On 23 June 2018, Egypt lost a singular son, Major General Baqy Zaky Youssef, who died in Cairo at age 88. Major General Youssef had spearheaded and orchestrated Egypt’s greatest military feats of modern times: the Suez Canal crossing on 6 October 1973.
Major General Youssef’s funeral was held on 24 June at the church of Mar-Marcos (St Mark) in the Cairo eastern suburb of Heliopolis. President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi delegated Major General Khaled Mahmoud Nabih to represent him at the funeral.
The service was attended by a number of current and former State officials, among them former Premier Essam Sharaf and head of the Engineers’ Syndicate Hany Dahi, as well as top level army officers.
General Bishop Anba Ermiya presided over the funeral service and relayed Pope Tawadros’s condolences to the family and nation. Also officiating were Anba Moussa, Bishop of Youth; and Anba Mina, Bishop and Abbot of the monastery of Mar-Mina in Khatatba.
The Coptic Church, at whose head sits Pope Tawadros II, had issued a statement mourning Major General Engineer Youssef. It said that history and the nation will forever remember the descendant of the pyramid builders and makers of human civilisation who left behind a legacy of momentous creativity. “May the Lord reward him abundantly in His kingdom for the good work he did on earth.”
The Egyptian cabinet also issued a statement describing Major General Youssef as “an icon of pride and honour” for all Egyptians.
Baqy Youssef was born in Cairo in 1931. He graduated from Ain Shams University’s Faculty of Engineering at in 1954, and joined the Egyptian armed forces as an army engineer. He would retire as a major general in 1984.
In 1964, he was assigned to work on the construction of the High Aswan Dam.
Major General Youssef was twice decorated for his role in the 6 October 1973 War.
The date 6 October marks Victory Day for Egypt. That was the date in 1973 when the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal and landed in the Sinai Peninsula. Sinai had been occupied by the Israeli army since June 1967’s Six Day War, and was accordingly a war zone held by the enemy, off-limits to Egyptians. The pain, indignity, and humiliation felt by Egyptians on that account was indescribable. But the date 6 October 1973 came to change the situation and restore Egypt’s national dignity.
“Graveyard for Egyptians”
Crossing the Suez Canal into Sinai was definitely a next to impossible feat. As though the water barrier in itself were not enough, the Israelis had in 1968 – 1969 built a defence system which they named the Bar-Lev Line, after Israeli Chief of Staff Haim Bar-Lev. The Line constituted a 160km-long wall in the form of a huge sand and dust mountain, sand bank on one side and concrete on the other, 20 – 25 metres high—the equivalent of a seven-storey building. It stretched along the Suez Canal from Port Said in the North to Suez in the South except for the Great Bitter Lake, where a canal crossing was unlikely owing to the width of the lake. The line was 12m wide and was constructed with an inclination that at points reached 80 degrees, making it impossible for armoured vehicles and tanks to cross or for soldiers to climb. It included a number of strongpoints with advanced defence mechanisms and minefields. Behind the sand wall were trenches, minefields, barbed wire, machineguns, troop shelters, mortar positions, anti-aircraft weapons, and firing positions for tanks. Roads were built to allow the movement of the Israeli troops along the Bar-Lev Line, which Israelis described as a “graveyard for Egyptian troops”.
At 2pm on 6 October 1973, the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal and breached the Bar-Lev line using powerful water cannons that sucked water from the Suez Canal through hoses. Simultaneous air strikes neutralised Israeli air power, securing a safe crossing for Egyptian troops who crossed into Sinai and engaged in war with the Israelis. A series of fierce battles ensued between the Egyptian and Israeli armies, and it took till 25 October to reach a truce.
Sinai back to Egypt
The 6 October War led to the signing of a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. This in itself came after numerous diplomatic hurdles were arduously surmounted; endeavours to overcome them involved a trip in 1977 by Egypt’s President Anwar al-Sadat to Tel-Aviv during which he spoke to the Israeli parliament and reached out for a final peace between the two countries. The visit was an amazing first; the two countries had never spoken to each other since Israel came into existence in 1948. The peace agreement was finally brokered by US President Jimmy Carter in 1979, and on its account both President Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978.
The agreement guaranteed there would be no more war between Egypt and Israel, and the full return of Sinai to Egypt.
Bombarding the Bar-Lev Line?
The man who masterminded the epic plan to cross the Suez Canal and destroy the Bar-Lev Line October 1973 was Major General Baqi Zaky Youssef. During an assembly held by Egypt’s military to honour him in 2016, General Youssef recalled the long years of preparation for the October War.
In May 1964 Baqi Youssef, then a young Lieutenant Colonel, was appointed head of the vehicles sector in the 19th infantry mechanical division. During this period he participated in the construction of the Aswan High Dam and witnessed closely the operation of the removal of sand and dust mountains by means of high pressure water pumps. After the sand was removed, it was collected using suction pumps in large basins to be reused in the dam construction.
In 1969, two years after Egypt lost Sinai to the Israelis, orders were issued for the army to prepare for war. High-ranking military officers met under the command of Staff Major General Saad Zaghloul Abdel-Karim, who led the 19th division, to discuss ideas for crossing the Suez Canal.
“Most of the ideas presented revolved around bombarding the Bar-Lev line by means of fighter jets or using heavy artillery and explosives,” General Youssef said. “I noticed that in all these plans a very long time of 12 to 15 hours was needed to make a breach in the sand barrier. On top of that, the expected number of casualties would be no less than 20 per cent of the participating troops.”
The answer: water canons
General Youssef recalled that he had entered the meeting without previous knowledge of the nature of the Bar-Lev Line, but when the commanding officer described it in detail, he immediately remembered his work at the High Dam. “I asked for permission to speak,” he said, “and insisted that what I had to say was urgent. I said that the problem was about displacing sand and the best solution was right at our feet: water. I said that using water cannons to pump out water from the Suez Canal would be stronger than explosives, faster and more economical. After I had finished explaining my idea the entire room fell silent. At first I thought that no one liked my idea, or that those present thought it was nonsense, so I explained that it had been successfully used during construction of the High Dam. I felt the idea start to sink in and I sensed approval of the army commanders. After long discussions and brainstorming, they gave me preliminary approval and asked me to write a simplified yet detailed report to be presented to President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. The idea, in brief, consisted of installing strong suction pumps with compressors on light-weight dinghies. The pumps would suck water from the Suez Canal then pump it out on the sand barrier which would collapse under the water pressure and, owing to its high incline, take with it any landmines or bombs it carried. President Nasser ordered that the idea be explored and tested and, in case it was successful, to be implemented right away.
“The idea was tested in some 300 experiments, the last of which used a replica of the Bar-Lev Line. The experiment was a huge success. In September 1969, however, President Nasser died and the war decision was put on hold.”
Ultimately, under President Sadat, General Youssef led the Suez Canal crossing on 6 October 1973, and his soldiers were able to open 60 breaches along the Bar-Lev line in just four hours. The date had been carefully chosen to coincide with Yom Kippur, on the prospect that the Israelis would not then be on high alert, which was exactly what happened. The number of breaches increased to 85 in the following hours, dumping about 90,000 cubic metres of sand and dust into the canal. This allowed for tanks and armoured vehicles to cross to the east bank of the canal into the Sinai Peninsula, carrying soldiers, military equipment and supplies. The breach of the Bar-Lev line in record time was a key element in achieving victory and in carrying more than 80,000 Egyptian soldiers into Sinai, which was completed by 10pm and incurred a minimal death toll of 87.
After the end of the October War General Youssef, who was at that time head of the combat vehicles division in the Third Field Army, was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General. He was awarded the Military Order of the Republic, First Class, in February 1974 by President Sadat for his exceptional combat action in the 1973 October War, showing sacrifice and courage in the face of the enemy. On the occasion of his retirement in 1984 he was awarded the Medal of the Republic, Second Class, by President Hosni Mubarak.
25 June 2018