Sunday, April 02, 2017

Obscure Battle 1973















Most of the October war is well documented. A great deal has been written about the Golan battles, the October 14 attack, the destruction of 25th armored and other clashes. One aspect of the war, however, has been neglected. Jebel Um Katif, or Mitznefet, has received scant attention from historians. Engagements fought there from October 19-22 were a sideshow. The main Israeli effort was directed south, toward Suez City. Nevertheless, Mitznefet saw major fighting. The tendency to gloss over it invites suspicion. Did the Israelis cover up a serious setback?
Mitznefet, or Om Habara, is a hill west of Fayid (an airbase near the western shore of the Bitter lake). Jebel Um Katif is a larger area of high ground immediately to the west of Mitznefet. After the Israeli crossing of the canal on October 16, the area witnessed troop deployments and combat. Fighting erupted when Israel's advancing forces encountered elements of Egypt's 4rth Armored division.
 Kabil, commanding the 4rth, had only part of one brigade, the 2nd armored, in the vicinity. Originally consisting of three tank battalions, the 207th, 208th and 209th, by October 19th 2nd armored had been reduced to two. Kabil ordered the surviving battalions, the 208th and 209th, to Om Habara and the Om Kathib dune area. So grave was the emergency the battalions had to be reinforced by 14 tanks from the training school, and RPGs.
On the 19th tankmen atop Om Habara saw Israeli armor passing below them. They were part of Adan's 162nd division. The Egyptians opened fire, knocking out ten tanks and other vehicles. T-55s north of Mitznefet inflicted additional looses. Adan's division continued southward, however. Another Israeli division, Magen's 252nd, soon arrived in the area.
Soon, Kabil had to pull out. After overrunning the Geneifa hills, Adan threatened to cut off the Third Army. Kabil was forced to take the 4rth south to try to shore up defenses there. Meanwhile, another brigade, the 27th Armored, was ordered to Jebel Um Katif. Attached to the command of the 4rth, the 27th probably had 90 or so T-55s. On the morning of October 21, it deployed for action.
By then, Magen's division had reached Mitznefet. According to the Israeli version, part of the 252nd was ordered to protect the flank there while the rest of the division continued southward. For the next three days, the tanks left behind are said to have battled a brigade of Egyptian tanks and inflicted heavy losses on them.
It appears the Israelis were also mauled. For many of their vehicles and men, Om Habara became a graveyard. After a period of fighting a brigade commanded by Shomron left Jebel Um Katif. Racing to Adabiya, it completed the encirclement of the Third Army. By then, however, Shomron had only 17 tanks left. Of the 80 tanks that crossed with Magen, only Shomron's force and a few others (on the Cairo-Suez road) remained. West of the canal, the original total seems to have fallen to around 30, perhaps even fewer. The Israelis admit the 252nd had been reduced to 50 tanks, and that figure probably includes newly arrived vehicles. On October 22, Magen was informed that an understrength brigade would reinforce him. Commanded by Ran Sarig, this brigade was rushed from the Golan front, arriving in just 33 hours.
What had happened? Despite official silence, a reconstruction of events is possible. The 252nd  attempted to do more than contain Mitznefet, or bypass it. Magen tried to capture the hill. Adan originally planned to do this and made some preparations, but decided to move south. Apparently the task was left to Magen. Dupuy hinted at his effort when he wrote that on the eastern slopes of Mitznefet, an Israeli battalion got into a firefight with Egyptian tanks. If the mission was just to guard the flank, why were Israeli tanks fighting on the slopes of the hill i.e. climbing it? Given the greater range and accuracy of their guns, why didn't they just fire at the enemy from the plain below? But while hinting at the truth Dupuy, or his Israeli source, downplayed it. A single battalion wouldn't have been committed against a brigade. The entire 252nd must've participated.
 By throwing in every tank, Magen believed, he could quickly crush the enemy, obviate any need for a flank guard, and then advance with all his armor. On the basis of easy victories on the 14th and 17th, Magen underestimated the 27th. To his great surprise, the attack was smashed. The presence of tanks and instructors from the training school meant Egyptian gunnery skill was well above average. T-55s picked off dozens of vehicles ascending the hill; those which reached the top were blasted at close range. Stunned by the massacre, Magen sent an SOS to his superiors, urgently requesting replacements. Remnants of his division then advanced to the Cairo-Suez road. Initially, Sarig's brigade, after arriving   at Mitznefet, stayed there to contain the 27th. Part of Sharon's force then came and freed the brigade to go south with the others. But the advancing 252nd was gravely depleted.
 Available figures suggest the 27th destroyed over half of Magen's original force. Apparently, fifty tanks had been wrecked; conceivably the Egyptians hit sixty. Sarig's brigade had just 30 tanks. It raised the total (for the time being, around the 23rd) to 50. The addition of 30 to reach 50 would imply all but 20 of the original 80 were lost. Certainly the speed with which reinforcements were sent hints at a serious setback. So does the Israeli tendency to gloss over the battle, in contrast to so many others.*
On October 21, the same day the Israelis got a bloody nose at Mitznefet, they were repulsed at Missouri. This was a fairly minor setback; only 22 tanks were lost. Interestingly, the minimum possible loss at Mitznefet, around 30 tanks (80-50 remaining without addition of new units) is not much more than the Missouri toll, yet the latter is well known, whereas Om Habara is not. This suggests the 252nd's setback wasn't marginally worse than the one at Missouri, but far worse, hence was concealed. Unofficial Israeli sources tend to confirm this. For the most part, though, the Israelis provide very little or misleading information.
 No Israeli author ever provided a detailed account of Jebel Um Katif actions; some omit the subject altogether. In On the Banks of the Suez, Adan mentions 2nd brigade battalions on Mitznefet, but not the losses he took on the 19th or those incurred there later. Rabinovich, who also wrote from an Israeli perspective, mentioned clashes with Egyptian armor during Adan's drive south, but provided no details. The truth seems too awful to be revealed.
If the Egyptians won at Om Habara, why didn't they tout it as a great victory? That may be due to the eventual fall of the hill. Elsewhere in the last days, Egyptian successes prevented the capture of Ismailia, Suez City and Kabrit fort. There were other issues like high losses and lack of strategic significance.
After the Third Army was trapped, the 27th was ordered to help other units break through to it. Kabil and Shazly were reluctant to comply because of Israeli tank superiority. The 27th is said to have left its hills without a fight and established defenses some distance away. Overall, the brigade may have availed little. But it still accomplished something.
In his memoirs, Gamasy wrote the 27th had a successful battle and prevented the Israelis from extending their bridgehead farther west. Magen's main intention was to head south, to encircle the Third Army. It appears likely, though, the 27th made his victory a pyrrhic one.

* It is true that Magen fought at other places besides Mitznefet, notably Tsach, near the canal, and Fayid. Nether battle, however, was likely to have been costly. After being softened up by airstrikes, Tsach was attacked from the north and west, whereas its defenses faced east. And Fayid wasn't strongly defended.

References

Elusive Victory  Dupuy
No Victor No Vanquished   O'Ballance
The October War Memoirs of Field Marshall el-Gamasy of Egypt   Gamasy
From the Sinai to the Golan      Hamad

13 Comments:

Anonymous Neal Robbins said...

The 1973 war did not go as well for the Israelis as had the one in 1967. Israel won both wars, but the 1973 war resulted in a relatively heavy casualty rate. If the Egyptians had had better planning, the fighting on the ground might have been more successful for them. Israel lost a substantial number of planes in the 1973 war.

Neal Robbins

5:15 PM  
Blogger starman said...

Couldn't agree more Neal. Israeli tank losses were also heavy.

April 3, 2017

2:24 AM  
Blogger emmanuel ansu said...

Besides tank loss stats,isthere any evidence Magen tried to storm the hill?

7:14 AM  
Blogger starman said...

Page 281 of ELUSIVE VICTORY has a map showing an Israeli spearhead jutting into Mitznefet. That might just indicate Israeli takeover of the hill following the withdrawal of the 27th farther west (October 23 or 24?). Or clashes on the 19th between Egyptian tanks on the hill and Israeli vehicles on the plain below--though I doubt it. To me, it seems to indicate an Israeli attempt to storm the hill (October 21?). The first possibility may be best but I'm not sure....

April 5, 2017

10:26 AM  
Blogger Sleepingduringduty said...

I personally never heard of the battle before, thanks for bringing it up Starman, will try to find any arabic sources for it. Anyways as to what Neal Robbins stated, I have to disagree with whole victory term for a several reasons especially when we take into consideration the Egyptians had operation codenamed Total ready in case the ceasefire failed and even with the IDF's gains on Egyptian soil and getting close to Cairo relatively speaking they were in no shape after their failure in Ismalia and Suez to continue assaulting. Obviously it would have been a matter of time before the 2nd army threw its entire weight on them. Sadat might have been arrogant and hard headed but even he would have realized the need to move the 2nd forces in case the ceasefire failed. Operation Total would have the same qualities of operation Badr as the Egyptian command had by that time realized the size of the forces they are facing and all the related aspects to launch set piece organized assaults.

Plus that is without mention the arab expedition forces that had arrived few days before the ceasefire and would have most likely participated in the battle. Fresh troops and equipment vs already worn down brigades, no matter how competent the IDF is they wouldnt be able to face such odds without breaking down in the end.

5:31 PM  
Blogger starman said...

Remember the Egypt subforum, Iran Defense Forum? Some of what I learned about Om Habara was from HORAS. Maybe you can find the same historical work he used--from Hammad if I remember right.
Early in November 1973 the Israelis withdrew a lot of forces from their bridgehead west of the canal. They planned to use them to attack the Third Army. But the Egyptians could've overcome the depleted IDF bridgehead, and reestablished a connection to the Third. The latter still had some units west of the canal like the 4rth armored, and an Algerian unit--possibly an armored division.
Arab expeditionary forces could've played a major role on the Syrian front. There were two or three Iraqi divisions a Jordanian division and other units. Around October 22 the northern coalition debated about whether to commit those forces to eliminate the Israeli salient near Damascus and then try to retake the occupied Golan. In the end the Syrians decided it was safer to accept a cease fire.
Just a quick comment about the present. Trump is making hostile noise over the use of poison gas but that may be it. He can hardly order bombing, with Russians in Syria.
Also, I hear the Europeans may spend billions to help Syrian reconstruction. Maybe they want to make it possible for Syrians to go back home.

April 6, 2017

3:32 AM  
Blogger starman said...

By the way, I just revised the post again. It's not east to find the best way to express things. :(

4:59 AM  
Blogger Sleepingduringduty said...

59 tomahawks and the numbers of SAA troops killed less than then. US military spokesman states that Russia was warned. Obviously Russia warned the Syrians to evacuate. 59 Toms on a single target?! That hardly makes any sense and no, the airbase is still functional. As my father always said, Americans and Russians will never lose each other over a bunch of Arabs.

Trump sent a message to the whole world, I do whatever I want, dont care about Russia or China or Iran, and escalating to the civil war to a whole new level of course, after ISIS remnants are scattered with the wind, Trump will remove Bashar somehow and then get the Syrian Democratic Forces to battle the rebels using the whole (Secular democratic good Arabs VS Radical Islamist bad Arabs) card...

Here comes a divided Syria.

3:10 AM  
Blogger starman said...

Trump is now demanding Russia dump Assad. The administration can't be serious. After Putin's great investment in Syria, he can't throw it all away. If he broke with Assad, how could he keep the base at Tartous? And given Putin's effort to make Russia a great power again, he can't accept US dictates.
I heard Trump acted on the basis of emotion--what else is new? :( He was so moved by the plight of gassed kids he ordered the missile strike. What if he saw blown up Palestinians after an Israeli bombing? Would he launch Tomahawks at Hatsor? Fat chance.

April 12, 2017

4:25 AM  
Blogger emmanuel ansu said...

Are Jebel Um Katif,Missouri etc visited by old Veterans?

6:12 AM  
Blogger starman said...

I don't know about that. Egyptians commemorate the war every year on October 6. It wouldn't be surprising if old vets revisited battlefields but I haven't heard of that.

April 13, 2017

6:40 AM  
Blogger Sleepingduringduty said...

Actually that is a good question, I will look more into that. Anyways, Starman dont you think its time to write an article about the whole North Korean drama show? Its interesting how it robbed the spotlights from the Syrian Civil War.

6:59 AM  
Blogger starman said...

Hi again, I look forward to anything you can find on Egyptian veterans visiting places.
I don't know much about North Korea. It's noteworthy, though, that Iraq and Iran were threatened with attack if they didn't give up WMD but North Korea, Pakistan and other states were allowed to build nuclear bombs. Why does the US strongly object to WMD in the hands of some states but not others? Given the power of the pro-Israel lobby here, it seems the key criterion is whether or not a state is a perceived threat to Israel.
After years of discussing the '73 war on the old Iran board, someone asked if there was any part of it we had NOT yet talked about? Believe it or not, there are still some aspects of the war I haven't covered here. One or two may be the subject of a blog post in coming weeks.:)

April 21, 2017

4:10 AM  

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