Deconstructing Egypt’s October 1973 military victory

29 - Oct - 2013

The defeat of Arab countries by Israel in the six-day war of 1967 urged Egypt’s late president Gamal Abdul Nasser to draw up his strategy for revenge, which consisted of reassessing the country’s security situation, reorganizing the armed forces and planning ahead for the future.

This plan was not without a cost, however, and the Egyptian people had to bear the burden of its implementation. It involved establishing a war economy, with 50 percent of the public budget dedicated to rebuilding the country’s armed forces.

The army was also enriched with educated individuals who believed in placing a high priority on using science and technology in warfare.

Nasser encouraged wide-scale patriotism in Egypt, summarized by the slogan: “One hand builds and the other holds arms.” This motto was bought to life in building Aswan’s high dam, an aluminum plant in Naj Hammadi and with the kick-starting of local production to supply the army.

Before the October 1973 war, Egypt was a party to the Arab Summit in Khartoum, which concluded that there would be “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel” as well as U.N. resolution number 242, which proclaimed the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”

At the same time, President Nasser accepted Russian mediation of the ongoing Egyptian-Israeli tension under two conditions: That there would be no negotiation with Israel as long as it occupies Egyptian territories and that none of the occupied Arab territories will be abandoned.

The six day war of 1967 enabled the United States to achieve their strategic goals, namely to reduce the power of Egypt and the capabilities of its leader Gamal Abdul Nasser to execute any pressure over pro-U.S. Arab countries.

Main player

Israel’s partnership with the United States enabled it to achieve military supremacy as it was provided with superior U.S.-built weaponry.

Israel’s occupation of Arab territories provided it with enough land to act as a buffer zone, enhancing its economy with resources from the territories it occupied.

In fact, the war of June 1967 brought many geo-strategic changes to Israel to an extent that Israeli politician Yigal Allon said that “Israel cannot remain forever without safe borders and it is its right to establish colonies and safe buildings by the border, to maintain the security of Israel.”

Following this strategy, Israel refused to withdraw from Arab territories it occupied and kept on relying on military strength to achieve its goals. It even expanded its borders and further developed its military capabilities to confirm its theory on “Israeli security” based on safe borders, the power of deterrence, the ability to run a swift war, avoid fighting on many fronts at the same time, and guaranteeing the continuous flow of American aid.

Meanwhile, Arab states met in Khartoum and decided to undo Israel’s conquests in the region and support the rights of the Palestinians to establish their own state in their home country.

The presence of the Israeli forces on the other side of the Suez canal created a real challenge to Egyptian military strategists, who were not able to monitor the Israel’s defense forces in Sinai.

The Egyptian strategy consisted of five parts: Military resistance (before moving to active defense), political diplomacy, continuous training and reorganization, unity between the army and the people, and Arab solidarity and support.

Three incidents boosted the morale of the Egyptian army, as well as the general public. The first was the Ras al-Osh battle in July 1967, the second was the artillery and air force battles on July 14 and 15, 1967, and the sinking of the Israeli destroyer Eilat on Oct. 21, 1967. The Egyptian army was reorganized In 1968.

Israel benefited from the ensuing cease fire to strengthen the Bar Lev line, a chain of fortifications along their side of the Suez canal. They also built other similar defenses in addition to infrastructure, such as airports.

The fortifications appeared to be so solid that Israeli generals Moshe Dayan and David Elazar proclaimed to the Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir on Oct. 5, 1973 that the Suez Canal will turn red with the blood of Egyptians if they ever attempt to cross it.

Egypt and Syria’s strategic planning behind the October war was based on direct coordination between the two allies who wished for swift action to cause the most amount of damage.

Israel, meanwhile, was betting on the first strike against the attacking forces, and buying time to bring in their reserves before crossing to the western bank of the Suez Canal and infiltrating up to 30km into opposing territory.

The initial plan: ‘Bader’

The Egyptian attack plan, nicknamed “Bader,” was focusing on crossing the canal and occupying the Eastern Bank, along with political action.

The details of the plan consisted of using heavy artillery and air raids, in collaboration with the Syrian forces, against Israeli airports, command centers, radars and anti-aircraft missiles to block its capabilities of hindering the crossing, then storm the Suez Canal on D-Day and cross to the Eastern Bank, attacking fortifications until the tanks reach the eastern shores, coupled with a navy attack against Israeli vessels in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, without neglecting the importance of leading a diplomatic initiative to seek a political solution.

To camouflage this plan, the Egyptians designed a bluffing strategy, which including fake operational activities and misleading media reports and diplomatic discussions. The biggest bluff was news that the army discharged 20 thousand soldiers just 48 hours before the attack.

Three phase plan

As planned, the battle started on October 6 with a surprise attack against the Israeli forces on the East of the canal, in coordination with the Syrian forces, and it lasted till October 29. It consisted of three phases.

The first phase involved storming the canal and installing bridgeheads on the Eastern Bank. 209 airplanes attacked set targets, after which 2,000 canons stormed the Eastern bank and the tanks at Bar Lev line for 53 minutes while the special forces planted anti-tank mines on the Eastern bank.

Around 80 thousand soldiers climbed the dunes, managing to travel 170 kilometers in less than 6 hours, and established over 4 kilometers of bridgeheads. In the coming days the tanks succeeded in crossing the canal and were deployed over 10 kilometers deep.

Meanwhile, Israel launched counter attacks, using tanks against the bridgeheads coupled with extensive air strikes against airports, radars and missile bases, covering the Port Said area, also starting naval activities in collaboration with helicopters against the Suez bay and North Sinai.

During the second phase, Egypt reinforced its presence further in the east.

On October 14, the Egyptian army sent armored battalions over 30 kilometers east of the canal, in order to ease Israeli pressure on the Syrian front, especially that Israel was fiercely fighting there to retain the Golan Heights. Egyptian tanks were subjected to fierce resistance, causing caused heavy losses on both sides.

Then, the tanks were ordered to return to the bridgeheads to protect them.

The third and final phase saw Egypt defend the bridgeheads and continue fighting to the west of the canal. Israel benefited from the Deversoir Air Base and established two bridgeheads at the north of Deversoir. They succeeding in landing paratroopers and attacking missile bases, destroying nine of them and four radars, which reestablished its supremacy in the air.

Egyptian Special Forces and armored battalions suffered heavy losses, with battles becoming costly to both sides until a ceasefire resolution was reached on October 22.

Israel did not adhere to the ceasefire, creating a third bridge and starting its expansion to the south. However, Israel failed to occupy Suez city as it failed earlier to occupy Ismailia, and it stopped its attacks in the area on October 28.
Meanwhile, Egypt fashioned an armored force from its army at the west of the canal, threatening to besiege the Israeli forces there if they did not respect the ceasefire.

The Israelis enhanced their presence west of the canal by fear of the growing number of Egyptian battalions there. The Egyptians managed to besiege the Israelis in a narrow stretch in the west of the canal, and were ready to attack them if negotiations were to fail.

The siege caused Israeli Army Chief Haim Bar Lev to say that his forces would become a hostage of the Egyptian forces if they decide to attack them.

As a result of the war, Egyptians were dominant in the area to the west of the canal.

Israel realized the extent of Egyptian power, and asked for U.S. help, announcing that it accepted the results of negotiations between the U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and accepted withdrawing from the whole of the Sinai area.

The war’s consequences

The tactical elements of the war consist of the success of the surprise factor in the quick crossing of the Suez Canal and the obstacles on Golan Heights. Another factor of success was the cunning Egyptian maneuvers and bluffing, enabling Arab armies to face what at the time appeared to be Israeli supremacy.

Another result was that the conflict proved the importance of defensive war, be it at the side of the Israelis, who were saved from an early defeat by their defensive lines in Bar Lev and the Golan, and the Egyptians who succeeded in their usage of anti-tank weaponry.

The most important result of that war might be the success of President Sadat in putting an end to the no-war, no-peace situation in the Middle East, forcing the superpowers to think more seriously about peace in the region, in addition to restoring Egypt’s leading role among Arab countries.

After the war, the army became stronger and the Egyptian economy once again benefited from the resources of the Suez Canal which was subsequently reopened. Also, the high value of Arab oil as a valuable economic tool was augmented.

That war resulted in Israel admitting that it was not invincible and that their opponents can cause them harm through utilizing the economic resources of oil-laden allies. Israel has since realized that they depend on U.S. support for survival, economically and militarily.

Lastly, the war could not prove the theory of Israel’s technological supremacy, or the ability of Arabs to bring in more troops to the war, as both sides proved to be of equal capability on both fronts.

The war proved the importance of coordination between military and political leadership in Egypt, as well as the importance of patriotic support. The conflict also showed the importance of scientific assessment of the enemy and military planning as well as the importance of regional cooperation among Arab countries, which was manifested clearly in the positive military role of Syria and strong economic support from the region’s oil-producing countries.

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