When Ori Orr returned to Israel after several years away, including a US staff college, just before the 1973 War, he faced cultural shock. The Israeli Army of 1967 — indeed, the whole society of 1967 — was robustly egalitarian, strikingly so by European or even American standards. A private might use his battalion or division commander’s first name; officers drove themselves and tended their own uniforms. This Army had won great victories on all fronts in 1948, 1956 and 1967, forced Egypt to knuckle under in the 1970 War of Attrition, and fully expected that if the Arabs moved in the direction of a new war, they’d get a new beating.
The Army of 1973 was complacent thanks to its long string of victories, especially the decisive win of 1967. And it had succumbed to the slow creep of bureaucracy and stratification. Senior officers had staff cars, drivers, batmen. In 1967, even cabinet ministers didn’t get such perks. Orr didn’t think it was a change for the better. It offended his egalitarian sensibilities (he would later be a Member of the Knesset and a government minister for the small-s socialist Labor Party). In fact, he had returned to an Army that had thrown over its battle-born radical beginnings to become leadenly bureaucratic. In a very short time, the IDF would have to lose its peacetime bureaucracy.
On the first day of the war, freshly appointed reserve tank brigade commander Orr found that he had subordinates of both the 1967 and 1973 stripes. (Note that the following is a horrible translation from Hebrew to English; the translator was ignorant of military vocabulary like “mobilization” and “armorer,” and frequently uses what Mark Twain might have called “a second approximation of the word.”)
Mickey, the adjutant officer, decided to register the men only after they were assigned a vehicle, before leaving, because he understood that there was no other way to ascertain that the men were registered in their units. This sped up the absorption process.
Mickey, for whom Orr was suitably thankful, was a 1967 officer — damn the rules, get it done. So we may digress for a moment into what they were trying to get done.
An IDF reserve unit of the period was a hollow shell with a permanent, full-time cadre of four or five officers, and a handful of specialist warrant officers or NCOs. They maintained the equipment in a mobilization-ready state, in theory, and in the event of a mobilization, they planned on having two weeks’ notice to absorb reservists, shake down the unit, clear any vehicle squawks or supply shortfalls, and get ready to fight. Unlike an American Reserve or Guard unit, or a British Territorial Army unit, there weren’t regular, frequent drills, just infrequent and irregular micro-mobilizations for training. The Arab attack caught the Israelis flatfooted on a holiday, and Orr’s situation was compounded by many small ills. His unit hadn’t done training recently. It had obsolete Centurions with at-end-of-life gasoline engines and balky manual transmissions; they’d already been shifted from being parked in their tactical elements to being parked in the order they were going to the depot for a diesel and automatic shift mobility upgrade.
New to the unit, he didn’t know anybody (but thanks to the small size of the IDF Tank Corps, he’d soon find old friends). And his time in command was, when the Syrians hit a relatively miles away, measured in days (his first order had been to put the tanks back in tactical order). He approved Mickey’s quick-thinking rule-breaking. But he also had the Spirit of1973 in some of his cadre.
While absorbing the soldiers , I hear the loud voice of an argument coming from the weaponry area. I left the dark area. The active-duty gunsmith recognized me first, and it took a little longer for the reserve soldiers until they spotted my rank. The gunsmith turned to me almost shouting, “They want to take out weapons without signing for it.” I looked at him in amazement. The world around us was trembling but I had still not managed to inculcate into the very last of the soldiers that we were at war. “Open the door and quickly give each soldier his weapon!” I ordered. At first, he looked at me in disbelief. I guess that I was the only one from whom he would have agreed to accept such a command to change the order of his universe.
One is reminded of legend of the ammunition boxes of Isandlwana. Orr didn’t make the historical reference, but he was less than thrilled with this encounter with one of the 1973 type of bureaucratic Israeli soldier.
I informed the maintenance officer of the instructions that I had given. I didn’t hide my anger at the fact that he had not managed to internalize the message to his men that we were at war, already from the afternoon. NOTE 1
Orr had his first tanks in action against the Syrians 15 hours from receiving the warning order, well short of the 24 hours thought to be the minimum, and far from the two weeks that Israeli strategists had expected their reservists to have. To accomplish that, he sent the tanks with limited ammunition — they had AT ammo but no HE, and in fact only had 2/3 of their basic load. When the commander of this element, Nitzan Yotzer, asked for more time to load his tanks, Orr told him:
Nitzan, the Syrians don’t know how much ammunition you are missing. True, we were educated that in battle, you go out when everyone is full, but there is no time. The Syrians need to see tanks shooting at them and blocking off the routes. We need to make an effort to reach you later with the ammunition. Note 2
Yotzer’s element, a few tanks and a few reconnaissance men in jeeps, went out and ran into Syrians “east of Tel Tzabah, at the Katzbiya Junction.” The Syrians weren’t expecting resistance so early, and Yotzer’s Centurions at least temporarily the Syrian advance at 0200 on 7 Oct 73 — just 12 hours after the attack at 1400 on the 6th, and 15 hours after the initial alert came to Orr.
They would not be out of the woods at all. The Israelis discovered, in those first hot minutes, a disturbing thing they hadn’t expected of their Arab enemies: the Syrians were not intimidated, and they had come to fight.
They wouldn’t find the next surprise just yet, because the Syrian forces here were a unit with older T-55 tanks, evenly matched to Yotzer’s old Centurions: but the Syrians’ armored elite in T-62s, unlike the Israelis, could see in the dark.
- Orr, Ori. Yom Kippur War: These are My Brothers. Contento De Semrik: Kindle Edition, 2013. Kindle Locations 1449-1465.
- Orr, Ori. Yom Kippur War: These are My Brothers. Contento De Semrik: Kindle Edition, 2013. Kindle Locations 1518-1524.