The Attack Begins
The Israeli Air Force struck the first blow of the campaign when, late in the afternoon of October 29, four P-51 Mustang fighter-bombers swept in low over the Sinai Peninsula and cut many existing telephone lines with their propellers. This audacious and imaginative blow crippled the Egyptian Army’s command and control structure, leaving the 30,000 troops in the Egyptian 3rd Infantry and 8th Palestinian Divisions completely cut off and without instructions. Just before sunset, 395 Israeli paratroopers jumped into a drop zone east of Mitla Pass and dug themselves into blocking positions in the low hills around the defile’s eastern end. During the night, an Israeli reserve infantry brigade hiked into Sinai from the vicinity of Nitzana and easily secured the Kusseima crossroads.
In three short steps, the Israelis had severely disrupted Egyptian communications throughout Sinai, blocked a vital line of supply and communication at Mitla Pass, and outflanked the bulk of the Egyptian forces in east-central Sinai. Soon, however, Dayan’s carefully orchestrated plan came unglued. Early in the afternoon of October 30, the general in charge of the Southern Command, Brig. Gen. Assaf Simchoni, learned that a light reconnaissance unit had reached a narrow defile called Deika Pass without encountering any Egyptian resistance. Israeli jeeps had driven from Kusseima almost to the rear of Abu Agheila, the westernmost and largest Egyptian defensive position in east-central Sinai. West of Abu Agheila, as Simchoni knew, there was virtually nothing to prevent his brigades from rushing all the way to the Suez Canal port of Ismailia.
Leaving Deika Pass unguarded was a major blunder on the Egyptians’ part, and Simchoni instantly realized that Israel’s military and political objectives in Sinai could be achieved in far less time and cost if he could exploit the Egyptian oversight by rolling up Abu Agheila from the rear. However, there was only one unit in the Zahal that was equipped with tracked vehicles, and it was sitting idle near Nitzana. Without consulting Dayan, who was roving hither and yon across the entire southern zone of operations, Simchoni unilaterally tapped the command’s reserve, which consisted of Colonel Uri Ben-Ari’s 7th Armored Brigade, Zahal’s only full-time standing armored force.
With only skeletal information and instructions provided by Simchoni, Ben-Ari, a spectacularly aggressive military innovator, improvised an assault straight up the rear of the Abu Agheila defenses.
When Dayan discovered at sunup on October 31 that the entire 7th Armored Brigade was on the move against Abu Agheila, he nearly countermanded Simchoni’s attack order. But by the time Dayan heard the news, just before 0500, the leading elements of Ben-Ari’s brigade already were approaching the Egyptian rear. Dayan had no choice but to let events unfold. As often happens in warfare, the unexpected had outrun the planned.
At dawn on October 31, Lt. Col. Avraham “Bren” Adan’s combined tank-infantry task force began its attack on the rear of Abu Agheila. This time the Egyptians were ready, having noticed hours earlier that an Israeli force of some type was approaching from the south and southwest. As the half-tracks bearing the first armored infantry company of Bren’s force got to within two miles of the base wire, the Egyptians opened fire with a full battalion of 25-pounder field guns, antitank and infantry weapons that had been shifted to the rear to counteract the attackers. Other Egyptian soldiers manning the outlying position at Ruefa Dam, on the high ground immediately south of Abu Agheila, blasted the right flank of the Israeli assault force.
The lead company of Israeli Sherman tanks suppressed the fire from Ruefa Dam, while the infantry-laden half-tracks pressed straight on toward Abu Agheila. An Egyptian armored reaction force quickly pressed in from the north along the road from the coastal city of El Arish, but it was counterattacked and defeated by Israeli tanks guarding Bren’s left flank. Abu Agheila was held by the equivalent of three Egyptian infantry brigades supported by a battalion of 25-pounders and 23 antitank guns. But even though the Egyptians had shifted their defenses to meet the attack of the Israeli armored task force, the vast complex of military camps fell to the equivalent of a battalion of Israeli tanks and armored infantry in only an hour.
After the main base fell, the Egyptians continued to fire on Bren’s armored task force with artillery from another fortified position to the east, and more Egyptian tanks moved down from the direction of El Arish. Bren’s own tanks, assisted by a flock of Israeli fighter-bombers, held both threats at bay. At this point, a second Israeli armored task force was to have passed through Bren’s column to reduce the Ruefa Dam position. Before it could move out from blocking positions at the head of Deika Pass, news arrived that a large part of Egypt’s only tank brigade—two T-34 medium tank battalions, a company of SU-100 assault guns, and a battalion of mechanized infantry—was moving along the main road from Ismailia toward Abu Agheila. Immediately, Ben-Ari added a bevy of mobile supporting arms to the second task force and set off hastily down the road to Ismailia. On reaching the major road junction at Jebel Libni, about 15 miles west of Abu Agheila, Ben-Ari halted his force and dug in to stop the oncoming Egyptians.
As it turned out, the Egyptian force never reached Jebel Libni. Israeli fighter-bombers caught it on the open road about 30 miles west of Ben-Ari’s ambush and destroyed or disabled many T-34s, SU-100s, and APCs. When Ben-Ari heard that the survivors had begun a bloody withdrawal back toward the canal, he mounted his force to chase them down. Ben-Ari’s armored task force never caught up with the retreating Egyptians, but it did advance to within 10 miles of the Suez Canal before it was ordered to stop. Along the way, it easily swept aside several roadblocks the Egyptians had set up to delay it. (This swift, effective advance argued strongly in favor of an independent role for armor within Zahal’s war-fighting doctrine. Hitherto, Israeli armor had been a mere adjunct to the infantry, something that Ben-Ari had been vociferously—some would say obnoxiously—fighting for years.)
Bren’s Armor Grinds to a Halt
While Ben-Ari’s armored task force had been moving west by way of the central route across the Sinai, a third 7th Armored Brigade task force had been moving to the west by a more southerly route. This task force was to have supported Bren’s assault on Abu Agheila, but word arrived just before the attack that an Egyptian mechanized force was moving up from the southwest. The third task force went off to investigate the report and turn back the interlopers. After it had advanced all the way to Bir el-Hassne without finding any Egyptians, the force was ordered to continue to Mitla Pass to bolster the dug-in paratroopers.
While the other two segments of the 7th Armored Brigade were attacking to the west, Bren’s victorious force was ordered, on the evening of October 31, to seize the Ruefa Dam defensive position. Bren’s tanks and half-tracks moved out at sunset—right into the face of 19 entrenched antitank guns and six 25-pounder artillery pieces. As the Israeli tanks led the way into the Egyptian position, every one of them was struck at least once by antitank rounds and many were disabled. Bren refused to give up. Even after many of the Shermans ran out of ammunition, the attack bore down on the well-entrenched defenders, running directly over those who did not break and flee. As the halftracks followed the tanks across the Egyptian trenches, the armored infantrymen tossed hand grenades over the sides and sprayed foxholes with automatic weapons fire. The defenses cracked and the surviving Egyptians, who had fought bravely, fled or surrendered.
As the Israelis were scouring the abandoned defenses and taking stock of their own losses, Egyptian artillery from another strongpoint opened fire in support of an infantry counterattack from the Umm Katef position. The Israeli tanks and armored infantry easily repulsed the last-ditch attempt, but Bren’s tanks had been rendered virtually ineffective by lack of ammunition and spare parts.
Infantry in the Umm Katef Bottleneck
On the morning of November 1, Simchoni reluctantly committed his last reserve infantry brigade to capturing Umm Katef by direct frontal assault. Simchoni had been forced to commit the infantry to a risky frontal assault on a powerful position to open a direct line of supply to the three divergent components of the 7th Armored Brigade. Not only had Bren’s task force been rendered hors de combat by lack of ammunition and maintenance, but the two mobile task forces to the west were losing increasing numbers of tanks and half-tracks due to similar equipment failures. Since Bren was no longer able to fight through from the west, Simchoni was obliged to commit the infantry to clear the Umm Katef bottleneck from the east.
Two Egyptian outposts between Nitzana and Umm Katef fell to the 10th Reserve Infantry Brigade’s reconnaissance group almost without bloodshed, but after the unit was reinforced by an infantry company and sent forward toward Umm Katef itself, the Egyptians delivered a bloody repulse. The stunned Israeli brigade commander went more or less to ground for the rest of the day.