For months before the war began in 1973, the Syrian Army ordered its tank units onto the escarpment below the Golan Heights arrayed in battle formations. Then they ordered their artillery units to remove the camouflage netting. After a few days, they ordered their units to disband and return to bases. They did this enough times apparently to lure the Israelis into a false sense of security. Because on October 6th, 1973, the entire Syrian border was very lightly guarded as religious soldiers attended services that last all day long, atoning for their sins.
Previously the entire Arab combined forces of Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, Lebanese, Iraq and Iranian units had been badly embarrassed during the 1967 Six Day War. There, a pre-emptive strike on Arab airfields destroyed most of the Arab air forces while they were on the ground, giving them no air cover whatsoever. It was a masterful strike and went down in
one of the most one-sided victories in history. The Arabs lost control of Jerusalem, the Sinai and of course, they had lost their national pride by having been beaten so badly by Jews. I myself grew up in the Jewish community in Atlanta and even we were telling jokes about how bad the Arabs were at warfare. “How do you tell an Arab tank from an Israeli tank? Arab tanks have back-up lights.” Ba da bing! “Why was the six day war only six days? Because the planes were rented.” The notion that Arabs could not fight was inculcated into Israeli and American pop culture and it took hold. We know from studying military history that things can change in the blink of an eye.
Leaders of the 24th Israeli Tank Reservists noted that on the morning of Yom Kippur, once again, the Syrians were taking off their artillery camouflage netting, and moving tank brigades into formation. Would they strike for real this time? They did not know that the Syrians were planning this for nine months. The hard part about this for the Israelis is that it takes reservists approximately 20 hours to go from zero to fighting. As it would turn out, they took only 10 hours. That’s a good thing, because the artillery bombardment from Syrian gun tubes began soon thereafter in earnest.
The Syrians planned a multi-pronged invasion along the border, a northern invasion to reclaim the Golan Heights, a 700 square mile plateau on the border, which was lost during the Six Day War. The two southern invasion routes would allow the Syrians to create an uninterrupted battle line all the way to the Sea of Galilee. Standing in between the Syrians and Israel were 600 Israeli light infantry, 170 Shot Kal tanks and under 100 artillery guns. The Syrians began their invasion (timed with the invasion of the Egyptian forces) with 50,000 infantry, 6000 artillery tubes and 1200 main battle tanks.
The Syrians were driving two models of tanks. In the north they drove the standard T-55 tank. It was small, only 40 tons and so it was hard to hit. It had a 4 inch main gun that was effective to 2700 yards. The Israeli Shot Kal was an upgraded British Centurion, with a 4 inch cannon and 6 inches of front plating armor. They fired HESH rounds (High Explosive Squash Head) and the round was effective to ranges of 4000 yards. Amazingly, or perhaps not so surprising, the Israelis lined up against this onslaught with clear fields of fire from the heights and in the next few hours, outnumbered 7 to 1, they were able to stop enough tanks to bring the entire armored division to a halt.
That night, the Israelis had another bad wake up call: the Syrian tanks had infrared sights, and they did not. So the Syrians pushed on in the night and decimated the Israelis. At the end of 18 hours of fighting, the Israelis had lost 75 tanks, the Syrians had lost about 150 tanks. By the end of the second day, the Israeli center broke.
In the South, the Syrians had T-62s, a much superior tank to the T-55. The T-62 had 9.5 inches of armor and a new 581 horsepower engine, and a newer 4.5 inch cannon effective up to 4400 yards.
The battle in the south was so costly for the Israelis in the long term, that they could simply not sustain these kinds of losses for long. Very soon however, the newly outfitted mobilized reserves were on their way. The Syrians had taken key crossing points of the Jordan River. Several Israeli reservist units had been overwhelmed and destroyed. Yet the 39th Israeli Reserve Tank brigade stopped the entire Syrian 1st Armored Division at Batya Road.
The tank battle turned at Hushniya where 250 Syrian T-62s tanks staged for an assault. By this time however the Israeli Air Force had recovered and bombed the once quaint pastural town into smithereens. Exhausted Syrian tankers then encountered 30 Israeli Shot Kal tanks that made short work of them and the Syrians began withdrawing.
Sixteen days after this battle started, the Israelis had fought the Syrians to a draw. The price of the war was costly for both sides with 21,000 dead. The Syrians lost 2200 tanks. The Israelis lost 450 tanks.