Derek Weese's Reviews > The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East

The Yom Kippur War by Abraham Rabinovich
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Mar 16, 12

Read from January 28 to March 10, 2012

It isn't often that I read a book about a historical subject that I know little about. Usually I tend to read about events that I already have a lot of passion for, this book was not one of such books. The 'Yom Kippur' or October War is an area of history I always found interesting yet never bothered to read more than a magazine article on. To anyone who wants to read a well written, dramatic yet not over done book that is for the common masses yet still delves deep into a very complex and fascinating event filled with high stakes known as the 'Yom Kippur War' then this is that book. Abraham Rabinovic is a remarkable writer, he is a professional journalist and his prose shows his profession. I can honestly say that few books on military history I've read since entering college have been half as good as this one was, and this is one I read just for myself and I consider it time very well spent.
Following their dramatic victory in the 67' 'Six Day War' the Israeli Military became complacent, very much so. The average feeling in both the ranks and amongst the top brass concerning Arab soldiers from any nation was that they were pushovers who couldn't fight and that tiny Israeli forces could mop the floor so to speak with much, much larger Arab formations without breaking more than a little perfunctory sweat. Oh how this line of thought would come to haunt the Israeli's.
In Egypt President Nasser's regime lost credibility following Egypt's thrashing at the hands of a much smaller IDF in the 'Six Day War'. He was replaced by one of the truly great statesmen of the 20th Century: Anwar Sadat. Sadat rebuilt the Egyptian Army with the best Soviet equipment money could buy, and more importantly, he had the Army train, and train, and train again and if there was any free time left well than damnit they trained again. The end result was an Egyptian Army which had more than just a new facelift, they were virtually a new entity. The Syrian Armed Forces were rebuilt and revamped as well although they, unlike Egypt, didn't kick out their Soviet advisers.
By booting the Soviets from Egypt Sadat had signaled to an ultimate degree his faith in his country and his armed forces to handle affairs on its own. Secretly he and President Assad of Syria had been formulating a plan to reverse the political situation on the Middle East following the disaster of the 'Six Day War'. The armies of Egypt and Syria would launch a simultaneous surprise offensive against the Israeli holdings in both the Sinai (Egypt) and Golan (Syria). Neither Arab force was aimed at the annihilation of the Jewish state, rather both Sadat and Assad had hoped to defeat the IDF in a quick campaign, regain lost territory and restore the Arab dominance of Middle Eastern politics and strategic position.
But neither Arab force had an easy task ahead of them. In the north the Syrians would have to assault head on against an army that believed in marksmanship far more than even the Wehrmacht did. Israeli tank crews prided themselves on being the best shots in the world and like the Wehrmacht Panzer crews of WWII the IDF boys could back up their boasts with results. If the Syrians managed to breakthrough the Israeli lines (thin though they might be) it was a gamble whether or not enough Syrian mobile forces would have retained enough strength and cohesion to push the assault inland and even drive into northern Israel itself. In the south the Egyptians had to cross the Suez Canal, under fire from dug in Israeli troops entrenched along the Bar-Lev Line that ran the length of the canal. If successful they still had to absorb the counter punch of the Israeli armored reserve brigades that were sure to follow.
Underlying both concerns was the Arab realization that their own Air Forces were simply not up to the standards of the IDF's Air Force. And it was the Israeli Air Force that in the first minutes of the 'Six Day War' hit both Egypt and Syria with an air strike that crippled both nations air forces within minutes. Beyond that, the IDF air crews were excellent air to ground tacticians, and any Arab assault could easily be pummeled from the air by Israeli strike fighters. What to do? in both cases the Arabs built an elaborate air defense network that created a virtual 'wall' of overlapping radar fields and missile batteries that in the coming days would do wonders at keeping the Israeli Air Force at bay.
On October 6th, 1973 both Arab states launched their assault...and in both cases they achieved not just total surprise, but they also achieved remarkable success. In the north, albeit with heavy casualties, the Syrians mauled the Israeli defenders along the Golan Heights and pushed inland. It was in Sinai, however, that the greatest Arab success was met. Using an ingenious tactic of building high powered water pumps to erode the massive Israeli sand barriers along the canal the Egyptian Army literally water blasted avenues through the massive barriers and assault teams raced across the Suez Canal and quickly either overran the startled Israeli defenders in their forts or isolated them. As expected, the IDF quickly hit back with an armored counter blow...that was shot to pieces by the Egyptians using heretofore unseen Soviet wire guided ATGM's (Anti-tank guided missiles) called 'Saggers'.
Rabinovic, albeit mostly from the Israeli perspective, tells both a balanced and moving story of one of the greatest conflicts of the late 20th century. Not to be overly emotional about a book, but there were times when I would literally wince or be on the edge of my seat while reading about the fierce fighting and experiencing the events through the eyes of the men who lived the nightmare on both sides. In the end, despite initial successes, the Arab plan fell apart. In the north the superior training and tactics of the IDF paid off, as did the marksmanship of IDF tank crews as the Syrian Army literally impaled itself in wave after wave upon the Israeli stakes. Israeli forces launched a counterattack that pushed the Syrians out of their gains and even got to within artillery range of Damascus itself. If it had not been for the arrival of Iraqi and Jordanian forces that helped the Syrians stabilize their front as well as massive batches of new tanks from the Soviet Union, Damascus itself might have fallen.
In the Sinai, despite tremendous hardships and many agonizing disasters, the IDF finally turned things around when the Egyptian Army made it's one truly horrendous mistake of the war, it launched a massive frontal assault on the Sinai mountain passes out of range of their missile umbrella that protected them from the Israeli Air Force. In a matter of hours the superior gunnery of the IDF's tank crews, again, proved decisive and the Egyptians littered the desert with their burning tanks, vehicles and the broken bodies of her courageous young men. Sadat had been politically pressured into making the assault by Assad who rightfully panicked once his own army was mauled around Nafakh in the Golan and pushed back towards Damascus. In order to save his ally, Sadat sacrificed a large portion of his own army...for nothing.
The Israelis immediately followed up their victory with a sprinting counterattack that pushed some units straight to the Suez Canal where they crossed, under fire, into Africa. To protect the flank of the Israeli bridgehead a rather unlucky Israeli Division literally went though hell in the three day battle of 'Chinese Farm'. Named for a Japanese agricultural colony that both sides assumed was Chinese for the characters on the public displays, the 'Chinese Farm' was one of those places were it seemed the devil himself was holding high carnival. By the end of the three days the Israeli's held the area, barely, and both sides had lost an enormous amount of both equipment and young lives. Having crossed into the African continent itself the Israeli's now cut off and isolated the Egyptian Third Army which was caught between the Israelis on three sides and the Great Bitter Lake on the other. It was in this situation that the two sides ended the war thanks to superpower pressure to force a cease fire.
Although militarily the IDF emerged victorious in the end the real winner was Egypt. Sadat proved himself to be a genius in the departments of both politics and national strategic goals as well as statesmanship. Even if his army was defeated in the field it was not by a long margin, the margins were close and his and the Syrian forces had regained the honor they had lost in the 'Six Day War' through tough fighting and unshakable bravery. The IDF lost forever its aura of invincibility and Golda Meir actively sought peace with Egypt following the war. By signing peace with Israel Anwar Sadat, though offending (and sadly fatally) Islamic radicals, pushed Egypt to the status of leader of the Arab world. It was Sadat, not the Israeli's who had set the future of the Middle East politically.
All in all the 'Yom Kippur War' is not only a fascinating era in history it is also a wonderfully written book and one that I can honestly say is now in my top ten of Military History titles.
On a final note, one thing I found both remarkable and touching was the last few pages where Israeli and Egyptian soldiers began to fraternize after the announcement of the cease fire. Arabs were going up to Israeli's to shake their hands and both sides were pulling out pictures of their girls and lovers and showing them around. In the end, even soldiers who once hated each other are still human, and in the end that might be the greatest legacy of any war in that through shared trauma both sides come to a deep and abiding respect of the other.
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