War hero: The death of Avidgor Ben Gal

Very few Americans have ever heard of Avigdor "Yanush" Ben Gal, who died yesterday in Israel at age 79.  But Ben Gal is an important figure in 20th-century history, who directly contributed to the end of the Cold War and fall of the Soviet Union, albeit in an indirect way. 

Ben Gal was an officer in the Israel Defense Force (IDF) Armored Corps.  Like many Israelis of his generation, he got to Israel in a roundabout way.  As a boy, he fled Poland as a refugee with his parents into the Soviet Union at the start of World War II.  His parents died along the way, but with his sister Ben Gal made it to the Palestine Mandate.  He served in the IDF in the 1956 Suez Campaign, the Six-Day War of 1967 (in which he was badly wounded), and the War of Attrition that followed.  He won his place in military history a few years later, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  Then, as commander of the IDF's crack 7th Armored Brigade, he arguably saved the Jewish state from destruction, and both established and proved the tactical and operational concepts for defending the West against mass Soviet-style tank assaults. 

At about 2 p.m. on October 6, 1973, Syria and Egypt launched a coordinated surprise assault on Israel.  IDF forces faced overwhelming odds on both fronts, but Israel had some breathing room in Sinai against Egypt.  Not so on the Golan Heights, where Ben Gal deployed with his brigade.  There only a few scant kilometers separated the front line from Israel proper.  The Syrians threw 30,000 troops and 1,500 tanks (supported by as many artillery pieces) at the Israeli line.  That line was thinly held by the under-strength 188th Barak Armored Brigade in the southern Golan and by Ben Gal's brigade to the north.  Between the two units, the Israelis deployed 177 tanks, about 50 artillery pieces, and fewer than 3,000 infantrymen. 

In three days of bloody fighting (in which the Barak Brigade was effectively wiped out, with both its commander and deputy commander killed in action), Ben Gal held the front together with surviving elements of the 188th and his own brigade.  In this action, Ben Gal's tanks savaged the Syrian assault, destroying 600-800 tanks (plus hundreds of other armored vehicles).  Ultimately, the 7th Armored stopped the Syrian attack cold, though at the conclusion of the fight, fewer than a dozen IDF tanks were still runners, the rest destroyed, damaged, or broken down.   A day after the defensive fight concluded, the surviving tanks of the 7th Armored, along with reserves, counter-attacked into Syria. 

The consequences of this battle to American armored doctrine are hard to overstate.  Ben Gal's defense of the Golan became a template for NATO forces in Europe.  Under General Donn A. Starry (who largely developed the American concept of air/land battle), the Yom Kippur War was (with respect to IDF successes and failures) was a prime model.  When I served with the 11th ACR in Fulda, Germany (1985-89), almost every armored officer could cite chapter and verse of the Golan fight.  Tom White, one of the regiment's commanders during my time there (who later became secretary of the Army), had a bookshelf lined with several volumes recounting the Yom Kippur battles.  Had the Soviets attacked at Fulda or elsewhere in Germany, they would have met American tankers, who, largely using Israeli techniques and tactics, would have savaged them as completely as the IDF did the Syrians – something Soviet generals well knew.

When those same American units eventually went into action a few years later in Iraq, they completely trounced the Iraqis.  But it is also worth noting that in 1973, Israeli troops driving World War II-era Sherman tanks also trounced the Iraqis (in brand new Soviet T-62s) at a later point in the battle. 

So intense and savage was the Golan fighting that when I visited the Golan battlefields in 1977 as a teenage kibbutz volunteer, the ground was still strewn with shrapnel, spent shell casings, and the burned out wrecks of fighting vehicles.  Ben Gal fought one of the greatest and most significant tank battles in history, and his place there is well and truly earned.

Very few Americans have ever heard of Avigdor "Yanush" Ben Gal, who died yesterday in Israel at age 79.  But Ben Gal is an important figure in 20th-century history, who directly contributed to the end of the Cold War and fall of the Soviet Union, albeit in an indirect way. 

Ben Gal was an officer in the Israel Defense Force (IDF) Armored Corps.  Like many Israelis of his generation, he got to Israel in a roundabout way.  As a boy, he fled Poland as a refugee with his parents into the Soviet Union at the start of World War II.  His parents died along the way, but with his sister Ben Gal made it to the Palestine Mandate.  He served in the IDF in the 1956 Suez Campaign, the Six-Day War of 1967 (in which he was badly wounded), and the War of Attrition that followed.  He won his place in military history a few years later, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  Then, as commander of the IDF's crack 7th Armored Brigade, he arguably saved the Jewish state from destruction, and both established and proved the tactical and operational concepts for defending the West against mass Soviet-style tank assaults. 

At about 2 p.m. on October 6, 1973, Syria and Egypt launched a coordinated surprise assault on Israel.  IDF forces faced overwhelming odds on both fronts, but Israel had some breathing room in Sinai against Egypt.  Not so on the Golan Heights, where Ben Gal deployed with his brigade.  There only a few scant kilometers separated the front line from Israel proper.  The Syrians threw 30,000 troops and 1,500 tanks (supported by as many artillery pieces) at the Israeli line.  That line was thinly held by the under-strength 188th Barak Armored Brigade in the southern Golan and by Ben Gal's brigade to the north.  Between the two units, the Israelis deployed 177 tanks, about 50 artillery pieces, and fewer than 3,000 infantrymen. 

In three days of bloody fighting (in which the Barak Brigade was effectively wiped out, with both its commander and deputy commander killed in action), Ben Gal held the front together with surviving elements of the 188th and his own brigade.  In this action, Ben Gal's tanks savaged the Syrian assault, destroying 600-800 tanks (plus hundreds of other armored vehicles).  Ultimately, the 7th Armored stopped the Syrian attack cold, though at the conclusion of the fight, fewer than a dozen IDF tanks were still runners, the rest destroyed, damaged, or broken down.   A day after the defensive fight concluded, the surviving tanks of the 7th Armored, along with reserves, counter-attacked into Syria. 

The consequences of this battle to American armored doctrine are hard to overstate.  Ben Gal's defense of the Golan became a template for NATO forces in Europe.  Under General Donn A. Starry (who largely developed the American concept of air/land battle), the Yom Kippur War was (with respect to IDF successes and failures) was a prime model.  When I served with the 11th ACR in Fulda, Germany (1985-89), almost every armored officer could cite chapter and verse of the Golan fight.  Tom White, one of the regiment's commanders during my time there (who later became secretary of the Army), had a bookshelf lined with several volumes recounting the Yom Kippur battles.  Had the Soviets attacked at Fulda or elsewhere in Germany, they would have met American tankers, who, largely using Israeli techniques and tactics, would have savaged them as completely as the IDF did the Syrians – something Soviet generals well knew.

When those same American units eventually went into action a few years later in Iraq, they completely trounced the Iraqis.  But it is also worth noting that in 1973, Israeli troops driving World War II-era Sherman tanks also trounced the Iraqis (in brand new Soviet T-62s) at a later point in the battle. 

So intense and savage was the Golan fighting that when I visited the Golan battlefields in 1977 as a teenage kibbutz volunteer, the ground was still strewn with shrapnel, spent shell casings, and the burned out wrecks of fighting vehicles.  Ben Gal fought one of the greatest and most significant tank battles in history, and his place there is well and truly earned.