Back to main page

 The 87th. Armored Recon. Battalion      

The Unit that lead the way to the Suez Canal crossing and the turning point in the 1973 War

                             

History of the 87th

The 87th Armored Reconnaissance Battalion was formed in May 1973 as a reserve unit of the 143rd Armored Division ("Pillar of Fire"). Most crewmen and officers were from tank and reconnaissance units; young soldiers that just had completed their regular military service, and for whom this training was their first reserve call. The battalion CO was Lieutenant-Colonel Ben-Zion (Bentzi) Carmeli, a veteran of the six day war (see "The Tanks of Tammuz" by Shabtai Tevet). Company commanders were: "A" company - Captain Rafael (Rafi) Mitzafon, "B" company - Captain Rafael (Rafi) Bar-Lev, and "C" company - Captain Yigal Abiri. Captain  Israel Zohar commanded the jeep company, "D". The battalion consisted of 24 tanks - Patton M60A1 - and 36 M113 Armored Personnel Carriers. The unit underwent several weeks of rigorous training at "Ze'elim", the main army training facility, and participated three months later in a large divisional exercise. The former division CO, Major-General Shemuel Gonen (Gorodish) had been assigned GOC Southern Command and the new division CO was the former GOC Southern Command, Major-General (Res.) Ariel (Arik) Sharon.

In the morning hours of October 6th 1973 - Yom Kippur, the holiest of all Jewish holydays, when it was clear to the General Staff and the government that war with Egypt and Syria was going to break out during the day, the reserve IDF units were mobilized including the 87th together with the entire 143rd armored division. The division was sent in emergency to the Sinai frontier against the Egyptians. During the late hours of the night and early morning hours of the October 7th, the unit rushed to the Sinai desert's central sector. All armored vehicles moved on tracks due to lack of tank transporters.

In the afternoon hours of October 7th, the 87th assembled a few kilometers south-west of Tasa, on the road code-named "Akavish" (Spider), leading from Tasa to the north-eastern "corner" of the Great Bitter Lake and took up positions on a sandy ridge overlooking the area of Deversoir located to the North of the point where the Suez Canal joins the northern extremity of the Great Bitter Lake. Here the unit experienced its baptism of fire, repelling the Egyptian attempts to advance in this area. The next morning , October 8th, a counter-attack was launched by the Southern Command, lead by the 162nd armored division under the command of Major-General Adan, against the bridgehead of the Egyptian 2nd army. The initial reports which seemed to indicate success for the 162nd caused Southern Command to order General Sharon to move the 143rd armored division hastily southward in order to attack the Egyptian 3rd army. As this movement would leave a key area exposed, the deputy CO of the division, Colonel Jackie Even, after having obtained approval from General Sharon, ordered the 87th recon battalion to hold positions on the sandy hill area code-named "Hamadia" - an area controlling the designated future crossing point of the Suez Canal. In fact, a week later Sharon's division stormed this area and bridged the Canal into Egypt in a maneuver that would eventually change the course of the war. Positioned alone on the "Hamadia" sandy ridge, the 87th came under heavy attack by outnumbering Egyptian forces, and at 15:30 the tank of Lieutenant-Colonel Carmeli was hit directly by a heavy mortar shell. Carmeli, who was standing exposed in the turret, was killed instantly by shrapnel, and a tank platoon commander injured. The 87th continued to hold the line, under the command of the CO of "A" company, Captain Rafi Mitzafon.

Later that day it became clear to Southern Command that the counterattack by General Adan's division had failed and General Sharon was ordered to turn the 143rd back to its former position. Just at the right moment, the tanks of the 600th armored brigade, rushing at full speed, appeared in the "Hamadia" area to relieve the hard pressured 87th and to drive the Egyptians back. The 87th withdrew a couple of kilometers from the battle zone in order to reorganize.

On the evening of October 8th, while the 87th was refueling and rearming, a soft-spoken young major reported to the unit HQ. This was Yoav Brom, just having received his orders from the HQ of the 14th armored brigade to take over the command of the 87th which now had been attached to the brigade. Yoav had been on vacation abroad when war broke out, and had returned to Israel on the first flight possible. His quiet professional attitude inspired everybody in the unit, which soon regained its fighting spirit in spite of the loss of their former and highly respected commander.

On October the 9th the 87th was ordered to perform a scouting mission after dark in order to locate weak points along the sector border between the Egyptian 2nd and 3rd armies. Finding such a corridor could be utilized in a future breakthrough to the eastern bank of the Suez Canal and crossing and establishing of a bridgehead on the western bank. In addition the 87th was ordered to locate, if possible, survivors from the IDF strongholds on the eastern Canal bank. At nighttime, after a long move in the dunes, the task force of three companies and medical and ordnance platoons reached the bank of the Great Bitter Lake. The enemy forces could be clearly observed, while the 87th remained undiscovered by the Egyptians. Before dawn the 87th returned undisturbed through the dunes, completing a mission that was vital for the planning of the future breakthrough and crossing of the Canal.

During the next two days the unit was reorganized, rearmed and resupplied. On October 12th the unit was ordered to deploy in the southern sector of the brigade, and to hold the front line from the "Kishuf" (Witchcraft) strongpoint and in a sector southward about 30 km. wide. The main action during the next couple of days was patrolling and observing the movements of the enemy forces.

On October 14th, shortly after sunrise, the Egyptian army launched an attack along the entire front line. The Egyptian 21st armored division, equipped with Russian T-62 tanks, attacked in the sector of the 143rd armored division. In the ensuing battle the Egyptian forces were pushed back with heavy losses. At the end of the day 200 Egyptian tanks had been destroyed and the 143rd division lost 20 tanks. The tanks of the 87th battalion launched a successful counterattack against the southern flank of the Egyptian division, inflicting serious damage and causing confusion in the enemy lines. But price paid by the 87th was heavy: seven warriors had been killed during the day and many more injured, including the commanders of "A" and "C" companies. They were replaced by two junior officers, Captain Assaf Avizohar ("A") and Lieutenant Itzik Kahana ("C").

Following the success in crushing the Egyptian attack, the 143rd division issued battle orders, on the morning of October 15th, for Operation "Abirei Lev" (Hebrew for "Stouthearted" or "Knights of Heart"). The orders included:

 

            1:         To lead a storm attack on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal close to the northern

                        tip of the Great Bitter Lake. [see map]

  

            2:         To establish a bridgehead on the western bank of the Canal by the 247th paratrooper

                         brigade crossing in rubber dinghies.

  

3:         To expand the bridgehead by armored vehicles being ferried over the Canal by barges

            and special amphibious tank transporters ("Alligators").

  

            4:        To extend and expand the battle on the western bank by two more armored divisions

                        crossing the Canal on floating bridges, in order to surround the two Egyptian armies on

                        both banks of the canal.

The 87th, still attached to the 14th armored brigade, was ordered to lead the attack, taking advantage of its experience from the scouting mission on October 9th. Shortly before H-Hour, which was set at 1800 hrs, the commanding officer of the 14th Brigade, Colonel Amnon Reshef, addressed the warriors of the 87th. He emphasized the importance of the unit's mission to lead the brigade, the division, Southern Command, and in fact the entire IDF in an attack that could (and indeed would) change the course of the war, transferring the battle into the enemy's homeland encircling the 3rd Egyptian army and launching pressure on the 2nd army, which was stuck in its October 14th position. The Colonel's address was recorded by a military correspondant attached to the 14th brigade and the recording has been preserved until today.

Colonel Reshef's address to the 87th. - October 15th. 1973 at 17:40 Hrs.

The 87th was ordered to reach the area designated for the launching of the Canal crossing by going westward along the sector border between the two Egyptian armies (the same path the unit had identified on its scouting mission), then northwards along the road that runs parallel to the Canal, and finally westwards towards the bank of the Canal in a three-pronged movement. "B" company was ordered to lead the unit and to take up the northernmost position, "C" company would follow and hold the center, and finally "A" company, accompanied by the medical and ordnance platoons, would deploy in the southern position, in the actual area of the Canal crossing. Three tank and three paratrooper battalions were to follow the 87th and attack the southern flank of the 2nd Army. The paratroopers of the 247th brigade would follow to establish the bridgehead on the western bank of the Canal.

The initial phase of the operation caught the Egyptians by total surprise, and the 87th reached its designated positions undiscovered, receiving only sporadic and uncoordinated fire, mainly from small arms. Unluckily, one armor-piercing 5.56 mm bullet hit the APC of Captain Dov Dechter, injured him in the back of the neck and left "A" Company without deputy CO.

By then, the Egyptian forces had recovered from the surprise, and the 184th tank battalion was met with heavy anti-tank fire and suffered severe losses, especially in the vicinity of the strategically important road junction "Tirtur-Lexicon". North of this junction and East of the Lexicon road was an area, traversed by numerous deep irrigation canals, nicknamed "The Chinese Farm". This was actually an experimental agricultural farm built before the Six Day War using Japanese equipment . When the Israeli forces reached this area after the 1967 war, the Japanese inscriptions on the equipment were mistaken for Chinese letters, hence the name. Holding the "Tirtur-Lexicon" junction and the surrounding key area, including the "Chinese Farm", was obligatory in order to control the transport of the heavy bridging equipment for the crossing of the Canal.

When it became clear around 0300 hrs on October 16th that "Tirtur-Lexicon" was still controlled by the Egyptians, the 87th was ordered to launch an attack on the junction from the west. Almost at the beginning of the attack the 87th came under heavy tank and missile fire. A small unit of four tanks and few APC's, lead by the battalion CO, Major Yoav Brom, did actually reach and pass the junction, but then his tank was hit and he was killed instantly. The tanks of the CO's of "A" and "C" companies were both hit, the one of "C" destroyed. The two company commanders were injured, but reached the medical platoon that had followed the tanks eastward on "Tirtur", and were treated and evacuated. Further to the north, "B" company, which had been ordered to join and assist the 79th armored battalion, had many casualties, including the company commander, Captain Bar-Lev who was killed when his tank was hit and exploded, the driver being the only survivor.

Dawn of October 16th found the unit fighting for its existence as a coherent combat unit. At that stage 87th had lost its commander as well as many officers in key positions and only few tanks remained serviceable. One APC, carrying injured soldiers from the night battle at the center section of the "Chinese Farm" to the unit's medical platoon situated on "Tirtur", was ambushed by the Egyptians, who killed all the defenseless wounded soldiers. A transmission with a horrible significance was broadcast over the battalion network by the battalion's deputy CO: "'Shikma' stations ('Shikma' was the battalion's call sign), this is Sunray Minor - who is still alive - report in order - over". More than anything else, this one cruel sentence told the fate of the gallant warriors of the  87th. Altogether, 25 warriors were killed during the heroic night battle and scores were injured.

Later in the morning, a tank with a brigade commander's mark appeared in the area where the remaining vehicles of the 87th had gathered. This was the tank of Colonel Reshef of the 14th brigade. After having assessed the situation, he decided to reassign the remaining warriors of the 87th to other units of the brigade.

From this moment, the morning of October 16th, the number "87" disappeared from the order of battle of the 143rd division and was erased from the boards of the Command Posts. Nevertheless, the warriors of the 87th continued the fight within their new units, mainly the 184th and the 79th tank Battalions, until the cease-fire. Five tanks (joined later by a sixth - "A" company's CO's tank that was hit and damaged during the night battle) - joined the 79th as "H" Company, and the remaining APC's including the medical platoon and most of the HQ company, joined the 184th.. On October 17th, "H" company, commanded by lieutenant Yair Litvitz, participated in a successful battle in the division's southern sector area against the 25th tank brigade of the Egyptian 3rd army trying to interfere with the Canal crossing. On October 18th, the 184th battalion participated in the final and successful effort to gain control of the key area around the "Tirtur-Lexicon" junction, but the crews of the 87th again paid a price of 6 more APC warriors who were killed in this action. On October 21st, the former CO of "A" company, Captain Rafi Mitzafon, who had been injured and evacuated to hospital from where he "escaped", was killed while serving as deputy CO of  a battalion within the 600th brigade. The dispersed warriors of the 87th continued the battle on the western bank of the Suez Canal, almost reaching Ismailia, when cease-fire was announced on October 22nd at 1900 hrs.. In the last minutes before the fighting ceased, 3 tanks from the 87th, attached to the 48th paratroop battalion, were hit and burned in the southern sector of Ismailia, 4 crewmen being killed.

Several weeks later, the 87th was re-created as a light reconnaissance unit of the 143rd division, with APC's and jeeps, including jeeps carrying TOW anti-tank missile launchers. The new CO was Lieutenant-Colonel Amatzia ("Patzi") Chen, a seasoned veteran who commanded the famous "Shaked" reconnaissance unit during the "War of Attrition" following the Six Day War. "Shaked" veterans and many of the 87th's warriors joined together to form this unit, that performed reconnaissance and patrols in the whole division sector. During this activity, the 87th suffered its last casualty, a young APC driver who was killed by a direct hit by an anti-tank missile on December 12th. A few days later Major Gdaliahu Bendor replaced Patzi as Unit Commander and served in this capacity until the withdrawal of IDF forces from Egypt and the inactivation and disbandment of the battalion. Thus, he became the last commanding officer of the 87th.

The 87th was 'born' just 5 months before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War and was decimated in battle. But the 87th had gained an honored prominent place in the history of the IDF, being remembered as the unit that located the critical corridor between the Egyptian armies and later lead the way to the Canal crossing and to the turning point of the War.

The commander of the 143rd armored division, Major-General Arik Sharon, later to become Prime Minister of the Government of Israel, wrote in a letter to the veterans of the 87th:

"At the moment of the cease-fire, when I was standing in the outskirts of Ismailia watching the last tanks of the 87th burning, I saw before my eyes the unit's warriors as I saw them on the day of Yom Kippur. I remembered the expression of resolve on their faces, and I knew now that they had not failed. Many of them did not live to see the end of the war, but they were the men that made the end of the war possible. I have known many battalions throughout my military career; the 87th was among the finest of them all."

Post Scriptum: The 87th suffered altogether 112 casualties during the war, 45 of whom were killed in action including two successive battalion CO's and two company CO's.

Major Yoav Brom was posthumously promoted to rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, and in addition received the Medal of Courage. Captain Rafi Bar-Lev and Captain Rafi Mitzafon were both posthumously promoted to rank of Major.

Lieutenant-Colonel Bentzi Carmeli was posthumously awarded a citation of valor by the IDF Chief-of-Staff.