The Test of Combat: the supreme test of leadership and command.
To my mind, the most significant and basic rule of leadership was established some 3,000 years ago by Gideon, who said, simply: ‘Watch me – and follow my lead’ [Judges 7:17].
Adopting this rule obliges commanders to serve as the vanguard: to lead from in front, not behind, and to set a personal example for others to follow. This mode of leadership requires a high level of physical fitness and cognitive ability; high standards of fieldcraft; high levels of courage, self-control and restraint; level-headedness, self-confidence, and the ability to make decisions under pressure.
With respect to tactical command, from the rank of soldier through to elite brigade commander, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has indeed adopted Gideon’s model. In marked contrast to the British and American armies — which reinforce the role of the corporal or sergeant leading his men — the IDF established a working model of elite officers leading in battle.
Any discussion about the positioning of commanders in the IDF must weigh the cost of their potential loss of life. Just a few of those who have fallen in battle include: Col. Arik Regev, Jordan Valley Brigade commander, killed while pursuing terrorists in the Jordan Valley; Col. Uzi Yairi, Operations Unit Commander, formerly head of the 35th Paratroop Brigade, killed during the Savoy Hotel attack; Lt. Col. Yoni Netanyahu, commander of the elite Israeli army commando unit Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance Unit), killed in action during Operation Entebbe in Uganda; Lt. Col. Yossi Tahar, General Staff Officer (GSO), 35th Brigade, during the incursion into southern Lebanon a year before Operation Peace of Galilee, when the force was led in person by Col. Yair Yoram (known as ‘Yaya’), commander of what was then the 35th Brigade. The list is far too long to name all those who were killed, ranging in rank from lieutenant colonel to brigadier. All of them lost their lives to protect their people and their country while leading their troops from the front.
Near-contemporary operations map showing the advance of Israeli forces on the coastal sector, 8-13 June 1982.
The Position of the Commander in Battle: The Advance and Pursuit:
During the first Lebanon War, code-named ‘Operation Peace of Galilee’, I served as commander to the spearhead force of the 35th Brigade (in the rank of lieutenant colonel) through many stages of the war, from the initial arrival in Awali all the way to Beirut, from the 6th to the 13th of June 1982.
The spearhead force included 3 special units: the Demolitions and Engineering Company, under the command of Captain Yechiel Gozal; the Reconnaissance Company (sayeret), under the command of Major Yisrael Ziv; and the Orev (‘Raven’) Anti-Tank Company, under command of Captain Nir Saruf. These were supplemented by a small detachment of tanks (under the command of Lt. Col. Chach), and directly supported (DS) by the 120th and 155th field artillery battalions. In the terminology of the time, this force was known as ‘Chasa’ (an acronym of the Hebrew names for the 3 units). Today it is known as the Brigade Reconnaissance Battalion (gedud hasiyur hachativati).
Over the course of the year before Operation Peace for Galilee was launched, these forces were organized into a unified combat unit, with joint exercises in battle procedures. At that time, I was serving as a commander of the 35th Paratroop Brigade Recruitment Base – the first officer to hold that position after having served as a battalion commander. The role that a commander assumes within the armed forces essentially begins with the personal decision of each officer. His decision reflects his internal voice and inner conscience, telling him clearly where his place must be. My own understanding of a commander’s role ultimately led to the decision to form ‘Chasa’, as I personally insisted that the forces should be unified into a single military battalion – something which did not exist previously.
The process began with discussions regarding my appointment to the role of commander of the 35th Paratroop Brigade Recruitment Base and the forthcoming military operation. These discussions raised a number of issues regarding logistics and planning for the brigade’s operations, and improvising a tactical command group of 23 all ranks. I also insisted on going out on manoeuvres and checking beachfront landing strips together with Shayetet 13 (the naval commando unit) on April 12th, 1982; 2 months before the Operation commenced.
As a result of this planning, my command post was established directly behind and adjacent to the leading company. That is why I often found myself in the front line, leading the way as we stormed positions or engaged in combat with the enemy. Examples include:
- The night we landed (Sunday, 6th June), while we sought to take control of six houses where terrorists were holed up;
- Destroying ZSU machine guns located near the eastern bridge of the Awali River (this operation was carried out together with Captain Nir Saruf, commander of the Anti-Tank Company) and then an assault the next morning involving 3 jeeps filled with terrorists;
- Leading the forces as we crossed over a 5 km. stretch along the coastal route, where a terrorist group had taken cover;
- Encountering the wounded of the 890th Battalion and the 50th Battalion at Ras Nebi Yunis (Monday, June 7th);
- Leading the forces crossing the town of Damour;
- Heading up the counter-attack on a terrorist ambush 6 km. east of Damour, together with Major Israel Ziv, who was in charge of the Reconnaissance (Wednesday, 9th June);
- Directing the way as we outflanked and attacked the terrorists lying in ambush in Kfar Matta, together with Captain Yechiel Gozal, commander of the Demolitions and Engineering Company (Thursday, 10th June); or
- Outflanking the Syrian forces stationed at the Tomb of Shamon (Kaber Shamon) near Shemlan (Friday and Saturday, 11th-12th June).
Wed 9, June, 1982 – Northern Command Order Group near Damur. Attending from right to left: Brig. General Amos Yaron (glasses on his head), divisional commander; Lt. Col. Yossi Morag (Tchach), Tank Battalion Commander (no ranks on his shoulders); Major General Amir Drori, GOC Northern Command; Lt. Col. Doron Almog (closest to camera, with no ranks on shoulders), spearhead unit commander and the writer of this article.
I generally set up the command post and tactical headquarters directly behind the leading company, and I moved to the front line as soon as fighting began. Brigadier Yair Yoram (Yaya), leading the 35th Brigade, established his command post on high ground, behind the first battalion, to provide the best observation out to 5 km. During the terrorist ambush at Kfar Matta (June 10th), when I was with my own command post adjacent to the Demolitions and Engineering Company, it was Yaya who gave me the vital information I needed about what was happening above, which assisted in my decision to dispatch the Reconnaissance to the northern flank.
In another instance, during the battle at Shemlan (on Saturday, 12th June), the command post actually joined the front line of the Anti-Tank Company after its officer, Lt. Yochi (Yochanan) Geva, fell in battle. Because of the nature of the terrain, heavily built up and wooded, it was extremely difficult to maintain visual contact between the different Companies. On the other hand, it required close cooperation between all three companies, each stationed at different elevations, at parallel points to each other. The Anti-Tank Company was at the lowest level along the main axis, the Demolitions and Engineering Company was stationed on the edge of the mountain, some 100 m. east of them and above the main axis, while the Reconnaissance Company was located on the mountain ridge east of the Engineering Company.
The Anti-Tank Company, stationed at the lowest elevation, dealt with clearing away an exploding, burning enemy tank that was blocking the passage of our armoured vehicles. They did this by engaging the Syrian forces that were shooting at it from the Junction. In these circumstances, I chose to integrate my command post with the Demolitions and Engineering Company stationed above the Anti-Tank Company, in order to outflank the Syria forces that were shooting at both the Anti-Tank Company and other friendly forces which were advancing towards the Junction.
When Yochi Geva was killed in action, the Anti-Tank Company which he had led suffered a great deal of confusion, lacking direction. Consequently, the command posts of both deputy brigade commander Lt. Col. Arik Krausman and Brigade commander Col. Yaya joined the Anti-Tank Company to facilitate the advance on the main axis. It should be noted that every command post and tactical headquarters, whether manned by a battalion or a compnay commander, was not intended merely as a place where leaders issue and receive orders and make command decisions from a safe distance, out of contact. Rather, command posts were intended to serve as fighting forces for offensive and defensive manoeuvres in conjunction with other units. My own tactical headquarters was designed that way, as were the others.
For the command group to successfully oversee all the companies at every stage of the operation, it was important to select appropriate observation positions and decide how to advance between them. It is also worth mentioning that initial operational planning related specifically only to the initial beachfront landing and securing the northern ridge. That night, deputy brigade commander Lt. Col. Arik Krausman integrated his command post into the Demolitions and Engineering Company; which was the first fighting unit to land, in 10 rubber dinghies, on the Awali beachfront, behind the Naval Commandos. The fact that the command post joined my battalion at such an early and sensitive point of the operation was intended to ensure a high-ranking presence within the campaign (integrating naval, air and ground forces) right at the initial stages of landing, deployment and initial combat. After that initial landing, the brigade commander’s headquarters was set up on higher ground, on the mountain range near the university and north of the landing site.
The timing, placement and integration of command posts as the unit advanced northward were implemented as movement occurred, and decisions on when and where to advance were made and carried out in real time.
Left: Sunday, June 13, 1982, near Beirut, Lt Col. Doron Almog
Right: Friday, 11 June 1982, near Kaber Shmun – downside – Lt. Col. Doron Almog and Lt col. Yossi Morag.
The model of command which characterized the 35th Paratroop Brigade during the advance from Awali to Beirut was that of leadership integrated within the fighting units. This may be evidenced by the number of officers who fell in battle: almost exactly a third of the total casualties.
In the four month period from the June 6th landing at Awali through to October 11th, 1982, the landing force lost 40 personnel. Of those, 17 were officers, the senior of whom was Major Dudu Cohen, deputy commander of the 890th Battalion, who fell in the assault on Kaber Shamon on June 11. The first week of fighting had a similar outcome: between June 6th and 13th, the force lost 32 personnel; 12 were officers.
Chasa, the spearhead force that I headed, lost two commanders between June 6th and 13th. Both were team leaders: First Lieutenant Alon Levin, a commander in the Reconnaissance Company, who was killed in the battle over Kaber Shamon on June 11th; and Lieutenant Yochi Geva, who fell in the battle over Shemlan on June 12th. Captain Yechiel Gozal, commander of the Demolitions and Engineering Company, was wounded during an exchange of fire with Syrian commandos while leading the team conducting a sweep through houses in the town’s eastern road. Gozal was later decorated for extraordinary personal bravery, demonstrated during the clearance of some 80 mines and explosives which blocked the eastern exit from the town of Damour.
In the 7 days of the advance Chasa killed more than 150 terrorists and Syrian commandos; destroyed more than 30 enemy AFVs (including tanks and APCs); and captured more than 20 terrorists and Syrian fighters. Over several days, the method of operations of Chasa (the spearhead force) served as the inspiration for the establishment of a permanent, unified Reconnaissance Battalion consisting of all three companies.
Mastering warfare is not an exact science. The IDF’s guidelines state that a commander must be positioned so as to best influence the battlefield. The model of command from amongst the troops – adopted all the way up the ranks, even to the regimental commander – has become one of the IDF’s inalienable assets. This model enables the commander to get an accurate assessment of the situation in the field, without waiting for intermediaries. This direct linkage enables the commander to see for himself what is really happening on the inside, in real time. The placement inside the unit also enables the tactical commander to get the best possible information in as short a time as possible, regarding several critical factors: the position of the enemy; the welfare of his own forces; the terrain; morale; exhaustion and battle fatigue; and all the ‘other factors’ that fall under the heading of situation assessment.
During moments of crisis or critical times during battle, the appearance of the commander in the midst of the fighting serves as an inspiring personal example. This instils renewed energy in the soldiers and officers, and can actually turn defeat into victory. There is a perceived element of danger and threat to the commander’s safety when he is located in the midst of the units, but my personal experience has taught me that there is no guarantee or immunity for those who remain outside the fray, in the rear of the fighting. My gut feeling is that, generally speaking, the safest place is actually at the front of the troops; it is also easiest to influence battlefield developments, and to do so quickly and accurately.
The aim of the battle is to achieve victory. The element of surprise in combat is important, perhaps even a fundamental component, in achieving victory. The fearless commander who positions himself in the midst of the battle can integrate fighting with assessing tactical conditions. This means that the process of intelligent decision-making is based on accurately identifying the enemy’s position, activity and status on the battlefield. This knowledge can be used to surprise the enemy both in contact and during the advance and pursuit; something that we did during the course of a full week of fighting from Awali to Beirut, an advance of 70 Km.
In point of fact, when there is prolonged engagement with the enemy they are aware of our presence in the field, but it remains possible and necessary to surprise the enemy at all times. That may be by choosing a particular route of advance and attack; by gauging the strength of enemy return fire and counterattacks; or by the integration of our highly-trained and motivated forces into a single, unified operation. The reality of the situation was that Lebanon’s built-up and mountainous terrain region did not allow for a massive concentration of force. But the possibility of proceeding on foot enabled us to advance in a parallel fashion even in areas with limited navigability, by utilizing the strength of the assigned companies: tanks; artillery; engineering; reconnaissance and anti-tank warfare. This capacity made it possible for us to surprise the enemy in almost every engagement and advance, and to upset the balance of power even in the early stages of the operation.
The opportunity to conduct the kind of operations which we carried out during the 70 Km. advance from Awali to Beirut was, to a great extent respect, a result of the model of command from in front and within. This model we followed was just as Gideon established more than 3,000 years ago: ‘Watch me – and follow my lead’.