Eyewitness to the Six-Day War

The Six-Day War was actually won by Israel in the first four hours of Monday, June 5, 1967. The day is etched in my memory for being under aerial attack for the one and only time in my life

The story of the Indian presence in Egypt during the fateful period goes back to almost five years earlier. During a visit to Egypt, Dr Zakir Hussain, then Vice President of India, was shown their most ambitious aircraft project, the HA-300. This was an ultra-light single seat delta shaped fighter aircraft. It was Professor Willy Messerschmitt’s last design, and the only super-sonic one. He was already famous for Me-109, Me-262, etc. The Egyptian Air Force Chief, M. Sidky Mahmoud asked Dr Zakir Hussain for India’s help on the project. The request was extrapolated by accompanying staff and Indian journalists to mean a collaboration project. Back in India, the press really went to town. A little earlier, leaders from China, Egypt, India, Indonesia and Yugoslavia had met at Bandung (Indonesia) and agreed on Panch Shila – Five Principles of Co-existence. The Indian press was still full of euphoria generated by this. On seeing a hint of collaboration between India and Egypt, they wrote learned editorials about the emergence of a third military block, of the non-aligned, and its impact on global balance of power. 

The truth was that the Egyptians wanted the loan of a test pilot and other help in developing the E-300 engine. They also hoped that the costs of developing the engine would get partly offset by India using it for the HF-24 Marut aircraft. Sidky Mahmoud was invited to India and visited Hindustan Aircraft Ltd (HAL) in early 1963. He asked for help in flight testing the HA-300. Eventually I found myself in Egypt in June 63. I flew the HA-300 on its maiden flight on March 7, 1964 at Helwan, just south of Cairo. However, that is a separate story. 

With more confusion in Indian bureaucratic minds, it was assumed that the Egyptians would give us the E-300 engine, being developed for the HA-300, and take our HF-24 aircraft in a joint development project. But, the Egyptians had no interest in the HF-24. Nevertheless, a modified HF-24 (Mk IBX) aircraft was loaned and later gifted to Egypt. This could take either the original Orpheus 703 engines or the E-300 on one side. To maintain the aircraft, a thirty-man HAL team was sent to Egypt. Most of these people stayed in Egypt for predetermined periods and then new personnel replaced them. However there were two long-term deputations. Wing Commander IM Chopra was loaned to Egypt as the test pilot for development flying of the E-300 engine on the HF-24. Group Captain CS Naik was put in charge of the maintenance team. At the start of the war, along with visitors from HAL, we were thirty-five Indians at Helwan.

The build up to the Six-Day War came from President Gamal Abdul Nasser’s call in mid-May 1967 to all Arab nations to drive the “Jew into the sea”. This was Israel’s greatest fear. It was surrounded by hostile Arab countries: Lebanon and Syria to the north, Jordan to the east, Egypt on the south and Iraq, Egypt’s partner in the United Arab Republic, not very far away. On the west side was the Mediterranean Sea into which Nasser wanted to drown the Zionist nation. Egyptians were sure that war was inevitable, since they planned to start it somehow or the other. This became clear when the Chief of Air Staff (CAS) of Indian Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh visited Cairo on May 27, 1967. Air Chief Marshal M. Sidky Mahmoud asked me to look after the CAS as his staff officer. According to him the Egyptian Air Force could not spare any officer from the impending war effort. 

While working in Factory 36 (Aircraft Factory at Helwan), I had trained two Egyptian Air Force officers as test pilots. They were good at their new job. The two of them were doing most of the test flying of the HA-300 when they were suddenly withdrawn to help Egypt prepare for war. Before becoming a test pilot, Lt Col Zuhair Shalaby was already an exceptionally good operational pilot with considerable experience and plenty of courage. The other test pilot, Major Sobhy El Tawil was in fact an aeronautical engineer who had neglected to let the Air Force know of this qualification. He became a highly educated and thinking fighter pilot in the squadron. For the war preparations Zuhair was given the job of getting a MiG-17 unit geared up for operations. Sobhy’s secret had been out long ago. He was asked to get as many fighter aircraft airworthy as was humanly possible. The actual trigger for the war was the closure of the Straits of Tirana, which meant denial of Elat port to Israel, its only outlet into the Red Sea. When rumblings of war started in Israel, President Nasser replied simply,”Ahlan-wa-Sahlan” meaning you are welcome to one. He assumed that Egypt along with other Arab nations in a joint operation was ready to annihilate Israel. Yet Egyptians were to soon find that they had missed out on some very important precautions before inviting Israel to engage in a do or die war.

Israel had always known that it would have to fight a war to ensure its long-term survival. In 1956 President Nasser had nationalised the Suez Canal. This was unacceptable to many nations. In the war that followed the same year, Britain and France colluded with Israel to try and topple Nasser and regain control over the Canal. They failed in both these objectives. Nasser ended up being more popular than before, though he had lost the entire Sinai desert, at least for a while. It then became clear that another war was inevitable. The only doubt was when and with whom. It seemed that all Arabs countries around Israel could get together to launch an all out assault on it. Contingency planning for this began well before the Six-Day War.

Jacob “Yak” Nevo was a very methodical and energetic young pilot in the Israeli Air Force. He had worked out a new manoeuvre for dogfights. He would let the opponent get onto his tail and then suddenly drop his speed so sharply that the attacker would shoot past him. He would barrel roll and end up behind him ready to gun him down with a receding shot. Once he saw three Egyptian MiG-17s over the Sinai Desert. He told his number two to keep off and took them on by himself to test his theory. For over five minutes he used his slowing down manoeuvre and succeeded each time in getting behind the attacking MiG. No shots were fired by either side. Nevo must have been lucky that the Egyptians never co-ordinated their attack. An aircraft, which drops its speed, can be a sitting duck for someone coming down on it from above. He ended up writing a manual on air combat, which had everything an Israeli pilot needed to know about it. This became the official dog-fighting manual of the Israeli Air Force. He even demonstrated his slowing manoeuvre to Mordechai (Moti) Hod, nearly putting him in a spin in his Super Mystere. This may have helped General Moti Hod, as the Air Force Commander at the time of the 1967 war, to implicitly trust Nevo’s ability for operational planning. 

The main element of Nevo’s plan was to carry out a massive, simultaneous attack with Israeli front-line aircraft against all Egyptian air bases – the most powerful and well-equipped Arab air force. This required exact and detailed planning of departure times and approaches of each of the attacking forces, in order to ensure the element of surprise on every target. On the morning of June 5, aircraft of the Israeli Air Force took off from their bases and attacked eleven Egyptian air force bases in Sinai and Egypt in the first wave. 

A report in 1997 in The Daily Telegraph quoted Major General Shlomo Gazit as having told the newspaper Yediot Aharonot that the Six-Day War was foretold by a Czech astrologer. The unnamed astrologer had predicted the war and a “stunning victory” for Israel. Major General Shlomo Gazit was the head of the research wing of Israeli military intelligence. He claimed (tongue in cheek) that Israel had this “one source of information”. In view of the open challenge from Nasser, and the extremely poor record of the Arabs in fighting Israel in the past, this was not much of a forecast. In fact, the Israeli Air Force had prepared for the war in an extremely single-minded manner.

Nevo was the single-minded person of the moment. He argued that the main job of the Israeli Air Force was not simply to defend the country’s air space. It was to help the army gain and hold ground. For this, air superiority was essential. Dogfights were an inefficient way of gaining air superiority. The Israeli Air Force was poorly equipped compared to the Arabs. Its one chance was surprise. He decided that the enemy planes had to be caught on the ground.

He recruited Rafi Sivron, a navigator and helicopter co-pilot, to help him. The two made plans for surprise attacks on Arab airfields. Initially this was an intellectual exercise. He obtained access to the intelligence gathered by the highly efficient Israeli agents. His detailed plans for pre-emptive air strikes specified units to be tasked with each job, routes and heights to fly, allotted targets, and the actual weapons to be used. These plans called for operations to begin at 07:45 hours when Arab dawn patrols would be back for refuelling, and the mandatory breakfast for their pilots. The strikes had to be made without any warning of any kind to the enemy. The Israeli Air Force definitely needed to destroy the Arab Air Forces, especially Egyptian. For the Six-Day War this was called Operation Moked (Focus). It was about three years in planning.

At the time, I was the Chief Test Pilot of Egypt’s Factory 36. We were lazily developing the HA-300. No flights were planned for June 5. I had started to carry my transistor radio to work to listen to the morning news from the BBC. I was not too surprised when just after 8 am it reported the outbreak of hostilities. Around 8:15 am, I heard jet aircraft overhead. Looking out of the window, I saw three MiG-17s coming in to land. After parking them on the tarmac with orders to refuel and arm them, Zuhair walked into my office. His account of the sortie showed how the Egyptians had been caught completely off guard. 

Zuhair had taken off from Cairo West airbase with two pilots under training for operations for battle formation practice. Near the end of the sortie when they arrived overhead Cairo West, he could see puffs on the ground and several aircraft, including Tuplov-16 bombers, on fire. He at once realised that the Israeli Air Force was visiting the base. He asked Flying Control for instructions who told him to get out, and away. Since he had been flying from Helwan till his recall to the Air Force, he diverted to our airfield. I advised him to leave Helwan and go somewhere far away such as El Minya, well to our south. He phoned the headquarters for orders and was apparently told that there was nowhere left to run.

Factory 36 had been working on the clearance of an under-wing rocket launcher on a MiG-19. The aircraft was serviceable for flight. Zuhair promptly issued orders for it to be brought out, made ready for flight, and armed. To the right of the MiG-17s, this aircraft became the first of four MiGs in one line. Factory mechanics soon reported that the three MiG-17s were in fact already armed – a fact unknown to their pilots. To the left of these, two HA-200 Saeta trainers were being serviced. Thus the line was a total of six aircraft. There were perhaps 50 other HA-200 trainers on our airfield, dumped back at the Factory by the Egyptian Air Force as they wanted to clear Bilbeis, their training base, for ops. I had dispersed them, often in the lea of some Second World War brick pens, leftover from RAF days. These were all covered with sand coloured tarpaulins.

At 11:10 am, I heard the scream of low flying jets. Running to the window, I saw four Mirage IIIC aircraft in a low run over our single runway. As they pulled up and turned left, two Vautours did a low pass on the runway and dropped thousand pound bombs. Two loud explosions followed after a short delay. We were truly under attack. Some Egyptian friends tried to pull me away from the window to go down with them to the ground floor, which was presumed to be safer if bombs fell over us. I refused to move and told them that the Israelis had come to destroy aeroplanes and would not waste ammo on people. I was proved right.

The four Mirages came into classic front gun attacks at the aircraft lined up on the tarmac and facing away from them. The leader went for the MiG-19. The others took the three MiG-17s. Seconds later, these four aircraft were on fire. The Vautours did not do a second run, but the Mirages came in for the second attack, as if they were on range practice. The leader and his number two took out the two HA-200s. The third pilot chose to fire at an An-12, which was the test bed for the E-300 engine. While the HA-200s caught fire, the An-12 leaked tons of fuel, which miraculously never ignited. The fourth pilot had no target left. He wasted a few rounds at the cement wall of the engine-test bed facility, making harmless pockmarks on it. One of the shells ricocheted and landed within inches of an officer visiting from HAL. The Mirages did one more low run over the airfield, presumably to photograph the damage, and headed home.

Soon after the Israeli had left, the air raid siren went off and several anti-aircraft guns opened fire! They kept going for forty-five minutes and the all-clear never came. I was getting impatient to see the damage for myself. I finally had to bully my way out of the building by explaining that no aircraft could stay around for more than a few seconds after it had completed its mission. I got into a jeep and drove out to the tarmac. The guns went silent on seeing the jeep. Burnt out skeletons of six aircraft and a damaged An-12 were grim reminders of the clinically precise Israeli action. One 19-year-old mechanic was the single casualty. He had been working on the MiG-19 and had chosen to hide under its wing when the attack came. No one else, Indian, Egyptian or European, was hurt. We had just witnessed a part of Operation Moked, and it sure had lived up to its title.

The runway had two craters and an unexploded thousand pound bomb. We had heard a lot about retro-bombs being developed by the Israelis to deactivate runways. But, this one had no parachute, or any other deceleration device, and no rocket to increase penetration. I knew there would be a fourth bomb somewhere. We finally found it buried in the sand two days later. It had skidded off the runway harmlessly. Not a single aircraft under tarpaulin cover had been fired at. Perhaps in their first run, the Israeli pilots recognised their shape as trainers and decided to leave them alone.

Zuhair Shalaby flew several missions for close air support in the MiG-17, which was no match for the Mirage IIIC. On June 9, he led a formation of four MiG-17s in support of the army over Mitla Pass. On its way back, the formation was bounced by two Mirage aircraft. Three MiG 17s including Zuhair’s aircraft were shot down. The number four escaped to tell the sorry tale. Israeli Air Force pilot Asher Snir claimed two MiG-17s. Avi Lanir downed the third one. One of these two pilots must have got Zuhair’s aircraft. Zuhair had shown great courage in fighting for his country. He was posthumously awarded the Order of the Nile (Egypt’s equivalent of the Victoria Cross). I lost a dear friend and Egypt a very good human being. 

Credit must be given firstly to Yak Nevo for planning Moked and then to General Moti Hod to let it be implemented without interference. With around 200 fighter-bombers in Israeli Air Force, Moked destroyed over 300 Egyptian aircraft in the first four hours of June 5. At that time it had been difficult to believe that an air force could virtually win the war by itself. The greatest doubters must have been the Defence Minister, Moshe Dayan and the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defence Forces, General Yitzhak Rabin. News of successful destruction of the Egyptian Air Force must have been met with great relief. They would have immediately known that Israel had just ensured its long-term survival, never again to be threatened with being driven into the sea. The land forces had all the air support they needed and did not have to fear Egyptian interference in their mopping up operations. Before nightfall on June 10, Israel had suddenly grown many fold in its size. About 68,000 square kilometres of territory had been added to the small pre-war Israeli nation.

By the morning of June 10, we heard from the BBC that a cease-fire had been agreed between Israel and Egypt. But, we had a treat in store for us that night. Soon after dark, anti-aircraft guns opened fire all over Cairo. The night sky was lit up with tracer bullets shooting up and flak bursting all over. It was one of the finest fireworks displays seen by us. It was obviously designed to convince the populace that Egypt had done very well in the war. The Egyptian radio had earlier claimed almost four hundred Israeli aircraft! 

The truth was not long in coming, at least to those who listened to foreign radio broadcasts. Air Chief Marshal M. Sidky Mahmoud was arrested and jailed for dereliction of duty. No one could understand how after having challenged the Israelis to a holy war, it could be lost so devastatingly and so quickly.

On Sunday, June 11, two Mirage aircraft did a high speed run over the Helwan runway perhaps to recce the damage and to check if there were any other aircraft to be destroyed. That was the last I saw an Israeli fighter plane. On June 13, I started up for my first post-war sortie in a HA-200. As I rolled down the runway for take-off, I spotted a fully laden truck on the runway. I just managed to avoid hitting it. The truck was heading for the only rock formation at the airfield where work had begun on underground blast pens for aircraft. It looked like bolting the stable door too late. 

Preparations for the next round had begun. 

Copyright © Gp Capt (Retd) Kapil Bhargava. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Gp Capt (Retd) Kapil Bhargava is prohibited.


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