The Stand of the Centurions

In a few days it will be time to recall the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. But as Haaretz points out, the 40th anniversary of a far more monumental event -- at least for Israel -- came and went last month without being much remarked. More than 40 years ago in October Israel came within an ace of being destroyed by a brilliantly planned Syrian armored attack across the Golan heights.

A friend of mine, then a child, told me about the terror in his town as terrible rumors circulated that the Syrian tanks would be there by nightfall. And by rights they should have been. Yet what should have happened didn't. What occurred instead was something that occurs only in fiction but which on this occasion happened in fact. A little over 150 Centurion tanks (referred to as Shot by the IDF) and 4 batteries of M-109s had stopped more than ten times their number before they could reach the Jordan or the Sea of Galilee, as slated by the Syrian high command to occur within 36 hours of the jump off.

The Yom Kippur war in the Golan was the equivalent of Pearl Harbor and the Alamo rolled into one. In the days prior to the Yom Kippur War, the IDF committed every strategic mistake possible. They discounted the fighting power of the Egyptian and Syrian Army. They misinterpreted the deployment of virtually the entire Syrian army even as it uncoiled itself before the very eyes of its lightly defended observation post on Mount Hermon. They crucially underestimated the power of new Soviet AAA systems accompanying Arab forces. They did not understand how the tank infantry equation had been changed by the new wire-guided antitank missiles.

And they nearly paid for it with the life of Israel.

The Syrians and Egyptians, by contrast, proved what military historians often teach: that defeat instructs more than victory. Smarting from the humiliation of the Six Day War the Arabs purged their armies of many incompetents and, swallowing their pride, let the Russians plan the attack.  The result was a multi-echelon assault plan in the best STAVKA tradition unleashing almost 1,500 tanks and more than 1,000 artillery pieces on Israeli positions on the Golan.

According to the plan the Syrians would pin down the Israeli forces in the center and worm their way around the northern and southern flanks behind a classic Soviet storm of fire. They would open the assault with a heliborne assault by 500 Syrian airborne troops against the 40 men on Mount Hermon, blinding the IDF. Then under cover of a barrage, they would send division after division of tanks, never reckoning the cost, across an anti-tank ditch and crush the hated Jew.

It almost worked.

What in hindsight provided the margin against the Syrian plan were actions by the local IDF commanders, who exercising their discretion, reinforced the Golan to the extent possible without mobilization.  In other words, they played a hunch in disregard of official policy.

"On Rosh Hashana eve, the Israeli 7th Brigade was ordered to move one battalion to the Golan Heights to strengthen the Barak Armored Brigade, under the command of Yitzhak Ben Shoham. The brigade commander Avigdor Ben-Gal concluded that something would happen on Yom Kippur. He ordered his artillery troops to survey the area and prepare targets and firing tables. He held a meeting with his battalion commanders to go over the main points of the operational plans that were previously implemented in the Israeli Northern Command. Without notifying his superiors, he took them on a tour of the front line. By 12:00 on Yom Kippur, 6 October, the brigade was concentrated in the Nafakh area."

It was one of those inspired guesses that change the course of history. In this case it probably saved the life of Israel itself.

Nevertheless when the storm broke things went to pieces in a hurry. The Syrian artillery smothered any radio signal their funkers could find. The IDF commanders would no sooner stop and issue orders than shells would rain down on their heads. The Israeli air force, which had been counted on to stem any tide until armor could be brought up from depots, was blasted from the skies by SAMs, losing more than 50% of the aircraft they sortied over the Golan in the first hours.

And the Syrians were brave. IDF gunners watched, with a mixture of admiration and horror, as the Syrian tankers endured hit after hit as they attempted to place bridges across the anti-tank ditch. Finally sheer numbers prevailed and the Syrians swarmed across.

For Arab Honor For Arab Honor

Then night fell; covering the battlefield with a darkness which the Syrians -- equipped by the latest Soviet night vision systems -- could pierce and the Israelis could not. Now across the ditch and on the escarpment a terrible duel ensued between groups of tanks, with the Syrians heavily outnumbering their foes.

What happened next has been explained in terms of superiority of training, the advantage of interior lines and sheer luck.

Israeli units improvised. Like some living organism shattered units reconstituted themselves under neighboring commands. Officers commandeered whatever came up the road and improvised groups to stem the Syrian advance.

Training helped too. IDF tankers literally fired 3 times faster than their Syrian counterparts due to their proficient drill. The M109s somehow illuminated the battlefield in order to give the Centurions fitful glimpses of the Soviet-supplied armor crawling like beetles over the slope in which to target and hit them. The IDF fought with the desperation of men defending their families. Tanks moved back to alternate positions sometimes with only one round left and resupplied themselves by caches hidden earlier by truckers who ceaselessly labored up and down the roads. By a hundred expedients the Centurion tanks of the IDF inflicted casualties at rates of up to 25 to 1.

Yet it might not have been enough had fortune and America not taken a hand. The Syrian ground commander, Omar Abrash, a graduate of the US staff college, was killed while leading from the front just when Syrian victory seemed certain. The other commanders were less inclined to press forward. In particular the Syrian armored spearhead fatally paused their attack on the evening of October 7, not willing to believe there was nothing in front of them.

That halt provided time for the IDF to get two divisions into the fight. That halt allowed time for US aerial resupply to provide ECM packages that gave the Israeli Air Force back the skies.

By Oct 8, the IDF had stabilized the line. Oct 11 saw the start of the IDF counterattack. On Oct 13 the IDF had reached the outskirts of Damascus. The game was over; the army of Damascus destroyed. The Syrian Army had nearly won; gotten almost everything right and only one thing wrong.  Yet that mistake had cost them everything.

For the IDF victory was purchased at great price. It marked the end of confidence and the beginning of a terrible awareness of their dependence on American resupply. The Yom Kippur War cost Israel the equivalent of a single year's GDP. Nearly 800 IDF men died on the Golan alone, a huge number in so small a country. The Barak Brigade, the original defenders of the escarpment, were no more.

But the Syrian tanks, as my friend recalled, never came to their village that night nor on any other.

Haaretz argued that for 40 years the epic battle on the Golan has been forgotten history. Though a few books have been written on it,  no blockbuster Hollywood movies have been made about it; nor has it entered into legend as have Midway or June 6, 1944. What remains of that struggle today is the Golan itself, deceptively bucolic under the Mediterranean sky. The battlefield is now remembered as the Valley of Tears, after the countless Syrians who died on its slopes. The survivors, once young men, are now in their 60s and 70s.

For memory there is the relic of a single knocked-out Centurion tank standing guard still. You can see it in the upper left hand side of the photo below.


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