Reservists from the IDF’s Sky Rider drone unit were the eye in the sky for the 13th Battalion in one of the major battles of the ground incursion into Gaza, and helped the soldiers on the ground emerge unscathed.
Bat-Chen Epstein Elias
“Covering fire for extraction! Covering fire for extraction!” Golani’s 13th Battalion commander, the late Lt. Col. Tomer Grinberg, called out on the radio.
Four young female soldiers from the IDF Sky Rider drone unit, who were keeping watch on his sector from above, heard the call and immediately went into action. For more than two hours, they shepherded the battalion as it entered the Gaza Strip, guarding it from enemy fire.
The four reserve soldiers, members of Team Gaon, directed fire at Hamas terrorists as they tried to ambush the battalion’s Namer APCs. Thanks to the orders and direction they gave to the forces on the ground, the terrorists fell back in disarray, while 13th Battalion soldiers emerged from the fierce battle almost unscathed. Team Gaon proved to be the eyes and shields of the combat troops.
“It was obvious to me that we would be called up, but still the attitude toward female soldiers in this war has surprised me,” recounted Staff Sergeant R., a member of the team.
On Oct. 7, she started making calls requesting to be drafted into reserve duty. Two days later, she was already down south. “I was surprised they took us south and that some of the female combat soldiers entered the Gaza Strip.
“We thought that first they would only bring in male teams, but the women have been here throughout this war. And the fact that we were able to do the job in the best way possible goes to show that we can do anything.”
Three of the crew members are A. and R., 23 years old, and S., who is 24; their commander is Lt. S.T. The Sky Rider unit they were called up to is an elite one belonging to the 215th Artillery Brigade.
Their role is critical. Using Skylark unmanned aerial vehicles, the Sky Rider unit is responsible for providing a real-time picture of the situation on the ground. Depending on the situation, they are responsible for dispatching combat helicopters and artillery, or sending in additional forces.
Another set of eyes
“In practice, we are another pair of eyes in the field and help identify the enemy from afar,” said Lt. S.T.
On Nov. 1, they set out for what appeared to be a routine intelligence-gathering mission with 13th Battalion. They positioned themselves on a high hill overlooking open ground, and did not expect to spot such a large enemy force.
“When [battalion commander] Tomer [Grinberg] radioed that fire was being directed at our forces, the girls went into high gear. From our position, we saw via the drone heavy fire directed at our forces,” S.T. recounted.
“It was a complicated situation. At first, the battalion was ordered not to leave the vehicles to keep the soldiers safe. They were traveling with hatches and turrets closed, and they had no way of knowing what was going on further afield from the APCs. So the fact that we were there with the battalion was critical for them.”
Team Gaon didn’t take their eyes (in the sky) off the ground for a moment. Minute by minute, they directed helicopter gunships, as well as artillery and mortar fire.
Sergeant S. was not expecting an encounter on that scale. “Suddenly, we saw an insane amount of fire directed at our soldiers. These are soldiers we had exercised with in preparation for battle, people we know; we’re directing the troops and the helicopters and hoping that our fire direction was really helping our forces.”
Staff Sgt. A. recalls how she saw an explosion right next to one of the tanks. “I think it was only then that I realized the magnitude of the event. Because we didn’t know if the explosion was from the chopper we had called in, in which case it was helping our soldiers, or whether it was enemy fire. Then you hear over the radio that it’s anti-tank fire, and you have to act straight away and direct a response.
“The terrorists were so close that it looked like they wanted to place explosives on the vehicles. But the fire we directed at them managed to drive them away. And as soon as S.T. got on the radio, everyone went quiet, because they understood that her report could save their lives.
“It’s an amazing feeling to see a tank moving in the right direction thanks to our reporting and then firing a shell that pushes the terrorists away. That’s why I volunteered for this position. Just for that moment.”
R told us: “At one point, there was so much shelling, both fired by the battalion and at the battalion, that it was crazy. We view events from above, we can’t say whether our forces have been hit. It was only when we heard the call to ‘hold your fire’ over the radio that we realized the engagement was probably over.”
The guns fall silent
After about two hours of intense combat, the area fell silent. The battalion was no longer reporting that it was under fire; the enemy was no longer visible on the ground.
“After the battle, I had a very difficult feeling,” said S. “I was certain that the battalion had suffered quite a few dead and wounded, because of the heavy fire. I was sure that after a few days, we would hear about the magnitude of the losses.”
The morning after was a great relief for her.
“In war, communication is difficult,” said R. “The battalion and the fighters in the field are in their vehicles and the battalion commander can’t go vehicle to vehicle and check everyone is okay. It’s only when the danger is over that he can check to see if there are wounded. In this case, it took several hours before the battalion reached a safe place. It was really hard for us to deal with everything we saw in this battle, because we saw mostly terrorists directing massive fire at our forces.”
But on the morning of the day after the battle, Team Gaon breathed a sigh of relief: The 13th Battalion had left the field with only seven troops suffering from smoke inhalation. They had managed to protect the soldiers from enemy fire.
“I found out that the division leaders heard me talking to the battalion commander and battalion sergeant, and pointing the helicopter in the right direction,” said S.T. “The incident even came up with the General Staff. When they realized that there were no wounded there, I understood that we had done something big. I wanted to know whether other Sky Rider teams had experienced engagements like ours, and it turned out that they hadn’t, that it was all about us.”
S.: “Someone from the unit came to me and was so excited to see me. He said, ‘Wow, you don’t understand what you did. The whole division was watching you yesterday and listening to your reports over the radio.’ It was only then that I realized that we had been involved in a major incident in which we managed to prevent severe harm to our soldiers.”
A.: “The battalion commander, Tomer, was encouraging the forces over the radio all the time. We heard him say that they would come out of it on top and that there were forces looking after them. Being the eyes in the sky, searching for the enemy, and constantly scanning the field so our soldiers wouldn’t get hurt, was a chilling experience.”
Originally published by Israel Hayom.
Image: The Gaon squad. Photo: Courtesy.