The Two O'Clock War: The 1973 Yom Kippur Conflict and the Airlift That Saved Israel

The Two O'Clock War: The 1973 Yom Kippur Conflict and the Airlift That Saved Israel

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It's usually called the Yom Kippur War. Or sometimes the October War. The players that surround it are familiar: Sadat and Mubarak, Meir and Sharon, Nixon and Kissinger, Brezhnev and Dobyrnin. It was a war that brought Arab and Jew into vicious conflict. A war in which Israel almost unleashed her nuclear arsenal and set two superpowers on a treacherous course of nuclear escalation.

And a war that eventually brought peace. But a peace fraught with delicate tensions, disputed borders, and a legacy of further bloodshed.

The Two O'Clock War is a spellbinding chronicle of the international chess game that was played out in October 1973. It is a story of diplomacy and military might that accounts for many of the dilemmas faced in the present-day Middle East.

This is a war that Israel never thought was possible. Surprised by the fury and excellent execution of the Arab onslaught, and perhaps more than a little complacent, Israel suddenly found itself on the point of losing a war because of a lack of ammunition, planes and tanks. The United States, after much vacillation, finally elected to help Israel, beginning a tremendous airlift (code name: Operation Nickel Grass) which incurred the wrath of the Arab states, and their sponsor, the Soviet Union.

Fortunately the airlift came just in time for Israeli ground forces to stabilize their positions and eventually turn the tide in the Sinai and Golan Heights. And it was all made possible by an operation that dwarfed the Berlin Airlift and the Soviets' simultaneous efforts in Egypt and Syria.

The Two O'Clock War is bound to become the definitive history of a war that quite literally approached Armageddon.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312273033
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 09/28/2002
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 10.70(h) x 1.29(d)

About the Author

Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Walter J. Boyne served as director of the National Air and Space Museum from 1983-1986. His bestselling titles include The Wild Blue (with Steve Thompson), Weapons of the Gulf War and The Smithsonian Illustrated History of Flight. He lives in Ashburn, Virginia.

Read an Excerpt


Hubris and the October War
THE WAR THAT BLAZED forth on October 6, 1973, would grow swiftly from what looked initially like a minor border skirmish. Its escalation resulted from how the United States and the Soviet Union sought to extend their strength and influence through client states. Both sides used the same techniques : political backing in disputes, loans and gifts of money and other supplies, and, of course, the provision of arms and munitions.
During the Cold War, many client states to the two superpowers received weapons that were surplus to their patrons’ need and were often obsolescent. Not so in the Middle East, where the Soviet Union equipped the Arab states with their finest equipment and the United States responded in kind for Israel. The total outlay for this aid was massive, as may be seen by the following table comparing the strength of the opposing forces.


The Arab states knew that they could count on the support of many other anti-Israel partners. This was demonstrated repeatedly during the war by the extension of financial aid, military equipment, and, perhaps most important, support in the United Nations. No fewer than eleven nations directly supported the Arab forces. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia financially backed the war and committed over 3,000 troops. Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, and Morocco contributed a combined force of 10,000 troops, 150 tanks, and three fighter and bomber squadrons. Lebanese radar operators guided Syrian aircraft and allowed Palestinian terrorists to set up artillery positions within Lebanon’s borders.
The table’s numbers speak for themselves; more than 55,000,000 Arabs were to be pitted against 3,180,000 Israelis. The armies of the Arab states were vastly superior in manpower, tanks, aircraft, and especially artillery. These facts dictated what had become Israel’s permanent strategy: swift mobilization followed by powerful air attacks and a slashing armored offensive. Under Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s clever guidance, Egypt and Syria now sought to undermine that strategy.
It is important to note in the table the gross national product figures. Israel’s GNP almost matches Egypt’s and exceeds the other three nations’ combined GNPs. Israel’s GNP depended upon the industry and resourcefulness of its people, many of whom had to do double duty, serving as businessmen or -women while also serving in the reserves. When the reserves were mobilized and the armed forces brought up to strength, business suffered. In contrast, the greater populations of the Arab nations permitted them to maintain sizable standing armies. This was a key difference, one that almost spelled the end of Israel as a nation in 1973.
The qualitative difference between the armed forces of Israel and those of the Arab countries is more difficult to chart. It is of even greater difficulty to measure the degree by which Israel underestimated the Egyptian and the Syrian forces, based on their experience in previous wars. In the War of Independence, the Israeli army was literally born in battle. It was given time to grow and survive by the Arab states, who were unable to coordinate their actions. In 1956, with Great Britain and France as allies, Israel swiftly defeated the Egyptian forces in the Sinai. In 1967 a brilliant preemptive attack by the Israelis utterly routed both Egypt and Syria in what became known as the Six-Day War. After 1967 both sides engaged in a deadly contest called the War of Attrition, which raged until 1970.
During the months leading up to October 1973, Syria’s armed forces underwent significant improvement. Under President Hafiz al-Assad’s leadership, the army, once rife with corruption, became far more professional, with well-trained officers leading well-equipped and motivated troops. Seven million Syrians created a fighting force that exceeded in numbers and in armor that of many of the major powers of the world, including England, France, and Italy.
But Israel was still a lethal foe. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) was always qualitatively superior by a tremendous degree to the air forces of the Arab nations. This was a matter of discipline, training, dedication, and enormous sacrifice by the Israeli airmen.
The Israeli Army had been formed with the “never-again” philosophy that stemmed from the Holocaust. By 1950 the Israel Defense Force (IDF) modeled itself on a British style of organization and even boasted a new chief of the General Staff, General Yigael Yadin. Only thirty-two years old, Yadin would promulgate five principles that Israel would faithfully follow—until 1973, when the first four were violated. Here are the five:

1. The morale of the country is of the utmost importance.
2. The entire potential of the Israeli community must be fully utilized for war.
3. Unity of command is essential.
4. Israel must operate on the offensive, not the defensive, and must use surprise to the greatest advantage.
5. Israel would need the political support of a major power—most probably the United States—if it went to war again.2
To follow Yadin’s principles, it became necessary to fulfill the promise of the founder and first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, to create “a new kind of Jew,” by which he meant a Jew who was a fierce, competent soldier. The concept of “dying in the defense of Masada” was pronounced obsolete: losing valiantly was no longer an option. Ben-Gurion took World War II military forces as his model. On the ground he wanted a mobile armored force capable of penetrating far into enemy lines and defeating them as the German Afrika Korps had done in the early days of the desert war. In the air he wanted the hard-hitting precision of the United States Air Forces. Under his guidance, his aims would soon be achieved and Israel was militarily superior to its Arab neighbors.
Ben-Gurion’s success came about in large part because of his ability to pick great leaders. First and foremost among these choices was his selection of Moshe Dayan. Dayan personified the “new kind of Jew.” Born in Deganya A, the first kibbutz in Palestine, Dayan, balding, one-eyed, and with Spockian ears, would always be the most beloved and the most hated of Israel’s politician-generals. No matter what his status, no matter who was in power, Dayan was always a powerful member of the government, a position he had earned by his epic deeds as a soldier and the sheer power of his personality. He maintained the position by savvy political insight and maintaining enough followers to overturn the coalition governments that ruled Israel. It was said that “a large cabinet majority without Dayan is not really a majority.”
Moshe Dayan began his military career at the age of fourteen, when he became a member of the Haganah, the secret—and illegal—underground self-defense force of the Zionist movement in Palestine. The Arabs had formed similar groups, and the 1930s were marked by constant reciprocal killings and the cruelest kind of vandalism—despoiling fields, uprooting orchards, and poisoning water supplies.
Arab violence against both the British and the Jews reached a peak in 1936, at which time Dayan became a ghaffir, a member of the Jewish Settlement Police Force, which served as an auxiliary to both the army and the regular police. He was assigned the task of guiding British military units—a Scottish regiment and the Yorkshire Fusiliers—in Palestine in 1937. Later he learned the art of ambush from Orde Wingate, then a captain and later the leader of the famous “Chindits” in Burma.
Imprisoned for sixteen months after being caught on one of his ambush patrols, Dayan went on to fight for the British, losing his left eye in battle during the British invasion of Vichy-French Syria and Lebanon. His vision suffered, but his appearance was enhanced, for the pointy-eared Dayan was positively dashing with his black eye patch.
Dayan’s mastery of desert tactics emerged after Israel proclaimed its independence, when he raised and led the 89th Commando Battalion in daring attacks on Arab positions. His combat experience and his charismatic personality served him well and resulted in his appointment by Ben-Gurion as Chief of Staff. He was the perfect leader to create tough, mobile, and swift-striking armed forces, and as Chief of Staff he would lead his new-style Israeli soldiers to victory in the 1956 Sinai campaign.
Yet the rapid formation of the Jewish state and its armed forces resulted in another “new kind of Jew” being created: the warrior-politician. Dayan was one of these, becoming a member of the Mapai (Labor) Party and serving in the Knesset and in the cabinet. In 1973, Dayan would be one of the principal soldier-politicians who would wreak havoc with the Israeli military machine.
Perhaps more than anything else, however, Dayan’s prestige and power stemmed from the deft manner in which he had made Israel into a nuclear power. The infant nation had begun work to this end as early as 1948, when it sent prospectors looking for uranium deposits in the Negev desert. In this endeavor, Israel had been blessed by the leadership of Ernst Bergman, who was a close friend of Ben-Gurion. Bergman developed close association with the French military and scientific community. France had been a world leader in physics prior to World War II but had fallen so completely behind that by 1948 it was on a scientific par with newly emerging Israel. The two nations’ needs complemented each other, and France helped build and man the Dimona nuclear facility near Beersheba, in the Negev.
The United States discovered the Dimona facility on a routine U-2 surveillance flight in 1958 and promptly put pressure on Israel not to build nuclear weapons. Ben-Gurion agreed and announced to the world that the reactor would be used only for peaceful purposes. The announcement was palpably false, but then, and forever, the United States preferred to accept Israeli protestations of nuclear probity at face value. Even when Ben-Gurion demonstrated that he was prepared to execute his ein brerra (no alternative to first strike) policy at a moment’s notice, his word on the peaceful use of nuclear power was not officially questioned.
Israel and France continued to work hand in hand, with Israeli scientists making notable contributions to both nations’ programs. The nuclear tests conducted in 1960 that formally introduced France into the ranks of the nuclear powers also brought Israel to that status. Israel soon adopted France’s concept of force de frappe, meaning that it would work to achieve the ability to strike at the Soviet Union independently, without using the United States as a nuclear umbrella.
Many Israeli leaders were influential in the nuclear program, but none more so than the former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who saw to it that Bergman’s plans were followed in the development process. However, once Israel was nuclear-capable, no one had his hand deeper in the pie than Dayan. It was Dayan, as Minister of Defense, who had two primitive but effective nuclear bombs assembled prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, where the swift turn of events did not require their use. And Dayan was almost solely responsible for the decision to begin serial production of the nuclear warheads in early 1968.
Every Israeli Prime Minister, from David Ben-Gurion on, backed the Israeli development of nuclear weapons, as well as the don’t ask, don’t tell policy of “nuclear ambiguity.” The Israelis viewed their nuclear capability as their single best guarantee for preventing another Holocaust. “Never Again” meant “Never Again at Any Price,” and no one was more fervent in this view than Moshe Dayan.
All of this contributed to the effect Dayan would have on the October War. Much of the blame for Israel’s surprise was attributed to him, and he used his role as Defense Minister to both intervene and interfere at every turn. Yet it was Dayan who was responsible for Israel’s having a nuclear capability, the threat of which may well have stopped the Syrian advance and averted the loss of the war.
Dayan’s chief rival for public attention was Ariel Sharon, who was born in 1928 in Kfar Malal, some fifteen miles northeast of Tel Aviv on the coastal Plain of Sharon. His parents, Samuil and Vera, were stoic farmers who wrested a meager living from the barren soil. Samuil was an ardent Zionist but, unlike others in the community, not a socialist.
By the age of thirteen, Ariel Sharon was not only a veteran farmer but also a member of the guards who protected the fields from Arab predators. By fourteen, he was initiated into the Haganah and soon became a member of an elite unit of the underground army, the “Signalers.” There he practiced with the small arms that were available, and spent hours learning the desert terrain.
During the War for Independence, the solidly built Sharon distinguished himself as a platoon leader in crucial battles around Latrun, during one of which he was badly wounded. After the war he suggested the formation of an Israeli commando unit and was selected to command it. Fedayeen (suicide squad) raids were becoming more frequent. The fedayeen killed about 1,000 Israelis between 1951 and 1955, and Sharon fought them with his special Unit 101—a foreshadowing of his tactics fifty years later. Actions like this made him a favorite of Ben-Gurion. As Chief of Staff in 1953, Dayan, who had initially opposed special units, merged Unit 101 with the paratroops and placed Sharon as commander of the new force.
Sharon led the unit in some brilliant raids but got into trouble by exceeding his orders during the ill-starred Suez Crisis. There were excessive Israeli casualties as a result, and Sharon’s career was temporarily halted.
The political climate changed in 1967, when Yitzhak Rabin became Chief of Staff of the IDF. Sharon was reinstated and promoted to major general. In June of 1967 Sharon distinguished himself in the Six-Day War by commanding a key division.
By 1973, Sharon was out of political favor again and left the army to enter politics. He helped form the Likud Party, and his politics were part of the problem when he returned to command a division in the Yom Kippur War. He was always an aggressive fighter, never hesitating to question—or ignore—orders that he felt were unwise. He was immensely popular with the people and with his troops, but not with his military peers.
Given commanders like Dayan and Sharon, it was not surprising that Israel was successful in war. Nor was it surprising that the brilliant Six-Day War of 1967 gave its citizens and its leaders pride and confidence in the Israeli armed forces. There was, however, a certain hubris also born of Israel’s success that would lead to the early miscalculations that took place that October. As matters transpired, Israeli hubris was most pronounced in exactly the place where it was most dangerous, the vaunted Israeli intelligence system.
Despite the nation’s short history, Israeli intelligence operations had achieved world renown, not only for their operations in the Middle East but also for their excursions into Europe, the United States, and Asia. The Israelis pursued the full spectrum of intelligence work, from basic tasks such as creating target folders for future attacks, to influencing elections in foreign countries, to savage assassinations of those perceived to be Israel’s enemies.
Like all of Israel’s armed forces, its intelligence corps began operations on an ad hoc basis. Some of its first operations occurred before the May 15, 1948, Independence Day, including purchasing arms in Czechoslovakia and using a Douglas DC-4 to smuggle them to a clandestine desert airfield. Only a few weeks later, Israeli intelligence put together the plan that saw the first Israeli fighter planes (Czech-built versions of the Messerschmitt Bf 109) attack an Egyptian tank column nearing Tel Aviv.
After independence, Israeli intelligence services were soon well organized, achieving a professional status that was respected, envied, and feared. The organization was unique in many ways. It was comprised of two main elements. First was the infamous Mossad, which conducted foreign intelligence operations and was responsible for actions that ranged from assassinations to stealing state secrets. It also avenged itself upon anti-Israeli terrorist operations and established a reputation for swift, merciless, and skillfully executed reprisals. The second was the less widely known Directorate of Military Intelligence (called AMAN), which conducted internal intelligence operations that spanned routine military matters to the more demanding assessment of the military capacity and intentions of both friendly and unfriendly nations. AMAN was responsible for preparing the National Intelligence Estimate, which perforce dictated Israeli strategy and foreign policy.
Intelligence functions are vital in every country, but Israel’s unique style of government immeasurably enhanced the importance of the AMAN. As Israel was literally pulled from the womb of war by its soldiers, it is not surprising that its governmental positions have been dominated by the presence of the military. The names of soldier-politicians dominate its history, including Dayan, Sharon, Rabin and more. Because of this, the Israel Defense Force has a position unique in democracies, being almost an expression of the government itself. As a military force, it is responsible to the civil government—but the civil government is often indistinguishable from the IDF. The top positions (the Prime Minister and the cabinet) are often held by former Chiefs of Staff or retired generals, who, in time of war, might well relinquish a cabinet position to assume command of a large military unit.
Within this ultramilitary environment, the Director of Military Intelligence had virtually become a cabinet post itself. 3 The DMI nominally reported to the Minister of Defense, but was often called upon to put forth intelligence directly to the Prime Minister and the cabinet.
The brilliant operations that led to the massive success of the Six-Day War (see “Appendix: Born in Battle”) enhanced the prestige of the Directorate of Military Intelligence just as it did the prestige of the IDF and IAF. The proper assessment of targets, the split-second timing, and the follow-up attacks all spoke to the harmony between the intelligence service and the fighting arms of the IDF. Not even the long decade of pinprick attacks by Arab forces, many terrorist attacks, or the costly War of Attrition (again, see Appendix) served to diminish the sense of confidence and well-being of the IDF.
Confidence soon gave way to a sense of inevitable victory. Both Israeli intelligence and the IDF believed that no matter what the Arab nations did, they would be defeated soon after the war began. It was considered simply impossible that any combination of Arab effort could defeat the Israelis. The most important element in this belief was in the air supremacy guaranteed by the IAF and demonstrated frequently in combat against the historically inept Egyptian and Syrian air forces.
By 1973 it became a given among Israeli leaders that its intelligence operations would give at least two days’ warning of an Arab attack and that this was more than sufficient to mobilize the reserves, bring up the armor, and poise the IAF for devastating air strikes. The Egyptian leaders were generally accepted as rational men who would consider a war possible only when the Egyptian Air Force became powerful and proficient enough that it could launch a surprise attack on Israel and knock out the IAF on the ground. Even with massive Soviet aid and training, this seemed impossible for the moment and improbable for many years to come. It thus became an article of faith to Israeli leaders that war did not make sense for Egypt, for it could not win, and therefore it would not attack. Syria was written off as unable to proceed without Egypt. The Israeli leaders understood that Egypt would continually undertake threatening military maneuvers but these actions were believed to be intended solely to maintain the morale of the armed forces.
All of these factors merged into a single hubristic philosophy : Israel cannot be defeated. All of Israel’s military and civilian leaders knew that the IDF was invincible in any war against any combination of the Arab states. The Israeli principles of obtaining air superiority and fighting a swift offensive armored war in enemy territory was accepted as a given. And they believed this single-minded philosophy so strongly that they assumed that the Arab leaders, being intelligent men, also believed in it.
This blind faith in the soundness of Israeli intelligence and in the invincibility of Israeli arms was raised to the highest—and most dangerous—level in the person of the director of military intelligence, Major General Eli Zeira. A charismatic leader whose powerful personality governed the way AMAN was run, Zeira had a strong relationship with the minister of defense, Dayan, and was widely respected for his brilliance.4 Over the years, Zeira crafted AMAN’s relationship with the Prime Minister and the cabinet in such a way that allowed him almost to dictate the course of the government in military matters.
When Zeira reported to the cabinet, as he did frequently, he presented a carefully crafted decision paper that offered the results of AMAN’s research as a unified point of view. He did not give expression to the opposing minority in his report. His counterpart in the Mossad, Major General Zvi Zamir, was often not invited to cabinet meetings, especially if he disagreed with Zeira. Conducting his briefings in a quantitative style that would have appealed to Robert McNamara, Zeira dazzled everyone with his intimate knowledge of enemy strength and dispositions, reciting the Arab formations by name and evaluating their capability, often down to the number and type of tank in each area. Similar expositions followed on enemy air and naval strength. Zeira salted his briefings with quick flashes of rough military humor, usually a slashing putdown of an Arab leader or, if he was confident enough, a gentler dig at an Israeli colleague. Zeira’s listeners had to be impressed, for if he was this knowledgeable about enemy capabilities, it followed that he must be equally knowledgeable about their intentions.
Internally Zeira ran a taut ship and permitted no dissension within AMAN, which had a monopoly on raw intelligence. Any AMAN analyst who volunteered a contrary opinion, even informally to a close friend, would find his career abruptly sidetracked.
Confidence in Zeira’s judgment reached an all-time high in the spring of 1973, so much so that Zeira was considered to be almost a member of Golda Meir’s cabinet. The Egyptians, as they had done so often, appeared to be preparing for war, but Zeira assured everyone that it was just another bluff. He informed Prime Minister Meir that any attempt by the Egyptians to force a crossing of the Suez Canal would be well known to the Israelis several days in advance. The Israeli Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General David “Dado” Elazar, disagreed, and his deputy, Major General Israel Tal, supported his position. Rough-hewn in appearance, Elazar was a thoughtful man who had been instrumental in building Israel’s armored force into a potent weapon. Almost as articulate—if not nearly so handsome and dashing—as Zeira, Elazar saw that Anwar Sadat might have internal political considerations that would force him to go to war knowing that Egypt could not win a complete military victory. It was possible, in Elazar’s view, that Sadat might be impelled to go to war simply by the passage of time. Sadat was maintaining hundreds of thousands of soldiers on salary—he might simply have to use them to justify their existence and his tenure of office. Zamir, the chief of Mossad, generally agreed with Elazar, but his opinions were not as widely disseminated as Zeira’s.
In May 1973, after weighing all the options, Elazar ordered a partial mobilization, part of a plan called Blue-White, intended to defeat a combined attack by Egypt and Syria.5 Just as Zeira predicted, the Egyptian threat failed to materialize, and Elazar was castigated for prematurely mobilizing, an exercise that cost Israel by some estimates as much as $35 million. Elazar suffered a serious loss of face, even receiving a public reprimand from the finance minister, who bemoaned the man-hours lost to the economy by the mobilization. (Calling up reservists took them away from their jobs, and the proportion was so great that the economy faltered with each call-up.) Meanwhile, Zeira’s reputation—and ego—soared.
Some later analysts believe that Elazar had been correct, despite disavowals by Sadat in his autobiography. The claim has been made that Egypt had in fact intended to go to war in May but did not when the Soviet Union pressured Sadat to postpone the operation. The pressure came directly from Premier Leonid Brezhnev, who did not want his attempts to achieve detente with the United States to be interrupted by a Middle Eastern war.6
For the next five months, Zeira would continue to play into the hands of Anwar Sadat, whose guile, duplicity, and capability were equally underestimated by the Israelis and the world. From 1967 through August 1970, the two nations had waged what became known as the War of Attrition, in which both sides tested weapons, installed new equipment, and launched every sort of attack upon each other. Some of the battles were mere firefights between opposing infantry units; others were massive artillery battles, with as many as a thousand guns belching fire. In the air, the IAF had difficulty counteracting the ever-increasing numbers of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and antiaircraft artillery (AAA) of the Egyptians. To offset the potential for an Egyptian invasion, the Israelis constructed what became known as the Bar-Lev line, a system of fortifications designed to delay any Egyptian military incursion until reserve forces could be brought forward. (For more details, see “Appendix: Born in Battle.”)
A general pattern had developed in which the Israelis would react with massive retaliation to every Egyptian initiative. Sadat had become convinced that Egypt might as well make the heaviest possible all-out attack, because it would receive a vicious Israeli response no matter the degree of engagement. And despite the influx of Soviet weapons and technicians, Sadat and his key military men had no doubts about the superiority of the IAF and the excellence of the IDF’s armored formations. Yet in February 1972 offsets to both these problems were provided by the Soviet Union.
It was suggested to Egypt’s Minister of War, General Ahmed Ismail Ali, during his visit to the Kremlin that year, that a sufficient number of a variety of missile types would shift the balance of power. The Soviet military advisers believed that the Israeli air superiority might be countered by the establishment of a massive “missile wall” along the banks of the Suez Canal and the Golan Heights. If sufficient SA-2, SA-3, and SA-6 missiles were available, supplemented by the new handheld SA-7 Grail missile launchers and heavy antiaircraft batteries, the IAF could be countered and Egyptian forces would be able to operate without the devastating losses incurred in every previous campaign. Additional SAMs would also be sent to Syria, to counter Israeli air operations there.
The SA-2s were Mach 3.5 missiles effective at altitudes up to and beyond 60,000 feet and had a slant range of about 23 miles. The SA-3s flew at Mach 2.1, had a range of up to 13.7 miles, and operated at altitudes from 50 to 50,000 feet. The SA-6 Gainful missiles were designed for lower altitudes. A SA-6 system consisted of a radar/fire-control unit and four transporter/launcher vehicles, each carrying three missiles. The missile itself had a slant range of 17 miles against lowaltitude targets. The heat-seeking SA-7 was inexpensive and could be provided by the thousands. It weighed only twenty pounds and carried a 5.5-pound warhead. With a speed of Mach 1.5 and a range of about 4,000 yards, the SA-7 could be fired in barrages against low-flying aircraft.7 The SA-7 proved very successful against U.S. aircraft when used by the North Vietnamese in their Spring 1972 invasion of South Vietnam.
The missile systems had a perfect complement in the ZSU 23/4 antiaircraft system, which was built on the same tracked chassis as the SA-6. Its four water-cooled 23mm guns could put out 4,000 rounds per minute to defend the missile sites against low-level threats. Ground-controlled intercept for fighters had long been a Soviet strong point. These missiles and guns were integrated into a defense network using multiple radar systems and command centers that provided extremely good protection from Israeli air attack. And to offset the threat of long-range raids by Israeli aircraft, which had proved so devastating to morale in the years since the Six-Day War, the Soviet Union offered SS-1C Scud and FROG (free rockets over ground) surface-to-surface missiles, which would be able to strike Israel’s major cities from Egypt. The Syrians fired more than twenty FROG missiles during the October War, killing a number of military and civil personnel.
It was believed that the presence of Scuds would be a deterrent to Israeli air raids. And if they did not deter, they could exact some modicum of revenge. The Scud, which would become notorious in the Iraq-Iran and Persian Gulf wars, was a primitive descendant of the German V-2. It had a range of about 200 miles and carried a 1,800-pound high-explosive warhead. As primitive as it was, it was a weapon of great importance to Sadat, and it convinced him that he could now go to war, even though the Soviet Union wisely decided to retain control of the use of the weapons.
The third leg of the Arab missile triad consisted of the introduction of massive amounts of antitank weapons to neutralize Israeli armor. In addition to superb Soviet artillery and tanks, the Arabs were provided with thousands of shoulder-fired rocket-powered grenades, AT-3 Sagger missiles, and BRDM-2 armored missile-carrying vehicles. The RPGs were the direct descendant of World War II bazookas and panzerfausts and fired a five-pound shaped high-explosive charge over a range of 545 yards. The AT-3 Sagger missile was a medium-to-long-range wire-guided antitank missile carrying a six-pound warhead and delivered at speeds up to 267 mph. The BRDM-2s were swift wheeled scout cars, capable of up to 60 mph speeds and carrying six Sagger missiles.
None of these weapons was revolutionary, and their counterparts could be found in armed forces around the world. What was different was the massive numbers of these armaments with which the Egyptians and Syrians would be equipped. The shoulder-fired RPGs were found in quantity at platoon level, while the BDRM-2s and Saggers filled battalions and brigades with the immense firepower necessary to dominate tank battles.
With this abundance of weaponry, the Soviet Union helped Egypt and Syria offset three major advantages the Israelis had previously enjoyed and still counted on: air supremacy, armored supremacy, and deep strikes into Egypt. Now all Sadat needed was the element of surprise to make sure of the success of his plans.
Anwar Sadat, dark-hued (so dark that his Egyptian enemies conferred the nickname Black Ass upon him) and with a flashing smile and penetrating gaze, was not taken seriously by Western leaders for many months after his becoming President of Egypt after Nasser’s death on September 28, 1970. Even so astute an observer as Henry Kissinger thought that Sadat was an interim replacement, one who would in turn be displaced by a stronger leader.
Sadat was born on December 25, 1918, in the small village of Mit Abul Kum in the Nile Delta, his mother the daughter of a freed Sudanese slave. Smart and energetic, he attended the military academy and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Violently opposed to British influence in Egypt, he joined with Nasser in the group of Free Officers who seized power on July 23, 1952. Sadat served Nasser effectively but built no political power base for himself. Once Sadat was in power, however, his intelligence and energy quickly consolidated his position.
In his memoirs, Kissinger recalls Sadat as “a great man,” an accolade he does not often give. Kissinger particularly admired Sadat’s psychological discernment, noting that he handled the four U.S. presidents that he dealt with (Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan) with great skill. Sadat was in fact forceful and decisive and able to keep his own counsel. In the manner of many wise people, he masked his shrewdness with what seemed to be naïveté.
Yet Sadat was still unproven in 1971, which he regarded as his year of decision. It was then that he determined to liberate the Sinai even if it cost 1 million Egyptian lives, and one part of his plan was providing disinformation not only to his enemies but also to his friends, as Syria and the Soviet Union would discover. The principal Egyptian disinformation campaign was directed against Israel, and it was masterful, playing in each instance to the Israelis’ overweening confidence in themselves and their scarcely veiled contempt for their Arab enemies.8
The disinformation plan was convincing because Sadat remained bellicose, always proclaiming his intention to go to war with Israel. He stated so publicly in April 1973 and repeated it often thereafter, to the point that he began to lose support and credibility among other Arab nations.9 Behind the scenes, Sadat attempted to overcome this by promising that an Arab-Israeli war would permit Arab nations to invoke the “oil weapon” effectively for the first time. With oil production reduced and oil prices skyrocketing, the West would think twice about aiding Israel. In a single stroke, the Arab world would be united even as it was made rich by huge oil revenues. In this thinking, Sadat was absolutely correct; when war came, the European NATO nations resolutely refused to assist Israel in any way. Fortunately, Portugal would be an exception, allowing the USAF the use of Lajes Airfield in the Azores.
In early 1973 Sadat established a special disinformation staff. Some of its members established elaborate ruses to soothe Israeli suspicions; for example, notice was given in the newspapers of hundreds of army officers going on leave to make a religious pilgrimage. Egyptian and Syrian troops were encouraged to play soccer in view of the Israelis or to swim or fish in the Suez Canal. Others on this special staff were tasked to monitor comments from Israel and around the world. Their technique was then to leak information to foreign correspondents that confirmed rather than denied any material disparaging Egyptian and Syrian capability. Israeli leaders, including Dayan and Rabin, repeatedly expressed their opinion that Egypt and Syria were not going to go to war. In each case, Sadat’s special staff backed them up with carefully leaked stories that emphasized how unprepared Egypt’s armed forces were. It should also be noted that Israeli and U.S. intelligence worked hand in glove and their estimates were almost always closely aligned. This was natural enough, for the United States had great respect for the Israeli intelligence capability. It recognized that Israel was more focused on Middle Eastern problems than the United States could be and generally tended to rubber-stamp Israeli assessments.
Meanwhile, Sadat played Ziera and the AMAN like a violin. He carefully stroked Israeli egos and fed them what they wished to hear. Israel’s intelligence eventually found itself in a position where it could rationally explain every Egyptian and Syrian action, no matter how threatening. As a typical example, the IAF had given the Syrian Air Force a drubbing on September 13, shooting down a dozen Syrian aircraft without losing a single Mirage. Later in the month, when the Syrian army began a tremendous buildup in the Golan Heights and Syrian Su-7 and Su-20 fighter-bombers were flown into advanced bases near Israel, the actions were explained as being merely indications of “fear of Israel” and responses to the September 13 air battle.
In a similar way, the huge buildup of Egyptian forces along the Suez Canal, which included the assembly of bridging equipment on an unprecedented scale, was explained as being “just another maneuver” and another expression of Egyptian “brinkmanship.” When a brash young officer, Lieutenant Benjamin Siman Tov, analyzed Egyptian maneuvers and predicted war, his report was not only ignored; it was also pigeonholed—until the postwar investigation of the intelligence fiasco.
The most carefully thought out portion of Sadat’s disinformation campaign was the skill with which he handled his relations with the Soviet Union. After having expelled some twenty thousand Soviet military advisers from Egypt in June 1972, Sadat allowed the USSR to woo him with ever larger promises of equipment beginning in February 1973. He even permitted some fifteen hundred highly skilled Soviet advisers back to supervise the installation of the advanced missiles and to train the Egyptian forces.
All during this period, Sadat had maintained an unusual commodity for Arab forces: secrecy. Only a handful of top leaders knew that war was planned for October 6. Sadat’s concern for security extended even to his Syrian ally; he did not inform Syria of Egypt’s true war plans until well after the war had started. He also did not inform his patron, the Soviet Union, that he had maintained a secret line of communication with the United States since 1971. So clever was Sadat in this regard that he soon identified Henry Kissinger, then only the National Security Adviser, as the man who had Nixon’s ear instead of the Secretary of State, William Rogers.
In effect, Sadat mesmerized Israel, openly proclaiming his intention of going to war and moving vast forces to the Suez Canal, forces of such a size and nature that their capability, if not their intent, could not be concealed. Even casual analysis, if made without the blinders of overconfidence, would have revealed that the buildup was larger than ever before. More important, the buildup showed evidence that the Egyptians had learned the lessons of the War of Attrition, for the assembly of SAMs was unprecedented. Yet Israel remained blind to the threat even when the Soviet Union suddenly moved units of its fleet from Egyptian ports and began evacuating Soviet citizens from Cairo via a massive airlift on October 3.10 Sadat had reacted furiously to this, accusing the Soviet Union of deliberately giving away the fact that war was imminent. And indeed they had—but the oblivious Israelis simply discounted this as they had all the other warning signs.
The triad of missiles so lavishly supplied by the Soviet Union had provided the Arab forces with a counter to Israeli air and armored superiority. Sadat’s successful disinformation campaign had now deprived Israel of its most essential commodity, the time to mobilize. The date to open the war, October 6, had been chosen for three reasons. First, the tides and currents would be favorable for bridging the canal. Second, as Yom Kippur was the holiest Jewish holiday, many people would be on leave, there would be no television or radio broadcasts, and mobilization would be slowed. Third, October 6 happened to fall on the tenth day of Ramadan, historically the date upon which the Prophet Muhammad had begun his preparations for the Battle of Badr, which enabled him to return to Mecca. The Egyptians used the name Operation Badr for their planned assault into the Sinai.
The exact time to start the war had been the subject of much discussion between Sadat and Assad. The Syrians wanted a morning attack, so that the sun would be in the eyes of the Israelis; the Egyptian wanted a late-afternoon attack for the same reason. A compromise was reached: the war would begin at 2:00 P.M.11
THE TWO O’CLOCK WAR. Copyright © 2002 by Walter J. Boyne. Foreword copyright © 2002 by Frederick W. Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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