Yom Kippur War: IDF chief ignored pre-warning about Egyptian artillery

Former IDF chief of staff Haim Bar-Lev ignored warnings in 1972 that forts along the Sinai defense-line with Egypt could have been easily hit with 5,000 shells per hour. That’s according to classified material disclosed by the Defense Ministry on the eve of the 45th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. Those forts were later named after him.

The warnings came on May 29, 1972, from IDF Operations Command Maj.-Gen. Yisrael Tal, who said that, “every one of the forts on the [Suez] Canal, as far as potential from the enemy, could be hit easily with 5,000 shells per hour” by Egyptian forces.

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He continued to say that, “it is not just a question about a given fort being destroyed. Rather, even if the fort is not destroyed, the people [soldiers] there will never fight again – because of the shock, the gas” and other harm from the attack.

“We have not risked exploring this [scenario], and we cannot wait until the first test and only afterward evacuate the forts… my point of reference for nixing the forts is that it is an awful trap… And it can happen in one hour. And if it happens in one day to four or five forts, it would be a national disaster,” he added.
Tal’s opposition and that of then-Maj.-Gen. Ariel Sharon to the Bar Lev line, which served as the heart of Israel’s defense strategy against Egypt, had been known before the latest disclosures. At the time, both men were overruled anyway.

This is the first time that the Defense Ministry publicized portions of the May 29, 1972 and October 5, 1973 classified IDF High Command meetings. It is also the first commentary on Tal’s alternative strategy document and critique of the Bar Lev line from 1970.

Tal and Sharon’s warnings were eventually far more accurate than Bar Lev and the majority IDF High Command’s estimate that the defense line would hold long enough for them to have 24 to 48 hours to reinforce the line with reserves.

Investing so much faith in the Bar Lev defense line has been retrospectively uniformly judged a devastating intelligence failure, which led to the Egyptian rout of Israeli forces in the early days of the war.

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That failure was later salvaged by a hugely successful Israeli counter-attack, but the lessons learned are what continue to pressure the IDF and Israeli intelligence through to the present day.

Regarding Tal’s 1970 alternative strategy document, he said that the Suez Canal should be patrolled day and night by two brigades of troop carriers and tanks in regular movement.

However, he rejected leaving command centers or extensive defense positions that would be stagnant in any area that might be within the range of Egypt’s artillery. Tal also held that the defense line of immovable forts should be defended more modestly.

IDF intelligence chief Eli Zeira was quoted talking about suspicious USSR troop movements during an October 5, 1973 IDF High Command meeting. In addition to updating the IDF High Command on aggressive military drills and troop movements by Egypt and Syria since September 5, 1973, he said that “the Russians have sent 11 transport aircrafts to Egypt and Syria.”

Elaborating, he said that it was unclear what the purpose of these transport planes were, but that it seemed to be an effort “to remove Russian personnel from those states. If so, the question is why and we have no clear explanation as to why.”

He added that, “most of the Soviet naval vessels have left Alexandria. This is also a very very rare thing.”

But at the end of the day, Zeira said that “all of these things do not change IDF intelligence’s basic estimate that the chances of Egypt and Syria initiating a war is still very low…even lower than low.”

Zeira has been criticized for ignoring troop movement signs (Russian evacuations could have signaled that they wanted their forces out of the area before an impending war) and other possible warnings of war.

Finally, IDF Logistics Command Maj. Gen. Nehemiah Kayin warned the meeting that there were insufficient food provisions for IDF forces in the event of a war.

Then-IDF chief-of-staff David Elazar (who had replaced Bar-Lev) responded, “If there are not enough war rations, then they will fast. At the end of the day, it is Yom Kippur. We fast.”

Also on Monday, the National Archives disclosed an actual Mossad cable from the then-Mossad Director Zvi Zamir to then Prime Minister Golda Meir suggesting that she weigh leaking to the media that Israel knew Egypt was about to start a war.

Zamir’s idea was that possibly leaking this to the media before the war started might give Egypt pause and avert the impending war that he had been told about by top secret Israeli spy Ashraf Marwan – the son-in-law of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

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