The Yom Kippur War Came as a Surprise to the Egyptians as Well, Documents Show

The war’s beginning was decided upon many months and weeks before it began and the date was a closely-kept secret that foreign intelligence failed to crack.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
Egyptian president Anwar Sadat during the Yom Kippur War.
Egyptian president Anwar Sadat during the Yom Kippur War.Credit: AP
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

“We had a report in CIA [sic] in late May 1973 that said, ‘Egypt and Syria will start war against Israel on the 6th of October,’” CIA Deputy Director Gen. Vernon Walters said in a lecture to the U.S. Army Security Agency Training Center and School a year and a half after the Yom Kippur War.

“We duly reported this,” Walters continued. “But one of my experiences with the intelligence business has been that the analysts generally shrink from telling you something really unpleasant, and even after we try to fit every piece of intelligence in to show that it wasn’t going to happen on the 6th of October. We finally got ourselves convinced that it wasn’t going to happen on the 6th of October. As a matter of fact, I’m the guy that signed the Watch Report that said it wasn’t going to happen that Saturday morning, and it happened that Saturday afternoon.”

Walters’ story, in which he attests to being a senior partner to the mistake, is one of the fragments making up the legend of the October 6, 1973 secret.

Supposedly, the war’s beginning was decided upon many months and weeks before it began and the date was a closely-kept secret that foreign intelligence failed to crack. Another part of the legend is the conclusion from the meeting of top agent Ashraf Marwan with Mossad chief Zvi Zamir in London, on Yom Kippur eve, when Marwan warned that the next day the war would begin. Marwan may not have called the exact hour, or perhaps he did, and the report was disrupted on its way by telephone to Tel Aviv – and the Egyptian-Syrian attack began at 2 P.M., not at 6 P.M. But with all its influence on the lateness in preparation, this is a negligible detail compared to Marwan’s naming the day on which the war would break out, which was the only such report Israel received.

It’s strange to find out that in the 43 years since the war, especially since the moment that Marwan’s identity and importance as a source were exposed, this performance – of failing to find out the day the war was to begin – was accepted and almost not confronted at all. The result was a shallow approach to the division of responsibility between the government and IDF, and a similar approach to the division of responsibility for gathering research between the complacent Military Intelligence and the worried Mossad.

Senior Mossad officials were the ones to pop this balloon. They found a contradiction between the gravity of the warning to the army and the conduct of the Mossad. They say that although Zamir took off in a rush after hearing from his top agent a warning of war, no emergency alert was called in the Mossad and Zamir didn’t bother to bring a command team with him or at least a communications man, so that he wouldn’t have to search for a public phone or knock on the embassy’s doors, when every second counted. Many hours were lost until Zamir’s assistant received the report and passed it on to the prime minister, defense minister, chief of staff and Military Intelligence head.

Something similar happened in the Shin Bet two years ago, in the argument with Military Intelligence on evaluating Hamas activity ahead of the 2014 war in Gaza. Shin Bet officials said they gave the IDF a warning of war months in advance. If that were true, then Chief of Staff Benny Gantz was responsible for a serious failure. This is an outrageous accusation after the “never again” of the Yom Kippur War. The proof that the Shin Bet claim was unfounded was that the organization itself didn’t believe it and didn’t go on a war footing.

In the history of war there are many cases of change – cancellation or delay – in the campaign’s opening date. The invasion of Normandy was scheduled for June 5, 1944 and because of the weather was postponed to the 6th. At the end of May 1967, Egypt and Israel were about to open fire, almost at the same time, but reversed their intention. Often the problem is operative rather than intelligence-related – eight precious hours before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, American pilots demanded that the aircraft be removed from bases in the Philippines. General MacArthur’s chief of staff refused to disturb him with such a trifle. The Japanese were less disciplined when they came for another crushing attack.

In 1973 everyone in Israel knew that without progress in a peace agreement with Egypt, Anwar Sadat could go to war, as he had been threatening to do for three years. Everyone knew, but refused to acknowledge it. The general staff and government maintained that without Syria, Egypt wouldn’t go into a war it was sure to lose against all the IDF’s might concentrated on one front.

Sadat’s considerations for when to start the war exceeded the jurisdiction of the military planners. The political and military leadership calculated the state’s economy, ties to the Soviet Union

The Egyptians identified three convenient time windows for opening the war – May, August and September-October. They found eight religious holidays, three of them in October – Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simhat Torah. In October Israel was to have Knesset elections, which occupied the public, including the reserves. The weather was good for crossing the canal in October, the nights are long and the sea is calm for activity. In 1973 Ramadan also occurred in October, a good cover to move forces and deceive the enemy. Also, in Syria the weather gets bad and wintry after October. October 6 was recommended.

If this is what Walters meant when he spoke about the information the CIA had in late May, the skepticism at the time is understandable. Sadat agreed with Assad not to start a war before the two armies held a meeting of the joint supreme committee. The committee, 16 generals and admirals, met in Alexandria on August 22 and the following day. The Syrians came in civilian clothes on a cruise ship, for fear their plane would be hijacked by Israel and their secret revealed.

On September 30 – five days after Jordan’s King Hussein warned Prime Minister Golda Meir that “the Syrian army is poised to attack” and that Syria was unlikely to go to war without Egypt, and two days after Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko warned Nixon that “any day we could wake up to war,” Sadat summoned Egypt’s defense council for an overall assessment. Sadat concluded that war was inevitable because without it, Egypt would collapse. The following day Sadat issued a strategic order for limited war on October 6.

Still, for every fairly reliable report of war within a week after October 1, there was a report, no less reliable, that contradicted it.

On October 1 the order to act on October 6 was given only to the commanders of the second and third armies. On October 3 the division heads were told and the next day the information passed to the brigade commanders, who wondered whether this was a real order or just an addition to the exercise.

To mislead the Soviets, the Egyptian military intelligence head said there were reports about an Israeli plan to carry out a major raid and air strike. There were other deceptions, planned or improvised. On September 17, Egypt’s chief of staff Saad al-Shazly told Algerian President Houari Boumediene, “We’ll go to war in three months.” The next day, in Morocco, Shazly told King Hassan of the intention to go to war and asked him to send an infantry brigade on a ship to Alexandria on October 1.

“To my amazement, Hassan said he’d rather the brigade leaves only at the beginning of November. I couldn’t persuade him without disclosing the set date,” he said.

The Egyptians decided on the sixth of the month and 6 P.M., based on the last light, which was supposed to blind the Israeli Air Force pilots in their sorties to attack the forces crossing the canal eastward, and from the maximum length of the night. But when Egypt’s war minister Ahmad Ismail Ali arrived in Damascus on Wednesday October 3, he confronted the Syrian calculations and it turned out that they disagreed with the date and the time. Assad demanded to postpone the combined attack to Monday, October 8, at first light, so that the sun would blind the pilots attacking the invaders westward.

When Marwan called Zamir to set an appointment, his information was updated to the morning of October 3. It was outdated – two days old – when they met in London, although it was partially valid again when Marwan ran into a friend from Egypt Air in London and heard from him that the airline’s aircraft were removed from Cairo’s international airport, for fear it would be attacked.

But Marwan didn’t know that the date was changed during Ali’s visit in Damascus. Ali refused to give up October 6, claiming he was not allowed to alter it without Shazly’s consent. Bargaining, they reached a compromise to start the war at 2 P.M. instead of 6 P.M.

When Marwan told Zamir that Sadat was still capable of reneging on going to war, he knew what he was talking about. Exactly at the same time Shazly retired for a last nap before the war on the following day, but couldn’t sleep. Although Egyptian submarines with attack plans were sent on “missions that could not be canceled,” Shazly wondered whether Sadat was deciding to cancel the orders at that moment. That’s how a military man speaks. Statesmen think differently. Sadat told him he knew nothing about politics. What would he do if the president calls the operation off?

Shazly testified that he was afraid to answer the last question. Even 12 hours before the war started, the Egyptian chief of staff assessed that the likelihood of canceling the war wasn’t low.

Ultimately, Israeli intelligence had assessments of their moves (evacuating Soviet families from Syria and Egypt, a cable from an Iraqi military attache), but not a confirmed report about the day and hour of the war.

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