Sword of Israel:
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In Israel’s wars before 1967, the elite foot soldiers marched to victory with a motley collection of armor, much of it literally salvaged from the scrap heaps of a dozen nations, trundling alongside or more often behind them in support.
During the years just before the war, Israeli chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin completely re-made the Israel Defense Force’s Tank Corps. Rabin sought modern tanks that could both out-fight their opponents and undertake deep penetration into the Sinai Desert, to avoid a repeat of the disastrous 1956 parachute assault on Mitla Pass.
To do so, Rabin would have to find a way around the formal and informal arms embargoes placed on Israel by the Western powers. He could satisfy some of his needs by rebuilding World War Two-era vehicles, some of them older than their crews. Along with modern equipment, Rabin also emphasized intense training, particularly in gunnery, and also in logistics, perfecting the "push" method (sending units fuel and ammunition whether they'd asked for it or not) and relying heavily on new-fangled computers.
Amazingly, Rabin managed to build the world’s most effective armored force in just three years. When the war broke out, he apparently suffered a nervous breakdown, as did his Egyptian counterpart, Field Marshal Abd al-Hakim Amr. Unlike Marshal Amr, Rabin had provided his forces with aggressive, extremely competent commanders like Israel Tal, Mordecai Gur and Ariel Sharon. Having engineered victory in war, Rabin would later spearhead the drive for peace, only to be murdered in 1995 by a cowardly right-wing fanatic.
Anyway, here’s a look at the tanks that formed the razor edge of Rabin’s Sword of Israel:
The French-made AMX-13 would be Israel’s first modern tank, purchased in the mid-1950’s from the French firm AMX at a time when no one else would openly sell weaponry to the new Jewish state. Built around a powerful 75mm gun supposedly based on the 75mm weapon wielded by the German Panther tank, the AMX-13 had an unusual “oscillating turret” with the gun mounted on top and a 12-round magazine on the outside of the turret. That allowed a very small tank to carry a very large gun, but meant that after the 12 shots had been fired the crew had to get out of the tank and re-load the magazine, a process that took about 15 minutes.
By 1967 the AMX-13 was no longer considered a front-line tank, and as soon as the war ended all of the IDF’s stock was sold to Singapore. Some of them supposedly arrived still stained with the blood of their last crew.
In sharp contrast to European and Arab armies, the IDF did not think much of the armored car in desert operations. A small purchase of French-made Panhard AML-90 vehicles seemed to confirm this thinking. Lightweight jeeps could do the job more cheaply and effectively, with the 106mm recoilless rifle giving them just as much anti-tank capability as the Panhard.
Over the previous two decades, Israel had built up a stock of M4 Sherman tanks starting with 35 salvaged from an Italian junkyard in 1948. By the early 1960’s the IDF had several hundred of the venerable tank, many of them in poor condition. But Israeli ingenuity would find a way to turn these relics into formidable modern weapons. Well, sort of modern.
The “Super Sherman” emerged just in time for the 1956 war, with a handful of Israeli Shermans sporting the French-made high-powered 75mm gun from the AMX-13. The re-construction included a much more powerful diesel engine, additional armor and a re-modeled turret to house the bigger gun. About two dozen of this tank, dubbed the M50, served in 1956 and a couple hundred were available in 1967.
Not satisfied with their first modification, and having plenty of Shermans on which to experiment, the Israelis developed an even more Super Sherman by the mid-1960’s. The M51 model had a re-designed turret to accommodate the powerful French-made 105mm F1 cannon that equipped the AMX30 main battle tank. To make the huge cannon fit, Israeli engineers shortened the barrel and added a muzzle brake, and designed new, shorter ammunition. Even so the cannon required a huge counter-weight on the back of the turret.
Gen. Israel Tal himself proved the tank’s superior gunnery during the 1965 “Water War” with Syria, personally using an M50 to shoot up a number of Syrian heavy earth-movers. The ancient tanks proved their worth against armed enemies as well, performing very well in 1967 even against modern Arab T-54 and T-55 main battle tanks.
Just how many Shermans the Israelis had in action is still unclear; some apparently were scrapped before 1967 or cannibalized for parts, some were converted to self-propelled artillery, and at least some saw action on the West Bank in their unmodified form, still armed with the 76mm gun that had proven inadequate in 1944.
The Super Sherman would soldier on through the 1973 war as well, and later be upgraded again with an Israeli-made 60mm autocannon. The last of the Super Shermans were sold to Chile in the 1980’s during a war scare with Peru; they would finally be retired a decade later.
In 1959 Israel began quietly buying used Centurion tanks from the British, as British reluctance to supply arms to the IDF faded in the wake of the 1956 Suez Crisis. By the mid-1960’s, the Israelis were deeply involved in the development of the British Army’s new Chieftain tank, but political pressure led to a refusal to sell the new tank to Israel. Britain continued to supply the Centurion, which due to its low speed and short range could be considered a defensive weapon.
Centurions supplied to Israel came with a variety of main armament: the venerable 17-pounder, the more effective 20-pounder, and the awesome Royal Ordnance L7 105mm rifled cannon. Though the Israelis had been shut out of the Chieftain, they did obtain enough L7 cannon to eventually re-arm all of their Centurions. Not all had received the upgrade at the time of the Six-Day War. With its heavy armor and powerful gun, the Centurion remained in front-line service for decades and saw heavy action in 1973 and 1982.
While the Israelis liked the Centurion, they found its speed and range troubling and Rabin wanted to supplement it with a more mobile tank, the American-made M48 Patton. U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, ever sensitive to the needs of the Texas oil industry, did not want to directly supply the weapons to Israel and thereby enrage the Arab governments. In 1964 he instead leaned on West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard to supply 150 M48A Patton tanks to the Israelis; the Americans would then replace them in the German arsenal with the more modern M48A3.
When Erhard balked, Rabin refused to accept any other partner. Only the well-maintained Bundeswehr machines would do; also, the Israelis could use some of their remaining West German reparations credits, due to expire in 1966, on the German tanks. Under Johnson’s cajoling, Erhard gave in but added one further complication, insisting on involving the Italian Army as a go-between so that arms would not pass directly from West Germany to Israel.
The Italians had shipped forty machines when Egypt’s President Gamel Nasser learned of the deal, and he promptly and deftly put pressure on Erhard to scrap the deal. Erhard gave in, leaving the angry Israelis with just one shipload of their desired tank. Unable to craft a new three-way deal, Johnson reluctantly agreed to fill the rest of the order from American stocks along with 100 additional tanks. To quell Arab anger, Johnson extracted a number of concessions from the Israelis on Jordan River water rights, international inspection of Israel’s nuclear weapons facility at Dimona, and the sale of modern American arms (including M48 tanks) to Jordan.
Israel had her fast, modern tanks – and promptly set about upgrading them. The American 90mm gun gave way to the extremely effective L7 105mm gun fitted to Israel’s improved Centurion tanks – the “make good” part of Johnson’s deal included upgrade kits with the American-made version of the L7, the M68, supplied in great enough quantity to re-arm most Israeli Centurions as well. The gasoline engines were replaced by more cost-effective and longer-ranged diesels, which were also less likely to catch fire. The Israelis designated these as “Magach 3” tanks, but also had M48 tanks in use during the Six Day War in the M48A2 configuration with the 90mm gun and gasoline engine. 1967: Sword of Israel only shows the full Magach (“Battering Ram”); the game probably should have included some in the A2 configuration too. It’s not like the Israelis are short of deserved advantages in the game, so they don’t need any they don’t deserve.
Did the Israelis themselves tip off Nasser? The deal for M48 tanks opened the pipeline for American arms sales to Israel, which previously had been limited to a few batteries of Hawk anti-aircraft missiles sold in 1962. More weaponry followed, including A4 Skyhawk attack planes and eventually the F4 Phantom II fighter, which greatly outclassed anything flown by the Arabs.
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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.