Sunday, January 01, 2017

Sinai Battle Revisited

For decades, the October 14 attack has been shrouded in myths. "The Battle of the Sinai" has been called the biggest tank battle since Kursk, a veritable armageddon pitting a thousand Egyptian tanks against 700 Israeli, and ending in a catastrophic rout of the attackers. According to the standard narrative, the desert became a vast graveyard of Egyptian armor.
Historians have long accepted Israel's claim to have knocked out 250 tanks. Some authors even provide statistics for each attacking unit:
  • In No Victor No Vanquished, O'Ballance wrote that the Israelis knocked out 110 of the 21st Armored division's T-55s. The defenders also claimed 93 tank kills in the vicinity of Galan, and others elsewhere. The final tally came to about a quarter of a thousand.
  • In Elusive Victory, Dupuy is more detailed, and clearly indicates the same total. He wrote that Egypt's northernmost forces lost 50 tanks. Farther south, in the Second Army sector, two brigades of the 21st armored division lost 30 T-55s each. In the Third Army front, failed thrusts toward the Giddi and Mitla passes cost a total of 60 tanks. The southernmost assault toward Sudr incurred the greatest loss, almost 90 tanks. Combining all these figures yields, again, about 250.
  • In his On the Banks of the Suez, Adan arrived at a similar total, albeit suspiciously, with a mix of different numbers. According to him, the Israelis destroyed fifty tanks of the 3rd Armored brigade (Fourth Armored Division) at Wadi Mabouk, an unspecified number west of the Mitla pass and twenty near the Giddi. Farther north, the 21st armored division's 14th brigade suffered "forty smashed tanks." Another of the 21st's brigades, the 1st, also lost 40 T-55s. East of Kantara the 15th Armored brigade lost 30 T-62s. Elsewhere in the Second Army area, the Israelis set 40 more tanks ablaze. Altogether, Adan wrote, the Israelis eliminated 200. His own figures, added up, come to 220, or actually 250, given the probable claimed toll, not indicated, for the Mitla battle.
  • In Arabs at War Military Performance 1948-1991, Pollack's account was not as detailed but his final number is essentially the same--264-267.
Various other authors such as Chaim Herzog, and even the Egyptians Shazli and Gamasy, have also accepted the figure of approximately 250. It should be noted, however, that discrepancies in the various accounts raise doubts about its accuracy. Dupuy, for example, wrote the 3rd brigade lost "almost 90" tanks whereas Adan said it lost 50. The two authors also gave different figures for the 21st division. Dupuy indicated it lost 60 tanks, Adan said 80. And no other writer includes O'Ballance's story of 93 tanks wrecked around Galan on the 14th. Galan is the Chinese Farm, which didn't see action until late the next day. Not surprisingly, newer works have cast doubt on the standard narrative, or openly challenged it:
  • In The Yom Kippur War, Rabinovich repeated Adan's version of the northermost action, including the alleged destruction of thirty T-62s. But he didn't embrace the oft repeated figure of 250. Rabinovich put the total Egyptian loss at "between 150 and 250 tanks." Some of his other information can be taken as evidence for an inflated, standard figure. 
Interestingly, Rabinovich  indicated some Israelis were skeptical the attack was the Egyptian plan's Phase 2, the advance to the passes. Dayan didn't believe it was and while Elazar did, he thought it was on a "smaller scale" than anticipated. Since the offensive didn't appear very big to the Israelis, their claim of  inflicting huge losses is dubious. Furthermore, Rabinovich indicated the Israelis were dissatisfied with the outcome. Sharon hinted at the brief and limited nature of the attack. He said the 21st division came, got hit and ran. Hoping to destroy more forces, Sharon and other generals put out disinformation. By portraying the Israelis as beaten or desperate, radio messages sought to trick the Egyptians into attacking again. This wouldn't have been necessary had Cairo's forces really received the drubbing Israel claimed they did.
  • In The Egyptian Strategy for the Yom Kippur War, Asher rejects the figure of 250. He considers Emanuel Wald's figure of 150 tanks destroyed (out of only 300 that tried to advance that day) "more realistic."
  • In ARAB MIGs Volume 6, Cooper et al cite Asher, and a US Intelligence report stating that Egypt lost only 76 tanks.The authors do not correctly quote Asher (who accepts Wald's figure of 150 tanks wrecked, not 100 with 50 more damaged which Cooper attributes to Asher). The authors do however, indicate the standard narrative is wrong. In view of significantly lighter, real losses, how did the battle get blown out of proportion?
Cooper et al clearly explain the reasons for the exaggeration. Eager to claim a big victory after a week of costly fighting, the Israelis hyped Cairo's losses. Ironically, the Egyptians also needed to exaggerate the magnitude of the battle, and their sacrifices. The offensive had resulted from Syria's plea for help, so Cairo wished to appear to be doing its utmost. In reality the Egyptian generals, as Cooper noted, were only putting on a show.
Shazli and his colleagues were appalled by the order to attack. This order stemmed from the ineptitude of Sadat. He was deluded enough to expect a great victory, but professional military men knew better. Indeed, if an offensive were pressed with determination, it would result in catastrophe. Unable to evade the order, Shazli and others devised a plan to minimize the scale of the defeat. They attacked with the smallest possible force and disengaged as soon as possible. That they succeeded to a considerable degree is indicated by Israeli dissatisfaction with the outcome.
The October 14 battle may have been less of a disaster than was long thought. Nevertheless Shazli was right to point to it as a watershed--a serious setback which turned the war in Israel's favor. The ultimate result was the entrapment of the Third Army. Egypt may have lost fewer tanks on the 14th than Israel claimed. But by sending key armored units into Sinai, Sadat deprived the west bank of reserves needed to stem the Israeli tide.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Alternate Mideast Scenario 1980s

Imagine Badawy and 13 other senior officers eating breakfast before their fatal copter ride of March 2, 1981. What might've happened had some of them gotten suspicious, averted their fate and taken action against their would-be killer? Here is how things might've gone differently on that fateful day, and subsequently:
Badawy  "Isn't it odd that all of us are to board the copter, just to watch these maneuvers?
General X "Indeed, what is so important about these exercises that all of us were sent here? There's nothing so special about this. Just last year, there was a key test of our defenses at the eastern entrance to the Mitla pass. It's hard to imagine something more important, but not half of us were there."
Badawy "What's really odd is, why is the President so keen on getting the views of those whom, just a short while ago, he wanted thrown out of the army? He wanted me to get rid of most of you here."
General Y "So what might the answer be?"
Badawy "Gentleman, I have a strong suspicion the President wants to get rid of us. He doesn't want us dismissed. He wants us dead."
General X "He wants to kill us??! Then why send us here?"
Badawy  "Gentleman, I think we should be very careful about that copter. It could be sabotaged. Here are all the officers he wants to get rid of, and all of us are supposed to get into that copter..."
General Y "You think Sadat arranged to have a bomb placed aboard?"
Badawy "I'd strongly advise we inspect that copter before taking off in it."
General Z "I'll order the aircrew to test fly it."

So with fourteen senior officers watching, the pilot took off on a test flight. Sure enough, the helicopter quickly became unstable, fell, crashed and exploded.

General X "Field Marshall Badawy, you just saved our lives!"
General Y "That new guy on the maintanence staff(!!). I wondered what he was doing with the copter last night, and why he left."
Badawy "He was doing Sadat's bidding! Our lives are saved only for the time being. Sadat will crush us, unless we get him first! The die is cast, gentlemen! We must assume command of our units immediately, and oust Anwar before he tries again!"
General Z "Field Marshall, I have an idea. To keep blackass (Sadat) in the dark as long as possible, I'll have them report the helicopter came down with all fourteen of us aboard, in an area of dunes not far from Siwa, and troops are trying to locate the crash site."
Badawy "Excellent! As soon as that message goes out those commanding troops near Cairo will board the plane here and fly back to their units. Hit the Presidential Palace as soon as possible, and report back to me. The rest of us will take command of troops here, and send them back east. "

And so Sadat, who thought he had wiped out all the officers he disliked, was overthrown and killed along with Mubarak. To avoid the appearance of a military junta, Badawy elevated former foreign minister Fahmy to the Presidency. Badawy remained Defense Minister, although he was the de facto head of state. Shazly was recalled from exile and given his old job of Chief of Staff. His skill, and popularity among the soldiers, were key assets. Badawy's reputation as a war hero made most Egyptians willing to support his regime.
The fall of Sadat led to greatly improved relations between Egypt and other arab states, and Iran. Few of them had liked Sadat's peacemaking. The Kremlin was also delighted. Brezhnev could now resume his role as Cairo's chief backer, reversing the work of Kissinger.
Publicly, Fahmy and Badawy said they wouldn't abrogate the peace treaty with Israel. They knew the Egyptian masses preferred peace and they didn't want to provoke Washington and Tel Aviv too soon. Privately, however, the Egyptians told the Syrians, Saudis, Iranians etc the treaty would be dumped eventually--sometime after Israel withdrew from all of Sinai in April 1982. The rise of Fahmy, who resigned during Sadat's 1977 trip to Jerusalem, made the new regime's promise quite credible.
Skeptical that Israel would make the concessions necessary for a comprehensive settlement, Fahmy and Badawy resolved to apply the necessary military and economic pressure. The Saudis and other rich arabs were to provide funding for massive new arms purchases. Badawy's shopping list included Mirage 2000s, TU-22s, MIG-25s, T-72/80s etc, all in lavish abundance.
While preparing for a showdown with zionists, Cairo fostered peace among muslims. To maximize arab capability against Israel, Egypt sought to end the Iran-Iraq war. Rather than openly siding with Iraq, Fahmy contacted Iran and attempted to mediate the conflict. At first Teheran resisted his efforts. However, after its failure near Basra in July 1982, Iran accepted a peace in which its territory was returned in exchange for peace.
Badawy's government also meant peace in North Africa. Given the prospect of a new jihad against Israel, Ghadafy refrained from meddling in Chad, and a terrible misadventure was avoided.
Unwilling to take the onus for the breakdown of peace, Israel completed its withdrawal from Sinai in April 1982. The new Egyptian regime did not, however, deter the Israeli strike on Osirak in July 1981, nor the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. The latter proved costly to Syria and the Palestinians.
Fahmy and Badawy claimed Egypt was not ready for war and could not help Syria and the PLO. But the Israeli invasion gave Cairo the pretext it needed to dump the peace treaty. This preserved Cairo's new influence in the region. By late 1982 Syria and Egypt were in the midst of massive rearmament, while Iraq, now at peace, was making plans to send forces to Syria.
Badawy knew that Egypt shouldn't mass forces close to the Israeli border. That would invite a rerun of 1967. In 1982, Egypt needed about five years to become fully ready, and Israel was planning a preemptive war. For the time being, most of Cairo's army was deployed along the line of the passes.
In 1983, both sides continued their feverish buildups. Seeking to revive the peace treaty, Washington halted aid to Egypt until it recommitted itself. But Libyan and Gulf aid more than compensated for the the loss. Needless to say, the US continued to arm Israel, but demanded that it not launch a preemptive attack.
Nevertheless, Israel was determined to crush the Arabs. It seemed the best time to attempt this was the election year 1984. In order to get Jewish money and votes, US politicians would have to back Israel no matter what.
In September 1984, the Israeli blitz began. The Arabs were, however, forewarned, and had learned much from the debacle of 1982. SAM and interceptor forces were much improved, so the IAF strikes were unsuccessful. On the ground Israeli forces launched a holding attack near Kuneitra while masses of armor poured into Lebanon. The IDF sought to overwhelm Syria's right flank, and take the Syrian forces near the Golan from the rear. Meanwhile, armored columns raced deep into Sinai.
Soon, Israel's offensives ran into trouble. The thrust into Lebanon bogged down in the Bekaa. Iraqi and Jordanian forces helped contain the attacks. Egyptian troops repulsed the enemy at the passes, including the Jiradi. Soon Israel became mired in a war of attrition. Fighting in static positions proved futile and  costly.
Jerusalem's attempt to exploit the elections backfired. Bailing Israel out in a war it had started cost the US billions of dollars. Millions of Americans resented the expense and the lobby behind it. In addition, the US economy began to suffer from a new oil embargo imposed, like that of '73, in retaliation for US aid to Israel.
After the cease fire that fall, Israel had more territory but overall was in worse shape than ever. Eager to end the embargo, the US agreed, by 1985, to pressure Israel out of Sinai and Lebanon. The excellent performance of his forces, and the fact Jerusalem got virtually no concessions from the arabs, enabled Badawy to proclaim a victory. An even bigger political victory soon followed.
Demoralized by the outcome of the war, and fearing a new one that decade, Israel finally agreed to withdraw from all of the territories seized in 1967.
We can't really know what would've happened had the tragic event of March 1981 been averted. It is entirely possible, though, that the outcome for the whole region would've been far better. And even though this scenario is fantasy, I believe some of it will ultimately come true.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

The Martyrdom of Defense Minister Badawi

On March 2, 1981, fourteen Egyptian officers perished in a helicopter crash. Among the dead was the Defense Minister, Ahmed Badawi. The aircrew survived but Badawi, nine major generals, one brigadier general and three colonels lost their lives. The tragedy was officially called an accident. In reality it was a purge, aimed at wiping out all vestiges of opposition to Sadat.
There appears to have been some confusion, or obfuscation, about the cause of the "accident." Reports said that soon after takeoff, the helicopter hit "an iron barrier" or "lamp post," or that its rear became "tangled in wire." Those actually present, however, blamed the machine, not some obstruction. The pilot claimed the copter's engine suddenly lost power. A survivor heard an officer cry out "there's something wrong with this plane!"
There were ample grounds for suspicion. Why was the Defense Minister and so many officers on the same aircraft? How could the pilot blunder into an electric wire (or lamp post) in broad daylight? The pilot, who told a version at odds with the official one, was shot at his apartment a few months later. He was probably slain for failing to keep quiet.
Determined to ensure Egypt adhered to his new policy toward Israel and Washington, Sadat sought to neutralize the October war heroes who might challenge it. Foremost among those heroes was Badawy.
Born in Alexandria in 1927, Badawi studied at the Frunze Academy, and in 1958 became a senior lecturer in Egypt. He participated in all of Cairo's wars with the Jewish state, and distinguished himself in the October war.
In 1973, Badawi commanded Egypt's 7th Infantry division. On October 8, one of Israel's foremost generals, Sharon, led a division of IDF reserves against the the 7th. The result was a little known but major Israeli defeat. It was even worse than the setback near Firdan that day. Sharon withdrew after losing forty tanks. Several days later, Badawi attempted to outflank Israeli forces near the Giddi pass. His tactics were in marked contrast to the frontal attacks of other arabs. Badawy was the division  commander most respected by the enemy.
Even after the disastrous encirclement of the Third Army bridgehead, Badawi proved his worth. He was given command of the entire force stranded on the east bank i.e. the 19th infantry division besides the 7th, and other forces. Keeping this force intact under the most trying circumstances testified to Badawi's dedication and skill.
Badawi's performance led to his promotion after the war. On May 14, 1980, he became Egypt's Defense Minister. It was not an auspicious time for a dedicated patriot, however.
Under Sadat, Egypt had embarked on a course totally different from the one Badawi and his colleagues could relate to. After his flight to Jerusalem in 1977, Sadat soon negotiated a peace deal with Israel. Committed to his new course, Sadat felt the military was no longer so vital, and should be downgraded and sidelined. Inevitably, this caused friction with those who thought otherwise.
In an address to Parliament some time before his death, Badawi made controversial remarks. Peace, he insisted, "should not lead to any change in the nature or mission of the Armed Forces."
After Badawy's demise, Alwy Hafez, a member of Parliament and close friend of the deceased, accused Sadat and Mubarak of murdering him and his 13 colleagues. Badawy was killed, Hafez thought, because he threatened to expose corrupt arms deals with Washington. Marginalization of the military had led to nefarious activity.
Just two weeks before his fatal crash, Badawi confronted Sadat about the corruption but the President ignored him. Sadat said more purges were needed to keep the military loyal. Infuriated, Badawi refused, saying that the men Sadat wanted removed were Egypt's best officers. According to Hafez, the Defense Minister soon concluded that Sadat must be overthrown. Assuming Badawi expressed this view only to his closest friends, the President probably never heard of it. Badawi's fate, however, was sealed.
Unable to induce Badawi to carry out a purge, Sadat did it himself. With the ruthlessness and cunning of Stalin, he decimated his general staff. In view of the potential threat posed by Badawy and his colleagues, it wasn't enough to fire them. They were to be slain. Evidently, two weeks was enough time for Sadat and his henchmen to plot the murders. The President ordered Badawi and the others to Siwa, ostensibly to review exercises. He had a sabotaged copter ready for them, or saboteurs among the maintanence staff. Sadat was almost certainly responsible for getting all fourteen officers into the copter. Only the President had the authority to order them all in. He probably claimed he needed as much professional opinion as possible, so they should all go on the "inspection tour." A cover story and a eulogy were readied in advance....
For many years, Badawi had faithfully served his country, often at great personal risk. He prevented the disintegration of the Third Army at the start of the war and for months afterwards. Israel's vaunted war machine couldn't kill him. What ultimately proved fatal was his integrity--when Sadat was in power. Not satisfied with ignoring his generals, Sadat had many of them dismissed, exiled, even murdered. Badawy's death was referred to as a martyrdom, and that's exactly what it was.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Communication Breakdown '67

The memoirs of General Mohammed Fawzi, in Reconstructing a Shattered Egyptian Army, provide insight into the failure of Egyptian communications during the 1967 war. Years after the disaster, Fawzi wrote:
"Sixteen communications battalions needed for the deployed Egyptian infantry corps and reserves remained behind on the west bank of the Suez Canal on the Egyptian side and therefore had not been set up to communicate in the field." Fawzi indicated this was the situation on the morning of June 5, 1967, when war broke out. From the start, Cairo's forces in Sinai lacked vitally needed communications equipment and personnel. Of course there must have been some means of communication already in place. But it probably didn't amount to much and soon succumbed to the stresses of combat. Fawzi's recollections suggest the problem was not so much a breakdown of communications but a lack of sufficient communications in the first place. Evidently, there just weren't enough radios and radiomen to adequately convey situation reports and orders. When the minimal existing capability, east of the canal, broke down, each unit was effectively on its own. Under the circumstances, the withdrawal order led to disaster. Although the frontier divisions were overrun before the order was issued, reserve forces suffered grievously from lack of command control. Some just disintegrated, and none could be employed in an effective, coordinated fashion. The withdrawal became a rout.
Can we be sure the 16 battalions mentioned by Fawzi played no role in the war? Couldn't they have  crossed the canal after the war began, and aided their assigned units? This doesn't seem likely.
After the Israelis neutralized the Egyptian Air Force in their initial strikes, they targeted Egyptian infrastructure in the canal zone. No doubt their goal was to hinder resupply and reinforcement of the Sinai force. Since the Egyptians could not provide air cover, it is likely the Israeli mission succeeded. Few if any communications units may have crossed, and it was probably too late anyway. Fawzi didn't say why the units weren't where they belonged at the start. But once the conflict erupted, the situation couldn't be rectified, and catastrophe was the result.
Failure to ensure proper command and control wasn't the only communications failure during the war. Another egregious error involved intelligence. Fawzi described how a chance to thwart Israel's surprise attack was squandered:
"The Egyptian War Ministry in Cairo received two warnings from military intelligence in Arish....This message was the result of the Jordanian listening post at Ajloun, where it began to detect Israeli movements at 0400 and where it then sent warnings to Egyptian posts in Arish. The Egyptian intelligence officers did not forward this 0400 message urgently, issuing it at 0700. This nonurgency meant the message arrived at the General Staff at 0940; the Israeli attack began at 0800...."
Had the 0400 report been forwarded right away, the General Staff could've gotten it three hours before 0940, or at 0640--leaving ample time to alert the EAF. A timely warning might not have prevented the destruction of Egypt's air force but it could've cost the Israelis a lot more and tied down their air force longer.
Failure to ensure proper communications and convey a key message cost Egypt much of its armed forces, and the Sinai. Fawzi and his colleagues faced the daunting challenge of rebuilding the army and avoiding its past mistakes.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Alternate Scenarios Iraq 1980-91

Iraq's defeat in 1991 was probably the most lopsided in military history. Estimates of Iraqi tank losses range from 3,200 to 3,900. In contrast, the US lost just half a dozen tanks, all to mines. US Marine M-60s destroyed hundreds of Iraqi T-62s, but the latter didn't score a single hit on any Marine vehicle. Saddam also lost up to 800 of his best tanks, the T-72s. Their gunners hit only seven M-1 Abrams tanks. None of those hits proved fatal, and most failed to penetrate M-1 armor. Baghdad's losses in troops, aircraft, SAMs etc were also staggering. Seldom if ever has one side prevailed so overwhelmingly at such minimal cost. Coalition forces wiped out a vast army while losing only a few hundred dead, many of them due to friendly fire accidents.
Was this catastrophic rout inevitable? Could Saddam have tried to dominate the Persian Gulf without incurring such a fate? A number of changes, on both the strategic and tactical levels, might've achieved his dream.
First, Saddam should've better timed his move. The invasion of Kuwait occurred in August 1990. By then, the Cold War was over, and the USSR had disintegrated. Iraq no longer had a superpower backup to restrain the US. As the sole remaining superpower, the US was now free to batter Iraq without fear of Soviet intervention. American and other coalition forces were no longer tied down in Europe to face the Soviets. They could be redeployed to face Saddam.
Had Iraq tried to takeover Kuwait much earlier, while the USSR was still viable, the risk of major western opposition would've been greatly reduced. Few American forces could be spared for the Gulf and their freedom of action would've been limited. Washington did not want to provoke a nuclear war.
An earlier move south required that Saddam avoid war with Iran. It was foolish to attack Iran in 1980, and become bogged down in a war which drained Iraq's resources and strength. Had the money and personnel wasted fighting Iran been invested in more and better military technology and training, Iraqi performance might've been significantly--perhaps even decisively--enhanced.
As Iraq's early performance against Iran showed, it probably wasn't ready to invade the gulf monarchies had it targeted the latter in 1980. Saddam would've been well advised to build up his country's capabilities for about five years, until c November 1985, before moving south. With a much stronger force and a superpower backup, he could've rolled over Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, with hardly more than a protest from Washington. (Of course since its 1979 revolution Iran was no longer willing to defend the arab monarchies.)
There would've been an added benefit to avoiding war with Iran. Without an Iranian front, Iraq's air defenses around Osirak, its nuclear facility, would've been much stronger. They could've prevented the destruction of the facility in 1981, by deterring or repelling Israeli attackers. An intact nuclear program might've granted Saddam the Bomb by the mid '80s, the hypothetical time of his big attack southward. Possession of even a small nuclear arsenal would've made outside powers even more hesitant to oppose Iraq.
But let's assume Iraq made all of the mistakes it did historically down to August 1990. Was it doomed to defeat the moment its forces invaded Kuwait?
Quite possibly not. No doubt, had the Iraqis known the US and its allies would ultimately launch a fullscale military operation against them, they would've gone allout to prevent it. Apparently thinking the West would soon accept his fait accompli in Kuwait, Saddam refrained from invading Saudi Arabia. He could easily have taken the oil rich kingdom. It took days, or weeks, before enough coalition forces had arrived ("Operation Desert Shield") to preclude this option. Had Iraq invaded Saudi Arabia in force right after taking Kuwait, it could've overrun the country's key oil region, exporting facilities, airfields and gulf ports. Most were within reach of Iraqi divisions in Kuwait. The Iraqis could've alleviated the logistical problems of such an operation simply by plundering food and fuel etc in captured areas--which were undoubtedly lucrative.
Had the objectives been taken, Iraq would've accomplished two important goals. First it would've deprived the Coalition of ports and airfields to bring in forces. Second, by seizing Saudi as well as Kuwaiti oil, Iraq would've had too large a share of world oil production for sanctions to be feasible. Either the oil continued to flow or there would've been a critical shortage. Saudi Arabia historically made up for Kuwaiti production, by pumping more oil, but no state could make up for both Kuwaiti  and Saudi output, had they both been taken (and exports been stopped by the Coalition). The West probably would've had no choice but to accept Saddam's conquests, and pay him for the needed crude.
But what if Iraq had missed this last great chance, so that Operation Desert Storm was looming? Was it not then condemned to humiliation (withdrawal from Kuwait) or disaster?
Almost certainly yes. By that point, it was essentially too late. Iraq should've just pulled out, by December 1990. It would've been a humiliation, but with its armed forces intact, it would've been in a fairy good position to exert influence after the bulk of coalition forces had gone home.
But in arab eyes, a humiliation is worse than a defeat, so Saddam felt he had no choice but to fight. Could he have done so more effectively? This was possible. Strategically and tactically, the Iraqis could've taken a number of steps to mitigate the disaster, perhaps considerably.

  • The Iraqi navy might've disguised its handful of small vessels as dhows, armed them with torpedoes and had them sneak up to US carriers in the gulf at night. When a prearranged signal was given, they'd torpedo the carriers. Even a single hit would probably put a carrier out of action for the duration of the war. If two or three were torpedoed, it would've significantly reduced Coalition airpower arrayed against Iraq.
  • The Iraqis should've known that the US had the means to suppress and knock out their SAM radars, with EF-111 airborne jammers and HARM missiles, respectively. Saddam's SAM crews should've made widespread use of optical backup systems of the kind used by North Vietnam. Had its SAMs remained effective, Iraq would've saved more of its ground forces and further reduced coalition airpower.
  • Saddam might've considered forming a special force of camel borne commandos. Disguised as beduoin, the force could've infiltrated Saudi Arabia via a circuitous route and moved toward the main coalition airfields. When a prearranged signal was given--same time as the torpedo attacks--the camel corps would've race to the airfields and destroyed as many aircraft as possible. Or, at least stopped takeoffs for a few hours. While the airfield or airfields was disrupted, around dawn, Iraqi MIG-23BNs and SU-24s, armed only with gun ammunition, could've struck the airfield(s) giving priority to destroying AWACs and other key assets. Heliborne troops might've also participated.
  • As for the army, the Iraqi infantry should never have been deployed in southern Kuwait, or along the Iraq-Saudi border. It should've been obvious that Iraq could not adequately supply large forces in southern Kuwait. They were at the end of a long logistical tether largely exposed to air attack. The divisions in Kuwait should've been moved farther north, shortening their lines of communication. Many could've been positioned in Kuwait City, threatening the Marines with a Stalingrad if they tried to root them out.  Infantry forces along the Iraq-Saudi border should've been moved to the north and east, along the Medina ridge. There they would've been less vulnerable to logistical strangulation and better able to counter the coalition offensive against the Iraqi right flank in Kuwait. Some infantry units, though, could've been left in scattered positions along the presumed coalition path of advance, to report US movements and attack logistical units after the armor had passed. 
  • Like the infantry, the Republican Guards should've anticipated that the main coalition attack would come from the west toward Kuwait, not through Kuwait itself. The Tawakalna and other RG divisions should've been more alert, and better deployed. In theory they were in a reverse slope position along the Medina ridge, but apparently not well positioned. The T-72s could've aimed their 125mm guns at the ridgeline from a short distance below, so that they could hit the underside of M-1s and other vehicles cresting the ridge. Since M-1 front armor was impenetrable to Iraqi rounds, it was vital to employ some tactic to overcome this difficulty. Firing at vehicles atop the ridge from positions just below was one possibility. Infantry units should've had their RPGs ready for a similar tactic, while other infantry forces alerted the RG of the approaching enemy.
  • There was another ambush tactic the Iraqis might've tried. In the months before the war, they might've built hollow, plastic, dune-shaped structures, with adhesive and real sand attached, to hide their tanks (including their thermal signatures). The dunes would've had windows or doors which could be opened to clear a field of fire. Many of them, concealing tanks, might've been positioned along the presumed enemy routes of advance. When coalition forces passed nearby, the Iraqis could've diverted their attention by shooting from the opposite direction. Turning to face that direction would've exposed the weakly armored sides and rears of US tanks to fire from dune positions. In theory, this approach would've solved the problem of impenetrable M-1 front armor, or boxes of reactive armor, installed on the turrets and fronts of M-60s. Many coalition tanks might've been destroyed.
More realistic and imaginative measures might not have prevented defeat. By making the US pay a higher price, however, Saddam might've made the US public more reluctant to stay in the Gulf, or invade in 2003.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Egypt's T-62s 1973

In The Crossing of the Suez, Shazli wrote that prior to the 1973 war Russia supplied Egypt with 200 T-62 tanks. With its 115mm gun, the T-62 was better armed than the T-55. Still Cairo's main tank, the T-55 had only a 100mm gun. T-62s represented a long overdue improvement. They promised to erode Israel's qualitative superiority. Sadat, however, was concerned about their possible effect on his regime. Fearing that a division of these tanks would be too powerful, and launch a coup, the government created two independent armored brigades. Both saw action early in the war. The infantry needed armor to back them up as soon as possible after the crossing. Therefore, the T-62s crossed the canal in the wake of forces which spearheaded the October 6 assault.
One of the T-62 equipped brigades, the 15th Armored, was attached to the 18th Infantry division at the northern end of the Second Army's bridgehead in Sinai. The other, the 25th Armored, was with the 7th Infantry farther south, in the Third Army sector. The 15th was the first to be committed to battle.
On October 8, when Egypt's 2nd infantry bested Israeli reserves, the 15th armored, near Kantara, did not fare as well. Elements of the brigade advanced and suffered losses. Four T-62s are said to have been destroyed in one engagement and probably more in another.
Adan's book, On the Banks of the Suez, mentions a little known engagement involving the 15th. On October 11 the Israelis saw a dust cloud approaching from the vicinity of the canal. T-62s of the 15th were advancing toward them. One of Adan's brigade commanders, Natke, positioned tanks to meet the Egyptians. The ensuing battle lasted only a few minutes. Fifteen T-62s were set ablaze and the rest retreated. The 15th lost, but still accomplished something. Its gunners killed an Israeli company commander and Mulla, a battalion commander.
Adan wrote that a few days later, on the 14th, the 15th attacked again. Sixty T-62s went into battle and 30 were lost. Rabinovich also claimed 30 tanks hit but provided a more detailed account. After nine T-62s were knocked out in an initial skirmish the 15th regrouped, and launched a second attack which cost it 21 tanks. As a later post will show, the figure of 30 T-62s destroyed, like other claims that day, is almost certainly exaggerated.
After the Israelis crossed the canal, the commander of the Second Army proposed that the 15th brigade be sent back west of the canal to bolster Egyptian defenses. Shazly liked this plan but Sadat and his cronies refused.
The other T-62 equipped brigade, the 25th Armored, is best known for its awful fate on October 17. In an attempt to sever the Israeli crossing point, it was ordered northward along the shore of the Bitter Lake. As Shazly foretold, the 25th fell into a trap and was slaughtered. Generally that is all that is known of the 25th. It did, however, see action prior to the 17th.
According to one version of events, the 25th participated in the premature offensive of October 13, in the Third Army sector. Fifteen of its tanks were knocked out. Therefore, with 75 left, it moved northward on the 17th and lost 65 of them. Ten survivors fled to Botzer.
Adan, again, includes an obscure account. According to him, before its denouement, the 25th participated in the ill-starred offensive of October 14. Around 0800 that day, Israeli tanks firing at long range knocked out five of its advancing tanks. Undaunted, the 25th resumed attacking around noon. It attempted a flanking maneuver south of the Gidi but was again repelled, losing 15 more T-62s.
In their works, Pollack and Nordeen wrote that on October 17, the Israelis hit 85 out of the 25th's 96 tanks. This doesn't appear credible. Adan said its losses were between 50 and 60 tanks. Determined to cross the canal as soon as possible, Adan's forces didn't recover or count the 25th's losses. Buoyed by the rout, and without precise figures, the Israelis exaggerated.
Nevertheless, there's no doubt the 25th had been neutralized. Its fate speaks volumes about Sadat's incompetence as a military commander. In one online forum an Egyptian wrote that "I wish I could go back in time to kick Sadat's butt and see his frigging face after the 25th got slaughtered..." Egypt's T-62s were formidable and should have contributed much to a victory. Had Shazly been heeded, the 15th and 25th might've stymied Israeli efforts west of the canal. Instead they fared poorly because of Sadat, who squandered them in futile attacks.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Instead of Black May, Glorious May

Image result for picture of battleship tirpitz
The Tirpitz

Seventy three years ago this month, the Allies won the Battle of the Atlantic. Aided by codebreaking, huffduf and radar, their escorts and aircraft destroyed 37 German submarines (accidents raised the total loss to 41). The Germans had little to show for their sacrifices. Worldwide, in May 1943, they wrecked only 45 Allied merchantmen. In the crucial North Atlantic, U-boats sank only six ships. Of the 450 merchant vessels in eastbound convoys (i.e. laden with cargoes for Britain) only 5--or about 1%--were sunk. No wonder the Germans called it "Black May."
Was the German disaster inevitable? Most historians would answer in the affirmative. I, however, suggest in May 1943 the Reich could've won a spectacular victory. And in the very place where defeat occurred--the critical North Atlantic run. The key to success was effective use of surface vessels as well as submarines.
It was unfortunate that the big ships of the Kriegsmarine had fallen out of favor by 1943. Scarcity of oil had idled Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and other large warships. Considering the vessels useless scrap iron, Hitler wanted to decomission them. The warships survived only because of their role in tying down British naval assets. They might, in fact, have accomplished much more.
As the May disaster showed, it was fallacious to think U-boats could carry on the sea war unassisted. Given stronger escort forces, they needed the help of the big ships. Tirpitz etc might've caused Allied convoys to scatter so U-boats could sink merchantmen without fear of escorts. That was achieved the previous July during the fight against convoy PQ17. The success might've been replicated in the Atlantic. The Germans, however, could've been even more ambitious. Consider this alternate scenario:

  • First, in late April 1943, the Germans abandon the hunt the convoy ONs 5. Instead,  all available Type VII boats form a patrol line running south of Greenland (or perhaps two parallel north-south lines) with a 150km gap between the northernmost boat(s) and the Greenland ice sheet. Able to determine U-boat dispositions, the Allies route their convoys through this gap.
  • In the stormy weather at the end of April, a German flotilla consisting of Tirpitz, Scharnhorst, Luetzow and a few other warships, sorties from Norway, undetected by Allied aircraft, then grounded in bad weather. Maintaining radio silence, and sailing at low speed to conserve fuel, the flotilla heads for the Denmark strait. The allies are unaware that German ships pass through the Denmark strait and enter the Atlantic.
  • Consisting of 46 ships, convoy HX 237 departs New York on May 1, and sets course for the Greenland gap, which it reaches around May 9. By then the German flotilla is deployed in the gap, waiting for it. Tirpitz and its companions surround the convoy and demand that all merchant crews abandon ship. Any ships that attempt to flee are hit a few times to stop them. To conserve ammunition, however, the warships usually don't sink them. They summon about 20 of the northernmost VIIs to finish off most of the stopped vessels. But the U-boats are ordered not to torpedo any tankers unless authorized. Tirpitz and others determine which tankers are carrying oil suitable for warships, put prize crews on them and sail away a certain distance to refuel from them. Except for a few escapees (mostly stragglers sailing behind the encircled, main body of ships), the rest of HX 237 is wiped out. Total allied losses to this point are 43 merchant ships (the convoy escorts fled).
  • After the HX 239 disaster, the Allies halt further convoy sailings until they can either destroy the German ships or provide sufficient warship escorts. Convoy SC128 had already passed through the gap before the flotilla arrived there, and SC 129 was routed through the new gap caused by the movement of 20 U-boats northward. After that, however, the Allies form a superconvoy, consisting of HX 238 (45 ships) HX 239 (42 ships) and SC130 (37 ships), guarded by two battleships and five cruisers, plus the usual destroyer etc escort. The big convoy sails around May 20. By then the Germans, with many U-boats including several fresh from Kiel, have established a new patrol line with a gap, well south of the first one. Anticipating that the allies would strengthen convoy defenses, the flotilla attempts to trick the escort into abandoning the big convoy. The Germans send a U-boat far to the south, to the Middle Atlantic area. The boat sends a message announcing that, due to mechanical problems, it can no longer escort one of the captured tankers, then in the area. To strengthen the ruse, the flotilla also sends a cruiser, low on ammunition, south where it can be spotted by a middle Atlantic convoy.
  • By May 25, the Allied escort commander is ordered to detach his battleships and cruisers from the big convoy and send them south. With just the usual escort, the big convoy continues into the gap, around May 29. There it is pounced upon by the German flotilla. By this point the allied warships have no hope of returning in time to repel the enemy. A huge convoy of 124 ships is surrounded and defenseless. Some escape, but most comply with the German demand to stop and abandon ship. U-boats again race to the scene to massacre merchantmen. Only a few tankers, as before, are temporarily spared. After two days of slaughter, allied losses amount to 112 merchant ships. In addition, on May 31, U-boats torpedo and sink a battleship, which was searching for the flotilla while other vessels rescued survivors. Its ammunition spent, the flotilla dashes back up the Denmark strait and returns to Norway.
On the North Atlantic run alone, Allied losses in May 1943 are 155 merchantmen,  or about 950,000 tons--vastly surpassing that of any other month of the war. Released from anticonvoy duty, longer range Type IX U-boats bag another 250,000 tons, bringing the total for May to 1.2 million tons, an unprecedented haul. Given some intuition (notably realizing the allies could determine U-boat dispositions) careful planning and a bit of luck, the Germans could've snatched a spectacular victory from the jaws of defeat.