January 07, 2010


The Golan Heights, in September of 1973 was a contested stretch of hilly, rocky terrain that the “Purple Line” split down the middle, with the sparse but watchful Israeli Defense Force (IDF) guarding the western half and the bitter and well-equipped Syrian Army occupying the eastern half.[1]  The Syrians lost the land in the abortive attempt to push the Jewish state into the sea in 1967 with their Arab allies.[2] The Arabs had tried since Israel’s inception to vanquish the fledgling state to no avail. In spite of the Israeli government making peaceful overtones and attempting to broker a deal, the Syrians, in concert with Egypt had a mind toward only vengeance.[3] This was a continuation of the Khartoum Arab Summit that held that there would be no peace, recognition or negotiation with the Jewish state.[4] The Arabs had been preparing at breakneck pace, in great secrecy to invade and would catch most of the IDF on its heels. The stand made by the Israelis in the Golan would go down as a great success, in spite of the drive and early success of the Syrian Army. (CONTINUED BELOW THE FOLD!)

[1] Simon Dunstan, The Yom Kippur War 1973 (1) (New York: Osprey, 2008), 8.

[2] Asher, Jerry and Hammel, Eric, Duel for the Golan - The 100 Hour Battle That Saved Israel (Pacifica, California: Pacifica Military History, 1987), 31.

[3] Dunstan, 8.

[4] Ami Isseroff, "Khartoum Resolutions," Mideastweb, 2002, http://www.mideastweb.org/khartoum.htm. (accessed December 20, 2009).




            The Golan Heights rise 1000 meters above the Sea of Galilee and commands a view above the Jordan Valley that dominates the entire plain.[1] At the northern end of this volcanic highland is Mount Hermon that allows an occupier nearly unlimited observation of the entire heights, parts of Israel below and far into Syria.[2] The scattered volcanic cones and rough terrain make it a good killing ground for a defender while an attacker is limited largely to roads and predetermined axis of advance. This terrain would be important to the survival of Israel and would greatly serve the commanders on the ground who had foresight and experience enough to use what they had to their advantage.[3]

            Fortunately for the people of Israel, there were some ground combatant commanders who had that foresight and experience, as conventional wisdom ignored what little intelligence that they did have that might have tipped the Arab’s hand. The intelligence community and war planners in the Israeli hierarchy were convinced that Syria would not attack without the support of Egypt and that Egypt would not be able to attack for several more years. This was all predicated on Egypt’s acquisition of fighter-bombers to replace those it had lost in 1967 and SCUD missiles to deter the Israeli Air Force (IAF) from attacking population centers in Egypt. These assumptions were partially correct in that the Syrians would not attack alone, but wholly wrong that the Egyptians were not prepared to go to war.[4]

            The start of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur (6 October) was to be the day the offensive would start. This had several significant factors at play, not the least of which was that as it was the “Day of Atonement” and on the Sabbath; there would be a religious stand-down in the IDF. Additionally, it was the anniversary of the Battle of Badr, a significant victory for the prophet Mohammed in 626 CE.[5] The allied Arabs hoped to catch the Jews completely off-guard and shock the IDF with lightning attacks. Unfortunately for the Arab allies, some of the IDF field commanders were paying attention to intelligence reports. Major General Yitzhak Hofi, commander of the IDF’s Northern Command implored the Army Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General David Elazar and Head of Military Intelligence, Major General Eliezer Ze’ira to increase the posture of the IDF in anticipation of attacks telegraphed by the Syrian and Egyptian buildup on the borders. They declined. However, as a precaution, the Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan did put the IDF on alert, albeit without any mobilization of reserves.[6]

            By the 2nd of October, Dayan had agreed to reinforce the Golan with a brigade of tanks as the IDF went on its highest alert. The addition of the 7th Armored Brigade raised the entire effective force to 177 tanks on the Golan. Meanwhile reservists stood by on high alert in case of mobilization. On the other side of the purple line, the Syrians had amassed over 900 tanks and 140 artillery batteries. The two armies hurriedly prepared for the confrontation. However, most of the actual soldiers on both sides of the divide did not know what was coming as the Syrians soldiers were in the dark about the operation until the last seconds and the IDF believed that if there were a battle it would not be a full-scale war.[7]

            At 1345 hours on the 6th of October, the IDF observation post on Mount Hermon reported that the Syrian batteries had doffed their camouflage nets. A few minutes after, indirect fire pounded the IDF positions. Simultaneously the Syrian Air Force began strafing and bombing runs on IDF command and communications positions. Five Syrian divisions (three Mechanized Infantry and two Armored), led by Major General Mustafa Tlas, began to inch forward, screened by a Soviet Style “creeping barrage”, bypassing United Nations (UN) observation posts on the Purple Line. The Syrians had trained hard and were prepared to assault forward in spite of losses in order to gain their objectives. However, the narrow avenues of approach soon bunched up the advancing divisions in their columns and they had made the tactical mistake of placing their bridge layers, bulldozers and mine clearing vehicles in the rear of the advance. The IDF had been hard at work over the previous years constructing an anti-tank ditch and berm to defeat the Soviet made engineer equipment. As the Syrians made their way to the ditch, the IDF lay in wait in prepared positions, zeroed on the likely avenues of approach.[8]

            The IDF armor had been taking a pounding by indirect fire and aerial bombardment and their tanks suffered broken treads, antennae and view ports from the thousands of pieces of shrapnel zinging about them. However, the tank commanders and gunners were brave and well trained performing admirably under the onslaught. As the Syrians brought up the engineering equipment, the Israelis began to eliminate the vehicles one-by-one with accurate long-range fire. The advance stalled at the ditch as a huge traffic jam developed. The Syrians began to fill in the ditch by hand with shovels, while under fire, until some bulldozers finally made it to the front. 

            At about 1400 hours, the Syrian 82nd Parachute Battalion (Ranger) attacked the vital observation post on Mount Hermon. After brutal close quarter and hand-to-hand fighting, the Syrians captured the post, killing everyone inside. Despite a counterattack by the Golani Brigade as well as repeated attacks by the IAF and artillery barrages, the Syrians held the position until the end of the war, stripping the facility of valuable high tech equipment before they withdrew which they soon turned over to their Soviet benefactors for study and reverse engineering.[9]

            The Syrians pressed forward in spite of heavy losses, gaining the grudging respect of the Israeli soldiers. Their snipers targeted the Jewish tank commanders who fought with their heads out of the open commander’s hatch for visibility. The “Sagger” missile and Rocket Propelled Grenade crews also created havoc amongst the IDF tank crews as they fought dismounted, using the rocky terrain to their advantage against the IDF tanks. As night fell, the Syrian 5th Infantry under Brigadier General Ali Aslan drove toward the Trans-Arab Pipeline (TAP line) Road that would be essential to roll-up the IDF’s flank. Every member of Syrian tank crews was equipped with night vision and this allowed them to continue to fight into the night.[10] The IDF used what little artillery illuminations rounds they had as well as flares dropped by the IAF, but the best light came from the fires of burning vehicles on the battlefield. The IDF resorted to aiming for the tactical marker lights on the Syrian tanks. In spite of technological advantage as well as the IDF being overrun and surrounded in many positions along the front, the Syrian 7th Infantry were fought to a standstill in the “Valley of Tears”, losing over 100 tanks in the close-quarters battle overnight.[11]

            In the morning Colonel Ben Shoham, who had battled fiercely through the night, took charge of the scattered IDF forces in the southern Golan and called for air support. This proved ineffective as the Syrian forces stayed beneath an umbrella of Surface to Air Missile coverage that beat back the IAFs attacks. Aslan had broken through the line at the TAP Line Road in the Rafid Gap and pressed toward Nafah. The 7th Armored Brigade under Colonel Avigdor Ben Gal stymied the Syrians over the next days and reservists rushed into the battle eventually reinforcing the pressed formations of Israelis. The IDF Barak Armored Brigade under Ben Shoham was decimated in spite of heroic efforts by individual tank crews. Shoham, his Executive Officer and his Operations officer had killed by the second day of fighting and the Syrians marched on toward the beleaguered 7th in Nafah.[12]

            However, due to the strict reign that the Syrian high command exercised on their subordinates, the field commanders paused at the their phase lines for that day and did not press the attack . This gave the IDF the needed time to consolidate and reinforce and with the arrival of more reserve units in the early hours of the 8th, the battle began to shift in favor of the IDF. The IAF switched tactics in light of the SAM coverage as well as the new Soviet-built ZSU-23-4 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun that had decimated the IDF’s close air support efforts.[13] They began to attack from much lower altitude and from the flanks, avoiding the SAM concentrations and laying waste to the Syrian armor. They also began to attack the major radar stations and infrastructure in both Syria and Lebanon. The Israeli high command allegedly ordered IAF to prepare their nuclear weapons for deployment in case of an IDF disaster in the Golan. [14]

            By October 9th, the IDF had stabilized the forward edge of the battle area and were moving to counterattack. The reserve units began to push the Syrians back and linked up with the hard pressed and often surrounded IDF positions that had been holding out since the first night of fighting. The 240th Armored Division (Reserve) under Brigadier General Dan Laner and the 146th Armored Division (Reserve) under  Brigadier General Moshe Peled linked up to crush the Syrian salient near Hushniyah in spite of Hofi’s orders to stay in defensive mode. They suffered brutal casualties, but their troop’s gunnery and the renewed support of the IAF won the day, littering the desert floor with Arab vehicles and sending the Syrian army scuttling back across the Purple Line.

The Israeli high command dithered for the entire day of the 10th, deciding the conduct of the IDF now that they had regained most of the occupied land on the Golan. Eventually, they decided to press the Syrians back toward Damascus. This gave the Syrians enough time to dig in and receive reinforcements for the Iraqis and Jordanians. They crossed into Syria on the 11th and fought close enough to shell the outskirts of Damascus, forming a stalemated salient in Bashan.  The Golani Brigade and the commandos of the Sayeret Matkal retook Mount Hermon with heavy casualties on the 22nd as the Syrians and their allies began to prepare a counterattack for the 23rd. However, the UN intervened and called for a cease-fire, accepted by all parties as they re-established pre-war lines.[15] [16]

There is little doubt that the Israeli position was almost untenable at the outset of the battle as they were vastly outnumbered and strategically surprised. However, the observation and experience of Hofi and his subordinates was almost miraculous for the IDF as they prevented tactical surprise. In spite of overwhelming odds, the loss of their strategic high ground of Mount Hermon and the inability of the IAF to make a real difference on the battlefield early on, the tenacity and training of the IDF delayed the advance of the Syrian Army long enough for the Israeli reserves to arrive and turn the tables on the Syrians. The Battle of the Golan Heights is, in this author’s opinion, a classic example of what a small, motivated, well-trained force can accomplish under good leadership, from prepared tactical positions. The fact that the Syrians were defeated in detail and stopped short of the Sea of Galilee in addition to being chased back across the Purple Line leaves little to question in the superiority of the IDF in 1973.

The Syrian attempt to retake the Golan and push the Israelis into the Mediterranean, while the Egyptians pushed from the southwest was a well-staged attempt to exact revenge for their own failure in 1967. The policy of aggression toward the Jews by all of the Arab players in the unfolding drama was one of dogmatic hatred that led the belligerents to war in spite of peaceful overtones from the Israeli government. Fortunately for the small seaside country, the leaders of the IDF maneuver forces knew their enemy and prepared their forces for battle in spite of the high command’s conviction that the Syrians would not go to war. These men and their tank crews stemmed the tide of the treacherous invasion by the Arabs and held the rocky terrain of the Golan against overwhelming odds. us




Asher, Jerry and Hammel, Eric. Duel for the Golan - The 100 Hour Battle That Saved Israel. Pacifica, California: Pacifica Military History, 1987.

Dunstan, Simon. The Yom Kippur War 1973 (1). New York: Osprey, 2008.

Farr, Warner. "THE THIRD TEMPLE'S HOLY OF HOLIES: ISRAEL'S NUCLEAR WEAPONS." The Counterproliferation Papers Series, Future Warfare Series No. 2, 2 (September 1999).

Isseroff, Ami. "Khartoum Resolutions." Mideastweb, 2002. http://www.mideastweb.org/khartoum.htm. (accessed December 20, 2009).

Trueman, Chris. "The Yom Kippur War Of 1973." History Learning Site, 2009. http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/yom_kippur_war_of_1973.htm. (accessed December 20, 2009).

Rashba, Gary. "Yom Kippur War: Sacrificial Stand In The Golan Heights." Historynet, October, 1998. http://www.historynet.com/yom-kippur-war-sacrificial-stand-in-the-golan-heights.htm. (accessed December 20, 2009).


[1] Dunstan, 8.

[2] Asher and Hammel, 37.

[3] Gary Rashba, "Yom Kippur War: Sacrificial Stand In The Golan Heights," Historynet, October, 1998, http://www.historynet.com/yom-kippur-war-sacrificial-stand-in-the-golan-heights.htm. (accessed December 20, 2009).

[4] Chris Trueman, "The Yom Kippur War Of 1973," History Learning Site, 2009, http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/yom_kippur_war_of_1973.htm. (accessed December 20, 2009).

[5] Asher and Hammel 67.

[6] Dunstan, 28.

[7] Dunstan, 27.

[8] Asher and Hammel, 81-88.

[9] Dunstan, The Yom Kippur War 1973 (1) (New York: Osprey, 2008), 39.

[10] Rashba.

[11] Dunstan, 44.

[12] Dunstan, 54-60.

[13] Dunstan, 60-61.

[14] Warner Farr, "THE THIRD TEMPLE'S HOLY OF HOLIES: ISRAEL'S NUCLEAR WEAPONS," The Counterproliferation Papers Series, Future Warfare Series No. 2., 2 (September 1999): .

[15] Asher and Hammel, 131.

[16] Dunstan, 82.

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