‘OLD MAN’ BRIGADE – IDF FIRST ARMORED UNIT
The Arab-Israeli War of 1948 The IDF is known among others for its mighty armored potential proven by numerous battles. Today no one can argue that Israel has one of the most capable tank forces in the world. There were brilliant victories, hard won gains and painful failures – all of them IDF Tank Corps heritage, so let us see where it began.
This is a brief story of the IDF 8th Brigade – the first armored unit that was formed on May 17, 1948 under the command of Yitzkhak Sadeh ‘Old man’. The brigade originally had two battalions (instead of planned four) – 81 (later 89) Commando Battalion led by Moshe Dayan, it had two mechanized companies with halftracks, and 82 Armored Battalion led by Lt. Col. Felix Beatus – ex Red Army and Polish Army Tank Corps officer. At first there were no tanks and only improvised armor, but Sadeh ordered them to start training crews based on Felix Beatus experience with Soviet armor.
The first IDF operational tank was an ex-Syrian Reno R-35 captured by 12 Battalion, Golani Brigade. During the fight for Kibbutz Degania-A on May 20, 1948.
During the fight, one tank and one armored car were destroyed and two tanks damaged and abandoned, while at least one tank was taken in workable condition and repaired. Meanwhile a batch of 10 H39 Hotchkiss tanks arrived in Israel on June 15. The tanks were purchased from France after a series of efforts to obtain armored vehicles in 1947. Unfortunately as during the deals nobody controlled the quality – the tanks that arrived were in very poor technical condition and from all ten, mechanics managed to get only 5-7 (different sources mentioned different numbers) and others went to spares.
The first real piece came on the night June 29-30, as a result of planned action, two Cromwell tanks were stolen by two British servicemen – Mike Flanagan and Harry McDonald, from a British base at the Haifa airfield, hidden in Tel-Aviv, and handed to 8th Brigade days later.
In the later phases, Nov-Dec, 8th Brigade got M4A3 Sherman tanks from Italy as the first batch of 30 tanks that were sold as pillboxes, though it was the same story as with Hotchkiss – some went to spares. Actually the first Sherman M4A2 got to Israeli hands much earlier – May 14, 1948 when three absolute British tanks were transferred from Tira base (near Haifa) to Carmiel for disposal.
One of the tanks was loaded on the trailer and drifted away by a loyal Jewish driver (other sources state that it was a matter of corruption $$$). In any case it was delivered to Tel-Aviv and adopted by the IDF just to be scrapped as unserviceable, but nevertheless nicknamed MEIR in favor of IDF tech workshop CO newborn son. Due to poor condition and lack of spares MEIR did not see action until late 1948, but was operated aside Cromwells under Anglo-Sax jurisdiction. There is a widespread rumor that 82th Battalion also operated T-34 tanks, probably originated from the Latrun museum exhibit or Felix Beatus background, in any case – it is pure fantasy.
By mid-1948, 82th Armored Battalion included two tank companies.
Firstly, the heavy Anglo-Saxon (Cromwells and later Shermans) and light Russian (Hotchkiss and probably Reno), one armored cars company (Marmon-Herrington Mk IVF ‘The Terrible Tiger’), one mechanized infantry company and mortar company. Interestingly, the major menace of the battalion was poor communication, as its members spoke different languages, mostly Russian and English and NO ONE could speak both! The only system that existed was to translate from English to Yiddish and Yiddish to Russian. Moreover, for the same reason the cooperation with other units was horrible as well. Nevertheless, 8th Brigade played an important role in the War of Independence.
The first armored action was on July 10 during Operation DANNY, when a combined 82th Battalion and infantry company of 42nd Battalion, 4th ‘Kriyati’ Brigade, took over the Lydda airfield (now – Ben Gurion Airport) and continued towards the villages around Lod. The 89th Battalion under Moshe Dayan command together with elements of Yiftah (later 11th Brigade), under the cover of ‘The Terrible Tiger’ armored cars, captured Lod, repulsing several attacks of Jordanian garrison.
One Jordanian armored car was disabled by PIAT rockets and taken trophy.
One week later, on June 18, Anglo-Sax Cromwells attempted to take over Latrun fortress in a joint action with 11th ‘Yiftach’ Brigade. This firth attempt resulted in a premature failure – when the tanks opened fire, the round jammed the gun of one of the Cromwells, the tank pulled back. Without any coordination and lack of communications, the commander of infantry that followed on the half tracks believed that it was a sign of withdrawal and halted the attack. Despite the failure to achieve all the objectives and pretty high losses, Operation DANNY was considered a success by the IDF and 8th Brigade in particular.
Operation YOAV, October 15-25, 1948 – known as one of the most successful and important during the war.
Furthermore, one that resulted in opening the way to Negev Desert, capture of the town of Beer Sheba, encircling of the Egyptian military forces at Al-Fallujah (Gaza area). For 8th Brigade and 82nd Battalion, Operation YOAV turned into catastrophic failure. 82nd Battalion with all its tanks were assigned to capture the Egyptian stronghold of Iraq al-Manshiyya, under command of 7th Battalion, 12th ‘Negev’ Brigade. The idea was to surprise Egyptians with the sight of tanks and attack from three directions.
Meanwhile an additional battalion joined 8th Brigade – 88th Battalion of heavy tracked mortars. On Oct 16, the attack began while each unit was acting on itself – there was no coordination at all. Despite the suppression fire, Egyptians were not impressed and tackled Israelis with 25-pdr guns, mortars and rockets. One Hotchkiss got hit, another four tanks stuck – it is not clear whether it was due to battle damage or tech issues, in any case the infantry lost armored support and had to pull back under fierce MG and mortar fire.
Cromwells showed no better – both stuck on the field. Egyptians started to counter-attack and Israelis had to retreat leaving three Hotchkiss tanks behind. The battle cost the IDF over 100 casualties, its tank force ceased to exist – all of 82 Battalion tanks were hit by fire or by tech menace. The remaining mechanized infantry elements of 82 and 89th Battalion took part in taking over Beer Sheba.
On October 25 and November 9, 1948, 88 and 89 Battalions of 8th Brigade took part in the capture of Beit Guvrin and Iraq Suwaidan strongholds respectively.
Interestingly, during the Iraq Suwaidan attack was the first Sherman appearance, most probably the old M4A2 Meir. During Operation ASSAF, 5-7 December, 1948 – 89 Battalion together with 13/Golani Brigade took over the several settlements in Gaza area and managed to repulse Egyptian attack at Sharuhen hill, for the cost of five Egyptian M22 Locust tanks destroyed.
The last, most successful and massive operation of the War of Independence was Operation HOREV, Dec 22, 1948 – Jan 7, 1949.
At this point 82th Battalion employed newly absorbed M4A3 Shermans. On December 25, 8th Brigade together with 5th Battalion, 10th ‘Harel’ Brigade, was tasked to take over the Uja-al-Chafir (today – Kibbutz Nitzana). Due to the bad weather the roads were impassable and Israeli dozers paved alternative routes. Next day 82 and 89 battalions started the attack that was repulsed by Egyptians with heavy casualties to IDF, including several commanding officers KIA.
On Dec 27, the attack was renewed this time Egyptians surrendered. The 8th Brigade opened the gates to Sinai and continued towards Umm Katef and Abu Ageila – Dec 28-29, and further towards Al-Arish. On Dec 28, the first IDF tank M4A2 Meir got hit into the track near Bir Lahfan, and was demolished as it could not be recovered. At this point the IDF stopped due to international pressure and had to pull back. In early January 1949, 8th Brigade acted in the Rafiah area but all gains got void by the armistice.
Shortly after the War of Independence, the brigade was disbanded while 82nd Battalion with the mixed inventory of remaining Hotchkiss, Sherman and one Locust tank, moved to 7th Brigade (and still there).
Both 88 and 89 Battalions were disbanded. Due to the rivalry between old Palmach guys and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Ytzkhak Sadeh left the IDF. Felix Beatus stayed not much longer, as new Israeli commanders did not really like this Soviet-style guy who did not speak Hebrew and was addicted more to ‘presentation layer than to the performance’. Lt. Col. Beatus had to leave the military and his role in IDF Armored Corps establishment was well forgotten for some 40-50 years.
During Six Day War, 8th Brigade led by Col. Albert Mandler, with 129 Battalion of 30 M50/51 Sherman tanks under command of Lt. Col. Arie Biro, and two mechanized infantry battalions – 89 and 121, fought both in Sinai and Golan Heights (this will demand separate post). During the War of Attrition, 8th Brigade name was changed to 875 and reported to 143 Division of Southern Command. Brigade elements were involved in Operation RAVIV in 1969.
Moreover, the YKW Brigade fought in Sinai and its 129 had the same M50/51 tanks. After the war, the Brigade switched the tanks to Magach 6 (M60A1) but did not take part in the Lebanon War, 1982. In 1996 the original number was returned but in 2004 the Brigade was disbanded. Nevertheless, 8th Brigade was reformed in 2006 and equipped with Merkava Mk.3 tanks. In 2014 it took part in Operation Tzuk Eitan and since 2018 it lost all its tanks and reformed as 8th Reserve Commando Brigade
The Arab-Israeli War of 1948 Written by Efim Sandler
The Arab-Israeli War of 1948 Written by Efim Sandler