22 MARCH 1957, Page 20

And Gideon

THE political storm over the British and French action at Port Said has tended to overshadow the Israeli Army's campaign in the Sinai Penin- sula. This is a pity, for Robert Henriques's book makes it clear that the Sinai campaign was a military achievement of the first order—on a par in fact with Wavell's 1940 victory over the Italians in the Western Desert. It is temptitig, but I think wrong, to dismiss the Israeli victory purely in terms of Egyptian incompetence and weakness of will. It is true, of course, that Private Angelo, with or without the dono di corragio, is probably the 'bravest of the brave' when compared with his Egyptian counterpart. There is surely no officer class so devoid of powers of leadership or so out of touch with their soldiers as the Egyptian. Yet the Israelis were called upon to tackle an enemy with equivalent or larger numbers, better equip- ment and a marked superiority in aircraft. It was not easy to guess how far the Russian or German instructors had been able to improve the Egyptian state of training since 1948. It was certain that the fellah would fight best defensively; there was no guarantee that he would not use his weapons effectively from positions well sited for him by professional German advisers. Above all, the stakes were high; defeat meant for Israel not just the loss of a battle, but simply extermination. Such thoughts must have made the Israeli DMI fully conscious of his responsibility for the advice he tendered about the state and likely reaction of the Egyptian Army in Sinai. For the whole Israeli design depended on pre- dicting accurately the Egyptian reaction. Neither the plan nor the tactics adopted would have stood a chance against steadier or more resolute opponents. The opening stroke of the campaign was to be a parachute drop at Mitla, forty miles from Suez. The airborne troops were to be flown to their DZ in Dakotas. What chance had these old and slow aircraft of getting through without being shot down by Egypt's modern fighters, based on airfields in the Canal Zone within fifty miles of the DZ? 'The plan was just nuts,' said the commander of the Israeli fighter wing re- quired to provide continuous cover for the operation. Again at Thamed, during operations to link up with the battalion dropped at Mitla, the tactical plan adopted would have been greeted with the hollowest of laughs at a School of Infantry TEWT. Against a strong defensive position held by two companies of infantry the Israeli bat- talion commander deployed his two leading companies in half-tracks astride the main road. The reserve companies in open six-wheeled lorries followed behind. There was no artillery support. The whole battalion then charged straight towards the Egyptian position—a gift, as the author puts it, 'straight from Balaclava.' Yet the position was taken for the loss of three killed and six wounded.

General Moshe Dayan, the C-in-C, must clearly take much of the credit for the Israeli success. He is a practical and talented com- mandcr, a supremely imaginative trainer and an exacting chief, who demands 'high standards of accomplishment' from all officers. He does not admit that failure to accomplish a mission is excusable unless a unit has taken 50 per cent. casualties. An uncomfortable superior, one might think, were it not that he is intensely human and of wide interests. At the end of the battle of El Arish he was seen digging furiously in the sand with his hands like a dog. He is a keen archaeologist and had spotted some bits of Philistine pottery. It is interesting that despite his own ruthless vigour and drive, General Dayan's subordinates remain individualists, inquiring, argumentative and critical. He is clearly a remarkable leader of genius or near-genius.

1f, thanks to the C-in-C, Israeli training and battle leadership is excellent, it is hard to make the same claim for their planning and staff work. The move by road of the airborne brigade from Ein Khussub to Kuntilla would have given the umpires angina to a man had it happened on an exercise in BAOR. One half-track with a flat tyre drove forty miles on the rim. There were no recovery vehicles, so the petrol lorries were stuck at the back of the column behind a mass of crocks. Of eighteen field-guns required to help in the relief of the parachute battalion at Mitla, only one arrived. It was, as the author noted, a `Prescription for Chaos.' Yet—and this is the im- portant point—somehow the force arrived quickly and with the resources to fight and win. There is a clear lesson here for the meticulous type of British staff officer, so reluctant in peace-time to admit that personality is more important than technique.

What sort of a man is the Israeli soldier, on whom so much depended? Robert Henriques depicts him realistically and honestly. The Sabra is tough, aggressively equal, brusque and even churlish. He does not salute much or keenly; there are a lot of unshaven chins. I am sure there are no 'batmen. It is all very different to the charm and natural good manners brought to bear on military affairs by the London Rifleman. For Israel's Army was born in the campaign of 1948—it is made up of fighters rather than soldiers. It is also a remarkable blend of Israelis of Western and Oriental stock. 1 do not much want to command an Israeli unit, but, were I an Egyptian, should equally be in no hurry to fight one.

Altogether this is a fascinating book. It gains immensely from being written by a soldier who can really write, but who has not lost touch with his first love. Nobody who seeks to understand affairs in the Middle East should fail to read it. The Israeli armed forces stand for something more than an organisation which quand on l'attaque, it se defend. General Dayan and his sabras are something to reckon with—as prickly as the cactus from which their name is derived.