When the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, Israel came under a joint offensive from Egyptian and Syrian forces, as they were pushing into the Sinai and the Golan Heights simultaneously – areas which had been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six Day War. Both sides were heavily supported by their allies, the United States and the Soviet Union, pushing these two superpowers on the verge of a direct confrontation. In the first days of the conflict a massive tank battle ensued between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights, one of the largest in modern history…
The Golan Heights held significance because losing it would have opened a clear path deeper into Israel, with major cities in the close proximity. The area was well fortified with static positions, anti-tank ditches, minefields, and the uneven hilly terrain itself gave an advantage to the defenders as well. At the same time Israeli forces were hopelessly outnumbered, about 3000 troops, 180 tanks (mostly Centurions) and 60 artillery pieces standing against a 28.000 strong attack force, manning 800 tanks (mostly T-55s and T-62s) and 600 artillery batteries.
The Syrian forces even had an advantage technologically, as they had state of the art night vision equipment, while the Israeli forces had to use illumination rounds at night and had to engage the enemy at short distances to be able to put down effective fire. All in all the Israeli forces had to delay the Syrian advancement long enough so the front could be reinforced, and in fact only after 15 hours the first reserve units arrived, by forgoing all routine checks and calibrations. Reserves were literally sat in a tank and rushed to the fronts straight away. Even so, with odds like this, the outcome of the battle was questionable…
The Syrian invasion begun with a massive 50 minute long artillery barrage and concentrated bombardment of Israeli positions by 100 jets. This was followed by a strong push of armored and infantry units both from the north and the south, aiming to envelope the Israeli forces. To overcome the obstacles, they had to use bridge layers and bulldozers which were heavily focused on by the defending forces. Despite suffering heavy losses however, the outer defenses could be breached and armored units could now enter the Golan Heights en mass.
The defenders caused heavy losses to the advancing forces, occupying superior positions and making great use of mobile artillery, using their knowledge or the area. While only a couple of Centurion tanks were knocked out in exchange for the dozens of enemy tanks destroyed, they were costly losses in sight of their limited numbers. Despite the initial losses the Syrian advance was relentless with the fights lasting through the night, and within the first six hours of the attack the first line of the Israeli defense was overrun due to the difference in sheer numbers.
DAY 2 & 3:
By dawn the area was lit by a great number of burning tanks in the area earning it the name – Valley of Tears. By the second day the Israeli Air Force was called in as well, but suffered heavy casualties as the Syrian forces advanced under the protection of a screen of SAM batteries. Soon they changed tactics however and with a low altitude flanking approach they successfully carried out devastating attacks on the armored columns, using both conventional and napalm bombs. At the same time the Syrian Air Force wasn’t idle either, and continued to strike Israeli positions in combination with heavy artillery support.
As the battle raged on, tank brigades engaged each other all over the wider area, usually at ranges of 1 to 2 kilometers at day time and basically point blank range at night time. During this period the Israeli forces managed to hold their ground by mounting a desperate but extremely successful defense. At Hermonit during a night attack 20 infantry troops managed to repel two whole Syrian infantry battalions from well-fortified positions, while with the armored forces Lieutenant Greengold mounted a heroic fight in his Centurion, when unattached to any unit he fought the Syrian armored forces for 20 hours straight, at times alone, at times supporting other units. During this time he had to change tank 6 times because it was knocked out from under him, but he managed to change the outcome of several engagements by always popping up on the flanks of the enemy unexpectedly.
The most heroic feet however was the defense of Bunker 107 during the night of the second day. Pressing their technological advantage in terms of night vision equipment, the Syrian forces mounted a massive night-time offensive with 500 tanks. Against them stood a single Israeli brigade with about 40 tanks, defending the bunker. To counter their disadvantage in vision, the defenders allowed the enemy to close within 500 meters, and then opened fire in a concentrated barrage, taking out 25 T-62s in less than 2 minutes. The enemy was now literally at their doorstep though, with the two sides fighting only at ranges of merely 30-60 meters at times. In the ensuing chaos Syrian commandos successfully slipped through the Israeli defenses and took out several Centurions by RPG-s. The attacking force retreated eventually to evacuate the damaged tanks and their wounded, and continued the attack mainly via artillery barrages.
While the Israeli defenders managed to take out several brigades of 20-30 tanks, and at dawn of the second day the area was littered with about 130 destroyed tanks and many APC-s, their losses started to add up as well. By the end of the third day of the attack, the Israeli forces had only about 45 working Centurions left, while they were still facing an enemy attacking in the hundreds. Both sides have now been seriously exhausted by the constant fighting, but the battle was not over yet.
The fourth day of the war started with the largest Syrian artillery barrage yet, followed up by a final push with 100 tanks, supported by Syrian commandos dropped in by helicopters. The Israeli forces were now seriously depleted, some battalions down to half a dozen working Centurions, most of them literally down to their last couple of shells. They mounted a desperate retreating defense occupying ridge lines, and held on until the last possible minute, with several tanks sacrificing themselves rather than to give way to the enemy. After a hard day of fighting the reserves and some reinforcements from repaired tanks and partially wounded crew did arrive to the front lines and managed to conceal the offensive.
After this the Syrian forces started to withdraw, with the defenders (now strengthened with the reserves) pushing them back into Syria in a counter offensive. The Golan Heights turned out to be a geographical stronghold, one which a vastly outnumbered force could hold by using the terrain, and engaging the enemy at long ranges as much as possible. The four day conflict did leave about 600 destroyed vehicles on the Golan Heights, mostly from the Syrian side, and it became one of the most well-known armored conflicts of recent history.
- Israeli Centurion tank, Golan Heights, 1973: Wikipedia
- Valley of Tears on the Golan Heights, 2012: Wikimedia Commons
- Israeli artillery engaging Syrian forces, Golan Heights, 1973: Wikimedia Commons
- Abandoned Syrian T-62, Golan Heights, 1973: Wikimedia Commons
- Israeli Sho’t (Centurion) at the Yom Kippur War Memorial: Wikimedia Commons
- Syrian T-62, Yom Kippur War memorial: Wikimedia Commons