Background of Operation Focus
Israel and Egypt had been on high military alert since about mid-May of 1967, when Egypt's president Gamal Abdul Nasser had closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping and dismissed the United Nations peace keeping force from Sinai. Nasser and other Arab leaders issued hair-rising threats to wipe out Israel almost daily. When the United States and other countries reneged on their commitments to keep the straits of Tiran open, Nasser grew bolder. King Hussein joined with Nasser in a military pact. Israel could not maintain full mobilization indefinitely and perceived that it had to act before Egypt acted or established a diplomatic fait accompli. (see Six day war for details)
Israel decided to pre-empt Egypt by attacking on the morning of June 5, 1967. The plan for Operation Focus had been evolving since about 1963, evidently based on an idea by former IAF commander Dan Tolkovski. It was elaborated and implemented by Israel Air Force Commander Moti Hod and Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin. Operation Focus ("Moked") was modeled on surprise air attacks of World War II, such as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the Luftwaffe attack on USSR air bases. The Germans had planned a similar air attack on Polish air bases, but were prevented from carrying it out by bad weather.
Focus was built on two weakness that were once common to many air forces. The first was that all aircraft were deployed, when not flying, in the open on the air field, and the second was that there were long periods when no aircraft were flying. Israel did not have much of a modern air force prior to the Sinai Campaign. In that campaign, its aircraft consisted mostly of World War II propeller driven craft such as the B-17s, P-51 Mustangs and De Havilland Mosquitos it had acquired in the Israel War of Independence, though it had already acquired about 20 French Mystere IVa jet aircraft in January of 1956 and some Ouragan as well.Air cover for the Suez campaign, was provided in part by the French and the British. Following the Suez campaign, Israel gradually acquired a fleet of French made air craft including the Vautour, Ouragans, Mirages and Mysteres. These were a great improvement, but no match for American aircraft of the 60s or for the Soviet aircraft supplied to the Egyptians. In particular, Israel had no heavy bombers. The technical and numerical superiority of enemy air forces had to be assumed as the opening condition of any war. The Egyptians had massive superiority in quality and quantity of aircraft. The MiG 21, of which they had well over 100, outclassed both the Mirage III and the Super Mystere B2 which were Israel's only supersonic aircraft, of which they had 100 in total. Israel had no dedicated large bombers like the Tupolev Tu 16 or the IL-28. The best plan therefore, was to try to wipe out the superior enemy air craft when they were on the ground. Moti Hod, commander of the Israel Air Force was fond of saying, "A fighter jet is the deadliest weapon in existence -- in the sky," but on the ground it is utterly defenseless." (Oren, p. 171)
Several Israeli innovations assured the success of Operation Focus. The Israelis wanted to render the runways useless as soon as possible, to prevent aircraft from taking off and turn them into sitting ducks. IAF Operations Research had studied the problem since 1964. The "conventional wisdom" was that bombing attacks must be directed at the junctions of runways, in order to hit as many runways as possible. However Operations Research concluded that there was little chance of hitting a runway junction in practice. They therefore required that each runway be hit separately and massively, and specified that a larger number of aircraft were required than had originally been allocated. (ref)
In order to make the plan possible, Israel would have to use every single available aircraft, and to make the most of them by reducing the turnaround time (the time taken to rearm and refuel the aircraft) to 8 minutes rather than the usual hours (Egyptian Air force required 8 hours to fuel and load an aircraft). Numerous practice runs over mockup fields perfected the plan. A specially designed 180 pound bomb, the French-Israel designed Durendal, was used to penetrate the runways and do maximum damage. The bomb was driven into the ground by a rocket and then exploded, often with a delay, leaving a crater 5 meters wide by 1.6 meters deep.
To fool the Egyptian radar, trained on Sinai, the attacking sorties would fly in from the sea. Aircraft that failed were not allowed to break radio silence and would have to bail out over the sea.
Operation Focus - Aircraft and Battle Array
Israel had about 240-250 combat aircraft of various descriptions, of which about 200 were fighter or fighter-bomber craft that could be used in the actual attack in various capacities, and which were operational. 12-15 of these aircraft remained to guard the skies of Israel. The rest participated in the attack if they were operational. Israel gambled its existence in one throw. The total serviceable attack aircraft were:
Aircraft in Operation Focus
The 45 Fouga Magister (Zukit) training craft were used as decoys in operation Focus, though they were also used in actual missions both in the Six Day War and in the Yom Kippur War, and were shot down in action.
The approximate Egyptian battle array is given here: Six day war along with comparisons of some of the principal aircraft.
Moked: Focus Operation
The plan of operation Focus proceeded in three waves. In the first wave, the planes were scheduled for precise staggered departure times (from 7:10 to 7:46 AM) and arrival over Egypt at about 8:15 when Egyptian pilots were eating breakfast. Most of the planes flew out over the Mediterranean and then headed into Egyptian territory, but others flew low along the Red Sea to hit bases in the Egyptian interior.
The Israelis targeted 11 fields in Egypt, with the farthest ones presumably reserved for the faster aircraft.
The Israelis had some luck. The attacking craft flew under the radar and were not detected by the Egyptians. The Jordanian radar at Ajlun noticed and correctly identified the attack, issuing the code word "inab" (grape) for the attack. This was relayed to the Egyptians, but evidently the Egyptians were using a different radio wavelength and never got the message.
Field Marshall Hakim Amer and the Egyptian general staff were in the air in an IL-14 transport. He had forbidden the use of anti-aircraft fire to ensure that his plane would not be hit by accident. The plane landed during the attack, and was noticed by Israeli pilot Avihu Bin Nun, who ignored the transport and targeted more tempting MiG-21s.
During the first wave of Operation Focus, 11 airfields in Sinai and Egypt proper were attacked. The Israelis destroyed about 197- 204 aircraft (according to different accounts), as well as all Egyptian missile defenses and the communication link between Sinai and Egyptian supreme headquarters. 183 - 186 aircraft participated in the first wave. Nine of the Egyptian planes were taken down in dog fights. 10 Israeli aircraft were destroyed in the first wave.
Operation Focus - Aerial damage assessment photo of former Egyptian aircraft
An additional 107 Egyptian planes were destroyed in the second wave, which hit 16 Egyptian airfields. It began at 9:34 and was finished by 10:34 (meaning pilots were returning home). By this time, most of the element of surprise was gone, though in Cairo, crowds were celebrating fictitious victories and were totally unaware of the disaster, as was much of the Egyptian government. About 164 sorties were flown in this wave.
In total, over 310 aircraft were destroyed in the first two waves, in about 3 hours. Of the destroyed aircraft, 286 were combat aircraft, of which the fighters and bombers are given in the table below. Over 30 other combat aircraft of various types (helicopters, transport) were destroyed as well.
Combat aircraft destroyed: Operation Focus Waves I and II
Focus: Map of Egyptian Air Bases Attacked
The third wave of Operation Focus was directed at Syria Jordan and Iraq, which had launched attacks against Israel around noon. Unlike the first two attacks, not all the targets were predetermined apparently, and it was disrupted a bit by changes in targeting. It began at 12:45 PM. About 100 planes participated. 51 sorties were flown against targets in Jordan, destroying the entire Jordanian air force. About 82 sorties were flown against Syria, destroying about half the Syrian aircraft (50-60 according to different reports). The remainder were moved to remote bases. On the evening of the first day, IAF attacked the Ras Banas air base in southern Egypt.
In the entire war, Israel lost about 10% of its aircraft and destroyed about 70% of the enemy aircraft, most of them in the first 6 hours of Operation Focus. Israeli Vautour aircraft attacked H-3 and other bases in Iraq and supposedly destroyed 10 aircraft, though this is disputed. Israel attacked Iraqi bases again on the second and third days. Some additional Egyptian and Syrian aircraft were destroyed on subsequent days.
Operation Focus: General Map of Operations*
* According to ACIG Al Latakia (not shown) in Northern Syria was also attacked on June 5.
By 10:30 AM, after only two waves of attacks, Moti Hod told Yitzhak Rabin, then Chief of Staff, "The Egyptian air force has ceased to exist."
At Bir al Thamada, a first sortie attacked at 7:45. It consisted of 3 Mirage IIICJ of the 101 Squadron, with pilots D. Sever, I. Peer, and G. Palter. In addition to destroying planes on the ground, Sever chased a MiG-21 that fell into a spin and crashed. A second attack by Mysteres was apparently not needed. Here is what one Egyptian pilot, Hashim Mustafa Hassan, saw at Bir Thamada during the second attack of Mysteres at 8:00 AM, which arrived just as the Mirages were leaving:
The results of the first attacks were double the Israeli expectations most likely because of the surprise, because Amer had ordered no anti-aircraft fire, and because all planes were really initially on the ground. The Egyptian government concocted a story that the Americans had aided in carrying out the attacks. This story angered the United States, which had been careful to stay out of the war.
Israel understood that it had essentially won the war by about noon of the first day of the Six day war. While Israel did win the war, the victories were due in part to lack of coordination and deployment of Egyptian and Syrian ground troops as well as their lack of air power. The quick victory of Operation Focus caused Israel to exaggerate the importance of air power at the expense of artillery. Operation Focus also caused a fixation on the idea of destroying air bases. By the time of the Yom Kippur War, the Arab states had learned the lessons of operation focus. Air defense was provided by Soviet anti-aircraft missiles, and planes were kept in protected hangars. Attacks on air fields were largely irrelevant.
November 22, 2008
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Synonyms and alternate spellings: Mivtza Moked
Oren, Michael, Six Days of War, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp 171-178.
Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:
'H - ('het) a sound made deep in the throat. To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.
ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."
u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.
a- sounded like a in arm
ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.
'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.
o - close to the French o as in homme.
th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.
q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.
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