Major-General Israel Tal: Military strategist known as the godfather of Israeli tank warfare

Major-General Israel Tal was a decorated war hero and one of Israel's most influential military strategists, as well as the "father" of the revolutionary Merkava tank. He modernised battleground doctrine and served as an adviser to numerous Prime Ministers and his contribution to Israel's security is viewed as immeasurable. Lt-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said of Tal: "His life's work was the state of Israel's security, the defence of its borders and the security of its citizens." Internationally, Tal ranks as one of the best armoured commanders in history alongside such Second World War figuress as the American General Patton and Germany's Field Marshal Rommel.

Born in the small Zionist settlement of Machanayim in northern Palestine, Israel Tal, also known as Talik, grew up in the settlement of Beer Tuvia. At the age of 17 he volunteered for the British Army and fought in the Jewish Brigade in the Western Desert and later in Italy, where he gained a reputation as an expert machine-gunner. Following his discharge from the army, Tal returned to Palestine and in 1946 joined the Hagana – the Jewish underground paramilitary force that operated until 1948 in Palestine (then under the British Mandate), and which later became the core of the IDF.

During the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, known by Israelis as the War of Independence, Tal was a junior officer and fought against Arab forces in Jerusalem, Galilee and later against Egyptian troops in the south. Following the war, a shortage of experienced officers in the IDF saw Tal promoted to brigade commander during the 1956 Sinai campaign. Following this, he was transferred to the Armoured Corps, which had played a pivotal role. Tal, already a Colonel and experienced mechanic, set about acquainting himself with the workings and mechanics of the tank. He later wrote, "the tank is the decisive weapon of land warfare".

Tal became the seventh commander of the Armoured Corps in November 1964, a post he held until 1969. Upon his appointment, and much to the chagrin of others, he demanded that a change in methods and tactics be implemented immediately. It resulted in much improved combat-readiness and reliability, and his gunners gained a reputation for their outstanding accuracy. He forced a rethinking of several elements of Israeli military doctrine, greatly increasing its reliance on armour as well as the range and aggressiveness of its gunners, and helping reorganise its ground-troop management.

It was during the Six Day War that Tal's mastery of long-range tank-fire tactics was widely seen as the key to the routing of superior concentrations of Egyptian forces, as he led the 84th Armoured Division along the northern axis in Sinai and on to the Suez Canal. He fought alongside Generals Avraham Joffe,and Ariel Sharon, later PM. His division then occupied the Sinai Peninsula from the Gaza Strip to the northern Suez Canal.

In 1970, when Israel was encountering difficulties buying major military hardware, the Israeli government decided to reduce its reliance on foreign aid and armaments and the defence ministry founded an independent body to develop and manufacture a battle tank. Tal was appointed to head the project and oversaw the design of the Merkava tank, Hebrew for "chariot", widely regarded as one of the best of its time. The tank ensures the safety of its crew by placing the engine at the front, allowing crew and medics to enter and exit from behind, even under fire. The tank was adapted for desert terrain, particularly specialising in long-range fire.

The Merkava, considered one of the greatest successes of Israel's military industry, first saw action during the June 1982 invasion of Lebanon. In 2006, however, it did encounter problems and showed vulnerability when re-entering Lebanon to eradicate Hezbollah militants who were equipped with Russian-made Kornet missiles. Tal also developed the cylinder bridge which was used by the IDF to cross the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War.

Following promotion in 1972 to Head of Operations in the general staff and subsequently deputy Chief of Staff, Tal was one of the few officers to foresee the impending conflict in the run-up to the Yom Kippur War, asking in vain for reserves to be called up. On 6 October 1973, a joint surprise attack by Egyptian and Syrian forces on Yom Kippur (the holiest day in Judaism), saw Israeli defences initially overwhelmed as the Arab coalition crossed ceasefire lines to enter the Israeli-held Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights respectively, which had been captured and occupied since the previous conflict. Tal was promoted to head of Israel's Southern Command and within two weeks the IDF had turned the war around.

It was during this period that Tal gained respect for his moral stance when he refused an order by the then IDF chief of staff David Elazar and Israel's defence minister, Moshe Dayan, to engage Egyptian forces after the 1973 war had officially ended. Dayan wanted Tal to respond aggressively to any skirmishes with Egyptians, which could have led to further hostilities, but Tal stood fast, wanting authorisation from then Prime Minister Golda Meir and the Supreme Court.

His stance cost him the position of Chief of Staff, and so in 1974, aged 50, he retired from the military and joined the Strategic Research Centre at Tel Aviv University. He also served as a security consultant to Shimon Peres, later Prime Minister. In 1978, Tal returned to service and developed a new organisational plan, the establishment of a field-forces command.

Lt-Gen. Ashkenazi concluded: "Talik, the legendary warrior and commander, wrote the golden pages of the magnificent, but bloody, history of Israeli security. His personal and unique contribution to the defence of Israel cannot be measured."

President Shimon Peres said regardless "of which rank he bore on his shoulders he was, and will remain, a man above others. In his eyes, moral considerations were equally important to technological advances".

Martin Childs

Israel Tal, soldier: born Machanayim, Palestine 1924; married (one son, one daughter); died Rehovot, Israel 8 September 2010.

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