By Abraham Rabinovich –
JERUSALEM — In preparing their surprise attack on Israel 40 years ago, Egypt and Syria chose Yom Kippur as D-Day because they presumed it would slow the mobilization of the reserves who constituted two-thirds of Israel’s army. They knew that units are mobilized by code words broadcast by radio. They knew too that on Yom Kippur Israel’s radio stations are shut down.
What they apparently did not know was that there was an alternative system for mobilization — by couriers. Acting on information received by the Mossad that war would break out this day, Prime Minister Golda Meir authorized mobilization of the reserves at 9:30 Yom Kippur morning. Couriers bearing emergency call-up orders for every reservist, prepared ahead of time, were soon moving through the country. On Yom Kippur, there is no traffic so the couriers were able to swiftly find the men they were looking for — either at home or, more likely, in a neighborhood synagogue.
Rabbis halted the service as the uniformed couriers entered. Sometimes the list of names was read out by the soldier, sometimes by the rabbi or sexton. In Jerualem’s Bait Hakerem quarter, a sexton paused slightly at one point and then read the name of his own son. In the Ramat Eshkol quarter, a young man rose when his name was called but his father, sitting next to him, held him in an embrace and refused to let him go. The rabbi approached and gently pulled his arms away. “His place is not with us today,” he said.
Israel saw sights never before seen, men in prayer shawls and kippot getting into cars on Yom Kippur — either to drive wives and children to relatives or to drive to assembly points where buses picked them up to take them to their unit’s bases. The absence of traffic permitted this to be done in record time. Instead of 48-72 hours normally set aside for full mobilization, men were able to reach the battlefront in half the time or less.
It was the only break Israel would get for days to come. Israel had failed to have its reserve divisions in place before the war started and it would pay dearly for that.
Yitzhak Brik, a major in the reserves, realized something was afoot even before receiving his callup when he saw planes taking off from an air force base near his Negev kibbutz, highly unusual on Yom Kippur. With another kibbutz member who served in the tank company he commanded, Brik drove to his base. At 10:30 p.m., little more than six hours after the war began, he was ordered to load his tanks onto transporters and drive to Baluza, a staging area behind the front line in Sinai.
Like tens of thousands of other reservists his transition from civilian routine to combat was rapid. Just 10 minutes after offloading the tanks his column was ambushed by Egyptian commandos in the dunes straddling the road. As he charged them, he and an adjoining tank commander fired machine guns at each other’s tank in order to knock off commandos who climbed onto the rear of their tanks, which were slowed by the deep sands. At one point, an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) literally brushed him, its heat setting his shirt on fire. Shouting to his gunner to take command, he leaped from the tank and rolled in the sand to extinguish the fire. His gunner turned the machine gun on Egyptians closing in. One fell dead a few feet from Brik. Intact except for a badly singed face, he scrambled back aboard the tank.
As his company moved closer to the canal, Brik saw a solitary tank at the roadside, its crew standing alongside it. Young draftees who had survived the night’s battles along the canal, they seemed stunned. From their stories and from what he had just experienced it was apparent that the Egyptian army they were up against was not the same one they knew. It had seemed in the Six Day War that the IDF had only to stamp its feet and the Egyptians fled. In this war, Egyptian infantrymen were standing up to tank charges and firing back with RPGs.
Brik would remain in combat for the rest of the 19-day war and have seven tanks shot out from under him. At Baluza, his had been the first reserve unit to engage the Egyptians, just 16 hours after the war began. He would also be engaged in the last battle. The cease-fire was officially in effect on October 25 when he was ordered to move closer to Suez City in order to extend the Israeli presence in that sector. Halfway to Suez, the tank commander at the head of the column reported Egyptian tanks among palm trees to their front. Before Brik could react his tank was hit by a shell, killing the driver. He was the son of a future Israeli Supreme Court justice and the last Israeli fatality in the war. A paratroop squad accompanying the tanks attacked the Egyptian tanks but found that their crews had fled.
Of the 120 tank crewmen in the battalion in which Brik served, only seven were still in action when the war ended. Of the original crewmen and their replacements, 80 had been killed and close to 100 wounded — a casualty rate of 150 percent.
Brik would remain in the army after the war and become a major general.
In rectifying the blunders that led to its entering the war so unready, Israel lost 2,600 men, three times as many per capita in 19 days as the Americans would lose in Vietnam in a decade. When the fighting stopped, the IDF was 60 miles from Cairo and in artillery range of Damascus.
The writer is author of “The Yom Kippur War” (Schocken). He can be reached at email@example.com.