Sword of Israel:
Syrian Pieces, Part One
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In our Panzer Grenadier (Modern): 1967: Sword of Israel, the Syrian Arab Army faces off against the Israelis in 12 of the game’s 50 scenarios. The Syrians are easily the weakest of the IDF’s three opponents, and when the Israelis strike they’re already flushed with victory on the other two fronts. It’s going to be a hard two days for the men fighting under the Hawk of Quraish.
The game includes 92 pieces for the Syrian Arab Army. Let’s have a look at them.
The huge arms shipments from the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc included enough AK-47 assault rifles to equip all of the regulars, the only troops expected to see action in a war with Israel. They did not, however, include enough ammunition to give every soldier a full combat load. In many battalions, infantrymen went to war with 200 rounds apiece.
A Syrian infantry platoon had three squads, each of 10 men. Two of them operated an RPD Soviet-made light machine gun, and one carried an RPG-7 anti-tank rocket launcher with a standard load of three armor-piercing and two high explosive rounds. The more modern RPK light machine gun had appeared in some but not all units.
The Syrian heavy weapons company included two platoons of heavy machine guns, usually the Soviet-made SGM model and sometimes the Czech-made copy known as the Vz.43. The Soviet Army had already moved to the general-purpose machine-gun concept (using the same weapon as both a squad automatic weapon and a company-level support weapon); the Syrians inherited the older guns and the doctrine for their use.
Without a division-level organization, the Syrian Arab Army’s combat engineer battalions were army-level assets, which made it difficult to assign them where needed. Their numbers were limited to begin with, and many of them began the 1967 campaign in the front lines where they had first removed anti-personnel barriers along the frontier in preparation for the invasion of Israel, and then frantically restored them when the Syrian high command countermanded the order.
Syrian practice made the engineers responsible for minefield maintenance, and this routine task simply had not been done: the heavy rains that lash the Golan Heights every winter exposed minefields. The Israelis replaced and re-buried theirs; the Syrians ignored the erosion and in some places the mines had been swept away by runoff and never replaced.
The standard Syrian battalion-level support weapon was the M37 82mm mortar, a workhorse weapon of the Great Patriotic War. Improvements to the mortar round had given the weapon new life, with a substantially better range. Even so, in the Soviet Army it had begun to give way to the B10 82mm recoilless rifle, which offered both high-explosive capability for infantry support and a very effective armor-piercing round. Syrian units also deployed the B10 and would have it as their standard weapon for the 1973 war, but most battalions still had mortars in 1967 and that’s the standard that the game reflects.
The Soviet Army still retained the M37’s big brother, the 120mm/M1943 heavy mortar, a weapon more than two decades old at this point but still very effective thanks to better ammunition. Syrian brigades did not include a mortar element; some battalions appear to have deployed the 120mm mortar in their weapons companies but it was a usually found in army-level support units.
For air defense, the Syrians relied on the standard Soviet towed anti-aircraft gun, the 57mm AZP S-60. This was a fully-automatic cannon introduced in 1950 and equipping Soviet Army anti-aircraft batteries until the mid-1960’s, when missiles began to take their place. The Syrian Arab Army retained its guns, which also offered a substantial capability against soft targets. In Soviet practice the gun battery would be directed by a Grom air defense radar system mounted in a separate truck.
Some Syrian anti-aircraft units deployed the 14.5mm ZPU quad heavy machine gun, a towed weapon also intended for use against ground targets. And the armored brigades appear to have had the ZSU-23 “Shilka” quad 23mm self-propelled anti-aircraft system; neither of these appear in Sword of Israel.
By 1967, all of the French-made equipment left over from World War II or purchased in the years immediately afterwards had been scrapped or assigned to the militia. All of the units that fought in 1967 were armed with weapons made in the Soviet Union or its Eastern European satellites. While the Soviets gave a client-state discount, none of the arms were gifts and the Syrians paid for them in hard-won hard currency.
By the mid-1960’s Soviet anti-tank doctrine had evolved to a three-layered concept. Close defense would be provided by the RPG-7 rocket launchers carried by the infantry. Mid-range protection would come from the 73mm SPG-9 Kopye (“Spear”) recoilless rifle. At longer ranges enemy tanks would be engaged by the AT-3 anti-tank guided missile, known as the “Sagger” to NATO and the “Malyutka” (“Little One”) to the Soviet Army, supplemented by the smooth-bore 100mm T12 anti-tank gun.
In 1967, the Syrian Arab Army had received some SPG-9 recoilless rifles (these are not shown in Sword of Israel) and its infantry carried the RPG-7, but they had not yet deployed the Sagger anti-tank missile. Instead the Syrians relied on tried-and-true anti-tank guns to engage Israeli armor.
The Syrians do not appear to have received the 100mm T12 (which was sold to the Egyptians), deploying instead the older 85mm D48. The D48 had a very long barrel, making it difficult to use in action, but gave performance superior to the American 90mm anti-tank gun though not as good as the German 88mm PaK 43. Unlike an anti-tank missile, the D48 could also be used as an artillery piece. Each infantry brigade had a company of towed 85mm guns.
For actual artillery, the Syrians had the very modern D30 122mm howitzer introduced in 1963 as well as the older M1938 122mm divisional howitzer of Great Patriotic War vintage. The D30 was an effective piece with a low silhouette, long range and outstanding anti-tank capability. The Soviet Army assigned them as regimental guns in place of the now-aged 76.2mm, but the Syrians deployed theirs in their artillery brigades.
Just before the war, the Syrians received the M1954 130mm M46 gun – guns captured by the Israelis had a manufacturing stamp dated 1966. This weapon – still in widespread use – had a low elevation, but enormous range and a devastating high-explosive anti-tank round. They were intended for the counter-battery role, in which they excelled.
Emplaced on the Golan Heights, these guns gave the Syrians the ability to rain hell on much of northern Israel and were the true provocation for the Israeli assault up the Golan slopes in the closing days of the Six-Day War.
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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.