Egypt and Syria launched the Yom Kippur War in a coordinated attack that confronted the IAF with its harshest challenge to date. Denied permission for a pre-emptive strike, IAF fighters scrambled off the runways in defense of Israel's skies. They dumped their bombs into the sea — bombs which might have been able to change the course of the war even before it began.
The desperate situation on both fronts did not leave the IAF with the time required to neutralize the enemy's surface-to-air missile (SAM) threats. Indeed, the majority of the IAF's war losses occurred above the heavily defended front lines, while supporting ground forces during the first few days of fighting.
Marshaling its forces, the IAF struck back at its ground-based adversary. Israeli fighters and Arab missile sites engaged in mutual bloodletting, like prize fighters slugging it out toe-to-toe. In one operation alone, the IAF lost 6 planes while destroying only one Syrian SAM. On the Western front the IAF destroyed 32 Egyptian SAM sites and damaged 11 more.
Phantoms brought the war home to the Syrian capital, striking Damascus and other strategic targets. Israel fighters clawed their way toward air superiority, bombing Syrian and Egyptian airfields which, unlike in '67, were now hardened against attack. Most enemy aircraft survived these attacks but IAF fighters still destroyed more than 450 enemy planes, mostly in dogfights. In fact, the IAF's air combat (won-loss) record for 1973 was twice as good as it had been during the 1967 Six Day War. As a result, the enemy had to concentrate his sorties in defense of his own backyard. Of the few enemy planes which attacked inside Israel, not one succeeded in striking and returning!
Aircraft also gave continuous support to the counter-offensive as tanks rolled into “Africa” on the western side of the Suez Canal. Fighters also pounded Syrian positions, giving the IDF the top cover it needed to advance to within 30 km of Damascus. Following several unsuccessful infantry assaults, CH-53 helicopters enabled Golani troops to retake the outpost on Mt. Hermon by landing them on a summit above the site.
Helicopters played many other vital roles: evacuating wounded, rescuing pilots under fire and transporting assault troops far behind enemy lines. Transports provided strategic and tactical logistic support, C-130's operated out of the captured Egyptian airfield at Fayid on the western side of the Bitter Lake. Anti-aircraft forces did their share by downing many enemy aircraft.
While the IAF's 1973 achievements are impressive, the cost was also high: roughly 100 planes were lost and 60 pilots and navigators gave their lives in the brutal war which began on Israel's holiest day.
The Attack Against the Syrian HQs (October 9, 1973)
The situation was grim. While the IDF struggled to contain the initial Arab success on the Golan Heights and along the Canal, other parties were following the events with keen interest. Jordan's King Hussein leaned closer to committing himself to the battle in light of Israel's apparent weakness. An answer to Syria's use of surface-to-surface missiles against northern Israel also had to be found.
Although the majority of its forces were committed to the fierce battle along both fronts, the IAF dedicated several flights of its premier fighter-bomber, the Phantom, to a very special mission: bombing the Syrian General Headquarters (GHQ) in downtown Damascus. The target was located in a military enclave, heavily defended by anti-aircraft guns and missiles. To make matters worse, bad weather jeopardized the entire mission.
The Squadron Operations Officer was Major L, a quiet but forceful kibbutznik who radiated confidence even under the most difficult circumstances. He chose to lead the armada of eight planes personally. After take-off, one aircraft returned due to a malfunction. As the formation neared the bad weather along the Mt. Hermon ridge line, Major L and his navigator decided to gamble. They punched through the clouds in search of a way to the target. After safely emerging from the clouds, they were able to re-orient themselves, having studied an alternate route as part of their meticulous mission planning.
Approaching the city, the fighters pulled up and rolled in on the target. The exploding bombs raised a dark cloud above the Syrian GHQ and Ministry of Defense complex. The roof of the Syrian Air Force building was hit. Coincidentally, several Israeli pilots were being interrogated in the basement. The Syrians believed that even this had been taken into consideration by IAF planners.
Syrian gunners fired furiously on their attackers. One aircraft was hit badly and caught fire. The burning fighter's wingman was an American immigrant who had seen similar sights in Vietnam. He coolly re-assured the stricken crew that theirs was just a “small fire” and escorted the crippled Phantom all the way back to Israel, where the pilot of the burning F4 made a perfect dead-stick landing. Another aircraft was hit coming off the target and its crew was forced to eject just before their Phantoms crashed. The pilot was killed and the navigator was captured.
Despite the high cost, the mission was a dramatic success. Jordan did not open a third front. For their bravery and outstanding performance, the lead aircrew was decorated with the Medal of Valor.
Sources: Israel Defense Forces