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The Yom Kippur War: Forty Years Later

by Phillip Cane – Former Junior Fellow
6th October 2013. Security and Defence, Issue 4, No. 2. 

Yom Kippur, October 6th 1973, at five minutes past two precisely, 4,000 artillery pieces, 250 aircraft and dozens of FROG missiles[1] struck Israeli positions along the Suez Canal and the Sinai, at the same time along the Golan Heights 1,400 tanks[2] advanced towards Israel. The equivalent of the total conventional forces of NATO in Europe[3], eleven Arab nations[4] led by Egypt and Syria had begun an advance into Israeli territory gained in the 1967 Six Day War. The largest Arab-Israeli War would end in an Israeli tactical victory[5], but for the first week the fate of Israel itself would be doubted, ‘most Israelis still refer to it as an earthquake that changed the course of the state’s history.’[6] The war changed the perceptions of all levels of society in the Middle East and forty years later its ripples are still felt to this day.

The Yom Kippur War fell on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, a Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) when the alertness of Israeli forces were notably reduced and only a skeleton force[7] would be on duty with radio and TV stations shut down hampering mobilisation[8]. This has led some writers such as Trevor Dupuy and Chaim Herzog to state that this was the primary motive for any such attack[9]. But it what is not often known is that October 6th is the tenth and holiest day of Ramadan[10], when the Prophet Mohammed conquered Mecca which resulted in all of Arabia being Arabic[11]. 1973 was the 1,350th anniversary of the victory of the Arabs in the Battle of Badr[12] and the connotations of Arabs liberating Arabia from oppressors was enough for General El Shazly to state ‘Operation Badr named itself’[13].

The Military Campaign

The war inflicted one of the greatest surprises in military history on the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) by using one of the most detailed deception plans ever created; the use of double agents, false articles in the international press and pretend manoeuvres, tapped into Israeli arrogance about their “superiority” following their 1967 victory, creating the necessary conditions to prevent any alarm in Tel Aviv[14]. The reasons behind the extraordinary military successes of Egypt and Syria from 6th-13th October ultimately lay in both Arab success and Israel failings. For the Arabs the long term planning and preparation of the Egyptian and Syrian war plans proved to be a key reason behind the initial success of the attacks. It is said that the Arabs learnt every tactical lesson learnt from the 1967 Six Day War and undertook rigorous training programmes and rearmament to fix those failings. Whilst following the 1967 Six Day War, Israel felt secure within its new borders, it had destroyed a superior multinational Arab attack, American support seemed assured, President Sadat’s Year of Decision had come and gone and Egypt had broken off the Friendship Treaty with the Soviet Union and expelled Soviet advisors. “The Concept” as it became known was therefore a result of this calm arrogance. “The Concept” was based on Israeli intelligence belief that Egypt and Syria would not attack until it had suitable air force strength to destroy the Israeli air force on the ground, this precondition would not be met until at least 1975[15]. It took immeasurable assumptions that the Arabs were incapable of joint political and military action[16], that intelligence would give at least 2 days warning of an Arab attack[17], the mobilisation of reserves would be completed and finally the air force would conduct a series of pre-emptive strikes on the Arab air forces whilst they languished on the ground[18]. The culmination of “The Concept” was a Maginot mentality that the expensive and lavish fortifications built along the Golan Heights and in the Canal Zone (the Bar Lev Line), would deter or delay any such provocations[19]. The 1973 war, however, failed to meet any of the preconditions; no advance knowledge, no time for mobilisation and no pre-emptive attack. As a result of the failure to meet any preconditions the Bar Lev Line was under manned, isolated and unable to hold their positions. General Dayan and the Intelligence Department became captives of a preconceived concept in the months leading up to the war.

About Philip Cane

Philip Cane is a former junior Fellow.