War veterans Mohamed Abbas Mansour and Mahmoud Khalaf, who served in the 1973 October War, tell Ahmed Eleiba about the role played by the artillery corps to liberate Sinai and what is needed to protect Egypt
General Mohamed Fawzi, who served as minister of defence after the June 1967 War, wrote in his memoirs: “The War of Attrition [1967-1970] was an urgent necessity for Egypt and the Arabs and its value was demonstrated in the expertise acquired by the leadership, the Office of the Chief-of-Staffs and other agencies which, once they were reorganised on modern scientific bases, began to ready themselves to liberate the territory that had been usurped by force.”
Fawzi’s remarks provide the context for General Chief-of-Staff Mohamed Abbas Mansour’s account of the artillery corps’ preparations for the battle to liberate Sinai. He was a lieutenant colonel at the time, and appointed as an artillery commander in 1973.
Firm in his conviction the Egyptian army had already begun to destroy the myth of Israeli invincibility during the preparation phase, he relates: “On 8 September 1968, president [Gamal] Abdel-Nasser instructed then artillery commander Major General Abdel-Tawwab Hadeeb to rebuild the morale of the army and Egyptian people. On that day artillery forces opened fire against the enemy. We were left wondering how so many artillery battalions could have been assembled given we returned from the 1967 War almost without weapons.”
It was a question Mansour later put to Brigadier Mohamed Said Al-Mahi, the commander of the artillery forces in the October War who, after an artillery drill, president Anwar Al-Sadat nicknamed the Fearsome Silent One.
Al-Mahi told Mansour that preparations had begun with a radical reorganisation, rearmament and the creation of new units. Gruelling training sessions were held for the joint forces which had begun to rebuild their ranks west of the Suez Canal in the immediate aftermath of June 1967.
General Mansour says this stage provided essential preparation for the eventual victory and he was very fortunate “to have had the opportunity to participate with Brigadier Abu Ghazala [Mohamed Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazala, later field marshal and defence minister] in the planning, especially for the preparatory artillery fire.”
The army performed with consummate professionalism in the October War, says Mansour. He has numerous anecdotes of the courage and valour of individual soldiers in the army which defeated Israel in 1973, avenging the tripartite invasion of 1956 and the defeat in June 1967. Yet rather than draw comparisons with those two earlier wars, he uses as a precedent the Second Battle of Alamein in which General Montgomery led the Allied forces to victory in the North African theatre.
“Montgomery’s preparatory fire — a powerful artillery strike to weaken the enemy before the start of an offensive operation — lasted 35 minutes. Ours, in the October war, lasted 53 minutes,” he says.
The war to liberate Sinai began on 6 October 1973 at 14.00 with an aerial strike. “This was the first time since I had graduated from the military academy in 1956 that I saw Egyptian fighter planes over the Suez Canal and the Bitter Lake. The artillery, which provided the ground force’s main fire power, opened the offensive 20 minutes later and the navy moved in along north Sinai’s coast.”
“We used some artillery fire as a decoy. There were four rounds. The first, lasting for 15 minutes, targeted the Israeli front, the Bar Lev Line, and then struck deeper at enemy artillery, command and control centres and radar stations. The second round lasted 22 minutes and the third was divided into two rounds of five minutes with a six-minute interval.”
Before the war the Russians had predicted Egyptian forces would sustain 70 per cent losses if they attempted to cross the Suez Canal. But nothing of that sort occurred: “Each hero of the crossing had his mind on his target, be it a tank, an observation post or a breach in the Bar Lev Line. The artillery fire was sustained for 22 minutes, firing 175 rounds a second.”
When dealing with fast moving targets, artillery needs to fire ahead of the target. General Mansour recalls that “an enemy tank brigade was coming from the Qantara zone, so we advanced a kilometre.”
“According to the calculations it was moving at 20km an hour. We hit the mark, as was confirmed by the operations centre, but it turned out that the tank commander had better judgement. The enemy tanks were moving at 30km an hour, not 20km as we had thought.”
Among the countless heroes of the artillery corps during the October War Mansour singles out Mohamed Abdel-Ati — “the most famous tank hunter in the world” — and the members of artillery division 16 which destroyed a total of 72 enemy tanks.
There were, of course, painful moments. On 16 October, as Israeli forces moved into the breach a young captain was killed. The person who reported the news to Mansour did not know that the victim was a relative of his.
The Egyptian artillery corps has come a long way since those days thanks to the introduction of modern armament systems and systematic upgrading which Mansour says was instigated by his classmate at the Higher Nasser Military Academy, Minister of Defence Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. The modernisation process is ongoing, and has been accelerated in terms of pace and quality.
“Don’t fear for Egypt,” says Mansour, “for it has a shield and a sword.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: ‘A shield and a sword’