June 14, 2017 by oriskany
Good morning, Beasts of War. Today we continue our 50th Anniversary series on the Six-Day War, where Israel won a lightning victory against the larger military forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. It’s been fifty years since this incredible week in June, 1967…the ramifications of which still echo through the Middle East to this day.
In Part One of this series, we took a very brief look at the history of the Arab-Israeli Wars up to this point, and looked at the causes of the Six-Day War. We also saw the war’s explosive opening, where the IAF (Israeli Air Force) tore the heart out of its enemies’ air power before anyone even realised a war had started.
But while the air war was practically over, the war on the ground was just getting started.
The Sinai Front
Of all Israel’s enemies during the first thirty years of her existence, Egypt was definitely the most powerful. In 1948, 1956, 1967, and especially 1973, other Arab nations wouldn’t seriously consider going to war with Israel unless Egypt led the effort. So for the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel would have to deal with Egypt first.
The battlefield would be in the Sinai Peninsula, a rough triangle of mountainous Egyptian desert between the Suez Canal in the west and the Israeli border to the east, about 240 miles north to south, and 120 miles east to west. The Six-Day War would also see fighting in the Gaza Strip, where Egypt meets Israel along the Mediterranean coast.
For wargaming on “accurate” Sinai terrain, the battlefield offers a variety of choices. The north is “classic” sandy desert, with coastal roads and rail line not unlike El Alamein of World War II fame. The centre is rugged and rocky, where roads and passes are more vital. The south is very mountainous, and all but impassable to armies in 1967.
For all their sabre-rattling in weeks leading up to war, the Egyptian Army in the Sinai had clearly deployed in a defensive military posture. Four Egyptian infantry divisions stood in very strongly-fortified positions along the Israeli-Sinai border, with a Palestinian infantry division ready in the densely-populated towns of the Gaza Strip.
Behind this screen of infantry stood two large Egyptian armoured divisions, made up almost entirely of Soviet World War II tanks and assault guns, plus large brigades of newer T-55 main battle tanks. Against this force, the Israelis were about to throw three “ugda” – roughly speaking, reinforced armoured divisions.
The Israeli plan was to hit the Egyptians in the wake of the IAF’s lightning air strikes of June 5th, and ensure the Egyptian Army posed no further threat to the Israeli border. While the Egyptians enjoyed the advantages of fortifications and numbers, the Israelis held the element of surprise and complete control of the air.
One of the first blows of the Israeli assault came at the towns of Rafah and Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli objectives here were to split the Gaza off from the Sinai, dividing Egyptian army from the Palestinian 20th Division stationed in Gaza, and open the coastal road toward El-Arish and the Suez Canal beyond.
The Egyptian position, held by the 7th Infantry Division (Maj. General Soliman), backed up by a brigade of about 100 tanks, was heavily defended by thick minefields and extensive field fortifications. The Israelis, however, decided against a frontal attack, and would hit Rafah from two unexpected directions at 08:00 hours on June 5th.
In overall Israeli command of this battle was Major General Israel Tal, his armoured division reinforced by infantry and paratroopers. Considered Israel’s foremost tank commander, Tal fought with the British in World War II, wrote the book on Israeli armoured doctrine, and would design the “Merkava” (Chariot) main battle tank.
For his attack on Rafah, Tal would not engage the well-prepared Egyptian defences. Instead, part of his force struck northward at Khan Yunis, splitting off 7th Egyptian from the 20th Palestinian Divisions. Pivoting left, he pushed southwest into the Egyptian flank at Rafah, hitting them from what had been “friendly” territory only hours before.
This started a major tank battle between the elite Israeli 7th Armoured Brigade and the Egyptian 14th Tank Brigade (part of 7th Infantry Division). There were also Soviet-built “Stalin” tanks with 1st Heavy Tank Battalion, inflicting plenty of kills on Israeli M48 Pattons, French-built AMX-13 light tanks, and upgrades of British-made Centurions.
The Israelis won the battle, at heavy cost. General Tal also had infantry behind the Egyptians by this point, which had flanked the opposite Egyptian wing (to the southwest) through a stretch of desert thought impassable, and thus not mined. By the end of the day the Egyptians were cut off and destroyed, opening the coast road toward El-Arish.
While Tal’s division hammered their way westward down the coastal road, in the central Sinai another division was tasked with engaging and destroying Egyptian defences around Abu Agheila. This would spark what historian Chaim Herzog would call “probably the most complicated series of battles in the history of the Arab-Israeli Wars.”
This Israeli division making this assault was commanded by Maj. General Ariel Sharon. Capable, vainglorious, aggressive, controversial, and “casual” in his regard to the chain of command, he’s often been called “Israel’s Patton.” He’d prove it at Abu Agheila.
Sharon’s division engaged forward elements of the Egyptian 2nd infantry Division (Maj. General Sadi Naguib) at Tarat Um-Basis on June 5th, but it wasn’t until June 6th that he really tangled with the defences at Abu Agheila and Umm Qatef with a brigade of “Super Shermans” and a battalion “Sho’t” Centurions, backed up by infantry and artillery.
The Egyptians were deeply dug-in behind thick minefields and solid field fortifications. But while the Super Shermans and infantry (mounted in WWII M3 halftracks) hit the Egyptians from the front (after a night of 155mm artillery bombardment), the Centurions of Colonel “Natke” Nir’s 226th Tank Battalion flanked the enemy from the north.
Fighting was ferocious, despite outdated Egyptian armour like Soviet T-34/85s tanks and SU-100 assault guns. What historians and wargamers should remember about the Egyptian Army is that while their tank and air forces rarely measure up well against the Israelis, their infantry and artillery are superb. Fear Egyptians when they’re on defence.
Still, Sharon was able to pry his way through this resistance, with additional flanking forces and a paratrooper force (deployed via helicopter) behind the Egyptian position. Combined with the successes of Tal’s Division in the north, the Israelis now owned most of the roads that spread westward across the Sinai toward the Suez Canal.
Westward To The Canal
With Tal’s division pushing westward along the El Arish road and Sharon’s Division doing likewise at Abu Agheila, a third Israeli division was committed between them, commanded by Maj. General Avraham Yoffe. Their mission was to prevent the Egyptians in these two battles from supporting each other, and block any new reinforcements.
Sure enough, the Egyptians responded to the Israeli invasion with tank reserves, including the spearhead of the 4th Armoured Division (2nd Tank Brigade and 18th Mechanized Brigade). Yoffe ambushed them with the Centurions of 4th Battalion / 520th Armoured Brigade, sparking a furious night tank battle at the Bir Lahfan crossroads (June 6th-7th).
Confused and surprised, the Egyptians pulled back until sunrise, then renewed their push on the morning on June 7th. By now, however, the IAF had completed its destruction of Egyptian Air Force and communications infrastructure, and now roamed the battlefield hitting Egyptian troop concentrations and columns of T-54/T-55 tanks.
The destruction of this Egyptian armoured counteroffensive seemed to mark the beginning of a general collapse. Local resistance remained fierce, such as at Jiradi Pass, where the Israelis tried to outflank Egyptian defences at El Arish. Centurions and M48A2 Pattons had a hard fight against Egyptian infantry, T-54s, Stalin 3s, and SU-100s.
While the Israelis were clearly winning the battles in the Sinai so far, the fighting had been hard and the Egyptians hadn’t yet degraded into rout. With the loss of these roads, however, plus the interdiction of lines of supply and communication by the Israeli Air Force, the massive Egyptian Army now began to rapidly fall apart.
Things got worse when Egyptian Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer suffered a nervous breakdown. Confusing orders were given for some units to stand fast, but most to retreat. Even in this, however, it was already too late. Israeli tanks and helicopter paratroopers had already cut many of the roads, and the IAF was bombing all the others.
Even now, however, hard fighting remained. Israeli forces that had cut roads and passes now faced fanatical attack by Egyptian units trying to escape back toward the Suez. As the Israeli spearheads rushed across the Sinai toward the Suez Canal, there was hard Egyptian resistance at mountain passes like Big Gifgafa and Mitla Pass.
Meanwhile, smaller Israeli forces made swinging attacks around the far south of the Sinai, with assaults at Kuntilla and Nakhl, naval forces clearing the choke-point at the Straits of Tiran (one of the factors that helped provoke the war), and an airborne units landing at Sharm-el-Sheikh, at the far southern tip of the Sinai.
But even in the face of complete collapse, Egyptian forces still kept up stubborn resistance at certain points. One of the last battles took place near Ismailia, right next to the Suez Canal, where the Centurions and M48A2 Pattons of the Israeli 7th Armoured Brigade again ran into T-55s of 2nd Tank Brigade / 4th Egyptian Armoured Division.
As with Napoleon in Russia, however, the Egyptian Army in the Sinai was largely destroyed not in battle, but retreat. With no control of the roads and skies, isolated Egyptian units were forced to simply “walk” back to the Suez, 120 miles across one of the bleakest deserts on earth, in June. Needless to say, the cruelty of thirst would kill thousands.
Wargaming The Sinai
The Sinai was definitely the biggest part of the Six-Day War, and any wargame that hopes to represent this campaign has to keep a few fundamentals in mind. For instance, while Israeli tanks weren’t that much better than Egyptian tanks mechanically or technically, the critical difference came in crew training and commander skill.
Also, the war on the Sinai only lasted four days, and the IAF was busy during most of the first two days, when the biggest battles were fought. So don’t fill the skies in Israeli Mirage fighter-bombers. And don’t underestimate the tenacity or effectiveness of Egyptian infantry, mines, fortifications, and artillery, and any Israeli veteran will tell you.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this second part of our 50th Anniversary series on the Six-Day War. Come back next week when we turn to look at Israel’s efforts against Jordan and the capture of Jerusalem, the war against Syria along the Golan Heights, and the lingering effects and importance of the Six Day War in the years and decades that followed.
For now, we hope you’ll keep the conversation going in the thread below. Questions and comments are more than appreciated. Better yet, have you tried any Arab-Israeli wargaming yourself, perhaps with Battlefront’s “Fate of a Nation?” Tell us about your experiences and insights!
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"What historians and wargamers should remember about the Egyptian Army is that while their tank and air forces rarely measure up well against the Israelis, their infantry and artillery are superb. Fear Egyptians when they’re on defence..."
"As with Napoleon in Russia, however, the Egyptian Army in the Sinai was largely destroyed not in battle, but retreat..."