The battle of Um Katef, 5-6 June 1967

Between June 5 and 10, 1967, a conflict would rage that would radically alter the borders of the Middle East.

The ‘Six Day War’, as it came to be known, started with a huge sortie of Israeli jets that flew out over the Mediterranean and then low over the Sinai desert.

This triangular-shaped peninsula belongs to Egypt and is wedged between Arabia and Africa, and borders Israel.

Egyptian forces had been building here and, frightened of an invasion, Israel had sent out its Air Force to pre-emptively knockout Egyptian planes while they were still grounded.

Then, with air superiority promptly established, they were to support ground forces as they engaged the enemy.

‘Operation Moked’, as it was called, had been meticulously planned.

Shin Bet and Mossad, Israel’s equivalent of MI-5 and 6, had patiently acquired the most up-to-date information on how Egypt’s planes were arrayed in the Sinai.

The IAF (Israeli Air Force) equipped their planes with a new rocket-powered bomb that could smash up a concrete runway.

This would deny the air not only to planes already shot up or bombed while on the ground, but also those that escaped, by preventing them from taking off. 

Logistics were also very smartly configured so that IAF jets could be refuelled and back in the air within 10 minutes, allowing each plane to be flown up to eight times a day during the opening moves of the war.

This meant that the Israelis would be able to utilise fully 90 percent of their air fleet at any one time; even before the Israeli attacks, Egyptian air forces were only set up to fly 30 percent at a time.

Middle East
Map from ‘The Six Day War 1967: Sinai’ by Simon Dunstan © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing

IAF pilots were also well drilled, having flown combat missions over the Med every day, so that when Operation Moked rolled around on June 5, they were completely ready.

Of course, best-laid plans often don’t work out exactly right, and Moked was no exception.

Jordan, one of Egypt’s allies in the coming conflict, had tracked the jets, despite the 60-foot high altitude they flew at to help evade detection.

Unfortunately for the Egyptians, in a manner that would typify the way it fought this war, they had changed their radio codes without warning the Jordanians and the message never reached them.

The result, naturally, was complete pandemonium, as Israeli jets screamed out of the sky strafing and bombing every Egyptian aircraft in sight.

This too was symptomatic of larger trends. The Israelis, lacking the resources of a larger nation, had no strategic bombing force.

Fighters, therefore, needed to be versatile, so that they could dog fight, bomb, or support ground troops by strafing an enemy. 

Isreali jet
A Mirage, one of the main aircraft used by Israel during the Six Day War

This had led the IDF, Israeli Defense Forces, to evolve quickly from the motley collection of World War 2 aircraft its air force had started out with to procuring state-of-the-art planes from around the world.

When the Egyptians had acquired MiGs, the Israelis knew they too needed jets to keep up, both figuratively and literally. 

France became their key supplier, selling them first the Gloster Meteor F8, then the NF13.

The Dassault Ouragan, Sud Aviation Vautour and then Dassault Mystere IVA fighter followed.

By 1967, the most up to date aircraft in the Israeli arsenal was the Dassault Mirage IIICJ (the J was for “Jew”, representing the aircraft variant sold to Israel).

It was a political as well as a business relationship: Egypt had shown support for the rebels in France’s former colony Algeria.

And France, Britain and Israel had been allies during the Suez crisis of 1956, in which they’d tried to win total military control of the Suez Canal.

They’d failed. The USSR and US, who were now the ones really in charge of global affairs, told them all to knock it off.

Unfortunately for everybody involved, Russia did not continue to play the role of responsible adult in the room.

In fact, their actions in 1967 helped trigger the Six Day War.

Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House Situation Room with McNamara Sec of Defense
President Lyndon Johnson’s cabinet on the eve of the war, including Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara nearest the camera – the US had aimed for neutrality before the war, but their stance changed afterwards

Tensions had been building in the region for years.

While 2017 is the 50-year anniversary of the Six Day War, it is also the 101-year anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Centenary of the Balfour Declaration.

The former, led by France and Britain, carved up the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire (centred in Turkey) at the end of World War 1, doing so with scant regard for the cultural identities of the various populations in the region.

The latter laid out the goal of giving Jews a homeland in the Middle East following centuries of mistreatment in Europe.

That marginalisation of the Jews would, of course, culminate in the Holocaust during the Second World War.

This led to increased emigration by Jews to British-controlled Palestine during the 1930s and 40s, and then to a UN-established homeland, Israel, in 1948.

But as much as significant levels of immigration from the Middle East have become a political hot potato in Europe today, high levels of Jewish immigration to the Middle East caused huge friction in the years before 1948. 

Egypt-Israel border. Looking north from the Eilat Mountains by Wilson44691
The Egypt-Israeli border (image: Wilson44691)

The borders established by the UN were challenged by Palestinians in the First Arab-Israeli War of 1948, which ended with Israel increasing its share of Palestinian territory.

Many considered the 1956 Suez crisis to be the Second Arab-Israeli Conflict, and when the British, French and Israelis gave up the canal following the US/USSR-led UN mandate, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser took this as a sign of Arab victory.

Perhaps another war with Israel might not be such a bad idea.

Surrounded by other hostile neighbours in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, Israel was also open to a war.

This very hostility represented a mortal threat to a country that was, despite its 1948 successes, still only nine miles wide at its narrowest point and which had huge population centres within artillery range of the enemy.

The Israelis felt it just as militarily imperative to acquire more lands as a buffer to future attack and invasion as the Arab nations felt it was cultural imperative to reacquire lost territories. 

What Israel eyed specifically was the West Bank and the Goland Heights, the topography of which lent themselves to shelling the capital, Tel Aviv.

The latter also featured freshwater tributaries for the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee, the main sources of Israel’s fresh water supply.

There had been border clashes and other flare-ups between Israel and her neighbours for years, but it was the water issue that would spark another full-blown war. 

Banyas waterfall in the Golan Heights by Berthold Werner
The Banyas Waterfall in the Golan Heights (image: Berthold Werner)

Israel started using the water from the Jordan River to irrigate desert in its southern territory.

Fearing the extra farmland and food would lead to Jewish population growth, Syria attempted to dam and divert this water supply.

When Israel began getting ready to challenge this militarily, Russia stepped in.

Syria had moved closer to the USSR in 1964 when the Socialist Ba’ath Party had come to power.

Russia would come to the aid of her regional ally by telling Egypt that Israel was also massing on its border with the Sinai. (Israel wasn’t).

Egypt responded by mobilising her vast Army and sending much of it into the Sinai.

It was this that spooked Israel into launching a pre-emptive war, quite naturally fearing imminent invasion from all sides.

Israel was also facing an overwhelming force.

The Egyptian Army consisted of 175,000 men arrayed in 18 infantry brigades.

These included a few special forces battalions, one paratroop brigade and plenty of tanks (over 930), including T-34s (regarded as the best tanks of World War 2), and the more up-to-date T-54s and 55s.

These had larger guns and thicker armour. And that was just in the west.

As noted, various hostile neighbours were also massing on their eastern borders.

Total Arab forces amounted to roughly 550,000.

Six Day War
Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, General Rehavam Zeevi and General Narkis in the old city of Jerusalem

Despite wishing to acquire territory that might engender future security, Israel tried to avoid war.

The aggressive language of their neighbours, calling in some instances for a ‘Second Holocaust’ were seen as mere chest thumping.

But when their water supply was interfered with and the Straits of Tiran were blocked, denying them sea access from their southernmost point, it was clear war was coming.

They appealed to the UN and prepared for the coming conflict, calling up all reserves.

This would give them a relatively meagre 260,000 troops.

But their trump card was their air force, which they deployed to maximum effect.

According to Simon Dunston in ‘The Six Day War 1967: Sinai’:

“During the Six Day War, No. 101 Squadron flew 337 sorties (air raids or combat missions) at an average of 56 sorties a day with just over 11 sorties per pilot or almost two sorties per pilot per day. The sorties were split more or less equally between air combat and ground attack missions. The squadron was credited with 14 air-to-air victories with a kill-to-loss ratio of seven-to-one.”

In other words, Israeli pilots were very good.

Even so, they also got very lucky.

They’d been sent to attack the Egyptian air bases at 8:45, right when enemy pilots would be off having breakfast, leaving their planes on the ground and vulnerable to strafing.

Sunset_in_the_Negev_Desert_near_Yeruham,_Israel by Matthew J Parker
Sunset in the Negev Desert (image: Matthew J Parker)

In addition, by sheer fluke, Field Marshal Abd el Hakim Amer, commander of all of Egypt’s armed forces, was visiting with the head of the Air Force, General Mohammed Sidqi.

They were aboard an Antonov 12 transport aircraft and, not trusting their own men’s judgement, they had instructed the anti-aircraft gunners not to fire their weapons under any circumstances that morning.

Thus, as Israeli jets hammered through the desert at top speed, they were also heading into an air corridor that was guaranteed to be free of all enemy fire.

Each airfield was attacked three times, bombed and strafed.

The Egyptian planes were often lined up wing tip to wing tip, which made it easier for the Israeli pilots to attack their targets.

These were, in descending order of importance: Tupolev Tu-16 bombers (because they could bomb any town in Israel), MiG-21s (because they were supersonic fighters), subsonic fighters, and finally transport planes and helicopters.

One-third of ammo and fuel would be conserved in case any Egyptian planes escaped and dogfights ensued. 

Within 170 minutes, 293 Egyptian aircraft were in flames.

10 Israeli planes were destroyed and six damaged, with six pilots being killed.

As reports of the success trickled in, Air Force Commander Brigadier General Hod went to future prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who now was Chief of Staff for the IDF. He told him: 

“The Egyptian Air Force has ceased to exist.”

Now the ground war against Egypt could begin while the IAF turned its attention to Syria, Jordan and Iraq.

The Jordanian Air Force of 28 aircraft was blown up in just 30 minutes and 52 sorties. The Iraqis lost 10 aircraft, and the Syrians 57, two-thirds of their total.

The total for that day were 416 Arab planes lost (mostly on the ground) to 26 Israeli.

Israeli children in a bomb shelter at Kibbutz Dan during the Six-Day War from Galil Elion Archive
Israeli children in a bomb shelter in the Six-Day War (image: Galil Elion Archive)

Next, the ground war rolled on, literally, as armoured units pushed into the Egypt-controlled Gaza Strip, taking on enemy tanks in the process.

One company commander described the scene:

“No sooner had we passed the outer defences, the first Egyptian T-34/85 longbarrelled gun fired at me, the round missing me by inches. The tank following me quickly sighted on the enemy tank, half hidden in its sand berm and destroyed it with a 90mm AP round. But then the entire front exploded in noisy pandemonium. All at once dozens of dug-in tanks, anti-tank guns of all shapes and sizes, mortars and artillery exploded into action, filling the sky with an overwhelming, suffocating, acrid stench entering our nostrils. It was terrifying for the young tank crews who had never been in action before. Here and there tanks were blazing, some of them enemy, others ours, tankers on both sides scrambling out of their blazing hulks, trying to escape the fire, shrapnel and bullets. Many were completely dazed by the noise and fear, but the charge went on, deep into the enemy positions until the main body reached the Junction.”

Further south, the 202 Paratroop Brigade, under Colonel Raful Eitan, had begun to clear enemy trenches in hand-to-hand fighting.

Here the Israelis had fallen down in their preparation, having not spent any time doing much joint training between paratrooper and armoured units.

The result was that the tank crews moved on too quickly, leaving the paratroopers with too little support. 

The Egyptians took full advantage, moving up heavy IS-3M tanks from the 7 Infantry Division.

These tanks had a distinct look and were called ‘the Pike’.

Their 122mm guns also made them more than a match for the 90mm Pattons. 

The two tanks would engage each other next as several Pattons from the 46 Tank Battalion showed up to support the paratroopers.  

One of the Patton commanders, Captain Shalom Ein Gil, relates what happened next:

“Having heard the order to turn north, I followed Captain Amnon Giladi’s tank when it suddenly exploded in a ball of fire. I could see Amnon slumped over the commander’s cupola, seemingly already dead. I immediately took evasive action, outflanking the blazing tank and traversing to search for the source of the enemy fire. In my hurry I turned too far and found myself heading directly for the enemy anti-tank guns, which all fired directly at me. At full speed I shot through the position, guns blazing, squashing men and guns as we went, followed by the rest of the company. Amazingly, after losing our company commander, we all survived the terrifying charge.”

Elsewhere the Centurion tank units smashed through enemy positions with hardly any casualties.

Some of the Israeli force was, in fact, so successful that it risked being isolated and cut off with dwindling ammunition and fuel supplies. 

So an effort was made to relieve them while the 60 Armored Brigade planned a flanking move on the Jeradi complex.

This was where the “the road twisted and turned down a steep sand dune into a wadi”.

Perhaps because it was difficult terrain to get through, when the Israelis traversed it, they surprised a sleeping Egyptian battalion.

They rammed through with guns blazing and made it to the UN camp outside the town of El Arish.

Here, however, the advance was slowed. They now faced an Egyptian reserve brigade: 

“Clearing the city was hard fighting (according to the IDF official record because) the Egyptians fired from the rooftops, from balconies and windows. They dropped grenades into our half-tracks and blocked the streets with trucks. Our men threw the grenades back and crushed the trucks with their tanks.”

Despite being outnumbered and running low on supplies as night fell, the Israelis managed to get their supply trains through and continued fighting, winning the Battle of El Arish by the following morning.

PzKpfw IV J, captured from the Syrian Army in the Six Day War by Bukvoed
A tank captured from the Syrian Army during the Six Day War (image: Bukvoed)

Superior organisation often carries the day in war, and supply lines are a major factor in logistical planning.

Water was one area the Israelis had studied intensely, and, having worked out that in summer conditions there needed to be one pint of water per man per hour, they moved heaven and earth to meet this requirement.

The hapless Egyptian troops, by contrast, were not as well catered to and often had to fight on without enough water.

This caused reduced efficiency through heat exhaustion. 

Indeed, Brigadier General and future Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was in Sinai, and noted, if somewhat curtly, how badly the enemy soldiers were undercut by their superiors:

“I think the Egyptian soldiers are very good. They are simple and ignorant but are strong and disciplined. They are good gunners, good diggers and good shooters but their officers are shit, they can fight only according to what they planned before.”

The rest of the fight in the Sinai would turn on control of the main traffic arteries.

The capture of the Abu Ageila-Um Katef crossroads was vital as infantry would need to be moved via civilian buses to their place of battle, and supplies would also be moved through this area to any unit further down the peninsula.

But that would be easier said than done.

The Egyptians had worked with Russian engineers to devise and construct a defensive system 22 miles deep in some places and that featured artillery guns, trenches, barbed wire and minefields (a lot like the Western Front).

The heart of it was between Abu Ageila and Um Katef.

To the south there was an entire infantry battalion and 90 T-34 and T-54 tanks and many self-propelled artillery pieces.

Um Katef had the added protection of sand dunes to the north and a ridge of hills to the south.

But the Israelis had held this area during the Suez Crisis in 1956, and before they’d withdrawn, they’d taken pictures for use in case they ever needed to fight their way back in.

What this allowed them to do was to practice driving their tanks in low gear across the kind of sand dunes the Egyptians had taken to be impassable, sand dunes like those around Abe Ageila and Um Katef.

This allowed the Israelis to spring out unexpectedly, from various directions, with infantry attacking and taking trench systems while being supported by their tanks.

The fact that this was a night attack added to the surprise, something the Israelis also used first-rate organisation to get around, including red, green and blue flashlights being issued to different infantry battalions so they could signal to the tanks coming up behind them.

Paratroopers were also dropped strategically by helicopter, whereupon they assaulted key artillery positions.

Colonel Dani Matt was amongst them and remembered the two-kilometre trek between their drop zone and their targets, hauling heavy equipment the whole way.

These are hardly ideal conditions to fight in while in the dark, but the conditions would soon disadvantage the defenders even more (indeed, this was the point of launching a night attack).

When artillery fire came crashing down around them, Colonel Matt quickly realised that it wasn’t aimed fire, and was therefore easily avoided.

The enemy had only been firing in the direction of the noise of the helicopters.

The Egyptian artillery guns, meanwhile, firing upon a distant enemy, lit up the sky and acted like homing beacons, leading the paratroopers right to them. 

When they got there, things continued to go well for the Israelis:

“To my surprise we found that it wasn’t even protected by minefields or barbed wire fences, so we stormed straight in. I had given orders to attack each gun position and they were in a shambles! The gun crews were throwing away their shells, running away in panic, trying to escape our firing. Ammunition bunkers exploded into fiery infernos, the noise became overwhelming, the smoke and dust suffocating. Then, as if by magic, a convoy fully laden with ammunition and with their headlights blazing, came driving right into the battle zone, their drivers completely ignoring what was going on around them. Within seconds they had turned into a blazing inferno, adding to the already chaotic scene in the compound. By now we had almost completed our mission and were busy collecting our dead and wounded, when Gen. Sharon radioed us to return so as to clear the way for the break-in battle, which went ahead according to plan, but without the vicious artillery barrage that we had now eliminated.”

The battle of Um Katef, 5-6 June 1967
Paratroopers attacking artillery gun emplacements during the battle around Abe Ageila and Um Katef (image from ‘The Six Day War 1967: Sinai’ by Simon Dunstan © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Beyond this point, the war largely became one of rapid movement as the rout of the Egyptians become a rapid retreat.

Realising that the enemy would soon escape to the safety of the highly defensible Suez Canal, the Israelis had to rush to intercept them.

They split up and raced along the Sinai’s mountain passes, zipping past the Egyptians in the process so that they could set up roadblocks ahead of them.

When the hammer blows fell, by land and by air, many Egyptians abandoned their vehicles.

The war correspondent James Cameron described the scene at Mitla Pass afterwards: 

“It is a junkyard, with several million pounds worth of enormously costly and intricate military ironmongery reduced to booty or to scrap. The tanks and vehicles littered the wilderness as though it were the nursery floor of a demented child with its toys stricken and strewn like rubbish over a dustbin the size of Yorkshire. Nothing I had ever seen so illustrated the mercilessness, the wastefulness of war. Some 400 of these vehicles died that day. Some were mangled hunks of complicated iron, reduced to ruin by the British 105mm gun installed on the Israeli Centurions.”

Mount Sinai (Gabal Musa) public domain or cirodite
Mount Sinai (image: Gabal Musa/cirodite)

Meanwhile, on the other side of Israel, battles over the West Bank and Golan Heights were unfolding.

Here too, Israeli planes, transferred from the Sinai campaign, had destroyed much of the enemy’s air forces by the afternoon of June 5.

The advance into the West Bank was hampered by lack of mine-clearing equipment (it had been put into the campaign in Sinai).

This led to ‘dozens of legs being lost’, so said Colonel Ben Ari.

According to Lieutenant Col Gal, quoted in Simon Dunstan’s ‘The Six Day War 1967: Jordan and Syria’:

“With no other choice the infantry had to attack without tank cover under a heavy Jordanian bombardment, leaping from stone to stone to avoid the mines. The battle was brutal with knives and bayonets.”

As per Ariel Sharon’s observation of the Egyptians, he was fighting in the Sinai, a poor officer corps seemed to let down otherwise good Jordanian soldiers.

These men were abandoned by their commanders and the disarray that befell them no doubt contributed to their quick defeat.

Goland Heights by Team Venture
A hill in Israel near the Goland Heights (image: Team Venture)

With key hills in Israeli hands, the next assault would be urban.

Jerusalem had been a city of three great religions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – under international UN rule, but now the Israelis planned to capture it.

This would not be an easy battle though.

The Israeli paratroopers encountered a thicket of savage resistance, with bunkers, trenches and barbed wire entanglements all protecting elite enemy troops.

They fought their way through bit by bit, blowing barbed wire open with Bangalore torpedoes, and using coordinated grenade and Uzi sub machine-gun attacks to move from one defensive position to the next.

Fighting bravely to the last, Jordanian commander Captain Salayta stayed in his post until the Israelis were within 15 metres, at which point he called in an artillery barrage on his own position before bolting at the last minute to avoid it. 

This tooth and claw fighting went on at the Jordanian Police Academy, at Ammunition Hill, and at the stronghold atop it.

The last of these was the most difficult, with savage hand-to-hand fighting breaking out in the close-quarters of the trenches.

By the end of the battle, only seven paratroopers from the entire company (roughly 150 men) sent to take the top of Ammunition Hill came out alive and unwounded.

The total paratrooper force numbered 500 that day and 37 of these men were killed while 150 were wounded.

The Jordanians suffered 106 dead and at least that number wounded during the battle.

The battle of the Dothan Valley, Samaria, 6 June 1967
Israeli tanks work their way up the northern end of the West Bank in the Battle of Dothan Valley (image from ‘The Six Day War 1967: Sinai’ by Simon Dunstan © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

For the Israelis it had been worth it.

Now the Kotel, the ‘Wailing Wall’, which was part of an ancient temple complex and considered to be the holiest place in the Jewish religion, was in their hands…

 For the first time in over a thousand years. Many of the paratroopers wept with joy.

Elsewhere, celebrations of a different sort occurred.

As they moved deeper into the West Bank territory, to their surprise, the Israeli soldiers were greeted joyously by the local Palestinians.

This wasn’t a trick. As the war had unfolded and Israel had accumulated a collection of enormous victories, Arab leaders had responded with propaganda, claiming that the victories had instead been theirs. 

Israeli tanks were therefore being mistaken for Iraqi ones.

As they got closer and both sides took proper stock of each other, violence again broke out. 

Not that civilians had any chance against soldiers and tanks, which is why many would end up fleeing, permanently.

Most would end up in Jordan and Gaza. This large refugee pool is one of many contentious issues from the war that last to this day.

696 Jordanians had been killed and 2,500 wounded defending the West Bank.

The Syrians, meanwhile, suffered few casualties despite being the main instigators, or at least the main reason, for the war.

Once their air force was destroyed, they bombarded Israel with artillery rather than committing ground troops.

The Israelis suffered 553 dead (including 183 in the Battle of Jerusalem) and 2,442 wounded in the fighting over the West Bank – more than in the whole Sinai campaign.

As the end of the war approached, the Israelis launched one last campaign.

While political leaders wanted to wait for the UN ceasefire to take effect, Defence Minister General Moshe Dayan had a last-minute change of plan for his forces.

He had been intercepting and examining diplomatic communications through the night and the following morning he called Brigadier General Dado Elazar and instructed him to attack the Golan Heights. 

The reason was that the Egyptians and Syrians had agreed to the UN ceasefire and had let their guard down.

To Elazar this meant opportunity: if Israeli troops could be placed on these hills before it came into effect, then the Golan Heights would belong to them.

PikiWiki_Israel_4207_landscape_in_Ramat_Hagolan farms in the Golan heights by shifra Levyathan
Farmland in the Goland Heights (image: shifra Levyathan)

This was a highly contentious issue, even within Israel.

Both Syrians and Israelis coveted the rich farmland the territory offered, and the settlers’ lobby had pressured the government in Tel Aviv over the matter.

But there was also a military consideration: as mentioned, Israel had been shelled from these heights.

If they were incorporated into Israeli territory, this might improve the future security of the country.

So IDF planes bombarded the position and bulldozers pushed their way up the slopes, scratching out better tracks for the tanks that would follow.

When one driver was shot dead, another would leap into the cab of a bulldozer and continue the vital digging. 

Paratroopers of the 55 Paratroop Brigade were also sent in to seize and hold ground and got there just in time. 

By this point, the enemy’s fighting spirit had been severely sapped fighting the armoured units that had poured onto the heights after the bulldozers had done their work. 

The Paratroops, by contrast, had an easy go of it. One of them remembered:

“The flight took six minutes. It was a beautiful trip. All that was missing was an air hostess. We passed over a Syrian anti-aircraft gun manned by four soldiers. They didn’t fire a shot. You won’t find anything like this except in an Arab army. We landed in a wheat field and finished them off.”

Syria was in a terrible position, having been taken completely by surprise, and then left to fight alone once the attack had started. Karma had come calling, and, having offered no military help to its Arab allies, Syria had now received no military support either. 

Forces were hurriedly withdrawn to Damascus to protect the Ba’athist Regime there, many members of which had already fled the heights, fearing an uprising at home if they were significantly beaten by an Israeli incursion into their capital.

Three_Wiser_Men returnign to Egypt after Six Day War by Geoff aka Jeff Hook
A political cartoon: Three Wiser Men, the leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, returnig to Egypt after the Six Day War (image: Geoff aka Jeff Hook)

The entire war had been a disaster for all the Arab nations involved.

Their defeats were largely a forgone conclusion, something American intelligence had determined before the war commenced.

Part of this came down to what Ariel Sharon so bluntly pointed out, that ‘enemy officers were shit’. It also went beyond this, all the way to the top.

After Nasser had got into power he’d very quickly turned Egypt into a corrupt autocratic regime.

High military rank was attained through currying favour with the right person, instead of through competence.

Nassar also hijacked the intelligence services. As Air Vice Marshal Abd el-Hamid El-Dighidi noted, while Israeli intelligence did its job, “Egyptian military intelligence was spying on me, not for me”.

Brigadier General Tahsin Zaki’s observations are similarly damning:

“Israel spent years preparing for this war whereas we prepared for parades. The drills for the annual Revolution Day parade went on for weeks… but there were not preparations for war.”

Indeed, Nasser was probably more responsible for the defeat in the Sinai than any other individual.

Additionally, he had committed troops to a civil war in the Yemen between 1962 and 1970.

The monarchy there were at war with republican reformers, with Saudi Arabia and a band of SAS mercenaries (organised partly by SAS founder David Stirling) backing the royalist side.

So this too had sapped Egypt’s strength and diverted a huge portion of its military machine. 

A sharp contrast, to be sure, with the Israeli experience. One paratrooper saw it this way:

“This is an interesting country. There’s never a dull moment. You have a war. In six days it’s over and you have turned the whole world upside down.”

Though the speed of the victory is an extremely important point. 

Flickr_-_Israel_Defense_Forces_-_Female_Soldiers_Unload_their_Weapons
Female Israeli soldiers

Israel had a largely citizen army.

The vast majority of their military personnel were either reservists or conscripts. When war came, the factories and offices emptied of workers.

Had the war not been short, the Israeli economy might not have been able to sustain itself.

What they wanted was security, and they the offered territories they’d captured, such as the Sinai, for a guarantee of peace.

But they were rebuked with the ‘three no’s’: No to recognition of the state of Israel, no to negotiations with Israel, and no peace for Israel. 

Indeed, while the war was a solution to immediate security concerns,

it created many longer-term problems.

One of the most prominent was the annexation of the Gaza Strip, which Defense Minister General Moshe Dayan had advised against occupying, calling it a “nest of wasps… stuck with a quarter of a million Palestinians” that it would be crazy to get stuck with.

The Palestinians weren’t the only problem Israel would be stuck with.

Under the leadership of Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat, Egypt reorganised itself militarily and launched a fresh assault on the Sinai peninsula in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

The Arabic nations may had been ashamed in 1967, telling their populations, in a desperate face-saving measure, that Israel had won because of American and British military intervention.

This angered the UK and US, driving the US into an alliance with Israel when it had hitherto aimed to be even-handed in Arab-Israeli matters.

But at least Yom Kippur had helped make up for some of this. 

Though hardliners on both sides would not be placated. 

In the Arab world, the secularism of the Ba’athist movement and pan-Arab movement led by Nassar had both failed to win a resounding victory against Israel – perhaps religious fundamentalism could succeed where they had failed. 

In Egypt, despite Sadat’s important military achievement in 1973, when he signed the Sinai Treaty (or Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty) at Camp David in 1979, he angered many Islamists.

This is because it called for mutual diplomatic recognition between the two countries and an end to hostilities in exchange for the Sinai coming back into Egyptian hands.

This the Islamists could not abide, and Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by followers of the group Egyptian Islamic Jihad after a fatwa had been issued by the Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was later arrested and convicted in the US in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

In Israel, after signing the Oslo Accords, which led to a degree of Palestinian self-government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Yikzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by right-wing extremist Yigil Amir.

These are just two prominent examples of casualties in a larger conflict that shows no signs of ending. 

For more on this conflict, read ‘The Six Day War 1967: Sinai’ and ‘The Six Day War 1967: Jordan and Syria’, both by Simon Dunstan. Visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.

Sadat and Rabin
Sadat and Rabin