The Six-Day War involved three distinct battlefronts, tied together by a shared desire on the part of the surrounding Arab states to eliminate Israel and erase the shame of the.aspir defeat 19 years earlier when they failed to destroy the nascent Jewish state.
Egypt, the largest Arab state with a population of 31 million, massed troops on its border with Israel and imposed a naval blockade of Israel’s southern port, an act of war. Confronted with these aggressive moves, and the Arab leaders’ promises to destroy the Jewish state, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike against the Egyptian army and airforce. Egypt’s air force was quickly crippled, and a well-executed Israeli ground offensive routed the Egyptian forces in Gaza and the Sinai peninsula in four days.
Buoyed by false reports of Egyptian success, Jordan initiated offensive actions against Israel from the eastern portion of Jerusalem and from lands it occupied west of the Jordan river (the West Bank). Israeli forces responded by attacking Jordanian military positions. After a three days of fierce fighting, especially in and around Jerusalem, Israeli forces defeated the Jordanians and gained control of all of Jerusalem as well as the West Bank, the historical heartland of the Jewish people known to Israelis as Judea and Samaria.
Following an air attack by the Syrians on the first day of the war, Israel dealt a shattering blow to the Syrian air force. Hostilites continued in the days that followed, and on fifth day of the war, the Israelis mustered enough forces to remove the Syrian threat from the Golan Heights. This difficult operation was completed the following day, bringing the active phase of the war to a close.
The first full-scale battles of the Six Day War came on the morning of June 5, 1967 after a roughly 20 day period of increasing tensions between Israel and the Arab states, principally Egypt, Syria and Jordan. But while the battles commenced in June, the start of the war actually came two weeks earlier on May 22, when Egypt blockaded Israel’s southern port of Eilat and the Gulf of Aqaba. Through the gulf came vital cargo including 80 percent of Israel’s oil imports, and blockading such an international waterway is recognized under international law as a casus belli, or act of war. Reacting to the Egyptian move, U.S. President Johnson said in a televised address the next day:
… the closing of the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping has brought a new and grave dimension to the crisis. The United States considers the gulf to be an international waterway and feels that a blockade of Israeli shipping is illegal and potentially disastrous to the cause of peace. The right of free, innocent passage of the international waterway is a vital interest of the international community. (New York Times, May 24, 1967)
Despite the grave provocation, Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban spent almost two weeks traveling to the capitals of Europe and to Washington in an ultimately futile effort to defuse the crisis and avoid war, but in the end Egypt and its allies had made war inevitable. This was recognized first and foremost by the Egyptians themselves. President Nasser, for example, in a speech on May 26, 1967 said:
Recently we felt we are strong enough, that if we were to enter a battle with Israel, with God’s help, we could triumph. On this basis, we decided to take actual steps …
Taking Sharm al Shaykh [i.e., blockading Israel’s port of Eilat] meant confrontation with Israel. Taking such action also meant that we were ready to enter a general war with Israel. (Speech to Arab Trade Unionists, reprinted in The Israel-Arab Reader, 1984, p. 176; emphasis added.)
On the same day Mohammed Heikal, Nasser’s closest confidante and the leading journalist in the Arab world, wrote in the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram:
This week the closure of the Gulf of Aqaba to Israel was an alternative accomplished fact imposed and now being protected by the force of Arab arms. To Israel this is the most dangerous aspect of the current situation … Therefore it is not a matter of the Gulf of Aqaba but of something bigger. It is the whole philosophy of Israeli security. It is the philosophy on which Israeli existence has pivoted since its birth and on which it will pivot in the future.
Hence I say that Israel must resort to arms. Therefore I say that an armed clash between the UAR and the Israeli enemy is inevitable. (Reprinted in The Israel-Arab Reader, p 181; emphasis added; UAR, or United Arab Republic, was another name for Egypt.)
From the Israeli point of view, as June approached Egypt had already committed one act of war in blockading the Gulf of Aqaba, which diplomacy had failed to reverse. Meanwhile Egypt, Jordan and Syria, acting in concert, were mobilizing forces on Israel’s borders, and large Iraqi forces were moving into place, along with contingents from other Arab countries. Because of its small population, Israel’s combat strength depended on civilian reservists, and with full mobilization (and oil imports largely blocked) the country’s economy faced collapse. As Nasser and Heikal correctly observed, in such a situation Israel either had to surrender or attack. On the morning of June 5, Israel attacked.
Egypt and Israel: The Balance of Forces on the Eve of War
The Egyptian forces in Sinai just prior to the outbreak of hostilities included seven divisions, totaling almost 100,000 troops, and 1000 tanks along with abundant artillery. They were deployed in three coordinated lines, offering both offensive and defensive options, but Soviet doctrine, which Egypt followed, suggested a strategy of allowing Israel to attack the strongly-held Egyptian positions, and once the attack was blunted and the attackers bloodied, to swing onto the offensive. Such tactics were used with great success in the famous WWII Battle of the Kursk Salient, in which the Red Army enveloped and decisively defeated attacking Nazi forces totaling some 800,000 troops, and then immediately launched an offensive against their German foes.
The first Egyptian line was manned by the Second, Sixth and Seventh Divisions in Sinai, covering each of the three possible routes through the desert between the Suez Canal and the Israeli border, while the Palestinian Division covered the northern Gaza Strip. All were motorized infantry divisions with ample armor and artillery.
Behind this first line was a second, at varying distances of thirty to sixty miles from the Israeli border, which was held by the Egyptian Third Division and a Special Task Force led by General Sa’ad al Din Shazli, a favorite of Nasser. Again following Soviet doctrine, these divisions had a dual role – both to contain any Israeli penetration of the first line, and to swing onto the offensive when the opportunity arose. Both divisions were a mix of motorized infantry brigades and armored brigades, thus combining speed and mobility with firepower.
The third line was roughly midway between Israel and the Suez Canal, near Bir Gifgafa and Bir Thamada, and was manned by the highly-regarded Fourth Armored Division and a motorized infantry brigade. Thus deployed these forces were able to defend the large Egyptian air base at Bir Gifgafa, and to hold the key Mitla and Gidi mountain passes over which passed the vital central and southern roads through the desert. As well, the armored division could come forward to attack any Israeli forces that penetrated the first two lines, and could take part in the planned offensive as well.
Facing these Egyptian forces, and the strong likelihood of war on three fronts, the Israelis could marshal only 45,000 men and 650 tanks. (Israel: The Embattled Ally, Nadav Safran, p 242-3) Three Israeli divisions led the way, known by the names of their commanders, Tal for Major General Israel Tal, Sharon for Major General Ariel Sharon, and Yoffe for (reserves) Major General Avraham Yoffe. In addition, in the south opposite Kuntilla was a independent brigade led by Col. Albert Mandler.
With no strategic depth Israel needed to immediately take any battle into enemy territory, and therefore concentrated their task forces on three narrow axes. However, by shuffling their forces around, and employing ruses, such as deploying wooden tanks to create a fake division, the Israelis fooled the Egyptians into believing that the main Israeli attack, as in the 1956 War, would be in the southern sector.
7:45 AM, June 5, 1967: The Israeli Air Attack
While Egypt, and most foreign military observers, expected Israel to attack, no one expected Israel to attack in the way that it did. In most air forces a substantial percentage of planes at any time are down for maintenance; taking that into account, plus planes Israel would have to hold back for air defense, the Egyptians expected that much less than half of Israel’s jets could take part in an anticipated attack against Egypt’s airbases.
But in fact at the start of the fighting 90 percent of Israel’s planes were operational, and only twelve fighters were held back for air defense. All the rest, including jet trainers retrofitted for combat, were thrown into the initial attacks against the Egyptian air force. Flying low through previously discovered gaps in the Egyptian radar net, and approaching from unexpected directions, mostly from the west (that is, from the Mediterranean), the Israelis achieved complete tactical surprise. They also chose to attack not at dawn, when the Egyptians were known to be on alert, but at 7:45 AM, when most senior Egyptian military and political leaders would be caught in the usual massive Cairo traffic jams, and thus out of touch.
Most importantly, the Israelis attacked in small groups of just four planes. While the first group was on the target, another group of four was on the way, and another four were just taking off. As the first wave finished its attacks, the second wave was about to attack, and the third wave was on its way, and when the third wave was finished, the first was back to attack again, having rearmed and refueled in just minutes. In this way Israel kept the main Egyptian airbases under constant devastating attack for more than two and a half hours, allowing no time for recovery.
First cratering the runways with special penetrating bombs to prevent Egyptian planes from taking off, the Israeli pilots then concentrated on the Egyptian bombers that could devastate Israel’s cities, and on Egypt’s most advanced MiG fighter jets. When these were destroyed the target list was widened to include all other military planes, SAM-2 missile sites and radar installations, and smaller airbases, until all eighteen Egyptian airbases had been hit.
In the first day of fighting 80 percent of Egypt’s bombers were destroyed along with 55 percent of its fighter jets. Those losses, combined with the devastation of the airbases and command and control centers demoralized the Egyptian high command, and gave Israel control of the skies over the southern front. Israeli losses totaled just 19 planes, mostly from ground fire.
The Simultaneous Israeli Ground Attack
Simultaneous with the Israeli air attacks, Israeli ground forces went into action in the Sinai and Gaza. The Israeli plan was composed of three phases, based on political and military considerations. The political consideration was that great power intervention could force a cease fire at any point, so Israel wanted to be sure of early concrete accomplishments in the field that could at least be traded for an end to the Egyptian blockade that precipitated the war. The military consideration was that, as already described, the first part of the war necessarily involved attacks against entrenched defenders, in the Sinai especially in the area of Abu Ageila and Kusseima, and in Gaza at Rafah. And, since the Air Force would be busy with its own attacks, there would be little if any air support in these initial engagements. Such “break-in” battles tend to be costly and difficult, especially without full air support, and there was no way to be sure which would succeed first. The Israeli strategy was therefore to be flexible enough in the second phase to exploit whichever attacks had made the most headway. As a saying in the IDF goes, “plans are merely the basis for change,” meaning that it doesn’t make sense to plan in too much detail, since unexpected opportunities are sure to arise. Too detailed plans might well push field commanders to follow the plan and miss the opportunity.
The overall Israeli strategy was therefore to penetrate into the open spaces of the Sinai, and then fight the kind of war in which the Israel Defense Forces excelled, a war of movement and maneuver, with the air force and the ground forces working together. The aim was not to engage in more costly frontal assaults, as in the break-in battles, but rather to so dislocate and confuse the opposing commanders that they would panic, causing their armies to fall apart.
Phase One: The Break-in Battles
General Tal’s division was tasked with attacking the fortified Rafah/El Arish sector, near the Mediterranean coast, straddling the Gaza/Egypt border. The Israeli soldiers had to face deep minefields, behind which were well dug-in infantry, and on the perimeter anti-tank weapons in reinforced concrete bunkers. To the rear were over 100 tanks in defensive positions and numerous artillery pieces.
Tal’s strategy was to avoid the minefields and attack from the rear – his forces approached Rafah from the north-east, through the town of Khan Yunis, which fell after a bitter tank battle. Tal’s forces then launched a pincer attack on Rafah junction, and a reinforced paratroop brigade, led by Colonel Rafael Eitan (who would later become Chief of Staff of the IDF), took a southerly route around Rafah then turned northwards, through sand dunes that the Egyptians had assumed impassable to armor. Surprising the defenders, Eitan’s brigade soon penetrated into the Egyptian artillery park south-west of Rafah, wreaking havoc. After reducing these positions Tal’s forces headed southwest taking other defended positions, and by the morning of June 6 El Arish and its approach road were firmly in Israel’s hands.
Meanwhile the crucial central sector was entrusted to General Sharon, whose battle to take the heavily defended Kusseima/Abu Agheila strongholds is still considered a classic. The best description of the Egyptian defenses, and the intricate plan Sharon devised to overcome them, is from Sharon himself:
Since 1956 the Egyptians had completely rebuilt the Abu Agheila fortifications according to the latest Soviet concepts of linear defense. About fifteen miles from the Israeli border the Ismalia road crossed a long swell of sand known as Um Cataf. There the Egyptians had constructed three parallel trench systems intersecting the road. Anchored in the north by high soft dunes and in the south by jagged ridges and broken foothills, each line was several miles long and each encompassed an array of gun positions, storage depots, and lateral communications trenches. In the front of the first line was a thickly laid mine field. With the trench system manned by a full infantry brigade and with its flanks secured on either end by the terrain, this position itself constituted a major defensive obstacle.
A mile or so behind the trenches the Egyptians kept a mobile reserve of over eighty tanks ready to move in any direction, the sword that complemented their defensive shield. Just to the south of the tanks was their artillery deployment – eighty 122- and 130-mm guns whose range far outmatched my own guns. Perimeter outposts screened this concentration of forces on the approaches to the east and especially in the north, where the flank was guarded by an infantry battalion supported by tanks and artillery in a fortified position which we code-named Oakland.
To destroy Abu Agheila it would be necessary to identify and exploit the position’s inherent vulnerability. Here we would be up against good defensive fighters whose numerical strength was not much less than ours, and whose firepower was in some ways greater than ours – a far cry from the offensive-defensive ratio of three to one usually considered minimal for an attack against prepared positions. So the plan of battle would have to emphasize concentration of forces, surprise, and maneuver. And the action would have to take place at night, our traditional method of reducing the odds and negating the advantages of prepared fortifications …
What I had in mind was a closely coordinated attack by separate elements of our forces on the Egyptian trench lines, tanks and artillery … [with the attacks developing] from the north, from the west (at the rear of Abu Agheila), and from the east (at the front of the position) in a continuous unfolding of surprises, each force securing the flank of its neighbor …
In my overall approach the first order of business would be to create a deception against Kusseima with a brigade under Uri Baidatz. Then I would isolate the battlefield. In the south a screening force of tanks, half-tracks and mortars under Arie Amit would block any reinforcements from Kusseima. This force would also give us a lodgement once we were ready to move in that direction. In the north I would launch a reinforced armored battalion, including my best tanks, the British Centurions under Natke Nir, against Oakland, the position that guarded Abu Agheila’s northern flank. Once Natke took Oakland, he would then circle around to the rear of Abu Agheila, setting up blocking forces as he went on the road to Jebel Libni, where the Egyptian reserves were. The Centurions would then be in a position to assault the base from behind.
Once the field was isolated, we would attack the entire depth of the Egyptian positions simultaneously. That would be the “taboulah,” the shock that would unbalance the defenders. Kuti Adam’s infantry brigade would come down on the northern end of the trench lines through the ostensibly secure dunes. At the same time my artillery commander, Yakov Aknin, would concentrate all the division’s artillery fire on the trenches just in front of Kuti’s attack, making life hell for the defenders as they tried to respond to the unexpected assault. To the right of Kuti’s brigade, helicopters would land Danny Mat’s paratroop brigade, which would strike into the artillery positions, preventing the Egyptian long-range guns from hitting our own forces. Once the infantry had disrupted the trenches, our tank brigade under Mordechai Zippori would move through the mine fields in a narrow frontal assault. At the same time, Natke’s Centurions would hit the Egyptian tanks from behind and come in on the rear of the trenches. And all of this would happen at night, compounding the Egyptians’ confusion as they struggled to piece together what was happening to them. (Warrior, Ariel Sharon, p. 188-190)
The battle, complex on paper and even more so in the field, went more or less according to plan. With the main battles fought during the night and morning of June 5/June 6, by mid-morning the positions were entirely in Israeli control, at a cost of 40 killed and 140 wounded.
Between Rafah and Abu Agheila was Wadi Haridin, sand dunes thought to be impassible to vehicles, and thus left undefended by the Egyptians. But after the 1956 war, before Israeli troops left the Sinai, they had scouted out the entire area, and found that the wadi was difficult but passable. Their report, duly filed away, had been recalled by Sharon during the crisis, and located.
The third Israeli division, under Yoffe, was therefore split in two. While the battles in Rafah and Abu Agheila were still raging, one half of Yoffe’s division made the slow trek through Wadi Haridin near Abu Agheila, and emerged from the dunes to surprise and attack Egyptian forces near Bir Lahfan junction, which were trying to come to the aid of the defenders at Rafah and Abu Agheila. Defeating this force, Yoffe’s troops then joined with the bulk of Tal’s forces from El Arish, which had wheeled southward, to attack and isolate the second Egyptian line near Bir Lahfan, which was held by Egypt’s Third Division. The other half of Yoffe’s division passed directly through Sharon’s lines and the still-unsecured perimeter of Abu Agheila, and attacked the central sector of the same Third Egyptian Division, near the key high ground of Jebel Libni, southwest of Bir Lahfan. The forces of Tal and Yoffe thus came together in a pincer attack against the north and central sectors of the Third Division, and by dusk on June 6 the Jebel Libni bases and surrounding areas had fallen.
(Meanwhile, the remainder of Tal’s division which had not headed south from El Arish advanced along the Sinai coast, eventually advancing to take Kantara on the Suez Canal and then turned south to take up positions opposite Ismalia.)
With the success in this phase of the battle in the Sinai, Israel had accomplished its minimal objectives, unhinging the Egyptian defenses in the central Sinai, and putting the rest of Egypt’s forces under threat. In any cease-fire discussions Israel would now be in a strong position to demand the removal of the blockade.
Phase Two: Exploiting the Success
At this stage Egypt’s citizens and many of her soldiers did not yet grasp the scope of their losses, and the state-controlled media was reporting that Egyptian forces had penetrated deep into Israel, that Tel-Aviv had been bombed and the Haifa oil refineries set alight. But Egypt’s military chief, Marshal Amer, did understand the disaster that had occurred, and he cracked. On the afternoon of June 6 Amer began issuing contradictory orders directly to his field commanders, eventually ordering an immediate and total retreat. Sensing Amer’s panic, some Egyptian commanders abandoned their troops and fled back to Cairo, the better to save themselves. The retreat turned into a rout.
For their part the Israelis, their air force now free to support the ground forces, concentrated on the remaining Egyptian armored forces in the Sinai, especially the crack Fourth Division near the passes. Yoffe’s forces proceeded southwest to attack and take Bir Hassana and then continued 30 miles in the same direction to attack the southern positions of the Fourth Division near Bir Thamada. Meanwhile the bulk of Tal’s forces headed for Bir Gifgafa, and an attack on the northern flank of the Fourth Division.
Sharon’s division drove south towards Nakhli, and with Col. Mandler’s Brigade, which had earlier taken Egyptian positions at Kuntilla, attacked Shazli’s task force and elements of the Sixth Division from two directions. The Egyptian forces began to withdraw towards the Mitla Pass and a hoped-for escape across the Suez Canal. But tanks exposed on desert roads were easy targets for the Israeli air force, which exacted a terrible toll. Between Sharon’s and Mandler’s tanks and the Israeli jets, much of Egypt’s Sixth Division was trapped in a killing field and would soon cease to exist.
Meanwhile Yoffi and Tal were racing through the Egyptian forces that remained, straining to beat them to the passes that offered the Egyptians their only hope of escaping back across the Suez Canal. At this the Israelis partially succeeded. While Yoffi blocked the Mitla and Gidi passes, Tal’s forces were not as successful blocking the Khatmia pass (on the Ismalia road). While Sharon drove much of the Egyptian army into the trap, significant elements of the Egyptian Fourth Division were able to force the Khatmia pass over night and escape. Despite this, large portions of the 3rd and 6th Divisions and Shazli’s forces were trapped and destroyed, their blackened tanks and APC’s littering the desert.
Entirely independently of these battles, a small operation was launched to take Sharm el Sheikh, from which the Egyptians had enforced their blockade. Sharm fell without a fight, its defenders having fled.
Thus, after 96 hours the war in Sinai was over.
In the course of the fighting more than 5000 Egyptian soldiers were captured, including 500 officers, who were taken as prisoners to trade for the few Israeli pilots who had been shot down and captured. But the bulk of the captured Egyptians were given food and water and transported to the canal, where Egyptian boats came to ferry them home. Those Egyptians who eluded capture did not fare as well – many who tried to get back on their own died in the desert, falling victim to dehydration and exposure.
Israel’s losses in the battles with Egypt were 275 soldiers killed and 800 wounded, very high for a country of only 2 million, but comparatively light considering the size of the battles and the magnitude of the victory. Egypt’s losses were much higher — according to statements by President Nasser more than 11,500 soldiers were killed, and independent estimates put the number of wounded as high as 50,000. (Barker, p 76)
In the days before June 5, Jordan had deployed in the West Bank opposite Israel ten of its eleven brigades, totaling some 45,000 men. In the north were three infantry brigades: one near the Jordan river, opposite the Israeli town of Beit Shean, one around the city of Jenin, and one near the city of Tulkarem (where Israel is only about 10 miles wide). In the central sector were four brigades: an infantry brigade near Qalqilya, right on the Israeli border, another near Latrun, also on the border, and two around Jerusalem. In the south was an infantry brigade around Hebron, and in the rear, near the Damia bridge over the Jordan river and near Jericho, were two armored brigades, the main striking forces of the Jordanian army.
The eleventh Jordanian brigade was deployed south of the Dead Sea, facing Israel’s Negev Desert and pointing towards the Egyptian forces in the Sinai. According to the joint Jordanian-Egyptian plans this brigade’s role was to fight into the Negev and link up with the advancing Egyptians, thereby cutting Israel in half.
An Iraqi brigade, based on the other side of the Damia Bridge, with three more on the way, and two Egyptian commando battalions deployed near Latrun rounded out the forces arrayed against Israel on the Jordanian front.
The western half of the of the West Bank — that is, the portion bordering on Israel — is mountainous and densely populated, especially the Old City of Jerusalem, and the large cities of Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron. The terrain is nothing like the open spaces of the Sinai, so suited to tank warfare. In the West Bank the geography favored the defenders, offering innumerable ambush points and potential bottlenecks, which the Jordanians had supplemented by building many strategically located fortified positions, with trenches, bunkers, ammunition storerooms and gun emplacements.
However, because Egypt was the strongest and most threatening of the Arab countries, Israel had to deploy the bulk of its forces in the south. Consequently, against the eleven Jordanian brigades and the Iraqi expeditionary force, the Israelis could muster only three infantry brigades and an armored brigade.
Just after hostilities began between Israel and Egypt, the Egyptian commander Marshal Amer sent a message to Jordan’s King Hussein, reporting that 75 percent of Israel’s planes had been shot down or disabled, and urging Hussein to open a second front. As the King recounted in his book on the war:
It was now 9 A.M. on Monday, June 5, and we were at war.
Riad [the Egyptian general who commanded Jordanian forces] increased our fire power against the Israeli air bases by directing our heavy artillery – long-range 155’s – on the Israeli air force installations within our line of fire. Our field artillery also went into action, and our Hawker Hunters [British-supplied fighter jets] were ready to take part in the combined operation with the Iraqi and Syrians. (Hussein of Jordan: My “War” with Israel, by King Hussein, p 63)
With Jordanian artillery raining shells on Israeli targets from Jerusalem to Tel-Aviv and beyond, and Jordanian jets preparing to launch bombing runs, the King received through the U.N. a conciliatory message from Israel stating that if Jordan did not attack Israel, Israel would not attack Jordan. In the King’s own words:
… we received a telephone call at Air Force Headquarters from U.N. General Odd Bull. It was a little after 11 A.M.
The Norwegian General informed me that the Israeli Prime Minister had addressed an appeal to Jordan. Mr. Eshkol had summarily announced that the Israeli offensive had started that morning, Monday June 5, with operations directed against the United Arab Republic, and then he added: “If you don’t intervene, you will suffer no consequences.”
By that time we were already fighting in Jerusalem and our planes had just taken off to bomb Israeli airbases. So I answered Odd Bull:
“They started the battle. Well they are receiving our reply by air.”
Three times our Hawker Hunters attacked the bases at Natanya in Israel without a loss. And our pilots reported that they destroyed four enemy planes on the ground, the only ones they had seen.
On their side, the Iraqis bombed the airport at Lydda. And a little later, the Syrians finally headed for the base at Ramad David and the refineries in Haifa. (Hussein, p. 64-65)
Despite the Jordanian attacks, the Israelis did not respond. As the Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban put it, the Israelis hoped that “King Hussein was making a formal gesture of solidarity with Egypt,” in other words, that the artillery barrage and bombing runs were for show, and that they did not presage a general offensive. But this was not to be – after the Israelis sent their peace message, the Jordanian attacks only grew in intensity.
This may be because the King received a second message from Egypt’s Marshal Amer, which stated that:
.. the Egyptians had put 75 percent of the Israeli air force out of action! The same message said that U.A.R. [i.e. Egyptian] bombers had destroyed the Israeli bases in a counterattack, and that the ground forces of the Egyptian army had penetrated into Israel by way of the Negev!
… when a little later, our radar screens showed planes flying from Egypt to Israel, we didn’t give it a thought. We simply assumed they were from the U.A.R. air force on their way to a mission over Israel. (Hussein, p 66)
The First Israeli Response
Along with these aerial attacks Jordanian troops also crossed the armistice lines and took Government House, the UN headquarters on the Biblical “Hill of Evil Counsel” in the no-man’s land between the two countries, directly threatening Israeli positions in southern Jerusalem, and finally provoking a counterattack. Again, quoting King Hussein:
At 12:30 on that 5th of June came the first Israeli response to the combined bombing by the Jordanians, Iraqis and Syrians. (Hussein, p 68)
When it became clear to Israeli leaders that war with Jordan was unavoidable, they scrambled to add forces to the theater, drawing from the north a division under Major General Elad Peled, and from the south a paratroop brigade under Colonel Motta Gur, which was originally intended to go into action near El Arish. But first the Israeli air force was ordered to respond to the Jordanian air attacks, which it did with despatch. Catching the King’s planes refueling at their bases in Mafraq and Amman, the Israeli jets wrought havoc – all 22 of Jordan’s Hawker Hunter jets were destroyed, as were the air bases, which meant that Jordan no longer had an air force. The attacks from the Syrian and Iraqi air forces brought Israeli retaliation as well, with much of the Syrian air force wiped out, and the Iraqi base whose planes had attacked Israel also devastated.
As in the Sinai fighting, the Israeli General Staff took into account that U.N. or great power intervention might impose a cease-fire, so they planned a two phase campaign, the first phase covering the minimal objectives they wanted to achieve. These objectives were three: (1) To eliminate the bulge into Israeli territory in the north, near Jenin, and thereby remove from artillery range the Israeli air base at Ramat David and the Jezreel Valley; (2) To eliminate the Latrun bulge which had always threatened Israeli communications with Jerusalem. (Many Israeli soldiers had been killed in the 1948 War during at least four unsuccessful attacks on the Latrun strongpoints, and as a young soldier Ariel Sharon was gravely wounded there.); (3) To open a secure road to the Mount Scopus enclave, a patch of Israeli-held territory in Jerusalem that since 1948 had been surrounded by Jordan (and resupplied only by periodic U.N. supervised convoys).
Once these objectives were attained, were the fighting to continue Israel would be poised to take the key roads through and along the north-south mountain range that divides the West Bank, and control of those roads meant capture or destruction of the bulk of Jordan’s army.
In accord with the first phase of their plans, the Israeli counterattack began by ejecting the Jordanian soldiers who had stormed Government House. Major General Uzi Narkis, chief of Israel’s Central Command, gave the job to the 16th Jerusalem Brigade, and at 2:30 in the afternoon the brigade, all reservists, began their assault. Two infantry companies joined by six Sherman tanks crossed the 1948 armistice lines and approached the position. After a brief but sharp battle Government House fell to the Israelis, who then wheeled around to the south to attack the village of Sur Baher, which finally fell the next morning, giving the Israelis control of the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and Hebron. The Jordanian forces to the south, in the hilly region around Hebron, were now cut off.
At the same time, in the northern sector of Jerusalem, General Narkis sent the armored Harel Division from the Latrun area down the road towards Jerusalem. Before reaching the city limits the division, under the command of Col. Uri Ben-Ari, turned off the road to the northeast and launched three separate attacks into Jordanian-held territory, the objective being the key Ramallah ridge. Taking the ridge would give Israel control of the northern and eastern approaches to Jerusalem, along with the main road through the West Bank from Jericho, and would isolate Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. Down through the ages every force that would control Jerusalem has had to fight for this ridge, from the Biblical Joshua, to the British under General Allenby during the First World War.
The Jordanian army, known as the Arab Legion, had been well-trained by the British for decades – indeed, until 1956 it had been led by a British officer, General Sir John Bagot Glubb. The professional soldiers leading the Arab Legion therefore made sure that the ridge was extremely well defended.
The attacking Israelis were without a flail tank to clear a route through the first Jordanian obstacle, a deep minefield, so Israeli sappers had to clear a path by hand. This accomplished at some cost, Ben-Ari’s tanks, often firing at point-blank range, then took in succession Jordanian strong points near Radar Hill, Sheikh Abed El-Aziz, and Beit Iksa. Moving further up the ridge, the Israelis then enveloped and conquered the fortified village of Biddu, at which point Ben-Ari’s tanks swung east onto the main road and headed for Nebi Samuel (burial place of the Prophet Samuel).
Parallel with this operation an Israeli brigade under Col. Moshe Yotvat defeated the Jordanian and Egyptian forces at the Latrun police fortress, putting that key strategic point in Israeli hands as well.
With Jordanian forces around Jerusalem falling back under Israeli tank and infantry assaults, General Ata Ali, commander of the Jordanian 27th Brigade, pleaded for help from King Hussein, who agreed to send reinforcements. Traveling under cover of darkness, elements of the Jordanian 60th Armored Brigade, accompanied by an infantry battalion, began to make its way towards Jerusalem along the Jericho road. They were spotted, however, by the Israeli air force, which, after dropping illumination flares, strafed and bombed the Jordanian column, wiping it out. Other Jordanian attempts to bring reinforcements to Jerusalem were also beaten back, either by armored ambushes or air assaults.
Thus, after the first day of fighting, with control of the roads and the air, the Israelis had succeeded in isolating Jerusalem, and now there were two large tasks before them – breaking into and taking the Jordanian-held part of the city, including the Old City, location of the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, and clearing the bulk of the Jordanian army from the rest of the West Bank.
The Battle for Jerusalem
On the night of June 5, with control of the approaches to Jerusalem, the Israelis began their assault on the city itself. To the north of the city searchlights illuminated Jordanian strong points, and artillery and mortar batteries zeroed in, hitting one after the other. Just after 2 in the morning on June 6, a combined force of Gur’s paratroopers and the Jerusalem Brigade’s tanks and reconnaissance unit crossed no-man’s land near the Mandelbaum Gate (a crossing point between the two Jerusalems since 1948). The heavily-fortified Police School fell to one of Gur’s battalions, which then moved up to attack the even more heavily-fortified Ammunition Hill, where a legendary battle ensued. The combat, often hand to hand in trenches and bunkers, went on for four bloody hours, as both sides fought with great courage.
Finally though, the Jordanian defenders were beaten, and Ammunition Hill fell to the Israelis. By mid-morning on June 6 the battalion had driven further east and linked up with the Israeli Mount Scopus enclave.
Meanwhile Gur’s other battalions, fighting in the same general area, subdued the Jordanian positions around the so-called American Colony and converged on the Rockefeller Museum, near the northern edge of the walled Old City. Despite their location right up against the walls of the Old City, Gur’s paratroopers were not yet able to conquer the city, because Jordanian forces still held the Augusta Victoria Hill, high ground overlooking the city from the east.
At 8:30 in the morning on June 7 the paratroopers therefore launched a three-pronged assault – one battalion attacked August Victoria Hill from Israeli-held Mount Scopus, another battalion attacked August Victoria by climbing up the valley between it and the Old City, and a third battalion, led by Gur himself drove around the Old City walls to break into the city via St. Stephen’s Gate. Arriving at the gate, Gur’s halftrack plowed through and into the Old City. Gur’s two other battalions, their missions compete, followed him in, where they found little resistance. Gur himself made for the holiest site in Judaism, the Temple Mount, where the biblical Jewish temples stood. When he got there he famously radioed to his commanders, “The Temple Mount is in our hands.”
The Battles Outside Jerusalem
Outside of Jerusalem the main battles for the West Bank, known to Israelis as Judea and Samaria, were centered in the areas of Jenin and Nablus, in the north of the territory. A primary target in the Jenin fighting was Jordanian artillery that was shelling the Israeli airbase at Ramat David. While in all of these battles Jordanian armor acquitted itself very well, in the end the well-trained and led Arab Legion could not cope with the joint air and armor attacks of the Israelis.
By 8 PM on June 7 both sides had accepted a UN cease fire ending the fighting on the West Bank, leaving Israel in complete control of the territory.
In the years and months leading up to the 1967 war, Syria had played a crucial role in raising tensions by engaging in acts of sabotage and incessantly shelling Israeli communities. The second half of 1966 and spring of 1967 saw increasing friction and incidents between the IDF and Syrian forces. In response to a false Soviet warning on May 13, 1967 that Israel was preparing for an imminent attack on Syria, Egypt and Syria activated a mutual defense pact, and Syria massed troops on its border with Israel.
That border ran some 40 miles, from Kibbutz Tel Dan in the north down to the Sea of Galilee, with the Syrians occupying the high ground. In the northern half the terrain was extremely steep, rising up at the border or just after the border, while in the south the rise was a little slower at first. The escarpment and the plateau behind it, at an elevation of about 2000 feet, are known as the Golan Heights, and the Syrians had been fortifying it for 18 years. Over most of that time Syria had also often shelled Israel’s northern communities.
By 1967 more than 265 artillery pieces were aimed down at Israel, and on the plateau itself Syria had constructed a dense network of fortifications, trenches and concrete bunkers with overlapping fields of fire, all sitting behind dense mine fields. Just before the outbreak of the war the Syrians forces in the Golan totaled over 40,000 troops with 260 tanks and self-propelled guns, divided up among three armored brigades and five infantry brigades. Facing them, the Israelis were heavily outgunned, with just one armored brigade and one infantry brigade.
Although Syria maintained a radical and aggressive posture towards Israel, it counted heavily upon the initiative and success of the larger and better trained Egyptian army. During the first day of the war, on June 5, Syrian planes attacked communities in the north of Israel, including Tiberias, and attempted to attack the Haifa oil refineries. The Israeli air force responded later that day with an attack on Syria’s airbases, destroying 59 Syrian aircraft, mostly on the ground.
In the early morning hours of June 6, however, Syria intensified its attacks, launching a heavy artillery barrage against Israeli civilian communities, and then sending two companies of infantry across the border to attack Kibbutz Tel Dan. The Kibbutz’s defenders held off the attack, and twenty minutes later the Israeli airfare arrived and drove the Syrians back over the border. Despite other incursions into Israeli territory, which were also driven off, with the bulk of Israeli troops still fighting in the Sinai and the West Bank the Israeli army could not go on the attack against Syria.
On June 8, the fourth day of the war, Syria accepted a UN cease-fire, and for five hours there was a lull in the shelling. But then the barrages resumed, and state radio announced that Syria did not consider itself bound by any cease-fire. Apparently their formidable defenses in the Golan and the fact that Israel had not yet attacked led the Syrian regime to the false conclusion that their positions were impregnable. (Arab-Israeli Wars, A.J. Barker, p. 90)
With the renewed Syrian barrages, and battles on the southern and eastern fronts winding down, some Israeli leaders began to lean towards an offensive against Syria. Israeli forces began to move north in huge convoys, creating massive traffic jams in Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv. Then came a hint from the United States that made the offensive a certainty: speaking to Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, McGeorge Bundy, the US National Security Adviser, voiced surprise that so far Syria had escaped any serious damage:
Bundy went on to reflect, in a tentative voice, that it would seem strange that Syria – which had originated the war – might be the only one that seemed to be getting off without injury. Might it not turn out, paradoxically, he said, that less guilty Arab states, such as Jordan, had suffered heavy loss, while Syria would be free to start the whole deadly sequence again. (Personal Witness, Abba Eban, p 423)
An apparent element in the US thinking was that Syria was the key Soviet ally in the region, and a Syrian defeat would therefore do much to further discredit Soviet prestige in the Arab world. On the other hand, were Syria to be left unscathed this would be portrayed as a reflection of Soviet power and good reason for other Arab countries to also move into the Soviet orbit.
The die was cast – Israel would launch an offensive aimed at driving the Syrians from the Golan Heights. On the morning of June 9 the Israeli air force began an intensive three hour bombing of Syrian positions in the Golan, and before noon Israeli forces under the command of Major General David Elazar crossed the armistice line into Syrian territory.
Elazar decided to launch five attacks, each along a narrow axis. The key attack would be where the Syrians least expected it, in the north, centered on the town of Q’ala, where the terrain most favored the defenders, and which the Syrians had consequently left the least strongly fortified. Also favoring a northern attack was that the distance there to the key Masada/Quneitra road was the shortest, only 2.4 miles. Once this road was taken Israeli forces could rapidly attack Syrian front line positions from the rear, while other Israeli forces could advance to the center of the Golan plateau and the key town of Quneitra. Syria’s regional military headquarters were there, and through Quneitra passed all the major roads on the plateau, including the road to the Syrian capital of Damascus.
The Q’ala attack was entrusted to two brigades, one armored and one infantry. Leading the way were sappers to clear mines, followed by armored bulldozers to create a road up the mountain. Immediately following were tanks and armored infantry. The Israeli armored brigade moved up in single file, making inviting targets for the Syrian guns, which took a terrible toll, knocking out most of the bulldozers and tanks. But the Israeli armor pressed the attack, and moved foot by foot up the mountain. When they were about half way up, the brigade split its forces, half moving to flank the Syrian defenders, the rest continuing directly towards the target. After five and a half hours of fighting the brigade had covered the three miles to the target.
At the same time as the armored attack, the infantry brigade with some supporting tanks attacked about a mile to the north, aiming to protect the flanks of the armored attack by taking thirteen Syrian positions, centering on the fortified outpost of Tel Fakhir (in both Arabic and Hebrew the word tel signifies a hill).
The battle for Tel Fakhir raged for more than seven hours, ending with a costly Israeli victory in which only four soldiers of the entire attacking battalion (about 800 men) remained alive and uninjured. Syrian positions in Dardara and Tel Hilal also fell after hard fighting. On the Syrian side, individual soldiers fought bravely, but unit cohesion broke down and many soldiers, including officers, simply disappeared.
The three other Israeli attacks, further south, also made headway, in preparation for larger assaults by the Israeli troops coming up from the earlier battles with Egypt and Jordan.
On the morning of June 10 a fresh armored brigade advanced through the breach in Syrian lines in the north, took the town of Banias and then wheeled south-east to take Masada. That accomplished, the advancing Israeli forces on the heights prepared for a multi-pronged assault on Quneitra.
At 8:45 in the morning on June 10, however, Damascus radio announced the fall of Quneitra, while the Israelis were still about 10 kilometers from the town. This was apparently intended to provoke Soviet intervention by suggesting an Israeli advance to Damascus, but it backfired. Hearing that the town had fallen, Syrian defenders throughout the Golan feared that they would soon be cut off, and they panicked and fled. By nightfall all Syrian resistance on the Golan Heights had collapsed.
Israeli losses during the Golan operation were 115 killed and 306 wounded. Syrian losses are estimated to have been 2500 killed and 5000 wounded, with another 591 taken prisoner.
With the end of fighting on the Golan Heights the Six Day War was over.