Here's What You Need to Know: The remarkable victory in Sinai exceeded even the wildest dreams of Israeli leaders.
Late on the evening of June 5, 1967, a flight of Sikorsky S-58 helicopters sped low above the sands of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Aboard the aircraft was a hand-picked force drawn from Israel’s 80th Paratroop Brigade. Among the best-trained and well-equipped men in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the paratroopers had been tasked with a daring night assault of heavily defended Egyptian artillery positions behind Umm Katif.
As soon as the helicopters touched down, paratroop commander Colonel Dani Matt’s men were on the move. They had succeeded in landing just two miles from the objective, and Matt was astounded that their presence remained undetected, but as the paratroopers trudged toward the enemy position, bedlam erupted. “Suddenly, the sky lit up with hundreds of illumination shells, followed by the crash of explosives as mortar fire landed on our approach route,” recalled Matt.
Despite the noisy reception, it became apparent that the paratroopers still held the initiative as the shock of the initial barrage faded. The Egyptian fire was poorly directed, and it was obvious that they were firing blind. As the emboldened Israelis rushed the last remaining yards toward their target, they found the Egyptian artillery park unprotected by minefields or barbed wire. Wildly spraying the enemy with sub-machine-gun fire, the Israelis stormed the position in a chaotic fight for control of the guns.
“Ammunition bunkers exploded into fiery infernos,” Matt wrote afterwards. “The noise became overwhelming, the smoke and dust suffocating.” For Matt and his men, the fight was a life and death struggle in the sandy wastes of Sinai. For the IDF, this operation was vital to the success of one of the largest armored attacks in the history of the Middle East and critical to victory in the Six Day War.
By the summer of 1967, the modern state of Israel laid claim to a short but bloody history. After declaring independence in spring 1948, the nascent Jewish state was invaded by a coalition of Arab nations bent on the destruction of Jewish settlements. Following a brief but fierce war that saw the death of nearly one percent of its population, Israel secured a grudging armistice with the Arab belligerents. The agreement brought an end to large-scale fighting, but failed to secure Arab recognition of Israeli independence, making further conflict inevitable.
In less than a decade, Israel once again found itself locked in a shooting war with its largest Arab neighbor. In response to Egyptian blockades of the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aqaba, Israel launched an invasion of the Sinai Peninsula on October 29, 1956. The attack was coordinated with the British and the French, who dropped airborne forces near the Suez in the hopes of seizing the canal.
The affair ended in an embarrassing foreign-relations disaster for Great Britain and France as they were forced to accept a cease-fire due to pressure from the United States and the United Nations. Israeli forces had been stunningly successful during the ground campaign, seizing Sinai in short order. The IDF, though, had not been able to capture one of the most heavily defended of the Egyptian positions, the strategically vital high ground near the seemingly insignificant crossroads of Abu Agheila. The position was taken only after being abandoned by the Egyptians.
That brief war, though, was not without long-term ramifications. The fact that Britain and France had been forced to withdraw their troops due to political pressure only emboldened the Egyptians, and anti-Israeli rhetoric ramped up in the years that followed. As a result, the peacekeepers of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) were garrisoned in Sinai in order to keep the belligerents at arm’s length.
At the time, Egypt was experiencing a wave of nationalist fervor, largely due to the ascendance of Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the most charismatic leaders in the Middle East. Nasser had assumed the presidency of Egypt in 1954, just two years after he had helped orchestrate a successful coup. Nasser used powerful rhetoric that espoused greater unity for the Arab world, retribution for displaced Palestinians, and the reduction of the State of Israel.
Nasser’s magnetic charm also crossed national boundaries, and his promotion of pan-Arab unity found a wide audience across the region. By the mid-1960s, Nasser’s mounting influence in the Arab world was a source of grave alarm to Israel’s intelligence services. By 1964, IDF analysts predicted that a renewed war with an emboldened Egyptian army would likely occur as early as 1967.
Due to his previous professional contacts within the Egyptian Army, Nasser promoted a number of personal cronies to the highest ranks, chief among them Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer. Former vice president of Egypt and overall commander of Egyptian forces, Amer had seen extensive combat service. First commissioned in the Egyptian army in 1939, Amer had served against Israel in both 1948 and 1956 and had commanded Egyptian troops that intervened in the North Yemen Civil War.
Unfortunately, cronyism and statist paranoia gripped much of the Egyptian senior officer corps. Amer likewise appointed personal cronies or conferred promotion based on political considerations. A number of senior officers were known to possess a greater interest in Cairo nightlife than the military arts. Intelligence operatives spent much of their time monitoring suspect Egyptian officers rather than gathering intelligence on the Israelis. Ultimately, the misplaced focus on politics ensured that the Egyptian senior command bore a greater resemblance to an elite club of uniformed sycophants than a cadre of professional combat leaders.
Despite the shortcomings of the high brass, the Egyptian military possessed a vast arsenal of fearsome weaponry due to an alliance with the Soviet Union. Nasser’s increasingly hostile stance to the Western powers made him an attractive ally to the Soviets, who regarded him as a non-capitalist revolutionary democrat. Nasser and Amer were designated as Heroes of the Soviet Union in 1964 and awarded accompanying medals.
Such symbolic honorifics were accompanied with more concrete support in the form of modern weaponry. Since the close of the Sinai conflict, the Soviets had bestowed billions of dollars worth of military aid on the Arab states. The Arabs in the region fielded 1,700 tanks, 2,400 pieces of artillery, and 500 jet aircraft. Nearly half of the armaments went to Egypt, Israel’s most dangerous foe. Greater Arab unity likewise increased the threat to Israel. In October 1966, for example, Egypt and Syria secured a diplomatic rapprochement and signed a mutual defense pact.
The explosive combination of Arab military alliance and anti-Zionist rhetoric resulted in a dangerous powder keg for the greater Middle East. Misled by erroneous Syrian intelligence that pointed to an Israeli buildup on its northern border, Nasser and his generals grew increasingly jingoistic during the spring of 1967. On May 19, Nasser made the ominous move of requesting the removal of the 3,500 United Nations peacekeepers stationed in Sinai. With United Nation troops out of the way, Egypt began preparations for an inevitable war in Sinai.
The Middle East faced an irreversible crisis when Egypt ordered the closure of the Straits of Tiran—the strategic waterway that controlled the Gulf of Aqaba—on May 21, 1967. With Israeli access to the Gulf of Aqaba denied, Israel’s southern port of Eilat was entirely cut off from international waters. Widely regarded as an act of war, the closure of the Straits of Tiran was almost certain to result in conflict, and Nasser was unambiguous regarding the intention of his decision. “It will be total, and the objective will be Israel’s destruction,” he said, referring to a possible outbreak of war.
As diplomatic efforts (including proposed mediation) continued to fail, more Arab powers readied for war. In addition to Egypt and Syria, Jordan and Lebanon began mobilizing their armed forces. Even distant Muslim states including Iraq, Kuwait, Morocco, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia either mobilized or contributed token forces to the fight against Israel. Ahmad ash-Shuqayri, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, gave voice to the mounting desire for war with an ominous public statement. “We shall destroy Israel and its inhabitants,” he said. “As for the survivors, if there are any, the boats are ready to deport them.”
Despite the overall lax condition of the Egyptian Army, the Israeli high command harbored a deep respect for the fighting mettle of the average Egyptian soldier. Largely due to Israel’s experience in failing to crack the defenses of Abu Agheila in 1956, the Egyptians were particularly feared for their willingness to fight tenaciously from fortified positions. Russian military engineers helped the Egyptians construct imposing fieldworks at key strategic positions across the vast expanse of Sinai.
A virtual panic gripped the highest echelon’s of Israel’s government as the nation braced itself for what could become a struggle for survival. Because any conflict would inevitably result in the IDF waging a war on multiple fronts, Israeli military doctrine stressed initiative and aggressive tactics as a part of an overall strategy of destroying numerically superior Arab armies before they had a chance to respond. In many respects, Israeli tactics ironically copied the blitzkrieg of Nazi Germany in World War II.