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On Monday, the 5th of June 1967, Israel called the bluff of the posturing Arab states at its borders when it launched its air force in the direction of Egypt.
In a coordinated attack of exemplary precision, 16 enemy airfields were struck at 8.45 am local time. According to Israeli intelligence reports, the Egyptian dawn flying patrols would be back at the base, and the fighter planes would be refuelling on the tarmac. The pilots would be in the mess hall enjoying breakfast, and the commanders would be in their cars travelling to work and would, therefore, be incommunicado.
To make matters worse for the Egyptians, the head of their armed forces, Field Marshal Amer, and that of the air force, Sidqi Mahmoud, as well as the generals leading the troops, were all on their way to a parade at Bir Tamada airfield in Sinai.
They were unable to be contacted, and a long way from their command posts.
A further calamitous decision was the order to stand down the Egyptian air defence system. Just in case, by mistake, they locked on to the plane carrying the dignitaries to the parade, the air defences were shut down for the day.
Ranged against this lackadaisical enemy were almost 200 Israeli fighter planes. They would reach their targets at precisely the same time and deliver a knockout blow before the Egyptians knew what had hit them. Then, with complete control of the skies, the ground troops could go in and finish the job.
To a man, the Israelis knew what they were doing. It is difficult to imagine a better prepared, more motivated fighting machine. Each man believed he was fighting for the very existence of his country and wished to secure it for the coming generations.
Ranged against this well-drilled force were 350 Egyptian fighter planes, only half of them serviceable at the time. There were also 64 bombers, but less than half of these were operational on the morning of the attack.
At a quarter-to-nine, Egyptian time, the air assault began. Wave after wave of Israeli planes launched missiles onto the runways to put them out of use and strafed the planes on the ground with automatic fire.
Met with limited resistance, the Israelis could pick off their targets at will. In what must have appeared a shocking echo of the war of 1956, the Egyptian air force was destroyed on the ground before it had an opportunity to scramble.
Meanwhile, the plane carrying Amer and Mahmoud was forced to turn back. The airfield they were heading for had been targeted, and it was too dangerous to attempt to land. The other military air bases had suffered the same fate, and they were forced to head for Cairo International airport, which meant the two senior military personnel were removed from operations for a further hour-and-a-half. Everything was going right for Israel, and going completely wrong for Egypt.
The Field Commander managed to get a message to Egypt’s Jordanian allies to say that Egypt was under attack and they should join the action immediately.
He added the morale-boosting report that 75% of the Israeli planes had been destroyed and that Egyptian land forces were engaging the Israelis in the Sinai Peninsula with success.
Cairo Radio had begun reporting news of the Israeli attack too. Dozens of enemy planes were reported shot down. ‘Israel’s treacherous aggression has been repelled,’ the jubilant announcer cried, ‘and Egypt is now advancing on all fronts and confronting the enemy.’
Across the Arab world, people rushed into the streets in celebration. Someone shouted ‘It is a great day for the Arabs’. It seemed to the uninformed masses that Israel’s day of reckoning had come.
Jordan possessed a modest air force consisting of 24 Hawker Hunter jets. They were slow, yet highly manoeuvrable, and they did pack a punch. Her pilots were also well-trained, and they were up for the battle.
Ihsan Shurdom, a 25-year-old captain in the Jordanian air force, awaited the order to attack. He could see dots on the radar heading into Israel, and his instinct said they were IAF planes returning to base. He wanted to go after them while they were low on fuel and ammunition.
Shurdom’s superiors believed the planes on the radar must be Egyptian. If the radio reports were to be believed, Tel Aviv was about to feel the force of the Arab response. The young captain was refused permission to engage.
A Palestinian Brigade in Gaza had more success, shooting down an Israeli plane, forcing the pilot, Mordechai Livon, to eject over the Mediterranean, where he was picked up and taken to Cairo for questioning.
At 10.20 am, the Middle East News Agency ticker tape reported that 23 Israeli planes had been downed. This figure was revised an hour later to 42. Across the Arab world, people ran out of their houses and danced in the streets.
At ten minutes to twelve, Ihsan Shurdom finally received permission to engage. Sixteen Jordanian planes took off for airfields in Israel. They found just four planes on the ground, which they destroyed. The rest were nowhere to be seen. Shurdom and the others returned to base.
The missing Israeli planes were busy mopping up the Egyptian operation. Field Marshal Amer phoned Fayed airbase personally and asked for a damage report. He was told that all of the Mig-23s had been destroyed. A dozen bombers and three Mig-19s were all that was left.
Six Egyptian Tupolev bombers had been airborne when the attacks occurred and had therefore survived, and they were ordered to make for Luxor airport. Unfortunately, the Israelis intercepted the message and pursued the aircraft to the new location and destroyed them there.
By midday, the Egyptian air force was no more.
In the evening of the first day of fighting, Cairo Radio reported that 82 enemy planes had been shot down. The Israelis did not bother to correct the reports. They did not want the wider world to know how well they were doing.
Israel was making territorial gains and wanted to continue doing so before a cease-fire could be agreed. Israel intended to hold onto her spoils this time, unlike in 1956 when she had been forced to withdraw to the lines held before fighting began.
With the Egyptians grounded, Israel went after Jordan and Syria. Ishan Shurdom and his men downed four enemy Mirage fighter planes but, back at base, their airfield had been destroyed along with their remaining aircraft. Then Shurdom was hit in a dogfight and just managed to escape to an alternate airport.
In just one day, Israel had destroyed the aerial forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. According to Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, the losses amounted to 374 Arab planes: 286 Egyptian, 52 Syrian, 27 Jordanian, and 9 Iraqi aircraft. This had been achieved at a cost to themselves of 19 IAF planes and 9 pilots. Israel had lost ten percent of its air force, but it had gained supremacy of the skies and aerial cover for her ground forces.
Sixteen Egyptian airfields were put out of action in the first wave of Israeli attacks. Two more, Cairo and El Mansour, were hit in the second phase when it was found that fighter planes were being housed there. El Arish airport escaped unscathed, being deliberately left alone to be used later as a forward base for the Israelis.
It had been a stunning victory – efficient and ruthless – and a vindication of the military’s confidence. It was a rout, no matter what Cairo Radio said.
Down on the ground, progress had also been made, albeit more slowly. The army was ranged in three separate positions with individual missions. One group was led by Brigadier-General Ariel Sharon, another by Brigadier-General Avraham Yoffe, and a further division was under the command of Brigadier-General Israel Tal.
Before embarking on the operation, Tal had informed his officers that ‘This is a fight, if necessary, to the death. Each man will charge forward to the very end, irrespective of the cost in casualties. There will be no halt and no retreat. The fate of your country depends on it.’
The fighting would be, at times, hand to hand. Corporal Rafael Eitan and his 202nd Paratrooper Brigade were in the thick of it near Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip.
‘We fought for our lives,’ Eitan said later. ‘I fired my Uzi non-stop.’
The Israelis met stiff resistance, but the Arabs lacked leadership, and it was only the bravery of individual troops and divisions that stood in the way of the superior Jewish forces.
Artillery rained down on Egyptian positions throughout the night. Better trained and better equipped, and able to call in air support when needed, the Israelis were in pole position as they fought their way across the Sinai desert.
In the push towards Suez, by land and air, Israel made great inroads. It was one of the most comprehensive victories of any war ever fought. And that was the first day.
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