Sunday, 9 October 2011

Love of the Land: Yana - We had no choice but to win

Yana - We had no choice but to win

Elad Yana
Israel Hayom
07 October '11

On first day of the war, most senior officers of a reserve battalion in 679 Armored Brigade fell • 38 years later, Ori Or, 679 commander, meets batallion commanders to recall the fighting and 75 soldiers who sacrificed their lives.

They were called to war on the first day of fighting, rushing to take up their posts in the tanks that comprised the reservist battalion in the 679 Armored Brigade. Their mission was to make contact with the 188 Brigade, which was almost wiped out completely during the course of the fighting, and to help in the bitter battles against the Syrians on the Golan Heights. On the first day of the war, most of the senior officer corps was lost. Eight days later, however, it pushed back the Syrians and determined the line that is today Israel’s northeastern border. Thirty-eight years later, the then-commander of the brigade, Uri Or, met up with battalion commanders Yehuda Wagman and Haim Danon to recall the fierce fighting and to remember the 75 brigade soldiers who sacrificed their lives.

“I sit in the turret and I know who sits in each tank that is hit. But now we don’t think about them. We don’t even think about ourselves. Now we are just looking for targets and we shoot. We are at war … I focus my eyes. ‘Got one!’ I call out, and shoot. Suddenly Gidi shouts at me: ‘They’re shooting at us.’ ‘Gunner, ready, aim, fire! Driver, go back quickly. Gunner, pray!’ I barely heard his voice in the crackling noise on the radio. I fired a shell and yelled: ‘You pray, Gidi!’ He yelled: ‘But I don’t know how to!’ I prayed from the walls of my heart, and shouted: ‘Please, God, save us!’
- From the book “Adjusting Sights” by Rabbi Haim Sabato

It is 38 years later. Like Rabbi Haim Sabato, who was a gunner in one of the battalions in the Armored Corps’ 679 Brigade, Maj. Gen. (res.) Uri Or, the commander of the brigade during that difficult war, still cannot shake free from the events of those days.

“To this day, the Yom Kippur War is the most traumatic period of my life,” Or said. “Entering the war, and the surprise that came with entering the war, from the time I reported for duty at the emergency equipment caches to the moment when we were 45 kilometers from Damascus … It is without a doubt the most difficult period that I ever endured.”

Or was tapped to command the brigade just two months before the outbreak of the war. This was the Armored Corps reservist brigade that was formed in 1970. It was a young brigade, most of whose soldiers were 25-year-olds, many of whom were either university students or graduates of the hesder yeshivas that combine Torah study with army preparation courses (like Sabato). The most senior commanders in the brigade – the brigade and battalion commanders – were also veterans of the Six-Day War and the War of Attrition.

The troops took to the battlefields on Saturday evening, just a few hours after the fighting broke out. They assumed an integral part in stopping Syrian penetration on the Golan Heights, particularly in the Nafah region and the area southeast of Nafah. They helped in holding the Syrians until a counteroffensive punched a hole through the enemy lines, resulting in a favorable outcome eight days later, when what is today Israel’s eastern border was won on the battlefield.

“The first day was the most difficult,” Or said. “There wasn’t a moment in which I didn’t think we would win the war, but this day was particularly difficult. There were just a few crews that got together. They were barely prepared for war, hardly prepared for battle. They were coming together alongside one another during this awful war, and they were stopping the Syrians at Nafah. By the evening, the situation gradually got a bit better.”

Lieutenant Colonel (res.) Haim Danon, who was named commander of one of the brigade’s battalions during the war and who today heads the brigade’s memorial foundation, breaks into the conversation. “I should emphasize that most of the brigade’s senior high command (the battalion commanders and their deputies) were killed or wounded by the middle of that same day.”

During the course of that day, which essentially began on Saturday night, the brigade’s first contingent of tanks set out for the Golan Heights. Their mission was to touch base with Brigade 188, which at the time waged bitter battles against advancing Syrian forces in the central Golan Heights, and to aid in beating back the enemy onslaught. By Sunday morning, the brigade high command managed to convene and enlist a force of 18 tanks at the chief customs house. But it was not until the end of the day that the high command succeeded in putting together an armored force of 60 tanks that could mount an organized, effective attack in the Nafah region.

“My mission was to form a battalion on Sunday evening at Camp Alka,” Danon said. “I organized the force that I had at my disposal, some 24 tanks, some of them which were not from my brigade, and which I stopped as they were headed to Petroleum Road. I stopped them along the way, and added them to my brigade. I appointed company and division commanders, and our mission was to defend Nafah and the road that leads to the Bnot Ya’akov Bridge. From my point of view, this was the first day that the brigade stopped the advancing forces.”

During the next few days, Danon’s battalion would become a central component in the bloody battles that took place south of Nafah in the area that stretches from the Yosifon and Shifon hills toward the Syrian village of Hoshniya, where the battalion successfully formed a defense line that proved to be impenetrable.

“We haven’t even found the time to think about the battle that we just endured, and a new instruction has come: to begin moving toward Hoshniya. We followed Danon. Rami said that we are 10 tanks, a serious force. Danon is moving at the head, very quickly. We moved slowly. The gears have once again stalled. Danon tried to reach us by radio constantly. He was really begging us to join him. ‘What is going on with you?’ he asked. ‘I’ve run into a much larger Syrian force. I’m fighting on my own. Get over here already!’

(Adjusting Sights, by Rabbi Haim Sabato)

In the book written by Sabato, who recalled his experiences during the war, he tells of the second day of fighting, a day on which Danon spearheaded the forces that managed to hold off the Syrians far from the Nafah camp, which had been reconquered by the Israelis after they unleashed a deluge of tank fire. For all intents and purposes, it was only on that evening that the IDF began to recapture control of the Golan Heights. A last-ditch attempt by the Syrians to once again take control of Nafah was pushed back all the way toward Hoshniya by a force commanded by Danon.

“The main Syrian effort, which was full throttle, was geared toward the central and southern parts of the Golan Heights,” said Or. “The moment I saw the T-62 tanks in the Nafah area, I understood that the reserves were being deployed. It was simple. Every soldier in the Armored Corps knew this. That was how a reserve battalion which was formed on the fly during the fighting found itself faced with this thing.”

“From the moment that I assumed command over the central Golan Heights (taking over from Brigade 188, which was nearly wiped out during those days of fighting) until the last day of the war, the Syrians had no idea, we just simply pushed them from one line to the other,” Danon said.

How do you explain this achievement?

Or recalled a correspondence he shared with a soldier from the brigade. “A religious soldier from the brigade wrote to me after reading my book about the war (Ele ha’ahim sheli, “These are my brothers”) and he described to me his experiences without knowing what transpired in the brigade high command during those days,” Or said. “He summed it up in this sentence: ‘What wonderful miracles happened there!’ I wrote back to him: ‘I’m a secular Jew, I don’t believe in miracles. The people who won here are the soldiers and commanders that had faith in one another.’ It was during the war that this spirit began to coalesce within the brigade.”

“Somebody signaled for the tank to stop. We stopped. A strapping man with a wide face and soft voice boarded the turret. He asked us to sit. We sat on the turret. We were exhausted. Most of all, we were shocked. This is not how we imagined the war would look. With the palm of his hand, he gently caressed each crew member quietly and said: ‘Hello to you, I am the brigade commander.’ We looked at him in amazement. A brigade commander has never talked to us like that. He took out a pack of chocolates and handed them out to us. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘It’s very hard for you. You’re young. It’s also hard for me. But I’m sure that we will win. Whoever withstands longer will win. We will win, we have no choice. We all trust you.’

(Adjusting Sights, Rabbi Haim Sabato)

Sabato reveals what took place behind the scenes of the awful sights that were produced during those first days of fighting on the Golan Heights. But it also seems like an example of the exemplary command of forces that led to this blood-drenched victory. It is the same command that also led forces in overcoming the difficult battles and heavy casualties sustained in the initial battles that were meant to stave off the oncoming Syrians (from the first to the fourth day). This allowed the situation to turn about in Israel’s favor, resulting in the conquering of the Syrian positions on the eighth day of fighting. One of the leaders was Yehuda Wagman, who was then a deputy battalion commander who headed the successful counterattacks.

“I think that in the grand scheme of things, what we have here is what is really known as ‘the spirit of the IDF’,” said Wagman. “This IDF spirit, with all due respect, is not just a poster on a wall, but it is also a message of growing up in an army in which there is no way that we do not win. I think that this is the main thing. In the Six-Day War, Uri [Or] paid a heavy price with his company (he was the commander of a patrol company in the Sinai front that suffered heavy losses). There is no way that we don’t defeat the Syrians! It’s easy to say now, but you have to remember that this was the spirit of the time and the commanders were very professional.”

“As for the sense of urgency that we felt, we heard the 188 Brigade’s radio,” said Danon. “We had a jeep near the brigade headquarters that had a radio and we heard the screams and cries for help and the plans for reinforcements. This was frustrating, because at 4:00 P.M. (on Saturday before entering battle) most of the commanders sat down at Yiftah, and we waited for the crew to get there from their homes. This, too, contributed to the victory at the end.”

This was how the picture shifted from defense to offense. The 679 Brigade led the counterassault against the Syrian positions, going through Kuneitra and Tel Sha’ar in the southeastern Golan. On its way, it encountered Syrian armored forces armed with anti-tank weaponry. The Syrians mount a courageous, fierce defense of their territory until they are subdued by the brigade, which managed to form a new defense line in the Tel Sha’ar and Tel El-Mal areas (some 15 kilometers inside Syria). Finally, on Friday, after almost a week of fighting, the brigade is forced to stop the counterattack waged by Iraqi forces that had come to assist the Syrians.

“The sun was shining in front of them, and it blinded them. And they moved in our direction without noticing anything. It seems that they also did not know where they were. They kept coming closer and I was worried, very worried. What is he counting on? Why not open fire? I have my finger on the trigger, I’ve got the first tank in my sights. ‘Wait,’ Wagman said. Then when they got to within a very short distance. Wagman said: ‘Fire!’ I fired at the first tank, and I hit it. ‘Target!’ I yelled out. ‘Fire on the second one!’ Wagman said. I fired again in the same direction. We hit seven tanks on our own. Wagman came down to the turret and hugged me warmly.”

(Adjusting Sights, Rabbi Haim Sabato)

The brigade lost 75 men in in the war. The brigade memorial association headed by Danon makes sure to aid the families as much as possible. The organization is made up of its combat troops, its commanders, veterans, and bereaved families. It has been active for 35 years, perpetuating the memory of those who fell while imparting the brigade legacy on the younger generations of IDF soldiers.

One of those soldiers is me, an officer in one of the brigade battalions that a few years ago underwent training for operating the Merkava 3 tank. The brigade name was changed to Brigade 434. It took part in battles during the Second Lebanon War, losing two of its best young men. Each year, the foundation holds a memorial ceremony at the commemorative site in Tel Shifon on the Golan Heights. The ceremony is attended by brigade troops and bereaved families throughout the generations.

The foundation is undertaking efforts to build an amphitheater that offers an open view of the battlefield on Tel Shifon. The site would complement the existing memorial there, serving as an educational tool that would teach youngsters of the battles that took place on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War.

Then, as it is now, the 434/679 Brigade represents an important component in the defense of our borders. People who have proven that values of comradeship and an aspiration toward victory do not belong to the past served there, and continue to serve there. Let us preserve the memory of those who fell nearly four decades ago, and let us carry on their legacy.

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Love of the Land: Yana - We had no choice but to win

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