1967: Jerusalem liberated

(To Tiziano Ciocchetti)

Shortly after Tuesday's 9.30 6 on June 1967, Israeli Colonel Mordechai Gur, commander of the 55 ° Paratrooper Brigade, spoke to his soldiers via radio: we are on the hill above the Holy City. Soon we will enter Jerusalem, the ancient city that has been the dream of countless generations of Jews, and to which all living Jews aspire. Our brigade has been granted the privilege to get there first.

The conquest of Jerusalem was the pinnacle of victory in the Six Day War, as the control of the Holy Places - with the Temple Mount and the Wailing Wall - was considered vital to the young state of Israel. The honor of physically taking possession of that great goal was granted to the men of Gur, for the courage and professionalism shown in the two previous days.

The 55 ° Brigade had conquered the northern part of Jerusalem, beating the Jordanian army defenses at the dawn of the 6 June.

The tension between Israel and the neighboring Arab states had sharply aggravated the 5 June, when the Israeli air force had launched a surprise attack against the Egyptian military airports (picture on the right). The offensive was successful but, in the confusion of that day, King Hussein of Jordan was led to believe that the Israelis had been heavily defeated: he decided to move in turn.

At 11, a bombardment began by the Jordanians along the boundary line and aviation bounded into Israeli airspace. It was a reckless act that King Hussein would later regret bitterly. Within a few hours the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) mobilized their aviation and the major general Uzi Narkiss, head of the Central Command, gave way to a strategic offensive against the Jordanian territory.

The IDF were in an unfavorable situation. The main problem was a narrow strip of land, exposed to the bombardment of the Jordanian artillery on both sides, which was the only connection to the Jerusalem area. This corridor had to be made safe, so it was decided to use the armored vehicles of Colonel Ben Ari's 10 ° Brigade to advance north of the strip, towards the plateau that connects Jerusalem to the center of Ramallah; at the same time the Israelis attacked Latrun by occupying it. South of the corridor, meanwhile, the 16 ° Brigade Jerusalem launched a series of attacks that cut the main lines of Jordanian communication with their forces in Hebron. The success of these two operations, favored by the reconquered air dominance, gave a new appearance to the situation. The Jordanians had lost their strategic initiative and their position in Jerusalem was now seriously threatened.

Within the city, the prospects for both contenders were complicated by two factors.

The first was the presence of an Israeli enclave - which included the Hadassah hospital and the Jewish university - within the Jordanian area of ​​Monte Scopus. One of the objectives of the IDF was to free the enclave that was under the protection of the United Nations since 1948, while the Jordanians wanted to destroy it.

The second factor complicating military operations in the city was the presence of fortifications built by both sides in the 20 years that have passed since the border between the two states had been established. Such barrages of bunkers, trenches, reticulates and minefields made any offensive difficult, if not impossible.

The main Jordanian force in the city was the 27 ° Infantry Brigade, under the command of General Ata Ali. More reinforcement brigades were stationed both north and south, while an armored battalion was located behind the buildings in Kidron Valley. The Israeli air force made great efforts to hit the lines of communication between these forces and the Jordanian concentrations to the north and east. However, Ali was an experienced commander and most of his men were veterans of the Arab Legion, determined to oppose strenuous resistance.

Against them, the Israelis decided to use one of their best units: the 55 ° Paratrooper Brigade.

The Paratroopers were a body trained for direct actions and used to being on the front line. In its ranks there were many veterans who had participated in numerous incursions into the Arab territories. During the planning of the conflict, the Israeli Command had thought to employ the parà against the Egyptians in the Sinai. At noon on June 5 they were ordered to prepare for an operational launch against El Arish, to support the advance along the north-south axis.

The success of aviation with the Star of David was so overwhelming that at the 16 of the same day the decision was made to employ the brigade against the Jordanians in Jerusalem.

The plan was that the 66 ° and 71 ° Battalion of the 55 ° Brigade would attack along the front that ran from the Mandelbaum Gate to the Police School building, occupied by the Jordanians. As soon as a breakthrough was made, the 28 ° Battalion would have gone south to the walls of the Old City. The tanks of the Jerusalem Brigade would have supported the action, but the parades had to break through fighting through an impressive series of obstacles without adequate support before the attack could gain momentum.

The 55 ° Brigade prepared for the assault. It was decided to get into action as soon as possible, but the battalions were not ready before the 2.15 of the 6 day due to the lack of ammunition from the 81 mm mortars. In the end, however, everything went well and the barrage began at the 2.15. The first Israeli platoons approached Jordanian positions in the light of tracer bullets and burning houses. They placed explosive charges under the barbed wire nets and activated them after a quick retreat.

Once the barbed wire had passed, the 66 ° Battalion had to go north, past the police school, to conquer the important position of the Ammunition Hill, while the 71 ° had to advance through the area of ​​Sheikh Jarrah and the American colony towards Wadi El-Joz. The Collina delle Ammizioni was a fundamental point and the police school was well fortified too. The parries were loaded like mules of additional magazines for the Uzi machine guns and grenades.

Giant spotlights swept the white walls of the police school. As the Jordanian lights illuminated the area, the burning houses made the surrounding darkness even more dense. The blows of the cannons of the carriages, mortars, and the 88 mm howitzers caused a general barrage as soon as the parishes pushed forward. It was also impossible to see where the enemy's light weapons fire came from. If you had sighted a trench or a pitch, it would have been possible to attack and destroy it, but you had to give priority to important objectives. Despite the heavy load and the massive enemy fire, the men of the 66 ° managed to continue the advance.

Company A was the first to enter the Police School, opening a passage through the cattle pen. In groups of four I par cleaned up the rooms: two threw a grenade and fired bursts of miter inside the room, while the other two moved towards the next room.

Once the school was occupied, company A moved to the Ambassador hotel, along with company D, while companies B and C continued to the Ammunition Hill.

At dawn the parishes were engaged in a hard battle for the conquest of the hill. In the trenches and in the bunkers it was often difficult to distinguish the comrades from the enemies and the clash became even more confused when the Jordanians started shooting from their hiding places to the north of the hills.

Armored vehicles came to the rescue, but close range combat is always a nightmare for tanks, which must be protected by infantry against the fire of rocket launchers and cannons without recoil. Soon the parables ran out of the extra magazines they had brought back and they had to start reloading the tapes of the machine guns, taking the cartridges one by one from the ammo boxes, an ungrateful job when one is under enemy fire. Little by little, however, the Hill was conquered and the so-called big bunker fell to the 5.15.

Meanwhile, the 71 ° Battalion was itself meeting strong resistance. Not a few difficulties were found to identify the road beyond the Jordanian lines. Furthermore, the problem of taking the right path in the dark, based on scant photographs, was exacerbated by the need to destroy the hidden positions of the Jordanians.

The Israelis began to occupy the area between the border and the road to Nablus, throwing grenades into the plots and moving cautiously in the most exposed areas. The parries were lucky when the Jordanian defenders of the road to Wadi El-Joz were taken by surprise. Immediately a company moved up to the end of the road to fortify some positions in this important intersection.

Although the advance as a whole was yielding the desired results, the Jordanian support artillery soon identified the place where the Israelis were concentrating. The teams involved in the mortars and cannons without recoil from the Brigade ended up under enemy fire and suffered serious losses.

A heavy machine gun had in particular caused great difficulties with its gusts before being knocked out by a bazooka strike; and a light machine gun turned out to be a real thorn in the side of the Israelis, in spite of every attempt to knock it out. He was silent for a moment when a bullet of howitzer exploded nearby and immediately reopened the fire. Some officers, belonging to the Command of the 28 ° Battalion, volunteered to reduce it in silence, but when they tried to get close they fell into a trap and the commander of the support company, who led the group, was seriously injured.

After an apparently interminable wait, it dawned before the avant-gardes of the 28 ° Battalion passed the barbed wire and began to advance southward.

Fighting in the light of day was even more dangerous than fighting at night. Now the snipers could shoot without the flashes revealing their position, and the observers of the Jordan artillery had a better view of the situation.

The members of the 28 ° advanced into areas that were believed reclaimed, but the Israelis soon discovered that the enemy troops could easily re-infiltrate, attesting to good positions. The building of the Muslim Council had to be taken three times before being sure that there was no one left ready to strike the advanced Israelis by surprise.

The task of proceeding along the Via del Saladino was entrusted to the company C, which however erroneously set off along the road to Nablus, due to the impossibility of orientating itself safely in the area. The parables had to make a clean sweep in the YMCA building, from which a considerable volume of fire came. Entered with all caution, the people found the building empty except for the tripod of a machine gun. Suddenly, the team was hit by numerous blasts, and many men were wounded. There was too little time for a single obstacle to be dealt with, and hand-to-hand combat would have caused several losses. So the team withdrew and a tank fired two shots against the upper floors of the building; then the advance continued.

At about 5 there was a moment of calm, and the 28 ° para received orders to stop. It was an exasperating moment, as the risk of being hit by a sniper or a salvo of howitzer was very high. Then the advance resumed with the support of a substantial armored force. The main focus was now the Rockefeller Museum, a majestic modern building that dominated the northeastern corner of the Old City. The roar of the cannon of tanks reverberated among the tall buildings, deafening the parà. The attacked fighters had difficulty communicating with armored crews as the cables of the external microphones were shattered by grenades. However, despite these problems, the tanks were a real salvation, as only they could divert the fire of the Jordanian artillery from the troops on foot, and their presence discouraged the enemy in wanting to engage in a battle at close range.

For 8 the 55 ° Brigata could boast a series of brilliant successes. All his goals had been achieved and the conditions for further progress now existed.

Starting from the Ammunition Hill, a line had been established to the north that through Sheikh Jarrah and the Ambassador hotel, reached as far as Wadi El-Joz, at the foot of Mount Scopus: this improved the situation of the besieged garrisons. To the south, meanwhile, the conquest of the Rockefeller Museum had made the assault against the Old City possible. The parishes of the 28 ° Battaglione had taken position inside the Rivoli hotel, opposite the gate of Herod.

The losses suffered by the Brigade to achieve the goals set were very heavy, but the situation was now very promising. The morale was sky high, and Gur prepared to move the 66 ° Battalion further south for another day of fighting.

Narkiss, determined to penetrate the Holy City as soon as possible, ordered Gur to concentrate his strength to conquer the last stronghold of the Jordanians in the Augusta Victoria hospital area, on a ridge south of Mount Scopus, and to prepare to surround the Old City. The plans were quickly developed and it was decided to wait until 19.30, that is, until nightfall, before launching the attack.

The assault on the hospital had a far from positive outcome, as part of the troops were too far below the walls of the Old City and were targeted by enemy fire. At the 21.40 Gur was informed that 40 M-48 tanks supplied to the Jordanian army had been sighted on the opposite side of the slope that his men were storming.

Gur had only 4 Sherman and could not risk the fight. He decided to wait until the following day, when air support could be requested. Gur's plan was to attack 11.30 7 on June; for that time, in fact, the Israeli aviation could have hit the M-48. The Israeli High Command decided instead that the attack should take place much earlier, at the 8.30 in the morning. We then said frantically to do to organize the ways and times of the attack, which was to be launched simultaneously by Mount Scopus and through the Kidron valley.

However, such careful preparations proved completely useless. Ata Ali had remained completely isolated from the Israeli advance to the north and south, and from the devastating aviation attacks on the rescue convoys. Without the possibility of receiving armored reinforcements, Ata Ali gave the order to retreat early in the June 7.

At the 8.04 in Gur, the long-awaited order was finally given: to conquer the Old City. Immediately after the air strikes on the Augusta Victoria crest, his men rushed to the assault and the 9.30 Gur could transmit the historic order to his Brigade.

The entrance into the Old City was to take place through the Lion's Gate, which was the only one wide enough for the tanks to pass: when the armored support of the paras approached the gap there was only a few sporadic shots.

Gur came in first, and his troops met only weak resistance from some isolated snipers. At the 10 about the Israelis reached the Wailing Wall.

The 55 ° Brigade had achieved a victory that would become legendary in the history of the State of Israel.

(photo: web / Defense Ministry's IDF Archive)