Forty-one years ago, the soldiers of the 401st Armored Brigade bravely fought in Sinai, stopping the infiltration of Egyptian forces into Israel during the Yom Kippur War. One of those soldiers, Lieutenant Colonel (Res.) Avi Gur, then a young officer fighting in the southern front, documented the war with his Olympus Pen EE.2 camera. In a special interview with the IDF (Zahal) Blog, Avi shares both experiences and photos from the front line of the war and tells of the bravery and victory of the IDF (Zahal)’s soldiers.
This picture shows the strength of one tank, that could hit a target from more than a kilometer away. In the picture you can see my tank cannon, and the black smoke in the background is the target we hit.
“When the war began, I was on the front line. I was the deputy commander of a company in the Suez Canal and our goal was to hold back the Egyptian forces and keep them from carrying out acts of war against Israel,” tells Lt. Col. (Res.) Avi Gur. “A few hours later, my commander was killed and I became the company commander.”
This is a picture of my battalion commander, Lt. Col. Emanuel Sakal, from the first week of the war. The image reflects the IDF (Zahal)’s doctrine, according to which the commander is in the field side-by-side with the forces. This motivates the troops. Once I hit an enemy’s tank and he saw it in real time and complimented me on the radio.
“During the war, he asked me to mislead the Egyptian forces by getting them to think that we were going to attack from the south even though we were going to attack from the north. This was very hard for me because being successful meant getting them to fire at me. So what I did was drive in a zigzag motion in the sand, forming a huge cloud of dust. How did we survive? I don’t know. Some call it divine protection and others call it luck. After they started firing at us he said ‘we have achieved our goal’, and we quietly and carefully drove back.
On the eve of the Yom Kippur War, Israel had 358 fighter jets, 2,100 tanks and 37 naval vessels in its arsenal. On the contrary, the Egyptian and Syrian armies were much better equipped with 998 fighter jets, 5,350 tanks and 137 naval vessels. “You have to imagine thirty tanks securing an area of 143 km,” said Avi. “We stood alone facing thousands of soldiers and weapons. For every thirty enemy soldiers there was one Israeli soldier. The ratio is simply unproportional. But we, the Israeli soldiers, even though we stood before thousands, we did not run away. We fought professionally and wisely. People had no choice but to be heroes.”
This is the drama. Even at night you had to be on alert. The Egyptian artillery was 30 times stronger than ours.
“When we ran to the tanks I had a camera hanging around my neck. It was an unusual sight, because not many people had cameras at all back then. We started moving and there were Egyptian planes attacking us from above. Tanks were firing at us from the ground and Egyptian commando forces crossed the canal and fired anti-tank missiles,” remembers Avi. “It was like the wild west – whoever shoots first, stays alive.”
The tank cannon. The black smoke in the background are targets we fired at.
On the second day of the war, tens of thousands of Egyptian troops crossed the canal with hundreds of tanks, and the armored units suffered great losses. Thinking back, Avi remembers with pain the fallen soldiers. “You see your friends being killed,” he recounts. “You see people, your friends, wounded… but we kept fighting.”
The Browning 0.3 machine gun can fire continuously for over 10 seconds, and therefore we used it to shoot at Egyptian commando forces and a warning when we were in the thicket near the Suez Canal.
After days of battle, the IDF (Zahal) began a series of counter attacks. “At one point, we received an order to cross the canal,” said Avi. “That was the first time I reached for my dog tags because I wasn’t sure I would stay alive. Why? Because my tank had to drive over an unstable bridge. Also, when you’re on the bridge, you’re stuck there. You can’t go left and right, and you become an easy target.”
An Egyptian missile base that we conquered after it was abandoned by Egyptian soldiers.
“There were times when I was agitated, but I was able to project calmness to my soldiers. I used to sing to them in our internal communications network. When we all met recently, they told me that hearing my voice reassured them.”
I remember this picture. It was taken with my camera, but my gunner took it. It’s a picture of me talking to the commander of the platoon operating to the north of us. We were in Egypt and we were just a few tanks responsible for a big area.
Towards the end of the war, Israeli forces encircled the Egyptian Third Army. “The 401st Armored Brigade took part in the one of the greatest military achievements of the war: encircling the Egyptian Third Army. It wasn’t easy to do, but it was incredible.”
The company commander of the unit south of me reporting to our battalion commander.
“It’s true that there were failures, but that shouldn’t be the focus; just Victory Day is the focus of WW2, not Pearl Harbor. The key word in my opinion is victory, and we were victorious because of the execution of our missions and thanks to the heroism of the soldiers.”