Yom Kippur War 50 years on: How two IDF veterans coped on the front line

The pair were among tens of thousands of Israeli reservists rushed into battle when Egypt and Syria launched their surprise invasion in 1973


Fifty years since that terrible day, Nimrod Rakalis can still feel his dying friend Ran gripping his hand after suffering a wound to the abdomen that would prove fatal.

Nimrod, then 18, had arrived at his post in the Sinai near the Suez Canal two hours before the Yom Kippur War broke out at 2pm on Saturday, October 6, 1973.

Having completed eight months of basic and advanced training with his fellow soldiers in the elite 424th Shakked Battalion, part of the Givati Brigade, he had been preparing for a friendly sniper championship when he was suddenly driven south to take up position.

Upon arriving, Nimrod found himself among unfamiliar faces and without a location to report to.

Nimrod told the JC from his home in Tel Aviv this month: “In those first few frantic hours of the war, as Egyptian commandos were progressing just on the other side of the Suez, nobody knew me well enough to assign a specific role.”

Eventually, he found himself in a back office organising supplies and reinforcements, watching senior soldiers as they headed to the front.

“This is bullsh**,” Nimrod said to himself. “I need to serve my country better than this.”

He approached a commander and asked to be given something more significant to do.

“He told me that all the vehicles were occupied and overflowing, but if I could find another armoured vehicle somewhere he would consider putting me in it and sending me to the front,” Nimrod said.

After finding another soldier in similar need of employment, the two set off in a jeep to try their luck in finding an armoured vehicle.

“As if it were a sign sent by God, we came over the crest of a hill and saw a half-track sitting on the side of a road,” Nimrod said. “We thought at first it was abandoned but a driver was sitting inside.

“We asked him what he was doing, and he told us that he was waiting for so-and-so, someone we didn’t know, but we told him, “Oh yeah, we’re with him, let’s go,” and like that we returned to the commander and received our assignment.”

Nimrod was grouped with senior soldiers and felt “very coddled” in those first few hours, being the youngest and the least experienced in live warfare. He met Avner Avidar, who was two years his senior, platoon leader and soon to be sergeant.

Avner’s elite team were tasked with acting on intelligence they had gathered to defend large swathes of territory along the Bar Lev line. Avner would become like “an older brother” to Nimrod.

“He told me to stick with him, that he’ll keep me safe, and I believed him. For the rest of the war, I did just that,” Nimrod said.

Avner assigned him the task of holding the bullets for his semi-automatic rifle.

“He told me that there’s only one thing that will kill me. Frightened, I asked him what it was, and he said: ‘If I’m running and I get to my destination and you’re not by my side within two seconds, it won’t be the Egyptians that will kill you, it will be me.’”

It was only after the war that Avner informed Nimrod that instead of carrying the standard amount of 500 rounds of ammunition, he had made him carry 1,000.

Their first mission was to engage invading Egyptian commandos who had been brought in by helicopter to infiltrate Israeli territory east of the Suez.

“In those hours and days, it felt like I grew up by many years,” Nimrod said. He began to feel “more and more included, and found my rhythm within the group” as the days and battles wore on.

Then came the most critically important order of the war, which was explained to them on a map under the headlamps of a jeep in insect-infested twilight: to cross the Suez Canal.

“There was great excitement. Everyone understood that crossing the Suez would completely change the trajectory of the war and indeed the fate of the state of Israel,” Nimrod said.

“Once we took over the bridge across the canal, Israel would switch from defensive to offensive. We weren’t now on the frontline; we were the frontline.”

The next day, Nimrod and Avner found themselves in the same half-track, the second in a procession of vehicles that was to cross the bridge into Egypt. Nimrod had helped to fill the lead vehicle “to the brim” with ammunition.

A last-minute change caused Avner to give up his seat in the lead vehicle, to be replaced instead by a photojournalist whose task would be to capture the scenes from the frontline. Avner’s commander and nine more soldiers were also in the vehicle..

Avner told the JC: “Even after 50 years, it is only getting harder and harder each time I remember it.

“At some point, we were given the order and the convoy began moving toward the bridge. As we approached, the lead half-track suddenly exploded in front of us.

“I saw the vehicle fly up into the air and knew at that moment that no one could survive such an explosion.”

All 11 personnel in the vehicle perished, with the ammunition stored onboard continuing to catch fire and explode. Those who died were some of the toughest and most experienced soldiers in the battalion.

“It was one of the hardest moments in my life. That feeling of loss, of total and complete helplessness; the realisation that you have no way of rescuing them.

It cannot be accurately put into words,” Avner said.

“In the beginning, you don’t feel as much emotion because you can’t at that moment comprehend the loss. Because everyone was so focused on completing the mission and each objective, you are forced to compartmentalise.”

After the explosion, they pulled back to regroup, reassess, and designate new leadership roles.

Two days later, Nimrod and Avner took part in a series of skirmishes that became known to the Israeli military as the Battle of the Chinese Farm, a misnomer resulting from a research station’s use of Japanese-made equipment with Japanese writing on the machinery that was mistaken by Israelis for Chinese characters.

There, Nimrod and the driver of a half-track he was sitting in were told to provide cover. Two stretchers were brought over to be evacuated, and on one of them Nimrod finally saw someone he recognised — a friend from training, Ran Eliav.

Ran and Nimrod had been the smallest soldiers in their battalion, weighing roughly 50kg each, and so became the natural choice to be placed on stretchers during training exercises.

They loaded Ran onto the half-track and made for a medical post. “I kept yelling to the driver to go faster, but every time he accelerated, I would hear Ran in the back screech in pain. But every time we slowed down, I didn’t think we would make it in time,” Nimrod said.

When they arrived, Nimrod helped to carry Ran on the stretcher just as he had many times in training.

“This time it was for real, and we ran as quickly as we could,” Nimrod said. “One hand of mine was holding the gurney, the other was holding Ran’s hand. I remember so clearly the strength and power Ran had in his hand when he was holding mine. Even now as I talk about it, 50 years later, I still feel his hand clasping mine.”

Ran was taken to hospital, but died a few days later. After the war, Nimrod met his parents and brother and had to relay the story to them as best he could, which he found very difficult.

He is still in touch with Ran’s only brother today. The brother’s two daughters once visted Nimrod to hear stories about their uncle.

By the end of the war, nearly three weeks after it began, Avner’s unit had reached the Egyptian city of Ismailia. Even after the ceasefire came into effect and “the cloud of threat was lifted”, they never felt as if it was over because even in times of peace the 424th were given special assignments.

They were tasked with one more mission, which they conducted along with Sayeret Matkal, the Israeli SAS: to take the strategically important mountain of Jabal ’Atãqah, the tallest point in the region.

After gathering in the city of Suez, the two battalions were helicoptered up to the mountaintop because there was no foot access.

The mission was successful; they conquered the mountain, and the ceasefire was made permanent.

“Those men I fought alongside were the bravest I will ever meet; the most professional and unflinching, even with bullets flying by their ears,” Avner said.

“I saw nobody thinking only about themselves. There was a true sense of brotherhood among us and unity in what we were fighting for.

“Even when I couldn’t see their faces, I felt in them the indomitable spirit of Israel. I salute all those alive and all those gone.”

Nimrod is now 70 and retired after a career in engineering. He and Avner remain active in veterans’ services today.

Together, they started a project called “Passing the Torch”, which seeks to accompany and support young soldiers entering Givati, from the day they arrive on base all the way through training.

When the pair meet today, they give each other “the hug of a lifetime”.

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