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From JPost Archives on Yom Kippur War | MORE ARTICLES

Shattered Heights: Part 1

The radio net crackled in the Golan Heights command bunker at Nafekh with reports of Syrian thrusts from the flanks of Mount Hermon southwards. The voices — sometimes laconic, sometimes alarmed — were almost drowned out by the voices in the bunker itself. Hunched over maps, officers issued orders by radio and debated the enemy’s moves as they tried to grasp what was happening.

Watching the scene with a growing sense of dismay was Gen. Mordechai (’Motti’) Hod. Six years before, as commander of the air force, he had sat in his war room in Tel Aviv coolly orchestrating the strikes that destroyed the Egyptian air force in three hours and determined the outcome of the Six Day War.

Now, on this first day of the Yom Kippur War, October 6, 1973, he had returned to active duty as air force coordinator for Gen. Yitzhak Hofi, commander of the Northern Front. This was the first war the veteran airman was witnessing on a ground-level battlefield.

What alarmed him more than the artillery explosions outside, more even than the surprise achieved by the Arab armies, was what was going on in the bunker itself. Everybody was reacting — to events, to each other — but it was plain that nobody, from the tank commanders in the field to the most senior commander in headquarters, had time to think. How can you conduct a war without thinking? he asked himself.

Shortly after midnight, Hod’s unpracticed ear detected what he took to be direct Syrian tank fire on the camp. Turning to Hofi, he said, ’Khaka [Hofi’s nickname], the army’s going to need you tomorrow. I suggest we get out of here.’

Hod was wrong about Nafekh being attacked by Syrian tanks. But only by a few hours.

Emerging from the bunker close to 1 a.m., Hofi and Hod took a jeep down into the Hula Valley and up to Northern Command headquarters on a Galilee hilltop. Looking across the valley, Hod could see the Golan Heights covered with bonfires, as if it were Lag Ba’omer. Many of those fires were burning tanks. It was impossible to tell which were Syrian and which Israeli, but it was clear that hardly 12 hours into the war the Syrians were already on the foreslope of the Heights overlooking Israel.

Israel’s preemptive air strike in 1967 had been a classic example of a brilliant concept brilliantly executed. Israel’s entrapment in the Yom Kippur War was a classic example of a flawed concept mercilessly exposed.

Israel had assumed that Egypt would not risk war before it had sufficient bombers to attack Israeli air bases, an eventuality that was still years away. As for the Syrians, they would not risk war without their bigger Arab brother. Israeli Intelligence had correctly read Egyptian military thinking on these points.

But it had not read the more subtle mind of president Anwar Sadat, who believed that even a limited Arab success would provide the diplomatic wedge needed to begin prying Israel out of the Sinai.

Egypt launched large-scale military exercises at the end of September near the Suez Canal as it had often done in the past. Israel watched with routine interest, then with greater intensity when unusual movements began to be discerned. However, the head of Military Intelligence, Gen. Eli Zeira, assured the general staff that there was no need for alarm.

The buildup of Syrian forces opposite the Golan also stirred concern, but if Egypt was not going to war, then neither was Syria. As if in explanation for the buildup, Syrian newspapers said Damascus feared an imminent Israeli attack.

Many in Israel believed that Syria might attempt some kind of retaliatory action for the downing of 13 Syrian planes by the air force in mid-September. Syria had several times staged ’battle days’ consisting of intensive cross-border firing and even limited ground probes.

Hofi was concerned enough about this possibility to persuade the high command to transfer part of the Seventh Armored Brigade, the army’s finest unit, to the Golan as reinforcements on Rosh Hashana Eve.

Ten days before Yom Kippur, defense minister Moshe Dayan, Zeira, Hofi and other senior military figures toured the Golan line. They were briefed on a hilltop overlooking Syrian positions by Maj. Shmuel Askarov, deputy commander of a tank battalion. At 24, he was the youngest deputy battalion commander in the army and a fast-rising star.

He pointed out the large Syrian deployment to the east and described the extensive exercises their tank units had been carrying out in recent days. ’War is certain,’ said the young officer.

Dayan turned to Zeira for a reply. There will not be a war for another 10 years, Askarov would remember him saying.

Four days before Yom Kippur, Sgt. Yoram Krivine’s platoon, part of the 50th Paratroop Battalion, took over Bunker 111 on the Purple Line separating Israeli forces on the Golan from the Syrian army. It was a routine changing of the guard, but it struck the 21-year-old sergeant that the soldiers they were relieving seemed unusually happy about leaving.

The bunker was one of a string of fortifications built by Israel after the Six Day War along the 70-kilometer length of the line. The paratroop unit manned the bunkers south of Kuneitra. A Golani Brigade unit manned the northern bunkers.

The dark basalt blocks of the igloo-like fortifications were stout enough to provide shelter even against direct artillery hits. In the event of an enemy ground attack, however, the defenders would have to man the trenches outside.

The hillock on which 111 was situated offered a view far across the rocky Syrian plain to the east. Scattered across it Krivine could see countless Syrian artillery pieces, tanks and other vehicles nestling under camouflage netting. He had never before served on the Purple Line — a name derived from its color on the map — and did not know whether this massive deployment was routine.

On a wall inside the fortifcation the men found a sign reading ’111 Will Not Fall Again.’ It seemed a pointless parody on the ’Masada Will Not Fall Again’ theme, until they were told that the post had indeed fallen briefly to the Syrians in one of the ’battle days.’

A few kilometers away, opposite them, was Tel Kudne, a Syrian military position that was a mirror image of the volcanic tels on the Israeli side rising abruptly from the landscape. A road from Kudne reached the Israeli lines alongside Bunker 111. It had been used in the past occasionally for exchanges of prisoners. One hundred meters from the Israeli fortification was one of the UN observation posts situated along the line.

The day Krivine’s platoon arrived, the soldiers were assembled outside for a briefing by an Intelligence officer belonging to the unit they had just relieved. He identified the Syrian units they were facing.

’The whole Syrian army is out there,’ he said in conclusion. ’I’m happy I won’t be here when the war starts.’

The general staff itself was only slowly coming around to the thought that war was an imminent possibility despite the assurances of Zeira and his senior staff. The unprecedented enemy buildup on two fronts might be coincidental and innocent of offensive intent. But the cover stories — an Egyptian military exercise and Syrian fear of Israeli attack — might also be a ruse.

On Thursday evening, October 4, Zeira reported that families of Soviet military advisers were being evacuated from Egypt and Syria. He maintained that the probability of war remained low. But chief of general staff Lt.-Gen. David Elazar had heard enough.

On Friday morning he ordered the armed forces into a ’gimmel’ (C) alert, the highest state of alert he could issue without government authorization.

It did not involve mobilization, but all military leaves were canceled — most servicemen had planned to be home for Yom Kippur — and staffs were told to prepare for immediate mobilization of their units.

Two Seventh Brigade battalions still in Sinai were ordered to get up to the Golan that day to join the battalion already there. Soldiers in the frontline positions were told not to take their boots off when they went to sleep.

In Bunker 111, all but two of the men decided to fast when Yom Kippur began that evening. Even those who normally didn’t fast felt that in the circumstances a little religion couldn’t hurt.

At 4 a.m. on Yom Kippur, Israeli Intelligence learned from an unimpeachable source that it faced war on two fronts that day before the sun set.

At 6 a.m. Elazar met Dayan to ask for general mobilization and a preemptive air strike. Dayan vetoed the latter — the world would not accept a second such strike in six years — and wanted to limit mobilization to 50,000 men.

It fell to prime minister Golda Meir to resolve the issue. Her decision: no preemptive strike, and mobilization of 100,000 men. (Elazar set in motion a much greater callup.) Hofi was ordered to begin immediate evacuation of women and children from Golan settlements.

Col. Ori Orr had received command of the reserve 679th Armored Brigade upon his return from a year’s study in the US two months before.

The 34-year-old colonel had never before commanded reservists and was uncertain whether their motivation, discipline and skills could match those of conscripts. Would he find himself one day leading a collection of paunchy soldiers with civilian mindsets into battle? he wondered.

The brigade’s mobilization point, where its tanks were located, had recently been moved at Hofi’s initiative from the Western Galilee to the Rosh Pina area in order to have it closer to the potential Golan battlefield. This would prove an important decision.

Mobilization orders from the general staff went out to all combat units shortly after 9 a.m. on Yom Kippur. At Orr’s brigade assembly point, some reservists began arriving in their cars shortly afterwards.

But it was a young brigade — most of its members had finished regular service only two or three years before — and most did not have cars. They came during the day from around the country in mobilized buses, many straight from synagogue. As they arrived, they set about arming and fueling the unit’s Centurion tanks. Officers urged speed, but not even they had any idea why the mobilization had been called.

The previous evening, Gen. Hofi had assembled the senior commaders on the Golan in the wake of the gimmel alert. The 188th Armored Brigade, commanded by Col. Yitzhak Ben-Shoham, had most of its 70 tanks dispersed in threes and fours near the frontline bunkers.

In the event of hostilities, they would take position on ramps partially protected by earthen embankments and offering the advantage of height. This scattered deployment of tanks along the line was suitable for countering small-scale incursions, but not for full-scale war that called for concentrating firepower to meet the enemy’s main thrusts.

The 188th Brigade’s sector was divided between two battalions, one defending the area from Kuneitra northward, the other south of Kuneitra. The newly arrived Seventh Brigade commanded by Col. Avigdor Ben-Gal, with its 100 tanks, would be in reserve.

Various scenarios were offered at Hofi’s meeting about possible Syrian moves. Ben-Gal believed they would attempt to capture Kuneitra. Ben-Shoham thought they might try to capture a bunker or two. No one raised the possibility that an all-out, two-front war would soon be upon them.

Facing the Israeli lines were five Syrian divisions with more than 45,000 men, 1,500 tanks and 1,000 artillery pieces. On the Israeli side were 6,000 men, 170 tanks and 60 artillery pieces.

The alignment of forces was plainly absurd, but Gen. Zeira had promised that he would provide warning of 24 to 48 hours before the Arabs launched all-out war, time enough to mobilize. If worse came to worst, the high command was confident that the air force would slow down the enemy sufficiently to permit mobilization to be completed. Both assumptions were about to go up in a puff of smoke.

Maj. Askarov, serving with the 188th, had predicted war to Dayan and Zeira 10 days before and he awaited it now with anticipation. When he went to his office in the Hushniya base, a few kilometers west of the front line, at noon on Yom Kippur, he drove there in his tank and left it parked a meter from his door, like a favorite sports car, with the crew nearby.

At 1:56 p.m., the Yom Kippur stillness was shattered by the drone of planes and explosions. Even as the Syrian MiGs pulled away, artillery shells started to tear into the Hushniya base and every other military target on the Golan. Askarov was on his tank in a minute and heading at full speed through the heavy barrage toward the front, turning toward Bunker 111. He thought the Syrians might be tempted to use the road from Kudne to reach the Israeli line.

When he mounted the tank ramp alongside the bunker, he could see nothing at first because the intensive shelling threw up clouds of dust.

When at last there was a lull, he was dumbfounded at the view. Emerging from the dust cloud were hundreds of Syrian tanks moving toward the Israeli line.

The Syrians had assumed, correctly, that Israel would expect their main thrust to be through the Kuneitra Gap, a broad opening in the series of low ridges and tels separating the Israeli and Syrian lines. It was through this gap that the old road ran between Damascus and Haifa via Kuneitra, the Nafekh Junction and Bnot Ya’acov Bridge. The Syrians would hurl 500 tanks at the northern part of the line, but they decided to push most of their forces through Kudne and the adjacent Rafid Gap and Tapline Road in order to outflank the main Israeli defenses.

Five tanks carrying portable bridges had already reached the Israeli tank ditch — five meters deep, five meters wide — that ran all along the line. Askarov managed to hit three that were within range.

Looking behind him, he saw that the six other tanks that were supposed to be on the ramps were sheltering behind them. He called on their commanders on the radio net to move up and begin firing, but got no clear response. They all seemed to be in shock. Askarov ordered his driver to reverse down the slope and brake alongside a tank commanded by an officer.

Despite the shelling, Askarov got out of his tank, climbed the other tank and pulled out his revolver. ’Get up there or I’ll shoot,’ he said, pointing it at the officer’s head.

Within a minute, all the tanks were on the ramp firing. Askarov understood that the shock of battle can make good men freeze. As for himself, he had no doubt that he would be hit. There seemed no way of not being swept away by this inundation. The only question was whether he would be killed or wounded.

Within a short time, most of the tanks alongside him were hit and their commanders killed. His own tank was hit four times but remained operational. He kept moving from ramp to ramp in order to throw up dust and create the impression of a large force.

Askarov had chosen as his gunner the finest tank sniper in the brigade, Yitzhak Hemo of Kiryat Shmona. Tank sniping is not a skill but an art that can enable its practitioners to hit twice as many targets as an ordinary gunner, even in the stress of battle.

Within five hours, Askarov would count some 35 tanks hit as well as a number of infantry-carrying Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs). It was Askarov who picked the target and turned the turret, rougly aligning the gun. But it was the gunner who did the final 10 percent of fine tuning that made the difference between hit and miss.

Askarov could not help admiring the Syrians’ courage and determination. They kept pushing to get through the Israeli line and were not deterred by the losses they were suffering.

Given the masses of vehicles passing under the guns on the ramp, it was like shooting fish in a barrel except that in this case the fish were shooting back. For the most part, the oncoming Syrian tanks simply swerved around crippled tanks and continued past the bunker, heading for the Israeli rear. Some, however, detached themselves to engage the tanks on the ramps.

About 7 p.m., Hemo hit a tank at 50-meter range that had come up from the main track from Kudne to the left of the ramp. Suddenly Askarov saw another tank approaching 30 meters away on the service road leading up from the UN post to the right. He swung the turret and shouted to Hemo, who fired the same instant as did the Syrian gunner.

Askarov was blown out of the turret. Retrieved by men from the bunker, he reached Safed Hospital within a few hours with wounds to his face and vocal cords that enabled him only to whisper. He was operated on and told by the doctors that he would be able to leave the hospital in two weeks. The young officer, however, would be taking leave — and returning — much sooner than that.

Maj. Yoram Yair, deputy commander of the 50th Paratroop Battalion, was in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur when he was ordered at noon to get to the Golan immediately and take command of the unit. Borrowing a car, he sped north. He had just reached Bnei Yehuda on the southern Golan shortly before 2 p.m. when a vast cloud of smoke erupted in front of him, covering the Heights as far as he could see.

The ground shook under the pounding of 1,000 Syrian guns. The shelling reached El Al, the Israeli settlement just a few kilometers north of him where battalion headquarters was located. The shelling did not, however, extend much farther south. Yair drove as close as he dared, then got out and raced up to El Al.

In the command bunker, he established contact with the frontline bunkers and the observation posts on two hills just behind the line — Tel Saki and Tel Fares. All reported intense shelling and vast numbers of Syrian tanks and APCs advancing.

All the soldiers remained inside the bunkers except for lookouts in the trenches. Artillery was called down on the Syrian engineers attempting to lay bridges across the ditch or fill it in with bulldozers.

Assuming the Syrians would be hitting the Kuneitra area hardest, the Golan command ordered the Seventh Brigade to move forward and form a line from Kuneitra northwards. The brigade deployed on high ground behind the frontline bunkers and the battalion of tanks from the 188th Brigade directly supporting them.

Orphaned by this decision was the other battalion of the 188th guarding the southern half of the line, 33 tanks commanded by Lt.-Col. Oded Erez, whose deputy Askarov was. Erez would not have the luxury of a second line like that provided by the Seventh Brigade to the north. Moreover, the main Syrian thrust would prove to be in this sector, not Kuneitra.

For a few hours, Erez had reason to think that his tanks had succeeded in blocking the Syrians. Scores of Syrian tanks had been knocked out by the time the light faded, but 12 of the battalion’s tanks — a third of the unit — were also knocked out, and two of his three company commanders were dead. The lead elements of 600 Syrian tanks in this sector had begun to pour through holes in the line.

At the Rafid Gap to the south, paratroopers in Bunker 116 managed to hit a number of Syrian vehicles with bazooka, machine-gun and mortar fire. After dark, when no more Israeli tanks survived on the adjoining ramps, three Syrian tanks detached themselves from the passing stream and approached. The bunker commander, Lt. Yosef Gur, sent the other men into the bunker and remained in the trenches with one man armed with a bazooka.

Gur himself had a rifle capable of firing antitank grenades. The first tank halted 20 meters from the bunker and fired. A cloud of dust made the darkness even more dense. When it settled, Gur and the bazookist rose in the trench and knocked out the first two tanks. The third tank pulled back.

Gur called down Israeli artillery on the bunker area to drive off any other attackers. Before he could get back into the bunker, shrapnel struck him in the shoulder. He was bandaged by a medic and passed out.

Disjointed reports of these desperate battles were what Hod heard on the radio net in the Nafekh command post. The magnitude of the Syrian strike and its objectives were not immediately clear. It was only after midnight that it became apparent the Syrians were not indulging in a ’battle day’ but throwing their entire army at the Heights in an attempt to recapture it.

Before departing from Nafekh for his headquarters in Galilee, Hofi left direct control of the Golan battle to divisional commander Gen. Rafael (’Raful’) Eitan.

Although the dimensions of the battle were not yet clear, it was becoming glaringly evident that the Israeli political and military hierarchies had failed in their basic obligation of ensuring the security of the nation.

They had grossly misread Arab intentions and had not taken the necessary precautions to safeguard against worst-case scenarios. Hubris induced by the spectacular victory of the Six Day War was certainly a factor. But as the fighting proceeded, serious defects in Israeli military doctrine would emerge as well.

There was no effective response to the Syrians’ devastating use of antitank and ground-to-air missiles, nor did Israel have anything to match the night-fighting equipment being used by the other side.

Employing Soviet military doctrine, the Syrians were implementing with determination a meticulous plan. They had carefully analyzed the Israeli defenses and likely responses and were confident of driving their enemy off the Heights by Sunday night.

Anticipating an Israeli counterattack with mobilized reserves by Monday morning, they planned by then to have set up dense antitank defenses on all approach roads that would make any attempt to climb the Heights again bloody in the extreme. It was questionable whether Israel, stretched to the limits on the Egyptian front, could even consider it. This would mean the permanent loss of the Golan as a physical buffer and as a card in future peace negotiations.

In the moment of truth, the future of the Golan rested not on the elaborate contingency plans prepared by the general staff but on improvisation against odds of 9:1. No scenarios existed in Israel for a battle fought under such conditions. In the end it would all come down to the instincts, individual and collective, of the officers and men fighting in the darkness.

After breaking through at Bunker 111, a column of Syrian tanks turned north toward Kuneitra. From there they would be in position to strike the flank of the Seventh Brigade and dislodge it from its dominating positions. Forewarned of their approach by lookouts on Tel Fares, Col. Ben-Gal ordered a company commanded by Capt. Meir Zamir to stop them.

Zamir had just enough time to position his 10 tanks on both sides of the road and a kilometer back from it. He ordered the tank commanders to cut their engines and wait in silence.

Within moments the approaching column could be heard. When most of the Syrians were in the killing zone, one of the Israeli tanks illuminated them with a searchlight and the Israeli gunners swiftly destroyed 20 tanks. In subsequent skirmishes with the remnants of the column, 20 more were knocked out.

A Syrian tank brigade passing through the Rafid Gap turned northwest up a little-used route known as the Tapline Road, which cut diagonally across the Golan. This roadway would prove one of the main strategic hinges of the battle. It led straight from the main Syrian breakthrough points to Nafekh, which was not only the location of Israeli divisional headquarters but the most important crossroads on the Heights.

There was no Israeli unit in the Syrians’ path.

Temporary salvation came in the form of a solitary lieutenant, Zvika Greengold of Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot. Unattached to any unit because he was enrolled in a course for company commanders, he hitchhiked to Nafekh and offered his services to a staff officer.

There were no tanks immediately available and he helped with the wounded until two Centurions were brought into the camp. He had to remove the bodies of two dead crewmen from one of them and then set off with pickup crews down the Tapline Road from the Nafekh end. Thus began one of the most notable sagas of the Yom Kippur War.

For the next 20 hours, Zvika Force, as he came to be known on the radio net, fought running battles with Syrian tanks - sometimes alone, sometimes as part of a larger unit, changing tanks half a dozen times as they were knocked out. He was wounded and burned but stayed in action and repeatedly showed up at critical moments from an unexpected direction to change the course of a skirmish. At one point, in one of the tanks he took over, the driver bolted because his nerves could no longer take the succession of hair-raising encounters.

The first reservists began reaching the Heights about 9 p.m., some 12 hours after mobilization began, much faster than anticipated. They did not, however, arrive as parts of organic units.

In his camp near Rosh Pina, Ori Orr was conducting shotgun weddings of tank commanders, drivers, gunners and radiomen as they arrived — matching them up as crews even though they had never worked with each other before. The situation on the Heights was so desperate that divisional headquarters was pressing him to send up even individual tanks. Orr waited until he had platoons of three.

He sent up one platoon with only half its ammunition loaded, telling its commander hopefully that he would be resupplied on the Heights. Upon reaching Nafekh, most of the tanks were dispatched in Zvika Greengold’s wake down the Tapline Road into the maw of battle.

Orr accepted that desperate circumstances required desperate measures, but the scattershot dispersal of his tanks violated the basic principle of keeping armor together if it was to play a decisive role.

Before first light, he assembled 20 of his remaining tanks and crossed the Bnot Ya’acov Bridge to take up position near Ein Zivan. It was the first substantial reserve force to reach the battlefield.

Elements of another patchwork unit led by Col. Ran Sarig were dispatched at dawn across Arik Bridge farther south. To their astonishment, they encountered 15 Syrian tanks heading toward them only 10 km. east of the bridge. The Syrians had already descended the Heights and were just half an hour’s drive from the river crossing, which they would have reached unimpeded had Sarig not reached them first.

All the Syrian tanks were destroyed, but the Israeli command was shocked to learn that the Syrians had penetrated so far west. It would soon be more distressed to learn that another Syrian force had reached Snobar, just above the customs house overlooking the Bnot Ya’acov Bridge. This placed them only a 10-minute tank drive from the river.

After his arrival at El Al on Saturday, Maj. Yair had learned that there were yeshiva students at Ramat Magshimim, five km. north, who had not been evacuated with the women and children in the morning. He dispatched 10 men in two half-tracks, to block the road north of Ramat Magshimim against any Syrian advance toward the settlement. About 2 a.m., the blocking force drove off lead elements of a Syrian reconnaissance force.

An hour later, a bus arrived from Israel to remove the students, not before it had been damaged by artillery shrapnel. Yair ordered the blocking force to proceed a few kilometers north to Tel Saki to evacuate the lookouts there who were reporting the approach of large Syrian forces.

Minutes later, he learned from the lookouts that he had sent the men, among them officers who were personal friends, to their deaths — victims of an ambush at the foot of the tel. At first light Sunday, Yair reported to division headquarters that Syrian tanks had entered Ramat Magshimim.

Defense minister Dayan arrived at Hofi’s headquarters at 6 a.m. Sunday and found the front commander distraught. There were no forces in the southern Golan capable of preventing the Syrians from pushing south from Ramat Magshimim and reaching settlements in the Jordan Valley inside Israel’s border, Hofi said. One of those settlements was Kibbutz Deganya, where Dayan was born and which had stopped a Syrian tank on its perimeter fence during the War of Independence. Deganya had also been Hod’s home.

’We can’t let it happen,’ said Hod.

’Only the air force can stop them,’ said Hofi.

Hod contacted his successor as commander of the air force, Gen. Benny Peled, and asked for direct control of a Skyhawk squadron at the Ramat David air base. Peled consented. Hod directed the squadron commander to keep flights of four planes over the southern Golan armed with napalm or rockets. Top priority must be given to stopping the Syrian tank advance, he said.

Yair saw the first Skyhawk foursome approach. Within moments, a swarm of ground-to-air missiles was racing at them from the Syrian lines, and two of the planes fell. It would soon become apparent to the air force, on both the Syrian and Egyptian fronts, that the Soviet missiles in the Arabs’ possession made close air support of ground troops no longer feasible.

When Yair reported the Syrian tanks starting south from Ramat Magshimim toward El Al, he was ordered to leave immediately. He told his men to head for Ein Gev on the Kinneret and to take all the vehicles with them. He himself was staying. Two of the men said they would stay with him.

The combative officer had led the paratroop company that spearheaded the drive into Sinai at Pit’hat Rafiah in the Six Day War and it was against his nature to quit the battlefield while some of his men were still trapped there.

Months later, in testimony before the Agranat Commission investigating the conduct of the war, Yair was asked why he did not leave when ordered to. He could not leave, he told the commission, because he still had men in the outposts with whom he was in radio contact. Also, he might be able to help operationally by calling down air and artillery on the Syrian forces in his area. And thirdly, he said, ’the person hasn’t been born yet who I will run away from.’

It was bravado but not suicide. He had determined that he had a better chance of staying alive on foot than in a vehicle after he had done whatever he could to the Syrians.

As Yair watched through his binoculars, the Syrian tanks halted 700 meters from El Al. It was not clear whether they had stopped because of the crews’ exhaustion, for refueling or because that is what their plan called for. Whatever the reason, Yair permitted himself to play with the thought that Israeli tanks might yet arrive in time to stop them.

At Bunker 111, Yoram Krivine watched Syrian tanks streaming westward, hardly 50 meters away. The tanks ignored the bunker, but Syrian infantry was keeping up desultory fire and two of the men in the trenches were shot dead.

The bunker had been under intensive shelling for 12 hours after an opening air strike, inducing a numbing terror. The officer had been the first to overcome fear, then the sergeants. Fighting his own instincts in the early hours, Krivine had forced himself, after several abortive starts, to move out into the shelling to reach one of his men in an isolated firing position in order to reassure him. As time passed, a measure of calm and even fatalism set in.

The radioman turning his dials came on a wavelength being used by a Syrian unit. One of the men in the bunker understood Arabic. ’I see the whole Galilee in front of me,’ he translated. ’Request permission to proceed.’

The answer that came back was negative. In his mind’s eye, Krivine saw a daring young Syrian tank commander who had reached the edge of the Golan escarpment.

During a lull Sunday morning, the men outside the bunker suddenly heard the sound of a motor approaching from the rear. An Israeli APC swung into the entrance of the bunker compound.

’We’re getting out,’ shouted the bunker commander. ’Leave everything. You have one minute to get in.’

The two dead bodies were placed on the APC floor and Krivine tried not to step on them as 18 men crowded in.

The APC commander stood with his head exposed in the turret so that he could guide the driver cross-country. The Golan was crawling with close to 1,000 Syrian tanks and APCs, and he tried to stay well away from roads.

The order from division headquarters had been to evacuate the frontline posts before first light, but that had not been possible. At some points, the men in the APC had to get out to make it easier for the driver to get the vehicle across a steep wadi. Krivine was so put off by the crowding that he asked his commander for permission to find his way back to the Israeli lines on foot, but he was refused.

The APC commander calmly described to the men inside what he was seeing from the turret, including an occasional Syrian tank in the distance. At one point, the vehicle turned a bend and the men heard loud engines very close.

’Two Syrian tanks,’ said the officer. His body suddenly twisted as he flung a grenade. The men could hear a muffled explosion. ’Got it into the turret,’ said the officer. ’The other tank’s taking off.’

When the APC finally stopped and the men tumbled out, they found themselves in the Nafekh camp. They were transported down to Ein Gev where Krivine was able to call his father, David, then the economics correspondent of The Jerusalem Post. (Although he had never before been claustrophobic, Yoram Krivine has been so ever since that ride.)

Nafekh had seemed like a refuge to the rescued paratroopers, but it, too, would shortly come under attack. During the night, ’Zvika Force’ and other makeshift units led by Col. Ben-Shoham, the 188th Brigade commander who was cut off from his own unit, had managed to stop the Syrian attack on the Tapline route. However, about noon a fresh force of 80 T-62s, the most advanced tank in the Syrian armory, appeared on a parallel track, outflanking the Israeli defenders on the Tapline and heading straight for Nafekh.

When an Israeli tank commander reported their approach, Gen. Eitan called on Ben-Shoham to return immediately to defend the Nafekh base. The Syrians got there first. Eitan delayed his evacuation until the Syrian tanks were flattening the perimeter fence and lacing the camp with shellfire. His half-track passed a burning vehicle as it made its way out the gate to a temporary headquarters three km. north.

Approaching the camp, Col. Ben-Shoham was standing exposed in the turret when he was hit by a shell fired from a seemingly disabled Syrian tank at the roadside. His deputy had been killed in a tank behind him moments before. The operations officer was also killed. The 188th Brigade had ceased to function as an organized unit.

Zvika Force joined the fray at Nafekh — this time in one-tank mode — and knocked out a T-62. During a lull, Zvika Greengold painfully lowered himself from his tank, covered with burns, wounds and soot.

’I can’t [go on] anymore,’ he said to the staff officer who had sent him into battle 20 hours before. The officer embraced him and found a vehicle to carry Greengold to hospital.

The Israeli tanks in the vicinity of Nafekh could only slow down the onslaught, not contain it. Hofi contacted Orr and told him to race for Nafekh at all speed. The brigade commander, who had spent a relatively quiet night near Ein Zivan with his 20 tanks, decided to make a wide sweep to the south instead of heading down the main road.

A large force of T-62s was arrayed around the fence of the Nafekh camp when Orr struck them from the rear with his far smaller force. It was the beginning of a grinding battle that would last for hours. By the time darkness fell this Sunday, Orr, bolstered by strays from other units, had succeeded in establishing a defense line on high ground around Nafekh, the first time since the Syrian breakthrough that the Israelis had the semblance of a line in the central Golan.

At El Al in the southern Golan, Major Yair was standing on the roof of his command bunker late Sunday morning watching the nearby Syrian tanks through his binoculars when his sergeant shouted, ’Tanks behind you.’

Yair instinctively threw himself flat and rolled off the bunker roof to the ground. When he looked to the south he saw a battalion of Israeli tanks approaching. The tank unit commander, a reservist, told him he had been ordered to form a line at El Al. In the early afternoon, the Ninth Brigade — a mechanized reserve unit commanded by Col. Mordecai Ben-Porat — arrived from the south.

The need to travel from the brigade assembly point in Yokne’am across Galilee had delayed his arrival by several hours, a delay that Ori Orr’s brigade was spared and so had been able to begin sending tanks up to the Golan on Saturday night.

In numbers, Ben-Porat’s strength matched that of the Syrian unit opposite, but his tanks consisted of Korean War-vintage Shermans. Half of them had been outfitted with 105mm. guns capable of penetrating the Syrian tanks. The other half had 75mm. guns that could not penetrate but could disable with a well-placed hit.

Ben-Porat gave the order to begin pushing northwards. By dusk, he had advanced three km., destroyed 20 tanks and lost four of his own. His men, mobilized less than 24 hours before, had been blooded. Four were dead.

Ben-Porat put out pickets as his tanks went into night laager.

In a briefing to the cabinet that day, Gen. Elazar said the situation on the Golan appeared to be stabilizing. However, he warned, it was not yet clear whether the Syrians had committed their tank reserves to the battle.

The lines formed by Orr in the center and Ben-Porat in the south offered a measure of comfort. ’Ori saved us today,’ said Hofi at a staff meeting Sunday night. Hofi divided responsibility on the Golan between Eitan, who retained command of the area from the Bnot Ya’acov Bridge northwards, and Gen. Dan Laner, a reservist, who was given charge of the southern Golan.

But the situation remained desperate. Large Syrian forces were roaming freely through the heart of the Golan as far west as the edge of the escarpment and establishing strong defensive positions bristling with antitank weapons. A Syrian division continued to attack the Seventh Brigade in the north while the southern half of the Purple Line was entirely open to the Syrians.

Lt.-Col. Erez, whose battalion had defended that sector, had taken up defensive positions early Sunday morning on Tel Fares with the 12 tanks remaining to him. After 36 hours of battle, they were virtually out of ammunition and fuel and the most they could hope to defend at this point was themselves.

During the day, five helicopters bearing Syrian commandos approached the tel. Two were shot down by tank machine guns and the rest driven off. The bypassed bunkers along the southern half of the line had all been evacuated except for Bunker 116 at Rafid whose men were bottled up by unrelenting Syrian pressure.

When the battle in the central sector tapered off after dark on Sunday, Ori Orr began to rebuild his brigade. Two of his battalion commanders had been wounded and seven of his company commanders were dead or wounded. Gathering his officers around him, he appointed everybody to new tasks.

Some officers whom he had not regarded highly had performed superbly under fire; others had disappointed him. Altogether, the men had fought well despite the psychological wrench of being thrown into battle straight from civilian life. But he was concerned about the nonorganic way the tank crews had been built during the previous day’s mobilization.

In battle, soldiers are motivated less by God and country than by the wish to be thought well of by their close comrades. But these men had gone into battle unbonded, which made the unnatural deed of moving into the way of death even more difficult. The one rallying element they had in common was Orr himself, and it was vital that his status as an authority figure be sustained. The prospect of death or injury concerned him less than failing to bear the responsibility of command.

Orr ordered that all knocked-out tanks on the battlefield be checked for wounded and dead. Crews were already arming and fueling intact tanks while maintenance teams attempted to repair damaged tanks.

The next day’s battle promised to be at least as grueling as this one had been, Orr told his officers. What was needed was to gain time to permit the rest of the reserves to be mobilized. As he concluded his briefing, two Syrian tanks, evidently lost, suddenly roared across the encampment. Before anyone could react, they disappeared to the south.

Late Sunday afternoon on Tel Fares, Lt.-Col. Erez assembled the tank crews, paratroopers and Intelligence personnel sheltering on the hill, 180 men in all. They would attempt to get back to the Israeli lines after sunset, he said.

After the morning helicopter attack, the Syrians appeared to have forgotten about them and there was no visible Syrian presence in the immediate vicinity. The men would ride atop the 12 tanks and one half-track still operable. There would be total radio silence. Syrian Intelligence had been displaying considerable nimbleness in pinpointing radio transmissions and bringing down artillery on the source.

Speaking with a reassuring calm, Erez said that if enemy forces were encountered on the way the passengers riding on the outside would get off so that the tanks could do battle.

As darkness took hold, Erez led the way down the tel.

At Northern Command headquarters in Galilee, the situation on the Golan seemed only marginally less fluid with the arrival of the first reserves. Even these units had begun to be ground down by the unending flow of Syrian armor and the surprisingly effective use the Syrians were making of Soviet antitank weapons wielded en masse by infantry.

The Seventh Brigade was holding in the north but was under severe pressure. There was not enough strength on the Golan for a decisive confrontation, and the air force was no longer a wonder worker. More and more during the day, Hod heard the question being asked at headquarters, ’Where’s Mussa?’

Gen. Moshe (’Mussa’) Peled, commander of the 146th Reserve Division, had taken leave of his unit the day before Yom Kippur for a year’s study at university, in keeping with the IDF’s practice of expanding its senior commanders’ horizons. He was at home the next morning when the deputy division commander, Col. Avraham Rotem, telephoned.

’You might want to get here,’ said Rotem.

Peled drove to divisional headquarters in Ramle where he learned of the gimmel alert. Stepping back into harness without further ado, he ordered that the division be prepared for imminent mobilization.

The 146th was the general staff’s strategic reserve in the event of war. As such, it had the luxury of a slower and more thorough mobilization process while waiting for the general staff to decide which front needed shoring up. With a desperate two-front war in progress and the possibility that Jordan might open a third, the decision was not simple.

It was not until 10 a.m. Sunday that Peled was summoned to meet Gen. Elazar in the general staff command bunker in Tel Aviv. The division was being assigned to the northern front, Elazar told him, less one brigade which was being diverted to Sinai.

’The Syrians have broken through,’ said the chief of general staff. ’Get up there quickly.’

Egypt might be Israel’s main enemy, but its forces were 200 km. away while the Syrian army was on Israel’s doorstep.

Peled ordered Rotem to get the two remaining brigades rolling north. The assembly point would be at Tzemah, at the southern end of Lake Kinneret. No transporters were available, so the tanks would have to cover the 150 km. from their bases in the center of the country on their own treads.

Peled himself drove north with senior staff officers in two jeeps to meet Hofi at Northern Command headquarters. He found the war room filled with people, all radiating confusion and uncertainty. Officers were speaking simultaneously to different units on the radio net and he was unable to get a clear briefing from anybody about the situation on the front. He found Hofi lying on a cot in a side room, trying to get his first rest since the war started 24 hours before.

’My division arrives tonight,’ said Peled. ’Where do you want me?’

Hofi said he wanted him to form a defense line along the Jordan.

Peled was shocked by the assignment and its inference that the army might be forced down from the Golan. He sensed that while Hofi looked calm enough he was laboring under the strain of the apocalyptic events of the past day. He himself was fresh and untraumatized and he had a mechanized division at his back.

’I don’t believe in defense,’ said Peled. ’I think we have to attack.’

Hofi, however, refused to change his directive. Army engineers were already preparing the bridges on the Jordan for demolition in case worse came to worst. Hofi asked Peled to return in the evening for a meeting of senior commanders.

With a few hours at his disposal, Peled drove with his staff officers across the Arik Bridge into the southen Golan. A veteran warhorse who had fought in Israel’s War of Independence, he wanted to breathe in the atmosphere of battle once again in preparation for the task ahead.

He did not have to go far. After just a few kilometers, he made out the familiar low profile of Syrian tanks in the distance and heard the sound of artillery and tank fire. That was enough for the moment.

When he returned to Northern Front headquarters after dark he found former chief-of-general-staff Haim Bar-Lev waiting. The ever-calm Bar-Lev had been dispatched by prime minister Golda Meir. She had had a shocking meeting earlier in the day with Dayan.

The defense minister said he had been wrong about everything and that a catastrophe loomed. Israel would have to pull back to the edge of the Heights while attempting to hang on in Sinai, he said.

Meir wanted Bar-Lev to advise her what to do. He had already spoken to Hofi and wanted now to hear Peled’s thoughts.

The divisional commander said he proposed driving with his force on a narrow front northwards from El Al to the Rafid Gap and Kudne area and thereby close off the main points of entry into the Golan south of Kuneitra. Once those entry points were in danger of shutting, the Syrian command would be obliged to withdraw its forces from the Golan or risk their annihilation.

Bar-Lev listened carefully. ’Wait a moment,’ he said. Peled watched as Bar-Lev got on the radio to Elazar and outlined Peled’s proposal for a counterattack. After speaking directly to Peled, Elazar told Bar-Lev that he gave his approval for a counterattack. Bar-Lev took Peled out into the courtyard where Hofi, Hod and other officers were standing. Bar-Lev asked Peled in front of the others to repeat his proposal.

As Peled recalls the occasion, when he finished sketching his plan once again, Bar-Lev turned to Hofi and said, ’Khaka, I’m happy you accepted Mussa’s plan. The plan is approved. We’re going to counterattack.’

Peled hurried to his jeep, but Bar-Lev caught up with him and handed him a cigar. Both were cigar fanciers. ’When you find a suitable moment, smoke it,’ said Bar-Lev. Both understood that that moment was not now.

Bar-Lev shook Peled’s hand in parting. ’Israel’s fate,’ he said, ’rests on your shoulders.’

 

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