Six-Day War 50th Anniversary: Middle-East Blitzkrieg [Part One]

June 8, 2017 by oriskany

Greetings, Beasts of War. Today we’re starting a new commemorative article series marking the 50th Anniversary of another of the 20th Century’s great conflicts: The Six-Day War in June 1967.

The Six-Day War is commonly accepted as the third in a series of conflicts called the “Arab-Israeli Wars” – fought between 1948 and 2006. The nation of Israel, threatened by her neighbours, launched a startling pre-emptive strike against the armed forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, and won a dazzling victory that amazed the world.

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As part of this series, we’ll be recreating some of the war’s biggest battles with “The Arab-Israeli Wars,” a “scaled tactical” hex-and-counter wargame published by Avalon Hill. This may be a different kind of wargame than many are used to, but only by using this kind of scale can the true dimensions of the 1967 battlefield become apparent.

Background

Although there had been simmering conflict between local peoples for decades, the Arab-Israeli conflict became a dispute between nations when the state of Israel was founded in Palestine in 1948. The Palestinians did not accept the UN-sanctioned partition of the land, and Israel was invaded by the armies of five neighbouring Arab states.

Somehow, Israel survived that war and won her independence. Another war broke out in 1956 when the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. Israel was drawn into a conflict between Egypt, France, and the UK, and wound up winning another war against the armies of Egypt in the Sinai Desert in just four days.

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Now it was 1967. Nasser was ready to avenge his 1956 humiliation, as well as position himself as the leader of a collation of Arab states. In short, it was time to pick another fight with Israel.

The Six-Day War is probably the most famous of the Arab-Israeli Wars, a status which … in all honesty … it doesn’t really deserve. It wasn’t the largest or bloodiest of the Arab-Israeli conflicts, nor the most far-reaching or bitterly fought. It didn’t lead to peace, it didn’t make Israel safer, nor was Israel ever fighting for its survival.

But the Six-Day War was probably the flashiest, and in the unfortunate arena that constitutes “cultural” history, flash is what counts. People remember little more than a tiny army of citizen-soldiers trouncing armies three times their size, bravely staving off extinction through sheer élan.

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While such a view is laughably simplistic, the Six-Day War admittedly showed the world just how far warfare had come since 1945, stunning the globe with its sheer speed and horrific violence. Furthermore, this lightning bolt campaign came in a decade where slow, grinding, unpopular wars like Algeria and Vietnam were more the norm.

Observers in the US, the West, and USSR also watched with particular interest as their respective military equipment and doctrines were pitted against each other. Such equipment included not only tanks but also air superiority fighters, air defence networks, strike aircraft, new types of mechanised infantry, and other elements.

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Perhaps most ominously, those six days in June showed what happened when one side had prepared for a sequel to World War II … while the other unleashed a prequel for World War III.

Origins Of The Six Day War

Put most basically, the Six-Day War was an explosion waiting to happen. After the defeats in 1948 and 1956, the Egyptians were nowhere near ready to make peace with Israel. For political reasons, the Egyptian President Nasser would be unable to back down from his anti-Israeli posture even if he wanted to.

By the mid-sixties, hints that Israel could be developing an atomic bomb further prompted Nasser to promise a “preventative war” to ensure that Israel never attained such a capability. The Egyptians moved more forces into the Sinai and reached out to Jordan and Syria about the possibility of another all-out assault on Israel.

Egyptian warplanes overflew the Israeli city of Dimona, and Nasser demanded that UN peacekeepers be withdrawn from the Sinai. Nasser then put his own troops back in the Sinai, blocking the Straits of Tiran and Gulf of Aqaba, thus sealing off Israel’s only maritime access to Asia, Africa, and the Pacific.

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Debate simmers to this day over whether Nasser really meant to “invade” Israel. In a word, almost certainly not. True, he and his Arab allies mobilised powerful forces along Israel’s borders. But the Egyptians paraded their new forces into the Sinai on Israel’s Day of Independence, making as much fanfare as possible.

Clearly, this was political sabre-rattling, not a calculated military move aimed at achieving battlefield surprise. When the Egyptian forces reached the border, they fortified themselves in depth and deployed armoured reserves far behind the lines. These are defensive deployments, and not how one sets up an army with orders to attack.

Also, there were 60,000 Egyptian soldiers fighting in support of a socialist revolution in Yemen, so Nasser didn’t have a big part of his army available. Is then when you plan an invasion against an enemy that’s already defeated your army … twice?

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As far as Nasser’s demands to withdraw UN peacekeepers from the Sinai, this seems like more posturing. John Hadden, CIA station chief at the American embassy in Tel Aviv at the time, characterised Nasser like an aggressive little boy being held back by his father, yelling “let me at him, let me at him!” Then the father suddenly lets go …

In any event, Israel could afford to take no chances. So badly outnumbered and with Egyptian aircraft already flying over their cities, they weren’t about to wait until Egyptian spearheads had struck across their border and into the Negev Desert before making the decision to go to war.

Remember that the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) was built entirely on a “citizen-soldier” model of mobilised reserves. When the call goes out, virtually the whole country reports to mobilisation centres for active service. The problem is, the whole country (and its economy) shuts down. Israel cannot fight long wars or wait for a war to start.

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This means Israel can only expect to win a war (especially against such massive numerical superiority) when it either chooses WHEN the war will start, or at least knows the EXACT moment. For the Israelis, there was only one way to guarantee this … to strike first.

The odds, however, were daunting. To the south-west, the Israelis faced a huge Egyptian army massed in the Sinai Desert. To the east, they faced the advanced Royal Jordanian Army and Air Force in the West Bank and Jerusalem. To the northeast, they faced the Syrian Army along the high ground of the imposing Golan Heights.

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The Israelis would get only one shot at this. They had to hit first, hit hard, and hope to hell their vastly larger enemies didn’t survive the blow. Thus the stage was set for one of the most decisive pre-emptive strikes in modern history.

The Storm Breaks

The Six-Day War started on Monday, June 5, 1967. Contrary to what many think, Israel did not actually attack all three enemies at once. To a large extent, they were able to focus their forces and attack each enemy in turn, which of course played a big part in their eventual success. The first enemy to be hit was the biggest: the Egyptians.

On June 5, 1967, the Israeli Air Force basically annihilated the Egyptian Air Force within hours, mostly still on the ground. Just hours after that, a full-scale invasion built around three “ugda” (roughly, a reinforced armoured division), smashed into the Sinai with orders to push all the way to the Suez Canal.

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Israeli intelligence for this strike was painstakingly detailed, down to the time most enemy air units would be finishing “dawn patrols” and starting the morning shift. Months of training and briefings had ensured that Israeli pilots knew every inch of their targets. Ground crews were drilled to turn aircraft around in just seven minutes.

The effect was devastating. In just a few hours, the IAF (Israeli Air Force) annihilated something like 85% of the combined air forces of Egypt and Syria (Jordan’s air force would be attacked later in the day when she entered the war – a move initially unexpected by Israeli planners).

The surprise was total. The first strikes included special ordinance designed to wreck the actual runways so enemy aircraft on the ground couldn’t take off.

The handful of Arab aircraft that managed to get into the sky (now terribly outnumbered) were swept away by Israeli fighters already waiting for them. By the end of the first day, Israel owned the sky, and strike sorties were turned toward enemy air defence, command and control, and ground forces support assets.

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We hope you’ve enjoyed this first look into the Six-Day War. We hope you’ll join us next week when we return to a look at the major ground actions between the Egyptians and Israelis in the Sinai, and some more detailed battle reports from Avalon Hill’s “The Arab-Israeli Wars” command tactical wargame.

Part Three will shift focus to the battles against Jordan on the West Bank and in Old Jerusalem, along with a look at the fighting between the Israelis and the Syrians along the Golan Heights. Finally, we’ll look at the legacy of the Six-Day War, its importance, and how it led inevitably to the biggest Arab-Israeli war of all, the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

In the meantime, we hope you’ll add to the conversation by adding comments or questions below. These Arab-Israeli Wars are a topic that doesn’t get a lot of attention in historical gaming, outside of Battlefront’s “Fate of a Nation” and a few other supplements. Let’s start fixing that, and keep the conversation going!

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"It wasn’t the largest or bloodiest of the Arab-Israeli conflicts, nor the most far-reaching or bitterly fought. It didn’t lead to peace, it didn’t make Israel safer, nor was Israel ever fighting for its survival..."

"We hope you’ll join us next week when we return to a look at the major ground actions between the Egyptians and Israelis in the Sinai..."