No amount of warning, however shrill, ever quite prepares a people for the air-raid siren's scream. The first wail is always difficult to believe. In Cairo, last week, it scarcely disturbed the morning bustle of the bazaar, or the gossip of black-clad women clucking along the banks of the muddy Nile. No matter that only the night before, President Gamal Abdel Nasser had welcomed Iraq to the Egypto-Jordanian alliance against Israel, and proclaimed: "We are so eager for battle in order to force the enemy to awake from his dreams and meet Arab reality face to face." Fixed in their own routine, the residents of Nasser's capital listened to the unfamiliar sound of the siren and continued—for a time—to go about their business.
In Tel Aviv, Israel's largest city, the reaction was much the same—and with better reason. Only days before, new Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, the dashing, one-eyed "Hero of Sinai," had said the time was not ripe to strike at the Arab forces ominously gathering around the Jewish homeland. "It is either too early or too late," he said. "Either we should have reacted right away, or we should wait and see what are the results of diplomacy." Since the choice was obviously to wait and see, when the first sirens sounded, most Tel Avi-vians thought it was a drill. A few dutifully ambled to shelters; others merely scanned the cloudless skies and shrugged.
This was no drill. In stunning predawn air strikes across the face of the Arab world, Israeli jets all but eliminated Arab airpower—and with it any chance of an Arab victory. Without air cover, tanks and infantry under the clear skies of the desert offered little more than target practice. In a few astonishing hours of incredibly accurate bombing and strafing, Israel erased an expensive decade of Russian military aid to the Arab world.
Hardly a Crater. Streaking in ahead of the dawn, the first waves of Israeli Mirage3 fighter-bombers simultaneously destroyed four Egyptian airbases in the Sinai Peninsula, site of Nasser's massive buildup against Israel in the past month. Some 200 of Nasser's frontline fighters, mostly Russian-built MIG-21s, were caught and destroyed on the ground. At almost the same time, Israeli jets hit Arab bases in Jordan, Syria and Iraq. They swept in from the sea to hit Egyptian bases deeper inside Egypt; and after landing only long enough to refuel, they hammered away until 25 of the most vital fields in the Arab world lay smoking. So expert were the Israeli pilots that they seldom seemed to waste a bomb, a rocket or a bullet. Their reconnaissance photos showed plane after plane smashed and burning—with hardly a crater in the runways or the level sands surrounding the targets (see pp. 24-25).
By Monday night, the end of the first day's fighting, some 400 warplanes of five Arab nations had been obliterated. Egypt alone lost 300, Syria 60, Jordan 35, Iraq 15, Lebanon at least one. The cost to Israel's 400-fighter air force: 19 planes and pilots, mostly downed by ground fire.