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Zvika Force: The Wall in the North

27 min read

Author: lobomau
Title: Zvika Force: The Wall in the North

On October 6, 1973, on the holiest day of the Judaic religion, the Yom Kippur, Syria and Egypt invaded territories hold by Israel simultaneously on the north and south. Both Egypt and Syria were trying to recapture territories lost to Israel during the previous engagement, the 6-Day war, also known as the June War in 1967.

harsh terrain.jpg
Contrary to the open desert in the south where Egypt invaded the Golan Heights plateau wasn’t exactly tank warfare friendly.

Although warned by Egyptian spies and their own Military Intelligence personnel the Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir had to put the typical pre-emptive strike on hold so Israel could get American military support in case of war. Actually the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence Moshe Dayan, and Chief of General Staff David Elazar met at 8:05 am the morning of Yom Kippur, six hours before the war began. Dayan opened the meeting by arguing that war was not a certainty.

The smaller Israeli force was well trained and expecting the enemy. Just not so many of them.

In the south the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal into the Sinai peninsula and overrun almost all the Israeli front line forts. Starting the attack with 100.000 soldiers, 1.350 tanks and 2.000 guns and heavy mortars the Egyptian Army quickly pushed aside the 450 Israeli soldiers divided in 16 forts along the Suez Canal. From the 290 tanks on three Armoured Brigades the Israelis had on the area only one was near the canal. The Egyptian Army quickly captured key areas and defended a strong and wide bridgehead. As the Israeli were masters of tank manoeuvre warfare the Egyptians avoided the open desert and tried to stick to the massive SAM (Surface to Air Missile) umbrella as long as possible. A lesson learnt from the 6-Day war when the Israeli Air Force wreaked havoc on the rear lines unchallenged.

Fighting a war on two fronts is hardly the best strategic position. Ask Germany!

In the North the Syrian Army poured 28.000 Syrian troops, 1.260 tanks and 600 artillery pieces through the cease-fire lines established by the UN. The defending Israeli tank crews had excellent marksmanship and killed most of the engineering vehicles trying to brave a path through the anti-tank ditches and obstacles. The Syrian infantry resorted to shovels and opened way for the tanks to push into Israel under heavy fire. The Israeli brigades had some 3,000 troops, 180 tanks, 60 artillery pieces and the high ground on the Golan Heights. The first major mistake by the Syrian Army was the delay in deploying the engineering and bridge laying vehicles to the front lines to get the tanks past the anti-tank ditches and traps. The Israeli crews were wide awake and prioritised them causing the loss of most of them and a few tanks too.

Off to a good start: being picked off one by one by Centurion tanks 3 km away…

While the Syrians rushed into the Golan Highs the Israeli High Command rushed to send troops to the same region. If the Syrians took hold of the Golan Heights it would pose a serious threat to some nearby major Israeli cities. The attack started at 1400h. The Syrians had expected the Israelis to get reinforcements in 24h.

The Syrian plan was a bit overconfident but they did have overwhelming superiority

Luckily for the IDF the low traffic of the holiday was an advantage and reservists were directed to the Golan Heights as quickly as possible. They were assigned tanks and sent to the front as soon as they arrived on the army Depots with hastily assembled crews and no machine-guns installed or tank guns calibration done. The first small groups of reservist tanks started arriving at the Golan Heights by 5 am, much sooner than the Syrian Army expected.

IDF Centurion I on the way to the Golan Heights
Israeli armoured column rushing north to the border at the outbreak of the war.

Returning to the afternoon of the 6th of October, Captain Zvi “Zvika” Greengold, a 21 year old tank commander was at his home near Haifa and saw the signs of war on the television. No one had mentioned war yet but he saw formations of 4 fighters flying north and pairs of fighters returning. He knew he had to go north as soon as possible and re-join his unit.

Greengold was a tank officer in the 188th Armoured Brigade, 74th Battalion. He told a newspaper he tried at “every opportunity” to opt out of his professional military service before the Yom Kippur War erupted. All he wanted to do was return to his home in Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot in the pastoral western Galilee, where he dreamed of tending to his fish pools.

The 74th Battalion was set up in the fall of 1971 when Greengold was a platoon commander. He then joined the battalion as an officer, becoming part of tank Company G, Platoon 3. Based at the Nafakh military base on the Golan Heights, Greengold took part in raids in Lebanon and in Syria. He also fired on enemy targets in Jordan.

Zvi Greengold

As the surprise conflict was approaching, the tank battalion left the front line and began training. “The company commander became sick and had to leave. We started to train. The brigade commander asked me to stay. I wanted to go back to the kibbutz. But I extended my service, and completed my deputy company commander’s course.”

Greengold superiors kept on asking him to stay. According to him he stayed “Because I was a good tank man. I didn’t say I was a great company commander. But I was always in demand in the tanks, as a driver, a gunner or a commander.”

Hitching rides, Greengold reached his unit headquarters, where he found an operations officer and just two tanks in poor condition after having taken a beating in the fight against the Syrians. After making rapid repairs, he led the tanks and their crews out of the base and headed towards the Syrian border. The two tanks would infamously later be known as the Zvika Force.

Centurion tank under repairs

Around 2100 hours the entire southern Golan tank force on the Golan Heights sighed with relief at the news of incoming reinforcements by the Zvika Task Force. One crewman later said: “It was very encouraging; a sign that reinforcements had arrived. We were convinced “Zvika’s Force” was coming to our rescue.

In Zvika’s own words, “The situation wasn’t clear. We thought our tanks had blocked the Syrians and, that overnight, they would mop up the area – and the war would be over tomorrow. From what I heard over the brigade radio, and from my own assessment, the task didn’t seem too difficult.”

The Syrian planed called for the occupation of the entire Golan Heights by evening of Sunday 7 of October. They had approximately 1.300 Russian T-54, T-55 and T-62 tanks supported by 1000 artillery pieces.

The Israeli forces defending the Golan Heights consisted of two Armoured Brigades. The 7th in the north sector and the 188th (Barak) Brigade in the south. They consisted of 170 tanks and 60 artillery pieces. The tanks were mostly Centurion British-made tanks, which underwent upgrades in Israel, including the installation of new engines and transmissions to speed up the platforms.

The other tank around the battlefield was the Sherman M-51 (M4A1 hulls with larger T23 turrets from 76 mm armed Shermans were used for the conversion to a 105mm French 105mm gun, the 105 mm Modèle F1). Around 180 Sherman M-51 were built along with 300 earlier version Sherman M-50 (the first 50 based on the M4A4 hull).

M-51 Sherman 105mm

World of Tanks can never again be played without Sgt_Krollnikow51 M-51 skin for the “Réveillon” (0.9.16 patched at publishing time)

The artillery support by the IDF artillery in the Golan Heights was mostly done by three self-propelled howitzers.

The Israeli made M-50 155mm based on the “long” hull of M4A4 with a French Model 50 155 mm howitzer at the back of the hull. Israel had around 120 units of these.

M-50 155mm self-propelled gun

The American made M107 175 mm self-propelled gun. Fully upgraded they had operational range over 50 km with increased accuracy! The IDF acquired over 200 vehicles. They were known as Romach, “spear”. These units were usually at the frontlines right behind the tanks and APCs because they were used to destroy the SAM (surface to air missiles) sites and allow the Israeli Air Force to operate.

M107 artillery near Kuneitra, Golan plateau
Another M107 near the Syrian front

Finally the American M110 203mm Self-Propelled Howitzer. The M110’s range varied from 16,800 meters to approximately 25,000 meters when firing standard projectiles, and up to 30,000 meters when firing rocket-assisted projectiles. Israel had 36 of these beasts.

I almost grasp the terror the Syrians on the receiving end must have felt…

By the end of the first day the commander of the Israeli forces on the Golan Heights, Colonel Ben-Shoham was greatly concerned by the Syrian advances in the southern sector, where the 51st Tank Brigade had broken through and was bypassing the Israeli fortifications in the vicinity of the Hushniya-Tapline crossroads.

Savage night-time firefights were taking place across the southern Golan Heights, and Israeli troops were cut off in their front line fortifications. Transmissions to their headquarters at Nafakh finally produced authorisation to withdraw, but this was easier said than done, with Syrian forces to their rear. At Kudne, a relieving tank force broke through to Bunker 111, despite strong Syrian forces in the immediate vicinity, and succeeded in evacuating all the men.

Along the southern flank, where the battle was then heaviest, the fight was more difficult. Israeli tanks fought through and relieved Bunker 114 and Bunker 115, but Bunker 116 was completely surrounded.

Struth, Thomas, Mount Bental, Golan Heights 2011
Preserved bunker on the Golans

Unable to get out, the Israelis sat tight in their defences and called for artillery support. The only available artillery was a single battery of 155mm guns, which was ordered to concentrate on Bunker 116’s position. The fire mission was extremely effective and provided temporary relief to the troops inside. Because of the penetration in his sector along the Tapline Road, Colonel Ben-Shoham attempted to move the forward headquarters (one Centurion tank and one halftrack) of his brigade from Nafakh to Juhader, where he believed he could better control the battle. He moved carefully along in the dark, avoiding Syrian formations, and his staff was relieved to reach Juhader.

M-50 crew working extra time.

By then, they were under constant heavy shelling, due to poor IDF communications discipline and successful Syrian SIGINT operations (Signal Intelligence also known as communications intelligence).

The Syrians obtained radio fixes every time a communications officer tried to contact his subordinate commanders. In the meantime, TF Zvika, which had left Nafakh several hours before, was moving cautiously along the Tapline Route.

Pushing into the night and intent on joining Colonel Ben-Shoham Zvika was confident but the situation changed rather quickly.

Zvika’s Task Force of two tanks moved in line abreast, slowly, carefully. After an hour, Zvika spotted his first Syrian tank, near the crossroads.

“I gave the company commander, Hagai Tzur, the better tank, and went into the more damaged tank [as the tank commander],” Greengold said. “That’s how I headed out.” With shells loaded, the tanks drove along the Petroleum Road [which stretches from the Golan Heights to the Syrian border]. We headed out, southbound, to scan the Heights.”

The Petroleum road or Tapline (Trans Arabic Petroleum Pipeline road) is a 47 km road that diagonally bisects the entire length of the northern portion of the Golan Heights. It was the site of many battles fought along its axis during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

The Petroleum Road on a good day with all the pot-holes covered

“It was very dark. We were at the Kudna Road. As we drove, I ran into a Syrian tank. I immediately opened fire, and the tank burned.”

“I fired and he burst into flames. There was a terrific flash so I backed away fast. Then I found the radio wasn’t working. I moved to the other tank and changed places with its commander. I told him, ‘Watch me and do as I do, if possible’. Within a short time, a second Syrian arrived and we set him ablaze. I saw others, then noticed that the tank alongside me had vanished. I was alone, and surrounded from the front and to the right. I fired in both directions, destroying a number, moving backwards all the time. They began a search with lights. I destroyed a few more. The brigadier asked over the radio how many tanks I had. I told him: ‘My situation isn’t good and I can’t tell you how many.’”

Zvika had encountered his first Syrian tank just 20 meters away. The ammo rack explosion on the Syrian tank was so violent it destroyed the radio system on his tank.

Ammo-racked Syrian tank

Zvika ordered his driver to back up fast. He then found that he had no way of communicating with the other tank or of even speaking with his own crew. The shock of the explosion of the Syrian tank had jolted out the radio and intercom circuits. Zvika jumped down to the roadway and stalked over to the other Centurion, ejecting its commander and motioning him to climb aboard the defective tank. “Watch me,” he cautioned the other man, “and do as I do, if possible”.

Zvika then continued to work his way south along the Tapline Road, the two tanks moving slowly forward, using the terrain to mask their movement. Zvika soon realized that he was alone, the other tank having lost its position in the dark.

Moving over the crest of a hill, Zvika was confronted by three Syrian tanks moving towards them with their driving lights on. Three rapid shots from the Centurion’s 105 mm gun left the enemy tanks blazing brightly, and the illumination of the area from the fire greatly aided Zvika’s movement. The intruders belonged to the 51st Independent Tank Brigade, and they were feeling their way into the Israeli rear, seeking to exploit the breakthrough. Apparently they had turned on their sidelights to see better, to gain speed. Zvika shifted into a new position and within minutes destroyed three more T55s.

Tapline road.jpg
Literally worse than the M4 (this one is for the UK players :D)

Literally worse than the M4 (this one is for the UK players :P)

Pushing ahead with a single Centurion tank Greengold reached the village of Huseiniya, deserted by its Syrian residents during the Six Day War. From there, he saw “many vehicle lights shining. There were trucks and tanks there. The whole of the Syrian army had arrived.”

Greengold reported the alarming discovery to his superior officer. “He had a conceptual problem. He could not grasp this information suddenly. He asked me how many forces I saw. I said, four times as many as you have. I’m too small for them.”

“How many are you?” Greengold’s commander asked. “I could not say I was just one tank. They were listening to our broadcasts. Zvika just said “We are not enough.” His superiors were too involved in the range of developing battles to understand the significance of his radio warning.

Zvika realized that the Tapline Road was a major avenue of approach, that he was frequently outnumbered and he was facing tanks with superior night fighting capabilities. Zvika chose to hold in his current position, take advantage of the defensible terrain, and wait for Syrian forces. Thirty minutes passed until they were alerted by the sound of heavy engines. A long column of T-55s appeared out of the darkness, followed by a procession of trucks. “It was as if the main body of Major Ismail’s 452nd Tank Battalion was on parade, so perfectly aligned and spaced was the column.

Zvika waited until the lead tank was only twenty meters from where he was hull down. The first shot stopped the first target and stalled the entire column. Zvika was up against terrible odds, but he had the enemy fixed and was in position to destroy the entire column. Zvika withdrew into the darkness, taking advantage of the scrub and rocky outcrops, only to appear and fire before disappearing again. He kept this uneven match going for over an hour. The Syrians’ sole warning was a crash and a long jet of white flame shooting through the night to destroy another of their vehicles. The Syrians were extremely bewildered by the single shot that kept hitting their tanks from all along the roadway.

Frustrated, several Syrian tankers switched on searchlights to try and locate what they thought was a sizeable enemy force. The illumination gave Zvika and his gunner more clear targets to engage. Ten armoured vehicles were either destroyed or damaged before Major Ismail ordered the remnants of his battalion to withdraw.

T-55 with frontal penetration on the turret left side.png
T-55 with penetration on the frontal left side of the turret

“I’m giving open-fire orders. Then I instruct the driver to go up [a mount] and descend – to avoid exposure. My sense was of responsibility. I stood there, facing the Syrian army, which was about to conquer the State of Israel. What kept going through my head was: I cannot fail.”

In subsequent years, Greengold said, that moment became part of a wider sense that the Jewish people’s back is “against the wall. We have no other option. We have nowhere to run to.”

Returning to his inconceivable one-tank battle against advancing Syrian armour, Greengold said, “I was not scared of dying. I was scared of failing. On the contrary, sometimes I thought that night, let them hit me already.” But Greengold kept fighting, striking Syrian tanks, and doing his best to stop the Syrians from overtaking the strategic Nafakh base.

Israeli propaganda says Syrian soldiers during the night fights abandoned their tanks and run on foot as they thought they were surrounded by a much superior force.

The brigade radio reports were desperate everywhere; lack of fuel and ammunition. “A feeling of helplessness overtook everyone,” Zvika says, “including the commander, because he had no reserve forces”.

Several miles further along the Tapline Road at Nafakh, Colonel Ben-Shoham realized he was surrounded. His brigade intelligence officer suggested that as it was impossible to get back to the Nafakh headquarters by the Tapline Road, they had better cut across country. Colonel Ben-Shoham directed his tank and the headquarters’ half-track to head west toward the ridge of the Golan Heights near Ramat Magshimim.

At approximately 02:00 on October 7, they reached the Gamla Rise overlooking the Sea of Galilee, a primary objective of the Syrian forces. They were dismayed to observe new Syrian T-62 tanks not far away along the escarpment, and in full view of Galilee. At that rate, Syrian forces would soon cross into the Israel flat countryside. The Israeli tank and its accompanying half-track continued to move along in dim moonlight, keeping among the boulders on the slopes to screen themselves from the large Syrian force moving parallel to their position. Colonel Ben-Shoham tried to determine the status of his brigade, and feared that very little remained.

Centurion and command half-track on the Golans

Meanwhile back in Nafakh, a reserve battalion commander named Lieutenant Colonel Uzi More received permission from the commander in charge of Northern Command to leave the base and take command of the tanks along the Tapline Route. He was to fight a delaying action along the Tapline Route to slow the Syrian advance towards Nafakh Camp. This force included Zvika’s small group and two reserve tank platoons of the Northern Command Reserve, which were the only reserves available in the southern sector.

Lieutenant Colonel More received the order from Colonel Ben- Shoham to mount a counterattack, and proceeded southwards along the Tapline Route, while Zvika and a platoon of tanks drove parallel along the road’s wire fences. Almost immediately, the first tank in Zvika’s column was set ablaze by a hand held anti-tank grenade.

“We tried to advance, but our first tank was set ablaze immediately by a bazooka. The road was blocked by tanks with searchlights. All night long, armoured brigades crossed the line with lights full on. We decided to send up a tank to help its damaged comrade. I moved up to give cover from the flank. Suddenly all three of us were ablaze. My gunner was injured; I felt the shock and the searing flame and pulled myself out. I was lying flat on the ground, but realized that the tank could explode; I went back to another of our tanks and then noticed I’d been wounded in my upper arms and on the left side of my face. I climbed into the tank and asked its commander to turn around.

“I was again alone with one tank. I saw the Syrian tank columns with supply and ammunition trucks. Today, I know that it was a whole armoured division.”

Syrian column destroyed on the Golan Heights

GOLAN HEIGHTS. Syrian vehicles destroyed by the Israeli aircraft. 1973.

Zvika’s shirt and trousers were burning, but he rolled into a ditch and somehow smothered the flames. He was fearful that at any moment his tank, still carrying fuel and ammunition, would blow up. Not realizing the extent of his wounds, he ran towards another tank, shouted garbled instructions, and took command of the vehicle. He then activated the communications system, announcing to all that TF Zvika was still in existence even as Colonel Ben- Shoham’s relieved acknowledgment faded on the radio, Zvika realized the extent of his wounds, and the terrible burns on his face and hands began to throb and blister. Only Colonel Ben-Shoham’s calm but insistent voice brought him back to reality.

Moving straight for him were two Syrian tanks, bearing down with their guns firing. Zvika fired and screamed for his driver to reverse. The tank shuddered as its tracks tore around on the bare rocks, then raced backward into the inferno of the night, its crew still battling against the heavy odds.

Destroyed Centurion

The remainder of Colonel Ben-Shoham’s counter attack force also made contact with the mechanized infantry that had been accompanying the tanks that Zvika encountered. More’s tanks were hit and disabled, one at a time. When More saw a Syrian soldier aim an antitank rocket at his command tank, he grabbed hold of his free machine gun and opened fire. However, his machine gun jammed and the Syrian grenadier let fly. More was thrown from his tank and lost an arm and an eye in the blast.

Colonel Ben-Shoham reported up the chain of command the failure of his counter attack and did his best to stabilize the situation. With minimal resources he calmed the nerves of his commanders, called for artillery support, and attempted to maintain situational awareness of the battle that surrounded.

From time to time, Lt. Zvika’s sole tank on the Petroleum Road would sally out, fire, hit a Syrian tank, set it ablaze and dash back in again. At 03:00 hours it stopped firing rather than wear down the remaining forces, waiting until morning for additional tanks or Air Force support.

In order to improve command and control, Colonel Ben-Shoham requested the command of all forces in the southern Golan from the regional commander. It was apparent that the Syrians were swarming all over the southern sector of the Golan Heights. In the north, the Israeli 7th Armoured Brigade was defending positions in and around Booster Ridge against the Syrian 7th Infantry Division, elements of the 3rd Armoured Division, and a brigade of Moroccan troops. Fighting from prepared positions, the Centurion equipped 7th Armoured Brigade held out against odds sometimes as high as 15 to 1.

Under constant artillery and air attack, Colonel Ben Gal, the 7th Armoured Brigade commander, calmly directed his dwindling forces, maintaining a reserve which he moved from ambush to blocking position to battle position during 72 hours of continuous fighting.

The 7th Armoured Brigade, although down to a handful of operational tanks, never gave up their primary positions. In the southern sector, the crisis continued to develop. Sunrise on the 7th of October revealed that the Syrians had achieved a major breakthrough in the southern sector of the Golan Heights. The 132nd Mechanized Brigade and 47th Independent Tank Brigade of the 5th Infantry Division had made a major penetration along the Rafid El-Al road. The Syrians exploited this penetration with the 43rd, 51st, and 91st Armoured Brigade, a force of more than 500 tanks.

Colonel Ben-Shoham identified the advancing second-echelon Syrian columns, and chose to regroup his forces and attempt to delay the Syrian penetration. His tank and half-track sped back towards Nafakh, dodging tank and RPG fire along the entire route.

Israeli armour breakthrough in the Golans

Colonel Ben-Shoham realized all that remained of his brigade were a handful of tanks fighting for their lives along the Tapline Route. He decided his best course of action would be to rally his meagre forces and join his deputy, Colonel Yisraeli, and the 679th Reserve Armoured Brigade (now reaching the front in small numbers). “Every three tanks now reaching the front were assembled into make-shift platoons, patched into the communications network and rushed towards Ben- Shoham’s position.

Tanks in action on the Golan heights.jpg
Centurions on the offensive
Army reservists assembling at an Army base on the north

All in all, two companies were pieced together, and the newly formed units reached Nafakh and re-established the Barak Brigade’s headquarters. At approximately 1145, Major Baruch Lenschner identified a lead element from the Syrian 1st Armoured Division as the 91st Armoured Brigade. Major Lenschner, Deputy Commander of an independent Northern Command battalion, was commanding a hastily assembled force of initially 14 Centurions. That was now down to two operable tanks. He reported sighting the T-62s of the 91st Armoured Brigade and stated that his position was untenable. Colonel Ben-Shoham urged the young major to hold at any cost. Major Lenschner and his small force were not heard from again. It was later determined that Major Lenschner perished when the warhead of a Sagger missile punched through the Centurion’s turret armour and his force was overrun.

Outflanked, the brigade headquarters at Nafakh was now under attack. Ben- Shoham was ordered to return to Nafakh for the base’s defence, and ordered his deputy Lieutenant-Colonel Yisraeli to set out and cover his force.

Unknown to Colonel Ben-Shoham, Zvika had met up with Colonel Yisraeli’s force at dawn and fought in the battle that delayed the Syrian 51st Tank Brigade’s attack along the Tapline Route. Just when Zvika had thought they were gaining the upper hand, Yisraeli frantically ordered his force back to Nafakh to escape the Syrians’ outflanking movement. Throughout the retreat, Colonel Ben- Shoham’s tank came under heavy Syrian artillery and tank fire.

Both he and Yisraeli succeeded in destroying more than twenty Syrian tanks and vehicles. As the battle raged and Syrian tanks approached to close range, Yisraeli’s gunner announced that the tank was out of ammunition. Yisraeli ordered his driver to charge an oncoming T-62 with machine guns blazing. Within moments, his tank in flames, Lieutenant-Colonel Yisraeli was dead.

Burning Centurion tank

Ben-Shoham, unaware of the fate of his deputy, continued to issue orders. Standing upright in the turret, Ben-Shoham observed the battle, firing at Syrian crewmen fleeing their burning vehicles. As he searched the hills for Syrian commandos, a sudden 7.62mm volley killed Colonel Ben-Shoham.

Col. Yitzhak Ben-Shoham and crew memorial monument. The memorial for Lieutenant-Colonel Yisraeli and crew is 100m away from this one.

At dawn, Zvika was joined by a company of tanks. He deployed the force against possible attack by Syrian aircraft and armour and asked the brigadier to send ‘somebody more serious’ to command. The brigadier promised to come personally. While they were still talking, the Syrian artillery opened fire on “Zvika’s Force”, immediately followed by a tank charge.

“I improved my position. I was prepared to die on this road,” he said. “Opposite us, we saw a Syrian armoured division, made up of some 100 tanks and 40 armoured personnel carriers.

They began firing (Soviet-made anti-tank) Sagger missiles. We were 16 tanks. We headed up to our positions and began a fresh battle. Hagai and I gained experience in dealing with the Syrians and their Saggers from past raids. I passed on instructions to the other crews over the radio on how to dodge them. The brigade commander kept the ammunition supply going.”

“We hit a lot of [enemy] tanks,” he said.

“A battle began at a range of 1,500 yards – armour against armour. They had a whole armoured division, but didn’t know how to fight,” Zvika remembers. “During the day, it went very well, considering there were only 16 of us. Towards noon the situation was definitely improving. “

Two destroyed T-62 tanks

But this was a Syrian trap: while their armour was battling Zvika’s Force, another force was bypassing to assault Nafakh cross-roads and the nearby command post. Zvika was ordered to withdraw to Nafakh, where there were no tanks to meet the Syrians.

Radio instructions went out for all IDF units to storm the Syrian forces near Nafah, and save the base from invasion.

The 91st Armoured Brigade continued its push towards Nafakh. Lieutenant- Colonel Menachem (Pinie) Cooperman, deputy commander of the District (administrative) Brigade, organized Nafakh’s defences and issued antitank weapons to soldiers manning the perimeter.

Standing at the southern perimeter fence, he watched the advance of approximately two Syrian tank companies, and ordered the advanced headquarters group to withdraw from Nafakh.

As this force left the base, hundreds of Syrian shells rained down on the camp. Syrian tanks were now entering Nafakh unhindered, firing point blank at the base’s evacuated buildings, raking the Israeli defenders with coaxial and turret-mounted machine guns. Lieutenant- Colonel Cooperman grabbed the division’s deputy intelligence and operations officers, a bazooka and six shells and rushed to try and stop the Syrians from taking Nafakh.

As the Syrian tanks reached the camp fences, Zvika and Shai in two tanks got into the camp to try and stop them. But when Zvika’s driver saw soldiers fleeing before the Syrians, he went into shock and raced out of the camp on a half-track. Zvika was driverless in a damaged, unusable tank.

“The brigade commander has been overturned.” shouted Zvika through the tumult, gesticulating with his hands. Over the radio, he asks, “I don’t see enough of a force to stand up to the scores of Syrian tanks. What should I do?”

Zvika had three tanks without ammunition. “The Syrian tanks are advancing along the ridges above the Oil Route – which is completely open. We have nothing with which to stop them.”

It seemed that the crossroads on the approach to Bnot Yaakov Bridge would fall into Syrian hands, but help appeared in the form of a tank unit fighting from the north. The information officer realized they could establish a second defence line at Aliqua. He set up the tank force and a 120mm battery on the road the Syrians would be forced to use because of their own mine-fields elsewhere… It was a suicide move, in a final effort to block the Syrian stream to the bridge.

Shmulik adds a wounded tank commander from a nearby base to Zvika’s force; Zvika’s gunner keeps making good hits; two more reservist tanks are rounded up and positioned. Then Syrian ground-to-air missiles shatter two Israeli Air Force Skyhawk, while the bazooka ammunition runs out on terra firma. As Zvika begins taking on ammunition, he spots another wave of Syrian tanks advancing towards Nafakh.

An A4 Skyhawk flies over an armoured column in the Golans. They played key roles on the Yom Kippur war suffering heavy casualties.

The brigade’s three officers begin moving along the camp fencing and firing at the Oil Route, the ridges, in every direction, creating a pincer which catches the Syrians in crossfire.

Command doesn’t understand what’s happening at Nafakh; when the command jeep sets out to see, they are informed, “There’s no one in the camp except a single tank fighting like mad along the fences.”

Members of the Engineering Corps repairing a Centurion near the front line on the Golans

In the meantime the 679th Reserve Armoured Brigade had arrived to save the day. Firing at long range, the 679th managed to hold the Syrians and push them out of Nafakh. Yet Syrian tanks were still inside the base, and Lieutenant Colonel Cooperman’s determined antitank unit, now out of ammunition, was cornered by a T-62. As the T-62’s 115mm gun turned towards them, the tank went up in a ball of flame. Approaching the rescued officers was a battered tank moving at a slow speed. It was Zvika! Zvika had arrived at Nafakh camp just as the Syrians were breaking in, he had joined forces with a reserve tank, and with more enthusiasm than good sense his exhausted crew attacked the Syrians.

A platoon from Col. Uri Orr’s 679th Brigade with two Centurion and an M113

“Zvika fired wildly at everything in sight — at the hills and the fences and at the Syrian tanks that had already flattened the perimeter fence. The truth was that his tank driver was in the shock of exhaustion and could no longer react to orders after twenty hours of continuous, nerve-twisting battle. During the pandemonium, Zvika attached himself to the 679th Armoured Brigade and with them forced the Syrians out of the ruined camp and back onto the Tapline Road.

“By chance, a situation developed in which the Syrians came under fire from three to four directions. They interpreted this as an ambush, and began to retreat. This is where the battle for the Golan Heights was decided. This is where the battle was decided,” Greengold stressed.

The Syrian advance had been stopped at Nafakh and the blackened, smoking wreckage of their tanks, personnel carriers, and trucks lay everywhere, in the camp and on the dun-coloured hills.

Had the Syrians taken Nafakh, they could have continued to push south, taking the rest of the Golan, and begin an advance down the Jordan Valley.

The results would have been catastrophic.

cent and destroyed syrian tank.jpg
Obliterated Syrian T-55 and a Centurion in the background.

“Brigade 188 stood on the first line and blocked the Syrian armour,” Greengold said.

The brigade paid a very heavy price. Its commander, Col. Ben Shoham, deputy commander, Col. Yisraeli, and many of Greengold’s fellow soldiers had been killed in action.

Zvika had been directing the fighting in the camp as if his force were bent on suicide. Treads grinding and churning, his tank sought out firing positions. Then he heard over the radio, “Aliqua’s being attacked!” and leaves to aid his mother base.

At the Nafakh intersection, he comes upon scores of burning Israeli and Syrian vehicles, but off to the side are three abandoned IDF tanks – in working order. He strikes the steel plate of the tank with his fist.

At Aliqua Zvika discovers it was a false alarm and asks what’s being done; he studies the makeshift defence line. Suddenly, he removes his helmet and climbs down from the Centurion. The Barak Brigade intelligence officer — now the nominal brigade commander — rushed up to greet the lieutenant. As he fought an overwhelming lethargy, Zvika painfully climbed from the turret and carefully dropped to the ground, where he levelled his eyes on the intelligence officer and apologetically murmured, “I can’t anymore.” The intelligence officer said not a word; he hugged Zvika close and led him to the medical evacuation centre. There is no way to calculate the damage that that iron-willed redheaded youth inflicted upon the best plan with which Syria has ever entered a conflict.

After the war, Zvika explained: “I still had strength. What broke me up was the sight of those three abandoned tanks. I got out of the tank feeling that the Israeli Army had reached the end of its road and the Golan wouldn’t stand fast. I felt defeated and broken… the helplessness of inadequate force and inability to assist our weak points. One thing that stayed with me after this war was the feeling of being alone – not in a room, but in a war – with one tank.”

That night, the information officer finally gets through to command HQ and Zvika asks for instructions for the following day. “What?” he hears… “You’re still alive?”

Taken aback, but recalling the last wishes of his late brigade commander, Zvika replies slowly, “Yes, we’re still alive” and replaces the receiver.

Lt. Zvika collapsed after 30 hours of combat. His superiors estimate that Zvika destroyed 60 Syrian tanks single-handedly, although he only claims 20. “There are men, alive and dead, who did wonderful things we don’t even know about”, he explains. “The men on the line did exceptional things and I pale by comparison.”

For his incredible 24 hours on the Golan, Lieutenant Greengold was awarded the Ot Hagvura (Order of Bravery), the IDF’s medal for supreme valour.

After a day of rest and recovery the IDF changed its stance from outnumbered desperate defence to major offensive push into Syria.

After the desperate battles it was time for retribution on the IDF perspective and the Tapline road was the way  into Syria chasing the remenants of the retreating Syrian divisions.


Iraqi tanks burning about 60 km from Damascus. An Iraqi armoured column arrived at Damascus after a 24 hour drive expecting a victory parade only to be sent to the front line to stop the mighty retribution of the IDF armoured spearhead.

Tel Saki Memorial site

At the battle of Tel Saki, one of the first of the 1973 Israeli Yom Kippur War, a handful of Israeli paratroopers and armored soldiers stood their ground, fighting off thousands of Syrian troops for three days. 35 Israeli soldiers gave their lives in the course of these three days, three were taken as POW and practically everyone else was injured. Two soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for courage in battle: Shlomo Avital and Beni Hannani.

“Valley of Tears” Monument

Oz 77 (77th Regiment) Memorial at the Golan Heights. A tree was planted for each of the soldiers in the 77th regiment who fell in this battle.

When the battle was over there were around 260 tanks burning on this usually peaceful valley on the Golan Heights.

Even today the Golan Heights are littered with tanks and memorials as a testimony of the past battles. 

Syrian SU-100 abandoned or destroyed.

The price paid by both sides was terrible.  


Two ex-Syrian T-62 model 1972 tanks during trials in Aberdeen, USA. Abandoned intact vehicles were captured by Israeli troops during Yom Kippur war, then transferred to USA.

This is all for today, I hope you enjoyed the reading.

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