At 2pm on October 6, 1973, as millions of Israelis prayed and fasted while observing Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria launched a massive attack across the Suez Canal into the Sinai desert and in the Golan Heights.
The two-pronged offensive came as a total surprise to most Israelis, including the government of Golda Meir and much of the higher echelons of the Israel Defense Forces.
There had been ample evidence earlier in the year that Egypt and Syria were planning something but there was a general failure at the highest levels of the government and the military to take it seriously enough.
The shock to Israel was all the greater because only six years earlier, in 1967, it had crushed the armed forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan in six days, sweeping them out of the Sinai, the Golan and the West Bank, and hugely expanding the territories under its control.
The origins of the Yom Kippur invasion lay in the Six Day War. The Arab countries were determined to avenge the humiliation they had suffered at the hands of tiny Israel, while Israel had grown complacent about its armed forces’ superiority over its hostile neighbours.
The Egyptian ruler who presided over the 1967 debacle, President Gamal Abdel Nasser, had died in 1970 and was succeeded by the less charismatic General Anwar el-Sadat.
But Sadat was determined to recover the Sinai and set in train a detailed plan to do so.
His armed forces were re-trained and re-armed by the Soviet Union. Egypt also carried out a highly effective plan of deception as it built up its forces on the west bank of the Suez Canal.
The invasion was co-ordinated with Syria, which also had a relatively new leader. Hafez-al-Assad.
At first the war went well for the invaders, the Syrians moving up the Golan with wave after wave of tank attacks and taking back Mount Hermon, while the Egyptians poured across the Suez Canal and eventually penetrated as far as ten miles into the Sinai as Israel rushed to mobilise its largely voluntary armed forces.
Both arenas of conflict saw the most terrible attritional warfare with some of the biggest tank battles since the Second World War. The heavily outnumbered Israelis were surprised by the new professionalism and courage of the Arab armies and suffered heavy losses before they stemmed the tide and pushed the invaders back.
At huge cost in men and materiel, Israel eventually recovered all the territory the Syrians had regained and forced them to retreat across the 1967 border. In the other theatre, the Israeli army daringly counter-attacked and crossed the Suez Canal.
The war lasted only 19 days, concluding with a UN-brokered ceasefire that came into effect on October 25. Israel lost more than 2,600 combatants and many more were wounded.
The conflict had global repercussions: the Arab-dominated Opec representing the world’s main oil producers imposed an oil embargo on the West as punishment for supporting Israel, which saw oil prices triple over the six months it lasted. The “oil shock” helped set off an economic crisis in the West that lasted through the 1970s.
While Egypt lost more territory and also suffered appalling losses, the long-term outcome was recognition of Israel, the return of the Sinai under the Camp David agreement, and a peace with Israel that has lasted until this day. But Syria remains Israel’s implacable enemy.
Source: The JC