Outpost Budapest 1973: an American in Israel.
October 1973, Baluza Base, Sinai: It was four or five days into the Yom Kippur War during an artillery barrage in northwest Sinai when the pervasive nature of "Jewish geography" came home yet again. We rested on folded layers of dusty blankets cushioning the concrete floor of a bunker. A few candles flickered. The soldier alongside me introduced himself. When he heard the accent and my name registered, he said, "Ah, are you the American ... my sister Ruthie's friend from London?"
Yes! I was pleased to meet Yair Madar. And like this! He said that Ruth had married and now lived in Tel Aviv. She had spoken with pride of her skilled and daring brother in ha-tzanchanim, the paratroopers. He was now a reservist, in civilian life a biology student at Hebrew University, and when on active duty, a medic in the army.
When Egypt and Syria launched their surprise attack (1) on Israel earlier that week, Yair was on duty at a soon-surrounded Bar Lev Line position at the Suez Canal's northern reach. The second night of the war, the garrison of a hundred or so men evacuated under orders. Afoot, the men successfully slipped through the attacking Egyptian forces and escaped to relative safety. Carefully targeted artillery fire from Israeli 155-millimeter guns, positioned near Baluza, provided effective distraction and cover for the evacuation.
In the flickering shadows, ground shuddering from exploding Egyptian Katyusha rockets and 122-millimeter artillery rounds, I called to mind Yair's sister: beautiful, bright Ruth. Their family was from Yemen, coming on aliyah some 70 years earlier. Ruth had the intuitive gracious and earthy manner for which that ethnic community is known in Israel.
Having completed both her army service and teaching degree, she was working in England for a year and seeing the world. I was then a graduate student studying international relations on the G.I. Bill. We met in a coffee house in West Hampstead and hit it off. I had been to Israel for the first time the year before. I recall that we saw the film Ulysses and afterward together read aloud portions of Joyce's complex novel and visited Cornwall and walked along the cliffs by the sea. What a time for such memories: at war and under bombardment. Ruth returned to Israel, and I followed when my degree and work were completed. Although our relationship ended, I stayed on in the Holy Land.
A day or two after my encounter with Yair, an Israeli resupply convoy from Baluza to the isolated front-line stronghold code-named "Budapest" was stopped with heavy losses. Egyptian commandos had set an ambush blocking the access road that ran north from our base along the Mediterranean shore to Outpost Budapest. The bloodied Israeli force withdrew, and the wounded and injured were treated at Baluza. I served as a stretcher-bearer.
Outpost Budapest was the northernmost fortification of the Bar Lev Line, named for Israel's former Chief-of-Staff Chaim Bar Lev. Most of the other positions of that lightly manned defensive line facing Egypt already had fallen. The "Line" was a series of fortified outposts spread several miles apart, and thus notable to provide interlocking defensive fire. Baluza, supporting the right flank of Israeli defenses, was sited at the junction of two key roads: Sinai's east-west Mediterranean coastal road and a north-south communication lane called "the artillery road," set back from and paralleling the Suez Canal. Baluza was the main Israeli base in northwest Sinai, the key forward communications and supply center, with weapons and vehicle maintenance facilities, a hospital bunker, and a nearby airstrip. It was the sector's rallying point for counterattacks and served as support for Budapest and other front-line positions.
Outpost Budapest, while an integral position of the Bar Lev Line, was not on the Suez Canal itself, but rather a few miles to its east, across marshland. It blocked Sinai's coastal road extension that ran north from Baluza on a sandy thin strip of land, sometimes but a hundred meters wide, toward the Egyptian towns of Port Fuad and Port Said on the Mediterranean. (2)
Later that night, during another artillery bombardment, several dozen men, who were off-duty, gathered in the hospital bunker for shelter. A major entered and called for attention. The men stopped talking but did not rise. He then soberly requested volunteers from the mostly reservist soldier to man a mission to isolated Budapest.
Af echad im yeladim! the officer said. "No one with children!" The room was silent. "Some of the force will stay to reinforce the casualty-reduced garrison," he explained, "while the others will bring out the wounded."
"Yo, I'll go, I'm a medic." Yair raised his hand. Simple and immediate. Others waved an arm or quietly stood up.
Someone behind me articulated quietly what the rest of us thought, Kol ha-kavod/All the honor! (3)
The company was grim as the volunteer force, bundled with flak jackets, helmets, web gear, and weapons, prepared for their mission. They manned half-tracks and APCs (4) bristling with machine-guns and loaded with jerry cans of water, gasoline, and diesel fuel, crates of ammunition and medical supplies, and reels of telephone wire. Someone questioned why no food rations were being loaded. An officer said, "They've enough food; no need to waste space." The medic based at Budapest had been wounded and needed to be evacuated, along with others. A doctor had volunteered for the mission; he and Yair would stay on at the outpost to provide medical help.
Half-an-hour after they pulled out, we heard the distant rattling of small-arms fire and felt the wallop of concussions from an outgoing artillery fire mission in support of the convoy. Word soon circulated that all but one vehicle had broken through the Egyptian encirclement and had made it to Budapest. An hour later, several wounded soldiers were brought to the Baluza hospital bunker.
Throughout the war we felt the impact and heard the firing of large guns and aerial bombings echoing in the distance from Egyptian attacks on Budapest. At night the sky glowed red and purple from their explosions. When the successful stand of the forward defensive position became known, Outpost Budapest entered Israel's military lore.
Israeli reservists at Budapest persevered under repeated heavy air and ground attacks (5) and envelopments throughout the war. Dozens of the garrison at Budapest were killed of wounded but steadfastly held this remnant of the Bar Lev Line, which protected northern Sinai.
The Egyptian army used its commandos intensively in the Baluza-Budapest sector, and although they had some initial successes, most were killed off. During my own drive forward to Baluza from Jerusalem through El Arish on the third day of the war, we had come upon three Israeli armored vehicles sitting immobilized on the road shoulder and blackened from fire. We investigated, and noticed the penetrating entry holes of anti-tank shells, probably shaped-charge projectiles. No bodies were inside. The ambush was set, no doubt, by Egyptian commandos who either had been inserted by helicopter or had hiked quite a way from the frontline near the Canal, or a much shorter distance from the sea.
A few nights after the convoy left, I watched as two low-flying Egyptian troop-carrying helicopters were shot out of the sky by Israeli small-arms fire from soldiers around me. Contrary to combat practice, the choppers' flying lights had been left on, making the ships inviting targets. The sole survivor was one of the pilots, who had suffered only a bad gash to his right thigh. Several of us carried him on a stretcher several hundred yards to the Baluza field hospital. He was a major, with a casual arrogant manner, who spoke Arabic, Russian, French, and English. He demanded cigarette after cigarette, and I listened as an Israeli doctor treated the injured leg and conversed with him, shifting from one language to another. When the doctor asked him about the flying lights, the pilot was incredulous and unwilling to assume culpability. He insisted that Israeli radar had locked on his aircraft and an American-supplied Hawk missile shot it down.
After nearly three weeks of high-intensity combat, the first cease-tire between Egypt and Israel went into effect. (6) That day, I drove a water truck in a small convoy of three supply vehicles from Baluza to Budapest. Passing foxholes dug alongside the access road, we stopped to have a look, but did not venture out of our vehicles. "Don't walk the ambush site," an officer had warned, "there may still be land mines."
We saw no bodies, but could see flattened black rubber assault boats with their outboard motors lying on the nearby shore, like a squadron of dead stingrays. The Egyptians had surprised and blocked the first Israeli relief force. The second convoy, the one with Ruth's brother and the volunteer doctor, laid suppressive fire on suspected ambush positions and raced through a gauntlet of fire, taking casualties and losing one vehicle. A few days later, assaulting Israeli ground troops wiped out the commando force in a sharp firefight. (7)
The word was that the Israeli infantry force making the successful attack on the ambush site comprised several platoons from the parachute unit that fought the famous Ammunition Hill battle in northeast Jerusalem during the Six-Day War. They had earned their reputation then as miktso'im, professionals. I knew one of the Jerusalem action's heroes from my days at Kibbutz Hamadiya, on the Jordan River border. He was a lanky, quiet fellow, a lieutenant, who was said to have been far more outgoing before that savage short war. In 1967, his unit had been young reservists, not regulars. Now the men of that unit would be middle-aged by combat standards, and while they no longer might be as fit as younger soldiers, they would know their business.
Budapest protruded from the flat coastal terrain like a stack of low boxes, constructions of limestone blocks laced in place with chicken wire, the large bunkers, firing positions, and defensive trenches skirted by multiple webs and fences of barbed and concertina wire. The flat terrain around Budapest was pock-marked with hundreds of shell craters, into which ground water had seeped, now green with algae and skirted with foam. The scene recalled pictures of France's World War I defense zone at Verdun and elsewhere on the Western Front. Some communications trenches in the built-up area of the position were caved-in by direct artillery hits. The limestone-topped concrete pillboxes and bunkers were severely chipped and pockmarked by shellfire, but had held up.
On the Mediterranean shore just behind the fort, half-a-dozen Egyptian amphibious armored vehicles lay beached and burnt-black, disabled by Israeli gunfire after swimming a close-in flanking attack.
Looking north from Budapest toward the main Egyptian military dispositions, I saw scattered across the flat landscape a slew of blackened tanks and other assault vehicles. Many had the low silhouettes of Soviet T-54 and T-55 tanks. A grimy-faced officer offered his binoculars, his rank insignia showing the three bars of a captain (an American of that rank would wear but two parallel bars). I counted the knocked-out Egyptian armored vehicles carefully, one by one. They numbered 28 armored carcasses. A soldier casually called the captain by his nickname, Motti. Later, when I learned that the commander of Budapest was only a captain in rank, I realized this must have been him. His name was Motti Ashkenazi. (8)
Some enemy armor had reached the wire entanglements at the fort's foot, while others sat immobile as far as a mile or so across the flat sand, all disabled by what must have been witheringly accurate Israeli tank fire.
The reserve company that manned the fort crewed some heavy weapons that made the difference. They also had the usual FN-rifles, Uzi's, and light machineguns. Most important of all were the two tanks, which I'll get to in a moment. There also were mortars in sandbagged pits, and four artillery shelters in which French-built 155-millimeter howitzers were positioned to fire through slits from the concrete enclosures, which were scarred and chipped from multiple hits. Three looked intact, while one enclosure was burnt out. Grim black carbon streaks stained the outside wall around the shooting port. A sergeant explained, "One of our big guns was destroyed when an incoming round carne right through the firing slit. The place blew up. Ammo went off. I saw it from a trench. Flames shot from the openings like rockets. Killed six men in an instant."
I did not look inside.
As with many Israeli fortifications, the reinforced concrete structures were mostly covered with a thick layer of boulders held in place by webbed nets of what looked like chicken wire. Apparently, the relatively loose rocks absorbed the impact of artillery and bomb explosions more resiliently than rigid concrete, which tended to crack under repeated hits, while the rocks shifted around, in effect protecting the concrete underneath.
A pair of American-supplied Patton tanks proved key to Budapest's successful defense. The Patton was called magach in Hebrew, which colloquially translates to "battering ram." I climbed atop one and saw that the turret hull was scarred by numerous scrapping hits. Virtually all the external equipment had been shot off or hung broken: searchlights, radio antennas, machine-guns, running lights. However, the turret and large gun of each tank kept working, and the crews kept their discipline and focus. The tanks mounted the 105-millimeter tube, up-gunned from those that I remembered from Korea eight years before. These Pattons were still gasoline-fueled, not yet adapted for diesel engines, which would be far less flammable.
Piles of large brass shell casings lay scattered near the tank's four hull-down firing positions. Dirt ramps led from one position to another. Minimizing exposure time of the tanks and shifting ramp positions reduced the chance of hits from direct fire by Egyptian tanks, flat trajectory anti-tank guns, and wire-guided missiles. Near misses from artillery fire do not ordinarily disable modern tanks.
A tank parked low on one of the ramps would be invisible from ground level outside the fort. In a forward positioned bunker with a good view of the front, an Israeli trooper served as target spotter. He used a 20-power scope, picked targets, and called via telephone to prepare the tank commander and gunner for shots by providing target descriptions, azimuths, and distances. When ready, the tank engine was revved and the weapon system moved forward and up a few yards, protruding its big gun over the embankment, exposing only part of the armored turret. It quickly picked out and tracked the pre*selected target, aimed, fired, sometimes a quick second shot, and immediately backed down. Usually the tank would be exposed to enemy sight only for a few moments, only a brief time for Egyptian gunners to sight in and get a shot away. The only exposed portion of the Israeli tank, over the rampart, during its shooting actions, was the heavily armored turret, which was exceptionally difficult to defeat.
One of the tank commanders explained a positive characteristic of the Patton: this tank could depress its main gun to fire at an angle significantly below horizontal, to a greater angle than characteristic of other tanks. While parked angled upward on protected ramps, it could still engage targets below the horizontal plane.
Walking through the fort, I noticed that the ground was ribbed with courses of thin, variously colored, insulated wire. The telephone lines that linked positions were often cut by artillery shrapnel and explosions and had been laid redundantly and laid repeatedly. The use for the reels of wire that earlier supply runs had carried in was clear.
Years later, I sent a draft of this narrative to Dan Saks, an American-born friend who served in the IDF at Baluza after the Yom Kippur War. Dan was as a gunner in the Israeli version of the Patton tank. He was familiar with the various tanks employed during that war, and, like me, had later returned to the States. He telephoned and offered an interesting recollection: "Older Russian tanks, captured in 1967 and then used by Israel, carried a thick wooden log strapped atop the rear platform, behind the turret. When our guys needed to fire downhill from behind protective embankments, they had to drop the log and jam it behind the treads. Then they'd reverse the tank several feet to climb the log and gain an improved shooting angle. The British Centurion and American Patton tanks had the ability to fire at a lower angle than that generation of Russian models, even without the log solution. "
Dan's respect for those who held Budapest moved me. When I called Dan to ask if I might use his description in my story, he was silent a moment, and then said, "Mike, there is no need to use my name. But you can, and I would be honored to be mentioned on the same pages as those who fought at Budapest. "
At Budapest, I asked about the doctor and medic who had volunteered for the dangerous relief convoy several weeks earlier, and was told that they had survived the siege uninjured, and earlier that day had accompanied the evacuation of wounded men.
Before leaving, I walked through the area committing it to memory. A tattered Israeli flag fluttered from a pole at the fort's center. Two splintered picnic tables sat below. Metal shrapnel shards stuck up from the wood planking. Ammo boxes provided additional seats in the shell-cratered and explosion-burnt sand. Rough lettering on a board nailed to the flagpole read in Hebrew and English, "Budapest Hilton." I liked that.
Five awards for heroism went to men who fought for Outpost Budapest: one Medal of Valor, two Medals of Courage and two Exemplary Conduct Medals. (9) Although often surrounded and repeatedly and heavily attacked by tank, amphibious and air forces, Budapest was the single position of the Bar Lev Line that held throughout the war. The steadfastness of the Budapest defenders blocked the Egyptian advance along the Mediterranean coastal road from Ports Said and Fuad at the Suez Canal's northern entrance.
(1.) The armies of Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on October 6, 1973, which was both the Jewish Sabbath and Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest days. One recalls the public debate in America during various phases in its more than a decade of conflict with Iraq about suspending aerial action during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan.
(2.) Port Fuad and Port Said on the Mediterranean respectively flanked the Suez Canal east and west at its northern entrance. During the 1956 Suez War, British and French paratroop units captured Port Said during their countries' aborted assault on Egypt after President Nasser had nationalized the Canal and began importing massive supplies of Soviet weapons. Israel's Sinai Campaign, waged against Egypt for its support of terror attacks from Gaza and with concern for the power imbalance that would result from the new Soviet military alliance with Egypt, was coordinated with Great Britain and France.
(3.) The Hebrew phrase kol ha-kavod! translates to "All the honor!" That English does not do justice to the linguistic strength of the Hebrew, which means, "You deserve our honor!"
(4.) The American-built half-tracks were old by 1973; the U.S. Army used the model in 1942 in North Africa. Israelis called it Zachlam. from the Hebrew root meaning "crawl" or "slither." Yanks called its full-tracked replacement, the "APC," for Armored Personnel Carrier. Nagmash was the acronym in Hebrew; Western journalists sometimes called it Golda, while Israelis nicknamed it Zelda.
(5.) A Marine Corps Staff College publication reports: "At 1409 on October 7, large numbers of air strikes were directed at the fortification at Budapest with napalm, and at various targets near Baluza.... Additionally, during the day, six helicopters from Port Fuad landed more rangers ... northwest of Baluza." (Major Martin C. Musella, Air Operations during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and Implications for Marine Aviation. Quantico, VA: April 1, 1985.) What I observed on the shore by one Egyptian ambush site northwest of Baluza were rubber rafts, not mentioned in the Marine study. Perhaps both air- and sea-insertions were involved in repeated Egyptian attempts to envelop and isolate Outpost Budapest.
(6.) We were uneasy about the durability of the cease-fire, justifiably so as it turned out. There would be numerous outbreaks of military action--frequent ceasefire violations by the Egyptians--on this front during the next five months. The same thing occurred on the Syrian Front at Israel's northeast frontier.
(7.) The Egyptian army inserted several ambushing units along the Baluza-Budapest road: each one caused Israeli casualties, and then was wiped out.
(8.) Captain Motti Ashkenazi would become a household name in Israel within a few months of the war, as a hero. On a trip to Israel in early 2004. I mentioned this essay at separate times to several old friends. As soon as I mentioned Budapest, each nodded and said virtually the same words: "Ah, Budapest! Motti Ashkenazi was commander." A search on the Internet brings up numerous entries, including an article in Ha'aretz (August 6, 2002) about his role demonstrating after the war and the resulting resignation of several leaders of the then-Israel Government.
(9.) One hundred of the 215 military decorations presented to Israeli soldiers who distinguished themselves during the Yom Kippur War and its aftermath were awarded posthumously. The Medal of Valor is equivalent to the US Army's Medal of Honor, the Medal for Courage to the Silver Star, and the Exemplary Conduct Medal to the Bronze Star.
MICHAEL A. ZIMMERMAN is an American writer and business executive who lived several years in Israel. Earlier, he served in the U.S. Army as an ordinance officer with the Seventh Infantry Division in Korea.