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|At the battle of Tel Saki, one of the first of the 1973 Israeli Yom Kippur War, a handful of Israeli paratroopers and armored soldiers stood their ground, fighting off thousands of Syrian troops for three days. |
Outnumbered 100 to 1, with barely any weapons, ammunition or food, the brave young men at the Battle of Tel Saki drew upon their love of one another and for the State of Israel to stop the Syrian army from entering Israel. Amidst the fear and frenzy of battle, they never gave up.
Tel Saki is located on the Southern Golan Heights near the Syrian-Israeli border. On that small but strategically positioned hill was located the undersized military reconnaissance post. A small group of IDF soldiers from the 50th Airborne Battalion and the 7th and 188th armor brigades, fought against what we now is known to be an 11,000 infantry soldiers Syrian division, including 900 tanks and countless armored vehicles. The courage manifested by the soldiers in Tel-Saki and around it, was a major turning point in the war between Israel and Syria.
35 Israeli soldiers gave their lives in the course of these three days, three were taken as POW and practically everyone else was injured. Two soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for courage in battle: Shlomo Avital and Beni Hannani.
Yom Kippur, 1973
On the morning of Saturday, October 6, 1973, most Israelis were gathering in synagogues for prayer or with their families in observance of the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement. Most Israelis had no idea that their country was poised to engage in yet another existential war. Leaders of the Israeli intelligence were aware of an impending attack by the Syrians and Egyptians, but were fairly certain of their assessment that it would be limited to a small number of skirmishes rather than an all out war. Still, at the urging of a few dissident voices, the government decided to station units at the border and evacuate civilians.
And so, at around noon that day, First Lieutenant Menahem Ansbaher, the 21 year old Commanding Officer of the Special Operation Airborne Platoon A2, gathered five soldiers (Shlomo Avital, Leizi Agasi, Shayke Levy, Roni Hartenstein and Avi Levy) to join him on a what they thought was a routine reconnaissance mission at the observation post on Tel-Saki, located on the main road leading to the strategic crossroads point of the Southern Golan Heights. In the event that the Syrians would fire artillery on Israel, their mission was to locate the source of the Syrian fire and to direct the Israeli Air force on those targets. The remainder of Company A and the special operation Platoon took position in the main bunker and waited for further instructions. Ansbaher and his team had no idea what would await them.
An Attack on the Holiest of Days
At exactly 2:00PM the Syrian army opened their offensive and fired with all of its 1,200 artillery canons, covering the entire Golan Heights. At the same time, with a precise bombardment, the Syrian air force began dropping bombs on Israeli settlements, roads and army bases. The Golan Heights, which by October was dry after the long summer, immediately caught fire and started to burn, covering the horizon with a black cloud of smoke and fire. From down below at the Sea of Galilee, it looked like the Golan disappeared. The noise of the explosion was defining and the ground shook. The entire area looked like the face of the moon with deep craters and burning buildings. By late afternoon, it became clear that a major war was going on.
As Commander Ansbaher and his team made it to Tel Saki, the remaining IDF paratroopers stationed below on post 116 spotted Syrian forces advancing through the border toward Israel. They reported that Syrian APCs and tanks from its exploratory unit were passing them and moving towards Tel Saki three miles to their south. A few tanks from Brigade 188, under the command of Lieutenant Yoa'av Yakir, fought together with the airborne soldiers in post 116 and tried to block and slow down the Syrian invasion. The Israeli tanks destroyed many Syrian tanks and fought until nightfall, but eventually the massive amount of the Syrian tanks overpowered the undermanned Israeli line of defense and the Syrian armor continued toward Tel Saki. Some of the wounded soldiers from the tank force retreated to Tel-Saki and joined the five paratroopers already there, under Ansbaher’s command. The Syrian division kept charging south, towards the main Golan areas, and their final destination – the heart of Israel. In order to advance towards the Israeli heartland, the Syrians had to first pass through Tel Saki and El Al, where XXXXX were stationed. At that time, the Tel Saki post was the only reliable source of information for the Israeli main command, and therefore could not be evacuated. Initially, Ansbaher hoped that he could be effective in delaying the advancing Syrians, giving the IDF enough time to organize the reserve forces and initiate a counter strike. At midnight, Ansbaher noticed a Syrian force moving south toward Tel-Saki and he ordered his crew to open fire on the Syrian force. He asked one of the tanks from the 7th brigade under the command of Colonel Danni Levin, to engage the Syrian force. The advancing Syrians were now confused and decided to halt their advance and stopped at the bottom of the Tel Saki hill sending forward their exploratory unit to evaluate the situation. Ansbaher knew that every second they would delay the Syrians was critical.
At day break, Ansbaher reported to Colonel Ya-Ya (Yoram Yair – currently a Ret. General) the 26 year old Commanding Officer of the 50th Airborne Battalion at the El Al Command Bunker, that a few Syrian APC exploratory units managed to pass by him and are advancing towards El Al, two miles to the south. At El Al, Ya-Ya dispatched two APCs with 14 paratroopers to set up an ambush for the advancing Syrians. The APCs were under the command of First Lieutenant Beni Hannani and the second APC by Sergeant Ariel “Pitz” Weisman. They took their ambush position near the outskirts of Kibbutz Ramat Magshimim and didn’t have to wait long before they engage the spearhead of the Syrian force. The rest of the Syrian force turned back towards Tel Saki. As they retreated, the Syrians reported “heavy resistance,” an important encounter as it further introduced a delay and confusion within the Syrian ranks as they were trying to gauge the resistance of the IDF.
At the same time, the Syrian forces surrounded Tel Saki. Ansbaher reported to Ya-Ya that at least 100 Syrian tanks approached from the North in addition to thousands of infantry soldiers and APC vehicles. The battle of Tel Saki begins. Ansbaher ordered the paratroopers to keep changing positions and fire at the Syrian force below the ridge. The few IDF tanks on Tel Saki are either out of ammunition or damaged. The disproportion between the forces is astounding. Roni gets hit by a sniper and falls back into the APC. The Syrian fire non-stop at the Tel Saki dilapidated bunker. Some are killed and the wounded retreat into the bunker. They are now all surrounded by Syrian soldiers. Ansbaher reports to El Al that he is running out of ammunition. Wounded, tired and hungry, they absorb the heavy fire from all direction. Things seem bleak, but the young warriors are determined to stay and to keep fighting. They know that there is no one else to protect their beloved country.
At daybreak, an Israeli tank driving south at inanes speed approached the Hannani crew (who just ambushed the exploratory Syrian Force) near Kibbutz Ramat Magshimim. The approaching IDF tank unexpected direction broke away from the battlefield and is almost shot down by Hannani’s friendly fire. The tank commander peers through the turret and shouts about the carnage that is taking place in Tel Saki; and a moment later continues south to El Al.
Hannani and Ansbaher knew each other another from childhood and both became Platoon commanders of this elite paratrooper unit. Hannani’s second APC is commanded by Sergeant Pitz, who is also best friend with Ansbaher from early childhood. Both Hannani and Pitz listen to the distressed communication between Ansbaher and the El Al bunker. Hannani understands that Ansbaher is in trouble and asks Ya-Ya for permission to go and rescue Ansbaher and his guys, or at least reinforce them and bring them ammunition. The same Israeli tank from the battlefield is now approaching the El Al bunker and again, almost being fired upon by the paratroopers guarding the El Al bunker. The tank commander, a Colonel, screaming about the hell on earth that was going on at Tel Saki and warns Ya-Ya not to let anyone near Tel Saki as the Syrian army is parked behind the crest with thousands of vehicles.
Back to Hannani, who now describe to Ya-Ya his idea of the rescue plan of the Tel Saki post. If they succeed, the soldiers who are under siege will be rescued. If they don't, worse case, they will reinforce the Tel Saki post and provide the badly needed ammunition. At first, Ya-Ya refuses to listen to Hannani pleas as he already has an understanding of the situation at Tel Saki. But after realizing that Hannani will go to Tel Saki without permission, Ya-Ya orders Hannani to do it as fast as possible.As the Hannani - Pitz two APC’s rescue forces got under way, the paratroopers are totally aware of the imminent dangers but with the profound concerned for their brothers at arm there is no hesitation. They are aware about the challenging landscape, a shortage of ammunition and being outnumbered against an entire Syrian division. They are determined to do whatever it took to assist their friends.
Two APCs with the 14 paratroopers moved quickly one mile north towards Tel-Saki. As they approach the ridge, they open fire with everything they had available on the astounded Syrians who for a moment retreat but as Hannani approaches 100 yards from the Tel Saki bunker his APC gets a direct hit and bursts into flames. Hannani has enough time to order his crew to jump and engage the Syrians on foot. The second APC, commanded by Pitz is right behind. Pitz’s diver gets hit and the APC crashes into Hannani burning vehicle. Within few minutes, in a heroic last act of astonishing bravery, the paratroopers charge the Syrian immense force. 12 paratroopers die and two, Yona Ben-Ari and Yair Farjun, who were both badly wounded, manage to crawl away and play dead as the Syrian walk across the field and finish the killing job.
A short distance back at the El Al main command bunker things looked bleak. Ansbaher keeps reporting that he is running out of ammunition, and reports that the rescue force was destroyed. Lieutenant Yitzhak Canaan, the 23 years old Commanding officer of Company A and the other paratroopers at the El Al bunker assesses the situation and realize that things look worst that they thought. The general atmosphere is of anguish. Canaan asks Ya-Ya to go to Tel Saki and to rescue Ansbaher and confirm that Hannani’s force was indeed wiped out. Canaan believes that although the area is now controlled by Syrians, he could manage with a small force to sneak in and rescue Ansbaher. Ya-Ya knowing that there are no other IDF forces in the entire area and that was the last chance to rescue Ansbaher, gives Canaan the ok. Canaan needs six warriors for that mission and turns around to the surrounding paratroopers and asks for six volunteers. Everybody in the bunkers recognizes the gravity of the situation; nonetheless everybody without exception or hesitation stands up and asks to be included. Instead of six, Canaan picks 11 warriors, leaving Ya-Ya with only 3 warriors in the main bunker as he mounts the last APC and takes off towards Tel Saki.
Ansbaher, watching Canaan approaching him from the south and noticing the Syrian Division advancing on the other side of the ridge, directed Canaan to take an Eastern approach in order to avoid the direct front encounter with the Syrians. As the Canaan force approaches the ridge, and a Syrian tank spots Canaan, turns his cannon and fires. Noticing the commotion, more Syrian tanks join and taking position, firing at Canaan’s APC. The Syrian commando battalion situated on top of the ridge starts firing as well. Canaan’s crew jumps off the APC and charges the astound Syrians. The Syrians commando battalion starts to scatter around and run away. A dozen Syrian tanks take position and start firing at Canaan. The Syrian commandos decide to turn back and a short battle erupts. Five paratroopers from Canaan force are killed. The rest, badly wounded crawl away and manage to join the Tel Saki bunker. Lieutenant Meir Brukental crawls westward and sneaks between the Syrian tanks and manages to reaches the El Al bunker where he reports to Ya-Ya what has transpired and that Canaan is badly wounded and hiding in the Tel Saki area.Meanwhile, the Syrians try to conquer the Tel Saki post. The soldiers on Tel Saki are running out of ammunition. Ansbaher wounded in his leg, and Roni is fatally wounded. Few IDF tank soldiers join the paratroopers after their tanks either got hit or they ran out of ammunition.
Under Siege for 30 hours - The Tel Saki Bunker -
By now Ansbaher come to terms that there is no chance for the soldiers in the Tel Saki post to face a Syrian attack, and so he decides to gather everyone inside the small bunker and prepare for a final battle, with the prime mission being – causing maximum casualties to the Syrian forces and hopefully delaying them more. Ansbaher orders the paratroopers to destroy all classified maps and communication charts and he climbs the bullet riddled APC to sabotage his own main machine-gun in the post so it will not fall into the hands of the Syrians. He orders the paratroopers to take positions at the two entrances of the bunker. Ansbaher understands that now it’s only a matter of time until the Syrians outside will charge and enter the bunker.
Ansbaher communicates with Ya-Ya and says his goodbyes on behalf of all the Tel Saki soldiers, thanking Ya-Ya and the rest for all they have done for him, using words that became a part of the collective Israeli memory for decades:
"Commander, this is Calcium616B. Send our greetings to everybody. We will not see each other again. Send our best wishes to our families, Thanks for everything over and out". And after that, complete silence. The Syrians, listening on to the IDF frequency suspect that this is a trick, and suddenly they start another relentless barrage of fire on the post. Ansbaher gives an order to the remaining paratroopers to attack the Syrian force from behind, but as they prepare to charge out of the bunker, few Syrians grenades exploded near the paratroopers, most of which are absorbed by the dead bodies of their friends. The plan fails and the soldiers withdraw back into the small bunker. The Syrians started shooting RPG missiles and continued throwing grenades at them. Two soldiers are killed, the rest are all wounded. Menahem himself is wounded for the second time, and before losing unconsciousness he asks that someone will volunteer to go out of the bunker, surrender to the Syrians and claim to be the last Israeli soldier alive.
The IDF soldiers are well aware that means to become a POW in Syria. Death is typically better as the Syrians are known for unimaginable inhumane torture. They all know that whoever comes out, will be sent to the Syrian Intelligence Interrogation camps but someone must do it or they all die. Yitzhak Nekerger, a fighter from the IDF armored corps, stands up, exits the bunker and turns himself in. The bunker occupants hear burst of fire, and then Yitzhak telling them in Arabic that he is the only one alive and the rest are dead. He is sent to a prison in Damascus. Will the Syrians buy his story? No one in the bunker can be sure. From this moment on, begin long and bad hours of loneliness and helplessness, with no ammunition, water or food. The Tel Saki soldiers hide inside the bunker bunkers, praying, and remembering the old myths about Masada, and about David defeating Goliath. As morning rises again, they realize they are trapped in a small bunker, on a land which now has been conquered by Syria, surrounded by thousands of enemy soldiers.
During the passing hours, they hear the sounds of the Syrian tanks storming towards Israel and they are worried about the future of their country. They barely talk, only whisper, once in a while dosing off to be awakened by the sounds of the Syrians outside.
With no communication means inside the bunker, they come up with an idea to reach one of the Israeli tanks that were abandoned close to Tel-Saki in order to make contact with the El Al bunker and try to find some water to the very thirsty and starving occupants. Shlomo Avital, a paratrooper and another soldier volunteer and under the cover of darkness they sneak outside, crawl between the Syrians and reach an abandoned IDF tank at the bottom of the hill.
The IDF radio network suddenly comes to life and Avital reports to El- Al that they are alive but gravely wounded and asking for immediate rescue. Ya-Ya tells Avital to hold on as the IDF reinforcements are on their way. They return to the bunker, with little water and most importantly bringing in good news: They were heard, the message was received. Rescue is on the way.
Monday morning becomes a fact, and they notice chaos movement of the Syrian tanks. Some drive south and some drive north and west. Ansbaher asks the armored soldiers to decipher the situation but no one knows. They can only hope. All of a sudden, the Syrians started firing at the Tel Saki bunker. More Syrian infantry arrives and they throw few grenades into the bunker. After that, they leave the area.
Third Rescue - Liberation
Back at the El Al bunker, Ya-Ya and the three paratroopers climb on top of the bunker and observe the advancing Syrian army stop 300 yards from El Al. The grounds shake from the advancing thousands of Syrian vehicles and armored. There is nothing to stop them. By now Ya-Ya is convinced that all in Tel Saki perished. Post 116 is still holding and Ya-Ya is determined to reach them and attend the wounded.
Few paratroopers that went on holiday leave before Yom Kippur find their way to the El Al bunker and now they are seven including Dr. Gundel Michael the battalion doctor and few medics. Ya-Ya is frantic in organizing the rescue force to reach the besieged paratroopers in post 116 and to bring the Tel Saki fallen back home. The paratroopers in post 116 who fought for three days , locked themselves in the well fortified underground bunkers and despite continuing attempts by the Syrian they are holding on inside the bunker.
At the same time of the drama in Tel-Saki, things were also changing in other fronts of the war. The IDF reserve duty forces were finally organized and took a major role in the fighting all across the country, including the Golan Heights.On Monday, October 8th at Day break, six dilapidated IDF tanks remnants from WWII make theier way to El Al. Ya-Ya wants them to charge the Syrians in order to pave a way for his mini convoy that he put together. The six tanks leave north but within two minutes they are all destroyed.More IDF tanks arrive and with them the exploratory unit 205 of the IDF armored division. They drive relatively fast jeeps and with Ya-Ya they contemplate a plan where this convoy, made of 5 APC’s two ambulances and few jeeps will move at high speed through the Syrian flank causing more confusion among the Syrian now retreating army.The convoy leaves El Al and immediately gets spotted and fired upon not only by Syrians but also by IDF artillery who doesn’t know about the convoy. The two miles trip to Tel Saki takes over an hour. One of the ambulances gets hit.
The entire area was swarming with Syrians. The convoy reached the bottom of the Tel Saki hill and one could clearly see the Syrian soldiers wondering around taking cover from the IDF artillery.
Ya-Ya instructs First Lieutenant Haim Kunda to take 3 paratroopers and approach the hill from the Syrian flank , surprise them and concur the hill, allowing the work of gathering the dead to become possible. Kunda, with Dan Almagor, Meir Brukental, and Yitzhak Iizman climb the hill and after a short battle the Tel Saki Hill is back in IDF hands. Ya-Ya gather the paratroopers and instruct Dan Almagor, a member in Ansbaher’s special Operation Platoon A2 and an explosive expert to identify his friends and examine the dead bodies to ascertain that they were not booby trapped by the retreating Syrians. There was still war going on all around.
Near the still smoldering APC’s from Hannani, Pitz rescue and Canaan’s rescue forces they find the bodies of their beloved brave friends, warriors who fought until their death. The exploratory 205 IDF unit found their way to the top of Tel Saki and one of them shouted into the bunker “ “ Any armored guys inside?” To their dismay, in an endless parade of horrific sight, the badly wounded IDF soldiers started to come out of the dilapidated Tel Saki bunker. After being besieged for 30 hours, hungry and wounded they knew that they survived. A lone helicopter lands amidst the carnage and manages to airlift four of the most gravely wounded warriors to the near hospital. Ansbaher tells about the rescue: "I was coming in and out of consciousness, had no sense of time, and the more we waited, the more we lost our hope... suddenly we heard tanks moving close to us... and suddenly, feet moving in the southern entrance. We all got ready to fire, with guns and grenades in our hands. And then a question was thrown into the air in Hebrew: "Are there any armored corps soldiers in here?”
After the war Avital, who assumed the command at Tel Saki after Ansbaher was badly wounded, was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery. Beni Hannani who led the first rescue force and died leading the attempt to save his friends was also awarded the Medal of Honor. Zion Azar in post 116 was awarded the Medal of Honor for assuming the command of the 116 post after the Commanding Officer was wounded. Ya-Ya (Yoram Yair), later became a four star General and continuously spoke of the valor the Tel Saki story. Almagor together with Ansbaher and Leizi Agasi made it into his life mission to ascertain that the values for which his friends lived and died for will never be forgotten and will be thought to the next generations.
It is difficult to explain the battle of Tel Saki in military terms. Fewer than 60 paratroopers and 45 tanks stood against the immense Syrian force consisting of 11,000 infantry soldiers, 900 tanks and countless armored vehicles and delayed them for three whole days. It is a story of individual determination, of not giving up on one self, on ones friends and on ones country. A country they all loved so much and persevered.
In Tel-Saki, during those hot long days in October 1973, the words bravery, fraternity, brotherhood and courage were written in stone, fire and blood, forever to be remembered.