South African Military History Society

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The Chairman Bob Smith being away on holiday, the monthly meeting was opened by our Deputy Chairman, Ivor Little, with the usual welcoming and notices. A particular welcome was extended to the new members and to Major McBride, the Defence Advisor at the British High Commission.

Ivor then introduced the curtain raiser speaker whose topic was "Ill Met - U-boat Versus Aircraft". The speaker really needed no introduction as it was the well-known Hamish Paterson, past Chairman and active member of our National Committee.

Hamish eloquently described a single episode which occurred during the Battle of the Atlantic when Wellington "H" of 172 Squadron of the Royal Air Force came upon the German submarine U502 in the Bay of Biscay, when the latter was making her way home after a successful Atlantic patrol. This particular submarine, which Hamish described in detail, had had an outstanding war record and had participated in the decimation of Allied merchant ships, particularly oil tankers, in the Caribbean Sea. She was now returning from such a patrol and as was standard practice at the time was running on the surface under cover of darkness to recharge her batteries.

The British at this time were using air-borne radar that removed this advantage of darkness for enemy submarines. Unfortunately, the primitive sets of the time had trouble picking up a contact at close range from among the wave "clutter" (the reflection of the radar beam from wave crests) and the target was lost when the aircraft approached closer than a mile. This problem was overcome by a Squadron Leader Leigh who, when told of the problem, suggested the use of a searchlight powered by a generator normally used in magnetic minesweeping. At the same time a lighting system for night aircraft interception was also being developed by a Squadron Leader Helmore. This used batteries charged by the aircraft's engines and, although impractical for interception, was ideal for anti-submarine work. This system was allied to Leigh's light which aimed at the submarine using the radar echo and then switched on when the echo was lost. One of the prototypes was fitted to Wellington "H" when she encountered U502 on the surface. The engagement was short, sharp and one-sided and a brilliantly illuminated U502 stood no chance in this surprise attack. She was bombed and disappeared in a welter of foam, leaving a large oil patch to mark the spot of the attack. "H" was credited with the kill and the newly invented Leigh Light became standard equipment in Coastal Command aircraft, playing a substantial role in future anti-submarine warfare.

Ivor thanked Hamish for his concise and yet most interesting talk and then introduced our main speaker of the evening, Mr Alan Mantle. This was Alan's first talk to our members, although he is a well-known attendee at our meetings. Born in England, he grew up and was educated in South Africa, achieving his BSc in Civil Engineering at Wits. He later did post-graduate studies in economics and finance at the University of Turin in Italy. Settling in Italy, he made his career there, retiring as Chairman and CEO of a multinational institute of economic research and management consulting. Returning to South Africa he married our former Chairman, Lyn Mantle, and is now happily retired in Sandton. He has a keen interest in history and as an amateur historian has delivered lectures on Italy and the Renaissance.

The title of his lecture was "The Suez Canal 1956 - the Crisis, the Invasion and the Aftermath", a subject which has intrigued Alan as being the precursor of many major political problems in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Using an excellent Power Point display and some of the clearest maps we have yet seen, Alan described the tensions in the Middle East following the creation of Israel in 1948 and the war which followed and which was disastrous for the Arab states of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. In retribution the Arab states implemented a series of economic sanctions against Israel in the early 1950s, blockading the Gulf of Aqaba, introducing restrictions on Israeli ships and aircraft and encouraging terrorists raids in to Israel.

In 1952 Gamal Abdul Nasser came in to power in Egypt, as a result of a military coup that overthrew King Farouk, and in order to bolster his economy started playing off the West against the Soviet Union in Egyptian affairs. Matters came to a head when the USA and Britain declined to finance his new Aswan Dam scheme on the River Nile. Nasser turned to the Soviet Union and by 1955 was receiving not only economic aid from them but also massive amounts of arms. This acerbated the tensions in the Middle East and in July 1956 things were made worse when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal.

Alan then gave us a brief history of the Suez Canal and underlined its importance to the maritime economies of Britain and France at the time. Their reaction was immediate and the British Prime Minister Anthony Eden and his French counterpart Guy Mollet immediately considered military action to recover the Canal which since 1908 had been owned by a French company acting under British protection. Their plans were bedevilled from the start by the USA who, for a variety of reasons, was not in favour of such an operation and would not support it. To get around this, the British and French hatched a plan with the Israelis that would involve an Israeli attack on Egypt, during the course of which the other two would invade as "peacekeepers to keep the two combatants apart" and in this way reclaim the canal.

Using his maps, Alan then showed us the Israeli path of advance across the Sinai Desert to the Mitla Pass area, the Gaza strip and then Sharm Al Sheikh, at the junction of the red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba. The Egyptian Army was poorly trained and poorly led and were defeated at every turn, being routed and pushed back on to the Suez Canal within a week from the commencement of hostilities on 29 October 1956.

The Anglo-French governments reacted by issuing an ultimatum as planned to both forces to cease fighting. As expected the Egyptians rejected this and, on the morning of October 31st, the former launched Operation Musketeer (the "Three Musketeers" being Britain, France and Israel). Nasser retaliated by scuttling a number of ships in the Canal, thus blocking it. The operation then became mainly an air and sea softening-up process, with Musketeer aircraft launching raids on Egyptian military positions and two sharp naval engagements, one off Haifa and the other in the Gulf of Suez both of which resulted in defeat for the Egyptians. However, on 5 November the Anglo-French carried out an airborne assault on Port Said and Port Fuad, the twin cities at the northern end of the Canal. This was followed up by the first helicopter borne assault landing in history as well as amphibious landings, which resulted in them pushing south along the Canal as far as El Qantara on the way towards it's southern end at Suez.

The result of these landings had immediate international repercussions. Much to the surprise of Eden and Mollet, the USA, under President Eisenhower, joined with the Soviet Union in demanding an immediate cease-fire and withdrawal. The USA carried this diplomatic attack further by taking the matter first to the UN Security Council and then to the UN General Assembly and the demand for an Anglo-French withdrawal was passed by the latter in an emergency session. Australia and Canada also made their displeasure known and, faced with worldwide condemnation, Eden's nerve failed him and he unilaterally declared a cease-fire. Left to go it alone with the Israelis, the French also came to a reluctant halt. Operation Musketeer thus fizzled out on 7 November, having reached a mere 23 miles south of Port Said. By 22 December 1956 the Anglo-French forces were replaced by Danish and Colombian UN peacekeeping forces, leaving the Israelis still holding the Sinai and within ten miles of the canal.

Alan then devoted a fair amount of time to the aftermath of this abortive invasion that had far-reaching repercussions, which are still with us today. The blow to Anglo-French prestige precipitated an over-hasty decolonisation and badly tarnished their reputations among the Arab States. It marked a divergence in foreign policy between the USA and Britain and France, so much so that France, in particular, felt badly let down and showed that this rankled by ultimately withdrawing from NATO and even, in more modern times, refusing to participate in the US led invasion of Iraq. The Soviet Union gained in prestige in the Third World for its support of Egypt and "the Arab cause" and this resulted in the Cold War spreading into the Middle East as the USA, under the Eisenhower doctrine, pledged itself to use military force if necessary to contain Communism in that area. There were other peripheral results affecting British, French, US and, in fact worldwide, events but the main results were the rise of the USA as an empire, displacing Britain and France in world affairs, and a determination by the Arab world to continue to try and regain the territory lost in this badly misjudged little war.

This most interesting and well-presented talk was followed by a brief question time, after which Alan was thanked by Flip Hoorweg, who then presented him with a Society tie as a gesture of appreciation for a job well done. The meeting was then adjourned for tea.

Ivor C Little (Scribe) 012-660-3243

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