Not many of those who took part in the Yom Kippur War can say that they took part in the battles on its first day, halted the Syrians in the Golan Heights, continued to the valley of the Syrian enclave and reached a distance of 40 kilometers from Damascus - and then descended south, crossed the Suez Canal to "Africa" and stopped 101 kilometers from Cairo.
The members of the 179th Reserve Brigade are the ones whose tank larvae – an easy shot for the armored personnel among you – tasted both the basalt stones of the Golan Heights and the sands of Sinai. 50 years later, when six members of the brigade tell their war stories, it seems as if it all happened yesterday.
We meet near Safed, near the centurion tank standing at the 37th Brigade monument. Yossi Amir (85) from Kibbutz Mizra, Avraham Sela (75) from Givat Ella, Gadi Stockelman (76) from Kibbutz Kabri, Yehuda Wegman (76) from Kibbutz Sdot Yam who currently lives in Or Akiva, Israel Arieli (79) from Kibbutz Genigar and Levi Givon (80) from Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi. Even now, the comrades who fought together are still arguing about exactly what time each one arrived at this village or that intersection. War lives in them and they are in it.
Fighters of the 179th Brigade. From right: Yossi Amir, Levi Givon, Israel Arieli and Gadi Stockelman; On the tank, from right: Yehuda Wegman and Avraham Sela, photo: David Cohen/Ginny
"Pick up forklifts and come"
The brigade's war story actually begins on Rosh Hashanah, or maybe even a few months earlier. In August 1973, Colonel Ran Sarig was appointed brigade commander, while his deputy was Lt. Col. Gideon Zimble. On the eve of the war, the brigade consisted of three light whip tank battalions: the 96th Battalion commanded by Israel Levin, the 266th Battalion commanded by Uzi Mor, and the 278th Battalion commanded by Amir.
The brigade was the rapid recruitment brigade of the Northern Command and belonged to the 210th Division, commanded by Major General Dan Lenner. In case of emergency, the brigade was supposed to receive priority in tank transporters and autobuses in order to expedite its organization. In this context, the brigade's command center was also transferred from the Kurdani camp in the Krayot area to the Pilon camp near Rosh Pina.
"In order to be what is called the 'fast brigade,' we built a network of phones whose idea is K plus 18 hours," Amir explains. "The thesis says that if from the moment of calling, within 18 hours the brigade is suitcased, armed and reaches the designated ramps of each battalion in the Golan Heights, we have done our part.
"As fate would have it, a recruitment exercise, which was planned in the brigade's training graph, was announced on Monday, October 1, 1973. Right after Rosh Hashanah, a week before the war. The business was screwing up properly, everyone stepped up and showed up. The drill said that two battalions remain in the Pilon camp and one battalion goes down to the field near Kibbutz Mahanayim.
"We gathered on Tuesday, Commander Yitzhak 'Haka' Hofi came to see the wonder and was delighted, and then he convened us, the brigade commanders, and the command's intelligence officer Hagai Man gave a review in which he explained that in fact the book of signs is over. Two days ago, he said, the nearby Syrian artillery took down the camouflage nets.
"It was perfectly clear what was happening and we told Haque, 'Take us, we're already here.' Haqqa told Hagai, 'Pick up the phone,' and we're around the table. On the line on the other side was Gandhi, and when he and her bosom spoke, it was as if Gandhi was talking to some novice.
"'What are you doing?! There is a government decision, remove all the people!'" Gandhi roared, "'This exercise should not have been held anyway. Suddenly everyone is going, you see everyone.' Having no other choice, we returned home, two battalions on Tuesday and one battalion, of Israel Levin, who went down to the field, stayed another night and was also released."
The guys went home, never imagining that in a few days they would get back on their overalls, this time not as part of a drill.
Brigade Commander Ran Sarig during the war, photo: courtesy of the IDF Archives and the Defense Establishment, photo: Avraham Vered
On Saturday, October 6, 1973, the IDF began a quiet reserve mobilization at ten o'clock in the morning. "Already on Friday, Brigade Commander Ran swore us in to talk to him every few hours, including Yom Kippur," Amir recalls.
"When the rapid mobilization was activated, Gideon Zimbal the brigade commander arrived at the Pilon camp and amazingly - there are no tanks. Later it turned out that members of the 7th Brigade had taken them to fight. You can imagine what it feels like to arrive, just a few days after a successful exercise, and discover that in the nation you have almost nothing.
"We said, 'What do we do?' We drive to Naftali Camp, near Golani Junction. But even there all the bunkers were locked. I called Yigal Minzer from my kibbutz, who was then a battalion commander in the paratroopers and had not yet been drafted. Our kibbutz had a factory called Taamal and I told Yigal, 'Pick up two forklifts, go to the Tavor cooperative nearby, pick up a truck and fly to Naftali Camp. He came with another friend, broke through the bunkers and basically allowed us to fill the tanks with ammunition."
"Going looking for a tank"
The first battalion of the brigade that joined the fighting, in fact the first reserve battalion of the IDF that fought in the Yom Kippur War, was the 266th Battalion under the command of Uzi Mor, whose tanks, which were under treatment, remained at Camp Pilon.
"When we arrived at Pilon and started equipping ourselves, we realized that there was no need to wait for an orderly combat assignment, but rather to be assigned according to who arrived," recalls Yehuda Wegman, who was a staff sergeant in the battalion. "The first company with Battalion Commander Uzi left for the plateau at around 8:2 p.m. on Saturday night. In fact, about eight hours after the fire broke out, reserve tanks went up to the Golan Heights. They arrived at the blacksmith around midnight. The force I was in, consisting of two improvised companies, left the hospital at around midnight and reached the blacksmith around <>:<> A.M.
"The first company received an order to join Zvika Greengold, the well-known 'Zvika Force,' on the oil route. On the way to join them, they encountered a Syrian ambush and fire from three directions, west, east and southeast. Battalion Commander Uzi was wounded, lost an arm and went blind, Company Commander Amnon Sharon was taken prisoner. There were two tanks left with which they evacuated the casualties - and Zvika was left alone."
What was your company doing at that time?
"Company A, of which I am, began advancing at first light on Sunday toward the south. We met an enemy, at first a small group of tanks, and while conducting the fire, an attack by a Syrian division mounted on us, which eventually reached the blacksmith.
"We have not been able to stop this attack. We started walking backwards and tried to stop the Syrians, with our tanks hit. At one point, while spinning, the two larvae of my tank – which I admit I didn't stretch – just fly.
"The Syrians are getting on top of me, and the battalion sergeant, Baruch Lenchner, to whom I may owe my life, saw that I was trying to repair the tank and didn't understand that the Syrians were on us in a moment. He stood next to me and said, 'Wegman, what are you doing? The Syrians will be here, get on my tank.' I go up with the crew and he drives us a few hundred meters west, takes us off and returns to the fighting, where he was also killed afterwards.
"We started walking towards a blacksmith, on the oil route, regardless, without a map and without anything. Going looking for a tank. That's the only thing on my mind, finding a tank. I was supposed to hear explosions, gunshots, there was a battle there, but I don't remember any of that. I remember a pleasant autumn day, with sunshine, and I go looking for a tank, find it and return to war.
"It is important for me to say that my personal story is the story, without exaggeration, of hundreds of crew members and commanders in the Yom Kippur War. That's education, that's how we were raised."
"Menorah of Syrian tanks"
Meanwhile, at Camp Naftali, members of the 179th Brigade were preparing to move north, still without fully understanding the nature of the war they were heading toward.
"At around 2 a.m., the battalion was on the move," says Arieli, nicknamed "Zebra" and who started the war as a company commander in the 96th Battalion.
"On the way to Ramah, we followed the commander and the reconnaissance company, on a battalion avenue. Brigade Commander Ran Sarig, who remained in Pilon, was waiting for us on our ascent to the Golan Heights. We arrived at the Jordan River at around 5 a.m., after a night drive through Tiberias, where all the residents stood outside in their pajamas and threw candy at us, and we said hello to them with battle cheers with high morale. We didn't know what was going to happen.
Israel Arieli: "We waged an armored battle against hundreds of Syrian tanks. If I hadn't talked on the radio all the time, I wouldn't have teeth today because they were clenching with fear. Your head thinks about orders, you work like a machine."
"In Jordan, Ran gave us an urgent order to move to the plateau, because 'there is no Hebrew speaker east of the oil route.' Just as we pass the Katsaviya junction eastward, towards Hoshaniya, we received a serious fire blow from a Syrian force and two of our tanks were hit, one tank lightly and the other tank was completely destroyed, the MATC was severely wounded and the three crew members were killed.
"We immediately stopped and began to conduct ourselves as we should in the encounter. We wanted to outflank the Syrian force, which we have not yet seen. It was 7am, the sun was in our eyes and they saw us all the way and waited for us. We went up to a high area above Katsaviya and saw eight Syrian tanks firing at our forces on the branch in front of us.
"They were at a range of 400 meters - and in one volley of fire we destroyed all eight and saw literally a menorah of burning tanks. In this encounter, battalion commander Yisrael Levin was wounded, and later his staff told us that before he was evacuated he told them, 'Guys, I was a child in the ghetto, do everything so that we don't return to the Holocaust.'
"When we finished this battle, the battalion sergeant, Avner Goldschmidt from Kibbutz Hulata, was hit by a shell and killed. On Sunday, at 7:<> in the morning, I actually took command of the battalion."
Did you immediately encounter more Syrian forces?
"After the destruction of the menorah of these tanks, we saw a force of dozens of Syrian tanks moving along the route of the falls and deploying throughout the area. A little later, a company under the command of Yoav Simhoni, which had previously been in the 278th Battalion, joined us and moved to us, and towards noon we received an order to integrate the 134th Battalion, the 36th Divisional Reconnaissance Battalion. They arrived and were deployed south of us, along the road.
"I estimate that there were a little more than 20 tanks and we fought an armored battle against hundreds of Syrian tanks. This battle was extraordinarily frightening. If I hadn't given orders and talked on the radio all the time, I wouldn't have teeth today because they were clenching with fear. Luckily for you, your head thinks about the orders and you work like a machine."
"We entered a killing valley"
Even before that, the 278th Battalion under Amir's command also left Naftali camp and moved toward Arik's Bridge.
"At the bridge, we were stopped by the Chief of Staff of the Northern Command, Uri Bar-On," Amir recalls. "I was only with two companies, because one was taken to the force of Brigade Commander Ran.
"The person who managed the fire during these critical hours was the command's operations officer, Uri Simhoni. He was the owner of the house and told me over the radio, 'Grab the El Al compound and don't move a millimeter.' It was on a Sunday, something like 8am.
"We were deployed at El Al and waited, and around 9 a.m. we started seeing what we in the armor call 'dust.' It turns out that the Syrians were on a fulfilling level, absolutely nothing of us. A stupid, strange battle ensued, which is not written in the books and cannot be won. Today's Golan Heights is misleading, everything is full of trees, planted, so it was a plate and two of our companies are facing the Syrians. After persistent fighting, we managed to stop part of the Syrian 132nd Brigade. In that skirmish, we destroyed 20 tanks and we were hit by one tank, a company tank, whose driver was killed."
On Tuesday, October 9, many Syrian forces gathered in the Hosheniya area, which had withdrawn during the previous days of the war, and organized themselves in a defense compound. In the morning, Amir's 278th Battalion launched an attack on the Syrian compound.
These battles and the break-in to the Syrian enclave after them are told by Gadi Stockelman, the battalion's operations officer who was on the tank with Amir throughout the war.
"We went up from west to east towards Tel Talia, where Moshav Keshet is located today," he recalls. "Around 9 a.m., we crossed the oil route, and in fact unwittingly entered the killing valley of the Syrian divisional compound in Hushnya. Anti-tank, Sager, tanks and machine guns were fired at us, as I maneuvered the tank to evade.
"Seven fighters were killed in this battle and eight tanks were hit. We pulled back and attacked again in the afternoon, and before the attack our planes were accurately bombed. We stormed, conquered the heart of the compound and there was a great commotion there. Tanks with working engines whose crews fled.
Yossi Amir: "The regular battalions of the 188th and 7th Brigades were the first brakes. They gave the people of Israel those critical five or six hours, and then we, with all kinds of improvisations and a big head, disrupted everything else for the Syrians."
"On Thursday, October 11, we carried out a night movement of about 17 kilometers deep into the Syrian formation, and in the following days we continued armored battles in the enclave, destroyed armor in the area of Kafr Nasaj and Tel Mar'i, and reached a distance of 40 kilometers from Damascus. We participated in the destruction of an Iraqi armored brigade and captured Tal Antar.
"On 19 October, we defended Tel Antar from a combined attack by Jordanians and Syrians. We were in a 1:5 balance of power in their favor, and they also flanked us from the south so that we were exposed in positions and on the scales in terms of balance of power. Fortunately, two companies from the Nati Force, which was an improvised tank battalion established during the war from soldiers returning from outside Israel, yeshiva children and unassigned soldiers, halted the southern flank with great bravery."
Officer Gadi Stockelman in the Syrian enclave during the war, photo: from the private album
"Get ahead of the Syrians by an hour"
Not far away, Avraham Sela, a company commander in the 39th Battalion, the third battalion of the 188th regular brigade, fought.
"We joined the 179th Brigade immediately after the end of the war," he says. "In the war itself, we rose to the level of a reserve battalion of 188, but in fact we were an orphaned battalion from a mother brigade. We spent most of the war under the command of the 4th Brigade. Our starting point on Saturday night was ten tanks, lacking ammunition and equipment, standing on the boulevard at Camp Naftali and starting to move north, to the plateau.
"I was the last in the convoy, with Company L, which consisted of about six tanks. We galloped on the road towards Arik Bridge and received an order to move towards Ma'ale Gamla, still not feeling war. As we drive, we begin to realize the catastrophe. Our soldiers descend in front of us on the axis, retreating, stunned.
"The order we received from Yoav Wasfi, the battalion commander, who was later killed on 16 October in the Kudna area and received the Medal of Courage, was: 'Anything that comes from the east is an enemy.' We got about where the entrance to a wing seat, which didn't exist then, is today, and then to the last twist before you get dressed on the back of the lift. Yoav, the battalion commander, drove first, and I followed him at great distances.
Avraham Sela at war, photo: from the private album
"I told my guys to keep the ridge line, and then I spot three antennas and slowly a turret rises and I see three tanks on the ridge above me. Without reporting, I told the gunner, 'Prepare to shoot.' It was up to 2,000 meters in range, we fired phosphorus at the middle tank and Yoav became hysterical and shouted, 'You're shooting at us!'
"I told him, 'Yoav, there are tanks above your head, the Syrians are above you.' We fired, the Syrian tanks didn't have time to fire at us, and we continued at a gallop to grab the back of the ridge. Up to this point, none of us had been hurt. We went up, to the spur between Nahal Daliot and the bed of Nahal Knaf, which is a spur that has no right or left. The Syrians came up in front of us and I remember saying to the company over the radio: 'Comrades, we are fighting for home.'
"Yoav ran the battalion - what is a battalion, a third of a battalion - as it is written in the book. Cover, movement, skips, observations. By evening, we had knocked something like 13 Syrian tanks, without any of us being hit.
"Later in the fighting, the battalion halted the Syrians in Ma'ale Gamla, at the westernmost point they reached in the Golan Heights. We fought for two weeks in the movement from the Daliyot Junction area to the north, we participated in battles against the Syrian armored forces between the settlement axis and the northern perimeter axis, and we took part in the takeover of the Hosheniya pocket and in breaking into the enclave.
Avraham Sela: "We went up, to the spur between Nahal Daliot and the bed of Nahal Knaf, which is a spur that has no right or left. The Syrians came up in front of us and I told the company over the radio: 'Comrades, we are fighting for home.'"
"The battalion participated in battles at um Butna, Tel Mashra and Tel el Mel, against the Jordanian brigade. We reported together with Elisha Shalem's paratroopers battalion in Mazra'at Kunta and waged battles of attrition against the Syrians, with Damascus suburbs 35 kilometers away. The battalion had five dead in the war."
Sela and his tank crew during the war, photo: from the private album
According to Amir, "The regular battalions of the 188th and 7th Brigades were the first brakes. They gave the people of Israel those critical five or six hours, and then we, with all kinds of improvisations and a big head, disrupted everything else for the Syrians. The 179th Brigade, which arrived first at the three critical entrances of El Al, Katzrin and Katzvia, managed to get ahead of the Syrians by an hour. To organize a situation in which the size of a brigade travels on chains and reaches the entrances of the roads in those seven or eight hours, after all the chaos, is the story of the brigade."
Arieli: "The 179th Brigade was the first reserve brigade of the IDF to come into contact with the Syrians. As soon as the Syrian tanks met the 179th Brigade, with its three battalions, they did not advance even one meter westward, towards the State of Israel."
Wegman: "It's also important to emphasize the fact that people have grown their heads. MATC, Acting Commander, Battalion Commander, Brigade Commander. Does Yossi Amir have a problem with the ammunition in the Naftali camp? He calls the kibbutz and solves the problem on his own – that's the story."
Stockelman: "The meaning of what he says is that Yossi Amir's forklifts from Kibbutz Mizra actually saved the country, no less."
"The Egyptians said 'moya,' water."
On 20 October, the brigade was given a new mission, this time on the southern front. "Two days earlier, on Thursday, October 18, we were still marking Simchat Torah evening at the Saar camp in the Golan Heights," recalls Levi Givon, the battalion's patrol company sergeant. "On Friday, I went home for my first vacation on my kibbutz, Tirat Tzvi. I arrived dirty and unshaven and I remember coming to see my daughter, who was in kindergarten at the time, and she said, 'Daddy, get out of here with this 'mahrog.' She meant the rifle. I don't understand how this word came to mind for a 3 year old girl.
"On Shabbat, the phone rang, like on Yom Kippur, and again no one picked up. We are a religious kibbutz. On Saturday night, I returned to the Saar camp, and the Shag Gan gave me a note from Hagai Shefer, our company commander, who was also from my kibbutz. He wrote, 'We're going to Sinai with 25 tanks, we're on the kibbutz.'
"I got in the jeep, went back to the kibbutz and at 4 a.m. we left for Rafah and from there to Refidim. They sent us to join the 252nd Brigade and reinforce the forces in the battles for Suez.
"When we got to Refidim, an adjutant officer called me and told me that Shimon, Hagai's brother, our company commander, had been killed in the war, but he told Hagai that his brother was missing. Hagai asked Ran, the brigade commander, to go look for his brother, so I took command of the company.
"We advanced towards the canal and crossed it on the Galilee Bridge on Monday, just before 4 p.m., when the first ceasefire was supposed to go into effect. My driver told me, 'Let's hurry up, there'll be heavy fire here,' and a few kilometers after we passed, we looked back and the Egyptians dropped heavy artillery on the bridge, really inferno.
The brigade's reconnaissance company crosses the canal, photo: Amnon Lahav
"We joined the division forces and bypassed Suez from west to south, in order to cut Suez off from the possibility of reinforcements from the west, from Cairo. We made this move on Tuesday afternoon and thousands - I didn't say dozens, not hundreds - thousands of Egyptians raise their hands and chant 'moya, moya', 'water, water'. We told them, 'Go west,' they had no desire to fight."
Levi Givon: "We crossed the canal just before the first ceasefire. The driver told me, 'Hurry up, there'll be fire here.' A few kilometers after we passed, the Egyptians dropped heavy artillery on the bridge, literally an inferno."
The brigade's 25 tanks, together with Brigade Commander Sarig and Battalion Commander Arieli, also crossed the Galilee Bridge and crossed to Africa. They joined the 252nd Division in efforts to encircle the Egyptian Third Army. After crossing the Suez Canal, turn south and conquer the airfield as an alliance.
On 23 October, the brigade attacked an Egyptian compound with missile bases, and at night continued south, together with the 401st Brigade under the command of Dan Shomron, later the IDF Chief of Staff, towards Adabiya. The two brigades attacked the ports of Adabia and Atqa west of Suez. On 24 October, the brigade returned north and took the Suez–Cairo road. The brigade's tanks advanced to the 101st kilometer from Cairo, and the ceasefire went into effect that day. The war, in which the 179th Brigade had lost eighty-four of its men, was over.
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