Early in the morning of October 14, 1973, Ira Efron, a company commander of the Armored Division’s 46th Battalion, was in the middle of a shower. As panic ensued, he was called to get on top of a tank.
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“I was naked. I put on overalls and ran barefoot to the tank,” he told Haaretz about his part in the eighth day of the Yom Kippur War. “The map flew away from me, but I didn’t stop.”
When he approached Wadi Mabouk in the Sinai Peninsula, he didn’t believe his eyes. “I saw in the valley below many Egyptian tanks in a completely static position,” he recalled. “We fired wildly at them from a very short distance. We finally behaved like real tank crewmen. It was over very quickly.”
Forty-four years have gone by and the Battle of Wadi Mabouk is now studied in military schools as “an exemplary ambush battle.”
Despite this clash’s overwhelming success for the Israel Defense Forces, the IDF has yet to document the battle sufficiently. Thus the story of the tank crews’ heroism has been absent from the discussion both inside and outside the army.
Brig. Gen. (ret.) Gideon Avidor was the intelligence officer of the 252nd Division, which commanded Dan Shomron’s 401st Brigade, within which the battalion operated.
A few years ago, Avidor decided to thoroughly research the fighting “in order to present the full battle picture,” as he put it. He spent months in the archives and met with veterans of the clash in the desert. He also reviewed the division’s record of operations, transcripts of communications recordings, and Egyptian archival material.
That produced a booklet called “From Surprise to Knockout,” which notes how the fighters of the 46th Battalion “managed a firing range and destroyed dozens of targets” – Egyptian tanks, armored personnel carriers and trucks.
The Israeli tank battalion, which fought alongside the 202nd paratrooper battalion, the 89th Battalion and air and artillery support, destroyed most of the 60 Egyptian tanks that were taken out that day. The Egyptians thus failed in their bid to capture a key pass in the Sinai.
In a meeting with Haaretz in June, some of the commanders and fighters from the battle gathered in Tel Aviv to recall the events.
“At around 6:30 we started to hear on the communications about clouds of dust. We realized that something was happening,” said David Shoval, the battalion’s commander. Shoval later became a brigadier general.
Attorney Gilead Sher, a chief of staff under Prime Minister Ehud Barak and today chairman of Sapir Academic College, was then a gunner in a tank led by Yaron Ram.
“I fired the first shell while madly charging,” he said. “We caught a large part of the tanks from fairly close range of a few hundred meters. We fired continuously until the ammunition ran out. We realized that the attack was halted, so we then went from target to target.”
As Itay Margalit, a company commander in the 89th Battalion, put it, "Yaron's tanks hit all the positions; those guys lit up tank after tank. You don’t even see such a thing in the movies.”
“We were in ideal firing positions,” Shoval added. The Egyptians “looked like a dream target a turkey shoot. They were spread across the Wadi.”
Within a few hours, the Egyptians were routed. “The Egyptian armored brigade was caught in a fatal trap,” according to the book “The Story of a Battalion” about the 46th Battalion.
The Egyptian brigade commander was killed, and the brigade’s soldiers abandoned their tanks, jumped from the trucks and armored personnel carriers, and “everyone tried to save himself,” Avidor wrote. “What started as potential chaos ended in total victory.”
The Israeli success wasn’t a given because the Egyptian attack caught the division by surprise. The division was expecting an Egyptian attack elsewhere.
For this reason, as Avidor writes, “the battle was improvised according to the procedure of a hasty battle while staying on the move.”
Avidor concluded that a number of factors contributed to the victory, including quick, correct responses and the high professionalism of the fighters and commanders. But he admits that there were two more key factors: “a lot of luck and the schlemiel-like character and low professionalism of the Egyptians.”