From the Sinai to the Golan Heights, packing battle rations and operating communications equipment – we provide an exclusive look at the contribution of Israel’s women to the 1973 war effort: from the Chief Women’s Corps Officer to the commander in the field.
According to the history books, the afternoon of October 6, 1973 belonged to men. So too the rest of the painful war and the blood-soaked battlefields of the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. The sole woman remembered by the public in association with the Yom Kippur War is the prime minister at the time Golda Meir – often recalled for her role in the security failures that allowed for the surprise attack.
Despite this, the sands of the Sinai and the mountainous terrain of the Golan Heights saw many brave women. The female soldiers and commanders of the IDF (Zahal) deployed throughout Israel in various units, and united under the Women’s Corps – it is as though they disappeared from popular memory. Amid the tanks and the mortars, there were the women who packed the parachutes and ran the offices of the higher-ups. They have mostly been forgotten. On heightened alert at IDF (Zahal) headquarters in Tel Aviv, alongside a worried chief of staff and a tense minister of defense stood the Chief Officer of the Women’s Corps.
The IDF (Zahal) Women’s Corps was established in the 1950s, and saw to the terms and conditions under which those female soldiers who joined the ranks of the IDF (Zahal) served. As the supreme commander of all women in the IDF (Zahal), Colonel Ruth Muskal would visit various units stationed throughout the country and review the status of the women soldiers there. She was appointed to the position by then Chief of the General Staff Lieutenant General David Elazar just a few months before the Yom Kippur War broke out. She had no idea then that the war would enter the pages of history, where it would remain somewhere between an operational miracle and an intelligence failure with a heavy human cost.
Colonel (reserve) Ruth Muskal from her time as women’s officer for the Central Command
Testimonies from that time and various newspaper clippings reveal that female soldiers filled a range of vital positions that supported the war effort in 1973. From the office clerks who dealt with waves of overwhelmingly significant information, through to the packers of the paratroopers’ parachutes and female drivers and soldiers in the Communications and Medical Corps. Each paratrooper who went to battle would find the paratrooper’s prayer in his pack, folded carefully by the female soldiers. At a time when the public deliberated over the necessity of such soldiers, Col. (res) Muskal saw the vital importance of their work in the field.
“To the best of my knowledge, most of the complaints from female soldiers from the beginning of the war were about there being so much work to do, and not there being a lack of work,” Col. Muskal iterated in an interview at the time. “The parachute packers stand for many hours on their feet, and the telephone operators work more hours in a day than is normally acceptable.”
Due to the danger of being located at the front, some of the soldiers were transferred to different roles, while their units maintained their positions at the front. The Chief Women’s Corps Officer was opposed to the prevailing opinion at the time that female soldiers were a a merely ‘decorative’ feature on bases.
“Every modern army is based on a relatively small fighting core, surrounded by a great many service roles,” she noted in the same contemporaneous interview. In accordance with the orders handed down the chain of command, female soldiers were evacuated from the Golan Heights on the first day of the war and from the Sinai a short time after the battles began, though hundreds of female soldiers continued to serve in locations considered vulnerable. Nurses, for instance, were considered to be of the highest importance and served in combat zones – including west of the Suez Canal.
The war urged the IDF (Zahal) to make a first-of-its-kind decision – to evacuate female soldiers to rear positions, beyond the lines of fire. “The intention is not to endanger the girls in a location when there is no necessity. Some of the units from which the girls were evacuated asked to have them back. The war concentrated many female soldiers in vulnerable areas, and it found them very ready, determined and full of tenacity,” Col. Muskal said, adding, “I can not help but marvel at and praise those who did the work – especially those in the communications and medical fields.”
Nahal officers: The empty roads filled with military vehicles
Many of the female soldiers serving during the Yom Kippur War saw their evacuation as an abandonment of their units. “Some saw it as abandoning their friends and the fighters tried to oppose their transfer,” the Chief Women’s Officer said. At the same time as the evacuation of the female soldiers from the front lines, the IDF (Zahal) worked towards enlisting additional women into service – out of a heightened need for people to fill technical roles that required pre-military training, such us driving positions. “Everyone wants to go to the air force, but in the context of sparsity, we try to give more,” Col. Muskal said.
In one instance, male soldiers, who came to replace women who had been evacuated from the front, were forced to turn around for home. Not one of the female soldiers agreed to leave. Meanwhile, the female soldiers worked non-stop, until in some instances there was a need to force them to rest for a few hours. Most of the female soldiers serving mandatory service carried on in their normal roles. though a large number of female reserve soldiers were brought in to fill essential roles in the Communications Corps, Medical Corps, administration and relief work. The conditions were field conditions, and the many female soldiers who stayed behind in the home front decided to dedicate all their time to working in hospitals. Alongside the medical staff, the soldiers made sure to maintain contact with the wounded, with their units and families. The telephonists would pass on love and messages from the soldiers in the field to their families.
“The girl sitting here – its gives us so much,” said an officer who served at the time in the Golan Heights. Commanders were in need of switchboard operators and stenographers when it came to operations. In the Golan Heights, female soldiers would organize convoys of trucks filled to the brim with goods for the soldiers, courtesy of the local councils. Some of the female soldiers took part in registering casualties with the brigades, others supervised bomb shelters in the home front. “Determination and tenacity in the mission is a dominant feature among the women,” Col. Muskal said at the time.
The Chief Women’s Corps Officer grants the platoon commander’s pin to a new officer
Alongside their work in the field, there was no substitute for the staff work of the female soldiers. “Whoever believes that staff work is decorative – is mistaken,” Col. Muskal said. “They were needed as assistants, telephonists, parachute packers and drivers, and also as relief workers, health workers and more.” Women filled some 50 different roles, and the Women’s Corps particularly resented the reputation it developed in the media. “All that they showed on television were female officers who gave flowers to returning POWs, but they didn’t show how they accompanied every returning soldier to his home, and how they waited at the airport all day and night without knowing when each group would arrive,” Col. Muskal declared at the time.
“They were seen laying wreaths on the graves, but not how they sat in cemeteries for days on end in order to deal with the families who came looking for their loved ones’ resting places. They were not seen talking to casualties about their fallen comrades, they were not seen treating the wounded as nurses or as assistance workers doing all the dirty work in the hospitals,” Col. Muskal exclaimed. At the time of the war, the Chief Women’s Officer focused on being in constant contact with female officers and soldiers, and passing on their requests to the general staff. She toured the majority of bases in the corps to visit the women there.
Brigadier General (reserve) Hedva Almog, who was appointed as the Chief Women’s Officer in 1987, rose in 1973 to the rank of captain, and served during the war as the Nahal Brigade’s Women’s Corps Officer. “I remember the empty roads, filled only with military vehicles,” she said as she recalled the moment the war broke out. Announcements regarding the evacuation of female soldiers from the Golan Heights and the Sinai began to reach her, and it was upon her to ensure that all female soldiers in Nahal outposts on the borders would be evacuated to safety on nearby kibbutzim.
The female soldiers from the Nahal outposts were taken to assist in hospitals, which were quickly being overwhelmed by hundreds of wounded soldiers. At the same time, enemy forces were overrunning the outposts built by the labor of the soldiers from the Nahal – a Hebrew acronym for the pioneering fighting youth who combined combat duty with establishing agricultural settlements along Israel’s borders. “When we routed the enemy armies, it was very depressing to see the ruined outposts. They threw personal items on the ground and buildings had been run over by tanks,” Brig. Gen. (res) Almog recalled.
After the Mezach outpost in the Sinai Peninsula fell, the prime minister decided to visit the Nahal troops. The young Captain Almog was her official host at the unit. “I flew with her in a helicopter from place to place, and the strongest experience was to see how the entire weight of the state sat on her shoulders. At the end of one of the days there was a press conference, and it really hurt me to see them attack her, when the weight of responsibility fell entirely on her,” Brig. Gen. (res) Almog recalled.
Rumors about captured female soldiers firmly denied
The lack of organization was not reserved for the battle front, but was to be found among the media as well. Repeated announcements reached the news based on the chilling report – female soldiers were declared missing in action or having fallen into enemy captivity. “It was the major subject that bothered people regarding women. Ruth was interviewed every day, and she dispelled the rumors,” Zvi Muskal, the former Chief Women’s Corps Officer’s husband, told the IDF (Zahal) website.
At a time when the borders were in flames and the State of Israel fought for its very existence – the Women’s Corps stood strong, helping with one hand and continuing to function routinely with the other hand. “Alongside emergency work, the Women’s Corps soldiers perform every mission. The entire instruction framework is operating without disruption, and a new course of recruits began just in time,” the Chief Women’s Corps Officer declared. One small change introduced in the basic training of the female recruits of autumn 1973 involved packing battle rations for the soldiers on the front lines. Personal letters were attached to the battle rations, most of which were signed with the names of the female soldiers who packed them along with the nickname “Bat Chen” – Hebrew for ‘Daughter of the Women’s Corps’.
Battle rations also reached the soldiers from other countries that sought to assist Israel, though the Israeli battle rations packed by the ‘daughters of the Women’s Corp’ were by far the most popular. It wasn’t for love of the Israeli cuisine, but for the potential of future love. “If they attach their names, then there’s a chance for something, no?” said one of the soldiers who fought on the front line in an interview at the time.
In the Sinai, the girls would collect phone numbers and distribute postcards to soldiers and ask them firmly to write. “They fill the role of the mother, the daughter, the sister, the girlfriend and everything else,” Col. Muskal explained to those who denounced such behavior.
The sounds of artillery in the Sinai fell quiet on October 24, and fighting in the Golan Heights ceased later, in 1974. The IDF (Zahal) lost thousands of soldiers in the course of the war. The heroism of the men in the tanks, the fighters on the ground and the pilots who soared above are well remembered. Next to the heroism of those men – those who fell and those who lived on to defend the State of Israel – it is worth remembering also the contribution of the women – those with the telephones, with the lists of casualties and postcards, with the bandages and the radios, and also with their hands on the wheel. And also to remember the work of one colonel, the highest ranked female officer in the IDF (Zahal) at the time, who was a mother to two at the same time as being the Chief Women’s Corps Officer of the IDF (Zahal).