Israel Armoured might -historical perspective


Perhaps no other conflicts of the period captured the world’s imagination as did the numerous wars in the Middle East. With the notable exception of the 1948–1949 War for Independence, the wars saw the employment of considerable numbers of AFVs and some of the largest tank battles in history. They also proved to be useful laboratories for the Western allies and the Soviet Union concerning the design and employment of AFVs (for the most part, the Soviet Union was the chief supporter and arms supplier to the Arab states; the Western powers, particularly the United States and France, at least until after the 1967 Six Day War, supported Israel).

 The fighting in the Middle East also saw the beginning of a new age, with the first use in warfare of antitank and antiship missiles. In its war to gain independence, Israel initially had only a small armored force, the 8th Armored Brigade, equipped with a hodgepodge of pre–World War II French Hotchkiss light tanks, World War II–era British Cromwells, and U.S. Shermans, the latter purchased from Italy and the Philippines. These faced the far more numerous tanks of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq. During the fighting, Israel managed to form a second armored brigade, the 7th. In the war the Israelis utilized their advantages of interior lines, higher morale, better leadership, and more effective command and control to defeat the larger and better-equipped Arab armies. The major Arab problems were in logistics and organization. The Arab armies were spread out (it was 700 miles from Baghdad to Haifa, and Egyptian forces relied on a 250-mile-long supply line across the Sinai Desert), and there was no unity of command or common military strategy.

After 1949 the Israeli Defense Forces invested heavily in tanks, and the Jewish state became one of the most skillful practitioners of armored warfare in history. Working in collusion with France and Britain against Egypt in 1956, Israel Super Shermans and French tanks rolled across the Sinai Peninsula (covering more than 150 miles in only four days) to take that vast desert area from Egypt. In the process Israeli armor defeated a far larger Egyptian force of Shermans, British Centurions, and some JS-3s, in addition to 230 Soviet T-34/85s, as well as a number of armored personnel carriers and self-propelled guns. As in the War for Independence, in 1956 it was not superior equipment but rather better training, leadership, and motivation, as well as tactical doctrine and domination of the air, that were vital in the subsequent crushing Israeli victory. Although international pressure, largely from the United States, forced Israel (and Britain and France) to quit Egypt, the war led Israel to go over to a wholly mechanized ground force centered on tanks. The war also brought improved tanks into the Israeli inventory as well as better training.

 In June 1967 Israel used its highly mechanized forces to launch a devastating preemptive strike against Egypt and Syria, and then engage Jordan, in the Six Day War. Israeli tactics were similar to those employed by the Germans in their blitzkrieg of World War II. Tanks would break through the enemy front and then push forward, closely followed by mechanized infantry that would engage enemy forces. This armored thrust was followed by motorized infantry to mop up enemy resistance in order to allow the vital supply column to proceed forward. Rapid Israeli envelopments allowed the numerically inferior Israeli armored forces to take the heavier Arab tanks from the rear and make short work of the Arab armies. Israel had some 264,000 troops, 800 tanks, and 300 combat aircraft; Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq had a combined strength of some 541,000 men, 2,504 tanks, and 957 combat aircraft. Of 1,200 Egyptian tanks before the war, 820 were lost. Israeli armor losses amounted to 122 tanks, many of which were repaired and returned to battle. There was also heavy fighting involving Israeli and Syrian tanks in Israel’s conquest of the Golan Heights, although the fighting there did not see the large-scale armor engagements that had marked combat on the Sinai front.

In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the tables were almost turned, thanks to Israeli complacency and new Egyptian tactics. Israel had invested heavily in the Bar Lev Line, a static defensive front along the east bank of the Suez Canal, in effect rejecting maneuver tank warfare in which the bulk of armored forces are held back in mobile reserve. The Egyptians also subjected the canal defenses to nearly constant artillery fire, to which the Israelis grew accustomed. On 6 October 1973 (Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement) Egyptian forces struck in force across the Suez Canal while Syrian forces simultaneously invaded the Golan Heights. These offensives caught the Israeli defenders completely off-guard. On the Golan Heights, Syria deployed five divisions and three armored/ mechanized brigades. Their 1,600 tanks included T-34s, T- 54s, and the latest T-62 Soviet tanks. To break through the thick Israeli minefields and defenses, the Syrians also utilized specialized armor vehicles such as flail tanks, bridge-layers, and engineer tanks. Antiaircraft missiles protected the attackers against Israeli aerial intervention. The Israelis initially had only some 50 Israeli Centurion tanks of the 7th Armored Brigade to oppose the Syrian juggernaut. Following the British practice of using secondary armament for ranging purposes, the Centurions scored a high number of long-range, first-round kills. Ordered to prevent the Syrians from breaking through, the few Israeli defenders did just that. At the end of four days of savage fighting, an Israeli force totaling only 177 tanks supported by infantry and artillery defeated a far larger attacking Syrian force centered on 1,400 tanks.

Part 2

With 1,700 tanks and another 2,500 armored vehicles, the Egyptian force on the Suez front was even larger. On the night of 5–6 October, by employing high-pressure water hoses and bulldozers and using bridging equipment, the Egyptians got across the canal and blasted through the sand embankment the Israelis had erected there. By 8 October, protected by a blanket of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and Soviet-supplied mobile antiaircraft artillery, the Egyptians had two armies of 100,000 men and more than 1,000 tanks east of the canal. After taking the Israeli positions, the Egyptians were content to set up their own defenses and put into effect their “sword and shield” tactics. The “shield” consisted of a belt of minefields, behind which infantry waited with Soviet-supplied Sagger and Snapper wire-guided antitank missiles. Beyond these, artillery, SAMs, and antiaircraft guns provided security for the defensive belt against the vaunted Israeli Air Force. The “sword” consisted of large tank formations ready to engage and destroy Israeli armored counterattacks.

On 8 October the Israelis unwisely committed two armored divisions in the Sinai to drive the Egyptians back across the canal. The Egyptian chief of staff, General Saad el Shazy, noted that the resulting confrontation saw “the first combat between the essentially World War II concept of armour and infantry weapons of the next generation.” The Egyptians promptly inflicted heavy losses on the attacking Israeli forces. The Israelis at first did not understand why infantry would be standing out in the open—until they released a barrage of shoulder-fired missiles at the tanks. Although in time the Israelis were able to develop means to counter the antitank missiles and SAMs, early in the fighting these new weapons gave the Arab forces the edge, and in two days the Israelis lost some 260 tanks. The Egyptians won the first part of the war, but their success now emboldened President Anwar Sadat, who decided on a deeper penetration of the Sinai. In taking this step, Sadat overruled General Shazy’s arguments that such a step would take his forces beyond the range of SAM cover. The Egyptian offensive began on 14 October and involved more than 2,000 tanks on both sides, making it second in history only to the World War II Battle of Kursk in numbers of tanks engaged. The Israelis brought up reinforcements but were still outnumbered 2:1 in numbers of tanks, a disadvantage that was offset by superior hardware and training and the involvement of the Israeli Air Force. The Israelis not only stopped the Egyptian advance but also destroyed some 500 tanks. Israeli forces now moved toward the canal in an effort to cross over it and take the Egyptian forces from behind and to destroy the SAM sites.

In the process, a large tank battle took place in the area known to the Israelis as the Chinese Farm. The Israelis managed to get some troops and a brigade of paratroopers across the canal, and once a bridge had been thrown across there numbers of tanks followed. The Israelis excelled at rapid maneuver warfare, and they now came up against second-echelon Egyptian troops. The advancing Israeli tanks cut off the Egyptian Third Army at Suez City and were moving north to cut off the Egyptian Second Army when Sadat managed to secure a cease-fire.

Israel won the Yom Kippur War but at a high cost, including the loss of 830 tanks. Sadat had, however, restored Arab pride and went on to visit Israel and conclude a peace settlement with the Jewish state. Many analysts concluded that the Yom Kippur War spelled the end of the tank era: small wire-guided missiles and RPGs had inflicted about a third of Israel’s tank losses. Such a conclusion, however, proved to be premature. The Israelis incorporated the lessons learned in 1973 in their new battle tank, the Merkava. As noted above, crew protection became the priority.
 Merkavas spearheaded the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and destroyed the Syrian 1st Armored Division. Although Merkavas took numerous hits from enemy fire, they were not penetrated. Of 50 or so Israeli tankers wounded in the fighting in Lebanon, not one was the result of burns. Although there have been no interstate wars involving Israel since 1982, tanks and other AFVs continue to play a key role in intrastate  operations. Tanks are perhaps the most visible component of Israeli security operations against the second Palestinian intifada (uprising). Despite the proliferation of new antitank weapons and predictions that the day of the tank was over, when the Cold War came to a close with the collapse of the Soviet Union, AFVs were still very much a part of the world’s military establishments.

This post was published in "War and game" site 9/ 2020

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IDF Sherman platoon pre 1967

IDF Sherman platoon pre 1967

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1967 arab propaganda
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