Operation Rhodes (Hebrew: מבצע רודוס) was an Israeli heliborne raid against the Egyptian island of Shadwan on 22 January 1970, during the War of Attrition. It was carried out by Israeli paratroopers and Shayetet 13 naval commandos, who took control of the island for over a day before leaving with 62 captured Egyptian soldiers and radar equipment.
Egypt had launched the War of Attrition in order to weaken Israel's hold on the territories in the Sinai it had captured during the 1967 Six Day War. While the war raged mainly along the Suez Canal, Israel hoped to secure a ceasefire by showing Cairo that it could strike anywhere in Egypt and by presenting the Egyptian leadership with the prospect of an all out conflict for which Egypt was likely ill-prepared. Refusing to limit the war to the canal front, in January 1970 Israel launched Operation Priha, a series of Israeli Air Force (IAF) strikes against targets in the Egyptian heartland, while its ground forces were tasked with a strike at the isolated and lightly garrisoned Shadwan. The aim of the raid was to capture Egyptian POWs to be exchanged for Israeli prisoners in Egypt, and to sabotage a local radar post which was deemed a threat to Israeli shipping in the Gulf of Suez.
The task of taking Shadwan was assigned to the IDF's Paratroopers Brigade under the command of Haim Nadal. Its 202nd Battalion, commanded by Lt. Colonel Ya'acov Hasdai, and the brigade's elite reconnaissance company (Sayeret Tzanhanim), commanded by Captain Motti Paz, were to land on the island. These were to be assisted Shayetet-13 operators, while additional paratroops were to be at hand at Sharm el-Sheikh and on nearby Israeli Navy vessels.
The Egyptian garrison on Shadwan was headquartered in the island's lighthouse, at its southern tip. The lighthouse was defended by a fortified perimeter consisting of 9 outlying outposts and manned by a company of Egyptian commandos. In all, 100 Egyptian soldiers were present on Shadwan, of which 60 were commandos and the rest Egyptian Navy and technical personnel.
Operation Rhodes commenced on the morning of January 22, 1970, with a strike by twelve 109 and 115 Squadrons A-4 Skyhawks which killed a number of Egyptian soldiers, including the officer commanding of the local garrison. With the defenders thus engaged, Israeli ground forces started landing on Shadwan, ferried to the island by a pair of Bell 205s and 114 Squadron's fleet of Aerospatiale Super Frelons. Landing at 09:15, the forces disembarked a mile north of the lighthouse and broke up into various elements. Hasdai's battalion moved to capture the outposts on the island's eastern side and those leading to the lighthouse, fighting Egyptian soldiers who refused Israeli calls to surrender. Within an hour after landing, all but three outposts had fallen to the paratroops. One Israeli soldier, corporal Haim Isrovich, was killed by sniper fire.
Paz's troops, attempting to flank the Egyptian forces from the west, met with resistance on the defensive perimeter's western side, only to enter a minefield. One officer, Lt. Israel Bat-Lev, was killed and several injured, and the force withdrew, leaving the posts codenamed "Dafna" and "Dvora" in Egyptian hands. At 10:30 the reserve force at Sharm el-Sheikh, led by Lt. Colonel Amos Yaron was therefore dispatched to the island.
A force led by Lt. Yitzhak Kotler, meanwhile, arrived at the lighthouse. Despite expecting significant resistance, little movement was spotted at the site, and at 12:00 the Israeli troops stormed the building. A few rooms were initially found to be empty, but fire soon erupted from a building on the western side of the compound, hitting Kotler and leaving the force leaderless. Hasdai instructed one of Kotler's squad's to flank the structure and clear it out using grenades. By 12:57 these managed to secure the building, which was found to be defended by only a pair of Egyptian soldiers, one of which was killed and the other injured. An Israeli helicopter soon arrived to ferry both the Egyptian officer and Kotler to hospital, though the latter died of his wounds.
Landing on the island at 11:30, Amos Yaron was dispatched by Nadal to overcome remaining resistance at the western edge of the island's defensive permiter. Leading a three-pronged assault, Yaron, aided by a pair of IAF strike aircraft, secured the post codenamed "Dafna" by 14:15. Nearby "Dvora" was soon secured as well and by 15:30 fighting had ceased. 14 Egyptians had been captured and 17 killed. Several dozen more POWs were found in subsequent scouring of the island.
Air Force participation
After their initial support of the landings, Israeli Air Force aircraft provided continuous close air support to the forces on the ground, while IAF fighters patrolled the airpace around the island to prevent Egyptian reinforcement. The operation also saw Israeli A-4s debut as aerial tankers, with 109 squadron providing inflight refueling for other Israeli aircraft on station.
As the battle was underway, a mixed formation of two 109 Squadron and two 115 squadron Skyhawks spotted a pair of Egyptian torpedo boats heading for the island from Hurghada. The aircraft attacked the boats with air-to-ground rockets, sinking both. A slightly more successful attempt at intervention took place shortly after midnight on January 23, when a single Egyptian Air Force Ilyushin Il-28 bomber managed to evade Israeli aircraft on patrol. The aircraft made a single bombing pass but failed to cause any damage.
Holding the island throughout the night, Israeli forces received the order to evacuate at 11:50 on the morning of January 23. All structures save for the lighthouse were demolished and the forces withdrew with 62 Egyptian POWs and a captured British Decca radar set. The last helicopter, bearing Haim Nadal, departed the island at 17:40. 3 Israelis had been killed and 7 injured, while Israeli spokesmen put the number of Egyptian fatalities at 70, including both soldiers on Shadwan and on the sunk torpedo boats.
Despite the operation's successful outcome, its aftermath was not as laudable. On January 24, two days after the operation, a truck carrying ammunition captured on Shadwan exploded while it was brought ashore at Eilat. 21 people were killed in the accident, although Palestinian militants attempted to claim responsibility for the explosion.
Egypt admitted to 80 soldiers killed, wounded or missing, but attempted to paint the Israeli raid in the best possible light. It initially reported that Israelis "attempted to land" on the island and had suffered 30 casualties and lost 2 aircraft, and later claimed Israeli forces failed to remain on the island "due to stiff resistance on land and massive air strikes". The Egyptian press focused on the actions of Captain Hosni Hamad, who had lost his life leading the torpedo boats to the island under his own initiative.
Operation Rhodes had taken place a few days after the launch of Operation Priha, which had underscored Egypt's inability to counter Israeli aerial supremacy. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, rather than opting for a ceasefire, turned to the Soviet Union for military assistance. On the same day as Operation Rhodes, Nasser secretly left Cairo for Moscow for a series of clandestine talks. Within weeks, Soviet hardware and personnel began arriving in Egypt, signalling a new phase in the War of Attrition.
- Gawrych 2000, pp. 115-116
- Aloni 2009, p. 24
- Gawrych 2000, p. 114
- Milstein 1985, pp. 1315-1323
- "Operation Rhodes - The Island of Shadwan" (in Hebrew). Paratrooper Brigade website. Retrieved April 23, 2011.
- Shalom 2007, p. 600
- "Israeli Commandos remove radar from Egyptian isle". Eugene Register-Guard. Associated Press. January 23, 1970. p. 2A. Retrieved April 16, 2011.
- "Truck explodes at Eilat, 18 die". The Milwaukee Journal. January 25, 1970. p. 3. Retrieved April 23, 2011. Three additional deaths occurred in the following days.
- Norton 2004, p. 214
- Aliason, Marcus (January 23, 1970). "Israeli Units Seize Egyptian Island". The Evening News. Associated Press. p. 2A. Retrieved April 16, 2011.
- McClure, Hal (January 24, 1970). "Egyptians Bomb in Sinai, Israelis Quit Spy Island". The Evening News. Associated Press. p. 1A. Retrieved April 16, 2011.
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- Milstein, Uri (1985). History of the Paratroopers (in Hebrew). 3. Tel Aviv: Shilgi.
- Norton, Bill (2004). Air War on the Edge – A History of the Israel Air Force and its Aircraft since 1947. Midland Publishing. p. 310. ISBN 1-85780-088-5.
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