South African Military History Society


The Yom Kippur war was fought 25 years ago this month, and although the Egyptian attack on the Israeli forces occupying Sinai did not turn out as planned, and would indeed have ended in another humiliating defeat had the war been allowed to go on longer, the Egyptians did achieve their diplomatic aim of a lasting "peace with honour". The war and its consequences were the subject of the curtain raiser at the 10th September meeting given by society chairman George Barrell.

Their brilliant victory in the Six-Day war of 1967 had left the Israelis in occupation of Sinai and entrenched on the east bank of the Suez Canal. The Egyptians had not only lost territory. Their self-esteem had been so damaged that it was not possible for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to conclude the peace with Israel he knew would be necessary to retrieve his country's lost territories and to grow its economy.

Accordingly, and with massive Soviet assistance, he set about rebuilding Egypt's military capabilities and planning an attack into Sinai across the Suez Canal. The action was to coincide with a similar Syrian attempt to regain lost territory on the Golan Heights to the north of Israel. The Israelis were well aware that something was afoot, but a combination of disdain for Arab military capabilities and the fact that the attack coincided with the Jewish religious holiday of Yom Kippur, when garrisons were at prayer and mobilisation would have been unpopular, ensured that the Israelis were caught unprepared. Moreover, since their defeat in the Six-Day War the morale and fighting effectiveness of the Egyptian forces had vastly improved. The result was that the lightly held Israeli defences on the east bank of the canal were speedily over-run, and the Syrians were able to regain their previous positions on the Golan Heights.

While still mobilising, the Israelis struck back at the Syrians and their Moroccan, Saudi, Iraqi and Jordanian allies, and with the help of their air force had pushed their enemies back. Within days they were within 32km of Damascus. By then they had switched their attention to countering the Egyptian advance, which was halted only 10km into Sinai in bitter and confused fighting. At this point, tank general Ariel Sharon identified a narrow gap north of the Great Bitter Lake between the Egyptian Second Army and the Third Army operating to the south of the lake. His armour was able to cross the canal and eliminate the Egyptian SAM missiles that had hitherto hampered the operations of the Israeli air force.

Helped by the dilatory response of the Egyptian armour, which appears to have lacked the aggressive spirit of the infantry, the Israelis were able to pour across the canal and encircle the Egyptian Third Army, thus turning an initial disadvantage into a brilliant military victory. Only an internationally enforced cease fire on 22nd October, just 16 days after the war began, saved Egypt from yet another humiliating defeat. However, the Egyptian Government was able to convince its people that their self-esteem had been restored, and eventually to retrieve the whole of its lost territory in Sinai. The peace that followed the Yom Kippur War has lasted to this day.

The "Unsung Heroes of War" was the title of the main lecture, given by society member Dr. Walter Murton, and the theme as expounded was that heroism is essentially parochial, often recognised only within national boundaries or according to religious criteria, is ephemeral, fickle, doubtful and graded. Accordingly heroism tends to be local in its impact and easily forgotten. International recognition is at first denied, and rapidly becomes inconsequential. Frequently it is not even acknowledged at all, and a hero in one place and under one set of circumstances, can be a villain in another place and under different circumstances,

This point was made with some force by one of the six examples quoted. At the beginning of World War One a young man volunteered for the German Army. He was not of robust physique and it was doubted whether he would be able to survive the rigours of military service. But he went on to distinguish himself to such a degree that he was twice awarded the Iron Cross. On one occasion he was out in no-man's-land when he came across a wounded French soldier. At the same time another French soldier approached, and together these two enemies carried the wounded man as close to the French lines as the German dared go. Afterwards he was so moved by the experience that he wrote a poem, which was read out. A picture of the hero concerned was easily recognised as that of Adolf Hitler.

Another example of unlikely heroism concerned the Penderel brothers, who, in 1651, following the Battle of Worcester in The English Civil War, rescued Prince Charles, the future Charles II, from capture by his Parliamentary pursuers. The Penderels were humble yeomen, and had little to gain from the risks they took with their own lives -- although they were handsomely rewarded when Charles was restored to his throne a decade later.

A case of parochial heroism was that of Colonel Moscardos, who held the fortress of Alcazar for the rebel Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War when the prevailing sentiment in the surrounding town of Toledo was overwhelmingly Republican. Despite the fact that his family, including his wife and two sons, were being held by the Republicans, and the threats to kill his eldest son if he did not surrender, Moscardos held out until relieved. The older boy was indeed murdered, although the younger one and his mother did escape with their lives.

The strange case of a Mrs Bixby, who claimed to have lost five sons in the American Civil War, and was the recipient of a memorable letter of condolence from President Lincoln himself, was quoted as an example of a heroine who was both ephemeral and doubtful. Mrs Bixby enjoyed a brief spell as a national icon, until it was discovered that no evidence could be found that she ever had five sons -- although she may have had three.

A hero unsung, and largely unknown, was Alan Turing, the mathematical genius who played such a vital role in the allied victory in World War Two when he led the team that broke the German Enigma codes in Operation Ultra, and in the process did much to establish the principles on which the modern computer works.

Finally, as an example of an unsung, and virtually unknown hero, a recording was played of a moving letter written to his wife by a Union soldier in the American Civil War a few days before he was killed at the Battle of Bull Run.

Members are reminded that now is the time when the lecture list for the coming year is being compiled. Anybody wishing to put their name forward for either a curtain raiser or a main lecture should contact committee member Kemsley Couldridge on (011) 440-5686, or at the next society lecture meeting. Next year marks the centenary of the start of the Anglo-Boer War, so anything on this topic will be especially welcome.


8 Oct
CR L Wildenboer The Making of the Atomic Bomb
ML H Paterson The Decision to Drop the Bomb
The October lectures include some new research on the subject based on recently published material.
12th Nov
CR John Murray Henry V's Agincourt Campaign of 1415
ML Martin Ayres Napoleon's Invasion of Russia in 1812

8th Oct
James Porteous The K-Class Submarine
Dave Matthews The Siege of O'Kiep

Cape Town:
8th Oct
Stan Lambrick The Role of the Navy in the American Civil War -- Part II
14th October (20h00) FROM ARQUEBUS TO ARMALITE The history & development of handguns

George Barrell (Chairman/Scribe) (011) 791-2581

CR = Curtain raiser ML= Main Lecture

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