The Israeli Commander Who Ignored Intelligence Orders and Saved His Troops

On the eve of the Yom Kippur War, Lt. Col. Nitzani looked at the Suez Canal through his binoculars and ordered his soldiers to go on full alert. One of his soldiers tells the little-known story

Lt. Col. Shlomo (Moni) Nitzani, commander of the 79th Armored Corps Battalion.
Rami Shllush

On October 3, 1973, Lt. Col. Shlomo (Moni) Nitzani, commander of the 79th Armored Corps Battalion, assembled his soldiers in the Shekem commissary at the Rephidim base in Sinai. He began with an update on the alert that had been declared in the sector following an extensive military exercise being carried out by the Egyptian army. Toward the end of his remarks, he dropped a bomb: “I believe this is going to become a war, and therefore we will prepare accordingly.”

He was right, but in real time, the assessment of the situation that Nitzani shared with his soldiers was contrary to that of the top brass. In a discussion at the General Staff held on October 5, 1973, the transcript of which was published this week by the Israel Defense Forces and Defense Establishment Archives, Military Intelligence head Eli Zeira thought that the likelihood of war “was still very low.. even lower than low.” Chief of Staff David Elazar accepted this assessment and noted that he saw “the danger of a war breaking out as less likely than the danger of a war not breaking out.”

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However, Lt. Col. Nitzani from Moshav Kfar Hittim, who had received the Medal of Valor (the highest decoration awarded by the IDF) in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, refused to go with the flow. “He acted contrary to all the powers in the division and the brigade,” says Dr. Offer Drori, who at age 19 was one of Nitzani’s soldiers in the armored infantry company of the battalion.

Lt. Col. Shlomo (Moni) Nitzani with his army unit.
Rami Shllush

After the briefing the soldiers hastened to implement the battalion commander’s orders: They took all the heavy vehicles out of the camp and deployed them under camouflage nets on open ground far from the base. “We climbed into the tanks and the armored personnel carriers, we went out into the field and we spread camouflage nets. We acted as though we were in the midst of a war,” said Drori.

Initially, he recalls, the soldiers grumbled about what they saw as the battalion commander’s caprice. “I remember it as though it were yesterday,” he says. “We were really dejected by this story, like any soldier whose furlough is cancelled.” After the IDF’s victory in the Six-Day War and the feeling of invincibility that had engendered in the army, “we didn’t think there was any justification for us hiding under camouflage nets in Sinai. We saw the Egyptian planes through the netting. Thanks to the full alert Nitzani had declared, they dropped their bombs on an empty camp.” To this day, Drori is profoundly grateful to Nitzani. “I think we were the only battalion in Sinai that didn’t have any casualties from that attack. It could be said that he saved lives right in the very first moments of the war.”

Lt. Col. Shlomo Nitzani.
Rami Shllush

In a 2011 interview with the local newspaper Zman Haifa, Nitzani himself commented on this with his characteristic modesty: “It could well be that this is the reason my battalion wasn’t hurt right at the outbreak of the war, which to our regret is what happened to others.”

One step ahead

Shortly thereafter the situation changed. “It was clear to me that we were going into something a lot bigger than us,” Nitzani told Channel 1 Television in 2003. On Sunday, October 7, 1973, after 24 hours of nonstop fighting, Nitzani was gravely wounded in the head by shrapnel during the holding action.

The battalion, which had suffered additional casualties and losses, continued to fight while Nitzani was evacuated and went into surgery at a hospital behind the lines. “This is where my second war began,” he said later, speaking of the lengthy rehabilitation process and the physical and psychological scars he bore for the rest of his life. “A lifelong war” was the headline of the report about him by Renan Shor that was published in the military magazine Bamahane 15 years later.

The injury disabled him for life. He suffered from sudden bouts of anger and drop attacks, and dealt with health, family and economic problems for many years. His wife, Zohar, died young of an illness. Their young son, Michael, who was born after the Yom Kippur War, suffered from brain damage and a few years ago he too passed away.

Years later, when Drori heard of Nitzani’s distress, he contacted his former commander and mobilized buddies from the 79th battalion to help him. When they met with Nitzani, Drori asked the $64,0000 question: How did he see what was coming in 1973? Nitzani answered: “I raised my binoculars and I saw the whole Egyptian army on the bank of the canal.”

Rami Shllush
Lt. Col. Shlomo Nitzani with fellow soldiers.
Rami Shllush

“He didn’t rely on Military Intelligence research and all kinds of assessments, but rather did the most elementary thing, and from that derived his own assessment of the situation,” says Drori. And thus, while in the IDF they believed the Egyptian army was carrying out training maneuvers, Nitzani saw one step ahead. In this sense, says Drori, “He was unique: He made an assessment and took action.”

After the war Nitzani was awarded the Medal of Distinguished Service. The citation stated: “The force under his command carried out repeated attacks … and thus hindered and halted the Egyptian effort to cross the Canal.” Moreover, “The number of casualties in the force was large. Lt. Col. Shlomo Nitzani personally saw to rescuing the casualties despite the enemy’s heavy barrage of fire. He was gravely wounded during the holding actions. His leadership skill, his staunchness, his courage and his level-headedness instilled confidence in his soldiers and strengthened their spirits.”

This decoration, as noted, joined the decoration Nitzani was awarded for his part in the battle of the Mitla pass in the Sinai Campaign. There he rescued the wounded under heavy fire, operated weapons that had been in the hands of the wounded and thereby succeeded in silencing the enemy position. “Through this action he saved the lives of wounded men and the lives of soldiers in his unit,” stated the citation.

Nitzani was one of only two soldiers ever to have been awarded both the Medal of Valor and the Medal of Distinguished Service. The other was Avigdor Kahalani, who later entered politics and became a member of the Knesset and minister of internal security.

Lt. Col. Shlomo Nitzani with fellow soldiers.
Rami Shllush

“Moni’s story is not well known to the general public, and he was not bathed in glory like others were because he wasn’t a man who talked a lot,” says Drori, now 64. He is a lieutenant colonel in the reserves and a specialist in information systems who established the website called Hagvura (Heroism), a comprehensive data base of Israel’s heroes.

Nitzani, who married again, died on October 6, 2012, the anniversary of the war, at the age of 76. In his eulogy, Maj. Gen. Amnon Reshef (res.), the commander of the 14th Brigade, to which Nitzani’s battalion was seconded during the course of the war, said: “It is impossible to talk about Moni without mentioning his sufferings. His story is an Israeli version of the Book of Job.”