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

June 21, 2017 by oriskany

Good afternoon, Beasts of War. Today we’re closing out our three-part article series commemorating the Six-Day War. Fought in June 1967, this war saw the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) engage and soundly defeat the forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in one of the most stunning campaigns in recent military history.

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If you’re just joining us, please check out our previous parts. In Part One we briefly reviewed the Arab-Israeli Wars up to 1967, looked at the roots of the Six-Day War, and discussed the initial Israeli air strikes that set the war in motion. In Part Two we looked at the war’s largest battles, fought between Israel and Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula.

But there’s plenty more to cover, with fighting still to come between Israel and Jordan in the West Bank and Old Jerusalem…and between Israeli and Syria in the fateful Golan Heights overlooking the biblical lands of Galilee.

War In The West

Israel vs. Jordan (June 5th-7th)

Israel had planned exhaustively for war with Egypt and Syria, but the entry of Jordan into the war came as a bit of a surprise. Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol contacted Jordan’s King Hussein before the shooting started and promised that if Jordan stayed out of the conflict, Israeli would respect her neutrality.

Unfortunately, Jordan had been pushed into joining the conflict by Egypt and Syria. Although more advanced than the Egyptian or Syrian armies, the Royal Jordanian Army and Air Force were far smaller and nowhere near prepared for a showdown with Israel. Egypt also lied about how the war was going so far, claiming huge wins over Israel.

Thus, about three hours after the Israeli Air Force (IAF) had struck targets in Egypt (June 5th, 1967), Jordanian artillery opened fire into Israel from positions in the West Bank. Israel responded with air strikes into Jordan, wiping out their air force much as they’d done to Egypt and Syria earlier that morning. Then the ground war started in earnest.

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Israeli objectives for the war with Jordan were two-fold: take the entirety of the city of Jerusalem (the city had been partitioned between Israel and Jordan since 1948), and take all of the West Bank (Jordanian land extending beyond Jerusalem to the “west bank” of the Jordan River).

The Battle for Jerusalem in 1967 began where the War of 1948 left off. Israeli mechanised units and tanks advanced north of the city, Colonel Asher Dar’s “Jerusalem Brigade” advanced south of the city, and paratroopers in halftracks pushed into the city itself. The objective was to cut the city off from the Jordanian Army in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, a larger campaign had started with Israeli spearheads striking deeper into the West Bank. Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Jericho all saw action, but the biggest battle was in the north at Jenin. Here, Israeli tanks of Peled’s Division ran into Jordanian infantry and tanks of the 25th Brigade.

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For a time, the Battle of Jenin looked as if it might end in stalemate, with a Jordanian armoured brigade coming up to reinforce the brave 25th. But IAF strikes mauled the approaching Jordanian tanks (ironically, the same M48A2s the Israelis were using). Left on their own, the Jordanians at Jenin were soon bypassed, encircled, and defeated.

Meanwhile, fierce fighting raged through Jerusalem and its surrounding suburbs. Despite being cut off, troops of the Jordanian 27th Brigade (Brigadier-General Ata Ali) and other units put up fierce resistance at places like the Latrun Road, Ammunition Hill, Mount Scopus, the UN Compound, and the streets leading to the Temple Mount.

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But the Israelis were not to be stopped. With upgraded Sherman tanks in the streets alongside infantry of the elite 55th Parachute Brigade, they soon cleared resistance and reached the Western Wall. This wall holds immense symbolic importance to the Jewish people, last remaining fragment of the Second Temple, destroyed in 70 A.D.

War In The North

Israel vs. Syria (June 9th-10th)

The last part of the war came in the north, where the Israelis faced the Syrian Army. The Syrians were dug in along the Golan Heights, a tall plateau of volcanic rock running north to south, almost forming an immense topographical “wall” ten to fifteen miles wide between Syria and Israel.

Between these two hostile states, possession of this “wall” is critical. Whoever has it commands the high ground for any potential battlefield between the two nations, and can see deep into the enemy’s territory. For years Syrians had used this advantage to shell Israeli settlements in Galilee with artillery and rocket fire.

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Possession of the Golan provides further leverage in the form of water. It’s relatively green and moist up there, at least compared to the surrounding deserts. Whoever owns the Golan commands irrigation for agriculture for miles on both sides of the border, another advantage the Syrians used against their Israeli foes.

In many ways, Syria didn’t want the Six Day War. They’d only gotten involved when Soviet intel falsely reported that Israel was preparing to invade Syria. This was exposed as a blatant “false flag” operation designed to strengthen Syrian dependence on Moscow, yet even when this ruse was exposed, it was too late. War was already inevitable.

When the fighting started, Syria tried to make a show of being involved without becoming too heavily engaged. They tried bombing some Israeli targets, the IAF wiped out their air force. After that, they shelled some Israeli positions, but while the Egyptians and Jordanians were heavily engaged and defeated, the Syrians largely did nothing.

The Israelis took the war to Syria, however, starting on June 9. Starting at the extreme northern tip of the Golan, a brigade of tanks under Colonel Mandler and the crack “Golani” infantry brigade took heavily fortified Syrians only after a desperate and blood-soaked flanking attack in which both Syrians and Israelis showed incredible bravery.

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Two more Israeli infantry brigades supported this offensive’s southern shoulder, pushing across the Jordan River, hooking northeast, and linking up with the bloodied Israelis coming down from the north. Together they drove on Quneitra, largest town on the Golan and astride the highway leading straight to Damascus, the capital of Syria.

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By June 10th, the last day of the war, Israeli forces that had helped win the West Bank had been shifted to the Golan and were hitting the Syrians from the south. Tanks of General Peled’s division leap-frogged over helicopter paratroopers and soon took Rafid, overlooking inner Syria, before the UN cease-fire took effect at 18:30 hours.

Assessment

Needless to say, the 1967 Six-Day War was a stunning military success for Israel. But how did such a one-sided war happen?

First off, on a strategic level, Israel was able to win because she struck first with a dazzling blow, then scored lightning victories against her opponents before they could recover and coordinate. If Egypt, Syria, and Jordan had all been able to fight Israel at once, the outcome would’ve been very different.

Tactically, Israeli training was far superior. Whereas Syrian and Egyptian armies had invested in numbers and considered sheer size as a strength, Israel (with fewer resources to call upon) concentrated on making the most out of the soldiers, tanks, and aircraft they had. Hardened, all-or-nothing motivation also proved a key edge for the Israelis.

Israel’s victory in 1967 would have far-reaching, if often unintended, consequences. Most immediately, Israeli was safe for the time being. Not only had the militaries of her enemies been crippled, but Israel had won strategic depth in the Sinai, West Bank, and Golan Heights, “buffer” ground that could be traded for time in future wars.

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But the newly-occupied territories also presented new problems. For one, a Palestinian resistance movement was quick to ignite in conquered territories like Gaza and the West Bank, which causes immense problems to this day. Displaced Palestinians in Jordan would also cause problems, including a brief war between Jordan and Syria in 1970.

The uncertain peace that followed the Six-Day War would also see the governments of Syria and especially Egypt seethed for revenge. From 1967-1970 simmered the “War of Attrition,” a low-intensity state of constant skirmish that saw the Suez Canal become (for a time) the most heavily fortified line on Earth.

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But most of all, the Six-Day War “taught” the IDF that they were vastly superior to their “feeble” Arab opponents. Yet as Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “war makes the victor stupid.” The Egyptians, in particular, would rebuild their army along totally new lines, and return in 1973 to greatly redeem themselves against the IDF in the Yom Kippur War.

Wargaming Notes

So what features and elements should a wargame include in order to recreate some of the conditions found in the Six-Day War?

The opposing armies must have dramatically different feels. The Israelis are light, fast, well-trained, and small in number. You can’t make a mistake with them, their units should be fragile and expensive. Egyptians and Syrians, on the other hand, should have big numbers, low point costs, but be hard to handle in mobile or offensive operations.

Yet just as the Israelis are great in attack, the Syrians and especially the Egyptians should be rocks in defence. Arab artillery and infantry should be weapons to be truly feared, and always be liberal with mines, blocks, fortifications, and improved positions. These armies could dig in and entrench like few others in modern warfare.

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Finally, games should have asymmetrical victory conditions. Let’s face it, in any historically-accurate Six-Day War game, the Israelis are almost certain to win. The trick is to make their victory requirements very tough so even an unfair BATTLE can become a fair GAME that is enjoyable and challenging for both players.

In at least a few regards, the Arab-Israeli Wars are perfect for wargames. Compared to World Wars, these fights are small and short, and thus more manageable. They also use a great deal of World War II or Cold War equipment players may already have, making it easy to convert armies to explore a new area of history.

Another bonus is the victory conditions. In games from other wars, these can feel a little “gamey” … take a certain bridge by turn eight because that’s when the game ends no matter what, that kind of thing. Believe it or not, these factors sometimes fit perfectly in an Arab-Israeli War context.

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Historically, the instant the first shot was fired in these wars, people were on the phone to Washington, Moscow, and the UN to end them. Both sides thus want to take or defend whatever they could, knowing the war could suddenly end “out of nowhere,” and these objectives would make important bargaining chips in the post-war talks.

Give It A Go Yourself

That wraps up our 50th Anniversary article series on the Six-Day War. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them, and just maybe picked up a little extra knowledge or gaming inspiration. As always, I’d like to thank @brennon and @lancorz for helping me publish material on the Beasts of War site, and always make my material look so great.

Most of all, of course, I’d like to thank all of you, all the Beasts of War community members who have taken the time to plough headlong through the verbose ramblings of a would-be historian and inveterate madman. Your patience and curiosity, and the tireless support of @warzan have meant worlds to me.

So I hope you’ll take just one moment more and drop a comment below. Best of all, if you’ve tried a wargame set in the Arab-Israeli Wars (Avalon Hill’s classic, Avalanche Press’ Sword of Israel, IDF, Fate of a Nation by Battlefront, Flashpoint: Golan, Yom Kippur, Crisis: Sinai 1973, Jerusalem 1948, etc.), tell us about your wargaming experience!

If you would like to write an article for Beasts of War then please contact us at ben@beastsofwar.com for more information!

"In many ways, Syria didn’t want the Six Day War. They’d only gotten involved when Soviet intel falsely reported that Israel was preparing to invade Syria..."

"So what features and elements should a wargame include in order to recreate some of the conditions found in the Six-Day War?"