A half-century ago, on October 6, Egyptian military forces stormed the Suez Canal and attacked Israeli armoured and infantry formations in Sinai, catching the state of Israel by surprise. Six years prior, the Israeli Air Force had caught the Egyptian Air Force by surprise on the ground and practically wiped it out.
On both occasions, the defense minister of Israel was Moshe Dayan. He had earlier served as the chief of staff and commanded Israeli military forces during the 1956 war, which was triggered by an Egyptian naval blockade.
Scholars have written tomes on these wars, some more turgid than others. But none can match the narration that Dayan presents in his book, Story Of My Life: An Autobiography. The book is not a scholarly tome, packed with citations and footnotes, but a memoir. What it lacks in academic rigour, it makes up in its first-hand account of the wars and the battles that figured in them.
On being appointed chief of staff in 1953, he set about to change the culture of the army and to “fashion fighting units that could always be relied upon to attain their objectives.” He wanted officers to be involved in the fighting, not just to lead it from a distance.
But, as he rose through the ranks, he was concerned that the gap between him and the fight that was being waged was widening. His focus was now on making the Israeli Defense Force a better fighting force by changing its culture. “I intended to change the style and content of the army, abolish the gap between the chief of staff and the private soldier, cut down on the ceremonial, introduce more simplicity in the work habits of the army brass, and fill the higher-echelon posts with talented and battle-hardened young officers.”
When he inspected units in the field, he wore fatigues, sat on the ground with the troops, and “got dirty and dusty together with them.” He paid a lot of surprise visits at night, often driving alone. Dayan was hellbent on overcoming mediocrity and shaking units out of lethargy. He would often bypass intermediate chains of commands, to the discomfort of his own staff, but felt he had to do it. That was the only way for him to gather information first-hand on how the battle was going.
During peacetime, he introduced a system of sending officers to the university at the army’s expense to broaden their horizons. They could pick any subject that was of interest to them, whether it was economics or history or politics. A man who later rose to the rank of a general officer studied philosophy.
The book is chock full of hair-raising, blood-chilling and daring acts. For example, during the 1956 war, which opened in the late afternoon of October 29, a 395-man battalion of the 202nd Paratroop Brigade was dropped near the entrance to the Mitla Pass, deep inside Sinai and only 30 miles from the Suez Canal. They had been flown in at really low elevations by 16 DC-3 Dakota transport aircraft to avoid detection by Egyptian radar. Only when they approached the jump area did they rise to parachute-opening height. Two hours earlier, four P-51 Mustangs dropped down to 16 feet so their propellers and wings would cut Egyptian overhead telephone lines.
Dayan makes no effort to hide or cover up mistakes that were made by the Israeli army. He describes in detail how the paratroop brigade made mistakes of judgment and committed tactical errors, for which they ended up paying for heavily in blood.
The Suez Canal campaign lasted for four-and-a-half months. It saw British and French troops fighting with the Israelis and the US condemning their actions. At the end, Israeli units returned to their original borders, President Nasser of Egypt restored freedom of shipping to Israel, whose blockade had triggered the war. Sharm el-Sheikh and the Gaza Strip were not handed back to Egypt.
After his term as chief of staff ended, Dayan returned to private life and enrolled in the political science department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He noted that the “two years of university life passed like a vacation.”
In 1967, Israeli intelligence confirmed that the United Arab Command consisting of Egypt, Syria and Jordan was progressively tightening a military stranglehold on Israel, a sure-fire indicator that they intended to carry out an all-out attack. This time, Dayan was the defense minister and, unlike in the war of 1956, where he reported to the defense minister, this time he would be on his own.
Israel had been reviewing a number of scenarios should the war break out. On top of the list was a pre-emptive air strike which could knock out at least 100 enemy aircraft. Dayan thought that “our best chance of victory was to strike the first blow.”
Dayan makes no effort to hide or cover up mistakes that were made by the Israeli army. He describes in detail how the paratroop brigade made mistakes of judgment and committed tactical errors, for which they ended up paying for heavily in blood
And that’s what happened on June 5 when the Israel Air Force descended on Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian airfields in several waves on June 5. The first wave consisted of 183 aircraft. They struck 11 Egyptian airfields, destroying 197 aircraft, of which 189 were parked on the ground. Six airfields were rendered inoperable.
The Israel Air Force pilots were fully trained for the mission. On June 5, they woke up at 3:45 am, prepared for the attack, and struck Egyptian air bases between 7:14 am and 8:55 am. They caught the Egyptians by surprise, flying in at very low altitudes and maintaining radio silence throughout. In some ways, the attack was similar to Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941.
President Nasser learned of the attacks when the bombs exploded at Cairo West Air Base. His intelligence services had failed to read how Israel would react to the Egyptian naval blockade. The second wave of aerial attacks took off at 9:34 am. A third wave struck at 12:15 pm. By the time the Israeli air raids ended, the entire Jordanian air force of 28 aircraft had been destroyed and half of the Syrian air force, or 56 aircraft.
I was studying at St Patrick’s High School in Karachi at the time and recall hearing on Radio Pakistan that the Arab states were claiming that they were winning the war and had shot down several dozen Israeli warplanes. The news on BBC was different. We did not know who to believe.
On June 7, Nasser informed the presidents of Algeria, Iraq and Syria and the king of Jordan that as long as a single Israeli soldier remained on Egyptian soil, Egypt would not stop fighting. Just 24 hours later, on June 8, he accepted a UN ceasefire with no conditions. By that time, Israeli troops had reached the Suez Canal.
As the day dawned on June 9, Egypt and Jordan were completely out of the campaign, but Syria had not given up. Israeli forces now turned their attention to Syria. It agreed to a ceasefire just a day and a half later.
On the same day, at 4 pm, Nasser accepted the resignations of his army, navy and air force chiefs. At 6:30 pm, he resigned himself. But at 11 am the next morning, the Egyptian Radio announced that he had withdrawn his resignation. Dayan narrates these occurrences factually, without a shred of deprecation.
Four days after the war ended, Dayan gave his summation of the war to his colleagues. He said that Israel made three major errors in its war planning. It did not take seriously the arrival of Egyptian forces in Sinai. Israel did not realise that Nasser would be able to get the UN forces removed from Sharm el-Sheikh. And the Israelis assumed the US would be able to lift the Egyptian blockade.
Dayan thought it was his duty to point out these strategic errors to prevent their repetition. But his candid assessment soured the mood in the room. The political leadership took the criticism personally. Some of them had not reconciled themselves to his appointment as defense minister.
Egypt’s intelligence failure in the Six Day War would be matched by Israel’s intelligence failure on the morning of October 6, 1973. Dayan was awakened at 4 am by the ringing of the red telephone next to his bed. He would usually get two or three such calls every night, and initially he did not make much of it. But this call sent a chill down his spine. A reliable intelligence source had said that Egypt and Syria were going to attack Israel before sundown.
Dayan also noted that the Arab soldiers in the Yom Kippur War fought much better than in the Six Day War. They did not run away, as they had done in the previous war. And they were better armed and better trained, in addition to being far more numerous on the battlefield than the Israelis
In broad terms, the forthcoming attack was not unexpected. Dayan had long expected the Arabs would attack Israel to regain the territories they had lost in 1967. But the timing caught him on the back foot. But not on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, when “quiet descends upon the land. All work ceases. Not a bus, truck or private car can be seen on the streets.”
Until then, Israeli intelligence had indicated that an attack was unlikely, and the Chief of Staff David Elazar had concurred with it. If an attack was to occur, there would need to be more evidence of the physical movement of forces on the Arab side. Only then would Israel mobilize its reserves. Additionally, Israel did not expect the Egyptians to cross the Canal in large numbers. In addition, the Americans had told Israel that neither Syria nor Egypt would launch an attack in the near future.
When the attack occurred, Israel was caught off guard. It lost men and territory. “The campaign opened simultaneously on both fronts.” In the South, the Egyptians crossed the Canal across its entire length using bridges and rafts. Some even swam across it. In the North, under cover of an artillery barrage, Syria’s armoured forces mounted an attack. The Israeli infantry was outnumbered 10:1, and their armoured and artillery forces were also significantly outnumbered. Additionally, unlike the situation in 1967, the Arab infantry was equipped with anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.
In the first 24 hours following the outbreak of the war, Israel was left with only a fraction of its armoured strength on the Egyptian front. And, while it shot down 40 Arab warplanes, it also lost 35 of its own. The results were so different from the results during the first 24 hours of the Six Day War.
Back then, Egypt and Syria had a population of 80 million compared to 3 million in Israel. Dayan was concerned whether Israel’s armed forces could hold out much longer since the Soviets seemed willing to supply the Arab armies with everything they needed.
Dayan also noted that the Arab soldiers in the Yom Kippur War fought much better than in the Six Day War. They did not run away, as they had done in the previous war. And they were better armed and better trained, in addition to being far more numerous on the battlefield than the Israelis.
Even then, he recounts, by midnight, the outnumbered Israeli forces had stopped the Arab onslaught. But Dayan was haunted by what had happened. Was it Israel’s war planning or its battlefield execution that was at fault? There were times when he began to wonder whether Israel would ever push the Egyptians across the Canal. However, his chief of staff and others were optimistic. There was a wide gulf between him and his team members that had to be bridged.
At some point, the Israeli military leadership came up with a daring plan to attack Egypt from the South by crossing the Canal and carrying out a highly risky flanking manoeuvre. General Sharon, who Dayan regarded as one of Israel’s best, was to spearhead the movement. Despite some setbacks, the plan succeeded against impossible odds and forced Egypt back to the negotiation table.
While the facts of these wars are well known, and some have been documented in films, such as the recent biopic Golda, what Dayan’s memoirs add is the first-hand perspective that can only be provided by a soldier who was an active participant in them.
Postscript. Unlike the situation in many Arab and Muslim countries, the Israeli army is mostly comprised of reservists, who can be activated on short notice. The army as an institution does not dominate the state. No chief of staff has mounted a coup. The tenure of the chief of staff follows a set pattern. After he serves his term, he has to go through a “cooling-off” period of three years before he can be elected to the Knesset, or appointed to a ministerial position. Of course, chiefs of staff have risen to the rank of prime minister but only after conforming with these protocols.