On One of Israel's Most Controversial Battle Campaigns

‘Crossing’ is the most comprehensive study of one of the toughest battle campaigns in IDF history, the Yom Kippur War’s crossing of the Suez Canal.

Uri Bar-Joseph
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Uri Bar-Joseph

Tzliha: Shishim Sha’ot
Be’oktober 1973
(Crossing: Sixty Hours in October 1973), by Amiram Ezov. Dvir Publishers (Hebrew) 317 pages, NIS 89

The crossing of the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War was one of the most difficult, important and controversial battle campaigns in the history of Israel’s wars. In the fighting on the first night of the operation (October 15-16, 1973), codenamed Abirei Lev (“Knights of the Heart”), the 14th Brigade, under Col. Amnon Reshef’s command, lost 120 combatants. Another 62 soldiers were wounded. In the entire history of the Israel Defense Forces, no brigade had ever paid such a high price in bloodshed within so short a time. The following night, the 890th Battalion lost 41 soldiers, and more than 100 were wounded, in the Battle of the Chinese Farm. Over the four days of the campaign, 450 Israeli combatants were killed, with another 1,200 being wounded. This was the price paid to attain the strategic turning point on the Suez front. The turning point was indeed attained.

Yom Kippur War, laying a bridge over the Suez Canal.Credit: IDF Spokesman’s Office

The crossing’s battles also became the central focus of the “war of the generals,” as well as of fights between historians. Ariel Sharon’s version, as commander of the 143rd Division, which bore the brunt of penetrating and establishing the bridgehead, and which was written up by the journalist Uri Dan, who had been sitting in Sharon’s command half-track, and by Sharon himself in his autobiography, faces off against the version of Avraham “Bren” Adan, commander of the 162nd Division, which crossed over to the western bank of the canal; and against Hanoch Bartov’s version in his biography of David Elazar, the IDF chief of staff during the war. The echoes of the battles the paratroopers fought at the Chinese Farm largely overshadowed the no-less heroic fighting that was waged by the 14th Brigade. It is no wonder, then, that many aspects of this campaign remain controversial to this day.

More than a decade

Dr. Amiram Ezov toiled for more than a decade in the IDF history department researching the war on the southern front. His new book presents only part of that project, and the result is a credit to his efforts. “Crossing” is the most comprehensive, accurate and authoritative study that has appeared to date on the battle campaign that was one of the toughest in IDF history.

The book opens with a description of the strategic dilemma on the southern front at the end of the war’s first week, on October 12. On the one hand, there was the assessment of Israel Air Force chief Benny Peled that continued erosion of the air force would soon lead to a situation in which he would not be able to provide support for a broad-scale crossing maneuver.

Following the failed IDF offensive on October 8, the crossing of the Canal and outflanking the Egyptian 2nd and 3rd armies that were deployed on its eastern bank was considered to be the only option for attaining victory on the southern front. On the other hand, there was concern that an attempted crossing before most of the Egyptian armored forces moved over to the eastern side might end in failure, creating a situation in which the IDF was left with insufficient strength to protect Israel.

After deliberations on October 12, Golda Meir’s war cabinet was leaning toward agreeing to an immediate cease-fire, which meant admitting defeat on the southern front. But then critical information arrived from the Mossad that the Egyptians were preparing to resume the offensive. A decision was made to wait for the offensive, defeat it, and then move to a counterattack. And, indeed, the defeat the Egyptians suffered in their offensive of October 14 is what made it possible to embark on the operation to cross the Suez Canal.

Ezov does a fine job of describing the difficulties the complex operation entailed: The IDF had no experience negotiating a water obstacle; contrary to all the planning, the operation did not commence at the waterline itself but rather kilometers from there, and penetrating the Egyptian deployment and clearing the crossing zone became the main effort; all of the movement to the bridgehead took place on the first night along a single route, which created a massive traffic jam; and the units that had practiced transporting the bridging to the waterline were fighting elsewhere, so the ones that ultimately carried out the job ran into trouble because they were inexperienced. As a result, the first bridge, the pontoon bridge, was laid over the canal 48 hours after the operation began and the second bridge, the roller-bridge, 33 hours later. The plan for the Abirei Lev operation called for both bridges to become operational on the first night of the operation.

All of the units in one piece

Most of the book deals with the fight, in large part by Sharon’s division, to take the crossing zone. Here Ezov navigates between all levels of the campaign, and Ezov simultaneously and sure-handedly weaves the roles that were played by all of the units into one piece: the fighting by the 14th Brigade tanks at the Lexicon-Tirtur junction on the first night, in which 56 tanks were lost, and the heavy price the “Shunari force” paid that night in trying to break through that same junction; the slow and determined movement along the congested route of the reservist paratroopers brigade, which was supposed to cross over first and take the bridgehead on the western side of the canal; the unavoidable mishaps in bringing the bridging equipment to the waterline, which, together with the ongoing failure to eliminate the blocking of the Tirtur route, completely disrupted the operation’s original timetable; the attempt to seize control of the route by means of paratroopers instead of tanks, which resulted in the 890th Battalion’s tragic battle at the Chinese Farm; the constant worry that because of the delay in laying the bridges it would be necessary to recall the force that was already operating west of the canal; and the successful end to the campaign, when the pontoon bridge was erected and the 162nd Division began to cross over it and execute its original mission, encircling the Egyptian 3rd Army.

That same collection of factors that disrupts every battle plan (what is termed in warfare studies “Clausewitzian friction”) played a key part in determining the unfolding of the campaign. Not only did the combatants lack good operational intelligence, but also in quite a few cases the senior command had difficulty reading the picture of the battlefield correctly. This difficulty stemmed not only from complicated operational conditions, but also from the growing lack of trust between Sharon, whose division was tasked with missions that in retrospect turned out to be greater than it could handle, and the rest of the campaign’s commanders, who suspected him, sometimes justly, of not telling the whole truth. Ezov describes this friction in detail, in some cases while making use of source material that was never used before now. In one such case Moshe Dayan wonders, a few hours before the Chinese Farm battle began, why the 890th Battalion has to be sent on this dangerous mission when “a single plane with CBU” (cluster bombs) could achieve similar results. Sadly, this ministerial comment was not accepted and the price the paratroopers paid was a heavy one.

But in the end the IDF got the job done. This accomplishment, against all odds, was a product not only of the high professional level of both reservists and conscripts, primarily the tank crews, but also, and mainly, of the fighting spirit and value of persistence. Writes Ezov: “Even when it encountered obstacles that at times were perceived as insurmountable, even when it suffered losses on a scale no one had foreseen, even when entire units disintegrated the IDF streamed westward, and did not stop streaming until the cease-fire was declared.” And indeed, the IDF that comes across in his book and in everything that is known about the ’73 war in general was evidently the best army ever at Israel’s disposal.

Extraordinarily fine

Three things make “Crossing” an extraordinarily fine book. The first is the expertise. The many years of research Ezov conducted in the IDF history department made him the authority in Israel on the subject of the crossing and what preceded it. The second is the wealth of source material. Ezov apparently had recourse to the best sources you can find on the events of those days, sources that any other scholar can only dream of, and he made proper use of them, even though he did not always credit them with the requisite source citation. The third is the lack of bias. Ezov makes an obvious effort to present every aspect of the campaign, without giving preference to one narrative over another. The overall result is the most authoritative description to date of the crossing campaign, and a book that will stand the test of time for years to come.

This review cannot end without addressing the disagreement that the book’s publication gave rise to between the author and the IDF history department. As mentioned, the book is grounded in the research that Ezov conducted for many years in that department, in the course of which he wrote several volumes about the war on the southern front. The department’s head, Prof. Alon Kadish, felt for some reason that revisions were necessary; when Ezov refused to comply, it was decided not to distribute the study within the IDF despite its great contribution to research on the war. This is not an exceptional case.

Despite the interest that the Yom Kippur War generates to this day among the Israeli public, the IDF history department through the ages and various parties in the IDF systematically prevent any authoritative publication about the war, and take care to preserve the monopoly they have on the material in their archives. As a consequence, nearly everything that has been published about the war to date is journalistic literature, some good and some less so, and personal memoirs. These have not been grounded in systematic and orderly research that relied on authoritative sources.

The effort invested in preventing authoritative, objective, high-quality publications about the Yom Kippur War runs counter to the public interest in the subject. It is high time the IDF released to the general public, in part veterans of that war who paid a heavy price for it, all of the relevant material stored in its warehouses. No big security secrets there, but of potential for studies of quality, as Amiram Ezov’s book demonstrates, there is plenty.

Prof. Uri Bar-Joseph teaches in the international relations department at the University of Haifa. His book “The Angel: Ashraf Marwan, the Mossad and the Surprise of the Yom Kippur War” (in Hebrew) was published this year by Zmora-Bitan.