To mark 50 years on the October 1973 War, I today resume delving into Ibrahim Hegazy’s testimony on the war. This war saw the Egyptian army achieve an epic, near-impossible crossing from the western to the eastern bank of the Suez Canal and on into Sinai, to battle Israeli forces that had occupied the Peninsula for six years. Following 18 days of battle a truce was reached; the talks that ensued led to a final peace agreement in 1979 between Egypt and Israel, according to which Egypt regained its Sinai Peninsula in full.
Mr Hegazy (1954 – 2022), who was sports editor at the Cairo daily al-Ahram, wrote his story of not only participating in the October 1973 War, but also in the years of preparation that led to it. He offered his vivid, true-to-life, extensively detailed first-hand experience in a series of articles that were printed in al-Ahram in 2020 and 2021. I reprint here excerpts of them to offer an on-the-ground report of the feat, which was legendary in planning and in execution, to our younger generations for whom the war is “history” that is celebrated but not sensed.
In last Sunday’s editorial, I began this series of Mr Hegazy’s account of the October 1973 War by dwelling on the givens and generalities of the situation during the years before the war. Today, I begin delving into war details that ought to remain etched in our collective memory, as cited by Mr Hegazy in the articles printed in October 2020 – February 2021. Mr Hegazy wrote:
Events during the first six days of October 1973 testify to exceptional Egyptian thought and planning. The elements of shock and deception necessary to mislead the enemy, Mr Hegazy writes, were so fulfilled as to be counted among the greatest in the history of war. The army was put on highest alert, under the pretext of starting a strategic training exercise. Everything on the western Suez Canal front where Egyptians were stationed appeared unchanged. It was paramount for the military command that the enemy, stationed on the eastern bank of the Canal, should not discover the Egyptian intentions.
On Tuesday 2 October, Egyptian military naval vessels sailed south from their bases on the Mediterranean to Bab al-Mandeb Strait, with the intention of blocking naval routes to Israel once the war started. The pretext announced was that the Egyptian naval vessels were heading to destinations in Southeast Asia for much-needed maintenance.
The deception plan, Mr Hegazy writes, involved moving Egyptian military personnel and equipment in various directions, so as to confuse and confound Israeli intelligence which, having detected all the moves, concluded that the Egyptian leadership was conducting a show of strength to appease the public that was becoming excessively restive and angry at the no-war no-peace situation. According to Mr Hegazy, the enemy swallowed the bait and deduced that the military moves, like many before them, would come to nothing.
Wednesday 3 October saw a speed-up of moves on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts. On the evening of that day, the engineering equipment was moved to the frontline on the Suez Canal. This included floating parts of bridges, the equipment needed to set them up, water pumps, and heavy arms. The military command was in unprecedented mobilisation, checking the situation lest enemy intelligence, US air reconnaissance or satellites detect the moves.
Saturday 6 October was the date set for the start of military operations, Mr Hegazy writes. The date was determined according to meticulous planning to minimise damage and maximise benefit. It coincided with Jewish Yom Kippur when all activity is almost halted, meaning it would delay Israeli mobilisation of forces and equipment to respond to an Egyptian attack. This would give Egypt’s military precious time to secure their men as they crossed the Suez Canal, and to build bridge heads, extend bridges, and erect defence points against any expected attack from the enemy.
Golda Meir however, Mr Hegazy writes, did not overlook the Egyptian moves. She convened a council of war to discuss all aspects of the matter. The chief of Israeli intelligence said that Egypt was unable to go to war, and that the moves detected were all meant for the domestic front. Israel’s military capacity, he said, was sufficient to abort any Egyptian intentions of war; there was no need for mobilisation of any forces.
On Saturday 6 October, the commands of the various Egyptian armies were informed of the timing planned for the war; a schedule was given on the various levels. Zero Hour was set. Yet, Mr Hegazy writes, there were still gnawing fears that the enemy would have correctly interpreted the Egyptian moves since 1 October. “Have our measures been secured with great secrecy? Or has the enemy understood them and was preparing a counteroffensive as secretly as we did?” The anxiety rose by the minute as Zero Hour approached.
Moshe Dayan had told the Israeli council of war that any bet by Egyptians on the shock element was bound to lose, since they would see for themselves that war was infeasible for them; Egypt and Syria would only live to regret it. Even so, Golda Meir called Israel’s Chief of Staff, General Haim Bar-Lev who assured her he had fitted the Canal bank with combustion devices that would burn whoever attempted to get close. [General Bar-Lev had in 1968 – 1969 built the supposedly indomitable Bar-Lev Line, a defence system on the eastern bank of the Canal, the bank which was then in Israeli hands, and which faced the Egyptian mainland. The Line constituted a 160km-long wall in the form of a huge sand and dust mountain backed by concrete. It was 20 – 25 metres high and 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”.] Another general explained to Golda Meir that it was the Muslim holy month of Ramadan during which the notoriously pious Egyptians fast and would never fight.
Mr Hegazy continues that, at 12 noon Cairo time on Saturday 6 October 1973, the Egyptian soldiers on the frontline were informed of the 2:00pm Zero Hour. They were half-a-million warriors stationed on the 170km long Suez Canal front. Strict orders were given to soldiers to not appear in combat gear or leave the trenches till the air strike took off. “One hundred platforms had been built on the dust barrier we had constructed on the Canal’s west bank where we were stationed,” Mr Hegazy writes, “to be used by tanks to secure the Canal crossing.”
At Zero Hour, the air strike took off. In the trenches, according to Mr Hegazy, 80,000 Egyptian warriors lay in wait ready for the order to fight. Two thousand canons and 3,000 tons of ammunition were on stand-by; as were the heavy pieces of engineering equipment, 81 jet water pumps to shatter the Bar-Lev dust and sand barrier, in addition to countless tanks and a fearsome missile wall behind.
The countdown started for the moment Egypt had been awaiting for more than six years.
6 October 2023