Catastrophe, SOS, avalanche, “melancholia” and “a war for the Land of Israel.” These harsh words were used by the heads of the Israel Defense Forces and members of the inner cabinet in the first days of the Yom Kippur War, to describe the IDF’s perilous situation on all fronts. Among the proposed “solutions”: “to break Syria,” “to attack Damascus,” “to slaughter the Egyptians” and “to get the Arabs off our head.”
On Monday, for the 49th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, the IDF and Defense Establishment Archive is publishing the wartime diary of Avner Shalev (later the chair of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum), then the bureau chief of IDF Chief of Staff David Elazar, recording the remarks of Elazar, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and other senior officers.
On two fronts – the northern and the southern – the situation was described in the first days in harsh words. “The situation at the southern [Suez] canal is bad to very bad,” Deputy Chief of Staff Israel Tal said October 7, the second day of the war. “In the northern sector the situation is bad,” he said. “Haka is on his last legs,” warned Dayan, using the nickname of the head of the Northern Command, Yitzhak Hofi. “The air force attacked the missiles in Syria, lost many planes … most of them Phantoms. There’s no indication of success. The price – is dear,” said a later entry. “All the outposts are surrounded and encircled and can’t be evacuated,” was Tal’s update.
The head of the Southern Command, Shmuel Gonen, requested air cover. Elazar replied: “Try to hold on. If there’s an SOS, a catastrophe, you’ll get a “kela,” referring to an air force attack method for bombing targets scattered over an area.
Dayan feared the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the Six-Day War, would fall back into their hands. “I want to approach Mount Canaan to see the situation up close, whether we’re going to lose the Golan Heights,” he is quoted in the diaries as saying. “We don’t have a good picture of the situation in the Golan Heights,” Elazar said. “There was a partial evacuation of communities, on the general’s order, to prevent a fall,” the chief of staff added. “[Dayan] spread melancholia,” according to a comment in the diary.
Haim Bar-Lev: ‘The situation is very grave. Very grave. Egypt has no reason now to reach a cease-fire. Even if Syria screams to high heaven.’
Signs of the “wars of the generals” were already apparent; Elazar was quoted as saying: “I talk, and they don’t act,” referring to the head of the Northern Command, Hofi, and of the 162nd Armored Division, in Sinai, Avraham Adan. The next day, October 8, Elazar said: “[Gonen] doesn’t have a good picture, there isn’t good communication,” and prepared the ground for ousting him as Southern Command chief later in the war.
The diary later records a harsh statement by the chief of staff against Ariel Sharon, the commander of the 143rd Armored Division – which crossed the Suez Canal about a week later, in a move that changed the face of the war. “I’ll ask [former Chief of Staff Haim Bar-Lev, who was now assisting the chief of staff] to check what happened with [Sharon], whether he attacked with the division in defiance of the order, and lied,” Elazar said. “Let [Bar-Lev] decide to kick him out, to prosecute after the war,” he added.
The pessimism intensified October 8. Elazar reported, “Many of our tanks simply sank.” Dayan said, “The nation and the government have no idea about the situation,” adding: “And there won’t be a cease-fire before the Arabs want it.” The defense minister added a lesson for the future: “What this war will cost the Arabs is that this is the last time in their lives when they will not receive a preemptive strike.”
On October 9 Elazar called the situation in Sinai “very bad,” saying there were “a lot of losses – nobody knows how many.” He added: “The Egyptians are crossing, everything is terrible, it’s very hard for us, we’re in a catastrophe.” Later he warned: “[Adan] wasn’t successful. Our situation is bad. The balance of forces is already very much against us. They’ll get organized and they’ll eat us up.”
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Dayan harshly criticized the commander of the 162nd Division, saying: “[Adan] left behind 50 tanks – that’s abandonment.” Adan was not the defense minister’s only target: Dayan also said, “We lack good, experienced commanders.” Among the commanders he did not respect were Yitzhak Rabin (who played no official role in the war) and Ezer Weizman (who was called up for reserve duty as an aide to the chief of staff).
In discussions, various ideas were put forward in an attempt to get out of the entanglement. Among other things, Elazar was quoted as saying: “Attack Damascus hard and request a cease-fire. If they don’t give us one – we’ll break Syria.” Dayan proposed “to slaughter” the Syrians and “to slaughter [the Egyptian army] in cold blood.”
Tal suggested “to take care of them with all kinds of activities” and called “to get these Arabs out of our head.” Dayan went into a panic, said, “This is a war for the Land of Israel,” and in discussions called to replace commanders and to bring in Jewish soldiers from abroad as reinforcements. At the same time, he also called for combat training for “the elderly” and “young people” and to “equip the entire Jewish community in Israel to be able to withstand tanks.” Referring to a briefing of cabinet ministers on the war, Dayan said: “They got a shock to the point of fearing for [Prime Minister Golda Meir’s] health.” Yisrael Galili, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, said: “The chief of staff explained that in defense there are ups and downs. We’re at a nadir and maybe we haven’t seen the worst of it yet.”
The diary quotes Meir as presenting what she called a “completely insane thought.” On October 9, she proposed arranging a secret visit to Washington to meet with U.S. President Richard Nixon, in which she would request “lots of equipment, and fast.” She explained: “It seems to me that is the main card we can use with the Americans, that they won’t abandon us.” Dayan agreed that Meir’s proposal was “insane,” when the prime minister asked him, but added that “it needs to be done.” When Meir was asked what she would ask of Nixon, she replied: “Let him give as if the front was his. The American army. Let him give all that is needed.”
The prime minister’s remarks were said in part in light of the airlift to Syria from Russia that was detected by the IDF. In the end, the Americans organized an airlift and a sealift that delivered tens of thousands of tons of weapons and ammunition to Israel.
On October 10 Elazar warned of “the greatest danger,” as he put it – “the Arab realization that we’re in trouble” and the fear that “then their appetite will grow, forces will be added.” He expressed hope for a cease-fire. “Today I checked with myself again the goal of the war. Today I doubt the war can be ended without territorial loss ... a grim assessment: If they offer a cease-fire today I would say yes. Since they’re not offering, I must try to make it better. I’ll try not to make it worse. It can’t be any better.”
Dayan even warned of the possibility of an additional front, on the east. “Take into account that both Iraq and Jordan will join the Syrian front. Morocco is there and in that way the Jordanians can get a front and go in with their tanks. An eastern front may be established,” he said.
The issue of IDF casualties also appears in the diary. On that day, 310 soldiers were reported dead, 1,100 wounded and 100 missing. “Families – we did not announce anything,” the diary said, referring to the families of these service members. “I suggest not to inform them before Sunday.” Later in the diary there is a report that Radio Cairo was about to publish the names of some of the IDF soldiers who were taken captive. A representative from Military Intelligence ordered the report censored.
Brig. Gen. Yekutiel Adam, the deputy head of Northern Command, said during the discussion: “There were moments the likes of which I never experienced before.” He later elaborated, in an unclear context – possibly referring to the fear that the Syrians would break through toward Lake Kinneret: “You feel it erupts like a stream of drugged people. Crazy people who don’t stop. Your stomach drops, your throat and your head feel dry. On the [army radio system] suddenly someone says, “I’m leaving you and going to Tiberias alone.”
On October 11, for the first time the diary also records positive remarks. These include “wonderful results” regarding the southern front and “our situation in the north is good to very good.”
But the following day former Chief of Staff Haim Bar-Lev warned: “The situation is very grave. Very grave. Egypt has no reason now to reach a cease-fire. Even if Syria screams to high heaven. If we can lead things so that [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat also has a reason to reach a cease-fire. And we can achieve that by getting Sadat’s military force into a difficult situation. ... This cannot be done from our side, because the initiative is in their hands.”
On October 14 there is optimism again. “In the south, exceptional, wonderful,” the diary says. Pages of the diary from later in the war have not been published yet. Parts of the published materials have also been censored.