OF 1967 SIX DAY WAR
MEMORIES OF A TIME PAST
Jerusalem Post Headlines from June 6, 9, 11,13 and 15, 1967
THE FIGHTING MEN REMEMBER
Former Air Force commander Avihu Bin-Nun describes leading the aerial attack on Egyptian airfields that gave Israel supremacy of the skies. The first of three eye witness accounts provided to 'Bamahane - IDF Magazine' by men who took part in the key moments of the Six Day War, which helped change the course of Jewish, Middle East and world history.
The first attack of the Six Day War was possibly the most important of the hundreds of missions that I carried out during the 34 years of my regular army service. I don't remember any other mission that bore such an awareness of heavy responsibility as leading the first formation that took off from Tel Nof air base on the morning of June 5, 1967.
During the war I served as deputy commander, with the rank of captain, of the fleet of Mysteres - French fighter jets - at Tel Nof. For two or three weeks before the war, it was clear to us that the fate of Israel hung on our success in the first wave of "Plan Focus." The objective was to achieve aerial superiority over Egypt and the Syrians.
As the political situation and the military threat grew more and more serious, we trained, exercised and learned our targets by heart. Each formation had several targets, which it practiced attacking in complete radio silence. We had reached a point where no words were necessary; we could have executed the plan with our eyes closed.
Our orders were strict. We could not jeopardize the Air Force's ability to send each formation to its target. In the event of something going wrong on the runway, our instructions were to get off the runway, even if it meant crashing the plane, so as not to delay the planes taking off after us. In case of engine trouble after take-off, our instructions were to bail out at low altitude without a word. In order to prevent unnecessary talk, we were unable to operate our wireless sets until we were over the targets at 07:45.
The flight over the sea was at especially low altitude, so that the Jordanian radar could not warn the Egyptians. Our target was the Faid airfield, west of the Suez Canal, in the area of the Great Bitter Lake. The field was home to three combat squadrons: one of MiG 19s, one of MiG 21s and one of Sohoy 7s. My formation was the first, and 10 minutes behind us were three more. Our secondary mission was to strike the batteries of SA-2 ground-to-air missiles on the east side of the canal. We could not miss.
The formation that I led included a deputy leader, who was a reservist, and two very junior pilots who had less than a year's flying experience. The four of us took off as planned. The flight over the Mediterranean was so low that we left a wake behind us. All four of us were in place, but number 4 did not maintain a steady altitude. I was very concerned, since flying over the sea is very dangerous if one's altitude is not constant; there had been cases of inexperienced pilots flying into the ocean. I could do nothing to help, and could not say a word.
At about the halfway point, while we were over the sea, I looked to the right. Number 4 had disappeared! I looked behind, but couldn't see him anywhere. I assumed that he had hit the water and crashed. I could not call him, or call for a helicopter to be sent on search and rescue. There was nothing to do but carry on. When we crossed the shore of the Bardawil lake, I realized that I wasn't in the correct position, presumably because the wind was blowing in a different direction than forecast. This was cause for concern. As we approached the canal, the sky began to be covered with low stratus clouds, which increased the possibility of failure.
Our plan of attack was to climb over the target, dive-bomb and then fire our 30-mm. guns at the planes on the field. If we failed in this mission, and all the other formations encountered similar conditions, the result could be fateful for the future of the State of Israel.
The sky gradually cleared as we approached the target. As we came closer, the clouds dispersed enough to let us carry out the attack as planned. As I began my climb, I turned on the radio, and realized that it was not working! I was not especially worried, since the formation had been trained to attack in radio silence. As I dived and released my bombs, I saw four MiG 21s at the end of the runway lining up to take off. I pulled the bomb release, began firing and hit two of the four, which went up in flames. When I looked up, I saw a huge Antonov 12 cargo plane landing in front of me. The Antonov's pilot saw the MiGs blowing up, and turned south.
I was in a dilemma: should I shoot him down, or go on with the attack as planned? Since I couldn't contact the formation, and because of the importance of destroying all the MiGs on the field, I decided to carry on as planned.
During the attack we destroyed 16 of the 40 MiGs scattered around the field, and paralyzed the SA-2 battery on our way back. During the flight home, we could see all the other Egyptian airfields in flames. I even managed to fix the problem with the radio, and heard the encouraging reports.
After we landed, when I reported the disappearance of my number 4, I discovered that he had not crashed but had gone back and landed because of a problem with his gasoline feed.
Several years later, I learned that the pilot of the Egyptian Antonov, which I didn't shoot down, had been awarded a medal of commendation for his successful engagement with Mysteres! In spite of the "attack," he succeeded in landing safely ... with the Egyptian chief of staff and his senior staff officers on board! With hindsight, it was one of the missed opportunities of the war.
defender of Jerusalem
The earliest, most vivid childhood memory of Brig.-Gen. (res.) Uzi Narkiss, who commanded the forces which captured the Old City in the Six Day War, is of the 1929 Arab riots.
He was four years old at the time and was crowded into a house in Jerusalem where several fearful families had gathered. The women and children were sent down to the cellar where there was a well and the men, armed only with sticks, remained upstairs to defend them in case of attack. Reminiscing last month about his long military career, Narkiss surmised that this first conscious knowledge of a threat to his existence had somehow shaped the rest of his life.
Narkiss is the eldest son of Polish immigrants who arrived in Jerusalem soon after World War I. His parents later lost some 150 relatives in the Holocaust. His father was employed to sell the works of the students at the Bezalel art academy. In return, the school's founder and director Prof. Boris Schatz allowed him to live rent-free in a Bezalel-owned apartment adjacent to the school. Uzi Narkiss was born there on January 6, 1925.
For a while, the family changed residence every year until they moved to Nahalat Ahim, a nearby neighborhood built by Yemenites. Land stretching from the original Bezalel building to what is now Sacher Park had belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church. Schatz bought it up, then sold individual plots to Bezalel employees, including the senior Narkiss. The family home was built in Nahalat Ahim in 1930 and two more children were born there.
Uzi Narkiss went to school at Gymnasia Rehavia, where one of his classmates was Ra'anana Meridor, mother of Finance Minister Dan Meridor. Another contemporary was president Izhak Ben-Zvi's son, Eli, who was killed in the War of Independence. A couple of years ahead of him was Yigael Yadin, who went on to become Israel's second chief of general staff, a professor of archeology, politician and deputy premier.
Narkiss has fond recollections of the Gymnasia. "It was not like it is today," he remarked. "Although all our teachers came from abroad, we learned to speak Hebrew properly. They were perfectionists who didn't spare the rod in order to achieve results."
In Narkiss's day, the Gymnasia was also strong on inculcating a knowledge of and love for the land as was the youth movement Mahanot Ha'olim, which imbued its members with both a love of the land and a commitment to settle on kibbutz.
Clad in regulation blue shirts and khaki shorts, Narkiss scaled every mountain in the country to watch the sunrise and trekked through every hiking trail and wadi to learn the topography. Ideology may have been the motivating force behind these trips, but a more urgent reason for their frequency and intensity was the need to be familiar with the terrain when fighting against or escaping from the Arabs and the British.
"We were all dedicated to the establishment of a Jewish state," Narkiss remarked. "That was our raison d'etre." And the pinnacle of it all was going to a training farm in preparation for kibbutz.
At age 13, like so many other youngsters of his generation, Narkiss joined the Hagana, acting initially as a courier. If his parents were aware of what he was doing, they betrayed no sign. So many people were involved in clandestine activities in those days that it was prudent not to ask questions.
INDUCTED into the Palmah in 1941, Narkiss spent five years engaging in military operations from places as far apart as Kibbutz Negba in the South to Kfar Giladi in the North. In 1946, he was sent to Ramat Rahel to head a work group which loaded sacks of potash onto a Haifa-bound train. But the real reason for his transfer was to blow up the railway track.
It was one of three acts of sabotage against the British that he was involved in during that period. Another was a failed attempt to divert British attention from the illegal immigrant ship Orde Wingate, and the third was the destruction of the Allenby Bridge in June 1946.
Haim Bar-Lev, who many years later became IDF chief of general staff, was responsible for the overall Allenby Bridge operation, while Narkiss was in charge of the 35-member explosives team. This sabotage effort went exactly according to plan.
Exhausted by all these exploits, Narkiss took a one-year break to study Arabic and philosophy at the Hebrew University, whose foundations were laid in the year he was born. Neither students nor lecturers had cars in those days and the means of transport was the Hamekasher bus which left at 15-minute intervals from downtown Jerusalem for the Mount Scopus campus.
But the political upheavals of the day made study a luxury which Narkiss could not afford. On his last day at the Hebrew University, Arabs set fire to the Mamilla commercial center which was full of Jewish shops.
Narkiss was sent by Palmah chief Yigal Allon to be the commander of the Dead Sea and the Etzion Bloc. He subsequently fought in the War of Independence with the Palmah 4th Battalion in Kiryat Anavim, then in later conflicts on the road to Jerusalem and in the city itself.
During Pessah 1948, the Hagana ordered the Palmah to launch an assault on Katamon, which was one of the most prestigious Arab neighborhoods. Only a few of the wealthiest Jews lived there side by side with their Arab counterparts. The monastery at San Simon had been captured by Arab forces, which included a large number of Iraqis.
Narkiss and his men embarked on their mission from the building which he moved into 21 years later and where he still lives today. In 1948, it was the last Jewish building in the western zone of the city. Today it stands on the seam of Hanassi and Hapalmah streets. Rehov Hapalmah, according to Narkiss, was named in honor of the Palmah conquest.
Katamon was an eye-opener for him. "It was the first time in my life that I saw a refrigerator. Every house in Katamon had one. My parents didn't have a tenth of what I saw there."
There was practically no looting by the Israeli soldiers. "They didn't have time," Narkiss noted. "As soon as they blew up one house, they went on to the next."
Mount Zion was also held by Iraqi, Saudi and other Arab forces. On May 16, Narkiss received an order to attack Mount Zion. The order was carried out on the evening of May 17. On May 18, he was told to break through the Zion Gate and to continue to the Jewish Quarter.
When he learned that the Arab Legion had invaded the Old City, he realized that his troops were not a match for them, and ordered a retreat. "From then until June 1967 all the gates to the Old City remained closed."
WHEN Narkiss was a youth, he had visited the Western Wall every Shabbat. "It was a common denominator for all of us, secular and religious. The British never let us go up to the Temple Mount, but we could go to the Wall and to the Jewish Quarter. So we went from the western approach to the Wall every Shabbat - not to pray, but to say Shalom."
For Narkiss, the victory of the Six Day War was the closing of a circle. "Then, we no longer needed the permission of the British. We came to the Temple Mount and a small Arab boy showed us the way to the Western Wall."
Narkiss speaks in soft, measured tones, his voice and face devoid of emotion. But the memory of the magic of that brief conflict which changed world perception of the State of Israel and caused Jews everywhere to walk 10 feet tall brings a twinkle to his eye and a new cadence to his speech.
"We never planned to do what we achieved in the Six Day War. We're proud that in no time and without plans we came to the Western Wall, and conquered eastern Jerusalem in eight hours of fighting."
It all could have ended quite differently. When news first reached him of sporadic shooting and some shelling by the Jordanians, Narkiss had to decide whether this was merely another incident or the outbreak of war. It took him two hours to make up his mind. What convinced him that this was more than an incident was the Jordanian seizure of UN headquarters and the attempt by Jordanian forces to break through from there to the south of the city. "I decided that this was war and that we had to retaliate and take advantage of the opportunity to reunite Jerusalem."
Once the decision had been made, Narkiss had to go into high gear. Speed was of the essence because he had to beat not only the enemy, but the clock, as Narkiss was concerned that the UN Security Council would order a cease-fire if convened. "I didn't want to see myself again as in 1948 standing in front of a closed gate."
The Jerusalem Brigade, the Harel Brigade - which Narkiss had fought with in 1948 - and the Paratroop Brigade, all of them reserve units, share the credit for the reunification of the capital. "They fought in an indescribable fashion and with tremendous dedication. They were all totally committed because they understood that this was the battle for Jerusalem."
Narkiss has been asked many times to describe what he felt when he was able to once again touch the stones of the Western Wall. He has never been able to find an appropriate expression. "What could I say? It was great. But what is great? Only a poet can put it into words - and I'm not a poet."
Nor is he a prophet. He is only too painfully aware of how erroneous the forecasts were in the euphoric aftermath of the war. "We thought that with that brilliant victory we had overcome all our problems with the Arabs." It took only two days for Israel to realize that such wishful thinking was to put it mildly - premature.
For more than 25 years after the reunification of the city, Narkiss attended Jerusalem Day commemorative events in the company of two other Jerusalem-born veterans - Yitzhak Rabin, who in June 1967 had been chief of general staff, and Mordechai Gur who had been the commander of the Paratroop Brigade which had recaptured the Old City. After Gur took his own life while dying from cancer and Rabin was struck down by an assassin's bullet, Narkiss "felt like an orphan. It's not pleasant to be there without them - alone, yet not alone."
How does Narkiss foresee Jerusalem in the year 2000? "The only consequence which the year 2000 has for us is the result of a national election. Jerusalem is complicated and will remain complicated. It's impossible to change that precisely because Jerusalem is the cradle of the three great faiths." Yet for all that, he cherishes the dream that in his lifetime he may yet see "a quiet and tranquil Jerusalem open to all who want to live here."
Early morning, the first soldiers of the Seventh Brigade's elite unit get up to prepare the vehicles for "dawn alert." The loose camouflage nets, damp with morning dew, cover the jeeps, armored cars and tanks along the avenues of eucalyptus on the border roads.
Shlomo, the only tank officer in the elite unit, removes the net from the new 20-mm. cannon, and strokes the weapon. Shlomo earned his place in the unit on the strength of his skill in operating these cannons.
Second Lieutenant Shaul Grohag, commander of the jeep platoon, is wide awake this morning. "Does the company commander want a report from the night lookout?" he says, gently shaking my shoulder. I smile. Shaul is the perfect officer, taking care of every detail. He hardly slept all night, but the report is ready. "What's the situation?" I ask. "All quiet," he replies. Deputy company commander Yossi Almagis has already heated shaving water on the camp stove - but of course, Turkish coffee comes first."
It's 6 a.m. The whole patrol is awake. Boys who have only heard gunfire during training exercises, and have never heard the whistle of a shell from close by, look at me and wait for what I have to say. They all saw me come back late at night from the last briefing at regiment headquarters, and are anxious to know whether it was the final briefing before the beginning of a war. The only walkie-talkie in the company, set for listening only, was in my armored command car. There was complete radio silence in the whole patrol.
Every soldier knew that the code word was "Red Blanket," and that it meant "turn on the walkie-talkies, break radio silence and set out immediately to lead the regiment into battle."
Bentzi Zur, the unit's operations sergeant, is preparing the armored command car. But even he doesn't know if today is the last day of the long waiting period which began on Independence Day, when the company was brought straight back after the parade in Jerusalem. Bentzi, who has a marvelous sense of humor and loves to sing, goes on humming the Nahal band's songs, and turns up the volume of the walkie-talkie.
Evening, night, dawn of June 5, 1967. Quiet. No planes. Nothing is happening, the soldiers think. Yesterday, the company commander said it would probably begin today.
7:30 a.m. formation after formation of planes roar past above us, heading for the Gaza Strip and Sinai. A minute later we hear the code, "Red Blanket," coming sharp and clear from the company commander's walkie-talkie.
I gather the company and say: "This is it. We've learned our objectives, we've practiced them thoroughly. I'm relying on you. Everyone in their vehicles - we're off."
A last-minute rush. Everyone writes a few words home on postcards while leaning on the hood of a jeep, the side of an armored car or the hull of a tank. Someone peeks at what Yarkoni, the armored-car platoon commander from Kibbutz Na'an, is writing, and copies the sentence: "It's just starting. See you later."
The patrol starts to move. First goes Yossi's squad, leading the Patton battalion. The two squads under my command begin to overtake the Centurion battalion, so as to lead the brigade out of the built-up area of the Gaza Strip around the Rafiah Junction. The unit's two clerks, Sara and Nira, are left behind in the dust, gathering up the postcards. They wave goodbye through tears. A last memory from another world, from home.
Yossi's squad enters the approaches to Abasan Al-Kabir, in the suburbs of Khan Yunis. Egyptian soldiers stand by the road in amazement, watching the line go past. One waves to our soldiers, who look cautiously back. Is this war?
Suddenly, hell opens its mouth. Artillery shells, machine guns, anti-tank guns - everything is being shot at! The force begins to look for a way into Khan Yunis. Yossi finds a path leading west and begins to advance until he is stopped by a deep anti-tank trench. Behind it is the Gurinov post, and above it a tower.
The line stops. Yossi, standing in the first armored car, shoots, and loads his 0.5 with a new belt, then suddenly collapses and falls on the floor of the armored car. There is a sniper at the top of the bullet-ridden tower, a few dozen meters away, and he has hit Yossi. When the jeep reaches the armored car there is nothing to do but bring Yossi's body back to the Green Line. Our beloved deputy company commander was the first fatality.
Boaz, the jeep platoon commander, takes command of the unit and carries on the assault, leading the Patton battalion through Khan Yunis toward Rafiah.
The two squads under my command carry on, and confront the sights of war for the first time. Fallen enemy soldiers near an eliminated post. A dead donkey. An old peasant running away. A little boy waving a white flag. Amos and Eli's two squads navigate past the huts to the outskirts of Rafiah, passing the UN camps and the Centurion battalion, and begin to lead the brigade. Everyone stops and raises visors. I run up to the brigade commander and receive permission to lead the advance.
Quiet in the area of the junction. Nothing is visible. The whole area is covered with linseed bushes. Everything confirms the unit's advance information about outposts north of the junction. Eli begins to deploy west of the junction, with his tanks in the lead. I begin to deploy with Amos's squad, tanks and jeeps, toward the ridge that commands the whole junction.
Suddenly shooting breaks out, with heavy shelling on all sides. While we are deploying, two tanks hit mines but go on shooting.
This encounter is a complete surprise. None of us knew about the area north of the junction. Enemy soldiers begin appearing on all sides. Along the whole area, Egyptian T-34 tanks take up positions and begin heavy fire. A 20-mm. armored car is hit by a shell before it can get off the road.
Lieutenant Shlomo, the car's commander, gets out quickly to rescue the driver, but while he is opening the dented door, the armored car receives a direct hit. Later, the extent of the disaster became clear: all eight soldiers in the car were killed when the shell hit.
The rest of the tanks, jeeps and armored cars, including mine, begin moving away from the main road - which is within range of the heavy fire - and begin the assault.
At 150 meters in front of the line of Egyptian positions, we realize we are going through a minefield, including anti-tank mines. As I call for a halt, my own armored car hits a double mine and turns on its side. I have no choice but to continue on foot, since turning back now would have caused many casualties.
Gabi (today talk-show host Gabi Gazit), hits a mine with his jeep. He is wounded in the face from machine-gun fire, and his foot is shattered by the mine. The other soldiers in the jeep join the assault. Yarkoni, the jeep commander, jumps into the trench with his Uzi and begins mopping it up. A wounded Egyptian, whom he left behind, aims his Kalachnikov at Yarkoni's back and squeezes the trigger.
Amos, the team commander, and Muki lift Yarkoni onto the jeep and begin to take him back, still under fire. Yarkoni smiles crookedly at Amos and says, "Amos, this is the end."
The battle for the Rafiah junction is heated. In a surprise battle, the patrol on its own, without any alternative, conquers almost the entire area north of the junction. The toll is heavy, and includes Yarkoni.
The patrol squads organize quickly to carry on moving. Yossi's team arrives from Khan Yunis, and the company becomes two squads instead of three. All the dead and wounded are evacuated to the Rafiah railway station - the company's assembly point, where the elite unit had volunteered to assemble the wounded of all the other units.
Shaul Grohag, wearing an Australian bush hat he found lying around, circulates among the soldiers, some of whom are still in shock, patting them on the shoulder and encouraging them.
Operations Sergeant Bentzi comes up to me with a request. "Can I join Shaul in the lead jeep? The armored command car hit a mine, and I can't go with you anyway." Shaul's jeep goes after the team's tanks to the Jarda area, on the way to El-Arish. A tank is hit by a shell and stops. Shaul stops the jeep and asks the tank company commander if he needs any help. Before he receives an answer, the jeep receives a direct hit and bursts into flames. Shaul, Bentzi and Yoram are killed on the spot.
On the first night of the war, June 5, the patrol stops at El Arish. I look at the survivors, trying to work out who was wounded and who was killed. The men gather quietly, loading ammunition, filling up gas tanks, eating rations in little groups with sooty faces. They make almost no sound, trying to huddle together and protect one another - children who have been forced to grow up in just one day.
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