Of the four men inside the burning M48 Magach 1 main battle tank, only the vehicle’s commander, 23 year-old Captain Avigdor Kahalani, managed to crawl through the flames and escape the roiling inferno that consumed his tank from the inside. Ammunition cooked off and exploded as he was pulled from the wreck, the only surviving crewman from a tank that had served bravely throughout the ruthlessly-bloody Arab-Israeli Six-Day War. Rushed to the hospital, where he would remain for many months, it would require seventeen painful operations and countless skin grafts to treat the massive burns that covered every part of Captain Kahalani’s body. Doctors weren’t sure the young officer would survive, let alone walk or go forward with anything resembling a normal life.
You know that old expression about getting knocked off your horse and then hopping right back on again because you’re a fucking badass and it’s going to take more than some asshole horse to make you piss your pants and quit like a little baby? Well despite being roasted alive inside of a steel death tank while his friends died around him, Avigdor Kahalani not only survived, he refused a free medical discharge from the Israeli Defense Force on the grounds that he wasn’t done stomping balls across the Middle East just yet. Less than a year after literally coming nose-to-nose with the 100mm armor-piercing shell of a Soviet-constructed T-55A main battle tank, Captain Avigdor Kahalani was right back in the commander’s hatch of a heavily-armored IDF armored fighting vehicle.
He’d go on to be one of the greatest tank warfare heroes not only in Israeli history, but of all time.
Avigdor Kahalani was born in June 1944, ten days after the World War II Allied Invasion of Normandy. He was born in a place called Ness Ziona, a small Jewish settlement in present-day Israel, although at the time it was still known as British Palestine. His family emigrated from Yemen, where they’d lived for generations, but they’d come to Ness Ziona hoping to build a new life for themselves, and the Kahalanis were counted among the first citizens of Israel when it was officially recognized as a self-governing country in 1948. Kahalani studied mechanics, history, political science, and other cool stuff like how to kill things with a tank, went to the Israeli National Defense College, entered the IDF as an armored warfare officer, and was assigned to the 7th Brigade of the IDF Armored Corps.
For a variety of reasons I have absolutely no interest in covering in detail on this website, Israel is in a weird situation where basically every single country that shares a border with it is actively trying to completely eradicate it off the face of the planet with bullets and explosions. This kind of living situation isn’t really ideal, and in 1967 the country of Israel, fearing an all-out invasion by her neighbors, launched a controversial surprise pre-emptive strike when they simultaneously declared war on every country in the Middle East and attacked them all at the same time. Without warning, IDF tanks, jets, and infantry surged into Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon all at the same time, catching the Arab countries completely unaware and sucker-punching them in the chops with high-explosive destruction. In the opening hours of the war, Captain Kahalani and his Magach 1 (an IDF modification of the American M48 Patton tank) were right there on the front lines against Egypt, rolling through the Sinai peninsula with their cannons blazing.
Ripping through the disorganized enemy, Kahalani and the IDF Armored Corps plowed across Sinai, leaving shattered remnants of enemy armor in their wake. In a fierce battle against Egyptian T-54 and T-55 tanks outside the city of El Arish, capital of Sinai, Kahalni and his crew showed so much bravery and badassitude that he was awarded the Medal of Distinguished Service, the IDF version of the Silver Star, and was given the honor of being the first IDF tank to roll into town after the fight.
The war of 1967 was an incredible success. In just six days, the IDF overran dozens of key enemy positions and forced all of the defenders to sue for peace. The Arab countries were humiliated, and swore vengeance, but for Kahalani the victory was bittersweet. In the closing hours of the war his tank was hit by enemy fire, which ignited the ammunition stores in his vehicle, lighting the entire thing up in a blazing fire. He was the only survivor from his crew, and required tons of surgery to recover from his wounds, but it was going to take a hell of a lot more than some hideous third-degree burns to keep Avigdor Kahalani from fragging enemies with a goddamn tank.
The Six-Day War was a humiliating embarrassment for the Arab countries, and, just in case you needed me to remind you, the Arabs are a hardcore centuries-old badass warrior culture, and they are basically masters at exacting bloody vengeance against their enemies. For six years, they waited. Rebuilt. Bided their time. Planned.
Arab Vengeance came to Israel on October 6, 1973. It was Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, and a day when Jews are supposed to stay home to pray and fast and not get into gunfights. Military reservists were on standby. Checkpoints operated with only skeleton crews. Everything was quiet on the IDF defensive line.
Then, rumbling in the distance, were the sound of Arab tanks. Tons of them. Full divisions of Soviet-built armored vehicles barreling full-throttle ahead straight towards the lightly-defended Israeli border, supported by helicopters, MiG fighter jets, and artillery. In the south, Egyptian infantry launched a balls-out full-scale crossing of the heavily-defended Suez Canal, storming through fields of machine gun fire, crossing the waterway, and diving bayonet-first into defensive positions on the other side. In the Golan Heights, a heavily-disputed plateau that had belonged to Syria until Israel captured it during the Six-Day War, Iraqi commando teams fast-roped to capture communications outposts while over a thousand Syrian T-62 and T-55 tanks swarmed ahead across a 36-mile-long attacking front, surrounding and blasting the unprepared and massively-outnumbered IDF front-line forces. The IDF scrambled F-4 Phantom attack aircraft to bomb the onrushing armored troops, but Syrian anti-aircraft trucks ripped out an impenetrable field of flak and guided missiles that destroyed 25 IDF aircraft in the matter of hours.
The bloodiest war since Israel’s creation was about to come crashing down like a torrential downpour of blood and revenge.
Avigdor Kahalani was a 29 year-old Lieutenant Colonel in the 77th Armored Battalion when the frantic calls came on the radio that holy fuck the Syrians are goddamned in our base killin our d00ds get your ass over here game over man game over, but this battle-hardened warrior didn’t even fucking blink. He strapped on his helmet, ordered his driver to fire up the engines, jumped into the cupola of his Sho’t Kal Centurion tank, and got ready to drive straight towards the sounds of enemy heavy artillery. Despite having just a small percentage of his unit immediately available, he threw together any IDF tank crew he could find and cobbled it all together in a makeshift unit with one purpose – to slow down this massive onslaught long enough for Israeli reserves to be called up and arrive on the battlefield.
Kahalani’s orders were to hold a critical last-ditch defensive position atop a plateau in the central Golan Heights. Despite having just 40 Centurion and Patton tanks in his command, he would be solely responsible for keeping an entire Division of Syrian armor from breaking onto the plateau, because if he let them get up there they would have free run to strike targets deep beyond the Israeli border. The survival of his country literally depended on his actions and those of his men.
The Sho’t Kal tank’s engines roared as Kahalani ordered his driver to advance to the ridgeline. When he rolled into position overlooking the valley below, he basically shit a brick. Below him, stretched out as far as he could see, were over 500 tanks, supported by hundreds of trucks, troop carriers, and artillery pieces. As the enemy formation slowly rumbled forward, al that stood between this sea of armor and Kahalni’s 40 tanks was a large minefield backed up with a wide anti-tank ditch that spanned 20 miles across the bottom of the hill.
Avigdor calmly ordered his men to get hull-down on the ridgeline, choose their targets, and open fire on his command. When he ordered his tank’s gunner to fire the first shell, the gunner went into standard IDF armored corps protocol. “What is the range?”
Kahalani’s eyes stayed fixed on the enemy. He shook his head. He calmly said no, there’s no time for that. Just fire.
For the next fifty hours – over two full days without rest – Avigdor Kahalani and the 77th Armored fought a brutal last stand against odds they had absolutely no chance of overcoming. Artillery and enemy tank fire ripped through the skies all around as the 105mm cannon of the Sho’t Kal raked the enemy positions, blasting them apart in fiery explosions. Under covering fire from artillery, Syrian mineclearing vehicles and bridgelaying equipment rolled up to clear the defenses, navigating wrecked hulks and incoming IDF fire to try and pave a path for the Syrians. Some of the more balls-out Syrian tankers, frustrated with the delay in bringing up equipment, simply drove into the minefields, resolved to either find a safe passage or sacrifice their vehicle to clear one for their comrades. All the while, Kahalani issued orders and called out targets to his gunner and his battalion, who rained death onto the advancing enemy.
It wasn’t until after dark that the Syrians crossed the trench, but once they did they had a massive advantage against their hated enemies. T-55 and T-62 tanks were equipped with infrared rangefinders, making them effective at fighting at night, whereas the IDF only had night-vision binoculars for their vehicle commanders. In the dark, with enemy forces swarming as close as 20 meters from IDF lines, the destruction was catastrophic to the badly-outnumbered defenders. Kahalani, fighting for his life against a superior enemy he couldn’t even see, ordered his gunner to aim for searchlights or muzzle flashes when he saw them and tried to direct an organized fighting withdrawl among his troops. In extreme situations he popped the fucking hatch on his tank – in the middle of a gunfight – and manually looked around with his night vision goggles. He realized he could see the IR beams in night vision, and on more than one occasion this dude literally saw Syrian IR beams hitting his tank and then ordered his gunner to blind-fire in the direction they were coming from.
When dawn arose on the Golan Heights, the situation was bad. The IDF had been pushed off the ridgeline, and the Syrians were advancing. Kahalani was down to just a handful operational tanks. Still, he refused to back down.
With just a few enemy holding the ridge ahead of him, Kahalani ordered his tanks to advance. Driving in the lead, he surged forward towards the enemy, continuing to drive even after he saw that he was the only one of his men who were actually moving up. Reaching the line, he took out two of the three T-55s on the line, but as he swung his turret to aim for the fourth, the cannon jammed and wouldn’t extract the shell casing. The T-55 swung its gun to face him, but the second it reached position, it burst into flames as two more IDF Centurions rolled up into formation alongside Kahalani and dove back into the fray.
For 50 hours, the men of Kahalani’s 77th Armored Battalion held the line against over 500 Syrian tanks and armored vehicles. They were eventually relieved when IDF reserve units were called up and rushed ahead into combat, and in their wake they left the wreckage of 260 Syrian tanks and 400 trucks and vehicles. The area of his engagement became known as “The Valley of Tears.”
For his actions in turning the Syrian advance into a huge field of destruction, Kahalani received the highest award for bravery offered by the country of Israel – the Medal of Valor. He retired as a Brigadier General in 1992, and was elected to Parliament as the Minister of Public Security in 1996. More recently, in 2013, he received the President’s Medal of Distinction for his work with charitable organizations that work to improve the quality of life and look after the well-being of IDF soldiers and veterans.