The Yom Kippur War of 1973

Surprise Attacks From Egypt and Syria Had Israel Fighting for Survival

Israeli tank on the Golan Heights, October 1973.
Israeli tank on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War.

Henri Bureau/Sygma / Getty Images

The Yom Kippur War was fought between Israel and Arab countries led by Egypt and Syria in October 1973, inspired by Arab desires to win back territories taken by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War.

The war began with attacks meant to be a total surprise to Israel, on the holiest day of the Jewish year. A campaign of deception masked the intent of the Arab nations, and it was widely believed they were not ready to fight a major war.

Fast Facts: The Yom Kippur War

  • 1973 War was planned as surprise attack on Israel by Egypt and Syria.
  • Israel was able to mobilize quickly and meet the threat.
  • Intense combat occurred on both Sinai and Syrian fronts.
  • Israel was resupplied by the United States, Egypt and Syria by the Soviet Union.
  • Casualties: Israeli: approximately 2,800 killed, 8,000 wounded. Combined Egypt and Syrian: approximately 15,000 killed, 30,000 wounded (official figures were not released, and estimates vary).

The conflict, which lasted for three weeks, was intense, with battles between formations of heavy tanks, dramatic aerial combat, and heavy casualties sustained in extremely violent encounters. There was even a fear at times that the conflict could spread beyond the Middle East to the superpowers who supported the warring sides.

The war eventually led to the 1978 Camp David Accords, which ultimately brought about a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

Background to the 1973 War

In September 1973, Israeli intelligence began to observe noteworthy military activities in Egypt and Syria. Troops were being moved close to the borders with Israel, but the movements appeared to be exercises periodically held along the border.

The Israeli high command still found the activity suspicious enough to double the number of armored units stationed near its borders with Egypt and Syria.

During the week preceding Yom Kippur, the Israelis were further alarmed when intelligence indicated that Soviet families had been leaving Egypt and Syria. Both nations were aligned with the Soviet Union, and the departure of the allied civilians looked ominous, a sign that the countries were going on a war footing.

In the early morning hours of October 6, 1973, the day of Yom Kippur, Israeli intelligence became convinced that war was imminent. The nation's top leaders met before dawn and at 10 a.m. a total mobilization of the country's military was ordered.

Intelligence sources further indicated that attacks on Israel would begin at 6:00 p.m. However, both Egypt and Syria attacked Israeli positions in force at 2:00 p.m. The Middle East was suddenly plunged into a major war.

Initial Attacks

The first Egyptian attacks took place at the Suez Canal. Egyptian soldiers, supported by helicopters, crossed the canal and began fighting with Israeli troops (who had occupied the Sinai Peninsula since the 1967 Six-Day Way).

In the north, Syrian troops attacked Israelis on the Golan Heights, another territory which had been taken by Israel in the 1967 war.

Beginning the attack on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism, seemed like a diabolically clever strategy by the Egyptians and Syrians, yet it proved to be advantageous for the Israelis, as the nation was essentially shut down that day. When the emergency call went out for reserve military units to report for duty, much of the manpower was at home or at synagogue and could report quickly. It was estimated that precious hours were thus saved during the mobilization for battle.

The Israeli-Syrian Front

Destroyed Syrian convoy on the Golan Heights, 1973.
Destroyed Syrian convoy on the Golan Heights, 1973. AFP/AFP via Getty Images

The attack from Syria began in the Golan Heights, a plateau on the border between Israel and Syria which Israeli forces had seized in the 1967 Six-Day War. The Syrians opened the conflict with aerial attacks and intense artillery bombardments of Israel forward positions.

Three Syrian infantry divisions carried the attack, supported by hundreds of Syrian tanks. Most Israeli positions, except for outposts on Mount Hermon, held. Israeli commanders recovered from the shock of the initial Syrian assaults. Armored units, which had been positioned nearby, were sent into battle.

On the southern part of the Golan front, Syrian columns were able to break through. On Sunday, October 7, 1973, the fighting along the front was intense. Both sides sustained heavy casualties.

The Israelis fought bravely against the Syrian advances, with tank battles breaking out. A heavy battle involving Israeli and Syrian tanks took place on Monday, October 8, 1973, and into the following day. By Wednesday, October 10, 1973, the Israelis had managed to push the Syrians back to the 1967 ceasefire line.

On October 11, 1973, the Israelis mounted a counterattack. After some debate among the nation's leaders, it was decided to fight beyond the old ceasefire line and invade Syria.

As the Israelis rolled across Syrian territory, an Iraqi tank force, which had arrived to fight alongside the Syrians, came onto the scene. An Israeli commander saw the Iraqis moving across a plain and lured them into an attack. The Iraqis were battered by Israeli tanks and forced to withdraw, losing about 80 tanks.

Intense tank battles also occurred between Israeli and Syrian armored units. Israel consolidated its positions within Syria, taking some high hills. And Mount Hermon, which the Syrians had captured during the initial assault, was retaken. The battle of the Golan eventually ended with Israel holding high ground, which meant its long-range artillery could reach the outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus.

The Syrian command agreed to a ceasefire brokered by the United Nations on October 22, 1973.

The Israeli-Egyptian Front

Israeli tank at supply depot in the Sinai, 1973.
Israeli tank at a supply depot in the Sinai, October 1973.  Harry Dempster/Getty Images

The attack on Israel from the Egyptian military began on the afternoon of Saturday, October 6, 1973. The assault began with airstrikes against Israeli positions in the Sinai. The Israelis had built large sand walls to repel any invasion from Egypt, and the Egyptians used a novel technique: water cannons purchased in Europe were mounted on armored vehicles and used to blast holes in the sand walls, allowing columns of tanks to move through. Bridging equipment obtained from the Soviet Union enabled Egyptians to move quickly across the Suez Canal.

The Israeli Air Force encountered serious problems while trying to attack the Egyptian forces. A sophisticated surface-to-air missile system meant the Israeli pilots had to fly low to avoid the missiles, which put them in the range of conventional anti-aircraft fire. Heavy losses were inflicted on the Israeli pilots.

The Israelis attempted a counterattack against the Egyptians, and the first attempt failed. For a time it looked like the Israelis were in serious trouble and wouldn't be able to hold back the Egyptian assaults. The situation was desperate enough that the United States, led at the time by Richard Nixon, was motivated to send help to Israel. Nixon's main foreign policy adviser, Henry Kissinger, became very involved in following developments in the war, and at Nixon's direction, a massive airlift of military equipment began to flow from America to Israel.

Fighting along the invasion front continued through the first week of the war. The Israelis were expecting a major assault from the Egyptians, which came in the form of a major armored offensive on Sunday, October 14. A battle of heavy tanks was fought, and the Egyptians lost about 200 tanks without making any progress.

On Monday, October 15, 1973, the Israelis launched a counterattack by crossing the Suez Canal in the south and battling northward. In the fighting that followed, the Egyptian Third Army was cut off from other Egyptian forces and surrounded by the Israelis.

The United Nations had been trying to arrange a ceasefire, which finally went into effect on October 22, 1973. The cessation of hostilities saved the Egyptians, who had been surrounded and would have been wiped out if the fighting had continued.

Superpowers on the Sidelines

One potentially dangerous aspect to the Yom Kippur War was that, in some ways, the conflict was a proxy for the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Israelis were generally aligned with the U.S., and the Soviet Union supported both Egypt and Syria.

It was known that Israel possessed nuclear weapons (though its policy was never to admit that). And there was a fear that Israel, if pushed to the point, might use them. The Yom Kippur War, violent as it was, remained non-nuclear.

Legacy of the Yom Kippur War

Following the war, the Israeli victory was tempered by the heavy casualties sustained in the fighting. And Israeli leaders were questioned about the apparent lack of preparedness that allowed the Egyptian and Syrian forces to attack.

Though Egypt was essentially defeated, the early successes in the war enhanced the stature of President Anwar Sadat. Within a few years, Sadat would visit Israel in an effort to make peace, and would eventually meet with Israeli leaders and President Jimmy Carter at Camp David to bring about the Camp David Accords.

Sources:

  • Herzog, Chaim. "Yom Kippur War." Encyclopaedia Judaica, edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 2nd ed., vol. 21, Macmillan Reference USA, 2007, pp. 383-391. Gale eBooks.
  • "Arab-Israeli Conflict." Worldmark Modern Conflict and Diplomacy, edited by Elizabeth P. Manar, vol. 1: 9/11 to Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Gale, 2014, pp. 40-48. Gale eBooks.
  • Benson, Sonia G. "The Arab-Israeli Conflict: 1948 to 1973." Middle East Conflict, 2nd ed., vol. 1: Almanac, UXL, 2012, pp. 113-135. Gale eBooks.