On July 26, 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser announces the nationalization of the Suez Canal. Britain and France, which are most affected by this step, consider military action. On October 1956 a secret agreement is achieved by Israel, Britain and France, according to which Israel would carry out a military operation that would threat the Suez Canal and then Britain and France would demand Egypt to cease fire and open the canal; if the Egyptians not comply, Britain and France would then launch a military operation.
On October 26, 1956, the 202nd Paratroopers Brigade, under the command of Ariel Sharon, is assigned to drop a paratroopers regiment in the Mitla Pass in Sinai and to lead the rest of the brigade forces via land to the landing zone in the Mitla Pass. Sharon is not aware that the task of his brigade is chiefly to deceive the Egyptian army (so it would seem as though IDF is carrying out a limited scope type of action) and to supply the pretext for the involvement of Britain and France.
On October 28, the brigade units move in a long column to the Israeli-Egyptian border. On the evening of October 29, a paratroopers regiment, under the command of Rafael Eitan (Raful), lands near the eastern entrance of the Mitla Pass. The rest of the brigade forces move through the Sinai desert, capturing on their way several Egyptian strongholds after swift battles. Rafael Eitan’s regiment deploys near the dropping zone and waits for the rest of the brigade to join. On October 30, Eitan’s soldiers spot an Egyptian armored column. They call for air support, and the column is destroyed. It later turns out that the destroyed armored vehicles were empty and the Egyptian soldiers already took positions in the hills overlooking the Mitla Pass.
On the night of October 31, the rest of the brigade forces join Eitan’s regiment, and so the brigade completes its mission. But brigade commander Ariel Sharon is frustrated. He wants his brigade power to put to use. He asks the General Headquarters permission to capture the Mitla Pass and advance towards the Suez Canal. Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan denies the request and dispatches Rehavam Zeevi (Gandi) as a special messenger by plane to ensure that Sharon follows his order not to act. Sharon disagrees.
Eventually Gandi permits Sharon to send a limited patrol force to the Mitla Pass, without engaging in combat. Sharon sends to the Mitla Pass a very large force under the command of Mordechai Gur (Motta). Sharon orders the force to reach the western entrance of the Mitla Pass and seize it, if Egyptian resistance is not fierce. At noon that day, a force combined of two halftrack personnel carriers companies, one tank platoon, one patrol unit on trucks and one mortar unit entered the Mitla Pass. 15 minutes later two Egyptian regiments open intense fire from the overlooking hills.
The Egyptians use all they’ve got: assault rifles, machine guns, anti tank weapons and hand grenades. Mordechai Gur (Motta) and the halftrack personnel carriers at the vanguard are in a fire trap. Other vehicles manage to pass them and advance to the western entrance of the Mitla Pass. Some trucks stay behind. Egyptian bombers raid the Israeli convoy and directly hit an ammunition truck, which causes a huge blast. Mordechai Gur (Motta) manages with great difficulties to coordinate the battle moves. Sharon sends reinforcement. For several hours the so called patrol convoy is engaged in a bloody face to face battle with Egyptian soldiers, which are well entrenched in the surrounding hills. Only at night the Israeli paratroopers manage to retreat from the Mitla Pass. They then realize that six of them are missing. When dawn breaks, a reinforced company goes back to the Mitla Pass to search for the missing paratroopers. They are found dead. Casualties: about 260 Egyptian soldiers are dead. On the Israeli side: 43 dead, and about 120 wounded.
Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan writes in his book Diary of the Sinai Campaign: “… this action was not justified, because the brigade’s task was not to reach the Suez Canal… it was an unnecessary battle… the paratroopers have launched an attack on the Mitla Pass against my orders, and their action had had deadly results. The deep resentment in my heart is not for the battle itself, but for the fact that it was called ‘a patrol’. I am disappointed that I have not succeeded in forming a relationship of trust with the people in command of that brigade, relationship where when they operate against my orders, they at least do so openly and in a frank way…”
Following the battle in the Mitla Pass, regiment commanders in Paratroopers Brigade 202 criticize the way Sharon behaved during the fighting. They are angry at him for staying behind during the rescue efforts, and for ordering the convoy to enter the Mitla Pass without first making sure that it is safe to go there.
In 1974, Sharon says in a television interview: “I believe that orders should be obeyed, but sometimes you come to a situation where you have to think about the orders that you get, and I believe that you have to divide the orders according to certain categories: first of all you have to obey the orders of the state, the country that you serve, and then you come of course to a problem – to whom should you be more loyal, to your troops, or to your superiors. And I must tell you that in many times I believe you must be more loyal to your troops than to your superiors.”