The Yom-Kippur War was a surprise war waged by Egypt and Syria against Israel. It broke out on October 6, 1973 and ended on October 24 of that year. On October 6 of that year, which was both a Saturday and Yom Kippur in the Jewish calendar, the armies of Syria and Egypt launched a surprise attack against IDF forces on the Golan Heights and in the Sinai Peninsula.
As a result of the surprise factor and the strength of the attack, the State of Israel was faced with one of the most serious challenges in its short history since the 1948 War of Independence. The general Israeli public had been lulled into complacency in the wake of the decisive victory of the Six-Day War, and now awoke to the realization that the very survival of the State could be in danger, if it did not remain on constant alert.
The invaders were successful from the initial stage of the war: the Egyptians crossed the Canal and succeeded in taking almost all the Israeli positions in the area, while on the Golan Heights the Syrians retook most of the territory that had been in the possession of the IDF.
The military attack on Yom Kippur was accompanied by a heavy diplomatic assault and an “oil boycott” the Arab states imposed on Western nations, including those friendly to Israel who consequently adopted a neutral or even indifferent stance. Israel was almost completely isolated from the world.
Only after considerable effort and the deaths of thousands of soldiers was the combined Egyptian-Syrian attack blocked and the danger of an Israeli military collapse averted.
Egypt and Syria wished to end the freeze that had prevailed on the diplomatic front. They thought that even if their successes on the battlefield were limited, they would be able – together with their diplomatic offensive and oil boycott on the West – to bring the superpowers to an awareness that the status quo was extremely unstable and bore with it the danger of a worldwide explosion, and thus bring pressure on Israel to agree to a withdrawal from the territory the Arabs had lost in the Six-Day War.
During the war, Iraq, Kuwait, Lybia, Saudi Arabia and North Korea dispatched expeditionary forces to the Arab states, including soldiers, aircraft and large amounts of ammunition. Jordan decided not to join the war, fearing the precedent set by the Six-Day War. The date the Arabs chose for their attack, Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, was selected on the assumption that a large number of soldiers would be on home leave that day, with only a small number of soldiers on emergency guard duty; that most Israelis would be fasting in their synagogues; and all the mass-communications media would be closed down. The Arabs assumed that an attack on Yom Kippur would make it difficult for Israel to call up the IDF and send her troops to the front.
This consideration turned out to be erroneous, and the call-up proved easier on Yom Kippur than on other festive days. Since it is unusual on Yom Kippur for people to stray far from their homes or to go on excursions, many of those called hurried to their draft centers directly from the synagogue.
The War Develops, Stage-by-Stage
Stage One (October 6-10) –
the IDF blocks the advance of the Egyptian and Syrian armies on both fronts
On October 6, Yom Kippur, at about 2 p.m., Egyptian and Syria forces began a pre-coordinated surprise attack of IDF troops in the south and in the north.
Along the Egyptian front there were two armies including 80,000 soldiers, 1700 tanks and about 2000 cannon. Five Egyptian infantry divisions took part in the crossing of the Canal, and took up positions along the eastern bank of the Suez Canal, in a strip of land some 3 to 4 kilometers wide. Those who crossed over broke through the protective barrier of earth on the Israeli side of the canal, without encountering serious resistance.
On the northern front, three Syrian mobile infantry divisions on the Golan Heights, including 660 tanks and about 1200 cannon, attacked along the entire Syrian- Israeli border. Opposing them were two infantry regiments in their outposts, two armored battalions and 44 cannon.
At sea, the Egyptians imposed a naval blockade on Israeli vessels in the Red Sea by closing the Bab-el-Mandab straits some 2,200 km. from Eilat.
On October 7, in the very first missile boat naval battle in history, the battle of Latakia, the Israeli Navy attacked the Syrian navy and sank five Syrian battle ships. On October 8, the Israeli Navy sank 4 Egyptian missile boats and thus established the unambiguous Israeli control of the eastern Mediterranean Sea. From here on to the end of the war, the Syrian and Egyptian battle ships remained closed up in their home harbors. The Israeli Navy was actually the only force in the IDF that was equipped, organized and ready for war, and which succeeded in all the tasks it was given – with a minimal number of casualties.
On the Egyptian front, three Israeli divisions entered the battle on October 7. The division under the command of General Eden took up positions on the northern sector of the front, that under the command of General Sharon in the center of the front, and the Sinai division in the south. These three divisions succeeded in stabilizing the Hatam line of defense to the east of the Suez Canal. On October 8, there began a step-by-step counterattack with the participation of two divisions, first in the north and then in the center sector of the front. This counterattack was unsuccessful and the divisions suffered heavy casualties.
On October 7, the Syrians were stopped in the northern part of the Golan Heights, but threw an additional division into the fighting in the Kudna area, and penetrated the central part of the front, reaching the central Golan. In the south, the Syrians advanced to the Jordan crossings and reached a distance of 7 kilometers from the Kinneret. On the following day, October 8, the Israeli counterattack got under way in the southern part of the Golan Heights. Three Israeli divisions attacked the Syrian division in a coordinated fashion and pushed it back. On October 9, the Eitan Division stopped a heavy armored attack. On October 10, the Syrians were completely repulsed from all the territory they had taken at the outset of the war, except for the Hermon outpost – after the Syrians had lost some 900 tanks.
Stage Two (October 11-14) –
the IDF solidifies its positions on the Egyptian front,
and breaks through the Syrian lines and begins to advance on Damascus
In light of the heavy casualties suffered by the IDF, Israel informed the American Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, on October 12 that she agreed to a cease-fire. The Egyptian president, Anwar Saadat, rejected this proposal. After Saadat rejected the cease-fire and the Soviet Union began to fly supplies into Egypt, the U.S. President, Richard Nixon, gave the order to fly in military equipment to Israel.
On the northern front, two divisions advanced on Damascus, but were delayed by an Iraqi expeditionary force that they defeated. The Syrian army was saved from an even more severe defeat by the intervention of the Iraqi reinforcements. The airfields in the suburbs of Damascus were bombarded by IDF artillery and the Israeli Air Force.
On the southern front, armored forces from two Egyptian divisions crossed over the Canal. On October 14, the Egyptians began an attack along the entire front in an attempt to penetrate into central Sinai. IDF ground forces, supported strongly by the Air Force, blocked this attack in the battle of Wadi Mab’ouk and other battles. The Egyptians lost 250 tanks in this maneuver, in contrast to the 20 tanks lost by the IDF. With this Egyptian defeat the defensive war fought by Israel ended, and the IDF began to attack.
Stage Three (October 15-24) –
Along the Egyptian front, the IDF penetrates the Egyptian lines,
captures a large area to the west of the Suez Canal and surrounds the Egyptian Third Army;
in the north, IDF forces stabilized the new lines and finally retake the Hermon outpost
Along the Syrian front, the IDF consolidated its positions in the enclave it had taken, while fighting Syrian, Iraqi and Jordanian forces. In a decisive battle that caused many casualties and was fought on October 21 and 22, lasting 12 hours, troops of the Golani division retook the Hermon outpost.
On the Egyptian front, on the evening of October 15, the IDF “Knight’s Heart” operation began: Israeli forces crossed the Suez Canal. A reconnaissance unit belong to Sharon’s division first identified the seam between the two Egyptian armies, thus creating a situation enabling the Israeli forces to reach the Canal without engaging in a battle to break through the lines. The crossing itself was entrusted to Sharon’s division, and engineers of the Southern Command established a beachhead by means of rubber dinghies and “crocodiles” north of the Great Bitter Lake.
Over the next few days the crossing of IDF troops to the western bank of the Suez Canal was stepped up, under strong fire, until two full divisions had crossed over: General Eden’s division and the Sinai division, while Sharon’s division advanced northward on both banks of the canal. The Egyptian Third Army, on the eastern side of the canal, was surrounded doubly by two divisions and was left with no supply lines, and its soldiers were in danger of dying of hunger and thirst. After it became clear to the Egyptian President how deep into Egypt IDF forces had advanced, he fired the Chief of the Egyptian General Staff.
At this point the Egyptians agreed to a cease-fire, for fear of a collapse of their entire military operation at the Suez Canal.
Saadat requested emergency aid from the Soviet Union, who placed its airborne troops in readiness to be flown to the Middle East. The United States government informed the Soviet government that Nato forces would not permit the Soviet airborne forces to reach the Middle East.