Sword of Israel:
The Egyptian Army

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
September 2019

Egypt’s modern armed forces date from 1820, when Ottoman governor Mehmed Ali (the de facto independent ruler of Egypt) instituted conscription of Egyptian peasants to replace the Turkish, Albanian and Sudanese mercenaries who had formerly made up his army. At the same time he introduced national taxation to support the armed forces, and began construction of what became a powerful navy equipped with foreign-built ships.

That army was instrumental in expanding Mehmed Ali’s power both inside and outside of Egypt, including Sa’id Ismail’s adventures in colonialism in the 1860’s and 1870’s. But in 1882 the British forcefully occupied Egypt and brought the army under their control. By the time the troops were returned to Egyptian control in 1922 the army had been vastly reduced in size and capability.

In 1936 Egypt signed a mutual defense treaty with Britain, and a rapid expansion of the army began under the guidance of a British Military Mission. The Royal Egyptian Army numbered 12,000 men in 1935, 15,000 in 1937 and 24,000 in 1938. By 1939 the Royal Army had nine infantry battalions, two machine-gun battalions, two cavalry regiments, three artillery batteries and a battalion-sized anti-tank regiment. The Egyptians also added a tank unit with five MkVIb light tanks. When Italy declared war on Britain (but not Egypt) in the summer of 1940 the Egyptian forces numbered 30,000, and the Egyptian Air Force had four squadrons in service (one with Gladiator biplane fighters, the remainder of observation and liaison aircraft)

Despite those numbers, the Egyptians played at first little role in British defense plans, and then none at all. The British began to enroll Egyptian gunners in anti-aircraft units but did not deploy the Egyptians along the front. They considered the Egyptians unreliable, and worried (possibly correctly) that if the Axis reached Sollum, the closest Egyptian army post to the frontier, the two infantry battalions stationed there would join them in attacking the British.

The Royal Military Academy, established by Mehmed Ali in 1811 and reorganized in 1938 along British lines, became a hotbed of Egyptian nationalism and graduates like Gamel Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat agitated for an Egypt free of foreign – namely, British - influence. Its graduates formed the Free Officers, an instrumental cadre in the anti-colonial movement.

Egypt went to war against the new state of Israel in 1948, fielding about 40,000 men. A weak logistics system only allowed them to initially send about 10,000 into Palestine. The Free Officers who participated in the war emerged deeply unhappy with the Royal Army’s leadership, and with the royal government’s failure to extinguish the newly-born Jewish state.

The war’s end brought a new problem for the Egyptian Army: a partial British-French-American arms embargo against all of the Arab states that had attacked Israel. The Egyptians had built their first tank battalion around Matilda and Mark VIb tanks abandoned by the British after the Second World War, later obtaining some Sherman tanks and Archer tank destroyers from British depots and a battalion’s worth of M22 Locust airborne light tanks. Now they would be cut off from further shipments.

Nasser overthrew the king in 1952 and took full power 1954. He named his best friend, Major Abdel Hakim Amer, as commander-in-chief of the army. Nasser and Amer set about re-orienting the army from an internal-security force to one focused on the defeat and destruction of Israel.

Military spending tripled as a percentage of gross national product, but Nasser needed someone to sell him arms for his growing forces. In 1955 he ordered the British out of their bases in the Suez Canal Zone, and signed an extensive arms-purchase agreement with Czechslovakia, acting as middleman for the Soviet Union.

Egypt had gone to war in 1948 with a motley collection of leftover British tanks, facing Israeli Shermans salvaged from scrapyards across Europe. The new arms deal drastically altered the balance of power, at least on paper. The Egyptians added 200 modern jet aircraft, 230 T34/85 tanks, 100 SU100 assault guns, 200 BTR armored personnel carriers and 500 artillery pieces plus small arms and warships ranging from destroyers and submarines through patrol boats. Nasser also imported 80 former Wehrmacht officers to train his troops and plan his battles.

Egyptian SU100 tank destroyers and a T-34/85, captured by the Israelis.

All of those new weapons didn’t help much when Egypt faced Israel, France and Britain in 1956, nor did German planning. The German geniuses parceled out the T34’s among the infantry, leaving only one strong formation (1st Armored Brigade of the 4th Armored Division) which lost nearly all of its 70 tanks when ambushed by an Israeli force half its size with much weaker tanks. The fighting ended within a few days, before a true military decision could be reached, but Nasser and Amer had learned a few lessons.

The Egyptians had bought 200 jet planes, while Israel had about 60. The Egyptians had not, however, bought any additional pilots and so could make no use of many of the shiny new aircraft. Amer decided to rotate the planes, so a new plane would be fueled and ready when a pilot landed. He would then hop into the new plane and take off to fight the Israelis or the Anglo-French again. Soon the handful of jet-qualified pilots were absolutely exhausted.

The Anglo-French landings in the Canal Zone, coming days after the Israeli invasion of Sinai, unhinged the Egyptian positions and probably would have led to Nasser’s total defeat had the United States not intervened diplomatically to end the fighting.

Following the war, Nasser fired his useless German advisors and made ever-larger purchases of Soviet arms. In 1962 he gambled on increasing Egyptian influence and his doctrine of Arab nationalism by intervening in North Yemen’s civil war, against the royalist forces supported by Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The war soon became “Egypt’s Vietnam”; the infantry, armor and artillery proved effective in the handful of conventional battles, sound defeating the royalists and their allies. But they could do little but terrorize the civilian population while Egyptian commando and parachute units expanded as the only troops able to combat the insurgency. These would also be the most effective units in the Six Day War.

Egyptian soldiers in Yemen, 1965.

By the time the Egyptians withdrew shortly after the 1967 war, over 26,000 troops had been killed in action in Yemen. While conventional offensives had had some success, the Egyptians lacked enough small-unit leaders capable of operating independently, and so they could not break up their units to root out small groups of insurgents. The Egyptians turned to first mustard gas and then nerve gas in an effort to smoke out their enemies, while their Yemeni allies replaced their Egyptian advisors and trainers with Soviets, as the Egyptians proved inept in those roles as well.

The Yemen War also helped rupture the formerly close bonds between Nasser and his army. Realizing their tactical weaknesses, the Egyptian army worked to recruit new university graduates for the officer corps, planting the seeds of dissent within the ranks of the officer corps once they saw the reality of Yemen. The president became personally estranged from his friend Amer, despite naming him a field marshal for his efforts in Yemen in 1964 and 1965, and began to look for alternative centers of power within Egyptian society. He also tightened his bonds with the Soviets, visiting Moscow and entertaining Soviet leader Nikolai Khrushchev on a state visit to Egypt in 1964. The Soviets made clear their desire for a naval base in Egypt, which Nasser fended off by making friendly overtures to the Americans, on whom he utterly depended for grain shipments.

Egyptian arms purchases increased, both to sustain the effort in Yemen and build up air and ground forces for the looming confrontation with Israel. And as they increased, so did Egypt’s debt – the Soviets gave a 30 percent discount, but insisted on payment of the remainder in hard currency. The Egyptian economy began to falter under the burden, and in 1965 the Soviets simply forgave half of the debt, clearing the way for still more purchases of tanks and jets.

As the numbers of Soviet-made weapons increased, so did the quality. The Egyptians began taking delivery of modern T54 tanks in 1960, and the more modern T55 in 1963. By 1967 the Egyptians had acquired some of the most modern Soviet arms, or at least the export versions of them: the excellent 130mm artillery piece, the MiG21 jet fighter, and the BTR60, the first modern infantry fighting vehicle.

On the eve of the Six-Day War, the Egyptian Army numbered about 210,000 men. Half of those were in Sinai facing the Israelis in six divisions, 15,000 men remained in Yemen (none of them in first-line combat formations) with most of the remainder stationed around Cairo in four divisions. The Israelis had a significant edge in numbers as well as training, doctrine, leadership and above all motivation. Most Egyptian units fielded better weapons than their Israeli counterparts, but were indifferently led for the most part with the exception of the 20th “Palestinian” Infantry Division, which appears to have received the very worst officers Egypt had to offer.

Lead the Egyptians into battle. Click here to order this 1967 Sword of Israel.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.