Hanukkah Miracle Series: One Man Against an Entire Syrian Army

December 11, 2015

3 min read

Hanukkah is a time to celebrate miracles. The holiday commemorates two major miracles which took place in the time of the Maccabees: the miraculous victory of the tiny Jewish army over the vast Syrian-Greek one and the miracle of the small vial of oil which burned for eight days when it should have lasted only one. However, miracles did not happen only in history. Over the course of the week of Hanukkah, we will be featuring different miracles which occurred in modern Israel.

The Yom Kippur War was one of the most frightening wars of Israel’s history, and one of its biggest heroes, seemingly larger than life, was Zvika Greengold.

At exactly 2:00 pm on Yom Kippur in 1973, while most of Israel was fasting and praying, Syria opened fire on Israel’s northern border with 140 batteries of artillery as 1,260 Syrian tanks began to advance on the Golan Heights. Under cover of brutal anti-aircraft batteries and deadly SAM’s, the Syrians were impervious to the notorious IAF. The only thing standing between the massive Syrian army and Israel were 160 Israeli tanks, outclassed and outnumbered almost 10 to 1.

Zvika, a 21-year-old lieutenant, was visiting his parents at Kibbutz Lohamei HaGheta’ot (ghetto fighters) near Haifa for the holiday. It was a short leave from the army before he began a company commander course. When he heard that war had broken out, he hitchhiked to the Nafah base in the Golan. All of the tanks were on the battlefield, engaged in holding back the enemy wave, so Zvika helped with the wounded that were flowing into the base. When two damaged Centurion tanks were repaired, Zvika jumped at the chance, taking command of random soldiers and unfamiliar tanks.

His first encounter with the enemy was the 51st Syrian tank brigade that had broken through. In the first moments of battle, Zvika’s tank accounted for six kills. In the darkness, the Syrian tanks had approached to within ten meters of Zvika, which in tank-terms is point blank. The exploding enemy tank knocked out his radio, and in the heat of battle, he jumped from his tank and took command of the second tank. Night fell and the two Israeli tanks, with no radio, lost each other in the dark.

Zvika was alone when he faced the 452nd tank battalion. A long line of Syrian tanks, with better fighting ability and night vision, came at him. He dodged the enemy, shooting and moving, using the cover of dark to his advantage. In frustration, the Syrians turned on their searchlights, making Zvika’s job easier. Ten Syrian tanks were either damaged or dead when the Syrian forces pulled back, convinced they had encountered a large Israeli force.

Afraid the enemy was listening in on radio communication, Zvika did not want to give away the desperate situation and the fact that he was fighting alone. He identified himself to the Israeli high-command as “Zvika Force”. Colonel Yitzhak Ben-Shoham, the brigade commander, assumed it to be at least company strength.

Later that night, Zvika Force joined up with two platoons of reserve tanks. They encountered a large force of Syrian tanks. In the first moments of the engagement, Zvika’s tank was hit, injuring his crew and leaving him badly burned. He leapt from the tank, his uniform on fire, and commandeered another. For the rest of the night, he battled the Syrians, changing tanks several times, fighting on despite his injuries.

By morning, “Zvika Force” was winning the battle against the Syrian 51st tank brigade, but they got a desperate call to pull back. Nafah, the command center for all the Israeli forces in the Golan, was being threatened by 80 T-62’s, the most advanced tanks at the time. Zvika arrived with the 679th Reserve Armored Brigade in time to see IDF forces abandoning the base as Syrian tanks smashed their way in.

When the IDF forces finally repelled the Syrian attack, Zvika climbed out of his tank and collapsed, mumbling, “I can’t anymore.” He had been battling the enemy for 20 hours non-stop, changing tanks six times as they were shot out from under him, meanwhile claiming at least 20 kills. Other estimates put that number at 40.

Israel had destroyed over 900 Syrian tanks, while only seven Israeli tanks remained operational at the end of the fight. Over 2,600 Israeli soldiers were killed and 9,000 wounded, making it the second bloodiest war in Israeli history, after the War of Independence.

At the end of the Yom Kippur War, the IDF awarded Zvika Greengold the Medal of Valor for his extraordinary heroism. He is one of only eight soldiers to have earned the medal.

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