The Israel Defense Forces were caught completely off guard in 1973 when Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated attack to take back the land lost in the 1967 Six-Day War. All would have gone according to plan for the Arab states – if only one young lieutenant hadn't gone home on leave.
"I was willing to die to stop the Syrian advance," Zvika Greengold once said.
Zvika Greengold was an Israeli farmer raised on a kibbutz founded by Holocaust survivors and partisans who fought against Nazi occupation in Europe. Like most Israelis, he joined the IDF when it came time to serve his country.
He was 21 and home on leave in 1973 when Syrian tanks rolled across the border in a coordinated attack with Egypt, sparking the Yom Kippur War. The young lieutenant saw plumes of smoke in the distance and fighter planes in the sky. He knew a war had begun but was not yet attached to a unit, so he had nowhere to report for combat duty.
Israeli Centurions operating in the Golan Heights in 1973.
Being without a unit wasn't going to stop this officer from getting into the war. He hitchhiked 78 miles to Nafah Base, the command center for the Golan Heights. Greengold helped with the wounded coming in, but the only offensive weapons available were two damaged Centurion tanks.
And those turned out to be his ticket to defending Israel.
Greengold contacted his command, telling them he had a force ready to fight (which was technically true). He helped repair the two tanks, assembled a skeleton crew, and they drove off into the night toward the Syrian front. His newly-assembled "Zvika Force" soon spotted Syrian tanks advancing unopposed toward the Nafah Base. Heavily outnumbered, he engaged the enemy's Russian-built T-55s, destroying six of them.
Syrian troops abandoned their T-62 tanks in the middle of the fighting, convinced Zvika Greengold's tank corps outnumbered and outflanked the Arabs. (IDF photo)
His tank heavily damaged in the fight, Greengold hopped into the other Centurion. Along the same road, he saw the advancing Syrian 452d Tank Battalion. Using darkness for cover, he sped along the column's flank, dodging enemy shells while fooling the Syrians into believing there was more than one tank out opposing them. He hit the first Syrian tank from only 20 meters away.
Los Angeles city buses are longer than that. No joke.
He notched off ten more enemy tanks before the Syrians withdrew. Even Greengold's own command had no idea how many men and tanks made up the Zvika Force. Greengold couldn't report his true strength over the radio for fear of being found out, so he only reported that "the situation isn't good." His brigade commander thought he was at least company strength.
For the next 20 hours Lt. Greengold fought, sometimes alone, in skirmishes all across the front lines. When he joined Lt. Col. Uzi Mor's ten tanks, his luck took a turn for the worse.
Mor lost most of his tanks and was wounded. Greengold lost his tank and his uniform caught fire. He had to switch tanks a half dozen times. That's when the Syrians sent a sizable force of T-62 tanks to force the Israelis back. Greengold joined 13 other tanks to engage the Syrian armored column of 100 tanks and 40 armored personnel carriers. He managed to hold them until he heard that Nafah Base was under attack.
When the command post came under attack, he joined the defense, moving his tank to critical spots at decisive moments, even in the face of overwhelming odds. During the defense of the base, one Israeli tank commander radioed his HQ that "there's no one in the camp except a single tank fighting like mad along the fences."
The Jerusalem Post reported "During a lull [in the battle] Zvika Greengold painfully lowered himself from his tank, covered with burns, wounds and soot. 'I can't go on anymore,' he said to the staff office who had sent him into battle 30 hours before. The officer embraced him and found a vehicle to carry Greengold to the hospital."
Zvika Greengold (left) and Lt. Col. Aryeh Berger, commander of the 74th Armored Battalion, pose at the Armored Corps Memorial at Latrun in 2015. (IDF photo)
He passed out from exhaustion, physically unable to continue fighting. Nafah Base was never captured and the actions Zvika Greengold and the other IDF troops in the Golan Heights gave the IDF enough time to react to the two front invasion and send substantial reinforcements. They pushed the Syrians back to where the border is today.
The Zvika Force held off the Syrians long enough for Israeli reinforcements to arrive and stem the Syrian advance. Greengold's effort may have won the Yom Kippur War for Israel in the east. IDF force here are on their way to the Golan Heights in 1973.
Greengold estimates taking out at least 20 tanks, while others credit him with 40 or more. He was awarded the Medal of Valor, Israel's highest award for heroism.