The Egyptian attack across the Suez Canal on 6 October 1973 caught the Israelis by surprise. Egyptian sapper teams crossed the canal and neutralised Israeli defences on the east bank. At the same time, engineers built dozens of bridges across it.
When the inevitable Israeli armoured counter-attack came, the Egyptians met them with teams armed with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and Sagger anti-tank guided missiles. The Egyptians destroyed dozens of Israeli tanks that day. By the end of the second day, the Egyptian Second and Third Armies, numbering a combined five divisions and 80,000 men, were ensconced on the east bank.
The next day, the Israelis launched a two-division attack, with a third held in reserve. Once more, the Israelis were met by a wall of RPGs and Sagger missiles. Above them, Israeli air cover was held back by the Egyptians’ new SA-7 SAM missile, which Israeli radar could not detect. Those Israeli tanks that managed to break through enemy positions were swarmed by Egyptian infantry.
The Israelis fell back in disarray. In the space of 48 hours, the Egyptians had won a great victory, crossing the canal and stopping two Israeli counter-attacks. General Ariel Sharon, who played a pivotal role in the war, called the first day ‘a disaster, a tankman’s nightmare’ and said the Israeli high command was left ‘in a state of shock’.
The Egyptians dig in
The Egyptians had no plans to advance deeper into the Sinai. As planned by Chief-of-Staff General Ismael Ali and General Saad al-Shazli, the Egyptian army was to remain on the Suez’s east bank as a fait accompli, a fact on the ground meant to force the Israelis to negotiate the Sinai’s return.
The Israelis were unsure how to attack the Egyptian forces and needed to regroup. More importantly, the Syrians had made great gains on the Golan Heights, shattering three Israeli brigades there. Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defence Minister Moshe Dayan agreed that the Golan crisis must be dealt with first.
After a week of hard fighting on the Golan and an epic armoured battle culminating in the Valley of Tears, the Israelis were free to counter-attack in the Sinai. Doing so would be a tough task, but it was made easier by Arab politics.
As the Syrian position on the Golan collapsed, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad demanded the Egyptians ease the pressure faced by his army by attacking deeper into the Sinai. Launched against the wishes of Shazli, the Egyptian attack featured the 4th and 21st Armoured Divisions, their last uncommitted armoured forces.
The two divisions rolled out into the open desert. Lacking the protective umbrella provided by the SA-7 batteries, both divisions were savaged from the air and met by Israeli armoured units. The attack was beaten back with the loss of over 250 T-55 and T-62 tanks.
Momentum in the Sinai had now shifted to the Israelis. Everyone in the Israeli high command, from Prime Minister Meir on down, felt that crossing the canal was essential to winning the war. The idea attained cult status. Wrote General Bren Adan, who would lead a division in the crossing operation, ‘The crossing idea was like some siren song, beckoning the commanders on, teasing them to dare and reach for the prize.’
There was considerable disagreement over timing. Sharon had already fought his division back to the shores of the Great Bitter Lake and placed a recon battalion on the canal. He urged a crossing as early as 10 October, feeling time was on the Egyptians’ side to realise the gap in their defences or to wait for a UN-imposed ceasefire. He was occupying the boundary between the Egyptian Second and Third Armies, and found it empty. ‘Here if anywhere was a situation that begged to be exploited,’ he wrote. ‘The Egyptians had not noticed the reconnaissance unit’s penetration. The path to the canal beckoned. Wide open.’
The Israeli plan
This was ruled out as too risky by General Shmuel Gonen, GOC of Southern Command. So Sharon contacted Tel Aviv and tried to get Chief of Staff David ‘Dado’ Elazar to agree to his plan. An enraged Gonen demanded Sharon be relieved. Instead, Moshe Dayan forced Gonen to accept General Haim Bar-Lev, the former GOC of Southern Command, as an intermediary between him and Sharon.
Sharon then clashed with Bar-Lev. Like Gonen, Bar-Lev wanted to wait. In a meeting with Bar-Lev at Sharon’s command post on 11 October, Sharon actually belittled his superior officer. ‘Slow talking and slow timing,’ he said.
Bar-Lev naturally sought Sharon’s removal. Dayan intervened and kept Sharon in place. He realised Sharon would be crucial to the breakthrough. In addition, Sharon was running for a Knesset seat on an opposition party ticket and his removal at a critical point would look political.
The high command did agree with Sharon that the crossing should take place opposite Deversior at the Matzmed strongpoint and would be carried out by the divisions of Sharon and Adan. Both divisions contained about 280 Centurion and Patton tanks.
While Israeli armoured divisions normally contained three brigades, Sharon’s had an extra paratrooper brigade attached. Sharon proposed he cross the canal, establish a bridgehead, and then expand that bridgehead for exploitation by Bren Adan’s division. The crossing would be led by paratroopers in rubber boats, followed by heavy bridging equipment, including an experimental motored bridge towed by tanks. The attack was called ‘Operation Strongheart’.
The Israelis had two goals: open a path to the canal, and then cross. To do so, the Israelis had to accomplish several things on the east bank of the canal. From north to south, they first had to clear the Egyptian 16th Infantry and 21st Armoured Divisions from the Akavish and Tirtur roads, two trunk roads running parallel to the south and south-east. The two divisions occupied a large defensive redoubt code-named ‘Missouri’.
Second, they had to take the misnamed Chinese Farm (it was Japanese) at the southern end of Missouri, along the Akavish Road. Third, the Israelis had to take the Tirtur/Lexicon crossroads, just east of their planned crossing point. Fourth, they needed to take the Matzmed strongpoint at the junction of the Suez Canal and the Great Bitter Lake.
Operation Strongheart began on 16 October, at 1700 hours, with Sharon attacking along a two-brigade front. On the right, northern flank, one armoured brigade advanced against the Egyptian 21st Armoured and 16th Infantry Divisions. As they had on the first day of the war, the Egyptian troops showed that they were capable of stubborn defence. Sharon’s armour pinned them down but was unable to push them off the road. At the same time, Sharon’s paratrooper brigade pushed south and then east towards the canal.
With one armoured brigade and one paratroop brigade advancing, Sharon’s third armoured brigade rushed forward for the canal, because Matzmed was at the junction of the Egyptian Second and Third Armies.
It was a weak joint, which neither army commander detailed troops to defend. The Israelis put a recon battalion and engineers on the east bank, and took Matzmed and the crossing point without difficulty. The brigade commander then sent the rest of his brigade, two armoured and two infantry battalions, north along the Lexicon Road to turn the flank of the Egyptian forces there and take the crucial Tirtur/Lexicon crossroads.
Sharon’s two lead brigades were now involved in an unplanned battle against large Egyptian forces for the Tirtur/Lexicon crossroads. Egyptian tanks and missile teams turned back several Israeli attacks. Without possessing the crossroads, Israeli bridging equipment could not proceed to the canal.
As the attack bogged down, there was talk between Gonen and Dayan about calling off Operation Strongheart. But with Israeli forces on the canal, the decision was to proceed.
Fighting along the Akavish Road continued throughout the night, costing Sharon some 300 men and 70 tanks. Meanwhile, at Matzmed, Israeli artillery pounded the west bank of the canal, and by 0135 hours one paratroop battalion had crossed using rubber boats. There were no Egyptian troops to meet them. A second Israeli paratroop battalion followed, as did self-propelled artillery and the bulk of Sharon’s last remaining armoured brigade.
Crisis of the battle
This was the crucial moment in the battle. The Egyptians had not realised the purpose of Sharon’s attack, believing it to be an effort to destroy their forces at Missouri. Reports were now reaching Second Army HQ about roving Israeli tanks on the west bank.
Facing no Egyptian pressure, Sharon dispatched armoured platoons and SP guns on raids against Egyptian positions. These destroyed Egyptian artillery and, more importantly, SAM missile sites.
General Shazli argued passionately that Sharon’s bridgehead must be dealt with and troops should be withdrawn from the east bank to do so. Ismael Ali rejected the suggestion and insisted that forces on the east bank should remain there and attack Israeli forces in the vicinity of the Chinese Farm and the Akavish Road.
Both he and President Sadat were adamantly opposed to withdrawing troops from the Sinai. It would look bad politically and risked a general panic among troops there. Ismael Ali won the debate and Sharon’s bridgehead was left alone.
Instead, the Egyptians planned to attack along the east bank of the canal in order to improve their position there. Had Sadat agreed to Shazli’s plan, the Egyptians might have crushed Sharon’s bridgehead. Given the skittishness of Gonen and Dayan, it is unlikely that the Israelis would have mounted another effort to cross.
The Israelis had accomplished their second goal, opening up a bridgehead across to the west bank, but not their first, clearing a path to the canal. Sharon was screaming for reinforcements – specifically, for Adan to be sent across the canal at once. When Gonen denied the request, Sharon went over his head to Elazar, who denied it as well and wisely ordered that no more units be sent across the canal until the situation on the east bank had stabilised.
Egyptian resistance along the Akavish Road was so stiff that Gonen ordered that Adan’s division diverted there before crossing. Adan dutifully sent two brigades to assist. These became bogged down in the fighting and took heavy casualties from Egyptian RPG and ATGM (anti-tank guided missile) teams in and around Chinese Farm.
Adan then requested and received from Gonen Sharon’s armoured brigade and renewed the effort to clear the road. Throughout the day, Egyptian armoured units advanced and then withdrew. Wrote Adan, ‘Finally I concluded that 21st Armoured Division tanks were trying to lure us into a trap so that 16th Infantry Division could finish us off.’
At Adan’s suggestion, Gonen rushed his corps reserve, another paratrooper brigade, into the battle. The paratroopers took heavy fire from Chinese Farm but were able to clear out many of the Egyptian RPG and ATGM teams.
To the west of the farm, Adan sent two brigades on an armoured sweep of the road. This effort cleared remaining Egyptian forces there. Adan triumphantly wrote, ‘at 1100 hours we declared the road open to all traffic’.
The supply convoys began their trek down the road to the crossing point. Adan detailed his executive officer, General Dovik, to oversee the delivery of the crossing equipment, including the roller bridge, a Bailey bridge, and a battalion of Gilowa ferries. By 0630 hours on the morning of 17 October, he had reached Matzmed. Engineers dropped giant floating sections of bridge into the canal and hammered them together.
East Bank counter-attack
It was at this time that the Egyptian counter-attack on the east bank took shape. North of the Akavish Road, three Egyptian brigades advanced against Adan’s two. While they had superior force, Egyptian commanders failed to coordinate their efforts, and individually attacked straight into the Israeli guns.
The day’s fighting here cost Adan about 80 tanks, but the Egyptians lost twice that number. As the fighting raged along the Akavish Road, the Egyptian 25th Mechanised Brigade advanced north along the Great Bitter Lake. This effort was not coordinated with forces to the north. Consequently, the 25th was on its own.
Israeli armoured forces pinned the brigade against the lake and enveloped it. The brigade was slaughtered by concentrated tank- and artillery-fire. Egyptian forces in the north kept the pressure on Adan’s brigades and launched a major attack that night, but the Israelis turned them back. Shazli remarked of the attack, ‘It was an utter waste.’
By 17 October, the way was open for Adan to bring his division across the canal, but the effort was held up. Sharon delayed relieving Adan’s brigades north of the Akavish Road and did not do so until Adan – ‘angrily’, in his own words – contacted Southern Command to pressure Sharon to move.
Elazar personally gave the order and Sharon reluctantly shifted his forces north. In battles throughout the day, Sharon’s division continued its battering of Egyptian forces and, overnight, they finally pulled back from Chinese Farm.
Now Adan delayed, as he needed to resupply his units. Feeling pressure from Elazar and Dayan, who were furious about the hold-up, Gonen radioed Adan and told him to get moving or he would hand the job over to Sharon. ‘The implied threat stung me,’ Adan said, but he followed orders and got his division back on the road.
At 2130 hours, Adan reached Matzmed. The bridgehead was under heavy Egyptian artillery-fire, but the Bailey bridge was intact and the Gilowa ferries ready. By 0515 on the 19 October, Adan had two brigades, 140 tanks in all, on the west bank.
Sensing that the situation was now critical, President Sadat ordered an all-out aerial assault on the bridgehead. A massive air battle ensued above Matzmed, in which the Egyptians lost at least 20 aircraft, the Israelis none, and the Bailey bridge remained intact.
Adan struck out in all directions, engaging Egyptian rear elements as he found them. Ismael Ali dispatched the 4th and 23rd Armoured Brigades to deal with the threat. Both attacked independently of the other and were destroyed by Adan in short order.
Later in the day, as General Kalman Magen was bringing his division across the Suez Canal, Dayan came across to the west bank and conferred with Sharon. Sharon desperately wanted to advance north and cut off the Egyptian Second Army. Dayan agreed, if for no other reason than to get rid of him.
In the meantime, Adan and Magen would strike south and envelope the Egyptian Third Army. There were few Egyptian front-line units available to resist the Israeli breakthrough, as most had remained in the Sinai, as required by Ismael Ali’s orders. By 22 October, Adan and Magen had driven 50 miles south to the gates of Suez City. The fate of the Egyptian Third Army, and therefore the outcome of the Yom Kippur War, was sealed. •
William Strook lives in New Jersey with his wife and three daughters. He is a former history professor and author of more than a dozen novels, including the ‘World War 1990’ alternative history series imagining war between the US and the USSR.
Images: Wikimedia Commons, unless otherwise stated.