Sword of Israel:
Syrian Pieces, Part Two

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
July 2019

While the rough terrain of the Golan Heights provided little scope for sweeping armored operations, the Syrian Arab Army expected its two armored brigades to either spearhead Operation Nasr, the plan to drive across northern Israel to the Mediterranean coast, or to backstop their defenses in Operation Jihad, the plan to hold the heights and the fortifications protecting them.

During the 1950’s the Syrians had purchased a gaggle of formerly German panzers from Czechoslovakia, France and Spain. The first T-34/85’s arrived in the late 1950’s from Czechoslovakia, and large numbers of Soviet tanks both old and new began to show up in the mid-1960’s.

All of those tanks play a role in Panzer Grenadier (Modern): 1967: Sword of Israel. Let’s have a look at them.

The Panzers

While the German Panzer IVH tanks purchased in the 1950’s were no older than the Shermans used to such good effect by the Israelis, the American-made tanks were simply much more rugged and reliable machines. It also helped that the Israelis actually performed maintenance on their tanks, while the Syrians pretty much ignored it and just about any other military duties without prodding by their Soviet military advisors.

Syria took delivery of over 100 Panzer IVH tanks from France, Spain and Czechoslovakia. The ex-Spanish tanks (17 of them) apparently had been well-maintained and were delivered in good condition. The Czech purchase specified refurbished tanks, and the Czechs had made some further improvements including new steering gear and an anti-aircraft machine gun. They also demanded payment up front in British sterling, and charged inflated prices. The Syrians ponied up.

Many of the French-supplied tanks had seen battle damage, and not all had been fully repaired. While all were listed as H models, field repairs had been made using parts stripped from other Panzer IV models and few of the tanks could truly be said to be of any particular mark. In 1958 the Syrians bought another 15 tanks from the Czechs, non-operational models for use as spare parts, and additional refurbished Maybach engines.

The panzers saw action during the 1965 “Water War,” shelling Israeli farmers on the plains below the Golan Heights. When the Israelis retaliated, one of the Syrian Panzer IV’s knocked out an Israeli Centurion, causing Gen. Israel Tal, chief of the IDF’s armor branch, to completely re-vamp tank crew training thus indirectly leading to Israel’s overwhelming victory two years later.

By 1967, most of the German tanks and assault guns no longer ran. The Syrians are said to have dug them in as armored strongpoints in their Golan Heights defenses, and this is probably true for fortifications laid out and built under Soviet supervision. Photographic evidence hints that at least some of these tanks were simply dumped on the Heights (probably wherever they broke down) and fought from there, with no “digging in” of the vehicle’s hull.

Few modifications had been made to these tanks once the Syrians took ownership – they still carried their Maybach gasoline engines and 75mm KwK40 L/48 cannon. Some were given Soviet-made machine guns in place of their original German secondary weapons, or simply had no machine guns at all. The armor rating of 6 is probably too high for all but those truly and carefully dug into their fighting positions and we probably should have given them a 4.

The Syrians also bought several dozen Sturmgeschütz III assault guns, probably all of them StuG IIIG models (or vehicles rebuilt as IIIG types using cannibalized parts) with the same L/48 gun as the Panzer IV H. These also came from France, Spain and Czechoslovakia, plus one formerly Romanian machine abandoned in a Czech factory when refurbishment proved too costly. The Syrians modified them with an anti-aircraft machine gun salvaged from scrapped Italian-made fighter planes. The Israelis found several of these old assault guns dug in along the Golan Heights as immobile anti-tank guns, along with at least one Jagdpanzer IV. The Syrians also operated a half-dozen Hummel self-propelled 150mm howitzers.

The Czechs provided a full load of ammunition for each vehicle, but no more. Soviet-made 105mm rounds were purchased for use with formerly German howitzers, and the Syrians probably obtained ammunition for their panzers from the same source.

Red Army Veterans

Perhaps as many as 48,000 T-34/85 tanks rolled out of Soviet factories, between those built during the Great Patriotic War and those manufactured when the production lines were re-opened between 1947 and 1958. Once the T-54 finally shook out its production difficulties, these became surplus and could be sold cheaply to expand Soviet influence. Despite large-scale sales and transfers during the 1950’s to the Eastern bloc allies, Yugoslavia, North Korea and others, thousands more remained in storage and the Soviet Union made major efforts to sell the T34/85 abroad in 1960 and again in 1969.

As built, the T-34/85 featured the high-velocity ZiS S-53 85mm cannon mounted in a large turret on an improved version of the T-34/76 chassis. It shared the sloped armor of the earlier tank, at least on the hull, and thicker armor on the turret. It only weighed slightly more than the original model and therefore kept its speed. The T-34/85 turned out to be a war-winning weapon: perhaps not as capable in combat as the German Panther or Tiger, but immeasurably more cost-effective and significantly more mechanically reliable.

The models sold to the Syrians, like all of the exported T-34/85 tanks, had been modernized before shipment. The main gun received a new breech, new-model armor-piercing rounds and improved optics, the gearbox and suspension were replaced, new radios were fitted and the old road wheels were replaced with those from the T-54. Even with those improvements, it remained an old tank, and the Syrians deployed it in an infantry-support role.

The SU100 was nothing but a heavily-armored anti-tank gun: it had no secondary weapons. The huge D10-S 100mm gun, derived from a naval cannon, could defeat the armor of the German Panther tank at 1,000 meters. After the Great Patriotic War it gained a very effective high-explosive round, and it became the main armament of the new T-54 tank series, remaining in production until 1979.

Much like the T-34/85, the SU100 returned to production when the T-54 failed to appear when expected. When the new tank finally did enter service, the SU100 became surplus although it was not phased out of Soviet Army use until 1967. The Syrian Arab Army deployed theirs in the anti-tank companies of the two armored brigades.

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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.