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 that 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, and the third article detailed the events of the first day of the war starting with Zero Hour.
In the span of ten hours on 6 October 1973, Mr Hegazy writes, “we pulled down the mountain of fear that had for years been crushing us with the myth of an invincible Israeli army. We conquered three unconquerable obstacles: the water barrier of the Suez Canal powerfully guarded by the enemy; the 160km-long, 12m wide, 20 – 25 metres high ultra-steep sand and dust concrete-backed barrier, and the highly sophisticated military Bar-Lev line.” Mr Hegazy cites a few of the Israeli enemy’s reactions to the first hours of the war on 6 October 1973. In a phone call between General Gonen and General Mandler at 2pm [Zero Hour] on 6 October, General Gonen confirmed a previous decision not to move Israeli tanks before 4pm. General Mandler yelled at him: “The Egyptians are attacking us now”.
General Eli Zeira, Director of Israeli intelligence, recorded in his memoirs that Israeli air force activity was hindered by the Egyptian missile wall. “The Sinai Operations Group had 280 tanks on 6 October, and only 110 tanks remain this morning (7 October). The heavy losses resulted from confrontations with Egyptian infantry in small operations, not in tank battles.”
General David Elizar, Israeli Chief of Staff and Commander-in-Chief of the Israeli Defence Forces, wrote in his memoirs: “The fighting became fierce and ferocious. All evidence indicates that we were facing a tight, meticulous plan, the extent and dimensions of which we do not know. We are faced with two entirely new realities that have led to the collapse of all our military calculations. The first is that there is no longer a water barrier preventing the outpour of Egyptians onto our forces on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal, and the second is that the invincible strongpoints of the Bar-Lev Line are no longer effective after most of them have fallen. We no longer have a safe defence line. We are facing a real disaster.”
The Israeli War Council met at 10pm on 6 October, Mr Hegazy writes. Lines of communication between Tel Aviv and Washington were opened. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger left the United Nations meetings in New York and travelled to Washington to head a task force assigned with assessing the situation in the Middle East. The task force informed Israel of the necessity of destroying the heads of the Egyptian bridges during the early hours of 7 October, while directing a strong blow at the Egyptian missile network to silence it. Kissinger undertook the task of preventing the Security Council from meeting till after 8 October, in order to pave the way for an Israeli counterattack planned for 8 October; Israel aimed to occupy Ismailia and Suez. On 9 October a new military position would be established, according to which Israel could dictate its conditions and Egyptians would know that they undertook something they will regret for the rest of their lives.
The first hours of 7 October 1973, Mr Hegazy writes, saw work to complete the crossing of the Egyptian forces to the eastern bank of the Suez Canal, to join in deterring any enemy counterattack, and to accelerate the occupation of a 170km line to a depth of 12 to 15km, bearing in mind that Qantara Sharq [Qabrara East], which lies 50km south of Port Said, was the most important target to be liberated. Qantara Sharq was not a mere town, but a fort with seven strongpoints that made it a solid military fortress. It controlled the entrance to the northern axis that traversed Sinai and led into the heart of Israel.
Liberating Qantara Sharq was among the ground battles of 7 October; it was in every sense of the word an epic feat that was led by Brigadier General Fouad Aziz Ghali. The battle continued until the afternoon of 7 October, when most of the fortresses guarding the town fell; the fighting continued till 10pm by which time the city was under full control. According to Mr Hegazy, the fall of Qantara shattered the morale of the enemy who had no choice but to counterattack in order to compensate for their defeat.
On 7 October, Egypt began the political war, opening direct lines of communication with the US, the Soviet Union, and Arab and friendly countries, Mr Hegzay recounts. Egypt explained to the world the just war it was waging, and its conditions that Israel withdraws from all the Arab lands it occupied in June 1967, in exchange for Egypt to consider participating in a peace conference.
In Washington, Mr Kissinger was moving in every direction to prevent any international movement that would restrict his freedom of action or would prevent Israel from carrying out its counterattack, because he firmly believed that Israel would turn the Egyptian achievement into a crushing defeat, tip all the balances, and place the Arabs on the verge of disaster. Kissinger rose to help Israel which requested compensation for the losses it had incurred, especially in air power. He later wrote in his memoirs: “If the Arabs win, it would be impossible to hold any negotiations to reach a solution to the crisis. The US must not, under any circumstances, allow Israel to be defeated, even if this leads to direct American intervention.”
As 7 October concluded, Mr Hegazy writes, the war was ongoing and Egyptian victory continued and extended to 8 October, known in Israel as “Sad Monday”.
Monday 8 October was the major turning point in the October War, Mr Hegazy writes. From the moment the mobilisation of the Israeli Forces was announced after the start of the war, forces continued to arrive to Sinai until three armoured divisions were formed, complete with personnel and military equipment: Division 143, led by General Ariel Sharon; Division 162, led by General Avraham Adan; and Division 252, led by General Avraham Mandler. The Egyptian front was facing 1000 tanks ready to reach the main target of the Israeli enemy, which was to end the status quo in Sinai by directing a strong strike against the left side of the Egyptian Second Army, seizing one of the bridges to cross west, pinning down the Egyptian Third Army and inflicting heavy losses on it.
The Egyptian Second Army was following the enemy’s movements, Mr Hegazy recounts, and the decision of Commander of the Second Army, Major General Saad Mamoun, was to destroy the attacking units and get them out of the way for the upcoming battles. The Egyptian genius was evident in the plan to confront the counterattack. Relying on the enemy’s arrogance, we lured the enemy, Mr Hegazy writes, to step into a pocket of fire that was organised with the utmost precision and force the enemy to engage. The enemy was surprised after being allowed to penetrate the formations of the Second Army, with Egyptian fire opening from four sides. It was the largest tank massacre in the history of war, on an area of 15 sq.km. The Israeli leaders cheered happily over the radio, exchanging greetings after they had penetrated the front line of defence of the Egyptian Second Army, not knowing that they were digging their own grave. They were terrorised as they heard the shouts of General Adan and his orders to abort the battle amidst scenes of tanks being destroyed and bodies of soldiers flying.
The final blow to the enemy came when Colonel Assaf Yaguri, commander of the 190th Battalion of the 217th Armoured Brigade, was captured, Mr Hegazy proceeds. Yaguri was at the forefront of the forces that swallowed the bait and penetrated the front defence line of the Egyptian forces, which had been left open as a trap. After he was released and returned to Israel, Assaf Yaguri wrote an article in the Israeli newspaper Maariv on 7 February 1975, in which he said: “Why did they leave our chests bare on the Fardan front on 8 October?” In Tel Aviv, the shock to the leadership and the people was so great that they called 8 October “Sad Monday”. On this day, Golda Mayer cried as she spoke to US President Nixon on the phone and told him: “Save Israel”.
Mr Kissinger who made the world wait for 8 October in anticipation of the radical change that would occur in favour of Israel, was the first to acknowledge the massive victory of the Egyptian army, Mr Hegazy writes. Mr Kissinger made a very important statement on 9 October after confirming Israel’s defeat; he said that regardless of the final outcome of the war, the Arabs have achieved a strategic victory in the Middle East, a new reality was then there, and the wheel would not turn back.
The day 8 October, “Sad Monday” will forever remain a witness of the Egyptian army overcoming the myth of Israel’s “invincible army”, Mr Hegazy writes.
20 October 2023