Shattered Heights: Part 2
In the predawn hours of Monday, October 8, 1973, the second morning of the Yom Kippur War, Col. Avraham Rotem started up the Golan Heights from Ein Gev with two halftracks and a jeep. The small convoy traveled on the Maaleh Gamla road without lights, its occupants listening to the distant sound of artillery and tank cannon getting closer.
As deputy division commander, Rotem had been ordered by Gen. Moshe (Mussa) Peled to take command of the left wing of the counterattack that would shortly get under way. The brigade that Rotem was supposed to join atop the Heights was not responding to his radio calls, adding to the sense of unease about what was happening up there.
As they rounded a bend, Rotem heard the squeal of approaching tanks. It was not a welcome sound. Anything moving westward would be either retreating Israelis or advancing Syrians.
He ordered the drivers to pull over and cut the engines. When the tanks got closer he detected with relief the familiar sound of Centurion engines. Dark hulks loomed ahead and he flashed a recognition signal.
As the tanks came abreast Rotem saw that they were covered with soldiers, some of them wounded. In the turret of the lead tank was Lt.-Col. Oded Erez, the battalion commander who had defended the southern sector of the Purple Line before its collapse.
He had set out after darkness from Tel Fares with 12 tanks and a halftrack that had taken aboard 180 men who had survived the Syrian deluge. For close to 10 agonizing hours, Erez had led the way in the darkness through the Syrian lines, pausing a couple of times to unload his passengers and skirmish with enemy tanks with his last shells.
The impression the encounter made on Rotem was bleak. The retreating convoy carried with it the whiff of defeat and shock. Rotem knew, however, that the tide was about to turn.
Gen. Peled had briefed his officers earlier in the evening in a eucalyptus grove at Tzemah at the southern end of Lake Kinneret. Northern Command, he said, had doubled the divisions strength by attaching to it two reserve armored brigades already on the southern Heights.
The Ninth, commanded by Col. Mordechai Ben-Porat, had been in contact with the enemy since Sunday afternoon north of El Al with its vintage Sherman tanks. The Fourth, commanded by Col. Yaacov Adar, had ascended the Maaleh Gamla road this evening and would go into action in the morning. Rotem was to join Adar and take command of the left wing.
There was virtually no intelligence available about the situation on the Heights, said Peled, except that the Syrian army had penetrated the southern Golan in great strength. The division was not dependent on fresh intelligence, however, in order to achieve its objective. Its mission, the one he had outlined at Northern Front headquarters a few hours before, was not to seek out the main enemy force but to drive for the Rafid and Kudne gaps, cutting the Syrian gateways into the Golan south of Kuneitra. The Kuneitra gap itself was still being held shut by Avigdor Ben-Gals Seventh Brigade.
Once the entry points into the Golan were closed and the supply routes cut, Syrian forces remaining on the Heights could be annihilated.
By concentrating divisional strength on a narrow front, said Peled, they would be able to push through anything the Syrians put in their way. In addition, by approaching from the south, they would be hitting the Syrians on their flank. As for now, he advised, officers and men should try to get a few hours of sleep before battle was joined. There would be little time for it afterward.
Commanding the cutting-edge brigade in the division was Col. Yossi Peled (no relation to Gen. Mussa Peled). While his tanks had been making their slow way northward from the center of the country Sunday afternoon, he had driven up in a jeep with his operations officer to feel out the approaches to the Golan.
Like many other regular officers, upon hearing of the outbreak of fighting on Saturday he had been afraid he would miss the war that he expected to end quickly with a resounding Israeli victory. He felt that way until he reached Ein Gev at the foot of the Golan Sunday afternoon and saw antitank defenses being set up on the perimeter of the kibbutz. The perceived need to defend a settlement inside Israel shocked the young colonel into awareness for the first time that this was not the seventh day of the Six Day War.
Continuing past the kibbutz, Yossi Peled turned up the Maaleh Gamla road and had just begun climbing when his jeep was fired on from the Heights.
The Syrians, he realized in astonishment, were already at the edge of the escarpment. A survivor of the Holocaust as a boy in Belgium, Yossi Peled found himself beset with existential thoughts he had believed were long behind him.
Nearly half the tanks in the brigade had broken down on the way north because of the long distance they had to travel on their treads in the absence of tank transporters. These tanks would be repaired and join the brigade on Monday. The rest of the tanks reached Tzemah late Sunday afternoon to find that there were no fuel trucks awaiting them.
Since the Centurions operated on ordinary petrol rather than diesel, the division supply officer persuaded the proprietor of the gas station at the Tzemah junction to let the tanks fill up on the basis of an IOU to be redeemed after the war. The drivers lined up at the pumps, sitting in their tanks like weekend holidaymakers at the lakeshore.
It was with this civilian fuel that the bulk of the division under Gen. Mussa Peled started up the road to battle at 2:30 a.m on Monday, 36 hours after the start of the war. By midmorning, the force reached Ben-Porats brigade near El Al. After a briefing from Ben-Porat and his battalion commanders, the division commander ordered Yossi Peled to take the lead with his brigade and begin driving northward.
In Safed Hospital, Baruch Askarov, a high-school senior, found his brother Shmuel on Sunday afternoon lying in bed with his forehead and throat wrapped in bandages. The officers vocal cords had been damaged by shrapnel from the Syrian shell that propelled him from his tank at Bunker 111 the day before. He could not talk louder than a whisper and he could not turn his head.
Baruch had read an account in that mornings newspaper of an officer hospitalized in Safed whose tank had destroyed more than 30 Syrian tanks in the opening hours of the war. Even though the article gave a different name, Baruch had recognized his brother from the description and hitchhiked up from Tel Aviv.
In the next bed was a wounded officer whose face and blond hair were blackened by gunpowder. The officer, who seemed to be in a daze, kept shifting restlessly and muttering to himself Aizeh bardak, aizeh bardak [What a mess, what a mess]. Shmuel identified him to his young brother as Zvika Greengold. Greengolds performance in the chaotic battle to stop the Syrians on the Tapline Road the first night of the war would earn him the nations highest award for bravery.
During the day, Shmuel Askarov received visits and calls from rear-echelon officers from his brigade. They reported an unending series of disasters. The brigade, the 188th, had in effect been wiped out. Its commander, Col. Yitzhak Ben-Shoham, was dead. So were his deputy and the operations officer. Their bodies had not yet been found.
The remnants of Askarovs battalion 12 out of 33 tanks were cut off behind enemy lines on Tel Fares; battalion commander Oded Erez was virtually without ammunition. The 188ths other battalion had been attached to the Seventh Brigade and its fate was unknown.
Soldiers on the Heights had begun to desert. Divisional headquarters at Nafekh had been captured by the Syrians. This last was incorrect: The Syrians had broken into Nafekh but had not captured it.
Askarov, at 24 the youngest deputy battalion commander in the IDF, had been operated on the day before and told that he would have to remain hospitalized for two weeks. However, with a disaster of this magnitude looming, hospitalization was not a luxury he could permit himself. He reached his driver by telephone and told him to bring a uniform. Early Monday morning, together with a wounded battalion commander from the Seventh Brigade, Yos Eldar, Askarov escaped Safed Hospital and headed eastward in Eldars jeep.
Eldar continued on to his brigade at the front, but Askarov, who no longer had a brigade to return to, got off at a large tank depot near Rosh Pina. What was needed on the Golan, he reasoned, were tanks, mechanics and crewmen.
He found 150 men at the depot, some of whom had descended the Heights on their own after their tanks were hit. Gathering them round and speaking as loudly as he could, he said he was returning to the Golan and wanted to take them with him. Every man was needed there. He had rounded up four trucks at the depot, he said, to carry them.
It seemed for a moment that he had convinced the men to follow him, but then an officer spoke up. Im a major and I ran away. You can put me in prison, but Im not going back to that hell.
In the circumstances, that sounded to the others more like the voice of reason than Askarovs plea for heroics. Askarov drove off to the Golan with a solitary officer from the brigade.
His first stop was Nafekh, which he was relieved to find still in Israeli hands. On the basis of reports about Ben-Shohams last whereabouts, he located the brigade commanders upended tank and found his body inside.
One hundred meters to the rear was the body of Ben-Shohams deputy, David Yisraeli. He had abandoned his tank after it had fired its last shell as Syrian tanks closed in. Yisraeli had taken with him a machine-gun from his tank and attempted to take up position behind rocks, but was himself cut down by a machine-gun burst.
Askarov drove from there to his battalions rear base on the Heights. It was filled with tank crewmen, mechanics and damaged tanks, but there was little activity. The men were dispirited and listless. Oded Erez was there, too, but the battalion commander seemed emotionally drained after losing two-thirds of his battalion trying to hold off two Syrian divisions and after the excruciating passage through the Syrian lines.
Askarov, a popular figure in the battalion, called the men together. Despite his raspy whisper, he managed to transmit to them his purposefulness and sense of urgency. The situation was desperate, he said, and everything must be done to get tanks ready for battle in the morning.
Mechanics were soon swarming over the damaged tanks, cannibalizing some in order to repair others. Askarov formed crews from volunteers who readily came forward, men who had lost their tanks during the battle and were prepared to return to the front. Repairs went on intensely through the night with Erez, beginning to return to himself, pitching in.
At one point, a colonel from Northern Command arrived and was shocked at Askarovs physical appearance. He gave him a direct order to return to hospital.
Im commanding the brigade now, replied the young major, and Im giving orders here. The staff officer relented.
Shortly before dawn, someone tapped Askarov hard on the shoulder.
It was Col. Yossi Ben-Hanan, who had been battalion commander until replaced by Erez the month before. Ben-Hanan had been in Nepal on his honeymoon when he heard by chance three days before that his country was at war. He had rushed back as fast as he could and headed for the Golan.
Askarov handed over command of the force he had shaped. Their old battalion, destroyed in battle, appeared to have emerged from the ashes.
Col. Yossi Peleds first contact with the Syrian forces south of Ramat Magshimim was a textbook encounter. One of his battalions attacked the enemy head-on while a second struck from the flank.
The Syrians pulled back after half an hour, leaving 16 destroyed tanks. When Peleds spearhead reached Tel Saki shortly afterward, infantry sent to comb the hill were warned not to throw grenades into the bunker near its crest because Israeli soldiers might be there.
Paratroopers manning a lookout post on Tel Saki had been cut off on Saturday night together with stranded tank crewmen. The 15 men on the tel held off a Syrian force for several hours with machine-gun fire, but when ammunition was exhausted Sunday morning the survivors took shelter in the bunker, hoping the Syrians streaming west would forget about them and move on.
But the Syrians didnt. Infantrymen entering the bunker threw grenades into the inner room where the Israelis had congregated. Several were killed and all the rest wounded, some grievously. The Syrians refrained, however, from entering the room for fear that Israelis might still be alive there and waiting for them.
Some of the wounded Israelis were in fact waiting with cocked weapons. The wounded would remain in the room untended for more than 24 hours, trying not to groan lest Syrians entering the bunkers outer room hear them. During the night, a tank officer, one of the few who could still move unaided, ventured out to a disabled tank to retrieve a jerrican of water. The tank radio was still working and the officer notified headquarters of the situation.
When the Israeli counterattack began with an artillery barrage, some Syrians took shelter in the bunker and again threw grenades into the inner room without entering, inflicting further wounds. Ten men were still alive when rescue forces reached them a few hours later. Helicopters were waiting nearby to transport them to hospital.
At Bunker 116 on the Purple Line, Lt. Gur could see Syrians without weapons running eastward. They looked like tank crews whose tanks had been shot out from under them. It was the first hard evidence that the Israeli counterattack had begun. With rescue near, Gur decided not to shoot at the fleeing Syrians in order not to draw attention.
There had been a difficult battle the day before when Syrian tanks and infantry attacked the bunker, the only one still manned south of Kuneitra. There were no longer any tanks to help defend it. With the help of artillery called down on the bunker compound itself, the men in the position succeeded in repulsing the Syrians. At one point, Syrian soldiers had appeared in the bunker entrance and Gur, lying wounded, had shot them.
On Saturday, Gur and a soldier with a bazooka had knocked out two tanks just outside the bunker.
Now, on Monday morning, shortly after Gur saw the fleeing crewmen, the attack on the bunker was suddenly renewed with vigor. Tanks began pounding the already battered fortification from close range until it seemed about to collapse.
The bunker filled with dust and sherds of basalt. Syrian infantrymen entered the trenches once more under cover of the tank fire and fired rocket-propelled grenades at the bunker entrance.
Gur ordered the seriously wounded taken to the most protected part of the bunker. With two of the other walking wounded, he came out into the trench to find himself confronting three Syrian soldiers, one with a bandolier of bullets across his chest. The Syrians dodged for cover as Gur fired and his comrades threw grenades. The Syrians threw grenades as well and one exploded near Gur, wounding him again, this time in the face.
After a prolonged exchange, the Syrians pulled back. A blessed stillness descended on the bunker until late afternoon when a reconnaissance patrol from Mussa Peleds division reached the beleaguered outpost.
The conquest of Tel Juhadar by Yossi Peleds brigade on Monday provided the attack force with a view of the landscape north toward Tel Fares, the highest tel on the Golan and one of the divisions principal objectives. Hunkered down in the folds of the ground between the two hills were two battalions of Syrian infantry awaiting the Israeli tanks with antitank missiles.
These weapons had already proven devastating along the Suez Canal front, where entire tank units had been wiped out in minutes by Egyptian infantrymen rising from the sands.
Unlike in the Sinai, where Egyptian infantry were the first to cross the Suez Canal and engage Israeli armor, the Golan battles thus far had been mainly tank versus tank. But the Syrians intended to bring their missile-carrying infantry into full play to meet the Israeli counterattack.
Israel had known that the Arabs possessed Soviet antitank missiles and knew what these weapons could do. It had also known about the ground-to-air SAM missiles that the Arabs had acquired in great numbers.
But in assessing the implications of these weapons systems in a large-scale war, the IDF had not thought the matter through. Israeli military doctrine had not been changed to accommodate the far-reaching changes in the Arab armory. Thus, the tank forces in Sinai, despite knowledge of the antitank missiles in the hands of Egyptian infantry, attempted to brush aside or crush the foot soldiers who blocked their way to the canal crossings. They related to the infantrymen like inconsequential nuisances instead of formulating tactics to deal with them as the menace they had become.
Nor had Israel bothered to equip its own infantry with modern antitank weapons. The task of coping with Arab armor was left entirely to its own Tank Corps, which, in the initial stage on the Golan, was inundated by overwhelming numbers. (Israel would begin arming infantrymen for tank warfare during the war itself when an American airlift brought a supply of antitank missiles.)
It was known that SAM missiles would inhibit air-force activity, but inadequate thought had been given to the impact this would have on Israeli ground forces expecting air support. The Artillery Corps had been to a large extent neglected in the expectation that the air force would provide close support to the ground forces when needed. The SAMs, however, would make the air space over the battlefield too deadly for use.
A low opinion of Arab military ability in the wake of the Six Day War was probably the major reason for this slothful thinking, as if the Arabs would in any case not know how to use their new weapons effectively.
Now, however, when the Arabs were demonstrating that they could use them very well, changes in the Israeli response began to be made ad hoc on the battlefield. When lead elements of Mussa Peleds division reported their first encounter with infantry laying tank ambushes, the division commander, riding close behind the advancing units in his command halftrack, ordered artillery to lay down a barrage just ahead of the foremost tanks.
In the air, as well, effective change would come. With 30 to 40 missiles being fired from the ground at every approach of Israeli planes, Gen. Mordechai (Motti) Hod decided on a new tactic. He had planes head toward the missile batteries and then pull up sharply. Dozens of missiles would be fired, but the planes were out of range by the time the missiles gained sufficient altitude. Before long, the batteries were out of missiles and had become targets themselves.
Psychologically, too, change slowly became manifest. Exhilaration at seizing the offensive with overwhelming odds on their side was an important element in the Syrians initial success, together with the shock that overtook some of the defenders. The different reactions Askarov received from the personnel in the rear tank depot at Rosh Pina and the ones at the tank base on the Golan illustrated how a transitory mindset can make the difference between warrior and slacker.
Mussa Peleds armored counterattack was also a psychological counterattack, bringing with it a message to the Arabs facing him, and to his own men, that the tide was beginning to run the other way.
Maj. David Caspi, a deputy battalion commander in Yossi Peleds brigade, was shepherding a convoy of jeeps and trucks from the rear to a forward logistics center when a shell exploded alongside his halftrack.
Six Syrian tanks broke into the open to his right front at 600 meters. Caspi had no weapons capable of stopping the tanks, and it was impossible for the convoy to turn around on the narrow road. To remain in place was to provide the Syrians with a pleasant afternoon at a shooting gallery.
The only alternatives remaining were to order the convoy to turn left off the road and try to escape across the rocky fields, which might have added a bit of spice to the game for the Syrians, or to charge the tanks.
Caspi, an elementary-school principal in civilian life, sent an order to the men in the convoy on the radio net to dismount and charge. He and the halftrack behind him turned toward the tanks, which were now 200 meters distant.
At his command, the heavy machine-guns on the halftracks were fired in long bursts at the turrets of the two lead tanks. The effect was immediate. All six tanks stopped, their hatches opened and the crews bolted. The machine-gun fire could not harm the tanks, but the heavy hammering of the .50 caliber bullets on the turrets had clearly alarmed the tank commanders. Some of the Syrian crewmen were killed by the advancing skirmish line, but most escaped into the broken landscape.
Mussa Peleds progress in the southern Golan did not ease the pressure on Ori Orrs brigade on the central front. The Syrian First Armored Division, well led, unrelentingly pressed for Nafekh. Orrs brigade, which began the day with 60 tanks, little more than half its normal strength, blocked the Syrians in a brutal slugging match.
At one point, one of Orrs battalion commanders reported that his men were at the end of their tether. Ive got to pull back.
Negative, said Orr. The Syrians dont know its hard for you. Im behind you. Theyll break soon.
Erosion of personnel continued mercilessly. Two more of Orrs company commanders appointed only the day before were killed. The brigade was under constant artillery and Katyusha attack. After one close barrage in which everyone in the command halftrack ducked for cover as shrapnel rattled off the vehicles sides, the communications officer remained crouched on his seat.
You can get up now, said Orr. Its over.
When the officer did not rise, Orr touched his neck and his hand came away with blood. The wounded officer was carried off by medics.
Toward evening, Orr staged a counterattack after receiving six tanks as reinforcements and reached Sindiana, a few kilometers south of Nafekh. It was a victory that provided an important psychological lift to his men and to himself as well.
In the north, the Seventh Brigade was fighting a virtually separate war unrelated to events elsewhere on the Golan. Since Yom Kippur afternoon, the Syrians had been attacking unrelentingly, even at night, in a futile attempt to break the brigade line.
Col. Avigdor Ben-Gal was conducting a brilliant battle, constantly fine-tuning his tactics to achieve maximum effect against the overwhelming odds. Here too, however, erosion and weariness were beginning to tell.
Tuesday was to be the decisive day on all three major Golan fronts. The Syrians, who had had every reason to believe at the wars start that they would sweep the outnumbered Israelis from the Heights in 36 hours, had been thrown off stride by the astonishingly vigorous resistance and the early arrival of reservists. On Tuesday they threw into the battle everything they had, including their remaining reserves, in a last-ditch attempt at breakthrough.
Mussa Peled assembled his brigade commanders at 4 a.m. With first light, he said, they would make their final push for the Rafid Gap and the Tel Kudne approach, interdicting Syrian access to the southern Golan. They could expect fierce resistance.
Col. Yossi Peleds brigade would take the point. Col. Ben-Porats Ninth Brigade would attack the Hushniya area where the Syrians had concentrated large armored forces and antitank defenses.
Yossi Peleds brigade moved carefully as it started north, engaging in minor skirmishes as it braced for the Syrian counterblow.
Around 10 a.m. clouds of dust marked the approach of two separate tank columns from across the Syrian border. The Syrians had recognized the threat to their lifeline and were responding in force with 100 tanks.
For three hours, the two sides did battle at close range. When it was over, 55 destroyed Syrian tanks remained on the battlefield in what would prove the decisive battle on this front. The survivors pulled back across the border.
The Israeli brigade, which had gone into action the day before with 100 tanks, would have 20 remaining by this evening. The division as a whole ended the days battle with only 70 tanks but thanks to maintenance crews would begin anew in the morning with 200.
Meanwhile, Ben-Porats attack on Hushniya was repulsed. Col. Rotem, watching the failed assault from the divisions left flank, asked Gen. Mussa Peled to shift Ben-Porats Shermans to his sector in order to stage a flanking attack together with the Fourth Brigade. This was done.
Striking the Syrians from the side, the Israeli tanks swept through the rear of the Hushniya defenses without stopping, firing in all directions. After their passage, however, the Syrians reformed their defenses.
Approaching Rafid, Mussa Peled was employing three brigades on a narrow, six-kilometer-wide front, meeting the aroused Syrians with a powerful clenched fist. The division fought simultaneously in three directions driving enemy forces northward and staving off attacks coming from across the Syrian line to the east and from the Hushniya pocket to the west.
On the Central Front, Ori Orrs brigade was engaged in its most grueling battle yet. Syrian forces opened with a strong counterattack on Sindiana accompanied by a massive artillery and Katyusha bombardment. The Syrians still hoped to reach Nafekh by overwhelming Orrs line, worn thin by two days of combat. Braced for the attack, Orrs tanks began hitting the approaching Syrians at long range.
The brigade was fighting now like an efficient war machine. The awkwardness of the first day when the tank units were made up of men thrown together at random had been smoothed by three days of intensive fighting in which the crews had hardly left their tanks. The men had bonded and so had the brigade. The initial shock of war had given way to grim but efficient routine and fluid tactical movements that compensated for the enemys superior numbers.
In one of the rare moments he had for reflection in the midst of the harrowing battlefield, Orr drew deep comfort from the strength he saw emerging from this collection of reservists who had been strangers to each other such a short time before. It reflected, he felt, a power latent in the nation that could be tapped when there was a common goal and a leadership people could rally around.
On the first day, Orr had happened on a lieutenant standing in the middle of the battlefield in a state of shock, apparently the sole survivor of his tank. Instead of having him sent to the rear, the brigade commander took the young officer into his halftrack.
For the first day, the lieutenant sat in a corner saying nothing and staring blankly as the war raged around him. The second day, he began to display an interest in his surroundings and helped prepare food for the brigade staff. On the third day, he asked to be given command of a tank. Orr sent him back into battle.
On the Syrian side, the stubborn stand and accurate gunnery of the Israelis had begun to undermine morale. An Israeli electronic listening post reported picking up an order from a Syrian divisional commander to shell one of his own units that was refusing to attack.
Toward afternoon on Tuesday, the Syrians facing Orrs brigade began to be pressed on their left flank by a unit from Dan Laners division pushing up from the southwest. Orr took the offensive, ordering his forces to begin driving south toward Tel Ramtania, a position heavily fortified with antitank defenses. Half an hour before sunset his tanks rushed the tel, which overlooked Hushniya, and took it in a bitter, close-quarter free-for-all.
In the north, the epic of the Seventh Brigade would reach its climax this day. With the Syrian units in this sector making extensive use of night-fighting equipment, the battle had been going on intermittently night and day for three straight days. Five hundred Syrian tanks had flung themselves in waves at the 100 tanks of the brigade under the cover of massive artillery, whittling down the Israeli tanks on the front line to about 15.
The Israeli tank crews were physically exhausted and emotionally drained. A brigade staff officer in the command halftrack fell asleep as Ben-Gal was talking to him. Here and there men were beginning to flee.
Ben-Gal saw two tanks heading for the rear without authorization and asked their commanders on the radio where they were going. To refuel and rearm, they said. Ben-Gal ordered them back to the line. Commanders on both sides realized that they had reached the endgame and that one final effort, one minute more of endurance, could make the difference between victory and defeat.
The day had begun with the most massive Syrian barrage the depleted brigade had yet experienced. It was so fierce that Ben-Gal ordered the tanks on the ramparts overlooking the Vale of Tears, as the killing ground would come to be called, to pull back a few hundred meters to escape the murderous fire. Syrian tanks, however, were moving right behind the curtain of artillery and lead elements began to top the ramparts, now undefended.
The attackers were from the elite Republican Guard brigade commanded by Rifaat Assad, brother of Syrian President Hafez Assad. Until now kept in strategic reserve near Damascus, the brigade was equipped with powerful T-62 tanks.
The Israeli tank commanders who had pulled back from the ramparts did not respond to orders to retake them. Their crews were numbed from the unremitting pounding and accumulated weariness. Ben-Gal felt that he no longer controlled the brigade. To the extent that tanks were fighting, they were doing so individually, not as part of a coherent unit responsive to orders.
The brigade commander decided that he had no alternative but to call on the tanks to pull back and try to form a new line a few kilometers to the rear. With the Syrians almost upon them and discipline already crumbling, the withdrawal threatened to become a rout. If they succeeded in forming a new line, they could not hope, in the absence of significant topographical advantage, to delay the swarm of Syrian tanks for more than half an hour.
Ben-Gal took the radio microphone in hand to issue the pullback order but then decided to wait just a bit more. He radioed instead to divisional commander Rafael Eitan to report his intentions.
Hang on just a few minutes more, pleaded Eitan. Reinforcements are moving up to you.
Meanwhile, the battalion commander, Lt.-Col. Avigdor Kahalani, whose leadership and courage would win him the nations highest award, finally cajoled, shamed and led the tank commanders forward to retake the ramparts and meet the massive Syrian force surging up from the valley.
Firing like crazed gunslingers from atop the ramparts, the Israeli tanks turned back the assault.
Stopped in the center, the Syrians hit Ben-Gals right flank. The commander there, Capt. Meir Zamir, who had been performing prodigious feats since the start of the war (his night ambush of a large Syrian force was described in last weeks article), reported that the three tanks remaining to him were almost out of ammunition. He requested permission to withdraw, but Ben-Gal ordered him to stay. Help was on the way, said Ben-Gal, echoing what Eitan had told him. Just hang on a few minutes.
Help was indeed on the way, but Zamir could no longer hang on. The 13-tank force that Askarov had organized the previous night in the Golan tank base was speeding toward the front. Led by Col. Ben-Hanan, it arrived at precisely the moment that Zamir was pulling back. Ben-Hanan waved Shalom at Zamir as they passed each other. Topping a small rise just ahead, Ben-Hanan saw a T-55 heading at him just 50 meters away.
Stop, he shouted to his crew. Fire. His war had begun.
Askarov took up position alongside Ben-Hanan as the rest of the unit formed a battle line. They began to move slowly forward, pushing the Syrians back. At one point, Ben-Hanan was wounded in the face by shell splinters and his glasses were broken. He retired for medical treatment, passing command to Askarov. After an hour, Ben-Hanan resumed command, bandaged and with another pair of glasses.
The Israeli and Syrian tanks were whirling in a death dance, mixed in with one another. Askarov hit a tank just 40 meters from him and set it ablaze. A crewman leaped out, but Askarov had turned away to scan the battlefield ahead for tanks.
He heard Ben-Hanan shout on the radio, Watch out. But it was too late. The Syrian tank crewman had fired a shot from his assault rifle that struck Askarov in the head. Ben-Hanan killed the Syrian with a shell and ordered Askarov carried to a field station.
Shortly afterward, lookouts reported the Syrians beginning to turn back. Col. Ben-Gal stood on a ridge watching the withdrawing forces.
The attempt to break through the Kuneitra Gap was finally over. In the valley below lay 260 Syrian tanks and hundreds of armored personnel carriers and other vehicles his brigade had destroyed.
(Askarov was taken to Rambam Hospital in Haifa where he was examined by four neurosurgeons. The bullet had entered his forehead and emerged from the rear of his skull, damaging his brain. Three of the doctors said it was hopeless and turned their attention to other casualties flooding the hospital. The fourth doctor, Yitzhak Shechter, performed an eight-hour operation. Askarov would recover. Though partially paralyzed and impaired in speech, he would walk unaided, drive his own car, read extensively and enjoy an active social life.)
Battle continued to flicker on other Golan fronts Tuesday night and the following morning, but by noon Wednesday, four days after the outbreak of war, the last Syrian forces had been driven from the Heights.
The war on the Syrian front, however, was not yet over. At 10 p.m. Wednesday night, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan met with the general staff in Tel Aviv to discuss whether to halt on the Purple Line or to cross it. Chief of General Staff Gen. David Elazar advocated an advance into Syria in order to neutralize the Syrian army and permit the IDF to turn the bulk of its attention to the Egyptian front. An advance into Syria would also diminish the likelihood of Jordan becoming emboldened enough to open a separate front.
Forces on the Golan had already been told to be prepared to attack the next day.
Dayan was concerned about the possibility of Soviet intervention if Israel moved eastward. He agreed, however, to bring the issue to Prime Minister Golda Meir. Elazar and other senior officials were present at the post-midnight meeting with the prime minister. As before, when her senior military advisers could not agree with each other on major strategic issues, the 75-year-old grandmother made a clear decision herself. An attack across the Purple Line would be launched the next day. The object would be to threaten, not capture, the Syrian capital.
The Seventh Brigade, with its depleted ranks augmented by reservists and most of its damaged tanks repaired, led the way across the line followed by Dan Laners division. The first night after Mussa Peleds division crossed, he visited an artillery battalion during a lull in the battle to address the men. As he stood before them he suddenly recalled the cigar that Haim Bar-Lev had given him the first night of the war with the suggestion that he smoke it when he found a suitable moment. It had been in his breast pocket for a week. Peled took it out and lit up, savoring every puff.
The battle in the Syrian enclave lasted 12 days, Iraqi and Jordanian armored brigades joining the Syrian defense line. (A Moroccan tank battalion had been involved in the battle from the opening day of the war on the northern end of the Golan front, using Syrian tanks.)
When on October 22 a cease-fire took effect, the Israeli army was 45 kilometers from Damascus and its artillery was pounding a Syrian army camp on the outskirts of the capital.
In all, Syria lost 1,150 tanks in the war; of these, 867 were left behind on the Golan Heights. Iraq lost 50 tanks and Jordan 20. Every Israeli tank had been hit and 250 knocked out, but all except 100 were returned to action. The Syrians sustained 3,500 killed, 5,600 wounded and 348 prisoners. Israel sustained 772 dead on the Golan, 2,500 wounded and 65 prisoners.
The battle for the Golan had seen an incredible reversal of fortunes. Caught unprepared and initially outnumbered 9:1, Israel had been within a hairbreadth of defeat. In the war as a whole, Israel had to overcome not only tremendous military odds but its own hubris and basic conceptual mistakes regarding the Arab threat and its own preparedness.
But the war that began so disastrously ended with the IDF on the roads to Cairo and Damascus. Given the opening, Israels success was a stunning military feat in historical terms.
But the war was an existential earthquake as well. For long afterward, the trauma could be seen in the eyes of returning veterans. They had peered into the abyss and their world was no longer the same.
It had been a close-run thing. If the bulk of the Seventh Brigade had not been sent to the Golan the day before the war, the Syrians would probably have swept the Heights in a day. If a few reserve units had not had their mobilization bases shifted shortly before the war to eastern Galilee they would not have been able to put tanks onto the Heights the first night of battle. It was these tanks that impeded the Syrian rush toward the Jordan bridges where they would have attempted to block the arrival of the reserves.
If Gen. Mussa Peled had not persuaded Haim Bar-Lev and the general staff that it was better to have his division counterattack than form a defense line on the Jordan, the results of the war might likewise have been different. Superior gunnery, tactics, field leadership and, above all, motivation reversed the tide of battle.
For all the trauma and the tragic loss of life, the Yom Kippur War would have repercussions that many would regard as far healthier than the euphoria of the post-Six Day War period. The awful shock would persuade Israel to take its potential enemies more seriously and it would make the political leadership more responsive to peace offers when they came.
For many in Israel, the early Arab successes would neutralize the contempt they held for Arab arms and by extension, for the Arabs an attitude promoted by the Six Day War.
Israels recovery from the wars shattering opening reflected a vigorous society that had both a coherent framework for survival - an efficient mobilization system and a well-trained army and an ability to improvise in chaotic circumstances.
As Avigdor Kahalani would note, those who stopped the Syrian onslaught were not volunteers from elite units but ordinary tank crews who represented a cross section of the population. The nation had proved strong enough to survive the failures of its leadership.
For the Arabs, the war demonstrated that Israel could not be defeated on the battlefield even under conditions as optimal as they are likely to get. It did not, however, negate the threat, or use, of war as a political instrument in future.
Most importantly, the war restored Arab self-respect after the humiliation of the Six Day War. This would make it possible for Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to fly to Jerusalem to offer peace, not as a supplicant but as an equal.
For Israel, the trauma of the Yom Kippur War is not a nightmare to be forgotten but a national memory to be perpetuated. It offers a standing reminder of the dire consequences of shallow thinking and arrogant pride. But the war also remains a source of surpassing inspiration deriving from the courage of those who, in a dark hour, mounted the nations crumbling ramparts and held.
THE SEARCH FOR THE FRONT
Ever since the drive that October day through the Hula Valley, tufted white with cotton ripe for harvesting, I would associate tranquil cotton fields with war.
It was the fifth day of the Yom Kippur War and I had come in search of the battlefield. Not yet on the IDF mobilization roster, I had been nervously following events in Jerusalem, ever since the sirens had broken the somber stillness of Yom Kippur.
Apart from interviews with the first wounded brought back from the Suez front, I had not been able to get a grasp of what was happening. Except for a sense that it was something huge and ominous.
On the fourth day of the war, a former newspaper colleague from the US, Joe Treen, came to see me at The Jerusalem Post straight from the airport to get his bearings. I suggested we drive up to the Golan together. Post editor Ted Lurie nodded when I stuck my head into his office and said I was going north.
It was nearly dark when Joe and I reached Galilee, so we spent the night in Safed and drove down into the Hula Valley early the next morning.
Seen from below, the Golan Heights gave no hint of the fierce struggle being waged only a few kilometers from the cliff face. The story of Jack and the beanstalk sprang to mind Jacks mother on the ground below had no idea what was happening with Jack and the ogre above.
At the foot of the Banyas road, a military policeman flagged us down. Civilians werent permitted any farther, he said. Press cards made no impression on him.
As I prepared to drive off, he anticipated my thoughts by saying that all roads to the Golan were blocked off to civilians. You wont be able to get up there, he said.
I DECIDED to drive around the area and give lifts to hitchhiking locals in the hope that someone would know of an unguarded track.
Theres always a back road, I said hopefully to Joe. Within an hour we found one.
A kibbutznik told us of a dirt road near Kibbutz Kfar Szold. We were to follow it from the main road to an orchard. If we continued through the orchard the track would soon begin climbing. That, he said, would get us to the top.
And so it did. Passing out of the orchard, the dirt track became a rocky track. It was barely discernible but it led upwards and seemed to know where it was going.
In a little while, a brush fire appeared on the slopes ahead of us. It occurred to me that it might have been touched off by a shell, although wed heard nothing.
Through the smoke, I could see that the track ahead was bound on both sides by barbed-wire fences. Only as we drove between them did I make out yellow signs hanging from the fences warning of minefields.
It seemed a reasonable assumption that the track itself was safe. In any case, it was so narrow that I could not have turned the car around if Id wanted to. I contemplated driving back in reverse but then decided against it. Joe agreed that we should keep moving forward.
Within a few minutes we had left the fences and minefields behind us and the terrain became less steep. We were still far from the top of the Heights but I could make out a road about a kilometer distant. I headed for it cross-country, bouncing over the rocky slope until we reached the asphalt roadway. It was the Banyas road, well upslope of the military policemen.
We found ourselves on an eerie passage between two worlds. Below, men were harvesting cotton in the October sunlight. Somewhere above, two armies were hurling themselves at each other in one of the fiercest tank battles in history.
The road was empty and we appeared to be making the passage totally alone. To our left was the medieval fortress of Nimrud, built by the Moslems to protect the road to Damascus from the Crusaders.
Turning a bend, we came upon two empty half-tracks at the side of the road. Their doors hung open, as if their occupants had gotten out in a hurry. From the wide ravine to our left came a single shot, indicating where they probably were.
A Syrian commando force had been landed by helicopter the day before not far away on the northern Golan and was engaging in scattered skirmishes with Israeli reconnaissance troops sent in pursuit. The soldiers in the half-tracks, I would later deduce, were probably part of that effort.
Further on, the road passed through a Druse village. Washing hung from lines but no one could be seen.
The absence of any sign of life since we had started up the road except for the single shot in the wadi was disturbing. Where was the army? Where was the front line? Had we, in our roundabout maneuvering, inadvertently crossed it?
The terrain flattened into an open plain and suddenly the war was all around us. Tanks in the distance threw up clouds of dust as they took up position. Unseen guns boomed. We had reached the top of the beanstalk.
The fields were littered with the debris of battle burned-out vehicles, shell casings, stacks of ammunition boxes. We passed a line of half-tracks filled with troops waiting at the side of the road, like actors waiting offstage for their cue. Farther on were half-tracks bearing heavy mortars.
An officer stood in one of the vehicles, pressing a headset to his ear.
The sound of aircraft drew our attention. Two planes circled overhead. Whose? The road ahead ran arrow-straight for a kilometer before entering a tree-shaded stretch. I floored the accelerator. It would have been wiser to take shelter in the roadside ditch but when the planes dove it was at a target to the east.
In the cover of the trees, soldiers were sitting within easy diving distance of the ditch in case Syrian artillery fire should resume. Their unshaven faces were grimy and tired. Some were eating fruit out of plastic bags.
Surprised to see civilians, they crowded around to give us telephone numbers and ask us to call their families to report they were alive. When I asked where the front was, one of the men nodded at four tanks deployed 200 meters away behind a low rise, their cannon pointing over the top.
The front, in fact, was about four kilometers to the east, but helicopter-borne Syrian commandos had landed here the day before to disrupt the Israeli rear just as the Syrian armored forces were launching their final, massive attempt to break the Seventh Brigade.
The soldiers said that a counterattack was to be launched the next day. They seemed confident that the tide was about to turn.
IRONICALLY, once we were on the battlefield we could roam freely, since there were no military policemen to stop us and any officer seeing us would assume we were there with permission.
We drove toward the front and reached the approaches to Kuneitra, the district capital of the Golan Heights before its capture by Israel in 1967. It lay on the front line and had been a major target of the Syrian thrust.
I paused on the outskirts, a few hundred meters from the nearest houses, and debated whether to enter. It was not clear which side was holding Kuneitra. I could see no movement. Shell craters pocked the streets and light smoke drifted up from the town. Deciding not to press our luck, I turned the car and headed west.
We passed an old Sherman tank laboring up the road near El Rom. Its engine made a loud grinding noise but the tank itself was barely moving. The tank struck me as a metaphor for Israels performance in the war thus far despite a prodigious effort it was barely holding its own. One thing was clear the cocky post-Six Day War era had ended.
I halted the car when we came on a battery of long-range guns deployed in a field, their barrels all aligned at the same angle. As we watched, the guns produced a thunderclap.
We started across the field on foot toward a group of men clustered beneath a tree. A figure detached itself from the group and ran toward us. It was a sergeant.
Who are you and what are you doing here? he asked. When we identified ourselves as journalists, he said we would have to present ourselves to his commander.
As we approached the group I made out a stout man with an Australian-style forage hat sitting on a stool and holding a map as the others stood around him. The scene reminded me of a tableau from the American Civil War.
The seated officer seemed like a conductor directing the rhythm of the booming cannon. It was only when we were close that I recognized him my wifes uncle, red-haired Yehoshua Kaplan. At 53, the veteran battalion commander was the oldest reserve officer in the IDF still serving in the field.
Get these men some coffee, he told the sergeant who had escorted us. Good coffee. The kind you make for us, not the kind you make for guests.
There had been no counter-battery fire all day, he said, which indicated that the Syrian pressure was easing.
It was late afternoon when we reached the edge of the Heights and started down a different road from the one we had taken going up. The valley below looked even more beautiful and serene than it had in the morning.
As we descended, a line of ammunition trucks and half-tracks carrying troops moved up in the opposite direction, toward the sound of the guns.