Yom Kippur War 50 years on: Veteran says Israeli soldiers were unprepared for conflict

Selwyn Cainer said he hadn’t even completed tank training


When the 1973 war broke out, Manchester-born Selwyn Cainer was at an army base in Haifa.

Having only completed a few months of a tank course, he felt “very much unprepared” for war, so much so that he wrote out step-by-step instructions on how to fire tank shells on a piece of cardboard, which he stuck in front of him in the tank.

He never told anybody, including his crewmates, that he hadn’t completed tank training.

He quickly came to realise that they were not fully trained and prepared either. His “loader” was a member of the musicians’ troop in the air force, while his driver was used to driving a different type of tank.

His commander wore a shirt and blue jeans, while Cainer himself wore a navy uniform, having previously trained as a frogman.

They were driven down to the Sinai, and when they got off the bus were told to “head towards the [Suez] Canal”.

“I don’t think we realised what dire straits Israel was in at the time. Nobody knew what the hell was going on,” Cainer told the JC. “We heard it was a disaster down at the Canal.

“There was a lot of screaming and shouting coming through every radio we passed, but we didn’t know what the orders were and who they were being given to, and nor it seemed did anyone else.”

They were ordered to cross the Canal and head south. They didn’t eat or drink anything for many hours.

“Once we crossed, I thought I was hallucinating,” said Cainer. “The very green and lush scenery made me think I was back in south Manchester, around Budworth.”

He saw lots of action, which included shooting down a helicopter. “We were ordered to fire at Egyptian soldiers, but when I saw them through the periscope of the tank, they were just kids, as were we. We were kids firing at kids.”

He was then transferred to Ehud Barak’s division. Cainer said: “I couldn’t believe this person I’d heard all these stories about was the person walking past us. He didn’t look like the most decorated commando and commander in the Israeli army. So many stories had arisen about him.

“He wasn’t wearing his insignia showing what rank he was. I remember him as this little guy with sort of hunched shoulders, not at all what we expected him to look like.

“In the many years I’ve known him since, I know that he never brags — about anything. Even then we knew he would become commander of the whole army and then prime minister. It was a done deal.

“His soldiers would follow him without question, anyone who served with him.
“The first Passover after the war, he called us all into a big tent to have dinner. He told us there was no way he would leave his soldiers and go home to his family. Instead, he brought his wife and family to the camp.”

Barak ensured Cainer’s calls back home to Manchester were connected so that he could talk to his mother.

Knowing he was a lone soldier, Barak even gave Cainer his own flight ticket so he could fly back to Tel Aviv and his kibbutz.

Cainer, 71, now lives in Toronto. He worked for an Israeli company in Canada designing security systems.

He still sees Barak when he visits Canada. He says Barak will always bypass anyone in the room, including politicians and big donors, to hug Cainer and other soldiers he served with.

“When he gives you a hug, it’s very real,” Cainer said.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive