On October 8, 1973, shortly after 5 P.M., an Israel Defense Forces tank company ascended an Egyptian dune in Sinai, just before darkness, closing in to capture it. Within just a few minutes, the entire company of eight tanks was put out of commission. The deputy company commander’s tank was destroyed and four crew members inside were reported missing. The company commander’s tank was also hit, and descended from the hill.
“What happened to us there? How did it happen that a fresh young company, whose commanders and soldiers embarked on the battle full of enthusiasm, crashed within less than half an hour?” wondered Oded Megiddo, the company commander, in a conversation with Haaretz this week. “We arrived at the battle with the enthusiasm of combat-hungry young bulls, who had just joined the front and whose greatest fear was missing the ‘action’ of the war,” he added.
Megiddo, 70, was born in Tel Aviv, fought in the Six-Day War and in the War of Attrition, and in 1972 was discharged from active duty. In October 1973, at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, 46 years ago this week, he was called to command a tank company of reservists on the Suez Canal front. Company M of Tank Battalion 257, Brigade 421 in Ariel Sharon’s division. He was 24 years old.
The company’s failure to capture the Egyptian dune was for him a symptom and a characteristic of how the IDF functioned against the Egyptian army during the early days of the war. Faulty functioning, he says, which was characterized by chaos and resulted in failure all along the front.
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In the past six years Megiddo has conducted a comprehensive study that attempts to understand the reason for his personal failure and that of the entire system in the sector where he fought. He perused war studies conducted by various IDF units, read the reports of the Agranat Commission – the National Commission of Inquiry that examined the war’s failures - perused research literature about the Yom Kippur War and memoirs written by veteran combat soldiers who fought there.
He listened to the communications networks, analyzed aerial photographs and even conducted a series of interviews with commanders at various levels. In order to complete the picture he even “crossed the lines” and perused Egyptian historical sources, including a book written by the commander of the Egyptian brigade that repelled all the IDF attacks in the area and a memoir by an Egyptian platoon commander from the same brigade.
He summarized the results of this research in a new book called, “Hamutal and Makshir are Not in Our Hands,” recently published by Dvir (in Hebrew). Hamutal and Makshir are the names of the two Egyptian dunes, as they appeared on the IDF code map, and the site where the battles and failures researched and documented by Megiddo took place. The research revealed that various IDF units attacked the Egyptian array in this sector no fewer than nine times. There were also battalions that attacked the array two and three times. But all the attacks were repelled at a high price in blood.
Sixty-one IDF soldiers were killed in the process, 45 of them were missing in action for months. About 100 soldiers were wounded, including Megiddo himself, and six became prisoners of war. There was also heavy damage to property. At the end of the war 19 IDF tanks remained scattered in an area under Egyptian control, along with six armed personnel carriers and two half tracks. Additional tanks were also taken by the Egyptians during the course of the war. “There is no enemy formation that was attacked so many times during the Yom Kippur War, and in effect in any of Israel’s wars,” says Megiddo.
The traumatic wars in this area were eventually forgotten. Anyone looking for reading material about the Yom Kippur War usually came across stories about the Valley of Tears (Emek Habakha) in the Golan Heights and the Battle of the Chinese Farm in Sinai. “But when we talk about tough battles on Yom Kippur, the battles in the Hamutal and Makshir dunes also deserve a place on the bookshelf,” says Megiddo.
In an attempt to understand the roots of the failure, Megiddo points to a combination of high-level functioning on the part of the Egyptians as well as determination by Cairo’s forces which “operated exceptionally well,” Megiddo says, against Israeli contempt, arrogance and nonprofessionalism. Megiddo sees the quality of the Egyptian army’s combat level as the “great operative surprise” of the Yom Kippur War on the southern front.
The IDF forces, which consisted mainly of an armored corps, had expected Egyptian soldiers to flee in all directions when they were attacked by Israeli tanks. “The arrogance of the Tank Corps,” as Megiddo dubs the fruits of the 1967 Six-Day War, led, he says, to a profound conviction among Israeli tank commanders, at all levels, that an attack by an Israeli tank force was enough to defeat any Egyptian force and scatter it in all directions. In that context Megiddo quotes a remark by the commander of Brigade 500 to the commander of Battalion 429, that the Egyptian infantry that was attacking it was “food for the tanks.”
But reality soon proved otherwise. “We thought that we would come with tanks and make some noise, and the Egyptians would remove their shoes and flee. Well, they didn’t. In the end we were the ones who folded,” he says. The Egyptian army, as Megiddo discovered, had learned the lessons of 1967, correctly analyzed its weak points against the Israeli tanks, and found a proper solution for them. A solution that, according to Megiddo, “shattered the arrogance” of the Israeli tank corps. And so, as the Egyptians fought with courage and determination against the Israeli tanks attacking them, they managed to defeat them.
He says that he and his friends ascended the dune ready for battle, “with all the overconfidence of the Israeli tank corps,” without having the faintest idea that the rules of the game had changed. “The sobering up from this illusion cost the IDF heavy losses in the first week of the war, the loss of hundreds of tanks and a significant erosion in the self confidence of its commanders and of Israeli deterrence,” says Megiddo. He says that the legend of the undefeated Israeli tank corps shattered before his eyes in the Hamutal-Makhshir area.
In the three battles that took place there on October 8, the Israeli armored corps reserve units encountered an Egyptian tank formation that was well-equipped with anti-tank weapons, which “defeated the attacking Israeli tanks.”
Contributing to the IDF’s failure was its lack of preparedness in terms of equipment, a shortage of machine guns – the principal weapon at the disposal of a tank against infantry soldiers. “A tank is an instrument with impressive combat capabilities, but a tank without machine guns is an instrument whose defense and offense capability against infantry soldiers equipped with anti-tank weapons is very limited,” Megiddo says.
There is extensive literature about the intelligence failures regarding the deciphering of Egyptian and Syrian war intentions before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. Megiddo prefers to focus his discussion on intelligence failures prior to the war such as a lack of understanding of the Egyptian anti-tank missile systems and also cites failures to transfer intelligence information produced during the war to the units in the field and a failure to use the combat intelligence network to gather new information.
With regard to the lack of knowledge about Egyptian weaponry, he says that from the early 1970s the IDF was familiar with the Sagger anti-tank missile. IDF tanks had already encountered the weapont at the end of the War of Attrition in Sinai and later on in the Golan Heights. But the information about the missile was not assimilated in the by the armored corpss units and practice drills were not carried out by all the units. Combat units drew no benefits from the information produced by the Intelligence Corps via aerial photographs, eavesdropping and interrogations of prisoners. Such information, which would have been of great value to fighters in the field, “remained on file or classified at headquarters,” says Megiddo.
“Battalions, brigades and divisions embarked on battles without an iota of intelligence information about the enemy they were confronting, its deployment and its weapons,” Megiddo maintains. The price was paid by the many who were killed by Egyptian anti-tank weapons. “How did it happen that again and again and again – nine times – they tried to capture those dunes, without anyone drawing conclusions and trying to improve or change [tactics]?” he wonders.
Megiddo doesn’t cut himself any slack either. “The motive for the entire study was an attempt to understand why my company’s battle encountered difficulties in the twilight hours of October 8. I’m not exempt from a discussion about my personal part in it and about my responsibility for the complications of the battle and its harsh results,” he says.
When he analyzes the reasons for it he enumerates, first and foremost, his participation and that of his friends in the “general hubris that struck the IDF and the armored corps in the wake of the great victory of the Six-Day War.” This hubris, he says, led to the arrogance of the tank corps, which included total contempt for the enemy and absolute confidence in the superiority of the IDF as an army and the superiority of the tank crews, in particular.
In Megiddo’s opinion, the most resounding failure in this sector was the failure to rescue the crew of his deputy company commander, Yossi Klein, after his tank was hit by an Egyptian shoulder-launched missile. “There was total darkness and it was impossible to see anything. They fired at us. I didn’t feel that by ourselves we would be able to go in to capture the hill and reach Yossi’s tank,” he writes in the book.
“I assume that I was pretty much in shock, and my reaction was to let others manage it and the situation,” he added. The result was that he folded and retreated, thereby abandoning his deputy’s crew to its fate. Only four months after the war was Klein’s body returned to Israel.
“We grew up in the IDF on the idea that you don’t leave casualties in the field. And I left casualties who were very close to me, in the field. And that happened to others too, again and again and again, later in the war,” he says. Eventually, when he was sent to the IDF Medals and Citations Committee, he told it that he didn’t deserve a medal. “I shouldn’t be here. I left people in the field,” he said. Since then 46 years have elapsed. “I still carry that with me. There are extenuating circumstances, but that fact remains,” he says.
Megiddo also leaves a bit of optimism at the margins of his harsh study. He tells of how the reservist units were a factor that balanced the chain of shortcomings and failures. Lawyers, students, farmers, mechanics and clerks – all joined the fighting on the Suez Canal front within 36 hours of call-up. “A phenomenon unique to Israel and the IDF,” says Megiddo.
This valuable resource, he says, “was wasted by high-ranking commanders who weren’t worthy of their positions, due to their negligence and lack of professionalism.” He says that only the determination, resourcefulness and professional ability of the junior level fighters and commanders enabled the tank corps to recover from the failures of the first days, to beat the Egyptians and to bring about a reversal in the conduct of the war.
“Those reserve units, which were thrown into the battle unprepared and without being briefed, and paid a high price for it, are the ones who later were responsible for the defeat of the Egyptian tank corps and the process of the breakthrough, the crossing (of the canal) and the transfer of the war deep into enemy territory,” he says.