In Depth

Ariel Sharon: whatever his faults he was a great soldier

The feat Sharon pulled off in the Yom Kippur War made him a heroic general and saviour of Israel

ariel-sharon.jpg

AS Ariel Sharon’s life draws to a close there are many different ways to examine his record. A controversial figure even to many Israelis, his obituaries will no doubt highlight his culpability in the 1982 massacres of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Chatila camps in Lebanon for which as Minister of Defence at the time he was found to bear “personal responsibility” by an Israeli commission of inquiry. 

Many Arabs refer to him because of that episode as “the Butcher” and there will be rejoicing in the streets when, after eight years in a coma, his health reportedly deteriorating fast, he eventually dies.

But whatever his faults he was without question a great soldier and general – one of the founders of the Israeli warrior ethos.  He served in all of Israel’s major wars.  Wounded as a young platoon commander in 1948, he went on to command a division with distinction in the 1967 Six Day War.

But it was his actions in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 that confirmed his military greatness.  Earlier that year he had retired as chief of staff of the IDF’s southern command, but was mobilised to command a reserve armoured division in the gravest crisis the state of Israel has faced to date.  

On 6 October 1973, after a highly sophisticated deception programme designed to confuse the Israeli mobilisation process, a much-improved Egyptian army attacked in force across the Suez Canal, the initial attacks breaking through thinly spread Israeli defences.  

Israeli reserves, mobilised late, struggled to contain the Egyptian advance. Close air support, previously a battle-winner for the Israelis, was in short supply as the IAF was forced to concentrate its efforts defending heavily outnumbered Israeli soldiers in the north of the country, where the Syrians had attacked on the Golan Heights. For a few days it looked as though Israel might be beaten.  

It was the classic military nightmare – a two-front war without enough men or materiel for both.  For Israel to survive, the Egyptians had to be beaten quickly in the south so the IDF could redeploy against the Syrians in the north, who seemed on the point of breaking into Galilee.  Just stopping the Egyptian advance wasn’t going to be enough – it had to be decisive.

Sharon bided his time but as soon as he had located what he thought was a gap between two Egyptian formations he attacked into it (Napoleon’s favourite tactic), crossed the Suez Canal and proceeded to wreak havoc on Egyptian lines of communication.  

The Egyptians had thought they were winning only to discover Sharon’s tanks behind them threatening Cairo.  It was brilliantly done and, as with many of history’s best commanders, Sharon had pretty much ignored the less imaginative orders coming from above. To many he was the man who saved Israel.

Sharon and others like Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan were the ultimate military ambition come true: not just generals but saviours of their nation, heroic leaders in the field fighting for the ultimate goal – national survival.   

There is no British equivalent. Not only were they crucial to the survival of Israel but also they had fought in all her crucial battles starting with the War of Independence in 1947.  To play the same part in British history an individual would have had to be present at Flodden, Naseby, Waterloo, Ypres and D-Day.

It is difficult for many to consider the military achievements of Israeli generals dispassionately: because the idea of Israeli military victory is difficult for many to handle – particularly overwhelming military victories as a result of superior generalship.  As we discovered while students at the British Army Staff College in 1992.

The Commandant at the time, General Sir Michael Rose, promised us a farewell address by a man who had been at Camberley in the 1950s – a star military turn.  We couldn’t work out whop it might be – the 1950s had hardly produced a vintage crop of British generals.  

It was only when fleets of black Mercedes limousines flying the Star of David came up the drive (at high speed) that we realized who it was.

Rabin, who had been Prime Minister of Israel since July of that year, was charming and civilized reminding us that when he was a student in the same place the British Army had four times as many tanks as the IDF, but that now the ratios were more than reversed. He was every inch the great commander.

At the end of his address he took questions.  We wanted to ask him what it was like to have led the armed forces of his country in the Six Day War. Unfortunately, some of the overseas students saw his presence as an opportunity to grandstand over the Palestinian question. Sadly, the directing staff were too politically correct to tell them to sit down and be quiet.   

As a general, Rabin’s protege Ariel Sharon had that extraordinary, almost alchemical quality that has fascinated students of the military art for hundreds of years – the ability to turn defeat into stunning victory.  Apparently he is not a religious man.  I am not sure anyway whether Judaism envisages a Valhalla but if it does he has surely earned a place at its top table.

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