Back in October 1973 during what became known as the Yom Kippur War, Egypt made the daring move of crossing the Suez Canal and overrunning Israel's Bar-Lev line in an attempt to force Israel to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. Ariel Sharon, future Prime Minister of Israel, played a key roll in forcing back Egypt's military and winning the war for Israel.
In November 1956, Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula after Egyptian President Gamal Nasser had blockaded the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping and had nationalized the Canal, an issue that greatly concerned the British and French who had economic interests in the area. Israel, France and Britain agreed to an operation that would regain control of the Canal, with 100,000 soldiers from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) capturing the entire Sinai Peninsula within 100 hours between November 1 and November 5, 1956, stopping at a point 10 miles of the east of the Canal. In addition, French and British paratroopers landed near Port Said and advanced toward Suez City before calling for a ceasefire under threat of retaliation by the Soviet Union. At the time that the ceasefire was called, British and French forces did not control the Suez Canal itself, one of the aims of their involvement. A total of 231 IDF forces were killed in the fighting. The 1956 actions were temporarily successful at putting an end to terrorist attacks against Israel by the fedayeen, a group of terrorists trained and equipped by Egyptian Intelligence, however, they were reorganized under the banner of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) a few years later and we know how that story unrolled.
Here is a map showing troop movements during the 1956 military actions:
Let's move nearly two decades forward. During 1972 and much of 1973, Egypt's President Anwar Sadat threatened war against Israel unless the nation withdrew from all of the territories occupied in the 1956 and 1967 wars, a goal of United Nations Resolution 242. He stated that he was willing to sacrifice one million soldiers to achieve his goal. While it is widely believed that Israeli forces were taken by surprise in October 1973, in fact, Israel had a high level spy in Egypt, none other than the son-in-law of ex-Egyptian President Gamal Nasser, who told Mossad that war was imminent 36 hours before it started. On October 6, 1973, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Egypt and Syria launched a two-pronged attack against Israel in both the Suez and Golan Heights areas. Israel was protecting its interests along the Suez Canal with only 500 soldiers accompanied by only 3 tanks; this insignificant force faced 600,000 Egyptian soldiers accompanied by 2000 tanks and 550 aircraft that had crossed the Canal on pontoon bridges as shown here:
Egypt easily crossed through the Bar-Lev line, a series of fortifications built on the east bank of the Canal that were designed to give Israel ample warning that they were under attack. Here is a map showing the Egyptian Army movements during the first week of the war:
The Soviet Union threw its muscle into the mix as well, airlifting 8000 tons of military weapons into the arena to back its proxy states in the area. After some reluctance and a lot of deliberation, the United States provided Israel with a full-scale airlift of military equipment.
Controlling Division Commander Ariel Sharon, who had actually resigned from the Israeli Army in June 1972, was recalled to active service to command a a reserve armoured division of the Southern Command. His goal was to block further advances by the Egyptian 2nd and 3rd Armies, retake lost territory and cross the Suez to threaten Egypt's leadership. His troops discovered a gap between the two Egyptian armies that had completed their crossing of the Canal, however, rather than exploiting this weakness, he is ordered back to a defensive position to protect the Israeli heartland. The Head of the Southern Command, Shmuel Gonen feels that Sharon's actions show a lack of discipline and asks that Sharon be removed and replaced as commander. On October 14, Egyptian commando forces are dropped from helicopters to the rear of Sharon's position and are spotted and killed. Egyptian artillery then moves forward to attack Israeli positions, however, after a nine hour battle, 120 Egyptian tanks are destroyed with the IDF losing only six tanks. On October 15, the IDF launches a massive shelling campaign on the Egyptian Armies and Sharon's forces are able to reach the Canal through a gap between the two armies. At this point, Sharon orders his paratroopers to cross the Canal on rubber boats and seize a bridgehead position. On October 16, Sharon himself arrives on the east bank of the Suez Canal with twenty tanks, two rafts and two bulldozers. His troops crossed the Suez Canal at Deversoir, north of the point where Egypt had crossed the canal by using a rolling bridge constructed by the Israeli Defence Force Engineering Corps as shown on this photo:
The thrust into Egyptian territory eventually surrounded Egypt's 3rd Army and controlled the main Suez Highway. At this point, the IDF was within 100 kilometres of Cairo. Here is a map showing the movement of the IDF as they forced Egypt back across the Canal:
A United Nations-sponsored cease-fire was put into place on October 22, 1973, however, Israel continued to fight. On October 25 and 26 as Israeli troops surrounded the Egyptian Third Army, the Soviet Union threatened to send in its own troops to protect Egyptian forces. At this point, the tension in the region was so severe that the United States went on nuclear alert.
On October 24, 1973, a cease-fire agreement was signed by Israel and Egypt, establishing a United Nations Emergency Force in the new demilitarized zone along the Canal. Israel withdrew its forces to a distance of 20 kilometres from the Canal and most of Egypt's forces were withdrawn to the west bank of the Canal.
On January 20, 1974, Sharon issued at order of the day to his division, announcing the end of his military career. In his order, he wrote that:
"Our division is the one that initiated and took upon itself the most difficult, most complex and cruel part of the war – the operation of the crossing the Canal. This crossing operation is the turning point of the war. The crossing of the Canal is the operation that brought the victory in the war. We must remember that the victory in the Yom Kippur War is the greatest victory we ever had. If – albeit omissions and mistakes, albeit failures and failings, albeit loss of composure and self control – we have achieved our victory, we should know that this is the greatest victory of the IDF ever. We fought. Hundreds of our best soldiers have fallen in the battlefield and many more were wounded during combat – but we have won… The war has ended… now I feel I have to fight in a different front. It is essential to fight, with all might, in order to prevent another war in the future. That is why I leave."