Today I resume delving into Ibrahim Hegazy’s testimony on the October 1973 War. Mr Hegazy (1954 – 2022), who was sports editor at the Cairo daily al-Ahram, wrote his vivid, true-to-life, extensively detailed first-hand experience of the October 1973 War, including that of the years of preparation that led to it. His story was printed in a series of articles in al-Ahram in 2020 and 2021. I reprint here excerpts of them to offer an on-the-ground report of the epic feat, legendary in planning and in execution, to our younger generations for whom the war is “history” that is celebrated but not sensed. My account comes in five articles throughout the five Sundays of October 2023, the 50th anniversary of the war that took Egyptians from the bitter humiliation of defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War to the regained self-esteem and honour of victory in the October 1973 War. My articles of the first two Sundays in October detailed the lead-up to Zero Hour: 2:00pm on Saturday 6 October 1973.
Zero Hour marked the beginning of the end for the alleged invincibility of the Israeli army. A great new history was being written; it amazed the world and proved that immortal Egypt knew no impossible. Nothing was difficult or far-fetched for Egypt’s great warriors, Mr Hegazy writes. Who were these warriors in 1973?
Egypt’s ground forces constituted three infantry brigades, three parachute brigades, 10 armoured brigades, and a ground missile brigade. They were armed with 1,700 tanks, 200 armoured vehicles, 2500 mortars, 700 anti-tank missile launchers, and 1,900 anti-tank guns. Notably, a brigade is a military unit consisting of two to five battalions and its personnel number 3,000 to 5,000. The air force included 610 aircraft, among them 305 fighters, 95 training craft, 70 navigators, and 140 helicopters. The naval forces included 12 submarines and 34 naval vessels: five destroyers, three frigates, 14 minesweepers, 17 missile boats, 30 torpedo boats, and 14 landing craft.
At Zero Hour, Mr Hegazy writes, 220 military aircraft flew over the canal heading into central Sinai to hit three enemy air bases, 10 air defence missile silos, three command centres, a number of radar stations, and long-range artillery positions. The enemy was taken by surprise at the strike, because Egypt’s pilots had mastered nap-of-the-earth excessively low flying to escape radar detection. The airstrike hit more than 90 per cent of the planned targets; leading the Egyptian command to refrain from waging a second strike which had been scheduled for 4:00pm that same day. “With God’s help, we succeeded brilliantly, thanks to six years of extensive training, and to meticulous planning,” Mr Hegazy recounts. The aircraft accessed Sinai from above the canal and exited from the sides over the Gulf of Suez and the Mediterranean, to make room for the artillery.
Preparation for mortar fire began two minutes after the military aircraft had flown into Sinai, in order for all enemy targets to be under attack at the same time: aircraft missiles attacked distant targets, while mortar fire rammed targets up to 10 kilometres deep in Sinai. Mr Hegazy writes that camouflage nets were lifted from above 2,000 mortars to fire along the front at a rate of 10,500 shells per minute for a period of 53 minutes, turning the eastern battlefield into an inferno. It barred any counteraction and forced the enemy to hide in trenches to avoid the effect of the air discharge caused by mortar fire.
Mr Hegazy explains that forcing the enemy into hiding allowed the crossing of the first-line brigades whose mission was to secure the eastern bank of the canal so that the engineering units could perform their tasks of bulldozing 81 bores in the Bar-Lev sand barrier, and constructing crossovers and bridges across the canal. Thank God, Mr Hegazy writes, everything went as planned.
Mr Hegazy writes that the first wave of 1,600 fire-resistant inflatable boats carrying 8,000 infantrymen arrived on the eastern shore of the Suez Canal in seven minutes. It was only the first of 12 subsequent waves; each included reconnaissance units, artillery monitoring units, and commando units to set up ambushes for the enemy inside Sinai. There were also units to besiege the strongpoints of the Bar-Lev Line from the rear, units to secure the sand barrier and prevent enemy tanks from accessing their platforms on its top, and units of tank capture crews to deter counterattacks. “All this was done in accordance with the plan drawn up to ensure control of the eastern bank of the canal at the outset of the fight, and to take battle initiative following the first surprise attack,” Mr Hegazy writes.
According to Mr Hegazy, the Egyptians captured 50 per cent of the strongpoints of the Bar-Lev line on 6 and 7 October; the remaining fell on 8 and 9 October, except for one point which fell on 13 October. “The ‘defensive bogey’ built by the enemy in Sinai, which they said was the greatest defensive line known in wars in the world, was broken 125 minutes after the start of the October war in 1973,” he writes.
Work on the canal, bridges, and sand barrier openings began 50 minutes after the start of the war, Mr Hegazy writes. Military engineers began an epic feat in the west: to connect the banks of the Suez Canal with ten bridges for the crossing of tanks and armoured vehicles, and another ten for the crossing of infantry, and equipment. The engineers pierced the first bore in the barrier at 5:30pm after jetting out 1,500 cubic metres of sand using four jet water pumps. The sand barrier was eventually shattered through 81 bores, with a total three million cubic metres of sand jetted out. The first footbridge was completed at 6:30pm and the first bridge at 8:30pm on 6 October.
To end the timeline of the first day of fighting, Mr Hegazy writes: The first Egyptian warrior carried by the first wave of rubber boats reached the top of the sand barrier, and hoisted the Egyptian flag on it, 37 minutes after the war started. After that, Egyptian flags continued to be raised on the barrier. At 3pm, Egypt’s troops east of the Canal numbered 800 officers and 13,500 soldiers; the number rose to 2,000 officers and 30,000 soldiers at 5pm. By 10pm, the Corps of Engineers had completed boring 60 out of 81 breaches in the barrier, and constructed eight heavy bridges, four light bridges, and 31 footbridges. By midnight, before the 6th of October 1973 ended, the Egyptian army had 80,000 warriors in Sinai. The army succeeded in seizing a third of the Bar-Lev line, and in destroying all Israeli defences east of the Canal, also in constructing bridgeheads 5km deep in the east. “The first day of fighting ended, the war continues, and surprises are coming,” Mr Hegazy writes.
13 October 2023