War of Attrition and the October 1973 War

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After conquering Sinai, the Israelis constructed the Bar-Lev Line, a series of thirty-three small, heavily fortified observation posts atop sand ramparts eight to ten meters high along the east bank of the Suez Canal. They built a second sand embankment several kilometers behind the first one. Both embankments had firing ramps for roving armored patrols. In January 1969, Egypt began the War of Attrition with an intensive eighty-day bombardment along the whole canal. Israeli positions along the Bar-Lev Line survived the attack but suffered heavy damage. Egypt followed the attack with commando raids on the line itself and against Israeli patrols and rear installations. Israel launched a severe reprisal that included bombing raids against military and strategic targets deep in the interior of Egypt. The relative ineffectiveness of Egypt's Soviet SA-2 high-altitude surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) against the Israeli raids necessitated the introduction of low-level SA-3 SAMs, manned mostly by Soviet technicians. Egypt reinforced the new missiles with more than 100 MiG-21 aircraft flown by Soviet pilots. Egypt's revitalized air defense system succeeded in destroying a considerable number of Israeli aircraft. Still, in the only major battle between Israeli and Soviet fighters, the Israeli air force quickly prevailed. In August 1970, a cease-fire negotiated by the United States with Soviet support ended the fighting between Israel and Egypt.

Sadat, who succeeded Nasser in September 1970, assumed the responsibility of managing the international and domestic pressures that were impelling Egypt and the Middle East toward another war. Although the Soviets had replaced the enormous amounts of arms and equipment lost during the June 1967 War, Sadat and other Egyptian military leaders had become wary of the Soviet military's increasing influence on national affairs. In mid-1972 Sadat dismissed most of the Soviet advisers as part of his preparations for recovering Sinai. In January 1973, Egypt began planning a topsecret project known as Operation Badr in conjunction with Syria.

Early in the afternoon of October 6, 1973, Egypt launched the operation with a massive artillery barrage against Israeli positions on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal. Water cannons mounted on pontoons sliced gaps in the high sandbank of the Bar-Lev Line, permitting armored vehicles to cross on assault craft. By midnight ten bridges and fifty ferries had carried 80,000 Egyptian troops across the waterway and one kilometer beyond the embankment. Almost all of the armor of the Egyptian Second Army and Third Army crossed the following day. By October 9, the Egyptian bridgeheads were seven to ten kilometers east of the canal. The Soviet-supplied antitank missiles and rockets repulsed the initial Israeli counterattacks. The newer Soviet SAMs protected Egyptian forces from Israeli air attacks, but as Egyptian troops advanced beyond the missile defenses, they were exposed to punishing air attacks.

On October 14, Egyptian armored columns took the offensive to try to seize the main routes leading to Tasa and the Giddi and Mitla passes. In the largest tank battle since World War II, the Egyptian attack failed when Israeli gunnery proved superior, and the Israelis' defensive positions gave them an added advantage. Mounting a strong counterattack, the Israelis thrust toward the canal and narrowly succeeded in crossing it just north of Great Bitter Lake. Egyptian forces on the east bank heavily contested Israel's weak link to the canal bridgehead, but by October 19, the Israelis succeeded in breaking out west of the canal. Stubborn Egyptian defenses prevented the loss of the cities of Ismailia (Al Ismailiyah) and Suez at the southern end of the canal until a UN cease-fire took effect on October 24, 1973. Before the cease-fire, however, the Israelis had isolated the Egyptian Third Army on the east bank of the canal.

Under a disengagement agreement reached on January 17, 1974, Israel withdrew its forces from west of the canal while Egyptian forces withdrew from the east bank to a depth of about eight kilometers. The agreement also provided for a United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) to occupy a north-south buffer strip about eight kilometers wide and allowed a limited number of Israeli troops to occupy a similar zone to the east of the UNEF.

Although Egypt's armed forces suffered severely in the October 1973 War, the losses were not nearly as heavy as they had been in 1967. Of the combined strength of 200,000 in Egypt's Second and Third armies, approximately 8,000 men were killed in combat. Egypt also lost more than 200 aircraft, 1,100 tanks, and large quantities of other weapons, vehicles, and equipment. Despite these losses, the effect of the war on the armed forces was as exhilarating as the defeat in 1967 had been debilitating. Although they had not recovered Sinai, their initial successes in securing the east bank of the canal had an important positive psychological impact on the armed forces. The war enabled Egypt to negotiate from strength rather than from the abject weakness of the post-1967 period. At the same time, Egypt had proved that it was capable of successful military planning and of inflicting painful losses on Israel.

The Egyptian Military in World War II
First Arab-Israeli War
The 1956 War
The June 1967 War

More about the Government and Politics of Egypt.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress