A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Golan Front in '73 and Hermonit: Part III

This is the belated third part of my post on the 40th anniversaryof the 1973 war and the neglected battle of Hermonit/The Valley of Tears; Part I appeared here and Part II here. One reason it didn't appear sooner was my belated discovery that the most detailed account in English of this battle, Avigdor Kahalani's The Heights of Courage, is in fact available online in full, and therefore I needed at least to skim it.

In Part II I set up the basic geography of the battle of Hermonit and the Valley of Tears, and discussed the commanders on both sides. This map shows the general area, "Har Hermonit" is labeled and the height marked "+1055" to its southeast is the height known as Tal Makhfi or, to the Israeli tankers, as "Booster."
On October 6 most of the Syrian advances against a surprised Israeli defense line took place in the south where the Golan opens out into more of an open plateau. After initial successes that stunned Israel, the line stabilized because, in part, the Syrian divisions to the south did not want to leave their right flank open to an Israeli flanking attack, and the advance had stalled in the north.

Gen. Abrash
While the terrain was in Israel's favor it had only a few hundred tanks, though in dug-in positions which had allowed careful targeting of the guns, against thousands of Syrian tanks. I noted last time the curious proliferation of sevens in this sector: the Israeli 7th Armored Brigade under Avigdor Ben-Gal and its 77th Tank Battalion under Avigdor Kahalani on Hermonit faced the attacking force of the Syrian 7th Infantry Division (really Mechanized Infantry with an attached Armored Brigade), under Gen. ‘Omar Abrash.  Abrash was a rarity among Syrian generals, trained at the US Army's Command and Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, and showing much more individual initiative than his Soviet-trained colleagues.

His adversary,Kahalani, has left a detailed English language memoir of the battle, which I linked to above; Kahalani was short on tanks and desperate for reinforcement. And in 1973, in part perhaps because of the culture of contempt for Arab Armies' capabilities following the debacle of 1967, Israeli troops were not equipped with good night vision equipment, while the Soviet-equipped Syrians were. (Today, Israel makes its own night vision equipment.)

This battle began in earnest on the second day of the war, October 7, and continued for the next two days. Even though the Israeli positions were at times outflanked by the deep advances of Syrian forces to their south, the Syrians seem to have been concerned about a flank attack on their right. Abrash threw wave after wave of his tanks (mostly T-55s at first but reinforced by T-62s from the line on days two and three) against Kahalani's entrenched Centurions on Hermonit and Booster; Kahalani was increasingly struggling to find reinforcements from any source and at times fighting with half-disabled tanks.
The night attacks had been particularly favorable to the Syrians with their superior night vision but, at dusk on October 8, as Abrash, the sort of tank commander who led from the front, was preparing to advance in his command tank, and armored-piercing round hit his tank and killed him. By some accounts at that moment Kahalani was down to somewhere between three and six fully operational tanks on Hermonit, against an reinforced Syrian assault force. Whatever the numbers, the death of Abrash disrupted the night attack on the eighth. In 20th century Arab warfare the Soviet-inspired downgrading of local command initiative is both debilitating but, on the other hand, usually means that the loss of a commander makes little difference. But in this case, it seems to have done so. By removing Abrash, a commander who displayed initiative and fought his tank from the front, it slowed the Syrian assault until morning, by which time Kahalani was reinforcing.

Dead Tanks in the "Valley of Tears"
On October 9, further Syrian assaults, even including the heroic T-62 which reached the top of Hermonit and is today part of the war memorial there (left). The Israeli lines held, but with incredible displays of courage on the Syrian side, with undreds of tanks left burning and derelict before the defense lines n the so-called  "Valley of Tears."

Soon after, the Israelis turned the tide and began an advanced past the 1967 ceasefire lines and created a salient which threatened Damascus.

The war left neither side decisively victorious and made possible the negotiations wic followed, the Kissinger shuttles and the beginnings of the peace process. Below, maps of the earlier and later phases of the war in the Golan.

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