Egypt's Trapped Third Army
The United Nations Security Council passed (14–0) Resolution 338 calling for a ceasefire, largely negotiated between the U.S. and Soviet Union, on October 22. It called upon the belligerents to immediately cease all military activity. The cease-fire was to come into effect 12 hours later at 6:52 pm Israeli time. Because this was after dark, it was impossible for satellite surveillance to determine where the front lines were when the fighting was supposed to stop. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger intimated to Prime Minister Meir that he would not object to offensive action during the night before the ceasefire was to come into effect.
Several minutes before the ceasefire came into effect, three Scud missiles were fired at Israeli targets by either Egyptian forces or Soviet personnel in Egypt. This was first combat use of Scud missiles. One Scud targeted the port of Arish and two targeted the Israeli bridgehead on the Suez Canal. One hit an Israeli supply convoy and killed seven soldiers. When the time for the ceasefire arrived, Sharon's division had failed to capture Ismailia and cut off the Second Army's supply lines, but Israeli forces were just a few hundred meters short of their southern goal—the last road linking Cairo and Suez.
Adan's drive south had left Israeli and Egyptian units scattered throughout the battlefield, with no clear lines between them. As Egyptian and Israeli units tried to regroup, regular firefights broke out. During the night, Elazar reported that the Egyptians were attacking in an attempt to regain land at various locations, and that nine Israeli tanks had been destroyed. He asked permission from Dayan to respond to the attacks and Dayan agreed. Israel then resumed its drive south.
It is unclear which side fired first but Israeli field commanders used the skirmishes as justification to resume the attacks. When Sadat protested alleged Israeli truce violations, Israel said that Egyptian troops had fired first. William B. Quandt noted that regardless of who fired the first post-ceasefire shot, it was the Israeli Army that was advancing beyond the October 22 ceasefire lines.
Adan resumed his attack on October 23. Israeli troops finished the drive south, captured the last ancillary road, and encircled the Egyptian Third Army east of the Suez Canal. The Israelis then transported enormous amounts of military equipment across the canal, which Egypt claimed was in violation of the ceasefire. Egyptian aircraft launched repeated attacks in support of the Third Army, sometimes in groups of up to 30 planes, but took severe losses.
Israeli armor and paratroopers also entered Suez in an attempt to capture the city, but they were confronted by Egyptian soldiers and hastily raised local militia forces. They were surrounded, but towards night the Israeli forces managed to extricate themselves. The Israelis had lost 80 dead and 120 wounded, with an unknown number of Egyptian casualties, for no tactical gain (see Battle of Suez).
The next morning, October 23, a flurry of diplomatic activity occurred. Soviet reconnaissance flights had confirmed that Israeli forces were moving south, and the Soviets accused the Israelis of treachery. Kissinger called Meir in an effort to persuade her to withdraw a few hundred yards and she indicated that Israel's tactical position on the ground had improved. Kissinger found out about the Third Army's encirclement shortly thereafter.
Kissinger considered that the situation presented the United States with a tremendous opportunity and that Egypt was dependent on the United States to prevent Israel from destroying its trapped army. The position could be parlayed later into allowing the United States to mediate the dispute and wean Egypt from Soviet influence. As a result, the United States exerted tremendous pressure on the Israelis to refrain from destroying the trapped army, even threatening to support a UN resolution demanding that the Israelis withdraw to their October 22 positions if they did not allow non-military supplies to reach the army. In a phone call with Israeli ambassador Simcha Dinitz, Kissinger told the ambassador that the destruction of the Egyptian Third Army "is an option that does not exist."
Despite being surrounded however, the Third Army managed to maintain its combat integrity east of the canal and keep up its defensive positions, to the surprise of many. According to Trevor N. Dupuy, the Israelis, Soviets and Americans overestimated the vulnerability of the Third Army at the time. It was not on the verge of collapse, and he wrote that while a renewed Israeli offensive would probably overcome it, this was not a certainty. and according to David Elazar chief of Israeli headquarter staff on 3 December 1973 "As for the third army, in spite of our encircling them they resisted and advanced to occupy in fact a wider area of land at the east. Thus, we can not say that we defeated or conquered them."
David T. Buckwalter agrees that despite the isolation of the Third Army, it was unclear if the Israelis could have protected their forces on the west bank of the canal from a determined Egyptian assault and still maintain sufficient strength along the rest of the front. This assessment however was challenged by Patrick Seale, who stated that the Third Army was “on the brink of collapse.” Seale's position was supported by P.R. Kumaraswamy, who wrote that intense American pressure prevented the Israelis from annihilating the stranded Third Army.
Herzog noted that given the Third Army's desperate situation, in terms of being cut off from re-supply and reassertion of Israeli air superiority, the destruction of the Third Army was inevitable and could have been achieved within a very brief period. Shazly himself described the Third Army's plight as “desperate” and classified its encirclement as a “catastrophe that was too big to hide.” He further noted that, “the fate of the Egyptian Third Army was in the hands of Israel. Once the Third Army was encircled by Israeli troops every bit of bread to be sent to our men was paid for by meeting Israeli demands.”
On October 25, an Israeli tank battalion advanced into Adabiya shortly before a ceasefire was to come into effect. Adabiya was taken with support from the Israeli Navy. Some 1,500 Egyptian prisoners were taken, and about a hundred Egyptian soldiers assembled just south of Adabiya, where they held out against the Israelis. The Israelis also conducted their third and final incursion into Suez. They made some gains, but failed to break into the city center. As a result, the city was partitioned down the main street, with the Egyptians holding the city center and the Israelis controlling the outskirts, port installations and oil refinery, effectively surrounding the Egyptian defenders.
On the morning of October 26, the Egyptian Third Army violated the ceasefire by attempting to break through surrounding Israeli forces. The attack was repulsed by Israeli air and ground forces. The Egyptians also made minor gains in attacks against Sharon's forces in the Ismailia area. The Israelis reacted by bombing and shelling priority targets in Egypt, including command posts and water reserves. The front was quieter in the Second Army's sector in the northern canal area, where both sides generally respected the ceasefire.
Though most heavy fighting ended on October 28, the fighting never stopped until January 18, 1974. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan stated that "The cease-fire existed on paper, but the continued firing along the front was not the only characteristic of the situation between October 24, 1973 and January 18, 1974. This intermediate period also held the ever-present possibility of a renewal of full-scale war. There were three variations on how it might break out, two Egyptian and one Israeli. One Egyptian plan was to attack our units west of the canal from the direction of Cairo. The other was to cut-off our canal bridgehead by a link-up of the Second and Third Armies on the east bank. Both plans were based on massive artillery pounding of our forces, who were not well fortified and who would suffer heavy casualties. It was therefore thought that Israel would withdraw from the west bank, since she was most sensitive on the subject of soldier's lives. Egypt, at the time had a total of 1,700 first-line tanks on both sides of the canal front, 700 on the east bank and 1,000 on the west bank. Also on the west bank, in the second line, were an additional 600 tanks for the defense of Cairo. She had some 2,000 artillery pieces, about 500 operational aircraft, and at least 130 SAM missile batteries positioned around our forces so as to deny us air support."
The IDF acknowledged the loss of 14 soldiers during this postwar period. Egyptian losses were higher, especially in the sector controlled by General Ariel Sharon, who ordered his troops to respond with massive firepower to any Egyptian provocation. Some aerial battles took place, and the Israelis also shot down several helicopters attempting to resupply the Third Army.
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