As a small nation surrounded by enemies, Israel was acutely conscious that if she was to survive she could not afford to lose a battle, much less a war. Of necessity, therefore, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) was a citizen army in which all of military age were liable to serve, accepting compulsory periods of regular service, reserve training and periodic mobilisations as a normal part of their lives. Equally, it was necessary for Israel to be armed to the teeth, most of her weapons being supplied by the United States, the United Kingdom and France. The organisation of the IDF’s tactical formations followed the flexible patterns of the US Army, while in action the use of ‘saddle orders’ and ad hoc battlegroups in the German manner was well suited to the Israeli temperament. The result was that within any overall plan of campaign the IDF, highly motivated and capable of thinking and acting on the move, possessed the capacity to exploit local situations to its own advantage.
Israel’s Arab enemies were also highly motivated, although for them the loss of a battle or a war did not threaten their survival. After the 1956 war, in which the UK and France had colluded with Israel to launch an attack on Egypt, it was natural that many of the Arab nations should turn to the Soviet Union for arms and military assistance, both of which were provided on generous terms. The Soviet tanks of the period, notably the T54/55 series, were less sophisticated than their Western counterparts, but they were far less expensive and their simplicity made the training of Arab crews, many of whom lacked the technical education of the Israelis, a relatively quick and simple matter. Because of these factors, most Arab general staffs were prepared to overlook the principal disadvantage of the T54/55, which was a low, domed turret that seriously restricted the upwards movement of the main armament breech, thus curtailing the degree of depression that could be obtained and so reducing the tank’s ability to fight hull-down. With Soviet equipment came Soviet command methods that emphasised the importance of central control and restricted the degree of personal initiative allowed to commanders on the spot, the consequence being that operations were conducted in accordance with a preconceived plan at a slower tempo than that of the IDF. Needless to say, if the overall plan was disjointed by enemy action, the stiffness inherent in the system often prevented remedial action being taken before the situation degenerated until it was beyond control. A notable exception was the small but efficient Royal Jordanian Army, which had preserved many of the traditions of the old British-officered Arab Legion. The Jordanians, among whom the British influence remained strong, preferred to equip their armoured units with Centurions and Pattons and on occasion came very close to inflicting a defeat on the IDF.
It was, however, in Sinai that the Israelis and Egyptians fought the greatest tank battles since World War II, those of 1967 demonstrating most clearly the strengths and weaknesses of the two sides. The Sinai peninsula is triangular in shape, having a maximum width of 130 miles along its Mediterranean coast and a length of 240 miles from north to south. In the east it is separated from Saudi Arabia by the Gulf of Aqaba, and in the west it is divided from Egypt proper by the Gulf of Suez and the Suez Canal. From the northern shore the ground rises steadily across a sand, gravel and rock plateau to the 8664 foot peak of the Mount Sinai massif, then falls steeply towards the Red Sea. Three routes cross the peninsula between the Israeli/Egyptian frontier and the Canal. Of these the most northerly is the shortest and best, following the coast from Gaza through Rafah, El Arish and Romani to El Kantara. South of and roughly parallel to this a road runs from Kusseima to Abu Agheila and on through Bir Gifgafa and the Tassa Pass to Ismailia. Further south still, a more difficult track exists between El Kuntilla, Thamad and Nakhl, then winds on through the Mitla Pass to the town of Suez at the southern end of the Canal. North-south communication is restricted to a track running from El Arish through Bir Lahfan to Abu Agheila and on past Djebel Libni to Nakhl, with a branch diverging in a south-westerly direction from Abu Agheila to Bir Hasana and the Mitla Pass. The landscape is everywhere hot, parched and sterile, and since it absorbs less than ten inches of seasonal rainfall each year sources of water are few and far between.
Since 1956 Gamal Abdel Nasser, the President of Egypt, had been the hero and leader of the more radical elements within the Arab world. His claim that the Israeli victory in Sinai that year would have been impossible without British and French support was widely believed and since then, with Soviet assistance, he had made Egypt a major military power. Likewise, his determination that Israel would be destroyed and dismembered among the victorious Arabs, broadcast with increasing stridency by Radio Cairo, won him enormous support throughout the Middle East. Assured of the efficiency of his newly equipped army by his Soviet advisers, he became the victim of his own propaganda and by May 1967 had deployed no less than 100,000 in Sinai, so creating a threat to which Israel was bound to react.
General Abdul Mortagy, the Egyptian Commander in Chief in Sinai, had studied several of Montgomery’s set piece battles, notably Alam Halfa, and he was also known to favour the Soviet Army’s concept of a defence in depth intended to wear down an attacker’s strength, followed by an armoured riposte that would inflict a decisive defeat, very much in the manner of Kursk. He predicted, correctly, that the Israelis would strike the first blow and there is every reason to believe that, left to himself, he would have established his defensive belt in western Sinai. The effect of this would, partially at least, have offset the stiffness in his own command structure and it would have ensured not only that the IDF would have to open its attack at the end of a very long line of communications, but also that in the event of failure it would have to conduct a difficult withdrawal across many miles of desert.
However sensible they might have been, such ideas were not acceptable to Nasser, since they involved the apparent abandonment of large areas of Egyptian territory before the first shot had been fired. The fact that these areas possessed no military value, and that the defence of eastern Sinai would leave the Egyptians with open desert at their back, was considered to be less important than projecting the image of an army poised on the brink of victory. Mortagy was forced, therefore, to make the same sort of forward deployment that had failed in 1956, albeit in greater strength and depth. The 20th (Palestinian) Division, with 50 Shermans, was holding the Gaza Strip; the 7th Infantry Division, with 100 T34/85s and JS IIIs, was responsible for the defence of Rafah, the Jiradi Defile, where the coast road passed through an area of apparently impassable dunes, and El Arish; the important track junction at Abu Agheila was held by the 2nd Infantry Division with the 3rd Infantry Division deployed in depth to the west near Djebel Libni, each with 100 T34/85s and T54s; to the south the 6th Mechanised Division, also with 100 T34/85s and T54s, covered the axis El Kuntilla-Nakhl; at Bir Gifgafa, roughly in the centre of the peninsula, was Major General Sidki el Ghoul’s 4th Armoured Division, ready to deliver the armoured counter-stroke with its 200 T55s; and between Kusseima and El Kuntilla was a second armoured formation, named Task Force Shazli after its commander, Major General Saad el Din Shazli, equipped with 150 T55s, which was to cross the Israeli frontier into the Negev Desert and isolate the port of Eilat.
With the exception of Task Force Shazli, this deployment was primarily defensive in character and tacitly surrendered the initiative to the IDF. Again, although numerous historical precedents emphasised the importance of the operative level of command in desert warfare, Mortagy alone was responsible for coordinating the operations of seven formations from his headquarters far to the rear, a task which could have been eased considerably if he had established an intermediate corps headquarters with a degree of local autonomy. Furthermore, while the Egyptians had 800 tanks in the line, with a further 150 in reserve, only 350 of these were serving with armoured formations while the rest were subordinate to local infantry commanders who often reduced their potential contribution by digging them into static defence systems. Finally, the assumption that the Israelis would willingly engage in a contest of attrition was fundamentally flawed; it would have been safer to assume that once the initiative had been surrendered to the IDF, which was always conscious of its limited manpower resources, the Israelis would impose their own conditions on the battle.
The Israeli Armoured Corps had won its spurs in the 1956 war and since then it had been regarded by the IDF as the decisive arm in the land battle. It had been expanded and was now equipped with Centurions and M48 Pattons, all of the former and many of the latter being upgunned with the excellent British 105mm tank gun, as well as upgunned Shermans and French AMX-13s. The IDF had begun mobilising its reserves on 20 May and by the time this process was complete Major General Yeshayahu Gavish’s Southern Command had three armoured divisions plus two small independent armoured brigades in the line opposite the Egyptians. This produced a total tank strength of 680 with 70 in immediate reserve, with all but a few serving within armoured formations. Gavish’s orders were breathtakingly simple in their scope – his armour was to smash through the enemy’s defences on parallel axes and advance rapidly to the Suez Canal, which would become Israel’s new and defensible military frontier with Egypt; the Egyptian Army, fragmented and cut off from its homeland, would wither and die in the desert.
On the right of the Israeli line, opposite the Gaza Strip and Rafah, was Major General Israel Tal’s armoured division. Tal had served as the platoon sergeant of a machine-gun platoon in the British Army’s Jewish Brigade during the Italian campaign, and in the 1956 war he had commanded an IDF infantry brigade in Sinai. In 1964 he became commander of the Armoured Corps and within the space of a year had achieved a dramatic improvement in the standard of its gunnery. His division consisted of the regular 7th Armoured Brigade (79th Tank Battalion with 66 90mm Pattons, 82nd Tank Battalion with 58 Centurions, an armoured infantry battalion in M3 half-tracks and a reconnaissance squadron); the reserve 60th Armoured Brigade (a tank battalion with 52 Shermans, a light tank battalion with 34 AMX-13s and an armoured infantry battalion); a regular paratroop brigade serving as armoured infantry, supported by a tank battalion partly equipped with upgunned Pattons; and a divisional reconnaissance group which included eighteen upgunned Pattons.
The second armoured division, commanded by Major General Ariel Sharon, was positioned opposite Abu Agheila. In the early 1950s Sharon, a natural swashbuckler, had raised and led a special forces unit and in 1956 he had commanded the paratroop brigade that had secured the Mitla Pass. A strict disciplinarian, he was also a difficult subordinate who was inclined to exceed his orders. Notwithstanding this tendency, he was a good, hard-fighting soldier who could be relied upon to batter his way through any opposition. His division included the 14th Armoured Brigade consisting of one Centurion battalion with 56 tanks and an upgunned Sherman battalion with 66 tanks; two upgunned Sherman companies with 28 tanks that were allocated to the 99th Infantry Brigade, which was to assault the Egyptian trenches at Abu Agheila; and a divisional reconnaissance group reinforced with 20 AMX-13 light tanks.
The third armoured division, commanded by Major General Avraham Yoffe, was positioned midway between Tal and Sharon with the twin responsibilities of stopping lateral reinforcement between the enemy’s major defended localities at Gaza and Abu Agheila and preventing intervention by the Egyptian 4th Armoured Division. Yoffe had held a commission in the British Army during World War II and, like Tal, he had commanded an infantry brigade in Sinai during the 1956 war. His division contained the 200th and 520th Armoured Brigades and possessed a total of 200 Centurions.
The war began on 5 June with a series of pre-emptive air strikes by the Israeli Air Force, intentionally timed to coincide with morning rush-hour in Cairo, when Egyptian senior officers would be trapped in dense traffic between their homes and offices. After most of the Egyptian Air Force had been destroyed on the ground, the IAF turned its attention to airfields in Syria, Jordan and Iraq. By late afternoon it had gained complete command of the air and was able to divert squadrons to support the ground fighting.
Codenamed ‘Red Sheet’, the Israeli offensive in Sinai commenced at 0815, thirty minutes after the first air strikes had gone in. A parachute brigade, supported by AMX-13s, penetrated the Gaza Strip and immediately became involved in heavy fighting with the Palestinians. Simultaneously, Tal’s division, spearheaded by Colonel Shmuel Gonen’s 7th Armoured Brigade, broke into the flank of the Strip further south and, discounting its casualties, fought its way through Khan Yunis. Gonen’s task was to break out along the coast road to El Arish but at Rafah his spearhead was counter-attacked by the Egyptian 7th Infantry Division’s armour, led by JS IIIs. Using his Centurions to hold the enemy’s attention to their front, Gonen sent off his Pattons in a wide hook through an area of dunes to the east, from which they emerged to fall on the Egyptians’ flank and rear. Although the JS III was well armoured and its 122mm gun was capable of defeating both the Centurion and the Patton, it had not been designed for this sort of fast-moving mêlée. The domed turret, like that of the T54/55, gave the loader little headroom in which to work; furthermore, within this cramped space, he was forced to struggle with heavy two-piece ammunition, with the result that the tank’s rate of fire was restricted to three or four rounds per minute. Against crews who had been taught speed-loading and who could handle their one-piece rounds in adequate space, such an engagement could have only one ending. By noon the ground was littered with wrecked and burning JS IIIs and anti-tank guns lying shattered in their pits.
Gonen found it significant that both Egyptian divisions had chosen to fight their own battles without any attempt at a coordinated response. Without further delay he ordered his deputy, Lieutenant Colonel ‘Pinko’ Harel, to collect as many Centurions as possible and press on along the coast road towards the one obstacle remaining in the path of a clean breakthrough, the Jiradi Defile. Hammering along, the crews were uneasy about the prospect, for the defile was over eleven miles long and was known to be held in strength. In fact, covering the eastern entrance alone was an entire infantry brigade, well dug in among minefields covered by anti-tank guns, supported by an artillery brigade with 42 guns and a battalion of 36 Shermans fitted with AMX-13 turrets, many of which were also dug in. Further along the defile and at its western exit were more, though less formidable, defensive positions.