“I talked to (Ambassador Simcha) Dinitz in Washington at all hours of the day and night. Where is the airlift? Why wasn’t it underway yet?” writes former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in her memoirs, regarding her appeal for help from the US administration of President Richard Nixon during the 1973 October War.
“I remember once calling him at 3:00 a.m., Washington time. I don’t care what time it is, I raged at Dinitz. Call Kissinger now in the middle of the night. We need help today because tomorrow...it may be too late.”
Before it was too late, Nixon would soon comply, sending giant C-5 Galaxy military transport aircraft, carrying tanks, ammunition, and air-to-air rockets. They landed in al-Lodd on the ninth day of the war, significantly shifting battlefield dynamics in favour of the Israelis.
Six months later, Golda Meir would step down from the premierships, amidst sharp criticism that she was unprepared for what happened during the October War of 1973, or what they call the Yom Kippur War in Israel.
It was the early days of the war when Syria and Egypt caught her and her administration off-guard, which brought down her government in April 1974. Golda herself describes the first days of the war as “a near disaster”.
Still, she goes on to say: “We won the Yom Kippur War, and I am convinced that in their heart of hearts, the political and military leaders of both Syria and Egypt know that they were defeated, despite their initial gains.”
We won the Yom Kippur War, and I am convinced that in their heart of hearts, the political and military leaders of both Syria and Egypt know that they were defeated, despite their initial gains.
That is not, however, what then-president Ephraim Katzir thinks, who writes in his memoirs: "It was clear beyond doubt that not only were we taken by surprise by the enemy's ability to fool us at the cost of so much blood, but we were not prepared for such a happening. We did not develop muscle and became addicted to the fat of the land."
Katzir, a biophysicist-turned-statesman, goes on to criticise his premier and those who said that she was above blame because she was "a woman who did not know the difference between a battalion and a company, relied on the military experts around her and was led astray."
"With all my appreciation and respect for her, I have no doubt that in wartime, the prime minister of Israel, man or woman, has to be familiar with matters of defence. Even if he or she cannot fire a cannon, they bear the prime responsibility for the operation of Israel's armed forces."
Former premier Yitzhak Rabin, who came to office on 3 June 1975, directly succeeding Golda Meir, was a retired army chief-of-staff who was called to army command at 8:30 am on 6 October 1973.
"Calling such a meeting on a Saturday – our only day off in Israel – would have been strange enough. But that Saturday also happened to be Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Hebrew calendar, making such a summon downright bizarre. One didn't have to be a former chief of staff to realise that the IDF was on alert, but even so, I never suspected war."
Nor, for that matter, did many senior Israeli officials, despite a blatant warning from King Hussein of Jordan and Ashraf Marwan, son-in-law to former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, then serving in President Sadat's office.
The warnings sent by both men were recently declassified by Israel ahead of the 50th anniversary of the October War.
With all my appreciation and respect for her, (Golda Meir) I have no doubt that in wartime, the prime minister of Israel, man or woman, has to be familiar with matters of defence. Even if he or she cannot fire a cannon
Former Israeli President Ephraim Katzir
Along with Golda Meir, Defence Minister Moshe Dayan is most to blame for what happened to Israeli forces during the early hours of 6 October 1973. He was accused, among other things, of being unprepared for the joint Egyptian-Syrian offensive and, like Meir, was eventually forced to resign in 1974. His memoirs, penned in 1976, reveal a lot about the October War.
"At four in the morning on Saturday, 6 October 1973, I was awakened by the ring of the red telephone beside my bed. This was not unusual. There was hardly a night without two or three such calls. But this time, the call was to inform me that according to information just received, Egypt and Syria would launch a war before sundown on this very day.
Dayan doesn't mention the sources, only describing them as "reliable." They had received such messages in the past when President Sadat had mobilised his forces, prompting the Israelis to do the same – at a very high price – only to back down and withdraw.
Many wrongly believed that Sadat was once again raising a false alarm. Dayan explains that responding to the reports just received was no easy task, as it required mobilising army reserves, reinforcing the fronts and evacuating children and women from frontier settlements on the Golan Heights.
He met with the prime minister and suggested a pre-emptive strike "to be directed against Syria alone, not on the front, not against the anti-aircraft missile system, but against the air bases inside Syria—and even that, not before noon."
Dayan explains: "I, for one, never imagined that the Egyptians would reconcile themselves to our being entrenched along the Suez Canal, or that the Syrians would swallow our occupation of the Golan Heights. I felt that our presence there would mean war, sooner or later."
However, he was under the impression that the 177 tanks stationed in the Golan and the 300 in the canal area, could technically – with air support – ward off a joint attack and gain time until reinforcements were called in.
The plan was based on the assumption that there would be more than 24 hours of advanced warning, so considerable reinforcements of mobilised reservists would have already reached the fronts when war broke out.
He then admits: "It must also be added that the enemy forces launched their attacks with much greater efficiency than had expected," comparing 1973 to previous Arab-Israeli wars since 1948.
"This was my fourth war. In the first, our 1948 War of Independence, I was 25 and commanded a commando battalion. It was easier. When my area of responsibility was accomplished, I could wrap my keffiyeh around my face and sink into a deep sleep."
"The Sinai Campaign of 1956 and the Six-Day War of 1967 were not difficult wars. The Egyptians were beaten and fled; the Syrians had no surface-to-air missiles, and the Jordanians had no air force."
Dayan goes on to explain – very candidly – that the main difference between 1973 and previous wars lay in Arab strength: "It was much greater and more powerful than anything the Arabs had shown in the past."
He places Arab strength as "roughly three times" what it had been six years earlier: up from 300,000 to 1 million troops, more than 5,000 tanks compared to 1,700 in 1967, more than 1,000 planes as compared to 350 in the past, and with 4,800 field guns against 1,350 in 1967.
Dayan ordered a C alert on Friday, 5 October 1973, the highest in the Israeli army, before meeting the prime minister at 9:45 AM. He bluntly told her what he thought — that Syria and Egypt would attack "within hours" — but was challenged in his assessment by Chief of Intelligence Major Eli Zeira and Chief-of-Staff David Elazer.
"In the judgement of the intelligence chief, it was most improbable that the Egyptians would cross the canal in large forces, though they might open fire and attempt raids. The American evaluation was that neither Syria nor Egypt intended to launch an attack in the near future."
They were wrong.
"The first day of fighting was hard," he wrote.
"Our losses in men were not light as we also lost ground and positions of considerable value."
The Syrian and Egyptian armies had the advantage of the surprise attack. Still, army officers assured Golda Meir that their initial victories could be quickly reversed once reservists reached the front lines.
But things were not that simple, adds Dayan, explaining how a Syrian force penetrated Israeli lines eight miles south of Quneitra, the principal town on the Golan Heights, and advanced towards routes to the Sea of Galilee.
"Our forces were very much on the offensive. They had blocked the Syrian breakthrough, thrust the enemy back beyond our lines, and pushed them further into the heart of Syria."
"Even then, the Syrians were still putting up a stubborn fight for key positions, and when Israeli units reached the dominant hill positions of Tel Shams, on the Quneitra-Damascus road, they found it heavily defended and came under fire from…from Syrian aircraft which plastered them with rockets."
He then describes the Egyptian front as "tough, heroic, and depressing."
The 16 strongholds along the Suez Canal were the first to suffer, which consisted of what had come to be known as the Bar Lev Line.
"Each was a solitary, isolated isle, conducting a bigger and desperate struggle for life or death. I don't know if it is possible to determine in precise measures the extent to which the strongholds stood up to the enemy, even for a day or two."
And finally, Dayan admits that what made 1973 different from 1967 was that the Arabs "did not run away."
In the past, he says, "flight was a common characteristic of the Arab armies. Not all. Not immediately. But as far as one can generalise, it can be said that when they were hit and badly mauled, and their front was broken wide open, they would raise their hands and heels. Not this time."
I, for one, never imagined that the Egyptians would reconcile themselves to our being entrenched along the Suez Canal, or that the Syrians would swallow our occupation of the Golan Heights. I felt that our presence there would mean war, sooner or later.
Former Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan
Future Israeli premier and president Shimon Peres was then a junior minister in Golda Meir's cabinet, with no say in senior decision-making. In light of Moshe Dayan's resignation because of the war, he would soon become Israel's next defence minister.
After the Yom Kippur disaster, some of Dayan's most loyal admirers were among his first critics. He was spat at in a military graveyard, cursed at public meetings, and ripped apart by the press. Dayan was never the same after the Yom Kippur War.
Peres met with Dayan on the morning of 6 October, remembering how he said he couldn't mobilise the army at once nor call up all the reserves and deploy them effectively in a single day.
To the present day, it is difficult to understand what happened to us in 1973. How could our people have failed to read the writing on the wall, which was so clear and bold
Former Israeli president Shimon Peres
"Little did I dream on that Yom Kippur morning that just a few months later, Dayan would be standing there, in that same office, handing the ministry over to me for safekeeping."
"I plunged straight into the task of rebuilding and strengthening the army. I made frequent, unannounced spot checks, to ensure that the kind of neglect that had been exposed, to our grievous cost, at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, would never reoccur."
Peres looks back at the war and asks: "To the present day, it is difficult to understand what happened to us in 1973. How could our people have failed to read the writing on the wall, which was so clear and bold?"
He notes that the war gave Anwar Sadat enough of a victory to feel able to negotiate an agreement with Israel, and yet dealt him enough of a defeat to realise that Egypt could not impose its will by military means alone.
"Egypt failed to achieve a military victory, and Israel did not attain a political victory."