'I Was Afraid. The Army and Israel Were Falling Apart': A Reservist's Recollection of the '73 War

At the base, there was no way of knowing who was flying on duty and who was fleeing the horror of battle; when I heard some of their stories, I wasn't sure what I would have done in their place

The Sinai front, during the 1973 war.
The Sinai front, during the 1973 war. Credit: IDF Spokesman’s Office
Joseph Gale
Joseph Gale

After two decades as a very active reserve pilot in the Israel Air Force, I served in a few positions in the ground forces, the last as commander of a shooting range unit. Unlike most officers in non-front line or desk positions, I had no emergency posting in case of a major alert. Target practice ranges are not required in wartime. Most alerts were at a low level and I was happy not to have my university work as a professor disrupted. This was not, however, the situation when very suddenly, on October 6, 1973, the Yom Kippur war broke out.

Jet planes flew low over the cities and villages of Israel, to apprise those who had their radios switched off because of the holiday, that something very unusual was happening. Radio stations do not broadcast on Yom Kippur, but after the attack began, at 2 P.M., they came on-air. They told of Israel being attacked on two fronts: in Sinai, by the Egyptians, who had crossed the Suez Canal, and in the north, by the Syrians, whose tanks were swarming over the Golan Heights. Israeli losses were not mentioned, but we could all imagine the outcome of this sudden onslaught. Israel was a tiny country (population 3.34 million) with just a small standing army, only a small part of which would be at the front line in peacetime.

A LeveI 4 alert, the highest, was broadcast every few minutes in the initial period, together with the code names of the Israel Defense Forces units being mobilized. By the end of the second day, the last of the reserves had been called up. My wife, Rena, a doctor, was on emergency assignment in her Jerusalem hospital, waiting to take care of the injured. Our daughter, Tali, 13 years old, and our son Irad, just 9, had volunteered to help at the local food market, many of whose employees had been drafted.

I was not called. I sat at home listening to the terrible news on the radio, feeling unwanted and useless for the first time since making aliyah from the United Kingdom in 1948 as a teenager. Radio presenters and army commentators tried to put an optimistic twist on the situation, but we were not exactly buying it.

Chaim Herzog, a major general in the reserves who would later go on to become Israel’s president, was one of the army spokesmen at the time. When asked whether the situation was not grim, with the IDF having to simultaneously fight on two fronts, in the south and the north, he famously replied: “Oh no, on the contrary, from a military point of view their forces are split, while ours are concentrated.”

Less optimistic wags said that the only force that would stop the Syrian advance south, would be the Egyptians sweeping north.

In the preceding few years, the Soviet Union had armed Egypt and Syria to the teeth. This included thousands of tanks and deadly anti-tank rockets carried by infantry troops. Most significant for the IAF was an array of radar-guided, surface-to-air missiles. The air force had detailed plans for taking them out of action in the first two days of any war. However, the 1973 hostilities broke out very suddenly – a severe defeat for Israeli intelligence, especially as there had been numerous indications of the coming attack.

When the Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal and the Syrians simultaneously sent hundreds of tanks into the Golan Heights, the army’s ground forces were taken by surprise and suffered severe casualties. The IAF was called in to provide desperately required air to ground support. This was before the anti-aircraft missiles could be taken out. The result was huge losses for the front-line attack planes, something the IAF had never experienced.

Sitting at home, I knew few of the details. It was, however, very evident that the war was going badly. There was a threat to the very existence of Israel, with consequences we preferred not to think about.

After four days, I phoned my commander, who was also commander of the Sde Dov airport in Tel Aviv. I asked if there was not something – anything – I could do. After a few hours, he phoned back. The air transport hub at Rephidim, the central Sinai base and ground forces staging center, was in complete turmoil. Would I be prepared to go down and see what could be done to restore order? Of course I agreed, much to my wife’s chagrin.

I packed my usual reserve duty bag (always ready) and went to Sde Dov. They put me in a small four-seater communications plane. The other passengers were none other than former IDF Chief of Staff," Lt. Gen. (res.) Haim Bar-Lev, whom Prime Minister Golda Meir was sending to take over command of the southern front (where the generals were quarrelling) and Maj. Gen. (res.) Mordechai (Motti) Hod, former commander of the IAF, who was being sent as an adviser. Hod was famous for having commanded the initial aerial attack on the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian air forces in 1967, which had determined the outcome of the Six-Day War within two hours of its onset.

Bar-Lev and Hod shared one double seat and I sat facing them, knees to knees. I was quite intimidated at being so close to such IDF legends. At first Hod did not stop talking – very excitedly. Bar-Lev was a different character altogether, calm and collected. “Motti. We have two hours, let’s sleep,” he said in his deep, authoritative baritone. He pulled his battle dress uniform over his head and indeed slept the rest of the journey. This gave me a chance to hear from Motti just how badly the ground and air forces were doing.

Our plane was supposed to have landed first on a strip at the army’s forward control center, very near the Suez Canal. There the generals would disembark before the plane took me back to Rephidim. However, close to our destination, I noticed that we were flying in and out of clouds. Not a good situation for such a small aircraft with very limited instrument-flying capabilities. I did not like the idea of our ending up, by mistake, behind the Egyptian lines! I pointed this out to Hod, who agreed, and ordered the pilot to land at Rephidim, from where the generals would proceed by jeep. In retrospect, this may have been my biggest contribution to the war effort. All we needed was for Bar-Lev and Hod to become prisoners of the Egyptians.

Fatalities beside the runway

I found myself on the ground, in the middle of a dark night, at the end of the Rephidim runway, not far from the empty hut that was supposed to be the control hub for transport aircraft. The sight around the center was terrible. There were hundreds of soldiers milling around, without any sign of organization. Dead and wounded lay on stretchers at the side of the runway. They were all waiting for planes to take them north – home.

Motti Hod, center (with mustache), and Haim Bar-Lev (seated in front of him), during a discussion of senior officers at Northern Command command post. Credit: Mickey Astel/Bamahane/Courtesy of the IDF and Defense Establishment Archive

Planes were taxiing in and out, without receiving any clear parking directions. There was no way of knowing, among all the soldiers milling around, who was waiting to fly on duty, or who had deserted their units and just wanted to run away from the horror of battle. Yes, I have news for some readers. Not all Israeli soldiers are heroes. When I heard some of the terrible stories they told, I was not at all sure where I would have been headed, in their place.

My first feelings were of deep fear and helplessness. The army and Israel were falling apart and the Egyptians would soon be advancing to Rephidim. I walked over to the IAF operations room, where I found a few acquaintances. They briefed me on the situation – as much as they knew of it. It was indeed bad, but not as grim as the confusion around the transport terminal suggested.

Encouraged a bit, I managed to pull myself together and think about what was needed to get the transport hub under control and operating. My list was not that long: about 20 personnel, ground transportation for the hub, and phone and radio communications. I did not worry at first about logistics support – beds, toilets, meals and the like – that could be supplied by the base.

The only one able to help at this level would be the Rephidim base commander. I hitched a lift to his bureau, a distance of some 4 kilometers from the transport hub. It turned out that I knew him well. Some 10 years previously, he had been assigned to me for a few months as a first officer (co-pilot), in my transport squadron. I remembered this young pilot as very congenial, but no great talent.

Now my mediocre copilot was a colonel and commander of Rephidim, one of the army’s most important forward centers. He greeted me with great cheer.

“Joe, good to see you here,” he said. “Why are you looking so glum? Everything is fine and under control. There are many first-rate entertainers who have come down, volunteering for the troops. This evening, I’m having a party. I am quite inundated by cakes and drinks sent by the Soldiers Welfare Society. So come along.”

It took all of my best diplomatic efforts to explain my mission and the complete breakdown of control at the air transport hub (for which he was responsible). Fortunately – although at the time I was just a captain in rank – he still looked up to me with respect. I told him what was needed, immediately. He said there was no problem getting phones and radio equipment re-installed, but that he had no free personnel or ground transportation to spare. On second thought, he said that although he had no jeeps, or small trucks, he could give me a 60-passenger bus and driver, of which he had many standing around. Moreover, I could go to the base jail and take anyone I wanted. He thought the last suggestion was very funny. I must have disappointed him when I took a bus, went to the jail, but failed to appear at his party.

I was quite intimidated at being so close to such IDF legends. At first Hod did not stop talking – very excitedly. Bar-Lev was a different character altogether, calm and collected. ‘Motti. We have two hours, let’s sleep,’ he said in his authoritative baritone voice.

Armed with the authorization of the commander of Rephidim, I was able to use the bus and driver to get me around the enormous base, till the end of the war. First I went to the jail. I asked the prisoners who would prefer to work hard and contribute to the war effort, instead of staying incarcerated. I recall not having any interest or patience to learn why they were there. In no time, I had some 15 volunteers – nearly everyone – and we were on our way back to the hub after picking up some beds, chairs and tables from the base commissary. Over the next two days, we were joined by a few more men. I did not always know where they came from; some may have been sent by the base commander’s bureau.

One was a lieutenant from a ground forces unit, who seemed to be lost, but turned out to be very valuable in keeping order among my motley crew. The other was a second lieutenant sent over as a liaison officer by the field hospital attached to the transport hub. Then there was Mordechai, aka Motke, a sergeant major by rank, who in civilian life was the Arkia Airways terminal manager at the Sde Dov airport. Arkia was the small, mainly domestic air company, for which I had flown, as a captain, during my student days.

I asked for and received a few members of the Military Police to help with crowd control. The first ones sent to me were very disheveled reservists. I sent them back and told their superior officer that I wanted police whose mere appearance would be enough to restore order. He got the message and complied. We had no more problems controlling the hundreds of people who were present. I also managed to borrow a few ground mechanics from one of the fighter squadrons assigned to Rephidim. They provided minimum but essential support to the transport planes as they taxied in and took off, which was much appreciated by the pilots.

No time for troublemakers

We used to joke that our crew was a branch of the French Foreign Legion – we took anyone, no questions asked. Nonetheless, I had no patience for those who made trouble. And on one occasion, probably under the influence of extreme fatigue, I completely blew my top. I had instructed one of the mechanics to move a set of mobile steps to the back of an aircraft, to facilitate the loading of the wounded. “It’s not my job,” he retorted. That was the last thing he said in our unit. (No, I did not shoot him, although the thought crossed my mind.)

As I discovered later, the premises of the transport center actually belonged to, and had been operated by, Arkia. Many of the transport planes being sent to bring home casualties were mobilized and converted passenger craft owned by the airline. It was very helpful that Motke knew all the crews and I knew many of the older captains.

Motke was invaluable, quickly taking control of the organization of the transport of people and matériel. When we found that we needed something a little smaller than a bus to get around the hub, Motke had a bicycle flown in from his office at Sde Dov. We needed boarding cards, but had none. Motke improvised, cutting up some old cartons. Soon he had the members of the crowd issued numbered cards bearing an impressive but irrelevant stamp that he found in the office. Even so, we often did not know when the next plane would be landing or what would be its flight orders and destination. First priority went to the wounded, followed by people who could show bona fide reasons for travel. If space remained on a plane, we just packed in anyone waiting to fly. This reduced the terrible crush around the center. Occasionally we had interesting passengers, such as a couple of captive, high-ranking Egyptian officers, who were being sent north for interrogation, under heavy guard.

We were a long way from the base kitchen, and in any case, it was quite unable to cope with the thousands of soldiers milling around. Like us, the staff there had no way of knowing who genuinely belonged and who were not entitled to be there. Our people often found themselves at the end of long lines. Thanks to Motke’s connections with Arkia and mine with the Sde Dov airport commander, we were shipped us a supply of army field rations – which at least spared us from going hungry for the duration of the war. This also enabled us to set up a small kitchen to serve us and at least provide coffee and biscuits to the often famished air crews, who often had an hour or two to kill while they waited for a new batch of wounded to be boarded.

Evacuation of casualties to a Sinai field hospital. The Rephidim hospital probably had more first-rate physicians, surgeons and nurses than any other in Israel. Credit: GPO

We set up a system with the base control tower and the IAF operations room to let us know when a plane was set to arrive, its size and capacity, and whether it was fitted with stretcher bunks for the wounded and carried a medical crew. This information we relayed to the hospital. We even managed to get an FM radio (quite surreptitiously, it was against all regulations) with which I could sometimes communicate with the pilots while still in the air, on their way down south. Here, my experience as a transport pilot, who had flown the air ways of Sinai and knew what may and may not be said on the open radio channels, was very useful.

Apart from the evacuation of casualties, we had to make sure that soldiers and supplies being flown south met up with their ground transport and didn’t clog up the terminal. When placing people on the planes flying north, there were frequently questions of priority. In case of doubt, I set up a committee of one (me). It worked quickly and efficiently, if not always judiciously. In such situations, people are often happy to have someone take responsibility and tell them what to do. I was rarely challenged.

Some of the entertainers seemed to think that the moment they arrived the war would stop, so that they could put on a show. They usually came with an entourage, from hairdressers to secretaries. The latter often had demands. I remember in particular one such assistant coming to me and announcing that “Gizi must fly immediately” and I should give him priority. “Gizi” was extremely well known (even to me, though I couldn’t abide his music, and can no longer recall his actual name). I told her I had never heard of Mr. Gizi and he should await his turn. On another occasion, a similarly self-important lackey came and said the same for Yehoram Gaon, the actor-singer.

“Yehoram must fly immediately,” she announced imperiously. “Yehoram must wait like everyone else,” I replied. However, in this case, the entertainer overheard the exchange. He grabbed my arm and apologized for his assistant. “I can see what’s going on,” said Gaon. “Obviously, you must first look after the wounded, then the soldiers flying on duty. I’ll sit on the floor. Just send me off whenever you can,” the singer said. He departed on the next plane. Somehow, we could not find room for all his entourage – guess who waited for three hours?

Absorbing an Egyptian air attack

On perhaps the third day I was in Rephidim, we received an alert from the base operations room that we were about to be attacked by Egyptian aircraft, and the sirens went off. I sent everyone to take shelter wherever they could, which in our case meant in nearby ditches. A relatively large transport plane, loaded with soldiers, had just started taxiing out – easy prey for any strafing attack. I chased after it on the bike and used the classic (radio-less) pilot-to-pilot signals: first shaking the wing ailerons to gain attention and then drawing a hand over my neck to signal the pilot to shut off the engines, followed by hand gestures indicating that we were under attack and he should evacuate the plane immediately – which he did. I found out later, that the control tower had failed to convey the attack alert to the pilot!

I stayed behind at the hub to answer urgent phone calls. No great heroism: My memories of the London Blitz told me that the actual chance of being hit was very small. Fortunately, for once, the statistics were right. The Egyptian bombs fell all over the place, but without causing much damage. IAF Operations took a close hit, for the second time in the war. The first attack was before I came and had resulted in two deaths and a few injured. This time, operations sustained only a few casualties, thanks to their building having been reinforced. As I learned later, two of our fighter planes turned up (late), bringing down one Egyptian plane and chasing the others off.

I chased after the plane on our bike and used the classic signals: first shaking the ailerons, then drawing a hand over my neck to signal the pilot to shut off the engines, followed by gestures that we were under attack and he should evacuate the plane immediately.

First-rate medical care

The IDF Medical Corps had set up the field hospital near the air transport hub to take care of the wounded, who were arriving by helicopter and ambulance from the front lines. It was staffed entirely by reservists – who probably included more first-rate physicians, surgeons and nurses than at any other hospital in Israel – and stocked with top-of-the-line equipment and supplies. Their function was to carry out emergency treatment and to stabilize the wounded before their evacuation north. Cases of complicated surgery and convalescence were referred to hospitals in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. As far as I could tell, the Rephidim facility was functioning as well or better than any other support unit I’d encountered. This is something I hate to admit, as it was run by Dr. Ezra Zohar of Sheba Medical Center, at Tel Hashomer. I had met Zohar before, in civilian life, when we both served on a national committee on the environment. His often-expressed political views were so right-wing as to be really obnoxious. Credit must be given where credit is due.

Mortal remains that were brought to Rephidim, and the bodies of those who died at the hospital, were, after initial identification, dispatched north in truck convoys, for final identity checks and burial by the families.

As noted, one of our main functions at the hub was to coordinate the evacuation of the wounded. The second lieutenant sent over by the hospital to coordinate the loading of the wounded deserves special mention. He worked around the clock for more than a week, almost without sleep. At the end of this period, he was so overwhelmed by fatigue that he became disoriented, and started quarrelling with everyone. I told him to take a rest, but he refused, asserting, “I’m just fine.” So I ordered him back to the hospital, and asked for a replacement. He turned up an hour later accompanied by one of the medical officers, a major, whom I knew personally from civilian life. He demanded to know why I had expelled one of their staff. He was surprised when, instead of complaining, I said that if I could, at the end of the war, I would recommend the man in question for a citation. Meanwhile, would they please take him for just 24 hours, give him a shot to help him sleep, send in a temporary replacement and return him, as soon as possible – which they did. When he got back, he resumed working, around the clock, until the end of the war.

On another occasion, a young woman turned up who somehow caught my attention. She seemed exactly the type who, although a few years older, could have been my own daughter. She was very distraught. She had not heard from her soldier-husband for a few days and had a strong premonition that he had been hurt. I don’t believe in premonitions, so tried very hard to get her to board the first available flight home. She was not leaving, she insisted, until she found her man.

I could not find his name among the wounded. Unbeknownst to the wife, therefore, I went over to the morgue. It took a great effort to persuade those in charge to allow me to examine their records. When they did, I found him listed. but it would only have appeared there following the final, official identification process, which took place in Tel Aviv. Only then would the family have been informed. I was devastated, but I had sworn to the morgue staff that I would not say a word to anyone. All I could do was use all my persuasive skills to convince her to return home and wait for news – “which we all hope will be for the best,” I lied.

Another personal shock, although relatively quite minor, was to find the name of Yaakov Katan among the injured we were loading onto a hospital plane. During my studies at the Rehovot faculty of agriculture of the Hebrew University, I had shared lodgings with Yaakov. He came from a family that had recently arrived from Iraq and was burdened with all the difficulties of absorption in Israel. I remember him as physically small and shy, and completely devoted to his studies. His main interest during the long evenings was reading papers in his field of interest: plant pathology and entomology. His personality was in every way the absolute opposite of what is required of a fighting soldier. Somehow, seeing scholarly Yaakov lying wounded made me realize the stupidity and futility of this and every other war. I later learned that Yaakov recovered, became a professor in his field, and even earned an Israel Prize for his internationally recognized work on agricultural pest eradication.

Israeli tanks during the evacuation of Rephidim, in 1980. Credit: Ya’akov Sa’ar/GPO

The tide turns

After I had been at Rephidim for about two weeks, the tide turned in the battle at Suez, and the IDF was now taking the initiative. The army put in operation a plan that had previously been considered far too risky to carry out. Under intense Egyptian artillery fire, and while taking heavy casualties, a small force crossed the canal on October 15, and set up a pontoon bridge that had been waiting since the outbreak of the war. This allowed a small tank force to cross, which swiftly proceeded to attack and destroy the Egyptian anti-aircraft missile bases on the west side of the canal. From then on the IAF regained control of the skies. A larger ground force attacked and took over an airfield on the western bank of the canal (“Africa” as the soldiers dubbed it), which was then ready to receive supply planes and evacuate casualties. The main Egyptian force on the eastern side of the Suez was surrounded, and a cease-fire went into effect.

All these welcome events took the pressure off our work at the Rephidim transport hub. However, just before the cease-fire went into effect, there was a terrible failure of the IDF, which I too felt back in Rephidim.

Two large Hercules transport planes landed. They carried members of the IDF Sayeret Matkal commando unit, the cream of the crop of Israel’s forces.

The Sayeret disembarked at Rephidim for only an hour or so, before being sent straight to the front. Among them, I recognized and spoke to Rami, the son of a very good friend, Willie Rubin, at whose banana farm I had done some of my Ph.D. fieldwork. “You don’t need to worry anymore. We’ve arrived, so the war will be over soon,” he joked. I was the last of Willie’s close family and friends to see Rami-Avraham Rubin alive.

The meeting with Willie after the war was very sad. For Willie, an immigrant from South Africa, Israel, his banana orchard and most of all his wife, daughter and son, were all that really mattered. His wife had only recently succumbed to illness, and now his wonderful son was gone. The war left some 2,500 bereaved families, but for me this was a loss that hit very hard. As is well known, it is always the single, personal loss that hits you most – not the statistics. Such was the case for me.

Two days after the Sayeret landing at Rephidim, I learned more of the catastrophe that had befallen them, from one of their officers, a captain, who was on his way north, carrying a sack of “intelligence material.” He was tall and lithe, the personification of what was expected from this unit of James Bond-like characters. On this occasion, James Bond was exhausted and had an air of defeat. He was still covered in dust, his face black from the stain of gunfire. He seemed to be at least partly shell shocked. He refused our makeshift shower, but I gave him my bunk to rest on, while he waited for a place on a departing plane.

In a shaking voice, he told me how, over just a few hours they had lost five officers and many other soldiers of “The Unit.” He complained bitterly that they had been used as infantrymen in an impossible situation, instead of as commandos trained for special behind-the-lines operations.

As I learned later, toward the very end of the fighting, IDF troops were facing the town of Suez. Members of the high command thought it should be captured before the cease-fire began. It was a stupid, uninformed decision. Between them and the town was the rear guard of the retreating Egyptian Army, defending a home town with determination. Moreover, as every general should know, there’s nothing more difficult than house-to-house fighting.

Someone decided that the only fresh Israeli force still capable of entering Suez was the Sayeret. Within a few hours, its soldiers were trapped, surrounded by the Egyptian Army and hundreds of Suez residents carrying small arms and so on. They were only extricated with great difficulty, after they and a few other IDF units that had been sent in suffered a terrible toll in dead and wounded. The attack on Suez was aborted.

The war ended on October 24 with a cease-fire, thankfully arranged by the Americans. The IDF was firmly ensconced on the west bank of the canal and much of the Egyptian Third Army was surrounded on the eastern one. The tides of war had meanwhile also changed in the north, where the Syrians had been pushed back to within artillery range of Damascus, albeit with our ground and air forces suffering heavy losses.

With the cease-fire, activity at the transport hub in Rephidim was no longer hectic. There were mercifully few wounded casualties needing evacuation. Moreover, heavy helicopters could use the airport west of Suez, now in Israeli hands. There were still reinforcements and urgent supplies that came by air to Rephidim, but dealing with that was by now routine.

I visited the base headquarters to report on the situation at the air transport hub. Apart from the Rephidim commander, his second in command was also present; he was also the squadron leader of the helicopters based there, and I had frequently cooperated with him.

I must have looked terrible. They took one look at me and asked how long I had been without home leave, or rest. Then they ordered me to take off for a few days, leaving the hub to my second in command. This time I was happy to comply.

After phoning home, I got on a plane going to Lod (now Ben-Gurion International) Airport. I will never forget seeing Rena and our kids, Tali and Irad, accompanied by our beloved mongrel, Miki, waiting not far from the runway. I remember thinking during my initial days at Rephidim, that I was not sure if we would ever be reunited. Miki saw me first, broke away from the kids, and nearly knocked me over. Even a dog could sense the drama.

I have almost no memory of the 48 hours I spent at home, but I mainly caught up on my sleep and on the news. It seemed like in no time I was back on a plane to Rephidim.

Returning, however, was something of an anti-climax. Suddenly everything was quiet. There was no tension. No longer a feeling that we were in a war that we could lose (which for Israel would be the end of our world). No more frantic evacuations of the wounded and easing the pressure of soldiers coming into battle or returning north.

As I said, I did not know where many of my crew had come from. Now I discovered that some had just as anonymously disappeared. The IAF was sending permanent staff to run the hub and my job was over. Almost immediately, I reported to the base commander and headed home. For the first time I understood T.S. Eliot’s extraordinary words: “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but with a whimper” ("The Hollow Men,” 1925).

Joseph Gale is an emeritus professor at the Hebrew University, working presently in the field of astrobiology. He spent 36 years in the Israel Air Force, mainly as a reserve transport pilot.