Raid: a type of operation that captivates the mind and many people believe that it is the essence of what SOF units are about, hit hard and get out quickly, leaving only destruction in your wake. One such operation that I found fascinating as a young reader of military history was the Israeli raid on Green Island, a heavily fortified Egyptian position at the mouth of the Suez Canal.
While man was on his way to the moon on July 19th 1969, in a historical first for mankind, some other people in the Suez Canal were participating in mankind’s oldest occupation, warfare.
The operation was part of the War of Attrition, the low intencity conflict that followed Israel’s major victory in the Six Days War. Actions during that period consisted of limited artilery shelling, air raids and special forces raids.
It was such an Egyptian raid on the eastern coast of the Suez Canal that put the plan for attacking Green Island in motion. On site, there was an early warning radar and ELINT gathering equipment and the destruction of these two assets was the main objective of the raid.
Although the Island was in range of the artillery and the IAF, the Israeli high command felt like those approaches lacked the personal “fuck you ” and morale plummeting that a special forces raid could deliver to an enemy.
Green Island was smack in the middle of the Suez Canal exit. 145 metres (476 ft) long and 50 metres (160 ft) wide, it was a fortress by all standards. Built originally by the British to control the Suez Canal during WW2 and fortified further by the Egyptians, it consisted of a series of concrete bunkers, on top of a two and a half meter seawall, with rows of barbed wire all around. 14 machine guns positioned to cover all 360 degrees. Two 37-mm anti-aircraft guns, and four 85-mm anti-aircraft guns. The Egyptian garrison on Green Island consisted of 75 infantry soldiers, 30 signals corps personnel and 12 Egyptian SOF.
Tasked with the operation was Shayetet 13, or Flotilla 13 in English, the Israeli equivalent of the SEALs, with additional help from Sayeret Matkal, the general’s staff reconnaissance unit. The raiding force was 40 people strong. 20 from Shayetet 13 and 20 from Sayeret Matkal.
The plan called for a deep underwater approach by the 20 sailors of Shayetet 13. The Egyptians were on high alert, so there was no other way available if the op was to succeed. When they had established a beachhead on the north side, which is where the radar was, and the assault was under way, the Sayeret Matcal and the rest of Shayeret 13 would be brought in by zodiac small boats to assist. At the same time, on the south side, a three man team approaching by a sea delivery vehicle would take position on a small outcropping protruding from the sea, about 100 meters from the island, with the objective to provide diversionary and cover fire.
The first wave consisting of four teams, with two officers and three sailors each, left the east side of the Suez Canal at 1949 and approached by boat at 900 meters from the island. There they dove from their boats and started swimming towards the island, each man carrying 88 lbs of equipment. They surfaced at the north side, under the small bridge connecting the radar with the main fortifications at 0125. They removed their scuba gear and took on their planned positions to breach the courtyard.
While they were cutting the barbed wire, a sentry was moving towards them with a flashlight on and the beam searching. Since there was no other option, they quickly dispatched him and then the game was on. The Israeli commandos moved with speed and determination inside the compound, securing buildings and cutting down the garrison as they emerged from their barracks.
During this phase of the operation, Lt. Ami Ayalon started the actions that would bestow upon him the Medal of Valor, the highest award of Israel armed forces. His task was to climb the roof and clear the enemy positions out, which he accomplished despite a head injury from a ricochet. Lt. Ayalon pressed forward clearing two machine gun positions out, along with Petty Officer Roth, who also had lost a finger to machine gun fire. The two men, despite being wounded, cleared out enemy opposition and provided cover fire for their comrades down bellow.
Their limit of advance for that first phase was the second machine gun position they captured. The tactic named by the operational commander, Ze’ev Almog, as grip and hold called for the establishment of a beachhead, and the clearing of the whole compound with the help of the second wave from Sayeret Matkal.
While the first element was clearing the roof and moving south, the second element was clearing the buildings and courtyard while moving south. At the same time the diversionary element on the south rock opened fire with their two MAG58 machine guns (M240) and their recoilless rifle. 1st Lt Gadi Kroll climbed the bridge and stormed the northernmost building, which was the radar site. Gadi killed the two Egyptians there and discovered that the radar was a fake.
Up until that point, despite the intense close quarters fight, the Israeli side counted only wounded. That was going to change soon. In the chaos of the fighting, one Egyptian managed to remain hidden in a machine gun position on the western side. He popped up and threw a grenade, and although he was immediately killed, his grenade killed two sailors.
The first element commander chose not to use his radio up until he climbed the roof. Admiral Ze’ev Almog, in his book “Flotilla 13: Israeli Naval Commandos in the Red Sea, 1967-1973,” claims that to this day he has no clear indication as to why that happened. The most probable explanation he offers is that it was because the deadline for the assault had passed by mere minutes and the commander of the force would have hated it if it had been called off at the last minute. That little hitch, however, cost the second wave a couple of minutes to reach the island, the plan being for them to leave the staging area and come at a closer point, in coordination with the assault force waiting for the final signal. What happened instead was that they started when they heard the first shots from the staging area which was 900 yards away and it took them 17 whole minutes to reach the island. At 0155, the second wave was on the island and proceeded through the breach and onto the roof of the compound. The brass was getting edgy and called Almog, the ground commander, at 0200 to wrap things up despite the fact that the deadline for extraction was 0230. Almog reported that two-thirds of the targets were in Israeli hands and that he would continue until the mission was completed.
Lt. Ami Ayalon, along with four other members of Shayetet 13, stormed gun emplacement #4. They were met with heavy resistance from the defenders. A grenade hurled from another position injured the five men, with the most serious wound being in the stomach of Ami Ayalon, who was injured for the second time that day. It would not be the last.
Meanwhile, the Sayeret Matkal element started getting in the thick of it. Across the yard fire from a position on the south, gun position #6, was producing the most casualties for the attacking Israelis. Two more men were killed and their bodies were found outside the compound, probably fallen there after they were shot along with the Matkal commander Ehud Ram, who was killed by a shot to the head by a “sniper.” After action reports put the blame for those casualties on the fact that the delay of Matkal forced Shayetet men to storm those positions alone. Without the manpower that would have given them fire superiority, they were exposed to fire from the further away positions which charged at them unopposed, as the south cover fire element on the rock had to take cover and the men in the courtyard were occupied with fighting the Egyptian forces there.
That didn’t stop the Israelis, who attacked once more on gun position #4, this time succeeding in silencing it along with a machine gun in the courtyard. They threw grenades at the position and the ammo exploded; finally silencing the weapon and quelling the defence coming from there.
In the meantime, the fight in the courtyard was dramatic but more successful. Room after room, the Israelis threw frag and white phosphorus grenades that managed to silence the opposition. All that success came at a price, with one more Israeli killed.
At 0215 the signal for extraction was given. The remained defenders were so paralyzed that while the evacuation took around 30 minutes – almost as long as the battle itself – they didn’t give the Israelis any more trouble. They were beaten. Artillery fire coming from the Egyptian side prompted the Israeli commandos to hurry up
As a final goodbye gift they planted 80 kg of explosives.
They reached their base a couple of hours later, with the exception of one boat that was capsized by artillery fire and whose commandos had to swim for hours until they were picked up by a helicopter early in the morning.
At the human cost of 6 lives and 11 wounded, the Israelis inflicted around 80 killed to the Egyptian side and a huge crippling blow to their morale, as Green Island had been previously considered as impregnable by the Egyptians. The men of Shayetet 13 and Sayeret Matkal proved them wrong.
Image courtesy of Government Press Office, Israel.
Featured image courtesy of Government Press Office, Israel