| Lecture 8
The Israeli Commando Assault on Green Island
During the War of Attrition beginning in 1969, the declared Egyptian intention was to wear Israel down by constant, small-scale attacks on Israeli positions along the Suez Canal. On July 10, 1969, Egyptian commandos made their way across the Suez Canal in dinghies and mounted a bloody attack on the Israeli position at Mezach on the East Bank of the Suez Canal. Seven Israelis were killed and five were wounded, and others were taken back to Egypt as prisoners.
Many of the Israeli soldiers serving along the Canal were reservists, concerned about their wives, children and jobs in Israel. They just wanted to be able to get home safely. Morale nose-dived. The Egyptian raid merited a sharp response.
The IDF gave the responsibility of retaliation to Flotilla 13, an elite unit of Israeli naval commandos. The "'IDF General Staff demanded…a response that would strike at the soul of Egyptian morale as the assault on Mezach had caused Israeli servicemen posted along the canal to be engulfed by fear and apprehension." The Israelis decided that Egypt's most fortified position in the Suez Canal zone - Green Island - would have to be assaulted.
Green Island was a "piece of protruding stone and concrete" and the Egyptians considered it an "impregnable fortress and symbol of Egyptian military prowess", and it was there that the Egyptians felt safest.
Green Island was located at the southern end of the Suez Canal. It was "built by the British during the Second World War to protect its ultrastrategic waterway from air and sea attack by Axis forces." It was a large and imposing facility that measured more than 450 feet long and more than 240 feet wide. It was built on "a bed of stable corals and made out of reinforced concrete…" which consisted of a "one-storey building with a large courtyard. At the end of the island, a concrete bridge jutted out into the water toward a circular five-meter high tower supporting a radar site and two heavy anti-aircraft machine guns." A wall reinforced with thick rows of barbed wire was built at the water's edge, meant to deter "any intruder attacking by sea." In the roof heavy machine guns were emplaced, and there were over a dozen machine gun nests. Israeli Intelligence estimated that there were about 100 Egyptian soldiers stationed on the island, including the elite as-Saiqa commandos. It was a formidable defensive position with a dominating command of the surrounding waters.
The obvious nature of Green Island as a target for Israeli commandos was not lost on the Israelis themselves. In April 1969, several months before the Egyptian attack on the Israeli [position at Mezach on the East Bank of the Suez Canal, a four-man Israeli reconnaissance team had scouted out Green Island.
Shmuel Almog, the Flotilla 13 commander who would be leading the operation, felt that 40 men would be needed to assault the island. But Flotilla 13 had only 30 men, mainly due to Almog's extraordinarily demanding training standards. More men from other units would have to be called in, and they were - from Sayeret Matkal, another elite commando unit. This unit was commanded by Menachem Digli. Brigadier-General Rafael Eitan, today one of the most famed Israeli generals second perhaps only to Ariel Sharon, was then the "chief paratroop and infantry officer responsible for all commando strikes." He gave Almog only one week "to draw up his plans…train his men, and execute the operation."
Shmuel Almog had reconnoitered the area several times himself, and he knew that there was only one way Green Island could be approached - and that was underwater. Any above-water approach was doomed to fail, as the Egyptians had carefully covered all approaches to the island, and they were well-entrenched.
One possibility that was not raised in the literature I looked at for this operation was the option of bombing Green Island from the air and thus putting Green island off the map. But this was the War of Attrition, not an open war, and evidently Israel did not want to escalate the situation to one more serious than it already was. In addition, the Egyptians had proven themselves to be dangerous foes by their naval commando raid on Mezach. The Israelis wanted to show that their own commandos would go one better, and that their combined naval/land operations were deadly and could strike fear and demoralization into the Egyptians even more than the Egyptians had caused the Israelis along the canal.
The commandos would not be able to swim to their targets either - the shadows and slight ripples in the sea might give them away. The only option for the first wave of the assault, which would be led by Flotilla 13, would be to swim underwater at a depth safe enough to avoid detection for several hours - all the while equipped with heavy weaponry and ammunition. They would then emerge "literally under the noses of the Egyptians at the base of their target." As Shmuel Katz writes: "The violent transformation from stealth intruder to heavily armed attacker would have to be fantastic."
The Sayeret Matkal men were not trained for underwater operations, so they would have to remain safely away from the target until the Flotilla 13 unit had arrived on the beach. Only when the Flotilla 13 unit had secured the beachhead would the Sayeret Matkal, moored 1500 meters away, be called in. In that period, the 20-30 Flotilla 13 commandos would be alone against the Egyptian force in the imposing fortress. And in that period, they would have to cut a passage through the 3-layer barbed wire defenses for the Sayeret Matkal force which would come after them.
The naval commandos had to hope, too, that their weapons, ammunition, grenades, and other equipment would be operational once they emerged from the depths. Most of them decided to carry an AK-47 rather than the Israeli-made Uzi, in that the AK-47 was known to work better after having been submerged under water.
Training was intense. Intelligence gathering went on apace as well, with small units going out to the outskirts of Green Island to check out Egyptian defenses. They found that the Egyptians were at a high level of alert. "Sentries, carrying AK-47's and flashlights, combed the waters in search of Israeli frogmen."
The night before the task force headed out to Green Island, they trained and reviewed their roles. They made sure, as best they could, "that every single inch of Green Island was etched in the back of their minds as unforgettable fact." Nerves were on razor's edge.
The Flotilla 13 unit left its base on the East Bank of the Suez Canal at 7:45 p.m. on July19. Each commando was equipped with his personal weapon, ammunition reserves, grenades, first-aid equipment, canteen and a flashlight, flippers, oxygen tanks, mask and life preserver.
At 8:30 p.m. the Sayeret Matkal back-up force set out in 12 rubber and motorized dinghies (called Zodiacs). By 10:30 they were 1 mile from Green Island.
By 1:30 a.m. the naval commandos still hadn't reached their target. They were still swimming at a brisk pace towards the island. They still, however, had the element of surprise.
At 15 meters from the island the flotilla leader noticed two armed Egyptian sentries. He ordered his men underwater again and told them to remove their diving gear.
Five minutes later, with their equipment safely taken care of, twenty figures emerged from the water and pointed their AK-47's and Uzis at the sentries. While some of the commandos began cutting through the barbed wire, an Egyptian sentry began walking towards them. An Israeli commando dropped him, which alarmed another Egyptian soldier, who lobbed a grenade at them.
Three Israelis were wounded and the island was engulfed in battle. As the Egyptians raced out of their barracks the Israeli commandos began cutting them down at close quarters. They hurled smoke grenades at the Egyptian machine-gun nests to temporarily block their vision.
When the Israeli commandos set out for Green Island there was concern about the functioning of their weapons and ammunition after having been submerged underwater for several hours. These were well-founded concerns. Much of their weaponry and ammunition was not operable. Even a squad leader's radio did not work.
The Sayeret Matkal was supposed to advance with the first rounds of fire from the Flotilla 13 naval unit, but the Sayeret Matkal did not come as planned. Without waiting the naval commandos raced forward. Some of them ascended the wall and fired what weapons and lobbed what grenades worked. Many Israeli commandos were wounded but advanced in spite of that. As they did not know if the back-up force of Sayeret Matkal were going to get there in time or not, the commandos on shore were attacking Egyptian bunkers "reserved for the Sayeret." The Egyptians defended their positions staunchly after the surprise of the attack wore off. A number of Israeli commandos were killed in the assault. The Egyptians refused to surrender, holding their positions until they were wiped out.
After only 17 minutes, the 20-man Flotilla 13 unit had taken over much of the island. It was only then that the Sayeret Matkal unit arrived on the island. About half of the naval commandos were already wounded - including First Lieutenant Ami Ayalon, who is now a leader in the Israeli Intelligence community. He received the Yellow Ribbon, the IDF's medal issued to soldiers "'who display the 'ultimate heroism against enemy fire…'" Only three IDF soldiers - including Ayalon - have received this medal. All have been from Flotilla 13.
The official version cites: "On the night of July 19-20, in the battle for Green Island, First Lieutenant Amichai 'Ami' Ayalon was the deputy commander of a band of operators in the assault. At the time of the attack, he tossed a grenade at the radar position, and during the assault moved ahead of his soldiers to lead the attack. When he climbed on the roof of one position, he suffered shrapnel wound to the forehead, but still managed to hurl a grenade, even though it failed to explode. Under heavy fire, he continued his advance along with First Sergeant Zalman Rot, and wiped out a machine gun nest. He later hooked up with another operator, and wiped out two more enemy positions. Leading the attack against a gun position, a grenade blast seriously wounded him…though he continued to fire his weapon at enemy positions; another enemy grenade detonated near him, this time wounding him in the hand and neck. Severely wounded and bleeding profusely, he managed to continue his attack and only after the mission was complete did he inform his superiors of his wounds and evacuate himself."
Ilan Egozi was another Flotilla 13 operator who was decorated for bravery for his part in the assault on Green Island. His citation recounted: "On the night of July 19-20, 1969, in the battle for Green Island, First Lieutenant Egozi was the commander of the squad responsible for breaking through the position's defenses. While cutting through the fence, he discovered Egyptian soldiers looking around the rooftop of their position, illuminating the area with their flashlights. Fearing discovery, he opened fire and ordered his men to attack." He was seriously wounded but continued to carry on the operation, and "was the last on the boat to evacuate his position."
Egozi, as a former POW in Egyptian hands was not supposed to have even been there at all. If he was captured, as a former POW attacking his former captors, according to the Geneva Convention the Egyptians did not have to guarantee his safety.
The Israeli force continued to assault the fortress. They controlled the upper section of the island, but they realized that to destroy the whole structure they would need to wipe out the "stiff resistance emanating from the courtyard below." They had to engage in room-to-room combat in order to that. "The system was simple and effective. Commandos would line up along the hallway, stand with their backs against the wall, and then toss a fragmentation grenade inside the enclosed space. What was not killed by the grenade's blast was terminated by the commandos spraying the smoking aftermath with dedicated blasts of machine-gun and automatic weapons fire."
Many of the Israeli commandos were wounded by then themselves, and some were killed. The Zodiac boats were filling up with wounded men. The soldiers in condition to battle continued to try to take over the island until an unexpected development occurred. "The Egyptians, realizing that Green Island was under attack and probably, considering past Israeli commando raids, overrun, ordered it shelled. Dozens of Egyptian artillery batteries on the West Bank of the Gulf of Suez let loose deadly bursts of 130 mm shells onto the island, and wounded Egyptian defenders. The shelling was an 'obvious' indication that it was time to get off the island quickly." While the shells first fell harmlessly into the sea, they soon increased in accuracy, until the shells began to fall on the island and near the Zodiacs as well.
At 2:15 on the morning of July 20, Shmuel Almog and Menachem Digli ordered the evacuation of their forces. The Israeli units had occupied 2/3 of the island. They eliminated remaining Egyptian forces and those who tried to escape. And while Egyptian units from the West Bank were shelling Green Island, three Israeli officers were preparing an explosive charge that would blow up Green Island to an extent that they would never have to return.
The Flotilla 13/Sayeret Matkal units evacuated the island. There were six dead and fourteen wounded. They were loaded first onto the boats and then the others got on themselves.
It was a difficult journey back to Israeli positions in Sinai as Egyptian shells sliced through the water dangerously close to the boat, and sometimes ripping them apart. Helicopters were called in to take out the wounded, and the Zodiac boats only made it back to the Sinai by dawn.
Green Island remained a highly classified operation for twenty-five years. The Israeli commandos wiped out about 80 of the Egyptian soldiers there, almost the entire garrison. "It put the entire Egyptian military on notice. Many positions, from the most secured radar and communications facilities embedded under hundreds of feet of rock and granite to Egyptian Army HQ in Cairo, could be assaulted and taken out." Egyptian units all along the canal "were heard firing into the night - shooting at shadows, shooting at what could be Israel's next Green Island."
The Flotilla 13 and Sayeret Matkal units were highly feted by the Israeli military brass. They were given many other chances to prove themselves, as the War of Attrition lasted throughout 1969 and into 1970. But none of the operations were as renowned for their daring and their success as the assault on Green Island - perhaps no other operations were until Flotilla 13 and the Sayeret Matkal participated in destroying PLO headquarters in Beirut in "Operation Spring of Youth" in 1973, which we will be learning about shortly.