Yom Kippur War 50th anniversary: Sir Martin Gilbert's time in the Golan Heights, in his own words

The late historian rented a car and when war broke out, he volunteered to drive wherever it was needed


In October 1973, the late historian Sir Martin Gilbert went to Israel to research Churchill’s 1921 visit. On October 19, he was to drive three journalists to the Golan Heights.

This is an excerpt from his personal diary.

Thursday, October 18, 1973
I go to see the press officer. He tells me that tomorrow’s trip to the Golan is “complex”. There will be no buses to the front tomorrow, only a few private cars. It is not certain whether mine will be one of them. Meanwhile, he says, there are several things to be done.

My two Baltimore companions have yet to be photographed and to receive their press cards. Then I must sign a declaration, agreeing not to sue the Israeli Government for any damages if I am damaged, and absolving them from any claims by my executors if I am killed.

Then I must be given an Israeli escort officer, and if there is no officer to spare for the journey, there can be no journey. Finally, I must make sure that my name is on a list for the Golan.

“For this you must wait,” the press officer tells me. I should like to go straight back to the hotel and to bed, but if I must wait, wait I will.

At last an escort officer has apparently been found who will accompany me to the Golan tomorrow. I am number two on the list of drivers who have been given permission to go. I must report back at six o’clock tomorrow morning, with the Baltimore journalists.

Friday, October 19
l Give a lift to an Englishman trying to get to Lod airport. I ask him to telephone a message for me when he reaches London.

He says: “Put your name clearly. I have a dozen such calls to make as soon as I get back.” Since the war began, people here have felt very cut off from the outside world.

It has been almost impossible to get through to the international telephone operator; the nearest one gets is a polite record in Hebrew, English and French to say that all lines are busy. I cannot think what message to send, and scribble down: “All well. Am just off to the Golan.” Hardly has the man got out of the car than I realise that this is about the least reassuring message one can send.

Reach Ginossar, a small settlement on the Sea of Galilee. In the guest house lobby all journalists are being briefed by an Israeli officer. Two weeks ago, in civilian life, he was an accountant.

Now he is a major, recalled to service. He gives me a word of warning. “It is hell up there. There is no need for you to commit suicide. I will send you to a quiet part of the line where there is no shelling. It will be very interesting for you, and also safe.”

We reach the Rosh Pina checkpoint, and turn northwards along the road to Kuneitra and Damascus.

The road sign says 35 kilometres to Kuneitra. The captain offers to drive, so that I can take my notes more easily without threatening to run the car into a ditch every time I put something down.

We cross the Daughters of Jacob bridge, into the Golan. The Jordan river is only a stream.

The captain says: “At least since 1967, since we hold the Golan Heights and pushed the Syrian guns 15 miles away, our children could walk upright along proper paths, and did not have to sleep underground.

That is why we regard the possession of the Golan Heights as essential to preserve a civilian way of life. If the Syrians had cared to turn their guns into tractors, and the Golan Heights into an agricultural paradise there would simply have been no reason for us to take anything east of the Jordan river.”

The Daily Express lady comments: “All that western chat about how the Israelis didn’t really need the Golan Heights is a load of rubbish.”

The road turns sharply northeast through the ceasefire fence into Syria and towards Damascus. We stand by the fence looking at the semicircle of great plumes of white smoke, like miniature atomic clouds.

Every two or three seconds there is a sound like distant thunder. Long, low grumbles, like a muted lion, alternate with sharp bangs. To the south a Syrian shell explodes only three miles away. In a second or two there are four more explosions seeming to draw closer. Three plumes of white smoke mingled with the black earth burst to the south east, only about a mile from where we stand.

The captain says: “I hope they will not get any nearer. I am going to get back into the car and drive along the Damascus road, away from the explosions.” We drive on, the side of the road now littered with damaged Soviet tanks.

There are so many, that even 20 minutes of looking at them have made them familiar, as if a destroyed tank were the most natural thing, and all the human tragedy and physical wastage which each one means seems an ancient fact of life.

The captain explains that we will go forward only another half mile, to a village crossroads. We approach a bend in the road, where the road curves to the right. The crossroads are beyond it.

There is a loud bang, and roughly where the crossroads must be a cloud of black smoke and earth rises into the sky. “Could that be a Syrian shell?” I ask nervously. The captain says nothing, continues to drive forward towards the bend.

Suddenly there are a series of similar bangs and clouds of smoke, the nearest just round the bend in the road, no more than 200 yards ahead. The captain stops the car. We get out, and walk towards two Israeli soldiers standing by a radio truck. There is a further loud explosion on the road just ahead of us, just round the bend. I try to throw myself on the ground.

Not being practised at such things, I end up merely squatting on my haunches. At that moment there is a spurt of brown earth at the place where I was trying to throw myself down.

I throw myself awkwardly away in the other direction. The two soldiers laugh. It is a piece of shrapnel that has hurled itself into the ground just where I was trying to fall.

My mouth is dry. The captain runs up and says: “This could be serious. Perhaps they are just a few random shells. But perhaps they are trying to knock out this junction.”

Whatever he has intended to say next is drowned by a further loud explosion just to the left of the road around the bend, and then almost immediately by a further three explosions in what must indeed be the junction in the middle of the village.

We return to the car. We drive back towards Kuneitra. There are many more burnt-out vehicles by the side of the road.

A jeep passes, a Czech Skoda jeep; last week it was Syrian, now it is used by the Israelis, a brightly coloured luminous pink cloth on the bonnet gives warning to Israeli aircraft that the jeep is now in Israeli hands. We pass a Soviet tank, likewise decorated.

These coloured cloths bring the only touch of colour to a bleak, black and blackened landscape. On both sides of the road in clusters, burnt-out trucks and tanks lie tumbled among the black stone. I am glad to be driving back. We pass a small Syrian village to the right of the road, a mere hovel of mud huts.

The captain comments: “These poor people had to work so hard to get food from the soil. If only their leaders had brought them water instead of barbed wire, seeds and saplings instead of bunkers, tractors instead of tanks — they could have turned their stone fields into paradise.”

We drive towards Kiryat Shmona. I reflect on the contrast between the Golan Heights and this fertile plain. One thinks of the Golan as an enormous area.

Yet it is only 12 miles from the border of 1948 to the ceasefire line of 1967. It is a tiny area really, a black, ugly stone wasteland, which Syria had used only to mount continual attacks and shellings against Israel, and which, even in Israeli hands is only a very narrow buffer. At least it proved adequate to keep the Syrian army, with all its massive armament, out of the Galilee — but only just.

For the full diary and other writing by Sir Martin Gilbert, visit

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