant casualties. By midday, 250 tanks had been lost and the Egyptian general command ordered all advancing forces to retreat.

On the Syrian front, the Israelis had suffered heavy losses, but achieved significant gains – advancing to within 35km of Damascus, and occupying new territories to bring to the bargaining table. They were now able to turn their attention south to the Egyptians. The plan to cross the Suez Canal had been finalised and given the name ‘Stouthearted Men’. But first they would have to take on the southern flank of the Egyptian 2nd army, which stood in the way of an Israeli advance.

The Battle of Chinese Farm

The ensuing fight would centre around an Egyptian agricultural development on which work had begun in the early 1960s with the help of Japanese experts. When they had occupied the area during the Six Day War, the Israelis had mistaken the Japanese writing on irrigation equipment for Chinese. The farm had now been recaptured by the Egyptians but at dusk on October 15, Israeli tanks started their assault on the ‘Chinese Farm’.

By the morning of October 16, 15 rafts had reached the Canal and begun ferrying Israeli tanks to the west. The crossing went almost unnoticed by the Egyptians and, later that same morning, in his first public appearance since the war started, Sadat led a victory parade through the streets of Cairo.

Egyptian reports about the Israeli crossing were confusing and underestimated the scale of the problem. It was only when the Israeli forces in the west went on the offensive that the Egyptians realised their enemy was already in their backyard.

The Egyptians suffered heavy losses. After two days of heavy fighting over the Chinese Farm, the remnants of the brigade that had blocked the road to the Canal retreated – but only after making the Israelis pay a steep price.

“Yes, [it was a] painful victory, very painful, mainly because of the dead and the wounded,” remembers Uri Dan, an Israeli war correspondent. “In one night of the crossing of the Canal, we lost some 400 people. Tanks were fighting, some of them we saw in broad daylight later, one barrel against another, like two sword combatants in medieval time[s]. But, here they were tanks, both of them destroyed, maybe most of the people in … them dead. The valley of death next day, along the Canal was terrible, but we were on the other side of the Canal.”

On October 18, the Israeli high command decided to capitalise on the successful crossing, building their presence on the western bank of the Canal to three armoured divisions. One division would move north to surround the Egyptian 2nd army and capture the city of Ismailia. The other two divisions would move south to encircle the Egyptian 3rd army and capture the city of Suez.

Soon after, Sadat summoned the Soviet ambassador to Egypt and told him that he was ready to accept a ceasefire. This time, however, it was the Israelis who had no interest.

“We can say that Israel had a greater interest in the ceasefire not kicking in right at that moment because it still had work to do – still territory it wants to capture,” explains Rabinovich.

Global implications

Two weeks into the war, and with the opposing forces locked in a stalemate, Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of state, arrived in Moscow. His goal was to agree a UN ceasefire acceptable to Egypt’s Soviet allies.

On October 22, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 338, calling for a ceasefire. The fighting was due to stop at 6.52pm Middle Eastern time. But as morning broke on October 23, Israelis forces went into action as normal. By the end of the day they had bypassed Suez City and reached the port of Adabia.

The Egyptian 3rd army, dug in on the eastern side of the Canal, was surrounded by Israeli troops on every side – 35,000 men were cut off from their bases.

On October 23, the Security Council reconvened to confirm the ceasefire – issuing Resolution 339 and directing that UN observers be dispatched to the front. This new ceasefire was scheduled to go into effect at 7am the following day. But, once again, Israel broke it.

“Their main target was a big city, the conquering of a big city, either Ismailia or Suez. A city with a big name,” explains El-Ghitani. “They were fighting more of a media battle, but at the same time, they wanted to achieve a bigger political goal.”

The battle for Suez

Until the Six Day War, Suez was a flourishing industrial city and port. But after 1967, the city found itself on the frontline between Egypt and Israeli-occupied Sinai. A target for Israeli attacks, it was soon reduced to rubble. A quarter of a million people were evacuated leaving the city virtually abandoned. Just 5,000 people remained to manage the infrastructure and man the remaining factories.

Early on October 24, just as the new ceasefire was scheduled to start, Israeli tanks and troops moved into the semi-deserted city. But they soon encountered resistance from a small militia. By the time they were driven from the city, 80 Israeli soldiers were dead and 120 wounded.

On the same day, an alarming message reached Washington: the Soviets were considering taking unilateral action to impose the ceasefire. With Richard Nixon, the US president, submerged in the ‘Watergate Scandal’, it was left to Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of state, to handle the crisis. He decided to respond to the Soviet threat with a show of force. The US armed forces state of alert was raised to the highest level in peacetime.

Walter J Boyne, the author of The Two O’Clock War says: “The question of the US versus [the] Soviet Union always boils down to mutual annihilation: we could’ve killed everybody in the Soviet Union, they could’ve killed everybody in the US, and the rest of the world would’ve gone. It was an absolutely insane situation. The thing that saved it was that each side knew that if a war occurred the leaders themselves would get killed. So when you know you are going to get killed in a war, not just some poor peasant soldier is going to get killed, you make different decisions about starting a war.”

The next day, diplomacy prevailed, the Soviets stepped back and the alert was defused. But for a full 24 hours, the world had stood on the brink of a war between two nuclear superpowers.

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council issued Resolution 340 – its third in less than four days.

Fighting on alone

As the balance shifted in favour of Israel, other Arab countries sent troops in support of Syria and Egypt. The Syrian front was strengthened by the arrival of expeditionary forces from Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The plan was to use this cocktail of Arab forces to drive the Israelis out of the pocket they had occupied in the Syrian mainland.

The date of the attack was set for October 23. But it would never happen, because Egypt’s Sadat had accepted a UN ceasefire that would take effect that evening.

Al-Assad now faced the prospect of fighting on alone, so the Syrians, too, bowed to the inevitable.

But one major open sore remained for Tel Aviv. The Israeli listening post on top of Mount Hermon had been captured by Syrian paratroopers on the first day of war. With Israel now in the ascendant, on October 23, the Golani Brigade attacked. They suffered heavy losses but secured their prize.

I definitely don’t think that there are any winners in war. There'll be someone who loses more, someone who loses less, but there are no winners in wars, and that’s something which has stayed with me since 1973.

by Yoram Dori, 600th Israeli Reserve Armoured Brigade

On the Suez front, 35,000 Egyptian troops remained in a perilous position, cut off from their supply line. But the Israelis were also facing a major problem. For the first time in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Egypt was holding a large number of Israeli prisoners of war – 230 in total.

In Israel, demonstrators took to the streets, accusing Golda Meir’s government of not doing enough to bring the captured soldiers home.

On October 28, Israeli and Egyptian military leaders met to negotiate a ceasefire. It was the first meeting between military representatives of the two countries in 25 years. But the negotiations quickly became strained as skirmishes continued in the confusion of the battlefield.
Shuttle diplomacy

Meanwhile the effects of this war began to be felt globally. Arab oil-producing countries had formulated a plan to use the price of oil to pressure Western supporters of Israel. By mid-October several of the biggest producers had unilaterally raised prices by nearly 20 percent.

On Tuesday, November 6, Kissinger, flew in to Cairo for his first ever meeting with Sadat. Four days later, an initial agreement was signed guaranteeing daily convoys of non-military supplies to the city of Suez and the besieged Egyptian 3rd army.

Four days later, prisoners from both sides were exchanged.

As the New Year arrived, Kissinger returned to the region to hammer out the next step in his grand plan for Egyptian-Israeli disengagement. On January 11, 1974, he arrived in the southern Egyptian city of Aswan to meet Sadat. The next day, he left for Tel Aviv. Both sides accepted a disengagement agreement and a new term had entered the lexicon of international politics – shuttle diplomacy.

On January 18, 1974, General Mohamed El-Gamassy, the Egyptian chief of staff, and General David Elazar, his Israeli counterpart, signed an agreement that was the first in a chain that would lead to total Israeli withdrawal from Sinai in April 1982.

“The greatness of that war, the October war, was that it had [an] impact not only on the political, military and security level, but on the Israeli citizen himself, in accepting the idea that I can leave the land I occupy to feel more secure,” says Mansour Abdul Wahab, an Egyptian political analyst.

But as Israel’s troops celebrated their withdrawal, the mood back home was different.

“Israel lost 2,600 men – killed. Per capita, this is three times the death rate of the Americans in Vietnam over 10 years. This Israel suffered in three weeks,” explains Rabinovich.

A Commission of Investigation headed by the president of the Israeli Supreme Court placed the blame firmly on Israel’s military. It cleared Meir and Moshe Dayan, the country’s defence minister, but the Israeli public was not appeased. Demonstrations broke out and, nine days after the commission published its report, Meir resigned.

Meanwhile, the Israelis were still occupying a salient deep inside Syria, not far from the capital Damascus. So, in May 1974, Kissinger set out on his second round of shuttle diplomacy, this time between Damascus and Tel Aviv.

After almost a month of hard talking, the US secretary of state managed to secure a second breakthrough in the region when, on May 28, Israel approved a disengagement agreement with Syria. It was signed in Geneva on June 5, bringing the War in October to an official end after 243 days of fighting.

Yoram Dori from the 600th Israeli Reserve Armoured Brigade says: “I definitely don’t think that there are any winners in war. There’ll be someone who loses more, someone who loses less, but there are no winners in wars, and that’s something which has stayed with me since 1973.”