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In the Trenches, Panic and Disillusionment

The officers arriving at Gen. Albert Mendler’s headquarters in the Refidim base in the Sinai had come for a farewell party, but instead found themselves at a war briefing.

It was Friday, October 5, 1973, the day before Yom Kippur. Mendler, commander of the only armored division in the Sinai, was supposed to leave on the coming Sunday for a new assignment, but that now seemed likely to be postponed. For the past week, large convoys had been entering the Egyptian lines on the other bank of the Suez Canal and lookouts reported intense activity. The sand ramparts the Egyptians had built along their side of the waterway were being raised every day to offer better firing positions into the Israeli rear. At dozens of points, the Egyptians were preparing descents into the canal for rubber boats. Military Intelligence discounted the activity as a military exercise, but to Mendler these preparations smelled of war.

The Thursday before the officers’ arrival, a photo reconnaissance flight had passed over the Egyptian lines. Analysts were up all night, going over the photos it brought back. Mendler sent an intelligence officer to Tel Aviv with orders to phone as soon as there was a reading. The results were astonishing. The analysts counted 1,350 tanks and 2,000 artillery pieces, and estimated the number of Egyptian troops at 100,000. “You can get a stroke just from the numbers,” said Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. On the Israeli side, there were 450 soldiers manning the Bar-Lev Line, 44 artillery pieces and 90 tanks near the canal, with 200 more tanks a few hours away.

Mendler reviewed with his officers standing plans for dealing with an Egyptian attack, plans that depended on swift mobilization of the reserves. He was interrupted by a call from Tel Aviv reporting on a meeting of the Cabinet. The caller said something that made Mendler stare into the middle distance and hang up wordlessly. Turning to his officers, he said, “They’re not mobilizing.”

Israel’s devastating intelligence failure, one of the most bizarre in military annals, wrong-footed Israel into the most traumatic period of its history. The failure did not stem from lack of good information. On the contrary, Israel had been supplied for years with the most reliable and comprehensive information that could be imagined about the Egyptian military and political establishment, as well as about the broader Arab world. The information came mostly from Ashraf Marwan, the son-in-law of the late president Gamal Abdel Nasser. As a protégé of Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, Marwan was privy to virtually all state secrets. He furnished Israel with the actual war plans of the Egyptian army, as well as with protocols of Cabinet meetings.

The documents he supplied also spelled out Sadat’s geo-political thinking. The Egyptian leader wanted the Soviets to supply him with bombers capable of reaching Israeli air force bases, and with Scud missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv. The head of Israeli Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Eli Zeira, was convinced that until Sadat had the two-weapon systems, there was no meaningful danger of war regardless of how menacing any Arab deployment might seem. Sadat, however, had changed his mind and decided to go to war with the armaments he had in hand. Although Marwan had passed this information on, too, according to Uri Bar-Joseph, whose book, “The Angel” describes the intelligence failure, Zeira did not relay this information, for reasons that remain unclear. Not even the massive Egyptian deployment revealed by the air photos changed Zeira’s assessment that war was a “low probability.” Israel’s situation on the Syrian front was even starker: an 8 to 1 Syrian superiority in tanks, with an even more devestating advantage in soldiers and artillery.

Dayan and Chief of Staff David Elazar were uneasy about the massive buildup of enemy forces, but they accepted Zeira’s assessment because they believed that Intelligence had a fail-safe alert system referred to as “special means.” These were taps on Arab communication lines that would warn in good time of a pending Arab attack; however, they were not to be activated prematurely, since activation could lead, eventually, to their discovery.

As war warnings mounted in the days before Yom Kippur, Dayan and Elazar asked Zeira if he had activated the special means. According to Bar-Joseph, a former Israeli security analyst, though Zeira said he had, he in fact hadn’t; he was still confident that there would be no war, and so he didn’t want to risk exposing the taps. But on Friday night, Marwan met in London with Mossad chief Zvi Zamir and informed him that a two-front attack would be launched the next day, Yom Kippur.

The impact of the Arab surprise on many senior officers was paralyzing as they wrestled with thoughts of what had gone wrong and tried to figure out what they should do. “Your mind freezes up,” said a deputy division commander, one of Israel’s most renowned fighters. “You have difficulty getting into gear, and you react by executing the plans you’ve already prepared, even if they’re no longer appropriate.”

That is precisely what happened to Mendler. He listened passively to reports of his tanks being knocked out — 180 would be disabled in 12 hours — as they hurled themselves again and again at formidable anti-tank defenses. When brigade commanders asked for instructions, he said only, “Do the best you can.” The officers asked for permission to evacuate the Bar-Lev forts when it was still possible, but he said he had no authority to do so. However, he did not ask his superiors for such authority. It was the desperate attempts to reach the beleaguered forts that accounted for the huge tank losses. A staff officer would describe Mendler wearing a thin, bitter smile as he stared fixedly at the map in his headquarters: “I said to myself: ‘Why doesn’t the man talk? A whole world that he built and trained for is collapsing in front of him, and he keeps silent.’” He hardly spoke on the radio net, and periodically he would disappear into his office for long periods.

For most of the officers so affected, the shock wore off after two days or so, and they began feeling normal again. Mendler did, too, but by this time two-thirds of his division was gone and half the men in the Bar-Lev forts were dead or in captivity. The last fort to fall surrendered a week after Yom Kippur. Distressed, Mendler drove in his halftrack to visit units at the front. He met his death there from an Egyptian shell. He was the only Israeli general to be killed in the war.

Abraham Rabinovich is the author of “The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East” (Schocken, 2005).

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