Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991

The Sinai-Suez War, 1956

This reading is an extract from Arabs at War Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991 by Kenneth M. Pollack

(Lincoln, NE:  University of Nebraska Press, 2004), pp. 29-46.  Reproduced by permission of the University of Nebraska Press.  © 2002, 2004 by the University of Nebraska Press and Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.

Enter the Soviets

In 1955 Nasser turned to the Soviet Union for the weapons he believed he needed to build a military capable of defeating Israel and asserting Egypt’s place on the world stage.  Immediately after the War of Israeli Independence, the United States, France, and Britain had agreed to refrain from selling major weapons systems to any of the Middle Eastern states to try to prevent the outbreak of future wars.  By turning to the USSR, Nasser was able to circumvent this embargo, and on 27 October 1955, Egypt secured a large order of modern weaponry from the Soviet Union via Czechoslovakia.  The “Czech arms deal” was a major boost to Egypt’s arsenal and gave it considerable superiority over Israel, at least on paper.  By October 1956, Egypt had received 230 tanks (primarily T-34/85s) 200 APCs (mostly BTRs), 100 SU-100 self-propelled guns, 500 artillery pieces, and 200 jet aircraft (120 MiG-15 fighters, 50 IL-28 bombers, and 20 IL-14 transports) as well as several destroyers, submarines, and motor torpedo boats.19     The infusion of Soviet weaponry upset the regional balance.  For example, prior to the arms sale, Egypt and Israel had had less than 200 tanks apiece.  Moreover, the T-34/85s were superior to any tank then in either arsenal; most of Egypt’s tanks were British surplus from the Second World War, while most of the Israeli tanks were M-4 Shermans the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had scrounged from postwar scrap yards.  Similarly, before the Russian deal, Egypt had 80 old, first-generation British jet aircraft (mostly Vampires), while Israel had only 50 early-model French and British jets (Ouragons and Meteors).20  Thus, Cairo’s MiGs and Illyushins not only outnumbered the Israelis four-to-one but also were more capable aircraft.

The Armies on the Eve of War

In the fall of 1956, a crisis was clearly brewing in the Middle East, but it was unclear who would be embroiled in the coming war.  France chafed at Nasser’s support for the Algerian rebels, while Britain was seething over the loss of Suez [Canal].  London and Paris threatened Egypt with everything from an international “Canal-users” commission to oversea canal operations to direct military action.  All of the Arab states regularly proclaimed their intent to destroy the state of Israel, and Egypt, Syria, and Jordan were all permitting - if not supporting and encouraging - Palestinian attacks on Israel from their territory.  Israel was fearful of the massive augmentation of the Egyptian military resulting from the Czech arms deal and the efforts of Egypt’s German advisers.  Eventually, despite Israel’s lingering hatred of Britain from their experiences during the mandate era, London and Paris were able to secure secret Israeli participation in a scheme to retake the Suez region.  The plan was for Israel to invade the Sinai and threaten Suez, giving Britain and France a pretext to intervene as neutrals to secure the canal and disentangle the combatants.  This collusion provided the Europeans with an excuse to retake Suez and give Tel Aviv the opportunity to crush the Egyptian army with British and French aid before it could fully assimilate the new Soviet weapons.

In the summer of 1956, Egyptian military intelligence concluded that Israel might conduct one or more raids against Palestinian training camps in the Sinai but would not launch a full-scale invasion.  The Israelis had carefully created the impression that they were preparing for an invasion of Jordan, going so far as to mass most of their military power along the Jordanian border.  Based on this false assessment, Cairo concentrated the majority of its forces in the Nile Delta to guard against a possible British invasion to retake the canal or overthrow Nasser’s government.  Only about 30,000 of Egypt’s 90,000 troops, along with 200 tanks and self-propelled guns, were deployed in the Sinai.21 This was far less than had been envisioned in [German General Wilhelm] Frambacher’s scheme for the defense of that region.  The Germans had planned a defense-in-depth involving two infantry divisions covering the border area, two more infantry divisions deployed in depth along the major east-west roads of the Sinai, and an armored division in reserve to counterattack the major Israeli attack when it was identified.  In addition, several battalions were to cover the crucial Mitle and B’ir Gifgafah Passes as a final line of defense.  Instead, Egypt deployed only two infantry divisions (one of them a Palestinian division of dubious reliability), an independent armored battalion, a National Guard brigade, and some miscellaneous units to hold the Sinai.22  These forces were inadequate to execute Frambecher’s plan, so instead both infantry divisions were concentrated in northeastern Sinai - the 3d Division at al-‘Arish, Rafah, and Abu Agheilah, and the 8th Palestinian in the Gaza Strip - leaving the National Guard brigade to defend the rest of the border.  The armor was parceled out among the infantry units and virtually nothing was left in operational reserve.

Despite this significant change in plans, the Egyptians were hardly defenseless.  They had built very extensive fortifications in Sinai, especially at Rafah and Abu Agheilah, where their German advisers had done much of the design and had supervised the construction process.  All of the major road junctions, axes of advance, and key communications nodes, were prepared with concertina wire, mines and defensive positions, and were either manner or ready to be manned.  The Egyptian units had been in their Sinai positions for many months and had repeatedly exercised their defensive plans.  Cairo had carefully planned counterattacks for all of its local reserves - often with German assistance - and the troops had rehearsed these moves many times.23 Moreover, two of Egypt’s infantry divisions and its only armored division were deployed just across the canal, in the Ismailia area, and could quickly roll back into the Sinai if necessary.  Finally, the EAF had 120 MiG-15s, 50 IL-28s, and 84 Vampires and Meteors on hand to deal with the Israelis’ 60 jet-powered Meteors, Ouragons, and Mysteres and 50 propeller-driven

Mustangs and Mosquitos.24

On the other hand, the Israelis had concentrated 45,000 troops in ten brigades - including one armored and three mechanized brigades with 200-250 tanks - for the invasion of Sinai.  The Israeli plan was to use a force of three brigades in the primary thrust to take the heavily fortified Egyptian positions at Umm Qatef-Abu Agheilah and then push through the central Sinai.  The invasion would begin with a secondary thrust, a crucial parachute drop by one battalion of the 202d Parachute Brigade at the Mitla Pass, after which the rest of the brigade, led by its commander, Ariel Sharon, would travel overland via al-Kuntillah and Nakhl to link up with the battalion and seize or block the Mitla.  Later, another three brigades would take Gaza and the al-‘Arish area and then push on along the northern coast to the canal.  Another infantry brigade would wind its way down the tortuous mountain pass along the Sinai’s eastern shore to capture the Egyptian position at Sharm ash-Shaykh, from which the Egyptians had blockaded all maritime traffic heading to the Israeli port of Eilat.  The last two brigades would remain in reserve.

The Israeli Offensive

The Israeli offensive began in the evening of 29 October with the parachute drop at the eastern end of the Mitla Pass.  The battalion quickly secured the mouth of the pass and dug in for the night.  Early the next morning, the rest of Sharon’s brigade linked up with the battalion after brushing aside minor Egyptian resistance during the night.  Over the next few days, the Israelis attempted to take control of the pass.  The Egyptians fought back ferociously, trapping an Israeli unit in the pass below them.  Egyptian fighters conducted numerous disruptive airstrikes against the Israeli positions.  Eventually, Sharon was forced to clear the eastern end of the pass ledge by ledge and cave by cave and was only able to extract his troops with heavy casualties.  Afterward, the Israelis pulled back from the mouth of the Mitla, blocking it but leaving it in Egyptian hands.

Meanwhile, for about twelve hours after the initial airdrop, Egyptian intelligence still had not figured out the size and intent of the Israeli operation.25The general staff did not wait for its intelligence service to come up with a conclusion.  Based on the initial reports of a paradrop at the Mitla and Sharon’s attack across the border at al-Kuntillah, [Field Marshal Hakim]‘Amr, Nasser, and the Sinai front commander all concluded quickly that this was a major Israeli offensive.  The Sinai commander had already ordered two infantry brigades in the canal-zone to begin heading for the Mitla Pass (the force Sharon encountered was a reinforced battalion from one of these brigades.)  The general staff then ordered the 4th Armored Division to move immediately to B’ir Gifgafah and counterattack the main Israeli thrust when it was identified.

South of Abu Agheilah on the first night of the war, the Israeli 4th Infantry Brigade overran Egyptian positions at Qusaymah - where the defenders simply broke and ran without a fight - and then part of this force continued on into central Sinai to screen the flank of Sharon’s advance farther south.  With their southern flank secured, the Israelis then assaulted Abu Agheilah itself.  During the night of 30-31 October, the Israeli 10th Infantry Brigade attached the main Egyptian position on the fortified hill of Umm Qatef, which guarded the eastern passage to the town.  The Israeli attack was miserable:  a slow, disjointed frontal assault against the Egyptian defenses that the Egyptians beat back easily. Meanwhile, an understrength Israeli battalion task force under Lt. Col. Avraham “Bren” Adan, consisting of a company of infantry in halftracks, a company of infantry in trucks, and a company of Sherman tanks, had worked its way into the rear of the Egyptian position and, in conjunction with the infantry assault on the two eastern hills, began attacking from behind.  The Abu Agheila position was too big, intricate, and well manned for Adan’s small force to significantly affect the course of the fighting farther east at Umm Qatef.   During the next two days, the Israelis repeatedly assaulted the Umm Qatef positions, first with the 10th Infantry Brigade and elements of the 4th Infantry Brigade, and later added the 37th Mechanized Brigade.  However, the Israeli commanders were terribly inept, failing to coordinate the actions of their various units, moving slowly, conducting one frontal assault after another, and frequently attacking without proper combined arms cooperation.  The Egyptians fought back hard, would not relinquish their positions, and inflicted heavy casualties.

In the meantime, Adan’s tiny detachment fought on in the rear of Abu Agheilah.  First, Adan’s force secured the vital crossroads, and then they turned their attention on the Ruafah Dam position, which guarded the rear of the Egyptian defenses.  Adan’s force again was too small to break through the Egyptian defenses, but the Egyptians could not overwhelm it.  They launched several counterattacks in which they neither maneuvered against the tiny Israeli force nor tried to overpower it by weight of numbers; they simply moved up a bit and then opened fire, hoping to destroy the Israelis through firepower.  After a few minutes, when it became clear that this tactic was not working, the Egyptians would retreat.  Meanwhile, the general staff was concerned by the heavy Israeli pressure on Abu Agheilah and dispatched a battalion of infantry with two companies of tanks from al-‘Arish to reinforce Abu Agheilah.  However, the leaders in Cairo had not been informed by their field commanders of the Israeli presence behind Abu Agheilah so that these reinforcements stumbled blindly into Adan’s rear guard at the crossroads.  Adan quickly disengaged his main body from the Ruafah Dam and hurried back to defeat an inept attack on his crossroads positions by the new Egyptian battalions.  Despite their numeric advantage, the Egyptians again would not charge the Israeli positions nor try to outflank them, relying on weight of firepower.  Eventually, Adan was able to use a small portion of his force to envelop the Egyptians, a maneuver that broke their attack and sent them reeling back toward al-‘Arish.  The Israelis then turned back and, with the last of their strength, took the Ruafah Dam.26 Remarkably, despite Adan’s heroics in their rear, the Egyptian units at Umm Qatef never wavered, and the Israelis were unable to take the position by force.  Ultimately, Umm Qatef fell only when Nasser ordered a general retreat from the Sinai on 1 November and the Egyptians pulled out.

When Adan was fighting for Abu Aghelah, the rest of his parent unit, the 7th Armored Brigade, had pushed on west of Abu Agheilah on the main road to Ismailia.  Reports of Israeli armor nearing B’ir Gifgafah prompted the Egyptian General Staff to order the 4th Armored Division to attack eastward to clear this critical road.  However, the division moved extremely slowly, in part because of repeated raids by the IAF.  On 31 October, Tel Aviv reined in the 7th Armored Brigade because it was suspicious of the British and wanted to make sure they and the French were going to invade - as they had agreed - before Israeli ground forces became too deeply entangled in the Sinai.  During the early evening of the thirtyfirst, the British and French began their airstrikes against EAF bases.  Despite the war with Israel, the EAF was not flying combat air patrol missions nor had it taken precautions against air raids.  Its planes were caught on the ground and largely in the open.  Over the next three days, British and French airstrikes destroyed over 150 Egyptian aircraft on the ground, basing only minor resistance from the Egyptians.  The EAF did fly about 40 aircraft to bases in southern Egypt, where they were not only out of range of European planes but also unable to contribute to the fighting either in the Sinai or the canal- zone.

Nasser and the Egyptian General Headquarters (GHQ) correctly read the British and French air raids

as the prelude to an amphibious assault.  Nasser ordered an immediate retreat from the Sinai to concentrate all of his forces for a defense of Cairo and the canal.  This order reached the troops in the Sinai at various times on 1 November.  Of greatest importance, the 4th Armored Division immediately turned around and headed back over the canal, freeing up the central axis through the Sinai and allowing the Israeli 7th Armored Brigade to push ahead without resistance.

With British and French participation now assured, Tel Aviv launched its assault in the northern

Sinai early on 1 November, before Cairo had ordered its retreat. The Israelis intended to break through the Egyptian defenses at Rafah at the base of the Gaza Strip, and then part of the force would turn northeast and clear Gaza from behind while the main body headed west to the Suez Canal via al-‘Arish. The positions around Rafah were very formidable, consisting of at least three belts of mines in front of numerous reinforcing strongpoints built on a series of hills east of the main roads.  Still, the Israelis punched through these lines at two points - south and east of Rafah - during the early morning hours.  Resistance was spotty.  In some areas the Egyptians fought hard, forcing the Israelis to breach their lines and reduce their positions before they would retreat or surrender.  At other points, however, the Egyptians simply abandoned their posts after only perfunctory resistance, sometimes without a fight at all.  At no time did the Egyptians counterattack, nor did their strongpoints coordinate defensive operations to aid one another against Israeli flank attacks. Egyptian artillery laid down heavy barrages in front of the defensive lines, but because the Israelis generally were able to find alternative routes of advance that the Egyptian artillery could not shift to cover, the guns caused few casualties.  For the most part, the Israelis were able to outmaneuver the Egyptians and defeat them without much difficulty.  The two attacking columns turned inward, executing a double envelopment, and then together headed west toward al-‘Arish.  

By this point, it was about midday, and the various Egyptian units in the Sinai had begun to receive the order that they were to conduct a fighting withdrawal to the canal.  In some cases this was impossible; thus, the encircled Egyptian forces at Abu Agheilah abandoned most of their heavy equipment, snuck out of their positions during the night of 1-2 November, and set out across the desert towards B’ir Gifgafah before the Israelis realized what was happening.  Elsewhere, Egyptian units executed a fairly effective fighting withdrawal, especially elements of the 3d Infantry Division pulling out of the Rafah-al-‘Arish area.  Nevertheless, the Israelis pursued the Egyptians and finally caught up with them at several points in the north, inflicting heavy casualties on them while taking few of their own.  In the most important of these, thirty-four Israeli tanks (two companies of Shermans and a company of AMX-13s) caught up with the main body of the Egyptian 1st Armored Brigade of the 4th Armored Division (roughly seventy T-34s) west of B’ir Gifgafah.  In a five-hour battle, the Israelis virtually annihilated the Egyptian brigade.  In all of these clashes, the Egyptians mostly clung to the roads and failed to put out adequate flank guards so that they were constantly outflanked by the Israelis.  They rarely tried to maneuver against the Israelis.  Only occasionally did they even try to counterattack when the Israelis caught them; instead, they mostly just stopped and tried to drive off their attackers with firepower or else to flee even faster.  Moreover, the Israelis proved to be superior marksmen and did considerably more damage to the Egyptians than they suffered in return.

Because of the rapid pace of the Israeli pursuit, the retreat turned into a rout.  Egyptian units simply could not withdraw as quickly as the Israelis could pursue, and many were caught from behind or had their lines f retreat blocked by faster Israeli forces.  Other Egyptian troops, such as those defending Abu Agheilah, set out across the desert in hope of finding their way back to the canal but either died in the desert or were rounded up by the Israelis.  In all, Israel took 6,000 prisoners, the overwhelming majority of who surrendered during the withdrawal.27 The IAF flew constant airstrikes against the retreating Egyptians, further slowing them and causing numerous casualties.  Many units disintegrated during the course of the retreat, and Cairo-s senior leadership panicked when these bedraggled troops began to trickle into the capital in dribs and drabs rather than as organized units.28  Only one Egyptian battalion returned from the Sinai intact and capable of engaging in combat operations.29  East of the canal, the fighting was all but over by 3 November, as the Israelis drove to the canal in central Sinai, rolled up the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and seized Sharm ash-Shaykh.

The British and French Invasion

The Egyptians had expected the British to land at Alexandria, march down to Cairo to overthrow the government, and then move to secure the Suez Canal.  This was, in fact, the original intent of the British and French ground commanders, Gen. Sir Hugh Stockwell and Maj. Gen. Andre Beaufre, but the political leadership in London decided the British public would not accept such an operation if the ostensible reason for the invasion was the defense of the canal from Egyptian and Israeli forces fighting in Sinai.  Consequently, the allied commanders were forced to invade at Port Sa’id and Port Fuad at the northern end of the canal and then try to march south along the narrow causeway to secure the length of the Suez.  For this, the British had assembled an infantry division, an airborne brigade, and a Royal Marine commando brigade,

While the French committed an airborne division, an independent parachute battalion, and a light mechanized brigade.  The British and French also had a huge naval force with six aircraft carriers and hundreds of modern jet fighters and bombers.  Against this, the Egyptians had two battalions of reservists at Port Sa-id, which they reinforced with two companies of regulars and another battalion of reservists.  The only armor the Egyptians had in the area were four Su-100 self-propelled guns.  The one advantage the Egyptians had was the terrain:  two cramped Middle Eastern towns stuck out at the end of a narrow causeway.  

The Allied fleet moved very slowly, and the initial airborne assault did not begin until the morning of 5 November after heavy carrier airstrikes.  The Egyptian defenders fought hard but were slowly reduced by the elite British and French paratroopers.  By the end of the day, much of western and southern Port Sa’id was in British hands and the French had taken all of Port Fuad.  Of greater importance, the paratroopers had seized the southern exits to the city - the bridge at Raswah (which the Egyptians failed to destroy) and the road leading down the causeway.  Once the bridge fell to the French, the Egyptians counterattacked repeatedly with armor and infantry, but their attacks, while determined, were nothing more than made charges, which the French beat back with ease.

Early the next morning, the British began amphibious landings along the northern shore of Port Sa’id.   Most of the Egyptian defenders were driven off by a forty-five minute preparatory bombardment, leaving few to oppose the landings.  Despite the ease with which the Egyptians could have bottled up the allies forces in Port Sa’id, they failed to do so.  Not only had they not blown the bridge at Raswah - the only bridge to the causeway - they had not deployed a force to block the road by 6 November (five days after the GHQ began moving forces to Port Said to counter a British-French landing).  As a result, British armor was able to race down the causeway during the night of 6-7 October, getting as far as al-Kap before politics intruded.  London buckled under diplomatic pressure - especially from the United States - and agreed to a ceasefire, halting the invasion in its tracks.30

As a final reckoning, the Egyptians suffered roughly 1,000 killed, 4,000 wounded, and 6,000 captured.  They also lost roughly 215 aircraft, 200 artillery pieces, and at least 100 tanks in the fighting.  Against this, the Israelis counted 189 dead, 900 wounded, and only 4 captured.  Israel lost 15 aircraft, mostly to antiaircraft artillery (AAA).  British and French losses totaled 26 killed and 129 wounded, along with 10 aircraft lost to accidents and Egyptian antiaircraft fire.31

The War in the Air

The Egyptian Air Force turned in a mostly mediocre performance during the 1956 fighting.  Although on paper the EAF had formidable strength, in reality it was plagued with problems.  Of greatest importance, Cairo had few pilots capable of flying the modern jet fighters they had acquired from the Soviet Union.  Despite the relative simplicity of these first- and second-generation aircraft, the Egyptians had had difficulty training personnel to fly them, thus, for example, the EAF had only about thirty pilots qualified to fly its 120 MiG-15s.32 To compensate for this shortage, Marshal Amir ordered the EAF to have multiple planes available for each pilot so that after one returned from a mission; he could immediately jump into another fueled and armed plane and take off for another.  Obviously, the strain on Egypt’s pilots probably would have cut short this practice had the EAF participated in the conflict for longer than two days.  To some extent, the pilot shortage was also excused by the limited number of operational planes the Egyptians could put into the air.  Because of maintenance and repair problems, the Egyptians had only about 70-80 aircraft operational, including 30-35 of 120 MiG-15s and 12 of 50 IL-28 bombers.33 Given these numbers, it is not surprising that on 30 October they managed only fifty sorties of all types.  On 31 October, ‘Amir’s decree boosted the number of sorties to about ninety.34  The next day, British and French airstrikes destroyed most of Egypt’s operational planes, and those still flyable withdraw to southern Egypt.

The planes Egypt got airborne and into combat on 30 and 31 October had only a modest effect on the fighting.  On the thirtieth, Cairo sent six Illyushins to bomb IAF airbases, but only one actually found its way to Israel, and unable to locate its target, dropped its bombs on a deserted hill south of Jerusalem.  The Egyptians flew a considerable number of airstrikes against the Israeli paratroopers at the Mitla Pass and Sharon’s column moving through central Sinai, which disrupted their operations only slightly and did only minor physical damage.  Only once did Egyptian fighters cause any real harm to the Israelis; at the height of Sharon’s battle inside the Mitla Pass, Egyptian air attacks on the Israeli units pinned down on the valley floor caused thirty casualties and knocked out three vehicles.

In air-to-air combat the Egyptians did no better.  Their fighters mostly avoided dogfights with the Israelis and did not contest the British and French airstrikes at all.  Generally, the Egyptians tried to ambush single Israeli aircraft or pairs returning from strike missions and low on fuel. The Egyptians only willingly engaged when they had an advantage of at least 2 to 1 and preferably 4 to 1.  Egyptian fighters did not succeed in shooting down a single IAF jet, downing only a light plane and a P-51.  The Israelis aggressively pursued EAF aircraft and shown down eight jets in dogfights (four MiG-15s, four Vampires).35  In the largest air battle of the war, on 30 October over Kabrit Airfield, sixteen Egyptian MiGs took on eight Israeli Mysteres, but the Israelis prevailed by breaking up the Egyptian formations, disrupting their methodical tactics, and forcing them to improvise.  The Egyptians showed little flair for air-combat maneuvering and tried to escape as quickly as they could.  Although the Mysteres were terribly low on fuel, they shot down two MiGs before the Egyptians were able to break off the engagement.

Egyptian Military Effectiveness in the Sinai-Suez War

A mediocre Israeli performance, a politically shackled Anglo-French operation, and Cairo’s decision to retreat from the Sinai only two days into the war make it somewhat difficult to assess Egyptian military effectiveness in this war.36  Egyptian forces were not really tested in battle.  The initial clashes allowed Egyptian units to remain on the defensive behind their impressive fortifications, and they began to retreat just when their defensive system began to come unglued - and when they would have had to act quickly and decisively if they were to restore the situation.  Nevertheless, even from the limited evidence available, Egyptian performance was uneven at best.

Tactical Performance

The Egyptians showed tremendous tenacity and considerable bravery in defending their fortified positions despite the fact that Tel Aviv so completely duped Egyptian intelligence that the Israelis enjoyed strategic surprise at the outset of the campaign.  At Umm Qatef-Abu Agheilah, the Mitla Pass, Port Sa’id, and a number of other places, Egyptian defenders gave their adversaries all they could handle.  In each of these battles, Egyptian units remained cohesive and continued to fight long after their positions had become untenable.  At the Raswah bridge, Egyptian units counterattacked repeatedly despite heavy casualties and accomplishing little.  However, there were also a number of occasions where Egyptian troops broke and ran under just slight pressure.  At al-Kuntillah, Qusaymah, an-Nakhl, B’ir ath-Thamadah, and the Jiradi Pass, the Egyptians flew from or surrendered in good defensive positions after only a brief battle with the Israelis.  Similarly, the Palestinian 8th Infantry Division in the Gaza-Khan Yunis area fought fiercely to defend some locations but disintegrated under Israeli probes in others.  At least part of the problem with unit cohesion can be tied to poor officer-soldier relations.  In many cases, Egyptian officers fled at the first sign of trouble, and this frequently resulted in their troops surrendering or running when they came under fire from the Israelis.

Unit cohesion, static defense, and personal bravery were the main, and perhaps only, bright spots in Egyptian tactical military performance.  Fortunately for the Egyptians, during the first few days of the fighting, this was almost all that was required of their army in the Sinai.  Ham-handed Israeli efforts to take Umm Qatef-Abu Agheilah and the Mitla Pass by frontal assault played into the Egyptians’ hands.  The Cairo-ordered retreat began just when the Israelis, particularly the 7th Armored Brigade, had broken through the first line of Egyptian defenses and were beginning to cut into the operational depth of the Sinai defensive system.  Nevertheless, significant flaws had begun to manifest themselves even during the initial, static phase of combat.  This suggests that even if Nasser had not ordered Egyptian forces to pull back to defend the canal, they still would have been evicted from the Sinai.

The passivity and sluggishness of Egyptian forces were probably the most obvious problems, at least to the Israelis.  Every operation initiated by the Egyptians took inordinately long to accomplish.  When attacked head on, the Egyptians fought back, but their counterattacks were slow to develop and often were not launched until after the crucial moment in the battle.  They frequently did not shift reserves in time to bolster crumbling sectors, and the movement of reserves and reinforcements mostly took too long to contribute to the battle.  For example, the 4th Armored Division began moving east the night of 29 October and was across the canal before dawn on 30 October, but it did not muster at B’ir Gifgafah until 1 November.  Even taking into account the persistent Israeli air attacks, it is absurd that an Egyptian mechanized formation would need two full days to administratively march less than 90 kilometers.  By contrast, Sharon’s column traversed over 150 kilometers from al-Kuntillah to the Mitla Pass in one day - also against air interdiction and in an advance-to-contact mode.  The quickness of Israeli actions coupled with the sluggishness of Egyptian operations combined to give the Israelis a significant advantage.

Although the Egyptians did quite well in static defensive operations, they performed poorly in more fluid engagements.  Junior officers showed little ability to innovate or improvise responses once the course of battle obviated their original orders.  Time and again, Egyptian units forced to diverge from their prepared plan of action either did nothing or continued to execute their previous mission even if changed circumstances made this dangerous or counterproductive.  Israeli, French, and British officers unanimously observed that the Egyptians fought very hard but showed little imagination, thus they were fairly easily overcome.  Egyptian local commanders consistently waited for directions from the highest levels before undertaking any actions, a pattern that was a primary culprit in their slow pace of operations.  Perhaps the best example of this was the attempt to reinforce Abu Agheilah from al-‘Arish; these units were outmaneuvered and defeated by Colonel Adan’s handful of Israelis and then never tried another attack eastward to relieve the forces trapped around Abu Agheilah, even when Adam was busy trying to break through the Ruafah Dam position to hit Umm Qatef from behind.  Local Egyptian counterattacks were a rarity because the initiative to conduct any offensive movement invariably had to come from very high levels, often the general staff.  Moreover, as Gen. Moshe Dayan has observed, because the Egyptian General Staff could provide only the most basic guidance to its field forces in ordering counterattacks and the specifics had to be decided by tactical commanders in the field, these operations invariably came off as slow, frontal assaults conducted with vigor but little skill.37 On top of all this, Cairo insisted on keeping a tight rein on its field commanders and approving all significant command decisions, further limiting the flexibility and speed of Egyptian tactical operations.  The problems of over centralization and limited tactical initiative were reinforcing:  Egyptian GHQ micromanaged many of the battles, but by the same token, Egyptian field commanders went out of their way to refer all decisions back to the general staff.  

Egypt failed to take advantage of its considerable superiority in numbers and quality of weapons over Israel.  Egyptian tanks and self-propelled guns, in particular, were never used like tanks.  Instead, they served primarily as movable pillboxes that remained in their defensive positions regardless of the course of battle.  On the few occasions that Egypt threw its armor into counterattacks, the tanks relied solely on their firepower to knock out the enemy, forfeiting their inherent advantages of shock power and maneuver.  Tactics such as these allowed the Israelis in Shermans and AMX-13s to defeat Egyptian T34/85s, Su-100s, and Archers in virtually every armored engagement.  Egyptian maintenance practices also were extremely poor.  In addition to the only partial use of air force assets, only about half of Egypt’s new Soviet tanks were operational at the start of the war.38 Moreover, the Israelis noted that in all of the

Sinai there was not a single Egyptian maintenance workshop.39

The Egyptians were further hampered by inadequate attention to combined-arms coordination.  For example, at Raswah the Egyptian infantry failed to support their armor, allowing French paratroopers to easily beat back the tanks with antitank weapons and then turn on the infantry.  Similarly, in the fighting against Adan’s force, the Egyptians never adequately coordinated infantry, armor, and artillery, with the result that the Israelis were able to defeat each element separately.

Another very damaging problem the Egyptians experienced throughout their command structure was a constant distortion and obfuscation of information.  Success was exaggerated, while bad news generally was not passed up the chain of command at all - or if it was, the reported size of the enemy force was greatly increased to make defeat seem more palatable.  Dayan noted that the Egyptians routinely reported “the presence of Israeli battalions and brigades even when they are faced only by sections and platoons.”40 Even catastrophic failures were sometimes claimed as great victories, and as these deceptions proliferated over the course of the fighting, GHQ had a less and less accurate picture of what was happening in the Sinai.  For example, the Egyptian forces at Abu Agheilah did not alert their superiors that they had lost the crossroads and that Israeli armor and infantry were attacking the Ruafah Dam.  Consequently, Egyptian quartermasters continued to send a steady stream of unarmed supply convoys to Abu Agheilah - which Adan’s men destroyed or captured as soon as they appeared.41  In another case, the early reports from Egyptian forces fleeing al-Kuntillah on 29 October made out Sharon’s single airborne brigade to be the entire Israeli army.  From these, the general staff concluded that the Israelis were conducting a massive invasion of the Sinai, which was ultimately correct but based on inaccurate information.42  The Egyptian 1st Armored Brigade (the main force of the 4th Armored Division) tried to excuse its slow progress on 31 October by claiming it was locked in battle with Israeli armor - upon which it was inflicting heavy casualties - although it never actually engaged the Israelis until the next day, when it began retreating and the Israeli 7th Armored Brigade caught and repeatedly mauled its rear guards.  Egyptian ground and air forces claimed that so many Israeli aircraft were attacking them that Cairo concluded French and British aircraft were participating in these attacks because the tiny IAF clearly could not have generated so many sorties.  Meanwhile all six of the Egyptian Ilyushin pilots sent to bomb IAF airfields reported having caused serious damage to their targets, although only one could even find Israel itself.

Strategic Performance

It is at the strategic-operational level that Egypt’s performance in the Sinai-Suez war is most difficult to assess.  Very little information is available regarding decision making at the level of the general staff and Cairo’s senior field commanders; however, a number of points can be made.  First, it is clear that most of Egypt’s top military leadership, particularly General ‘Amir, did not react well to news of the initial Israeli attack.  Having been assured by their intelligence services that Israel would not attack, they were surprised by the invasion and may have panicked to some extent.  ‘Amr in particular has been criticized by other Egyptian leaders for losing his cool, interfering excessively in tactical decisions, and issuing inappropriate commands.  Little information is available regarding his specific actions, but the information that is available suggests that even if the Egyptian high command did panic, they did not have an undue effect on combat units or strategic decision-making.43 It is hard to find problems among Egyptian tactical formations that can be reasonably blamed on panic among the senior ranks:  most units fought very hard in static positions, they generally did not crack under even intense Israeli pressure, and what eventually compromised their defensive scheme was their inability to match the Israelis in rapidmaneuver warfare.  Indeed, the Egyptian defenses in the Sinai had only just begun to crumble when Cairo ordered a retreat, and even during the fallback, many Egyptian units kept good order and tried to conduct a fighting withdrawal rather than simply rushing madly for the canal (as they would in 1967).

With regard to strategic decisions, the few that we know were made by the general staff appear on closer inspection to have been intelligent moves.  Egyptian decision making during the war looks especially competent when one takes into account the thick shroud of illusions and misimpressions spun by the Egyptian field units in Sinai.  The initial decision to concentrate their forces in the delta rather than in the Sinai was entirely sensible given that Egyptian intelligence assured Cairo that Israel would not launch a major attack and a British landing in the Nile Delta and march on Cairo and the canal was a far more dangerous threat than losing the Sinai to Israel.  Later, when the GHQ became aware of the Israeli move against the Mitla Pass with no sign of British action - and because they were led to believe that Sharon’s column was a much larger force than was actually the case - they ordered an infantry brigade to the Mitla and dispatched their elite armored division to B’ir Gifgafah to counterattack the main Israeli thrust.  Meanwhile, they kept their other three infantry divisions in place along the canal and in the delta to guard against the lingering possibility of a British invasion.  Regardless of how panicked ‘Amir and the general staff may have been, these were very reasonable strategic decisions.  In fact, if 4th Armored Division had gotten to B’ir Gifgafah quicker and been able to counter-attack into Sharon’s right flank, it might have done serious damage to the Israeli offensive.  Indeed. This was one of the IDF’s greatest fears on 31 October and one of the main reasons General Dayan ordered the 7th Armored Brigade to press on into central Sinai:  to engage Egyptian armor before they could turn on Sharon.44

The next major act by the Egyptian leadership was the decision to withdraw from the Sinai during the night of 31 October-1 November to concentrate against the British and French invasion.  Here again, it is hard to find fault with Egyptian reasoning.  The British threat was definitely more dangerous because the Egyptians had concluded (correctly) that the Eden government wanted to overthrow Nasser and reassert British control over the canal, whereas there was little reason to believe that Israel would do more than occupy the Sinai.  Thus, the 4th Armored Division, as the most capable unit in the Egyptian Army and its only real mechanized reserve, had to withdraw west to deal with the British threat.  Without this unit, it is extremely doubtful that Egyptian forces in the Sinai could have held back the Israelis, who were already in the process of encircling the major Egyptian troop concentrations at Abu Agheilah, Rafah, and the Gaza Strip.  Indeed, given the poor performance of even 4th Armored Division units in combat, it is unlikely that the Egyptians could have held the Sinai even with the 4th Armored there.  Consequently, to not order a general withdrawal from eastern Sinai when that division returned to the delta would have been foolish.45

The one area in which the reported panic in the Egyptian high command seems to have influenced Cairo’s strategic thinking was the decision to fall back all the way to the canal.  Specifically, Nasser and his generals do not seem to have considered any alternatives to a general retreat to the Suez, thereby relinquishing all of the Sinai.  For example, the successful defense of the Mitla Pass against Sharon’s force suggests that the Egyptians could have fallen back to the passes in western Sinai and reformed their defensive line there.  This might have been Cairo’s best course; the forward positions in eastern Sinai were clearly compromised by the flanking move of the Israeli 7th Armored Brigade, but the passes were still in Egyptian hands and could be easily defended.  Yet the decision to retreat does not appear to have ever been seriously questioned in Cairo, probably because the sudden British and French airstrikes coming on top of the surprise Israeli invasion had so unnerved Nasser and the GHQ that they simply wanted to pull as much combat power back to defend the canal and the deltas as they could and did not think through alternative scenarios.

Overall, the performance of Egypt’s generals was not brilliant, but it was certainly adequate.  Given the quantitative and qualitative imbalances between Egyptian forces on the one hand and Israeli, British, and French forces on the other, the actions of Egypt’s senior commanders were reasonable;  it is difficult to blame them for Egypt’s defeat.  After being misled by their intelligence services into believing Israel would not attack, they concentrated against the British.  When the Israelis attacked in force but the British and French did not, they quickly shifted reserves to meet the eastern threat.  When the British and French did attack days later, they pulled those same forces back to meet what was clearly the greater menace.  Because its forces in the Sinai were in danger of encirclement and all reserves were en route to the delta, Cairo ordered a retreat from Sinai.  In each of these cases, not to have done what the Egyptian GHQ actually did would have been the more foolish course.  Even retreating from the Sinai altogether was a better decision than not ordering any withdrawal - even though there may have been better fall-back alternatives.

Notes

  1. Moshe Dayan, Diary of the Sinai Campaign, (NY: Harper & Row, 1965)  4-5;  Lon Nordeen and David Nicole, Phoenix over the Nile:  A History of Egyptian Airpower, 1932-1994 (Washington:  Smithsonian, 1996) 145; Nadev Safran, From War to War, (NY:  Pegasus, 1969) 209.
  2. Dayan, Diary, 4-5; Safran, From War to War, 209.
  3. Bernard Fall, “The Two Sides of the War” [see reading B]; Kenneth Love, Suez:  The Twice-Fought War (NY: McGraw Hill, 1969), 492; Nordeen and Nicole, Phoenix, 158.
  4. Love, Suez, 496.
  5. George W. Gawrych, Key to the Sinai: the Battles for Abu Agheila in the 1956 and 1967 Arab-Israeli Wars (Ft. Leavenworth:  CSI, 1990), 14-19;  Rechavam Zeevy, “The Military Lessons of the Sinai Campaign” in The Sinai-Suez Crisis 1956:  Retrospective and Reappraisal eds. Selwyn Troen and Moshe Shemesh (London;  Frank Cass, 1990), 70.
  6. Love, Suez, 492; Nordeen and Nicole, Phoenix, 156-158;  A. Sellers, “Military Lessons:  the British Perspective” in Troen and Shemesh, Sinai-Suez Crisis, 21.
  7. Yonah Bandman, “The Egyptian Armed Forces During the Kadesh Campaign” in Troen and Shemesh, SuezSinai Crisis, 84; Chaim Herzog, The Arab-Israeli Wars (NY:  Random House, 1982), 118.
  8. Bandman, “Egyptian Armed Forces During the Kadesh Campaign,” 92; Dayan, Diary, 116-120;  Trevor N. Dupuy, Elusive Victory  (NY:  Harper & Row, 1978), 165-168; Gawrych, Key to the Sinai, 50-57;  Maj. Gen. Avraham Adan, interview with author, Sept 1996.
  9. Moshe Shemesh, “Egypt: From Military Defeat to Political Victory,” in Troen and Shemesh, Suez-Sinai Crisis, 154.
  10. Moshe Shemesh (ed.) “Abd al-Latif Bughdadi’s Memoirs” and “Sayyid Mar’i’is Political Papers” in Troen and Shemesh, Suez-Sinai Crisis, 345-350, 367.
  11. Gawrych, Key to the Sinai, 64.
  12. Andre Beaufre, The Suez Expedition, 1956, trans. Richard Barry (NY: Praeger 1969), 90-113;  Dupuy, Elusive Victory, 205-207; Roy Fullick and Geoffrey Powell, Suez:  the Double War (London:  Hamish Hamilton, 1979), 131-150;  Herzog, Arab-Israeli Wars, 138-140; Keith Kyle, Suez (NY:  St. Martin’s, 1991), 383-384, 445-463;  Love, Suez, 601-622.
  13. Dupuy, Elusive Victory, 212; Nordeen, Fighters Over Israel  (London:  Greenhill, 1991), 49.
  14. Kyle, Suez, 369.
  15. Dupuy, Elusive Victory, 176; Love, Suez, 492, . . . Nordeen and Nicole, Phoenix Over the Nile, 156.
  16. Dayan, Diary, 109; Dupuy, Elusive Victory, 176; Love, Suez, 528; Nordeen and Nicole, Phoenix Over the Nile, 159.
  17. Eliezer Cohen, Israel’s Best Defense: The First Full Story of the Israeli Air Force, trans. Jonathan Cordis (NY:  Orion Books, 1993), 122;  Dayan, Diary, 109;  Kyle, Suez, 369;  Nordeen and Nicole, Phoenix Over the Nile, 168;  Ehud Yonay, No Margin for Error;  The Making of the Israeli Air Force (NY:  Pantheon, 1993), 160-170;  Zeevy, “Sinai Campaign,” 67.
  18. For an excellent analysis of the various problems that afflicted the Israeli military during the 1956 war, see Gawrych, Key to the Sinai, 26-30.
  19. Dayan, Diary, esp. 35, 106-107, 124.
  20. Love, Suez, 492.
  21. Safran, From War to War, 353.
  22. Dayan, Diary, 63.
  23. Former senior IDF officers interviews, Sept, 1996.
  24. Bandman, “Egyptian Armed Forces during the Kadesh Campaign,” 86. Indeed, one could argue that Egyptian exaggeration destroyed the Israeli subterfuge.  Tel Aviv had hoped that by sending only Sharon’s brigade in first, the Egyptians would believe that the attack was merely as deep raid into the Sinai . . .
  25. See Shemesh, “Bughdadi’s Memoirs,” 338-50; and Shemesh, “Mar’i’s Political Papers,” esp. 367-370.
  26. Dayan, Diary, 108; Dupuy, Elusive Victory, 177-178;  Gawyrch, Key to the Sinai, 41.
  27. It is also worth noting that, according to Gawrych, ‘Amr opposed the decision to withdraw from the Sinai and Nasser had to overrule him. . . .