THE RESERVES ARE COMING
by Jerry Asher with Eric Hammel
Copyright © 1987 by Jerrold S. Asher and Eric Hammel
The summons of veteran crews to man the IDF’s Reserve brigades had begun in midmorning.
The Reservists were older than the conscripted crewmen manning the 7th and Barak Brigade Centurions, and there was little joy shared among them to be back in uniform. Some, like Amos Ben David, took the time to phone friends before leaving home. Others just said their good-byes and went off to their mobilization centers. For most, the juxtaposition of Yom Kippur observances and the mobilization imbued this call-up, one in a lifetime of alerts and mobilizations, with a unique character.
The mobilization had a rhythm all its own. The armored infantrymen were called up after the tankers. This frustrated David Givati, who had to stand by at the window of his flat and watch trucks arrive to pick up men with higher priorities. Givati decided to kill time with a nap, but he soon found himself pacing again. At last, there was the by-now welcome knock at his door. Another armored infantryman, Benjamin Sheskapovits, was at least as impatient. After waiting for hours, he declared to his wife, “If they don’t come soon, I’ll go myself.” He was summoned a short time later.
Some men mobilized themselves. When Ehud Dafna heard of the mobilization, he telephoned around to locate “old buddies.” He found out they were on the way to the Golan so he ventured from home on his own to join them. Giora Bierman, a brigade operations officer, was in a hospital being treated for jaundice. He decided that his comrades needed him more than he needed perfect health, so he discharged himself to make his way to his mobilization depot. Each individual wrestled with the problems and passages. Many talked and speculated as they waited for transportation at the pick-up points. On the other hand, Sorial Birnbaum ignored the talkers as much as possible in order to concentrate on the observances of Sabbath and Yom Kippur that this great hubbub had interrupted.
A piece of paper, a phone call, or a verbal message does not begin to make a civilian a soldier, nor even a soldier a combatant. The man must leave his own home with whatever necessary equipment he stores there, get to a pick-up point, be transported to a depot, be recorded as present and told what to do by the professional soldiers comprising his unit’s permanent cadre. Where the system is working, the arriving Reservist finds all or most of his equipment neatly layed out, perhaps piled on the floor of a building, aligned with piles of equipment awaiting the arrival of the other members of his platoon or company. Personal weapons and ammunitions must be issued from the armory, with all the required paperwork. Vehicles must be located and last-minute provisioning and servicing must be undertaken. Where men are late or ill, or where there are unfilled gaps because of transfers or incomplete expansions, substitutes must be found and incorporated into vehicle crews or service and support units. Slowly, the individuals are married to their organizations and the organizations are rebuilt into cohesive fighting units. Within hours, commanders like Moshe Waks, now Captain Waks once again, are able to declare, “The company’s ready.”
Naturally, the news that war had actually erupted added a great sense of urgency to what was, for many, a maddening interruption of the holy day observances or just plain real life. Somehow, the government was replaced in evil mutterings by the many names Israelis have for their enemies.
Lieutenant Moshe Nir’s company commander was vacationing outside Israel, so he was made acting company commander. While issuing orders, Nir was approached by one of his men, who clearly needed reassurance. “Do you know?” the man asked, “There is a war.”
In an army where authorities habitually “look the other way” when men “organize” jeeps, halftracks, and even tanks, improvising was second nature. For example, Lieutenant Shimon Ryan could not find his jeep, though he searched high and low through his unit’s depot. He finally went to his company commander and admitted failure. The company commander left Ryan, but returned only minutes later with a brand new jeep he had stolen. (The owner found Ryan a month and a war later and, of course, demanded that he return the vehicle.)
Amos Ben David, Moshe Waks, Giora Bierman, Moshe Nir, and Shimon Ryan had no inkling that the hundreds of tiny decisions they made in those first, critical hours would substantially reverse the course of the war. They hurried through the familiar process because there was a war on, but they were not fully aware as to the ultimate importance those preparations were becoming to senior commanders.
Out of the chaos of thousands of individual arrivals, Northern Command anticipated that three fully constitited Reserve brigades — the 679th, 9th, and 70th — and two separate Reserve battalions would deploy on the Golan before nightfall of October 7 — as it turned out, about 28 hours after the onset of the war. The 159 tanks assigned to the Reserve units would nearly equal the number of tanks Northern Command had been able to deploy on the Golan at the moment the war started.
There were considerable differences between the Reserve units. Colonel Gideon Gordon’s 70th Mechanized Brigade was a unit that time had forgotten. Indeed, there was activity afoot to disband the unit. It was equipped with virtually unmodified World War II-vintage Sherman tanks and equally ancient M3 halftracks. The troops even still wore old football-type helmets rather than the modern plastic headgear that had been issued almost universally throughout the IDF armored and mechanized units. All things considered, the brigade was a perfect snapshot of a 1963-vintage IDF formation. It was felt that 70th Brigade could be called upon to defend prepared positions or guard lines of communications, but no one thought the unit could be effectively or even safely employed in the attack.
In sharp contrast, Colonel Mordechai Ben Porat’s 9th Mechanized Brigade, also equipped with Shermans, was perceived as being a useful striking force. The Shermans had been upgunned and extensively and expensively modernized, and the troops were quite a bit younger than the veterans of 70th Brigade. Moreover, 9th Brigade had long been a stalwart fighting force, nearly always operating in Northern Command. Most of the officers and troops had trained on the Golan and knew their way around.
Colonel Uri Orr’s 679th Armored Brigade, a relatively new formation, was equipped with early-model Centurion tanks that had been scheduled to be upgraded over the next few years. The crews were composed of younger men. In all, 679th Brigade was considered to be only marginally inferior to Barak Brigade.
The two separate Reserve battalions — 71st Armored Infantry Battalion and an unnumbered tank battalion organizally attached to Northern Command — were perceived as absolutely first-rate units. Seventy-first Battalion, which featured an organic tank company and two APC companies, was earmarked for direct attachment to Barak Brigade. The Northern Command Tank Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Uzi More, was equipped with thoroughly updated Centurions; officially, it was to operate as a weapon of opportunity under the direct control of Northern Command Headquarters. Both of the separate Reserve battalions had trained specifically for assignment to the Golan.
Brigadier General Rafael "Rafoul" Eitan was emerging as the spark-plug running the Israeli engine of war. A parachute officer, Eitan had trained for many years in the art of instant assessment of battlefield puzzles and the fine art of rapidly moving troops and equipment to solve them. While fellow paratrooper Major General Yitzhak Hofi kept his attention riveted to the larger panorama and his ear glued to the phone linking him with the chief of staff and the government, Eitan focused his considerable energies and powers of concentration on the shifting events and fragmentary reports from the hard-hit bunkers and tank battalions.
At length, his observations cause him to placean urgent call to Reserve tank unit whose depot was nearest the Golan. He asked that a force — any force, really — be immediately dispatched to the heights.
Colonel Ran Sarig, who was supervising the mobilization of the separate tank battalion, was more surprised by the locale to which the troops were be sent than he was by the immediacy of Eitan’s request.
The mobilization was proceeding more rapidly than usual. If crew integrity and unit cohesion were disregarded, men and machines could be made available to Eitan.
Colonel Sarig, a highly skilled professional armor officer well schooled in his branch’s doctrine of applying mass on the battlefield, asked Eitan if it was indeed desireable to divide even the few tanks he could then scrape together. Eitan confirmed his feelings that in this case it certainly was.
At that moment, Sarig could field just eight Centurions to meet Eitan’s requirements. If no tragedy befell it, the stopgap force would reach the front sometime early Sunday morning.
The dispatch of the first group of eight tanks was yet another pressure on the Reservists still mobilizing. The yelling and prodding were not part of the time-honored exercise of hurry-up-and-wait. The troops full comprehended the urgency of the orders and oaths, and they felt needed. The Syrian breakthrough near Hushniya showed them just how crucial their presence on the battlefield might be. Colonel Yitzhah Ben Shoham had succinctly stated his priorities: “One tank or two.”
Under the direct command of the separate battalion’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Uzi More, the eight Centurions ascended the Golan escarpment to Vasit and then proceed southward along the Petroleum Road to link up with Zvika Force.
By the time More reached Zvika, a second group of 14 Centurions was on the way up the escarpment under the command of More’s deputy, Major Baruch Lenschner, and Captain Moshe Waks. General Hofi considered Lenschner’s force — Baruch Force — “a big force.” The commanding general felt it was what he needed to confront the Syrian breakthrough at Hushniya.
Colonel Ben Shoham requested the use of “More Force” in an immediate counterattack against the Syrians holding the Petroleum-Hushniya crossroads. In Ben Shoham’s reading of the battle, time was a greater factor than mass. As he told Hofi, “What we can do now, we might not be able to do later.” As Baruch Force was well on the way, Hofi sanctioned Ben Shoham’s immediate night counterattack with More’s eight Centurions.
As soon as More was briefed by Zvika (Lieutenant Zvi Greengold) he decided to attack in two columns. Zvika would have four tanks in the right column and he would personally lead the other five on the left.
The attack immediately commenced. The first tank in Zvika’s column was immediately set ablaze by a Rocket-Propelled Grenade, a shoulder-fired antitank missile.
When Zvika saw that the road ahead was blocked by Syrian tanks equipped with searchlights, he took a short break in order to think things through. He then ordered one of the remaining tanks forward to rescue the crew of the burning Centurion, and positioned his own tank to cover the flank.
Both tanks — Zvika’s and the rescue tank — were hit. Zvika’s gunner was injured, and the lieutenant felt the shock of the blast and a searing pain. He pulled himself out of the turret and clumsily somersaulted to the ground. Zvika lay flat for a moment and collected his wits, but the realization that he was next to a burning tank that might explode at any moment was sufficient to get him to his feet. He unthinkingly ran straight toward the Syrians, then cut back to the last tank in his column. He had been wounded in the upper left arm and the left side of his face, but he felt no need to be evacuated. He climbed aboard the last battle-worthy Centurion in his column and ordered its commander to turn around and leave the vicinity of the fight.
Unbeknown to Zvika, the Syrians had redeployed following his abortive attack. He had found them roadbound, lined up in column preparatory to moving. The attack had been misread by the Syrian 452nd Tank Battalion commander, Major Farouk Ismail, who assumed he had faced a more-significant enemy force. Ismail decided to wait for daylight before moving on, and he ordered his troop leaders to establish defensive positions along a front of two kilometers.
Lieutenant Colonel Uzi More’s five-tank attack followed Zvika’s by a lengthy interval. It did a great deal to confirm Ismail’s convictions, but the initial contact upset More, who reasoned that his attack was based upon faulty information with respect to the Syrian disposition and, it appeared, the composition of the Syrian force. In the heat of his brief, sharp fight, Zvika had not observed the mechanized infantry accompanying Ismail’s tanks.
More’s tanks were hit and disabled, one at a time. When the battalion commander saw a Syrian aim an antitank rocket at his command tank, he grabbed hold of his free machine gun and opened fire. But the machine gun jammed and the Syrian grenadier let fly. Uzi More lost an arm and an eye in the blast.
Zvika emerged from the dark, standing erect in the turret of the only Centurion to survive his column’s abortive attack. He reached Colonel Yitzhak Ben Shoham by radio and reported the destruction of More Force.
For his part, Ben Shoham acknowledged that what could not be done immediately would have to be done later. He raised Eitan on the command net and told him of the failed counterattack, suggesting that Baruch Force be split in order to reinforce Zvika on the Petroleum Force. The balance of Major Lenschner’s tanks would establish defensive positions on the Sindiana Road.
At this stage of his holding battle, Eitan discarded specific limited counterattacks in order to establish a coherent defensive line through the southern Golan. What Eitan proposed was a considerable undertaking in light of the numbers and dispositions of men and equipment and the complexity of moving them through the darkened battle area. Eitan laid out a new defense line from Bunker 110, on the east, through Tel Yosifon to the Kuzabia crossroads, on the west. The line was then extended southward through the waterfall area to Tel Bazak and on to the El Al Ridge. The forces involved were not large, but they incorporated Regulars and Reservists in six distinct movements and concentrations.
The southern anchor of Eitan’s new line was manned Lieutenant Colonel Yair Yaron’s 50th Parachute Battalion, which could still field several APC-borne infantry squads in the vicinity of Ramat Magshimim and Tel Saki.
In addition, Yaron unknowingly and quite temporarily received some assistance in the form of several jeeps and APCs manned by Israeli Border Patrolmen. Without bothering to inform their own headquarters, much less Yaron’s, the inquisitive patrolmen had simply gravitated toward the sound of the guns. In time, they bumped into Syrian tanks. Amidst the heated exchange of gunfire and crude Arabic epithets, the Border Patrolmen did the sensible thing and fled from the El Al Ridge.
Slightly to the north of Yaron, on a dirt trail known as the Waterfall Route, was Colonel Ben Shoham, with his command tank and communications halftrack. Nearby, at Tel Bazak, artillerymen who had been forced to give way earlier were at work on a new battery site. To Ben Shoham’s northwest was the Arik Bridge, the southernmost Jordan crossing in the Golan sector. The route from the bridge was the most direct from the Jordan Valley to the Hushniya area, so Eitan used it to dispatch Major Gideon Weiler’s force of Centurions from the Armor School Battalion to establish a blocking position dominating the Tel Zohar-Kuzabia crossroads. Northeast of Weiler’s position was Baruch Force, 14 Northern Command Tank Battalion Centurions deployed to cover the two roads leading from Hushniya.
Paralleling Ben Shoham’s and Eitan’s concerns for time and movement, Colonel Hassan Tourkmani’s 9th Infantry Division sought to exploit the Hushniya breakthrough. Checked to the north and west by Northern Command Tank Battalion Sarig’s Reservists, Tourkmani ordered the 43rd Mechanized Brigade tank battalion to advance up the Rafid-Kuneitra Road.
This movement was spotted by Israelis manning a nearby outpost, and a highly accurate report claiming an attack by 40 Syrian tanks was flashed to General Eitan. Tourkmani had managed to find the one approach that the Israelis had not covered.
Eitan wrestled with finding a way to block this new threat. The Reservists were too far to the west to be of any use in countering Tourkmani’s new thrust, and Ben Shoham had absolutely nothing left to spare. Eitan called Colonel Ben Gal, of 7th Armored Brigade, and ordered him to assume responsibility for the Rafid-Kuneitra Road.
Ben Gal had earlier kept back Captain Meir “Tiger” Zamir’s company of 82nd Tank Battalion as his unofficial reserve. He now ordered a member of his staff, Lieutenant Colonel Eitan Kauli, to use Zamir’s company to stop the Syrian advance.
Tiger Zamir deployed two tanks abreast Bunker 109 as a rear guard, two more tanks on the same hill, but farther south, and a single Centurion on a small hill across and overlooking the roadway. The deputy commander was given four tanks and sent to another small hill a mile to the south, from which he was to trigger the ambush Zamir had in mind.
When all the tanks had been deployed, Tiger returned to the position abreast Bunker 109 in his own tank and ordered all crews to shut down and wait in total silence for the approach of the Syrian column and the illumination of his deputy’s searchlight.
The Syrians rolled down the road, utterly oblivious to the waiting Israelis. Though Tiger had planned to contain all the Syrian tanks between the ends of his ambush, he had to allow a dozen of them to pass through the head of the ambush before the last of them passed the deputy commander. The gunners were losing their minds, so great was the tension of having to wait with so many good targets so easy to reach.
The searchlight snapped on, followed by the instantaneous bark of a 105mm tank gun. Every Israeli gunner had been tracking targets, so all opened fire within a matter of seconds. Beneath their seats, to the right, the well-drilled loaders rammed home fresh antitank rounds and hit the gunners to let them know they could resume firing. Load, fire, train, load, fire, train. The gunners and loaders worked in superb harmony as the deputy company commander illuminated the roadway.
The Syrians returned fire, but the Israelis were hull-down, virtually impossible to spot — except for the deputy commander, whose searchlight drew heavy fire. Suddenly, the light snapped off. Zamir first feared that his gunners would be unable to acquire targets, but there was more than enough light from blazing hulks.
When nearly 25 Syrian tanks had been destroyed, Tiger reorganized his company and led it southward to get at the survivors. To his surprise, his entire company was still operational, including the deputy commander’s tank. This last both relieved and upset Zamir, who asked the lieutenant why he had shut off the light. The man mumbled that it was dangerous.
The lieutenant was right, and wrong. Zvika had earlier used Syrian searchlights to acquire targets, and Tiger’s ambush had certainly been successful because the roadway was amply lighted by burning tanks. However, Tiger felt that his deputy had given in to his fears before the company could safely do without the light. As an officer, Tiger reasoned, his deputy had a prime responsibility to the mission and only secondarily to himself.
Eitan’s calculated maneuvering and the timely introduction of the first tiny Reserve formations had contained the Hushniya breakthrough, but a threat to the north still had to be eradicated with the resources at hand.