Scouts Out! The Development of Reconnaissance Units in Modern Armies by John J. McGrath
The Israeli armed forces fought four wars with hostile neighboring Arab powers between 1948 and 1973. In the last three, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) deployed motorized and mechanized reconnaissance forces in various configurations. The Israeli experience is important because IDF reconnaissance unit design was based on practical experience. Additionally, differing from the US and German experiences in World War II, Israeli reconnaissance forces spent much of their time conducting reconnaissance operations in 1956, 1967, and 1973.
|Jeeps with 106mm RCLs remained the mainstay for the IDF's Recon units at 1967.|
The IDF 1967 Reconnaissance
After the success of the 1956 campaign, the Israeli authorities decided to convert the IDF into a primarily armored and mechanized force. This transformation took place in the years between the 1956 and 1967 conflicts. Tanks were upgraded with the Israelis obtaining their first modern tanks, British Centurions and US M48 Pattons. Additionally, the IDF expanded along with the Israeli population from roughly 190,000 to 250,000, with 70,000 of this force earmarked for the Sinai as opposed to 45,000 in 1956. Although brigades still remained the basic units, the IDF armored corps began focusing on divisional operations after 1956. Peacetime exercises began including the employment of divisional headquarters.
Divisions were still considered to be somewhat informal task forces working under theater commands to control the operations of several brigades. Of the four division task forces used by the IDF in 1967, only Brigadier General Ariel Sharon’s division in the central Sinai sector had reconnaissance assets attached to it. This battalion-sized command contained a mixture of AMX-13 tanks, jeep-mounted scouts, and half- track mounted mortars.
Sharon used his force to cover the left (southern) flank of his advance on Abu Ageila. Near the end of the campaign, Brigadier General Yisrael Tal, commanding the Ugdat ha’Plada or Steel Division in northern Sinai, created a division-level reconnaissance force called Granit Force from his brigade’s reconnaissance forces and various other units and sent it westward to Kantara and the Suez Canal. At the canal, reconnaissance troops equipped with recoilless rifles teamed with tanks to envelop and destroy an Egyptian force just east of the canal.
Division commanders primarily depended on the reconnaissance companies of their brigades to conduct such operations. Brigade reconnaissance companies were upgraded between 1956 and 1967. While the jeeps with machine guns and 106-mm recoilless rifles remained the mainstay, forming a platoon each, a platoon of half-tracked armored personnel carriers now became part of the company. The half-tracks mounted a combination of antitank guns, .50-caliber machine guns, and 20-mm cannons.
As part of Tal’s division, the 7th Armored Brigade’s 643d Reconnaissance Company led the assault on Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip at the start of the Sinai campaign. This company’s experience offers a good example of using brigade reconnaissance elements in the 1967 war (figure 35). As the reconnaissance unit for the only regular armored brigade in the IDF at the time, it played a prominent role in Tal’s operations. For combat operations, the company commander, Captain Ori Orr, usually reorganized his platoons into three combat teams each with a mix of half- tracks, machine-gun jeeps, and 106-mm jeeps. The 7th Brigade opened hostilities in Tal’s sector by an attack in a single column with its battalions lined up one after the other, with one of Orr’s teams leading, supported by a tank battalion. The bulk of the reconnaissance company followed the tanks. Colonel Shmuel Gonen, the brigade commander, used a single column so the reconnaissance troops could clear a path through Egyptian minefields. The brigade had the mission of penetrating the Egyptian and Palestinian defensive belt at a relatively weak point and then swinging south to outflank the rest of the fortified positions. The column broke into the Egyptian positions in an urban area. While some fighting continued near Khan Yunis, the bulk of the brigade turned to the southwest in two battalion columns. Supported by two tanks, Orr’s company, minus a team leading a follow-on battalion’s advance, moved to the tactically important Rafah Junction, south of Rafah, as the brigade movement’s lead element. The reconnaissance unit drove into the middle of an Egyptian position at the crossroads and was ambushed by elements of an enemy armored brigade. Orr aggressively counterattacked and, after heavy casualties and close combat, compelled the Egyptians to retreat. The rest of the 7th Brigade, along with elements from Tal’s other brigades, attacked the junction position from the north and south.
The brigade then broke through the enemy defenses and turned west. The reorganized reconnaissance company led the advance of several columns. The fastest column, under the brigade’s deputy commander, Lieutenant Colonel Baruch Harel, shifted its light reconnaissance team to the middle of the column, letting the tanks lead. As the column advanced toward El Arish, it passed through an area of rugged terrain near a railroad station called Jiradi. The Egyptians were defending this area in strength but were so stunned by the sudden appearance of Israeli tanks more than 30 miles inside Egyptian territory that they let the tanks pass. By the time the reconnaissance team passed through, the Egyptians had regained their composure and opened fire and destroyed the scout jeeps. The reconnaissance survivors dismounted and hid behind sand dunes while the rest of Harel’s column fought through the Egyptian position and continued to El Arish. Brigade commander Gonen soon came up and organized a deliberate attack against the Jiradi position by the time the next tank battalion arrived. The battalion forced its way through to El Arish, with its commander getting killed in the process. But the Egyptians still held their position, and Gonen used his armored infantry battalion in a midnight attack, which finally ejected the Egyptians from the position.
When the IDF Southern Command brought into action a third divisional force between those of Tal and Sharon to exploit Sharon’s breakthrough at Abu Ageila, the lead brigade led with its reconnaissance company. On the morning of 6 June, Gonen’s brigade, the spearhead of Tal’s division, was at El Arish, halfway to the Suez Canal. While Tal sent out the Granit Force to Kantara, the 7th Brigade spent the next 2 days fighting through Egyptian positions on the central Sinai axis. On the evening of 8 June, Tal decided to send the remnants of Orr’s company, reinforced with two tank platoons and an artillery battery, to the canal as the spearhead of the advance of the division’s main body. Orr’s task force successfully reached the canal opposite Ismailia shortly after midnight on 9 June. The reconnaissance troopers watched the last of the Egyptian tanks cross the canal over a bridge. Orr moved northward along the canal and linked up with Granit Force halfway between Ismailia and Kantara. This effectively ended the Sinai campaign of 1967.
The IDF 1973 Armored Reconnaissance Battalion and Company
Up until 1967, divisions in the IDF had been expedient organizations. By 1973, however, seven armored divisions were organized for wartime mobilization. Each division contained an organic reconnaissance battalion. The new battalion organization, as well as the preexisting brigade reconnaissance company, was heavier than the units used in the 1967 war.
An analysis of the operations of reconnaissance forces in the 1967 war led to a reassessment of the composition of reconnaissance forces. One of the IDF’s major lessons from the 1967 battles was that reconnaissance forces were too light to survive on the battlefield. Units equipped with jeeps, half-tracks, and light tanks took heavy losses in action at places like Rafah Junction and Jiradi. The AMX-13 tank was too lightly armored and gunned for both a main battle and a reconnaissance role and was completely phased out of the IDF inventory. Units equipped with jeeps took heavy losses when encountering unavoidable firefights. Therefore, between 1967 and 1973, the IDF upgraded its reconnaissance units at the brigade and division levels. For the most part, the IDF replaced antiquated World War II half-tracks with modern US M113s (Zeldas in Israeli terminology), fully tracked armored personnel carriers (APCs). In the most dramatic shift, main battle tanks replaced jeep-mounted recoilless rifles.
|An Israeli M113 APC|
As a result, by 1973, each IDF armored brigade fielded an armored reconnaissance company consisting of a platoon of main battle tanks and two platoons of scouts mounted in M113 APCs or half-tracks. The divisional reconnaissance battalion contained three reconnaissance companies, each with a mix of tanks and scout APCs. The battalion also included a scout company with jeeps and a maintenance and medical platoon.
In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, various commanders used their reconnaissance units in different ways. Major General Avraham Adan, commander of an armored division on the Sinai front, fought the whole war without his divisional reconnaissance battalion. It was detached to an ad hoc task force defending the extreme northern sector of the front and never returned to divisional control. The 7th Armored Brigade in the Golan used its scouts to flesh out the strength of its mechanized infantry battalion.
One unit, the 87th Armored Reconnaissance Battalion of Major General Ariel Sharon’s 143d Armored Division, played a conspicuous role in the operations in the Sinai (figure 37). The IDF organized the battalion in the reserve in May 1973, and it participated in a division- level exercise before the war began. After the Egyptians commenced hostilities, the unit mobilized and then moved to the Sinai theater on its own tracks. During the disastrous series of IDF maneuvers on 8 October, the 87th Battalion remained behind to hold a key position on the southern flank of Adan’s division while Sharon moved his forces to the south and back. The battalion fought alone against a large Egyptian attack, in which the battalion commander was killed by mortar fire, until Sharon’s forces returned to repulse the attackers.
The battalion was then withdrawn behind the front to reorganize. The new battalion commander was Major Yoav Brom. Under Brom, the battalion spent the evening of 9–10 October scouting the Egyptian positions opposite Sharon’s division. During this mission, Brom discovered that the enemy bridgeheads on the east bank of the Suez Canal were not joined to each other. The battalion was able to reach the shore of the Great Bitter Lake without encountering any Egyptians. The Egyptian Second Army in the northern portion of the Sinai had an open southern flank.
On 14 October, the Egyptians launched a frontwide armored attack. The 87th covered the flank of Sharon’s division and participated in the repulse of the attack.
Immediately following this success, the Israelis put into motion their complicated plan for crossing the Suez Canal. This operation used the gap discovered on the 9th to send Sharon’s division to secure a crossing site opposite Deversoir, where the canal flowed into the Great Bitter Lake. Sharon’s units would send paratroopers across to the far bank while securing the general area of the crossing for follow-on troops from Adan’s division. Sharon reinforced his lead unit, the 14th Armored Brigade, to eight battalions, with the 87th first in the column.
The advance began at 1800 on 15 October. Brom led the column along the route he had taken 6 days earlier. By 2100, the column had reached the canal at the crossing site without making any contact with Egyptian forces. Brom’s battalion advanced along the east bank of the canal and covered the northern flank of the crossing site. Meanwhile, to the east, several Israeli tank battalions were fighting for their lives to secure a key crossroads in the midst of the defensive positions of the Egyptian 16th Infantry and 21st Armored Divisions. After a series of failed assaults, at 0300 on 16 October, the 14th Brigade ordered Brom to assault the same objective. As the first Israeli paratroopers crossed to the west bank of the Suez Canal, Brom attacked. The 87th advanced from west to east, a new direction for the Egyptian defenders. However, the results were the same. Multiple volleys of rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) and small-arms fire annihilated the reconnaissance unit. Brom was killed within 30 yards of the crossroads when his tank was destroyed.
The remnants of the battalion fought for survival through the night. The Israelis finally took the crossroads the next morning. The 14th Brigade distributed the survivors of the 87th among the various tank battalions of the brigade. For the remainder of the war, the unit ceased to exist. Directly after the cease-fire, the 87th was reestablished, equipped with APCs and jeeps, some equipped with the tube-launched, optically tracked wire- guided (TOW) antitank missile system. After IDF forces were withdrawn from the Sinai in 1982, the battalion was disbanded.