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  Egyptian Front

The first full-scale battles of the Six Day War came on the morning of June 5, 1967 after a roughly 20 day period of increasing tensions between Israel and the Arab states, principally Egypt, Syria and Jordan. But while the battles commenced in June, the start of the war actually came two weeks earlier on May 22, when Egypt blockaded Israel’s southern port of Eilat and the Gulf of Aqaba. Through the gulf came vital cargo including 80 percent of Israel’s oil imports, and blockading such an international waterway is recognized under international law as a casus belli, or act of war. Reacting to the Egyptian move, U.S. President Johnson said in a televised address the next day:

... the closing of the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping has brought a new and grave dimension to the crisis. The United States considers the gulf to be an international waterway and feels that a blockade of Israeli shipping is illegal and potentially disastrous to the cause of peace. The right of free, innocent passage of the international waterway is a vital interest of the international community. (New York Times, May 24, 1967)

Despite the grave provocation, Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban spent almost two weeks traveling to the capitals of Europe and to Washington in an ultimately futile effort to defuse the crisis and avoid war, but in the end Egypt and its allies had made war inevitable. This was recognized first and foremost by the Egyptians themselves. President Nasser, for example, in a speech on May 26, 1967 said:

Recently we felt we are strong enough, that if we were to enter a battle with Israel, with God’s help, we could triumph. On this basis, we decided to take actual steps …

Taking Sharm al Shaykh [i.e., blockading Israel’s port of Eilat] meant confrontation with Israel. Taking such action also meant that we were ready to enter a general war with Israel. (Speech to Arab Trade Unionists, reprinted in The Israel-Arab Reader, 1984, p. 176; emphasis added.)

On the same day Mohammed Heikal, Nasser’s closest confidante and the leading journalist in the Arab world, wrote in the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram:

This week the closure of the Gulf of Aqaba to Israel was an alternative accomplished fact imposed and now being protected by the force of Arab arms. To Israel this is the most dangerous aspect of the current situation … Therefore it is not a matter of the Gulf of Aqaba but of something bigger. It is the whole philosophy of Israeli security. It is the philosophy on which Israeli existence has pivoted since its birth and on which it will pivot in the future.

Hence I say that Israel must resort to arms. Therefore I say that an armed clash between the UAR and the Israeli enemy is inevitable. (Reprinted in The Israel-Arab Reader, p 181; emphasis added; UAR, or United Arab Republic, was another name for Egypt.)

From the Israeli point of view, as June approached Egypt had already committed one act of war in blockading the Gulf of Aqaba, which diplomacy had failed to reverse. Meanwhile Egypt, Jordan and Syria, acting in concert, were mobilizing forces on Israel’s borders, and large Iraqi forces were moving into place, along with contingents from other Arab countries. Because of its small population, Israel’s combat strength depended on civilian reservists, and with full mobilization (and oil imports largely blocked) the country’s economy faced collapse. As Nasser and Heikal correctly observed, in such a situation Israel either had to surrender or attack. On the morning of June 5, Israel attacked.

Egypt and Israel: The Balance of Forces on the Eve of War

The Egyptian forces in Sinai just prior to the outbreak of hostilities included seven divisions, totaling almost 100,000 troops, and 1000 tanks along with abundant artillery. They were deployed in three coordinated lines, offering both offensive and defensive options, but Soviet doctrine, which Egypt followed, suggested a strategy of allowing Israel to attack the strongly-held Egyptian positions, and once the attack was blunted and the attackers bloodied, to swing onto the offensive. Such tactics were used with great success in the famous WWII Battle of the Kursk Salient, in which the Red Army enveloped and decisively defeated attacking Nazi forces totaling some 800,000 troops, and then immediately launched an offensive against their German foes.

The first Egyptian line was manned by the Second, Sixth and Seventh Divisions in Sinai, covering each of the three possible routes through the desert between the Suez Canal and the Israeli border, while the Palestinian Division covered the northern Gaza Strip. All were motorized infantry divisions with ample armor and artillery.

Behind this first line was a second, at varying distances of thirty to sixty miles from the Israeli border, which was held by the Egyptian Third Division and a Special Task Force led by General Sa’ad al Din Shazli, a favorite of Nasser. Again following Soviet doctrine, these divisions had a dual role – both to contain any Israeli penetration of the first line, and to swing onto the offensive when the opportunity arose. Both divisions were a mix of motorized infantry brigades and armored brigades, thus combining speed and mobility with firepower.

The third line was roughly midway between Israel and the Suez Canal, near Bir Gifgafa and Bir Thamada, and was manned by the highly-regarded Fourth Armored Division and a motorized infantry brigade. Thus deployed these forces were able to defend the large Egyptian air base at Bir Gifgafa, and to hold the key Mitla and Gidi mountain passes over which passed the vital central and southern roads through the desert. As well, the armored division could come forward to attack any Israeli forces that penetrated the first two lines, and could take part in the planned offensive as well.

Facing these Egyptian forces, and the strong likelihood of war on three fronts, the Israelis could marshal only 45,000 men and 650 tanks. (Israel: The Embattled Ally, Nadav Safran, p 242-3) Three Israeli divisions led the way, known by the names of their commanders, Tal for Major General Israel Tal, Sharon for Major General Ariel Sharon, and Yoffe for (reserves) Major General Avraham Yoffe. In addition, in the south opposite Kuntilla was a independent brigade led by Col. Albert Mandler.

With no strategic depth Israel needed to immediately take any battle into enemy territory, and therefore concentrated their task forces on three narrow axes. However, by shuffling their forces around, and employing ruses, such as deploying wooden tanks to create a fake division, the Israelis fooled the Egyptians into believing that the main Israeli attack, as in the 1956 War, would be in the southern sector.

7:45 AM, June 5, 1967: The Israeli Air Attack

While Egypt, and most foreign military observers, expected Israel to attack, no one expected Israel to attack in the way that it did. In most air forces a substantial percentage of planes at any time are down for maintenance; taking that into account, plus planes Israel would have to hold back for air defense, the Egyptians expected that much less than half of Israel’s jets could take part in an anticipated attack against Egypt’s airbases.

But in fact at the start of the fighting 90 percent of Israel’s planes were operational, and only twelve fighters were held back for air defense. All the rest, including jet trainers retrofitted for combat, were thrown into the initial attacks against the Egyptian air force. Flying low through previously discovered gaps in the Egyptian radar net, and approaching from unexpected directions, mostly from the west (that is, from the Mediterranean), the Israelis achieved complete tactical surprise. They also chose to attack not at dawn, when the Egyptians were known to be on alert, but at 7:45 AM, when most senior Egyptian military and political leaders would be caught in the usual massive Cairo traffic jams, and thus out of touch.

Most importantly, the Israelis attacked in small groups of just four planes. While the first group was on the target, another group of four was on the way, and another four were just taking off. As the first wave finished its attacks, the second wave was about to attack, and the third wave was on its way, and when the third wave was finished, the first was back to attack again, having rearmed and refueled in just minutes. In this way Israel kept the main Egyptian airbases under constant devastating attack for more than two and a half hours, allowing no time for recovery.

First cratering the runways with special penetrating bombs to prevent Egyptian planes from taking off, the Israeli pilots then concentrated on the Egyptian bombers that could devastate Israel’s cities, and on Egypt’s most advanced MiG fighter jets. When these were destroyed the target list was widened to include all other military planes, SAM-2 missile sites and radar installations, and smaller airbases, until all eighteen Egyptian airbases had been hit.

In the first day of fighting 80 percent of Egypt’s bombers were destroyed along with 55 percent of its fighter jets. Those losses, combined with the devastation of the airbases and command and control centers demoralized the Egyptian high command, and gave Israel control of the skies over the southern front. Israeli losses totaled just 19 planes, mostly from ground fire.

The Simultaneous Israeli Ground Attack

Sinai War
The battle in the Sinai; click for larger image.

Simultaneous with the Israeli air attacks, Israeli ground forces went into action in the Sinai and Gaza. The Israeli plan was composed of three phases, based on political and military considerations. The political consideration was that great power intervention could force a cease fire at any point, so Israel wanted to be sure of early concrete accomplishments in the field that could at least be traded for an end to the Egyptian blockade that precipitated the war. The military consideration was that, as already described, the first part of the war necessarily involved attacks against entrenched defenders, in the Sinai especially in the area of Abu Ageila and Kusseima, and in Gaza at Rafah. And, since the Air Force would be busy with its own attacks, there would be little if any air support in these initial engagements. Such “break-in” battles tend to be costly and difficult, especially without full air support, and there was no way to be sure which would succeed first. The Israeli strategy was therefore to be flexible enough in the second phase to exploit whichever attacks had made the most headway. As a saying in the IDF goes, “plans are merely the basis for change,” meaning that it doesn’t make sense to plan in too much detail, since unexpected opportunities are sure to arise. Too detailed plans might well push field commanders to follow the plan and miss the opportunity.

The overall Israeli strategy was therefore to penetrate into the open spaces of the Sinai, and then fight the kind of war in which the Israel Defense Forces excelled, a war of movement and maneuver, with the air force and the ground forces working together. The aim was not to engage in more costly frontal assaults, as in the break-in battles, but rather to so dislocate and confuse the opposing commanders that they would panic, causing their armies to fall apart.

Phase One: The Break-in Battles

General Tal’s division was tasked with attacking the fortified Rafah/El Arish sector, near the Mediterranean coast, straddling the Gaza/Egypt border. The Israeli soldiers had to face deep minefields, behind which were well dug-in infantry, and on the perimeter anti-tank weapons in reinforced concrete bunkers. To the rear were over 100 tanks in defensive positions and numerous artillery pieces.

Tal’s strategy was to avoid the minefields and attack from the rear – his forces approached Rafah from the north-east, through the town of Khan Yunis, which fell after a bitter tank battle. Tal’s forces then launched a pincer attack on Rafah junction, and a reinforced paratroop brigade, led by Colonel Rafael Eitan (who would later become Chief of Staff of the IDF), took a southerly route around Rafah then turned northwards, through sand dunes that the Egyptians had assumed impassable to armor. Surprising the defenders, Eitan’s brigade soon penetrated into the Egyptian artillery park south-west of Rafah, wreaking havoc. After reducing these positions Tal’s forces headed southwest taking other defended positions, and by the morning of June 6 El Arish and its approach road were firmly in Israel’s hands.

Meanwhile the crucial central sector was entrusted to General Sharon, whose battle to take the heavily defended Kusseima/Abu Agheila strongholds is still considered a classic. The best description of the Egyptian defenses, and the intricate plan Sharon devised to overcome them, is from Sharon himself:

Since 1956 the Egyptians had completely rebuilt the Abu Agheila fortifications according to the latest Soviet concepts of linear defense. About fifteen miles from the Israeli border the Ismalia road crossed a long swell of sand known as Um Cataf. There the Egyptians had constructed three parallel trench systems intersecting the road. Anchored in the north by high soft dunes and in the south by jagged ridges and broken foothills, each line was several miles long and each encompassed an array of gun positions, storage depots, and lateral communications trenches. In the front of the first line was a thickly laid mine field. With the trench system manned by a full infantry brigade and with its flanks secured on either end by the terrain, this position itself constituted a major defensive obstacle.

A mile or so behind the trenches the Egyptians kept a mobile reserve of over eighty tanks ready to move in any direction, the sword that complemented their defensive shield. Just to the south of the tanks was their artillery deployment – eighty 122- and 130-mm guns whose range far outmatched my own guns. Perimeter outposts screened this concentration of forces on the approaches to the east and especially in the north, where the flank was guarded by an infantry battalion supported by tanks and artillery in a fortified position which we code-named Oakland.

To destroy Abu Agheila it would be necessary to identify and exploit the position’s inherent vulnerability. Here we would be up against good defensive fighters whose numerical strength was not much less than ours, and whose firepower was in some ways greater than ours – a far cry from the offensive-defensive ratio of three to one usually considered minimal for an attack against prepared positions. So the plan of battle would have to emphasize concentration of forces, surprise, and maneuver. And the action would have to take place at night, our traditional method of reducing the odds and negating the advantages of prepared fortifications …

What I had in mind was a closely coordinated attack by separate elements of our forces on the Egyptian trench lines, tanks and artillery … [with the attacks developing] from the north, from the west (at the rear of Abu Agheila), and from the east (at the front of the position) in a continuous unfolding of surprises, each force securing the flank of its neighbor …

In my overall approach the first order of business would be to create a deception against Kusseima with a brigade under Uri Baidatz. Then I would isolate the battlefield. In the south a screening force of tanks, half-tracks and mortars under Arie Amit would block any reinforcements from Kusseima. This force would also give us a lodgement once we were ready to move in that direction. In the north I would launch a reinforced armored battalion, including my best tanks, the British Centurions under Natke Nir, against Oakland, the position that guarded Abu Agheila’s northern flank. Once Natke took Oakland, he would then circle around to the rear of Abu Agheila, setting up blocking forces as he went on the road to Jebel Libni, where the Egyptian reserves were. The Centurions would then be in a position to assault the base from behind.

Once the field was isolated, we would attack the entire depth of the Egyptian positions simultaneously. That would be the “taboulah,” the shock that would unbalance the defenders. Kuti Adam’s infantry brigade would come down on the northern end of the trench lines through the ostensibly secure dunes. At the same time my artillery commander, Yakov Aknin, would concentrate all the division’s artillery fire on the trenches just in front of Kuti’s attack, making life hell for the defenders as they tried to respond to the unexpected assault. To the right of Kuti’s brigade, helicopters would land Danny Mat’s paratroop brigade, which would strike into the artillery positions, preventing the Egyptian long-range guns from hitting our own forces. Once the infantry had disrupted the trenches, our tank brigade under Mordechai Zippori would move through the mine fields in a narrow frontal assault. At the same time, Natke’s Centurions would hit the Egyptian tanks from behind and come in on the rear of the trenches. And all of this would happen at night, compounding the Egyptians’ confusion as they struggled to piece together what was happening to them. (Warrior, Ariel Sharon, p. 188-190)

The battle, complex on paper and even more so in the field, went more or less according to plan. With the main battles fought during the night and morning of June 5/June 6, by mid-morning the positions were entirely in Israeli control, at a cost of 40 killed and 140 wounded.

Between Rafah and Abu Agheila was Wadi Haridin, sand dunes thought to be impassible to vehicles, and thus left undefended by the Egyptians. But after the 1956 war, before Israeli troops left the Sinai, they had scouted out the entire area, and found that the wadi was difficult but passable. Their report, duly filed away, had been recalled by Sharon during the crisis, and located.

The third Israeli division, under Yoffe, was therefore split in two. While the battles in Rafah and Abu Agheila were still raging, one half of Yoffe’s division made the slow trek through Wadi Haridin near Abu Agheila, and emerged from the dunes to surprise and attack Egyptian forces near Bir Lahfan junction, which were trying to come to the aid of the defenders at Rafah and Abu Agheila. Defeating this force, Yoffe’s troops then joined with the bulk of Tal’s forces from El Arish, which had wheeled southward, to attack and isolate the second Egyptian line near Bir Lahfan, which was held by Egypt’s Third Division. The other half of Yoffe’s division passed directly through Sharon’s lines and the still-unsecured perimeter of Abu Agheila, and attacked the central sector of the same Third Egyptian Division, near the key high ground of Jebel Libni, southwest of Bir Lahfan. The forces of Tal and Yoffe thus came together in a pincer attack against the north and central sectors of the Third Division, and by dusk on June 6 the Jebel Libni bases and surrounding areas had fallen.

(Meanwhile, the remainder of Tal’s division which had not headed south from El Arish advanced along the Sinai coast, eventually advancing to take Kantara on the Suez Canal and then turned south to take up positions opposite Ismalia.)

With the success in this phase of the battle in the Sinai, Israel had accomplished its minimal objectives, unhinging the Egyptian defenses in the central Sinai, and putting the rest of Egypt’s forces under threat. In any cease-fire discussions Israel would now be in a strong position to demand the removal of the blockade.

Phase Two: Exploiting the Success

At this stage Egypt’s citizens and many of her soldiers did not yet grasp the scope of their losses, and the state-controlled media was reporting that Egyptian forces had penetrated deep into Israel, that Tel-Aviv had been bombed and the Haifa oil refineries set alight. But Egypt’s military chief, Marshal Amer, did understand the disaster that had occurred, and he cracked. On the afternoon of June 6 Amer began issuing contradictory orders directly to his field commanders, eventually ordering an immediate and total retreat. Sensing Amer’s panic, some Egyptian commanders abandoned their troops and fled back to Cairo, the better to save themselves. The retreat turned into a rout.

For their part the Israelis, their air force now free to support the ground forces, concentrated on the remaining Egyptian armored forces in the Sinai, especially the crack Fourth Division near the passes. Yoffe’s forces proceeded southwest to attack and take Bir Hassana and then continued 30 miles in the same direction to attack the southern positions of the Fourth Division near Bir Thamada. Meanwhile the bulk of Tal’s forces headed for Bir Gifgafa, and an attack on the northern flank of the Fourth Division.

Sharon’s division drove south towards Nakhli, and with Col. Mandler’s Brigade, which had earlier taken Egyptian positions at Kuntilla, attacked Shazli’s task force and elements of the Sixth Division from two directions. The Egyptian forces began to withdraw towards the Mitla Pass and a hoped-for escape across the Suez Canal. But tanks exposed on desert roads were easy targets for the Israeli air force, which exacted a terrible toll. Between Sharon’s and Mandler’s tanks and the Israeli jets, much of Egypt’s Sixth Division was trapped in a killing field and would soon cease to exist.

Meanwhile Yoffi and Tal were racing through the Egyptian forces that remained, straining to beat them to the passes that offered the Egyptians their only hope of escaping back across the Suez Canal. At this the Israelis partially succeeded. While Yoffi blocked the Mitla and Gidi passes, Tal’s forces were not as successful blocking the Khatmia pass (on the Ismalia road). While Sharon drove much of the Egyptian army into the trap, significant elements of the Egyptian Fourth Division were able to force the Khatmia pass over night and escape. Despite this, large portions of the 3rd and 6th Divisions and Shazli’s forces were trapped and destroyed, their blackened tanks and APC’s littering the desert.

Entirely independently of these battles, a small operation was launched to take Sharm el Sheikh, from which the Egyptians had enforced their blockade. Sharm fell without a fight, its defenders having fled.

Thus, after 96 hours the war in Sinai was over.

In the course of the fighting more than 5000 Egyptian soldiers were captured, including 500 officers, who were taken as prisoners to trade for the few Israeli pilots who had been shot down and captured. But the bulk of the captured Egyptians were given food and water and transported to the canal, where Egyptian boats came to ferry them home. Those Egyptians who eluded capture did not fare as well – many who tried to get back on their own died in the desert, falling victim to dehydration and exposure.

Israel's losses in the battles with Egypt were 275 soldiers killed and 800 wounded, very high for a country of only 2 million, but comparatively light considering the size of the battles and the magnitude of the victory. Egypt's losses were much higher — according to statements by President Nasser more than 11,500 soldiers were killed, and independent estimates put the number of wounded as high as 50,000. (Barker, p 76)

General References

  1. Israel: The Embattled Ally, Nadav Safran, Harvard University Press
  2. Hussein of Jordan: My War With Israel, King Hussein, Peter Owen Limited
  3. Warrior: An Autobiography, Ariel Sharon, Simon and Shuster
  4. The Arab-Israeli Wars, Chaim Herzog, Random House
  5. Arab-Israeli Wars, A.J. Barker, Hippocrene Books
  6. Chariots of the Desert, David Eshel, Brassey’s
  7. The Six Day War, Israel Defense Forces Website
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