Six days in June: Sinai and Golan

 

“Syria’s forces are ready not only to repulse the aggression, but to initiate the act of liberation itself, and to explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland. The Syrian army, with its finger on the trigger, is united… I as a military man, believe that the time has come to enter into a battle of annihilation.”

– Syrian Defence Minister Hafez Assad, May 20, 1967

 

As the jets of the Israeli Air Force began strafing Egyptian Air bases, three armoured brigades of the Israeli Army under the command of Major General Israel Tal, began their assault on enemy positions in the Gaza Strip, with the overall goal of achieving an armoured breakthrough towards the Rafah Gap and access to the Philidelphi Corridor.

Like the opposing air forces, the Israeli ground units were also heavily outnumbered by their enemies, and therefore had to rely upon a combination of superior planning and specialised modifications to equipment and ordinance.

The approximately 1,000 tanks of the Egyptian military, positioned in the Sinai Peninsula, comprised the latest in Soviet made T54 and T55s.

Facing this intimidating force, Israel was only able to muster about 700 ageing World War Two era Sherman tanks, which had been specially modified for warfare in the sands of the Sinai.

These modifications consisted of: strengthened side armouring; increasing the surface area of the tracks for greater mobility in sandy terrain; and changing the 76mm canon to 105mm.

After significant losses on both sides, the Israeli ground forces called in air support and the remaining Egyptian forces were compelled to retreat westwards, past El Arish, giving up the bitterly fought for coastal route in the process.

A similar pattern was repeated further south where Egyptian ground forces: largely cut off by Israeli encircling manoeuvres, and completely unaware of the disaster which had befallen their air force earlier in the morning, were finding themselves in an increasingly desperate situation.

Wednesday was the third day of this most terrible trial in the furnace of the Sinai.

A ‘tactical’ retreat was finally issued by the Egyptian high command, and as there were no detailed plans to work from this very quickly turned into a general route.

Large numbers of the remaining Egyptian forces, were to be trapped in several mountain passes, to eventually be set upon by Israeli aircraft equipped with Napalm bombs.

The slaughter that followed broke the back of the Egyptian military.

Israel was then able to turn its full attention northwards, towards its border with Syria.

The northern battle was to focus on the capture of the strategically vital Golan Heights which commanded an impressive view across the Jordan Valley, east of the Sea of Galilee.

Syria had strengthened this area defensively in the preceding years with underground bunkers and artillery positions. One of the most formidable of these positions was Tel Fakhr.

After receiving false Egyptian reports of stunning victories against Israeli forces, Syria had begun shelling built-up areas of northern Israel with artillery, and strafing towns with fighter jets.

These incursions from the air by Syrian and Lebanese aircraft were to be largely thwarted by Israeli air patrols later on the first and second day.

The shelling from the Arab artillery continued however and Israeli citizens took to their bomb shelters.

One Syrian armed incursion was also made on the Water Treatment Plants of Tel Dan, but this was quickly met with  Israeli land forces who repulsed them.

By Thursday the 8th of May (the fourth day since hostilities had begun) it was becoming increasingly clear to the Syrian high command that the Air Forces of both Jordan and Egypt had been almost completely destroyed, and that the reports of stunning victories emanating from Radio Cairo were entirely false.

This was confirmed in a cable sent by Nasser to his Syrian counterpart, within which he urged the Syrians to accept an immediate ceasefire. This was finally agreed to at 3 am on the morning of Friday the 9th of June.

The Israeli Government now saw that the end was imminent: after which they would no longer be able to profit from their planning and sacrifice, and there were still hours ahead.

Dayan had initially been reticent to attack Syria, as he was concerned about the potential for catastrophic losses.

However, with the news of the ceasefire; the stabilisation of the Sinai and Jordanian fronts; and the reports of Soviet indifference from his intelligence sources; Dayan decided (without confirmed authorisation from the Israeli Government) to make a full frontal attack on the Syrian forces holding the Golan Heights.

The goal of this operation was to once and for all remove this ‘thorn in the side’ from their northern countrymen’s’ heel.

A concerted barrage of artillery fire and air strafing was quickly focused upon the groves of eucalyptus trees that had been planted on the heights, in order to provide shade for the Syrian forces stationed there.

As the Israeli ground forces began their attack on the complex system of underground bunkers and positions upon these heights, the ground fighting became increasingly hard and desperate with both sides suffering considerable casualties in the cramped underground chambers.

The closeness and ferocity of this battle demanded much hand to hand combat, and the Israeli designed Uzi came into its own: against the heavier calibre of the AK-47 used by the Syrians which, while being more powerful and boisterous, also proved to be harder to use in the confined spaces which were being fought for underground.

The capture of the Tel Fakhr position by Israeli paratroopers was to prove ultimately decisive, and after two days of heavy fighting, Syrian forces began to fall back.

The expected Syrian counterattack never materialised.

Israel had achieved total domination of the Golan Heights, but had suffered greatly for it.

As these beleaguered soldiers gazed southwards, they could see much activity going on, upon the Western Bank of the Jordan and further beyond.

 

Read the earlier instalments of this series below:

  1. Six days in June: betrayal, endurance and victory
  2. Six days in June: prelude to war
  3. Six days in June: Two reluctant leaders
  4. Six days in June: First strike

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