Remembering the Yom Kippur War: Yom Kippur War survivor recalls start of shelling

JERUSALEM — Each fall, when the High Holy Days approach, Yossi Harel finds it hard to escape the vivid memories of three hellish days at the beginning of the Yom Kippur War.

It is 25 years later, but Harel, 50, wearing a trim graying beard, big round glasses and a knitted kippah, remembers the beginning of the war as if it were yesterday. Sitting in his modest Jewish Agency for Israel office, where he is director of the Unit for Jewish and Cultural Education and Ulpanim (intensive Hebrew study), Harel tells a story of heroism, determination and a prayer shawl that helped save a battered unit lost in the Sinai Desert.

Thousands of individual stories like these make up the collective memory of the Yom Kippur war, when Israel was taken by surprise and faced one of the most serious threats in its history.

Most Israelis were at home or synagogue on Oct. 6, 1973, as news of the war broke. But when the first strike hit, Harel was already on the front line, a sergeant at a post on the Suez Canal, or what was known as the "Bar Lev" line opposite Egypt.

Harel, then a university student, was one of 436 soldiers stationed in the Bar Lev fortifications, spread along 110 miles of the canal. There were only three tanks and seven artillery batteries on the Israeli side, and they would soon face thousands of Egyptian troops, artillery pieces, tanks and missiles.

His reserve unit — the 68th infantry battalion — was called up for duty before Rosh Hashanah. Harel sent a letter protesting the call-up to Moshe Dayan, then defense minister, since the unit had also served during Passover. Dayan replied with an order to release as many men as possible for the holiday.

Harel says Dayan's response proved that the home front was oblivious to the dangers that lurked on the eve of the war — and there were many unheeded warning signals.

Soldiers at the Bar Lev posts were monitoring movements on the Egyptian side. Many times, the 68th battalion reported armored vehicle movements and sightings of Egyptian troops suspiciously wearing helmets.

"None of us knew that the Egyptians were preparing for an all-out war," says Harel. "But we didn't understand why there was no reaction from above to our reports on what was happening on the other side."

On the Israeli side, soldiers who stayed for Yom Kippur prepared for the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Harel, who is Orthodox, decided to stay on base at the "Milano" post for Yom Kippur, preferring to take a leave with his wife and two small children on Sukkot. A few yeshiva students who weren't soldiers came to help complete a minyan.

Yom Kippur began on Friday night, and the soldiers held a Kol Nidre service. Early on Saturday afternoon, as they rested to conserve strength during the long fast, the company commander held a briefing in the mess hall. Intelligence reports, he said, warned of a possible Egyptian shelling later that day. Before the briefing was completed, a barrage of shells came crashing down on Milano.

"It began to rain shells, of every type," Harel recalls. "It caught us completely off-guard. Some of us weren't even fully dressed."

At first, there was panic. Some jumped for cover behind benches before the company commander ordered all troops to the bunker. Harel was sent to the observation tower to see what was happening.

"It was a frightening scene," he recalls. "Rubber boats carrying Egyptian soldiers were crossing the canal. Hundreds of Egyptian troops were mobilizing."

Troops at Milano still didn't realize just how serious things were, until they turned on the radio and heard that Israel was under an all-out attack. "Don't forget that Israel's self-confidence was extremely high at the time," says Harel, recalling the national pride after the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel defeated Arab armies at lightning speed. "We were sure that within minutes, the air force would come in and crush the Egyptians."

Instead, Harel saw several Israeli planes fly in and get shot down. Meanwhile, he and his company commander opened fire on the rafts, sinking several but failing to provide a formidable response to the massive movement of Egyptian troops across the canal. A shell exploded, throwing shrapnel into the officer's face and Harel's elbow. He points to the scars that remain today.

But Harel was lucky. Back in the bunker, two soldiers were already dead. Harel takes a deep breath as he replays the gory scene. To make matters worse, the company doctor had gone into shell shock.

At night, they hunkered down while shells continued to fall relentlessly. By Sunday morning, four were dead, six more wounded. Morale was low, even though Harel's buddies knew they were comparatively lucky. Several posts along the canal had been completely wiped out.

Somehow, the company repelled Egyptian troops from the compound five times, before an order was issued at 10 p.m. on Sunday to abandon the post and head to a base about 15 miles north. Since many posts had already been overrun, the air force planned to shower the Israeli side of the Suez Canal with bombs.

They had to leave the corpses of their friends behind as they set out on foot. Throughout the night, Harel's company played cat and mouse with the Egyptian army. There were some 30,000 Egyptian troops swarming the Israeli side.

On Monday morning, after trekking through the desert and in and out of a nearby town, Harel's company found a resting place among some desert shrubbery. For the first time since Yom Kippur began more than two days earlier, they ate the little food they had.

Despite the confusion, one soldier managed to salvage his prayer shawl and tefillin. One by one, in the middle of the desert, secular and religious soldiers alike took turns donning the tefillin. "We didn't know what would come next," says Harel. "The prayer gave us all a little encouragement."

Suddenly, the ground shook. A tank was approaching. An armored corps soldier put his ear to the ground to listen to the tank treads. "It's one of ours," he said. Immediately, he grabbed the tallit, ran up the hill, and spread the prayer shawl like a flag to signal the tank.

The Israeli tank crew in the distance tried to decipher the signal. One crew member thought it was a tallit, but the commander thought it was a kaffiyeh, an Arab headdress, and almost opened fire. In the end, the tallit was recognized and the tank steered for the soldiers.

Battered, bloody and exhausted, the 20 soldiers piled onto the tank and were transported to base. Of approximately 60 men who started Yom Kippur on Milano, about one-third were dead, one-third missing and later captured while the rest survived.

Harel saw some paratroopers preparing to head to the front. "I felt pity," he said. "They had no idea what was in store for them."

Harel was hospitalized, and soon met his family in an emotional reunion. Today, he has six children.

"Since I went through such a traumatic experience and came out alive, I felt I must do important things with my life, for example, having a big family," he said. "I really felt that I was given my life as a gift."