Yom Kippur War: When the Nation Of Israel Was Judged and Nearly Failed

September 24, 2023

5 min read

Yom Kippur War

On Yom Kippur, October 6, 1973, while Jews around the world were praying for God to redeem their souls, the still-young State of Israel went through a trial of fire which it came very close to losing. For the first three days of the Yom Kippur War, Israel’s fate hung in balance while overwhelming Arab forces advanced almost unopposed into the heart of the tiny country. Only the heroic acts of a few individuals saved the tiny State of Israel from total annihilation. 

Exactly 50 years ago, a coalition led by Syria and Egypt and supported by the former Soviet Union, launched a surprise attack on Israel. The enemy attack focused on the Golan Heights and the Sinai, territories gained in the 1967 Six-Day War that gave Israel a strategic buffer zone necessary for its survival. Israel, with 400,000 troops supported by 1,700 tanks and 440 combat aircraft faced a combined force of almost one million enemy soldiers supported by 3,600 tanks and 450 combat aircraft.

32,000 Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal in a massive but meticulously planned operation, advancing almost unopposed into the Sinai Peninsula. They quickly overwhelmed the Bar Lev Line, a series of fortifications that Israeli military experts had claimed was impenetrable.  

Even more threatening was the Syrian attack in the north. 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 SAMs, the Syrians were impervious to the notorious IAF. The Israeli Air Force initially lost 40 planes from Syrian anti-aircraft batteries. The next day, Israel began to counterattack, but their attempt failed. The lauded Israeli Air Force was nowhere to be seen in the skies over the Sinai desert since air support was needed in the north, and Russian SAM missiles in Egyptian hands proved devastating. Crippled due to President Nixon withholding a promised full resupply, Israel reluctantly accepted a ceasefire on October 12, but Egyptian President Anwar Sadat refused.

After the overwhelming initial success, 28,000 Syrian troops, 800 tanks, and 600 artillery pieces began their offensive push forward. The only thing standing between the massive Syrian army and Israel were 160 Israeli tanks, outclassed and outnumbered almost 10 to 1. The Syrian tanks were equipped with night vision, an innovation the Israeli tanks lacked. This forced the Israelis to use a daring tactic: the Israelis had to allow the Syrians to advance to ranges close enough for night fighting before opening fire. On October 9, only six Israeli tanks remained in action, defending a clear path into northern Israel. After the brigade’s tanks were down to their last few rounds, they began to pull back. However, right then, a force of some 15 tanks that had been scrambled together arrived. Although the group was, in fact, a scratch force of repaired tanks that had injured men among their crews, the Syrians believed that the Israeli reserves were now arriving, and began to retreat.

With the Syrian attack repulsed and the threat removed from the heavily populated northern half of Israel, Israel was now able to turn its attention to the south. By the end of the war, a newly reinstated General Ariel Sharon had surrounded the Egyptian Third Army, crossed the Suez Canal, advanced to positions some 101 kilometers from Egypt’s capital, Cairo, and occupied 1,600 square kilometers west of the Suez Canal.

The victory was spectacular but it came at a horrifying cost. 2,500 Israelis had been killed and over 8,000 wounded. 293 IDF soldiers were captured and Egyptian and Syrian atrocities perpetrated on unarmed prisoners of war were discovered. The IDF was crippled, with 400 tanks destroyed and 100 IAF’s combat aircraft shot down

A UN ceasefire brokered by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was signed, with Israel pulling back from all territories it had conquered west of the Suez Canal, and other territories in the Golan.

This was the closest Israel had come to defeat at the hands of the Arabs. After the sustained euphoria that still remained after the victory of the Six-Day War, the painful victory of the Yom Kippur War just six years later made it clear that there was no guarantee that Israel would always dominate the Arab states militarily. The dismay and disappointment in the government after the war led to the dissolution of Golda Meir’s government.

Below is just one example of the multitude of individual heroic efforts that saved the Jewish State:

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 the “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 leaped 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-62s, 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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