In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Israel was an emerging power player in Middle Eastern politics. Although surrounded by relatively unfriendly neighbours (Egypt, Syria, and Jordan), the small Mediterranean nation had held its own in local conflicts since 1948 with the aid of the United States and England. As recently as 1967, Israel shocked international observers during the Six Day War by repelling a massive 3-sided attack and snatching new territory in Sinai, the West Bank of Jordan and the Golan Heights in Syria. From that point on, it was impossible to ignore Israel’s military stature or abilities. The ensuing Arab frustration at Israel’s apparent military domination resulted in the Yom Kippur War – or, the Ramadan War.
ASAP: Advanced Egyptian forces nearly wiped out the IDF, but Sadat’s cockiness handed the Israelis an advantage. Ironically, the war helped improve regional relations.Read on for details!
The Egyptian Revitalization
Egypt in particular was humiliated during the Six Day War. President Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered a massive reform of his armed forces, and, with the help of the Soviet Union, began revitalizing Egyptian anti-tank and anti-air capabilities. The previous war had shown that the Israeli Defense Force (or IDF) were experts at high-speed armoured and air combat; so to combat them, Nasser capitalized on the advent of new Russian technology. His troops were not at the same level of training or motivation as those in the IDF, but they now possessed anti-tank weapons systems that could knock out IDF tanks at close range (the RPG-7 launcher) and long range (the wire-guided Sagger missile). These systems were simple enough to be operated by the average infantryman. They were also complemented by SAM (Surface-to-Air-Missiles) launchers to take on the Israeli Air Forces (IAF). These would form the “SAM Umbrella”, an area protected from air attack under which Egyptian armour could advance.
Nasser died in 1970, though, and was of course unable to continue buying sweet new weapons from the Russians. Anwar Sadat took over and attempted to resolve Arab-Israeli tensions peacefully; his attempts failed, obviously, and the new Egyptian president drew up plans for an assault on Israel. Sadat – a realist – understood that the average Egyptian soldier, simply put, was not great at his job. Egypt’s command structure was inflexible and its troops required detailed instructions before taking any action; the Israelis, in contrast, were highly-trained and motivated and empowered to take the initiative, hence their penchant for high-speed “manoeuver warfare”. As a result, the goal of Sadat’s offensive was not to crush Israel: it was to force it to relinquish the territorial gains of 1967 over a negotiations table.
As Egyptian forces gathered along the Suez Canal (an important shipping route) in late 1973, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and Minister of Defense Lieutenant General Moshe Dayan were convinced it was merely another bit of Nasser-esque showmanship – not the prelude to a very real invasion. Their confidence in Israeli abilities was a byproduct of the Six Day War, and it would hurt them politically in the wake of 1973.
October 6th 1973 was Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism. It was also the day that Egyptian artillery units smashed Israeli positions along the Suez Canal with 10,500 shells in the first minute of firing. Egyptian sappers (combat engineers) crossed the canal in assault boats and blasted holes in the IDF’s defensive sand berms with high-pressure water hoses like mad, confused firefighters. Massive floating bridges and rafts began ferrying Egyptian men and vehicles across the Canal and, by the start of October 7th, 90,000 Egyptians were inside Israel. 200,000 would force their way across at the height of the conflict.
Concurrently, IAF fighter jets started getting blown out of the air by the Egyptian SAM Umbrella. The air support that the IDF relied on was quickly being worn down; Israeli tanks rushed to support frontline positions without protection. A massive counter-offensive led by Israeli Major General Avraham Adan began rolling towards Egyptian positions on the Suez Canal but was surprised to see hoards of men emerge from fighting holes and blast their tanks with RPGs and Sagger missiles at close range. Over 400 IDF tanks were knocked out by October 9th and Israeli command began to worry seriously about the capabilities of the Egyptian offensive. Previously confident troops were facing an existential threat posed by new Egyptian hardware and tactics.
The Tide Turns
Whilst Avrans forces were being hammered near the Suez Canal, Syrian and Iraqi forces aligned with Sadat’s Egyptians charged into the Golan Heights with 1,200 tanks. They quickly wiped out the 180 IDF vehicles charged with defending the position, but were soon met with a surprisingly determined counter-attack by the Israelis. By October 9th, the Israelis had knocked out 1,400 Arab tanks and killed many attackers in brutal combat. News of Syrian and Egyptian atrocities (Israeli prisoners had been founded executed and tortured) only served to strengthen the Israeli resolve. Arab forces – who were not fighting a war for the existence of their nation, unlike the IDF – began to lose morale quickly.
Sadat ordered a general offensive on October 9th. Previously, he had planned on seizing and holding positions on the Suez Canal and in the Golan Heights, but now in a fit of mild panic he ordered his troops to adopt the high-speed manoeuvre tactics the Israelis excelled at. Soon, the Egyptians were overextended far from their supply lines and, crucially, from their commanders; away from their SAM Umbrella, Egyptian T-55 tanks were vulnerable and thousands of troops were captured. Gradually, as the Arab armies began losing on all fronts, Sadat realized the extent of his mistake. On October 25th, a ceasefire was called.
The Yom Kippur War – particularly the fighting in Sinai – was an Arab success in that it shook Israel’s faith in its army. The IDF (and the world) had been stunned by the strength of the Egyptian, Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi offensive, especially after their abysmal performance in 1967. Confidence in the IDF decreased, and Israeli leadership began looking at diplomatic options. In response to American aid to Israel during the conflict, Saudi Arabia and other Arab oil-producing nations began reducing oil production by 5% per week and triggered the 1973 OPEC Crisis. Gas prices skyrocketed and the Western world was essentially held hostage.
Curiously, the Arab world and Egypt in particular felt a similar need to negotiate. Despite Egypt’s successes in Sinai, Sadat was painfully aware that his troops were not up to fighting the IDF. As the 1970s wore on, representatives from Israel and Egypt began meeting in the United States at the Camp David Accords, which – with the help of American president Jimmy Carter – resulted in the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty. After a probing interview with American newsman Walter Cronkite in 1977, Sadat admitted emotionally that he desired further cooperation with Israel; in November of that year, the Egyptian leader travelled to Israel and officially recognized the legitimacy of the Israeli state – a massive step forward in regional diplomatic relations. If any good can be said to have come out of the short and vicious Yom Kippur War, it’s that conflict became the less favourable option between Israel and its neighbours – and diplomacy won out as the favoured means of communication. To quote Harold Macmillan, the two enemies had finally decided that “… jaw-jaw is better than war-war.”
In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.
- Who? Roughly 800,000 Egyptian troops under the direction of president Anwar Sadat, as well as Syrian, Jordanian and Iraqi troops (only 200,000 Egyptians made it across the Suez Canal). They faced roughly 400,000 Israeli Defense Force (IDF) troops under Minister of Defense Lieutenant General Moshe Dayan, who answered to Prime Minister Golda Meir.
- Where? Primarily on the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights – land occupied by the IDF in the 1967 Six Day War. The main attack took place on the banks of the Suez Canal.
- When? From October 6th to the 25th – just under 3 weeks.
- What? Egyptian forces attacked en masse at a point on the Suez Canal and forced a crossing into Israeli territory, while Syrian and other Arab forces pushed into the Golan Heights. Initial IDF counter-attacks were absolutely ruined by the “SAM Umbrella” – new Egyptian technology and tactics that posed a formidable threat to Israeli tanks and fighter jets. Israeli morale remained high however, and subsequent Israeli efforts managed to push back the Arab forces and eventually, “win” the battle.
- Why? The main Egyptian attack was an attempt to grind down the IDF and force the Israelis to the negotiating table as well as regain Arab prestige in the wake of the Six Day War. The IDF fought particularly hard after learning of Syrian and Egyptian atrocities committed upon Israeli prisoners.
- Result: Uneasy truce. Both sides felt a heightened respect for the other, which prompted a return to negotiations. The OPEC crisis, kicked off by the Saudis, jacked up oil prices in response to perceived Israeli offences during the war. In 1977, following the Camp David Accords initiated by US President Jimmy Carter, Sadat visited Israeli PM Menachem Begin in Israel and officially recognized the state of Israel as legitimate.
Food for Thought
Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.
- What events during the Six Day War led to the IDF’s feeling of invincibility? How did this hurt them during the Yom Kippur War?
- Assess Sadat’s biggest mistakes during his offensive. Could he have “won” had he stuck to the original defensive plan?
- What material support did the US and USSR provide their allies in the fight?
- What political repercussions occurred in Israel as a result of the war?
- What are the lasting political and social repercussions of the war today?
Further Reading & Citations
Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!
- Whetten, Lawrence, and Michael Johnson. “Military Lessons of the Yom Kippur War.” The World Today 30, no. 3 (1974)
- Porter, Bruce D. “The Yom Kippur War.” Chapter. In The USSR in Third World Conflicts: Soviet Arms and Diplomacy in Local Wars 1945–1980, 113–46. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
- Boyne, Walter J. 2002. The two o’clock war: the 1973 Yom Kippur conflict and the airlift that saved Israel. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.
- Handel, Michael I. “The Yom Kippur War and the Inevitability of Surprise.” International Studies Quarterly 21, no. 3 (1977): 461-502.
- Liebman, Charles S. “The Myth of Defeat: The Memory of the Yom Kippur War in Israeli Society.” Middle Eastern Studies 29, no. 3 (1993): 399-418.