Excerpt from Oren’s Research Report
By Ronal Fisher
It began on Monday, October 29, 1956, at exactly 16:59. Paratroopers’ Battalion 890 under the command of Raphael (Raful) Eitan was parachuted on the eastern side of the Mitla pass, deep in enemy territory. This was the first moment of the war, to be known later as the Suez War.
There were 395 fighters, including the commander, Raful, who participated in the jump. While they were still hovering between heaven and earth, the soldiers identified two large tents on the eastern side of the Mitla pass. They did not open fire from the air nor were they able, at that stage, to determine exactly who was there. Later it became clear. They were civilians, Egyptian public works employees, who happened to be at the place where the Israeli army commanders decided to parachute their force. They were captured and taken prisoners.
Two days later, after the awaited link-up was made with Division 202, Sharon assumed command in Mitla and Raful’s battalion was ordered to move on to Ras Sudar. The Egyptian workers who had been captured on the first day of the parachuting were not loaded on the trucks and did not join the battalion which began to move to the south in a convoy, nor were they transferred to Sharon’s soldiers. In fact, none of the soldiers of Battalion 890 can testify to having seen them alive after the force packed up and left.
Lieutenant Colonel (reserves) Danny Wolf (known as Rahav), recipient of the Award of Valor(1) in the Six Day War, today admits that the Egyptian civil engineering workers were slaughtered on the second day of the campaign while the battalion was still isolated Wolf, who later became the commander of the Shaked Elite Unit, was at the time a soldier in the company commanders’ course in Battalion 890. If it had been up to him, he now says, the Egyptians would remained alive. On the other hand, there were the circumstances of that time. Wolf, like all who were there, does not like to talk about that part of the campaign, and has been careful to remain silent all these years. Now he is talking.
Wolf: "There were 20 or 25 men. I do not remember exactly how many. All were dressed in white jellabas. Road workers, poor guys. It is an extremely hard work in the middle of the desert. They whined from thirst and hunger. They could have been left there with some food and water, theoretically, but the truth is that we did not have enough water for ourselves. Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to find justifications for what we did. But the truth. any way you look at it, is that there was nothing we could do with them. We were about to move, we received an order to advance and they were stuck among us. Releasing them was inconceivable, because the last thing that any of us wanted to do, was to provide free information to the Egyptians about how to locate and screw us before the arrival of Sharon’s force. The army had taken us and thrown us, Battalion 890, hundreds of kilometers inside enemy territory, without reinforcements or anything. It was not a simple situation. I personally would not have shot those k workers in any case. Not even in our situation. But the people who did, shot."
Did you see with your own eyes that the Egyptian workers were shot dead?
"What do you mean, did I see it? About 300 people saw it, nearly the entire battalion. We stood on the hills when some officers took them one kilometer to the south, away from us. Then they started to mow them down. It was not a pleasant sight."
What did they do?
"Some of them were frozen to the spot, some fell, some fled. Look, it was not a professional murder. I don’t think that they all died. Perhaps some of them understood what was going on, got to their feet and ran to the desert. It is very likely that some of them survived."
"Aryeh Biro, the commander."
Who gave the order?
"Raful, the battalion commander."
General (reserves) Aryeh Biro, 68, was discharged from the Israeli army ten years ago. He was known as "the Prussian officer" and the nickname was given to him for his toughness. Biro, a typical product of the forests where the partisans fought and of the concentration camps in Europe, was Raful’s right-hand man through the 1956 campaign. Biro was thought to be Raful’s identical twin, to the point that people would confuse of the two. The same looks, the same countenance of an expressionless peasant, the same style of speech, the same blind courage. Those who argued against their world-view used to say that they turned Battalion 890 into a band of Cossacks. Those who supported their values said that they had turned the men of 890 into courageous Jewish fighters.
For years, Biro did not speak about the events of the war. Now he has broken his silence, starting with what happened at the jump site.
Biro: "South of us, pretty close to the position we took, there was a quarry. There were exactly 49 people there, not 15, not 20 and not 30. All of them were road workers from the Egyptian public works department. Some were Bedouins and some were perhaps Egyptians. We tied their hands and led them to the quarry. They were frightened and shattered. Raful did not give us an explicit order and I did not ask for any. In any case, only an idiot would ask his commander for permission to do what was his duty to do. In any event I can tell you that Raful did not grieve over the bodies of the workers killed by us. He also didn’t punish whoever it was that finished the job there and got rid of them. They were a burden, a pain in the butt, and until we finished them off we could not find the time to deal with the other matters. The stories about us of letting them run and then massacring them are nonsense. They died and that is that. One of them really did manage to flee with bullets in his leg and chest, but he came back several hours later on all fours. We did not understand why. Very quickly we found that he was simply thirsty. Instead of getting to the radiator of some truck, emptying it into his belly and waiting for an Egyptian patrol to pass, the idiot came to me to ask for water. I am not responsible for the stupidity of the enemy and he quickly found himself among his friends. As to the question who fired and who did not fire at the workers, why is it important? Between you and me, the main thing is that they did fire."
The battle of the Mitla began on the following morning, the third day of the war. Many from the battalion were wounded. But Battalion 890 was not destroyed or neutralized. On the fourth day of the campaign, with a smaller, hurt and angry force, they received the order to move forward into the desert, to Ras Sudar. From every aspect, that was an unexpected order. No one actually knew where the Egyptian divisions were located(2) and the intelligence reports and navigation maps were inaccurate. Nor did anyone know how to reach the destination and how to identify the place when they did arrive. In a convoy of nine old vehicles, and several captured ones and four jeeps, with Biro at the head, they went to seek the location of Ras Sudar. Like all those who went through the campaign, their feeling was that they were going to their death, venturing forward without any possibility of withdrawal. With this feeling and the pain over the loss of their comrades, the next massacre was only a question of time.
The Egyptians, who smelled the "red feet"–the nickname of Raful’s paratroopers–did not want to conduct a battle with them and simply fled. The feeling that battalion 890 was going towards its death was dispelled. They did not face organized Egyptian troops.
Lieutenant Colonel (reserves) Shaul Ziv, then aged 17, a soldier in Platoon 5 and later the commander of Sea Commando Unit 13, admitted that the events of Ras Sudar disturbed him for years. Ziv has refused, up to now, to speak of his memories of that campaign.
Ziv: "All in all, we were in a pretty good mood by the time we camped at Ras Sudar. The guys confiscated many booty vehicles from the Egyptian oil company and played around, driving wildly. The fact that we did not confront any Egyptian commando unit, anyone willing to battle us, was a relief on one hand, but on the other hand, the tension, the anxiety of those who were living war for the first time, had not been vented by actual fighting. I remember that my unit settled on both sides of the road, when suddenly a truck loaded with people appeared from a bend on the road. At first no one paid any attention to them. In fact, when I think about it today, if they had continued driving towards us without making a provocation, they would have passed us without our noticing them. But, apparently, they were frightened. They did not expect to find us in the middle of Sinai. One of them fired, out of hysteria, a few aimless bullets. Even before the truck came into our range of fire, it was obvious that we had to eliminate it. Whoever fires, as far as we are concerned, is the enemy from any aspect. The truck, I remember as though it were today, was open in the back, was hit in the driver’s compartment by my rifle-fired anti-tank grenade, swung to the side of the road and halted. The people who were hanging on it, holding on to the doors or sitting on the hood, flew several meters in the air and were thrown onto the sand. My hit was right on target, and one minute later it was quiet. I looked at the truck and at the people in it. They were stunned. They did not move. Already then I could see that they were Fedayin [Palestinian guerillas]. Possibly there were also Egyptian soldiers there but not in uniform. In any event, it was certainly not an organized Egyptian army unit.
I turned back to dismantle the grenade rifle and all at once I saw our unit assaulting them. It was a mad scene. Biro gave the order, and each person caught the gun closest to him and fired. It was a huge round of fire that shook the desert. I did not shoot, I only stood there and watched the truck and our guys, and did not grasp what was going on, why they were doing that. For me everything ended when my anti-tank grenade blew away the head of the truck driver. The cruel attack afterwards seemed totally uncalled for. The people in the truck simply remained standing and they absorbed hundreds of our bullets without responding, without moving."
Biro, the commander, does not deny the order given to attack the truck. He does not now even deny that the shooting was one-sided, but it is difficult to win over the impression that this changes the picture as far as he is concerned. He simply does not understand even now how they managed to load so many people in one truck.
"I have developed a feeling of keeping the finger on the trigger," Biro said, "when I shot someone and he is hit, I feel it in my hand, between the fingers. But that time a strange thing happened. As soon as I gave the order to fire, I myself started shooting from a Carl Gustav rifle I had taken as booty at the Mitla. I started emptying clips into the people on the truck and for some reason I felt as though I hit a person with each bullet I fired, but still, they remained standing as though the bullets had gone in one side and left through the other without leaving holes in their stomachs. I was stunned. That was a big mystery to me. Only later, when I shouted to halt fire and went over to the truck, I understood what had happened. The truck was so crowded that the people inside did not have room to fall. Those who died, died standing up."
Shaul Ziv claims that the affair of the truck at Ras Sudar did not end there. In fact, it did not even really begin.
Ziv: "Sometimes, in the kibbutz, you can see a wagon loaded with cans of milk being dragged from the barn, after the day’s milking, and if a can overturns and spills, the whole wagon begins to drip from all sides, within seconds. I remembered that when I stood there, next to the Fedayin truck after the attack. It was simply horrifying. Blood ran from every crevice in the truck in huge amounts. When the back door was opened, the bodies tumbled out one on top of the other, all at once. I estimate that there were 40-50 people there. It was difficult to count in the mess of flesh that formed there. They fell on each other, at the side of the road, next to the truck. All or most of them were dressed in white jellabas, which were not so white by then. I saw enough shocking scenes when I commanded the naval commando, but this was especially terrible. Even if I had seen worse things in my lifetime, that case was especially enraging because I could not bear the thought that we shot people without a battle. What was more terrible was that after we removed the dead bodies from the truck we found that there were about 20 people still living. Most of them were bleeding. One had a hole in the arm, another in the jaw but they were alive. I have no idea how they survived after that barrage of fire. Perhaps it was due to the huge mass of people in the truck who, with their bodies absorbing one bullet after another, shielded those who managed to push back into the center. I don’t know. In any case, I remember clearly that when the truck was emptied of the bodies, our guys tied the hands of those who were still alive. At that time I did not know what was going to be done with them and I was already concerned with entirely different matters. I think that I received an order to move to Sharm al-Sheikh and was hurrying to get my gear in order. Suddenly I saw our storage manager, H., who was never considered to be a big hero, and K., Biro’s deputy, running towards the truck, climbing into the driver’s compartment and starting to fire barrages inside. I froze. They did not stop for a second, they did not take a rest to change clips in their guns. They fired and fired and fired until their arms got tired. I do not remember whether any other guy joined them in that massacre, but I clearly remember the two of them standing in the driver’s compartment and pounding the 20 prisoners tied in the truck. A bullet didn’t hit one of the prisoners right, it went directly into the main artery in the neck and a fountain of blood spewed on their clothes, drenching them. I thought that it would never end. "
K. and H. were personal prot