Sword of Israel:
The Israel Defense Forces, Part Two
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In the 1948-49 War of Independence, the Israel Defense Force, or IDF, defeated the invading enemies of all of its neighbors plus the mostly-Palestinian Arab Liberation Army and Iraqi, Saudi and Yemeni expeditionary forces. Over the next three years, about 700,000 Jews emigrated to Israel, doubling its Jewish population, while roughly the same number of Palestinian Arabs fled or were ejected from their homes.
That population influx - including a disproportionate share of military-age young men and women - allowed the IDF to greatly expand its manpower pool. The IDF entered the 1956 Suez War against Egypt with three more brigades than it had fielded in the War of Independence (eleven infantry, three armored and one parachute) but they were larger and vastly better equipped.
The Israelis faced serious difficulties obtaining weapons for their new recruits, thanks to Western reluctance to anger the oil-rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Western desires to keep the Arab states from becoming Soviet clients, and a usually unspoken but ever-present anti-Semitism. In 1954 their luck changed, as Gamal al-Nasser seized direct power in Egypt just as Algerian resistance against French colonial rule erupted into full-scale war. Nasser gave the Algerians his full-throated support, backing his rhetoric with arms, training and volunteers.
Israeli paratroopers dig in near Mitla Pass, October 1956.
In response to Nasser’s provocations, French Defense Minister Marie-Pierre Koenig told his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres that France would sell the Israelis whatever weaponry they wished to purchase. The French did not yet have a modern medium tank - the AMX-30 remained stuck in its lengthy development - and so the Israelis ordered 400 AMX-13 light tanks, about 100 of which had arrived by the time war with Egypt broke out.
The French also supplied a large number of Sherman tanks, many of them inoperable. The Israelis scavenged more of them from junkyards around the globe including the Philippines. By 1956 the IDF had about 200 of them in service, with each tank often displaying features of many different sub-models. Most IDF Shermans in 1956 carried the 75mm gun; those with the longer-barreled 76mm gun were called “Super Shermans” by the Israelis.
The IDF also converted 25 Shermans to carry the much more powerful 75mm CN 75-50 gun of the AMX-13. The French gun was called the M50 in Israeli service, and so they called the converted tank the Sherman M50 (this vehicle was never called the Super Sherman by the IDF, which used that term for the 76mm-armed models).
Along with additional tanks, the Israelis invested in modern French combat aircraft, artillery (including sixty self-propelled 105mm howitzers on AMX-13 chassis), 106mm recoilless rifles and American-made M3 halftracks out of French stocks. The Israelis purchased the NATO-standard Belgian FN FAL assault rifle, along with a license to produce it in Israel, to replace the bewildering array of rifles and sub-machine guns with which the IDF had waged the War of Independence (though many troops still carried Czech-made Mauser rifles in 1956). Submarines and destroyers bought from Royal Navy surplus stocks, as well as lesser craft, equipped the new Israeli Navy.
When fully mobilized for the 1956 war the IDF totaled 175,000 men and women in all three branches, almost three times its 1949 numbers. It now had an air force and a fleet, and for the new war it would have French air and naval support, and British air support to a lesser extent.
Raising the flag over Sharm el-Sheikh.
During the seven years following independence, the IDF retained the traditions of its original brigades, but changed their structure to one of three or four infantry battalions with supporting mortar, artillery and recon companies. In what became Israeli military tradition this structure would be more of a suggestion than a decree, with component units readily cross-attached to other brigades and support units added from high command reserves.
Eleven IDF brigades saw action in 1956, with the other four keeping watch on the Syrians and Jordanians.
Israel began training paratroopers immediately after the War of Independence, and many Palmach fighters volunteered, seeing the new branch as a continuation of the Palmach spirit then falling out of favor. Ariel Sharon, 28 years old in 1956, commanded the brigade of three battalions and some supporting arms. The brigade remains an elite force within the IDF, but has only conducted one large-scale parachute drop, at Mitla Pass in 1956. The paratroopers suffered heavy casualties in the operation, and were accused of massacring 49 Egyptian prisoners of war.
1. Golani Infantry Brigade
The Golani Brigade had four rifle battalions, one of them in halftracks, and an engineer battalion plus mortar and anti-tank companies. It spearheaded the invasion of Gaza and northern Sinai in 1956.
3. Alexandroni Infantry Brigade
Disbanded in 1949, the brigade re-formed a year later with new recruits brought by the influx of immigrants to Israel. These men often had no military training and spoke no Hebrew, and when the brigade fought the Syrians in May 1951 it was mauled in a series of skirmishes along the Golan Heights. That caused a new IDF policy of spreading its veteran soldiers among all of its units, which served it well in 1956 though the Alexandroni Brigade remained on the Golan front.
4. Kiryati Infantry Brigade
The Kiryati Brigade fought on the central front in Sinai, with three infantry battalions plus heavy mortar and recon companies.
5. Givati Infantry Brigade
This brigade apparently remained around Jerusalem during the 1956 war, and gave up one of its battalions to the Golani Brigade.
6. Etzioni Infantry Brigade
The Etzioni Brigade remained in Central Command’s reserve during the 1956 war and saw no combat.
Israeli tanks head out for Suez, October 1956.
7. Armored Brigade
Then as now, the 7th Brigade was the cream of the Israeli armored forces. In 1956 it had two tank battalions, one with AMX13 light tanks and the other with Super Shermans (with 76mm guns), one infantry battalion in half-tracks and another in trucks.
8. Infantry Brigade
After the War of Independence, the first Israeli armored formation gave up its tanks and became a reserve infantry brigade. It spent the 1956 war in the Southern Command’s reserve.
9. Oded Infantry Brigade
Stationed at the very southern end of the Sinai Front, the Oded Brigade had three battalions with heavy mortar and recon companies, all of them mounted in either half-tracks or trucks. It scored Israel’s most impressive victory of the war, racing down the shore of the Gulf of Aqaba to capture Sharm el-Sheikh at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula.
10. Harel Infantry Brigade
The 10th Brigade fought on the northern flank of the Sinai Front with three battalions plus the usual recon and heavy mortar companies, and suffered the only large-scale defeat of an Israeli unit during the war. The IDF fired its commander, but it took the employment of other units to restore the situation.
11. Yiftach Infantry Brigade
With two battalions plus support from its integral heavy mortars and attached armored support, the Yiftach Brigade took Gaza from the Egyptians.
12. Negev Infantry Brigade
Despite its reputation, the brigade played only a minor role in the 1956 war, keeping just one battalion under command with the remainder attached to other units.
18. Carmeli Infantry Brigade
The re-numbered 2nd Brigade had three battalions, and remained on the border with Jordan during the 1956 war.
27. Armored Brigade
The 27th Brigade had formed in 1952 as a reserve unit and four years later it had just one tank battalion, but it had all of the IDF’s newly-converted M50 Shermans plus a company each of Super Shermans with 76mm guns and AMX13 light tanks. It also had an infantry battalion in half-tracks, plus small recon, engineer and self-propelled artillery detachments. It fought in Gaza and in the Battle of Rafah.
37. Armored Brigade
Established in 1955, 37th Brigade was the IDF’s third armored brigade (thus its number). Originally assigned to Northern Command, it went to war in 1956 as part of Southern Command’s reserve with one battalion of Shermans, one of AMX13 light tanks and one of half-track borne infantry plus another of motorized infantry attached from 11th Brigade. It saw heavy fighting in Gaza, where brigade commander Col. Samuel Glinka was killed.
Lead the Israelis 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.