the October War of 1973.

MiG-21bis October War

At Zero Hour on 6 October, 1973, 220 Egyptian Air Force (EAF) aircraft took off as one to strike Israeli military targets in a surprise attack. It was Day One of the October/Yom Kippur War, fought between Israel and a coalition of Arab states that included Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

Egyptian Air Force MiG-21s attacking Israeli airfield

Surprise attack

Surprise was total. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is a holy day for most Israelis and a national holiday. But instead of peace, Israel got war. Escorted by several squadrons of MiG-21’Fishbed’ fighters, a mixed EAF ground-attack force of Su-7 and MiG-17 fighter-bombers attacked Israeli military bases, MIM-23 HAWK SAM sites, armor and artillery positions, command nodes and radar installations. By the end of Day One, the EAF claimed to have destroyed 27 Israeli aircraft - and inflicted severe damage on israeli Air Force (IAF) assets in Sinai.

EAF MiG-21s rocketing Israeli installations

The MIG-21 punches hard in the ground attack role

For their part, the Israelis claimed to have downed at least 10 Egyptian fixed-wing aircraft and a number of helicopters.

On Day Three (8 October) Israel launched unsuccessful attacks on EAF bases at Abu Hammad and Mansourah. The ensuing air battle over Port Said lasted for five days; at the end of it, the Egyptians claimed a further 24 enemy aircraft destroyed, with four IAF aircrew captured after bailing out.

Egyptian MiG-21 downing Israeli F-4

Scrapping for supremacy

The MiG-21’s blistering rate of climb and top speed of Mach 2 made it an excellent high-altitude interceptor, but it could also out-turn and out-accelerate the F-4 Phantom II at low speed/low-altitude, where many of the conflict’s dogfights took place. The Mirage III and the Fishbed were much more evenly matched.

By Day Ten, some estimates put Israeli air losses to date at 14 F-4 Phantom IIs, three Mirage III fighters, four Super Mystères, 29 A-4 Skyhawks and 28 further unidentified aircraft. Many were shot down by AAA fire and Soviet-supplied SAMs, and not in dogfights. Israeli Skyhawk losses in particular were said to be so great that they were withdrawn from deep penetration strikes.

EAF losses were estimated at 49 MiG variants, 12 further unidentified fixed-wing aircraft and 17 helicopters. Nightly Soviet resupply airlifts helped make good some of the Egyptian and other Arab losses, while both Soviet and other Warsaw Pact aircrew covertly flew MiG-21 missions on behalf of their Egyptian allies.

The IAF also had numerous non-Israeli or dual-nationality volunteer aircrew flying for it in combat, while the United States flew similar military resupply missions into Israel on a regular basis.

IAF Mirage III downing EAF MiG-21 with AIM-9B AAM

AIM-9B missiles made life much more dangerous for Arab pilots

Gradually, thanks to superior dogfighting skills, better air-to-air missiles, the rapid U.S. replacement of downed aircraft and an ability to replace aircrew losses with fully-trained pilots that the EAF could not match, the IAF gained the upper hand.

One ace in particular stands out from the war - 101 Squadron IAF’s Colonel Giora ‘Hawkeye’ Epstein. Already an ace with five kills from the Six-Day War and other conflicts, on 18-20 October, Epstein downed two Su-20s, two Su-7s, four MiG-21s and a Mi-8 helicopter in the space of two days. Four days later, Epstein shot down three more MiG-21s in a battle over the Great Bitter Lake, in the process becoming the greatest Israeli air ace of all time. Epstein achieved his victories both in the Dassault Mirage IIICJ, and the Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) Nesher, a locally modified version of the Mirage V.

IAF fighter downing MiG-21

Attrition tells

No single EAF or Arab pilot matched Epstein’s tally; but three confirmed F-4 Phantom II victories, the shared downing of a Mirage III, and damage to several other enemy aircraft make Captain Kadri el-Hamid the EAF’s most successful pilot.

EAF Captain Ahmed Wafai flying a MiG-21MF claimed one IAF Mirage II on 17 Oct, and two Neshers on 22 October. Syrian Air Force Captain Gallal Edeen Khaddam shot down two Mirage IIIs over the Golan Heights in the space of as many minutes on 10 Oct.

EAF and IAF aircraft dogfighting

Fighting to the bitter end

Egypt had not avenged the crushing defeats Israel had inflicted during the 1967 Six-Day War. In that conflict, Israeli forces destroyed more than 300 EAF aircraft on the ground in a single day. In the Yom Kippur/October War, which ended with a ceasefire on 25 October, Israel claimed to have shot down a total of 73 EAF MiG-21s, with 65 confirmed.

The EAF reported its MiG-21 squadrons had destroyed 27 IDF aircraft of all types in air-to-air combat, while Israel said that no more than 15 had been lost in this way. Whatever the truth, in just 19 days of battle both sides had suffered substantial losses in aircrew and aircraft, and must have welcomed the ceasefire when it came.

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