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Battle of el-Mansourah
By Dr. David Nicolle and Sherif Sharmy
Sep 24, 2003, 20:13

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Egyptian Air Force strikes against Israeli targets in the occupied Sinai Peninsula on the first day of the October War in 1973 made a massive contribution to Arab success during the early part of the conflict. In Egypt itself, these attacks are seen as the key to what Arabs regard as a victorious sturggle.

That much is well known and is also recognized outside the Middle East. But there was plenty of air action throughout the rest of the October War during which the Egyptians and their Syrian allies are generally considered to have achieved much less. Details of these later operations were not made public until recently, yet one particular clash was sufficiently important for the Egyptian government to change the country’s “Air Force Day” from November 2 to October 14, to commemorate what the EAF proudly recalls as the “Mansourah air battle”.

At dawn on 14 October – the ninth day of what the Arabs call the Ramadan War and the Israelis call the Yom Kippour War – nine armoured brigades of the Egyptian 2nd and 3rd Armies launched an offensive in an attempt to expand their existing bridgeheads on the eastern side of the Suez Canal. This was supported by MiG-17s, Su-7s, swing-wing Su-20s and Mirages operating from bases west of the Canal and in the Nile Delta. These in turn were given cover by MiG-21s of the 104th Air Wing, most of which were based at the el-Mansourah HQ.

MiG-21MFs equipped three squadrons of the 104th Wing Egyptian Air Defence Force, two of which were based at el-Mansourah, and one at Tanta. (all artworks by Tom Cooper)

In response, the Israeli Air Force tried, for the fourth time, to destroy the 104th Air Wing and thus regain the air supremacy it had previously enjoyed when it smashed the Egyptian Army in June 1967.

Raids were launched against the airfields at el-Mansourah, Tanta and Salihiyah. In fact, attempts had been made to attack el-Mansourah on October 7, 9, and 12, but each had failed to breach tough EAF resistance as well as fearsome missile and anti-aircraft fire. The Israelis subsequently admitted losing 22 aircraft on the 7th – their worst day of the war.

The fourth Israeli assault was to be the most determined, with over 100 aircraft – F-4 Phantoms and A-4 Skyhawks – attempting to hit the huge air base at el-Mansourah. It culminated in an almost continuous dogfight lasting no less than 53 minutes. According to Egyptian estimates over 180 aircraft were involved at one time, the majority belonging to the Israelis.

This F-4E, "183", was in service with the 69 "Patishim" ("Hammers") Squadron in 1973: one Phantom II of this unit is confirmed as being lost on 14 October, albeit - according to the Israeli sources - the loss was caused by fratricide fire and the crew safely recovered. "183" survived the war and wore a single kill marking for some time afterwards. It is shown here armed with an ALQ-101 ECM-pod in the front left Sparrow bay, four Sidewinders (two each under each inboard underwing pylon), five M-117 bombs under the centreline, as well as two Sparrows in rear bays. The capability to carry such hefty loads over vast distances at high speeds was one of the reasons for Phantom becoming famous in the Middle East: in fact so famous, that during this and several following wars every Israeli fighter was reported as "Phantom". Could this have been the case with the 17 "Phantoms" claimed shot down by the EAF on 14 October 1973 as well?

In addition to its numerical superiority, the IDF/AF also had the upper hand in terms of aircraft types, pilot training and pilot experience. The only advantage the Egyptians had lay in the fact that their pilots, ground controllers and maintenance personnel were fighting in defense of Egyptian heartland. EAF morale had been climbing steadily ever since Egyptian aircraft first struck back at the invaders in the wake of the disastrous June War 1967.

The 104th Air Wing had been fully engaged since the first day of the War, October 6, not only providing air cover but also carrying out ground-attack missions and defending its air space over el-Mansourah. Another Israeli attempt to blitz el-Mansourah was clearly expected. Nevertheless everything seemed quite at 3pm on the afternoon of Sunday, October 14, through the war in Sinai was reaching a crescendo and a number of MiG-21s were kept on full alert at the end of the runway, the pilots in their cockpits enduring the blazing Egyptian sun.

Typical EAF MiG-21MF in 1973 still wore the same camouflage pattern as delivered from the USSR, in 1970-1972. Most of the aircraft also still wore the old EAF insignia, with two green stars instead of the golden eagle. Note also the small unit insignia (two crossed swords) applied in black on the front fuselage: the identity of this unit remains unknown, however.

At 3:15pm air observation posts on the coast of the Nile Delta notified the EAF High Command that 20 Phantoms were coming in from the sea, flying southwest towards Port Said and the Delta. At EAF HQ Air Marshal Hosni Mubarak (then commander of the EAF and now President of Egypt) received the signal and ordered General Ahmad Abd al-Rahman Nasr, commander of the 104th Wing, to scramble 16 MiG-21s. They were to provide a protective umbrella over the air base – nothing more. Above all, they were instructed not to seek out and engage the enemy before they reached their targets.

This order puzzled the pilots who had expected to be sent against enemy aircraft now that they had been detected. But the EAF command had learned a great deal about Israeli tactics; knowledge gained through often bitter experience in the War of Attrition during the late 1960s. In fact, the Israelis tended to follow a set pattern when making their attacks. These generally came in three stages, firstly a wave of fighters tasked to lure the Egyptian defenders away from the target, secondly a wave of ground-attack aircraft with a fighter escort to suppress Egyptian ground defense, and thirdly the main wave of ground attack aircraft which headed straight for the primary target.

Consequently, the EAF High Command considered that the initial wave of Phantoms were no more than a decoy, hence the order to the MiGs not to intercept. In the event, the Israeli Phantoms flew around in broad circles for some time, having failed to lure the MiG-21s away from el-Mansourah, retreated back out to sea.

At around 03:30pm the Egyptian Air Defense Command – this being a separate military arm distinct from both the Army and the Air Force – sent a warning that around 60 enemy aircraft, probably Phantoms, were approaching from three different directions, towards Baltim, Damietta, and Port Said. Air Marshal Mubarak gave the order to intercept and at the same time, took the opportunity to explain to his eager pilots why such an order had not been given before. General Ahmed Nasr (who subsequently became commander of the EAF) issued specific interception courses while the air umbrella of around 16 MiG-21s already airborne was sent against the enemy. Their role was to attack all three Israeli formations in an attempt to make them scatter and thus become more vulnerable to the rest of the 104th Air Wing’s fighters. A further 16 MiG-21s also took off from el-Mansourah, along with eight form Tanta, to support those already in the air. At 3:38pm Egyptian radar stations informed the High Command that another wave of around 16 Israeli aircraft was coming in very low from the same direction. The final eight MiG-21s at el-Mansourah were promptly scrambled, while eight MiG-21s from the Abu Hamad air base were called upon to assist. The ensuing air battle was extremely fierce, with approximately 160 Phantoms and Skyhawks eventually mixing it with 62 MiGs.

The 119 "Bat" Squadron was based at Tel Nov in 1973: this unit suffered some losses early during the October War, especially during the catastrophic strike against Syrian SAMs, on 7 October, when also the 201st - or "Haachat" - Sqn lost five aircraft during on a single mission, but remained operational. The F-4E "114" is shown here carrying one of characteristic warloads of this war: an ALQ-119 ECM-pod in the front left Sparrow-bay, a Sidewinder and two Mk.82 bombs on the left inner underwing pylon, five M-117 bombs under the centreline, Sparrows in the rear bays, and either three Mk.82s or a Sidewinder and two Mk.82s on the right inboard underwing pylon.

At around 3:52pm Egyptian radar picked up yet another wave of enemy aircraft, estimated at 60 Phantoms and Skyhawks, again flying in at very low level from the same direction as before. Their mission is believed to have been to hit any targets missed in the second wave, so eight MiG-21s were now scrambled from Inshas air base to intercept them. As this third wave of Israelis neared the Nile Delta village of Dekernis it ran into a swirling dogfight where the second Israeli wave had been fleeing eastward. Some 20 MiGs, having landed to refuel as the battle continued overhead, were themselves now climbing to intercept. The leader of the third wave of Israeli aircraft, apparently realizing that the previous attacks had already failed and that there were more Egyptian fighters in the air than had been anticipated, now retreated. The last Israeli aircraft re-crossed the coast at 4:08pm; the air battle of el-Mansourah was over.

At 10pm local time Cairo Radio broadcast “Communiqué Number 39”, announcing that there had been several air battles that day over a number of Egyptian airfields, that most intensive being over the northern Delta area. It also claimed that 15 enemy aircraft had been downed by Egyptian fighters for the loss of three Egyptian aircraft, while an even greater number of Israelis had been shot down by the Army and the Air Defense Forces over Sinai and the Suez Canal.

For its part, Israel Radio claimed, early the following morning, that the IAF had shot down 15 Egyptian aircraft, a figure subsequently reduced to seven.

Following a more detailed analysis after the war had ended, the EAF actually increased its original claims and now asserts that the results of the el-Mansourah air battle were as follows: 17 Israeli aircraft confirmed shot down for the loss of six MiGs. Of the EAF aircraft lost, three were shot down by the enemy, two crashed because they ran out of fuel before their pilots could return to base and a third blew up after flying through the debris of an exploding Phantom which it had just shot down.

Two Egyptian pilots were killed, the others ejecting safely. Whether these figures are strictly accurate remains to be seen, but the air battle of el-Mansourah, like a similarly named battle against an invading Crusader army 723 years earlier and only a few kilometers away, was indeed an Egyptian victory. The little university town of el-Mansourah (which translates to “The Victorious”), had once again lived up to its name.

Voices from the cockpit:

Medhat Arafa, now a Marshal of the EAF
I wasn’t married then, and the base was my home. So far my main missions had been attacking enemy ground targets by night. On the 7th October (during the first Israeli attempt to destroy el-Mansourah air base) I was injured when an Israeli Phantom hit my Jeep, which overturned. I felt no pain at that time and flew an air strike into Sinai the following evening, but the pain began after I landed so my colleagues told me to go to hospital. There my shoulder was X-rayed and I was found to have some torn muscles. The doctor advised me to take leave and I promised to do so as soon as I had checked in the Air Force Hospital in Cairo. But, like the other lightly wounded pilots, I didn’t.

I managed to shoot down a Phantom on 12th October an made several other sorties, but eventually I couldn’t move my hand so I was grounded on the 18th. On the day of the el-Mansourah air battle I had my shoulder bandaged. I was part of the “Situation-One” group of four MiG-21s acting as a reserve and received the order to take off at about 3:30pm.

The battle had already started when we arrived two minutes later. It was a frightening sight because I had never seen so many aeroplanes in one area. We were not only dogfighting, but also warning other pilots that they had an enemy on their tail, we saved many pilot’s lives that way. I landed when my fuel ran low, but was able to take off again and join the chase with other MiGs when the Israelis retreated eastwards.

Ahmed Yousef el-Wekeel, now an Air Vice Marshal of the EAF
It had been arranged, within our Air Group at el-Mansourah air base, that two squadrons would be used for interception and air defence while the third would be based at Tanta to defend both bases. Our losses were nil by the 14th of October. On that day, while flying with three others, we intercepted six Phantoms, so we split into two sections of three planes each and attacked the enemy.

The Phantoms had to drop their bomb-loads to be able to dogfight with us. I hit one Phantom with my cannon because he was too close for me to use my missiles. There were two parachutes. At the time I didn’t realize how many aircraft were involved in the battle. I was very surprised when I heard the number and we all joked; “Shit – there are traffic jams on the ground in Egypt, and now in the air as well!”

Nasr Mousa, now an Air Vice Marshal of the EAF
I flew the MiG-21 in air defense during the October War, stationed at el-Mansourah air base. We were informed t(on October 5) that the war would start tomorrow. On the 14th of October there was a violent attack on el-Mansourah air base and we received orders to scramble. There were eight of us. While climbing we saw Israeli Phantoms approaching to make their bombing run. So we immediately increased speed, dropped our auxiliary fuel tanks, and jumped them. I got one in my sights but then remembered the golden rule – secure your tail before attacking the enemy.

When I looked in my mirror I saw a Phantom lining up on me. I made a sudden tight right hand turn which put me on his tail, then shot him down with cannon fire. There were no parachutes. The Phantom could be easily outmanoeuvred by a ’21. Later, when the EAF got some (Phantoms) around 1980 I learned how heavy it was. After I joined the battle I stayed in the air for 30 minutes; my fuel was at zero when I touched down.

Ahmed Naser; now an Air Marshal of the EAF
This air battle lasted minutes, which is the longest known between jet fighters. Our MiGs had to land, refuel, rearm and take-off again in seven minutes. The take-off itself used to take three minutes, but out pilots cut it down to one and a half minutes, which I think is unique and shows just how well trained they were. During the battle our MiGs were outnumbered two to one, yet they scored well. There was also chivalry during the fighting. One pilot named Lieutenant Mohamed Adoub shot down a Phantom, but his MiG was so close to the exploding enemy that it was damaged.

Both the Israeli and Mohamed ejected close to each other. The farmers on the ground almost killed the Israeli pilot, but Mohamed saved him – the Israeli went to hospital and survived. In fact the Phantom pilot had a visitor the next day, it was Mohamed Adoub.

Qadri el-Hamid, Brigadier General of the EAF (ret.)
On October 14th I engaged in an air combat. We were returning from a combat air patrol and I was short of fuel. A wave of F-4s was coming to strike our base. They used to come (in previous such Israeli raids) and the first two would pull up and drop cluster bombs on us to keep the ack-ack gunners down. When these F-4 were “clean” we got into a fierce combat right over the base (el-Mansourah). It was a hell of a fight. Wherever I turned I saw a Phantom behind a MiG and a MiG behind a Phantom. I pulled behind a Phantom and attack with my gun – but at that moment my engine stalled. I tried to restart it but couldn’t because I was out of fuel.

These Israeli pilots were really good – it was not the standard of performance we saw at the start of the war. These pilots were much better, either they were foreigners or were more experienced higher-ranking pilots. They had lost the new, inexperienced ones against our forest of missiles along the Suez Canal. But my cannon shells had hit the Phantom and it exploded like the sun right over the airfield, near the maintenance shops. I had engaged in this combat for three or four minutes, which is a long time. To be honest I didn’t watch because, once I fired and hit, the Phantom exploded and I had my own problems. I wanted to make a forced landing to save the plane but that was crazy. If I had tried it I would have been killed because other Phantoms had hit the runway which was now full of holes. At 50m altitude I ejected. I got a compression fracture and was in hospital for four or five days, then I went back to the squadron, but I couldn’t fly for the rest of the war.

To be continued with...
Post Scriptum: What really happened at el-Mansourah?

- A study of all the known facts and Israeli denials about this air battle is to follow sometimes in the next few weeks.

Where were the Israeli Mirages and Neshers? The article above mentions no Israeli Mirages or Neshers to have been encountered on 14 October 1974. The IDF/AF would, however, send no formation of over 100 Phantoms and Skyhawks over Egypt without this being escorted by a considerable number of its best dogfighters! Indeed, Israeli sources indicate that a Nesher from 113 Sqn had shot down two Egyptian interceptors on this day, during a battle, "in the Port Said area" - and that this happened after the Egyptian MiGs have bounced a formation of Israeli Phantoms. If there were IDF/AF Phantoms bounced by Egyptian MiG-21s in the Port Said area on 14 October, then this might be the first trace of an Israeli confirmation that something did happen on 14 October over el-Mansoura airbase. Or was this a separate engagement...? More about this topic is to follow soon!

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