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“A Fellowship of Steel”: An Inside Look at Israel’s Armored Corps

On the main road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem there’s a turn-off to Latrun, the site of some of the most shattering and historic battles Israel ever fought. From its high ground you see the Ayalon Valley, lovely and vulnerable, spread out before you. Latrun is where Joshua asked God to halt the sun’s progress in the sky long enough to let him defeat the Amorites (Joshua 10:12-13). It is also believed to be Emmaus, where Jesus appeared to two of his disciples after the Resurrection (Luke 24:13-35). It’s the place where Judah the Maccabee, in a surprise attack that presaged the guerrilla techniques of the Haganah, defeated the Seleucid Greeks in 167 BCE.

Latrun sign

Latrun was the location of some of the most desperate fighting of the Israeli War of Independence. When the British evacuated their police fortress at Latrun following the end of the Mandate, the Transjordanian Arab Legion rushed in to take it over. They used its strategic location to enforce a siege of Jerusalem that was intended to starve out the city’s 100,000 Jewish residents. To this day, you can see the preserved remains of the Jewish convoy trucks along the highway that were destroyed as they attempted to get food and supplies to the city in 1948.

David Ben-Gurion was so determined to break the siege of Jerusalem during the War of Independence that he ordered the fledgling defense force to attack Latrun, despite the lack of sufficient arms and manpower and the objections of his military commanders. Three attempts were made, using ill-trained and badly equipped soldiers — a significant proportion of whom were Holocaust survivors. All three onslaughts failed. (One platoon was led by a young Ariel Sharon, who was seriously wounded.) The Jews did not expel the Arab Legion from Latrun, but did manage to keep it fixed to the site long enough to enable the hasty construction of the Burma Road, an alternate route to Jerusalem. (The building of the Burma Road — which was cobbled together out of an old goat path — was led by the American Col. David Marcus, a West Point graduate and WWII veteran.) The road allowed soldiers, arms and food to reach the besieged Jews of Jerusalem, and its opening marked a turning point of the war.

The lifting of the siege notwithstanding, Latrun remained in Jordanian hands and stayed there for the next nineteen years. Throughout that period, the fortress was used as a base by Arab snipers preying on Jewish travelers to and from Jerusalem. The situation finally changed in 1967, when the IDF took the site in an hour.

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Today, Latrun is home to an outdoor museum and memorial honoring Israel’s Armored Corps. I was there this past Saturday, digital camera at the ready. And so, dear readers, herewith I present to you — in the spirit of the view I offered a few months ago on Ricochet of Israeli air force hardware — a whirlwind visual tour of the history of Israeli armor.

Here’s where we started. This is the kind of truck the Hagana used to patrol the settlements in Palestine in the 1930s, prior to the War of Independence:

Nodedet truck

And this is an armored car used by the Israelis in 1948:

armored car 1948

This is where we are now:

Merkava IV

That’s a Merkava IV, the main battle chariot of the IDF. In this post we’ll take a look at some of the armor in the middle, including spoils of war the Israelis modified for their use, and then get up close to the Merkava.

In the photograph below we see a US Army M2 Half-Track APC, vintage WWII. The Jews managed to buy about a hundred in the run-up to 1948, and they became the backbone of the defense force in the War of Independence. Many more were purchased subsequently and they’ve been used in all wars for many purposes, including routine security missions, support, ordnance recovery and evacuation.

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This is a South African-made Marmon-Herrington MK 4F armored car. These were used by the British and the Jordanians in Mandate-era Palestine. A few were captured by the Israelis in 1948, and one was used to lead the battle for Lod and Ramle. (Lod is now the site of Ben Gurion International Airport.)

Marmon-Herrington MK 4F

The following is an example of a French-made Renault R-35 light tank. These were used by the Syrians to attack Israel at the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee in May 1948. The Israelis captured two.

Renault R-35 light tank

This French-made AMX-13 light tank caused quite a sensation when it debuted in 1949 because it introduced the innovation of putting the engine at the front, with the driver sitting next to it. The IDF bought them in 1956 and it took part in the Sinai campaign, including the battle of Mitla Pass. It was also involved in the Six-Day War.

AMX-13 light tank

The next image shows an AML 90, a French armored car with a 90mm cannon. It’s an interesting vehicle for two reasons: it can move pretty fast (up to 90 km/hr) and it’s light enough to be transported easily on planes, even on heavy helicopters. It was used by Israeli paratroopers during the 1967 war.

AML 90

This next is a Soviet-made, heavy-duty JS-3 Stalin battle tank. They have extremely thick armor and were used by the Soviets to devastating effect against the Germans during WWII. The examples we see here were commissioned by the Egyptians and captured by the Israelis in the Sinai Peninsula during the Six-Day War.

JS-3 Stalin battle tank

Here’s another Stalin battle tank, a JST-34 ARV. This one has a winch-and-spade recovery system mounted to the hull.

Stalin JST-34 ARV

The Soviet-made T-62 you see in the next picture was the most advanced tank the Syrian, Egyptian and Iraqi armies possessed in the 1970s. The Israelis captured quite a few of them intact in 1973 and put them into service after small modifications. The Tiran 6, as this tank was renamed, used a smooth-bore 115mm gun.

Tiran 6

Here we have an M48A3 Patton tank. These were modified by the Israelis to include a 105mm gun, a lower-profile commander’s cupola, and a better communications system. They were critical to the armored effort during the War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War and Operation Peace for Galilee.

M48A3 Patton tank

Next we have a T55, which was manufactured by the Soviets and the Czechs and used by the Syrians and Egyptians. The IDF captured hundreds during the 1967 and 1973 wars. They were taken in close-to-mint condition, so the IDF modified them (new gun, ammunition, machine guns and communication equipment), gave them a new nickname (Tiran 5), and commissioned them into service.

T55/Tiran 5

Here’s a close-up of the reactive armor the Israelis used to guard against anti-tank missiles during this period. The cassettes contain an explosive layer sandwiched between steel plates. When the missile hits the layer and detonates, it loses its ability to penetrate the tank.

reactive armor

In this next photo you can see the armor mounted on a US-made M60-A1 Blazer, which was the centerpiece of the Israeli armored corps in the 1970s.

M60-A1 Blazer

The chains you see hanging off the front of the M48 A5 Patton tank in the next picture are a mine-detonating system designed by the Soviets and adapted by the Israelis in the late 1970s. When the drum turns, the heavy balls on the ends of the chains detonate any mines in the tank’s path before it can roll over them. (The Israelis employed a similar, British-made mine-detonating system on Sherman tanks in the 1950s.)

mine-detonators

In the late 1960s-early 1970s, several events made it clear to the Israelis that the time had come to produce their own armor domestically. In 1969, Britain canceled an agreement to sell state-of-the-art Chieftain tanks to Israel. And in 1973, Israel had the salutary experience of being subjected to a surprise attack. Israel went on to win the war, but the decision that had been taken in the sixties to put R&D into domestic armor became a matter of practical urgency.

Israel Tal, the soldier credited with having essentially written Israeli armor doctrine (i.e., highly mobile and aggressive, with all gunners trained for long-distance shooting), led the development team that produced the home-grown tank you see below, the Merkava I. This tank was first used in combat in Lebanon in 1982.

Merkava IV

The Merkava I was designed above all to protect its occupants. It’s wrapped in very thick, spaced, laminate armor that’s welded on in layers to deflect high explosive anti-tank rounds. The engine and transmission are wedged into the front of the tank so that they, rather than the crew, will take any direct missile that manages to penetrate. The extra space this design opens up inside the tank allows an infantry squad to fit in along with the tank crew. There’s a wide emergency escape hatch at the back, and the tank is equipped with smoke grenades to shield it from view. Note the low raking on the front of the tank, an angle that makes it difficult for missiles to score a hit. The Merkava I has a 105mm M68 main gun and two 7.62mm machine guns for anti-infantry defense, as well as a 60mm mortar on the outside.

The tank in the next picture is the next generation, a Merkava II. It came into service in 1983, following Israel’s incursion into Lebanon, and its modifications reflect lessons learned during that conflict. It’s better suited for urban warfare, for example, and the 60mm mortar was moved inside the hull to prevent the exposure of its operator to close-range small arms fire.

Merkava II

The Merkava III below, which came into service in 1989, was a major upgrade. Among many improvements were the addition of an Israeli-made IMI 120mm gun and a larger-horsepower engine. The tank is heavy, but the bigger engine gives it an improved maximum speed of 60 km/hour. The Merkava III continued to be improved over the next few years; the 1995 version included among its other upgrades a central air conditioning system.

Merkava III

This brings us to the most up-to-date Israeli tank, the Merkava IV. This tank was in development for five years and was brought into service in limited numbers in 2004. It was used more extensively in Lebanon in 2006 and even more so during Cast Lead in Gaza in late 2008-early 2009. This tank has so many upgrades that they would require a separate post, so I’ll highlight just a few. Its armor is optimized for urban combat and it has a removable, V-shaped belly armor pack on the bottom; that extra armor saved the lives of members of tank crews that went over IEDs in Lebanon. The turret contains no tank rounds at all; they’re stored instead in individual fireproof canisters inside the tank. Its 120mm main gun can fire a wider variety of ammunition, and its fire-control system lets it shoot down armored attack helicopters. It’s got special tracks that are designed to withstand the rocky terrain of Lebanon and the Golan Heights, as well as a digital battlefield management system that shares encrypted information among tanks in the theater. It also borrowed some innovations from the Lavi program of the Israeli Air Force that make the tank more difficult to locate on radar.

Merkava IV

In 2006, Hezbollah used a sophisticated array of anti-tank weapons to combat Israeli armor, including state-of-the-art Russian Kornet ATGMs — the first verified instance of their use in combat. (They were apparently smuggled to Hezbollah by Syria, resulting in a complaint by the Israelis to Russia.) Hezbollah damaged 52 Israeli tanks during the 2006 war, 18 of which were Merkava IVs; in five of those Merkavas, the armor had been penetrated. A high proportion of Israeli casualties in the 2006 war were members of tank crews, but the average number of crewmen killed per penetrated tank dropped from previous wars.

Following 2006, battlefield tactics were thoroughly revised, with a greater emphasis on the use of tanks to combat an asymmetric, guerilla enemy. During Cast Lead, a brigade of Merkava IVs bisected the Gaza Strip in five hours. Last month, the IDF added the Trophy active protection system to the Merkava IVs, improving their ability to withstand the tandem-charge heat warheads now found in advanced anti-tank missiles.

Here we see the memorial containing the names of the Israeli soldiers who lost their lives serving their country in the armored corps. The wall contains the name of an old friend of my husband’s from elementary school, who died on the first day of the war in Lebanon in 1982. Our first child is named for him.

memorial

I’ll sign off now. Thanks for reading, friends.

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