Israelis were caught almost totally by surprise when sirens wailed across the country on October 6, 1973.
Israelis were caught almost totally by surprise when the sirens wailed across the country on October 6, 1973, shattering the quiet of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.
What few, if any, civilians knew as they gazed perplexedly at each other in those initial minutes, was that Egypt launched a massive assault across the Suez Canal, and Syrian tanks were advancing hell-for-leather on the Golan Heights. When they found out – thanks to the carefully-guarded news bulletins or the ubiquitous Israeli grapevine – surprise turned to consternation, shock, and anger.
Israeli leaders, military and civilian, arrogantly assured the public that there would be no war.
The growing signs of war in the months and weeks leading up to October 6 were dismissed, and even information from top-placed sources was not taken seriously or regarded as an attempt to hoodwink the Israelis. Arab states, Israelis were told time and time again, had learned their lesson in 1967 and wouldn’t dare attack.
But they did attack. On the Suez Canal, the handful of Israeli soldiers manning the so-called Bar Lev line – a series of forts and strongpoints on the eastern side of the canal – faced 600,000 Egyptian soldiers backed up by 2,000 tanks.
To the north, in the near-perfect tank country of the Golan Heights, approximately 180 Israeli tanks had the impossible task of holding off 1,400 Syrian tanks advancing at them.
Israel’s air force – which laid the groundwork for the 1967 victory by destroying the enemy’s air forces on the ground – found itself unable to repeat its success. This time, the Egyptians and Syrians were armed with anti-aircraft missiles, which in those first few days took a terrible toll on Israeli aircraft.
In those initial hours, Israel’s strategy was simple: the troops at the front, mainly conscripts, but with a smattering of reservists and permanent force, had to hold the enemy until the reserves – two-thirds of Israel’s military strength – could be mobilized, equipped, and sent to the front.
And here, in retrospect, Egypt and Syria made a big mistake. Everything in Israel is closed on Yom Kippur and most Israelis are either in a synagogue or at home. So the army had no trouble locating its reservists, and in some cases, it didn’t have to – men came to their unit’s collection points without waiting to be called up.
Once the troops were mobilized and equipped, the Israeli army decided that it would concentrate on blunting the Syrians on the Golan.
In part, this was a simple matter of logistics – the front was nearer so the troops and tanks could get there quicker. But it was also a necessity. At one stage, especially as the Syrian tanks kept on coming in those early hours, it seemed that the entire Israeli-held Golan would be overrun. If the Golan was captured, the way into northern Israel was open.
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