Sword of Israel:
The Israel Defense Forces, Part Three
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
The Suez Crisis, as the 1956 War came to be known, showed the world that the Israel Defense Force had evolved from the revolutionary militia that had expelled the Arab invaders and local Palestinian forces into a modern professional army.
Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared the 1949 armistice with Egypt “dead and buried,” and apparently hoped to annex all of Sinai up to the Suez Canal Zone. But the British and French bowed to American-led international pressure (including the first use of an Arab oil boycott as a political weapon) and returned the canal to the Egyptians; Israel followed suit by evacuating her conquests.
Despite the stunning victory, Israeli generals recognized that the IDF needed many improvements. The Arab states had not supported Egypt with anything more than diplomatic rage and an oil boycott of Britain and France, but in 1958 Syria joined Egypt to form the merged United Arab Republic. With their armed forces merged as well - exchanges of officers began almost immediately - the IDF would face enemies on at least two fronts in a future war.
Israeli M50 Shermans advance past a damaged AMX13 on the Golan Heights.
Bedek Aviation, later renamed Israel Aerospace Industries, began manufacturing the Fouga Magister trainer in 1959, the first aircraft built in Israel. A squadron of them served in the ground-attack role in 1967, but suffered heavy losses (six planes lost). The Israelis also replaced their collection of assorted jet and piston aircraft with modern French jets. Israel bought 75 Dassault Ouragan jets and 60 Mystére IV jets in 1955. The Vautour attack plane arrived in 1958, with the Israelis buying 31 of them, and two dozen Super Mystére jets. The Dassault Mirage III became the standard fighter, with Israel buying 70 of them in 1962. High standards of pilot training, effective ground crews and maintenance practice and innovative leadership made the IAF extraordinarily effective; in 1967 each Israeli plane conducted many more sorties than the average Arab aircraft, multiplying the IAF’s effectiveness many times over.
The IAF was not called on to use Israel’s ultimate weapon: in May 1967, shortly before the war, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol ordered the secret Dimona nuclear research facility in the Negev Desert to assemble two nuclear warheads for possible use in the looming war.
The IDF ground forces gained enormous combat power in 1958, when the British paratroopers intervened in Jordan to help the kingdom fight Syrian-backed rebels. Balancing the favor shown to an Arab regime, the MacMillan government agreed to sell modern Centurion tanks to Israel, and to proceed with joint development of the new Chieftain tank, a greatly improved version of the Centurion.
In 1958 the Israelis bought 390 Centurion Mark III and Mark V tanks, used vehicles handed down from British Army stockpiles. Israeli manufacturing capabilities had increased exponentially over the previous decade, and while they were not yet capable of producing their own tanks, they could perform major upgrades on those they bought elsewhere.
Israeli artillery roll into Rafa on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip, June 1967.
The program to turn Shermans into M50 and M51 tanks with modern guns continued, and the Centurions received a similar treatment. The British L7 105mm rifled cannon was, at the time, the most effective tank gun in the world and the Israelis received a license to manufacture them. These guns replaced the 20-pounder (84mm) main gun the Centurions had borne in British service; not all conversions had been completed by 1967. The Israelis also improved the electrical systems and brakes, and extended their tiny fuel capacity.
In the mid-1960’s, the Israelis received more modern armor, 250 M48 Patton tanks from the United States following the collapse of a complicated straw purchase involving West Germany and Italy. The Americans included upgrade kits with the new 105mm gun, a weapon not yet fitted to the U.S. Army’s M48 tanks. Like the Centurions, some M48 Pattons and some Shermans went into action in 1967 still carrying their original armament, as the Israelis could not modify all of their tanks before the war began.
With the coming of modern armor came a new doctrine for its use. The IDF centered its doctrine on the Armored Corps, particularly after Israel Tal took over command of the branch in 1964. Tal had studied the results of the 1956 war, and the capabilities of Israel’s new tanks, and developed new tactics and training to match.
Tal saw that Egyptian tankers had preferred to engage the Israelis at extremely short ranges, sometimes closing to within 100 meters, where they could have a better chance of obtaining a hit. Meanwhile, the awesome L7 rifle allowed a well-trained tank crew to hit targets at 20 times that distance. Tal set out to create just that sort of tank crew. Israeli tank gunners practiced ceaselessly, and Tal himself shot up several Syrian agricultural tractors that had trespassed into disputed territory.
By 1967 the IDF’s ground forces had expanded to 250,000 men and women in 25 combat brigades. As in 1956, most personnel were reservists, and that forced the Israelis to seek a quick resolution to any war. Roughly ten percent of Israel’s Jewish population was in uniform, and the economy couldn’t sustain that commitment for very long.
Israeli armor outside Rafa, June 1967.
Fitting the IDF’s new emphasis on armored warfare, nine of those brigades were armored and two more mechanized. The trend toward forming elite units continued, with four brigades of paratroopers. The remaining ten brigades were infantry.
That much-enlarged order of battle called for a new level of organization, the ugda. Outwardly similar to divisions of other armies, the ugda instead had no fixed allocation of brigades and supporting units. These could be attached and detached as needed, one of those concepts that sounds wonderful in theory and collapses into confusion and disaster in practice. The Israelis, thanks to a great deal of initiative at all levels and fine staff work, actually made it work during the Six-Day War.
Unlike the 1956 war, the Israelis counted on their armor to produce breakthroughs and used their airborne brigades as elite assault infantry. That didn’t always work out so well, as the paratroopers hadn’t trained to cooperate with tanks. But they did provide added impetus to Israeli attacks at Jerusalem and on the Golan Heights, though the regular Israeli infantry fought so well in the 1967 war that it’s hard to say that the paratroopers made that much of a difference.
The armor brigades fully justified the expense and the trust placed in them. So did the Israeli Air Force, which now numbered over 200 modern jets. The IAF struck first to open the war, destroying half of the Egyptian Air Force in the war’s first hours and soon obliterating the rest of Egypt’s airpower along with that of Jordan and Syria, and inflicting heavy losses on the Iraqis as well. With complete control of the skies, the IAF proceeded to devastate Egyptian divisions attempting to retreat from the Sinai front, and gave the same treatment to the Jordanians and Syrians. An Iraqi armored division (with an attached Kuwaiti brigade) was destroyed as it crossed from Iraq into Jordan, and never even reached the front. Fearing the same result, the Saudi brigades ordered to the Jordanian front halted before crossing the kingdom’s border.
In 1967, as in 1948 and 1956, the Israelis had a decided edge in combat power over their Arab enemies and even a slight edge in numbers (in 1967, Egypt still had 50,000 troops in Yemen and held back over half of those still in Egypt on the west side of the Suez Canal). But they fought as though outnumbered and outgunned, exploiting every advantage they held, and re-made the Middle East.
But finally, the Arabs were learning from their defeats. When war returned in 1973, Israel would face a very different enemy.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his new puppy. He misses his Iron Dog, Leopold.
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