Operation Focus: Remembering the First Attack of the Six-Day War

In May of 1967, Egypt’s President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, declared war on the State of Israel, telling his followers that “our path to Palestine will be covered with blood.”

Nasser moved his troops into the Sinai Peninsula, expelled UN peacekeepers, then blocked the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships. 

For Israel, it was time to strike—or be struck. And for the next three weeks, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were on high alert.

Ran Goren was an Israeli Air Force (IAF) pilot in the Six-Day War. “The atmosphere in Israel before the war was very tense. People thought we were facing total extinction,” Goren said. “Forty-thousand coffins were prepared, and no one was sure that the IDF could really handle the Arab armies. Two weeks after the birth of my son, I had to leave him without knowing if I would ever see him again.”

Armed by the Soviet Union, the Egyptians had the largest and best air force in the Arab world. Israel’s only chance of survival was a preemptive strike. The air force had been training for this moment for more than a decade. Their plan was called “Operation Moked,” which means “focus” in Hebrew.

“Operation Moked was the brainchild of Ezer Weizman, who was the commander of the Israeli Air Force. He was a pilot himself; he was a pilot in the British air force in WWII, flew Spitfires, later the president of Israel. And it was an incredibly daring program,” said former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, who is also the author of the fascinating book, Six Days of War.
The plan was for dozens of squadrons to strike eleven airfields throughout Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula.

“The main goal was to strike when all the Arab planes were still on the ground, fully exposed. And the idea was to bomb out the runways first, to prevent any aircraft from taking off and to keep them from flying for a few days,” recalled Ran Goren.
In 1966, the plan’s creator, Ezer Weizman, had been promoted to IDF Chief of Operations. His successor, General Motti Hod, now had the task of executing Weizman’s plan.

“Motti was a commander of the air force that kept on flying as a fighter. He understood what we felt in the cockpit,” said Yalo Shavit, IAF Squardon Commander in the Six-Day War. “He understood the issues, and he solved all kinds of corners that without him could not be solved. Brave man. The nicest person in the world. He had nerves from metal and always thinking ahead, forward, like he did on the time to attack Egypt.”

For Israeli civilians, the prewar tension was high. But for air force squadron commander Yalo Shavit, Israel’s victory was inevitable.

“The Israeli Air Force is like a tight spring. It will be done in no time, because we have been trained for the last eleven years,” Shavit said. “I told my wife, ‘go to Gedera.’ Gedera is a small village in the south. ‘Find a small toferet.’ A lady tailor. ‘And you know what you want to wear for parties with all the Whos Whos, Prime Minster and down. Have three sets.’ ‘Why three?’ she asked. I said, ‘because I am telling you to do three. There will be parties.’ They said, ‘you are crazy.’ I said, ‘listen to me.’ She did it. She was the best woman dressed in the parties,” Shavit recalled.

Israeli intelligence had spent years gathering details about the Egyptian targets, from the location of each plane to the name, rank, and even the voice of each pilot.  

Yermi Keidar was one of the youngest pilots in the Israeli Air Force at the time. He had graduated from pilot training the year before the war, and was not yet even 21 years old.

“I was the intelligence officer of the squadron,” Keidar said. “For three weeks, we learned the most accurate intelligence we could learn. We also prepared a combat doctrine for attacking airports. I was a part of that system.”

“I was so confident that they know what to do,” Yalo Shavit said. “They trained so many times that they knew it with closed eyes. To receive an aircraft with empty fuel tanks, with empty ammunition, and with empty whatever. And they got to the record of eight minutes. Eight minutes to prepare the aircraft to take off.”

“On Monday morning, the fifth of June, they woke us up and we went down to the base,” pilot Ran Goren remembered “We knew that the big moment had arrived. The commander of the air force came in with the wing commander, and they said, ‘Dear friends, Operation Focus will start today at 7:45 AM sharp. This is a fateful operation. Friends of yours will be injured and killed in battle right next to you. It is going to be tough, but we will make it.’”

“Then the wing commander told us that the fate of the Jewish people was on our shoulders,” Goren continued. “We were not afraid for ourselves. The only fear was that we would not be able to perform our duties in the best way possible.”

“When I took off, I didn’t realize it would be such a complicated mission,” Shavit said.

Squadron leaders gave their pilots some ground rules, issued by Commander Motti Hod.

“One: there is no communication whatsoever, no radio, nothing,” Shavit recalled. “So we were prepared with all sort of signs, flags, colors of the flags. When you are ready to start the engine, where you have to take off. No radio, zero. You fly at zero altitude, the lowest you can. If something happens, you don’t report back that you crashed or jumped; the air force will find you. You do whatever it takes to reach the target. We have to destroy the aircrafts on the ground.”

“We were also told that the mission was more important than anything, and that even in an emergency, even if a friend of ours is about to be killed, we were not allowed to warn him. We had to just let him crash. As cruel as that may sound, this was all so that we will not disrupt the operation. If someone is attacked, you have to go on and fight,” Goren said.

Nearly all of Israel’s 196 combat planes were committed to the air strike. Only 12 were left behind to defend the State of Israel. The planes flew low over the Mediterranean to avoid being detected by radar. 

“We took off in 67 and stayed between 35 feet to 50 feet,” Shavit said. “Impossible below that. We smelled the smell of the salt over the sea.”

“I was assigned to the foursome that was under Yalo’s leadership,” Yermi Keidar said. “I was number two in the squadron, and our mission was to attack the Ein Sash field near Cairo.”

Egypt's radar didn’t pick them up, but someone else did. At 8:15 Egyptian time, Jordanian radar screens lit up with an unusual concentration of planes heading over the Mediterranean. And from there, a series of mistakes gave the Israelis an overwhelming advantage.

The top general in Jordan radioed the word “grape”—the prearranged code for war—to Egypt’s defense minister in Cairo. But the Egyptians had changed the code word the day before, without updating Jordan. So the Jordanians’ messages were tossed aside, and the warning never reached Cairo. And even if the message had been deciphered, there was no one around to read it. Egypt’s air force commander was at his daughter’s wedding. The ground force commander was on vacation. And the defense minister had gone to bed only a few hours before, leaving orders that he was not to be disturbed.

Egypt’s chief of staff, Field Marshal Amer, was flying in that morning from an all-night party. So at the first sign of trouble, the Egyptians shut down their entire air defense system, worried that Amer’s plane might be shot down by mistake. Assuming that any Israeli attack would begin at sunrise, the Egyptians had already flown their dawn patrols, and returned to base for breakfast.

“Motti was the man that planned it, and caused his soldiers and officers to be creative,” Shavit explained. “He hit them exactly in the middle of landing, fueling, eating, ready to go here—boom. We reached the target but from the distance of  three to four minutes I saw that the visibility is going down to one kilometer, something like this. There was fog.”

“So I started circling, finding a hole in this fog that I see the runway,” Shavit continued. “I dive, I bomb the runway, everything is okay, two is okay, three I don’t hear anything, four is okay. Something happened to this excellent officer pilot that he tried to aim and in the meantime he lost altitude. And when he tried to recover, he hit the runway. But as we were told in the briefing before the take off, there is no mercy; there is only one thing: keep on doing the job.”

“We turned around 360 degrees, and performed a second attack,” Goren said. “The planes were already burning, and there was a lot of smoke. Those bombers went up in giant flames. First I attacked a bomber that seemed to be less damaged. Then the second time, I attacked an anti-aircraft battery, and then finally, the control tower. The Egyptians fired some anti-aircraft missiles at my plane, but they did not hit me.”

Shavit said, “In the last second, I saw from the left an anti-aircraft position of advanced Russian cannons and before I knew what happened I got hit by 3-4 bullets. The front wheel—I saw it disappear, the aircraft stopped, my air brakes went out and from 500 knots it went down to 220 in no time. The two others, number two and four flew forward. I gave them the order: Go by yourselves to base. Get as soon as possible to the sea so nobody will shoot at you. I found myself after I was hit at 3,000 feet looking forward. And what do I see—a MiG-21 in front of me maybe 500 meters shooting. My instinct immediately is to shoot at him. He broke to the right, I broke to the left, stayed in low level, run away to the sea and back low level. And then close to Israel, I went up to 7,000 in case I bail out, at least I have some altitude to operate the parachute. I came to the area of the base, and Benny Peled the commander of the base was in the control tower and said: ‘Yalo, I know you have a problem, go to the sea next to Ashdod and bail out.’ I said, ‘no.’ He said, ‘I am telling you.’ I said: ‘I hear you, but I am not going to bail out. I will land.’ I said, ‘don’t worry, I will land on one third of the runway toward the fence. So I came there, held the aircraft at the lowest speed I can. I crossed the runway, I touched full brakes. I saw a lot of pieces of fire from both sides. I crossed the runway, went to the overrun, a lot of stones and all this, and it stopped. And I went out and I was standing and I saw the security and the emergency cars and they were so excited: ‘where is the pilot?’ Because they thought that something happened because of all of the dust. There was no fire, because there was no fuel. I came with zero fuel. Zero fuel. Nothing in the aircraft, in the tanks. Nothing, nothing, nothing.”

Gradually, the rest of the first wave returned to Israel. In less than eight minutes, the planes were refueled and rearmed, and left for the second wave of bombing. In just over half an hour, the Egyptians had lost 204 planes—half of their air force. The Israelis had lost only 19. The kill ratio of Operation Focus had exceeded expectations by almost 100 percent.

At half past ten, General Motti Hod turned to the army’s Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin and said, “The Egyptian air force has ceased to exist.”

By noon, the Jordanian and Syrian air forces had also been decimated. After less than five hours, the Israelis owned the skies over the Middle East.

“It is truly a Hail Mary operation, but for the Egyptians it was an ultimate humiliation,” said Ambassador Oren. “And very shortly after the Israeli aerial strike, Israeli ground forces began moving into Sinai. The goals were very limited, very limited. The Egyptians had three defense lines in Sinai. The goal was to take out the first of the three defense lines, not beyond that. But the Egyptian army collapsed so fast and began running away and the other defense lines crashed and as I said earlier, the Israeli forces have reached the Suez canal without even intending to reach the Suez canal. They got sucked into Sinai. So for the Egyptians, this was the ultimate humiliation. It cannot be that the people who just yesterday you have pledged to throw into the sea are now driving you across the Suez Canal.”

All day long, the Egyptian propaganda machine ran in overdrive. Radio Cairo reported that Egypt had shot down 85 Israeli planes, while only losing two of their own. And Field Marshal Amer told the Jordanians that Israel had lost 75 percent of its air power—a lie that encouraged Jordan’s King Hussein to enter the war.

“You have to develop a big lie. And the lie is that just the opposite has happened. That the Egyptian air force has surprised the Israeli air force on the ground and destroyed the Israeli air force. That the Egyptian army has crossed the borders into Israel and is on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, that’s the big lie,” Oren said.

“And this big lie is believed by 200 hundred million Arabs. No one questions, you know, the credibility, no one questions the veracity of these claims. And you know, there’s a certain debate about if Nasser himself understood or was informed of the direness of the situation,” Oren continued. “How would you like to be the officer who walked in and said, ‘President Nasser I got some bad news for you.’ How would you like to be that person? So maybe people were feeding him strange information. There was one document that I saw in Egypt—that the person who reported the Egyptian victory over the Israeli Air Force was a young air force captain by the name of Hosni Mubarak.”

Operation Focus remains one of the most successful air campaigns in military history. During the Six-Day War, the Israeli Air Force destroyed 452 enemy planes, while losing just 46 of their own. After their stunning performance in Egypt, Yalo Shavit and his crew finished the day in Jerusalem bombing the Jordanian tanks that raced toward the city and providing air cover for Israeli ground forces.

“It was a long day. That night, I came back to the room alone, because my roommate got killed that day. It was an exhausting day, both physically and mentally. Not all was taken for granted—even with the feeling of victory we had. No one was free to celebrate,” said Keidar.

“When I think about it now, after years of experience, I still think that this was a very successful mission,” Goren said. 
“If one will ask me what was the thing that made it so successful, I would answer it in one word: simplicity,” Major General Mordechai “Motti” Hod told NBC News in 1967. “I know there is a lot of stories about secret weapons which we used, but we didn’t actually. We used the spirit, we used the standard of flying, and we used another thing which maybe doesn’t exist in any other air forces in the world, and we call it ‘no alternative.’ When you don’t have alternatives, you achieve such achievements as we did in this war.”

“They don’t know what a group of dedicated people, professionals, trained, willing to invest their souls and everything they have, can do for a country,” said Shavit.

CBN Films docudrama, In Our Hands: The Battle for Jerusalem, tells the rest of the story behind the Six-Day War. You can see it on DVD or stream it in 4K. Its yours for a gift of any dollar amount. Click HERE or call 1-800-700-7000.

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