A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, June 5, 2014

7:45 AM, June 5, 1967: Operation Moked

Forty-seven years ago this morning, Israel launched a "pre-emptive" surprise attack against Arab airfields, virtually destroying the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian air forces on the ground. It was the opening salvo of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Though long known as the "Six Day War," the war's outcome was essentially decided by noon on the first day. The remaining days were spent by the Israeli Army proceeding to occupy Gaza, Sinai, East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, enjoying total air superiority over the Arab states.

Each year since 2009 I've talked about various aspects of the 1967 War, and I refer you to all of those earlier posts. Almost everything in the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1967 owes something to that conflict; we are still trying to untangle the world it created. To the Arab nakba ("catastrophe") of 1948 was added the naksa ("setback") of 1967.

I belong to the school that thinks Nasser was on the verge of making a concession that would have avoided war but kept some of the gains he made in the escalating crisis (he was about to send his Vice President, Zakariyya Mohieddin, to the US and the UN), but we may never know for sure; in any event he was not given the chance to step back from the brink. This year's post will address Operation Moked ("Focus"), the Israeli surprise attack that opened the war.

I won't address motivation here, though there is some evidence that Moshe Dayan, who became Defense Minister only days before, believed that Israel had an opportunity that was likely to be lost over time, and so favored going to war once Nasser gave the Israelis a pretext. But that's an argument for another post.

While much of the world talks of a Six Day war, Ezer Weizman, who had only recently given up command of the Air Force to become Deputy Chief of General Staff, called the chapter in his memoirs "two and half hours in June," He says that on June 5, "At about ten o'clock in the morning I phoned [his wife] Re'uma: 'We've won the war!' She was considerate enough not to say what she thought of her husband going mad under the tension. She only said, 'Ezer, are you crazy? At ten o'clock in the morning? You've finished the war?' The war had five and a half days to run, but those were days when the Israeli Air Force had unchallenged control of the skies over Egypt and the Levant.

Air Force Commander "Motti" Hod
The Israelis knew that on June 5, 1967, they had precisely 196 operational combat aircraft, many of them aging. The Arab states challenging them had 500 or more, and much larger, less trained, armies. A first strike to alter the balance was seen as the proper opening blow. Weizman's successor as Air Force Commander, Mordechai "Motti" Hod, along with Dayan and the senior leadership, decided on a fairly desperate gamble. Of those 196 operational aircraft, only 12 (some accounts say as few as four) were held in reserve for combat air patrol over Israeli airspace. All the rest were devoted to taking out the Arab air forces: much depended on a single roll of the dice. And Egypt, the largest of them all, was the first order of business.

Tensions had been running high for weeks. Since surprise attacks often come at dawn, Egyptian pilots had been flying combat air patrols at dawn. But many senior officers did not arrive at their desks until nine AM. At the time, Egypt was on Summer Time but Israel was not. So 7:45 AM in Israel was 8:45 AM in Egypt, and the dawn patrols had returned to refuel the aircraft and allow the pilots to have breakfast. Most of the Air Force was on the ground. Many senior commanders were just arriving at work.

Egyptian air defenses were still rather poor. The concrete aircraft shelters and blast revetments found on most Middle Eastern air bases today (as a result of 1967) were unknown. Egypt had some SA-2 SAMs, but these were effective against aircraft at altitude; for low-level attack they were limited to anti-aircraft artillery. To make matters worse, Egypt's Defense Minister and Nasser's number two man, Field Marshal ‘Abd al-Hakim ‘Amer and several other senior officers were flying to the Sinai front to meet with troops there, so Egyptian air defenses scaled down their vigilance lest they accidentally shoot down their own boss.

Both sides were using far less advanced aircraft than today. Israel's were mostly French (the US did not sell aircraft to Israel until 1968), with some older British; Egypt's were mostly Soviet by this time, with some older British. Israel did have, and used with effect, a runway-cratering bomb that appears to have been an ancestor of the French Durandal.

The first wave took off from various Israeli bases and proceeded out over the Mediterranean skimming close to the water. In a carefully coordinated move the aircraft assumed formation in Egyptian airspace and began their attack.. The Wikipedia numbers generally track with others: 183 IAF aircraft destroyed 197 Egyptian aircraft and eight radar stations. A second wave (9:30 AM) was also aimed at Egypt, but after the Syrian and Jordanian Air Forces chose to enter the fray, the third wave (12:30 PM) turned against those air forces and Iraq's, hitting the Iraqi base at H3 just east of the Jordanian border.

By a bit past noon most of the Arab air forces were gone, and a great many runways cratered. It was a stunning blow, and made the remaining five and a half days of the war inevitable. By the end of the war Israel had destroyed 452 Arab aircraft, 79 in dogfights and the rest on the ground; it lost 46. It destroyed 338 Egyptian aircraft, most on the first day; 61 Syrian (out of perhaps 100 at most); 29 Jordanian; 23 Iraqi (at the H3 base); and one Lebanese.

Some relevant video:


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