Declassified files on Arab-Israeli War reveal Egypt knew of army battalion gap

Earlier this month Egypt released its archives. Israel released its own last year, making Syria the only remaining participant of the October 1973 war to not declassify.

President Anwar Sadat of Egypt visits army positions at the Suez Canal during the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
President Anwar Sadat of Egypt visits army positions at the Suez Canal during the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

Declassified files on Arab-Israeli War reveal Egypt knew of army battalion gap

“The nature of the Arabs and their lack of confidentiality requires us to be cautious when circulating information affecting our strategic planning so that it is not leaked to the enemy by chatter, even if unintentional. Likewise, the same Arab nature can be used to spread information quickly.”

This is what the director of the Nasser Military Academy wrote to the Egyptian military command during the preparation phase for the Arab-Israeli War or the October War of 1973 — the fourth major confrontation in the region after the Palestine War of 1948, the Suez War of 1956, and the 1967 war.

The academy commander’s letter and thousands of other documents were released by the Egyptian Ministry of Defence last Saturday, four months after the 50th anniversary of the October War.

The Egyptian and Syrian armies did indeed manage to keep their military plans secret, taking the Israelis off-guard with their surprise attack on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism.

All documents released by Egypt are in Arabic, with no English or Hebrew translation, and are noticeably penned in hand-written, clear, and beautiful Arabic script.

The timing of the releases raised questions, with some linking it to the present war in Gaza. However, a special committee mandated by the Egyptian Ministry of Defense had been reviewing these documents for months.

Egyptian law prohibits the release of classified documents before 50 years have passed, which was fulfilled last October. During the October War, 3,000 Egyptians perished, along with 3,000-3,500 Syrians and another 3,000 Israeli soldiers.

What matters in these papers is what they contain about the inner workings of the upper echelons of power in Cairo, both during the war and in the months that preceded it.

Many prominent Egyptians have already come out with their story of what happened in 1973, including President Anwar al-Sadat and his army chief-of-staff Saad al-Din al-Shazly.

They both traded accusations on who was responsible for a strategic gap between the 2nd and 3rd Egyptian armies, which secured an advantage for the Israeli Army between 15-23 October.

In the Egyptian documents, one finds the hand-written memoirs of Field Marshal Abdul Ghani el-Gamasy, chief of war operations, which were eventually published in a book in 1989.

There are also plenty of military and administrative decrees, which matter only to specialised war historians, along with a log of all telephone and wireless calls before and during the war, with an entire file on media reactions in both Israel and Egypt.

There is also an important report on Egyptian losses during the previous June War of 1967, showing that 25,000 people were killed in Egypt, and 80% of Egypt’s military capabilities were destroyed, contrary to what was reported at the time by then-army commander Abdul Hakim Amer — a personal friend of President Gamal Abdul Nasser.

Read more: The 1967 Naksa relived through the memoirs of Abdel Nasser’s top generals

The documents reveal that Field Marshal Gamasy held a meeting with his top lieutenants during the first hours of the year 1973, asking them to suggest suitable dates for an assault on Israel.

Handling the response was then Air Force commander (and future president) Husni Mubarak, who proposed staging the attack on “lunar nights,” with the earliest date suggestions between 13-23 February and the latest between 5-15 December 1973.

The files shed light on the inner workings of the upper echelons of power in Cairo in the run-up to the 1973 war.

The infamous 'gap'

The crown jewel of the documents remains, without doubt, what they reveal about the gap between the 2nd and 3rd Egyptian armies — popularly referred to in Arabic as thagharet al-defresoir.

It now becomes clear that the Egyptian command was very much aware of the gap and had drawn up a plan to overcome it codenamed "Shamel," unlike what is often said by Sadat's many critics.

He had actually warned of an operation that would change Israel's position from the defensive to the offensive, known internationally by its Hebrew name, Abirey-Halev or Abirey-Lev (Knights of the Heart) and led by future Israeli premier Ariel Sharon.

Israeli POWs

The documents also contain special field reports from Egyptian officers, with the names of Israeli troops taken hostage in battle — mainly in Port Said — before being transferred for interrogation and incarnation at the Mansouriyya base.

The POWs are mentioned by name, along with the specific timing of their arrest, and there is also a list of war spoils taken over by the Egyptian Army, like 33 mines, 114 hand grenades and hundreds of thousands of ammunition.

Missing pieces

Reading through the documents, it is clear that Egyptian authorities have released only a fraction of what is in their possession — which is their natural right, of course.

This applies specifically to the heroic Egyptian crossing of the Bar-Lev defence line that was established after the 1967 Israeli occupation of Sinai.

We find only seven documents dated 7-9-13-14 October, containing nothing new or important about this operation, which was carried out by water pumps that diluted 3 million cubic meters of sand and would be eventually celebrated as one of Anwar al-Sadat's greatest war-time achievements.

There is also nothing in the documents about the joint military command between Egypt and Syria, nor the minutes of a meeting between Sadat and his Syrian counterpart Hafez al-Assad.

We find an interesting document, however, from the Egyptian ambassador to Rabat, relaying a message to Sadat from Hasan II, the king of Morocco, offering to send 2,500 troops to fight with Egypt.

"They will be ready for combat," he said on the early morning of 9 October 1973. A similar offer was made by President Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia on the very same day, offering to send 1,000 troops to the battlefield with enough ammunition to last for 4-8 days.

He suggests asking for additional ammunition from Saudi Arabia and seeking Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's help to transport the troops to Egypt.  

The archives reveal Egypt's army was aware of a gap between its 2nd and 3rd regiments and had plans to overcome it.

Cunning strategy

Returning to the report by the commander of the Nasser Military Academy mentioned above, classified as "Top Secret," it calls for "strategic deception" and advises the Egyptian command to "exaggerate inter-Arab conflicts so as to suggest (to Israel) the difficulty of united Arab action against Israel at present."

This was one of Sadat's famed ploys, and he often used it before the war, amassing troops on the border and causing the Israelis to mobilise, then withdrawing without confrontation.

The military commander mentions specific cases to highlight internal Arab problems, like the border dispute between Kuwait and Iraq and other quarrels between the two Yemens, advising the Egyptian Ministry of Information to "shed light on internal problems" and put forth suggestions for reform that would take a long time to materialise.

Israeli archives

Months before the latest Egyptian release, Israel lifted secrecy over its own archives from the October War, making Syria the only one of the three participating nations to keep its documents under lock and key.

The Israeli archives showed that their government got an early warning from King Hussein of Jordan, delivered to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir on 25 September 1973.

Hussein spoke of "preparations" for a surprise attack, which was reported in the diary of Meir's secretary Elie Mezrahi.

Nothing in the Egyptian archives proves that, however, and if we were to compare between them and those of Egypt, we would find that King Hussein's warning – if true – came way too late, since war preparations had already been underway since January, under the nose of Israeli intelligence.

Eduardo Ramon

Read more: The October War relived through the memoirs of top Israeli officials

The Israeli papers show that another warning came their way, this time from Ashraf Marwan, the son-in-law of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who many believe worked secretly with Mossad, although his defenders claim was a double agent for Egyptian intelligence.

The Israelis took his warning at face value, unlike that of the king of Jordan, which was roughly ignored.

In total, the Israeli archives contain 400 million documents, being analysed and organised periodically by a team of 17 researchers, all affiliated with the Prime Minister's Office.

They have only released 30,000 documents to date, all in Hebrew, 3,500 of which cover events of the October War.

Their release came on the 50th anniversary of the war last October, and it contained 1,400 files, 1,000 photographs, and 750 audio recordings, which are completely missing from the Egyptian state archive.

We don't know if Egypt plans to release anything further in the foreseeable future, and until it does, we won't be able to compare its documents with those of the Israelis.

We would also have to wait for Syria to reveal its own documents before we can finally get a full picture of what really happened in the Middle East during the months of October 1973.

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