The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging



The Suez Canal 1956:
The crisis, the Invasion & the Aftermath

by Alan Mantle

Address to SAMHS Jhb branch on 12 June 2008

To most people the invasion of the Suez Canal appears like a small blip in history ..... but... The whole Suez Crisis of 1936 was a complex affair and it had momentous consequences. It is considered to be one of the most important and controversial events in British history since WW II. Not only did it result in deep political and public divisions in Britain but it caused an international uproar and it has come to be regarded as the end of Britain's once dominant role as one of the world powers.

Notwithstanding the short, and highly successful, military action of this campaign, the aftermath was disastrous and

Now to understand all of this one must start with the tensions prevalent in the Middle East at that time...

Middle East Tensions

In the years previous to the Suez crises the Middle East was already in a state of instability and tensions following the withdrawal of British troops from Palestine with the creation of the Israeli state and tbe rout suffered by Egypt, Jordan & Syria following the disastrous failure of their immediate attack on Israel in 1948.

An armistice agreement had ended the hostilities of 1948-1949 but Egypt and Israel remained technically in a state of war. In order to pressure Israel, the Arab world implemented a series of economic sanctions against it in the early 1950s.

The Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea was blockaded and the Arab world closed its ports to Israeli shipping, as well prohibiting all flights to Israel from passing over Arab air space. The Arab states, and Egypt in particular, created and supported the Fedayeen who conducted cross-border terrosist raids against Israel.

Then, in late 1953 the situation became critical when Egypt was able to purchase Soviet weapons. Under the terms of its deal, it was Czechoslovakia that sold Egypt 200 tanks as well as artillery, 120 MiG fighters, 30 IL-28 bombers, 20 transport planes, 13 minesweepers, 2 destroyers, even 2 submarines, hundreds of vehicles and thousands of modern small arms.

Arms Displays

This volume of arms was unlike anything the Middle East had ever seen, and it was coupled by the rearming of Syria with the sale of 100 tanks, 100 MiG fighters and hundreds of other items, as well as the provision of Soviet and Czechoslovakian trainers and assistance personnel.

War threats

Then in August 1953 Nasser, the then Egyptian president declared "Egypt has decided to dispatch her heroes, the disciples of the pharaohs and the sons of Islam and they will cleanse the Land of Israel. ... There will be no peace on Israel's border because we demand vengeance, and vengeance will be Israel's death"
... no doubt ... not very neighbourly ... or well meaning !!) At this point pressure mounted in Israel to launch a pre-emptive strike that would undermine Nasser and dismantle Egypt's military ability before it had time to absorb the Soviet armaments and attack ... and the tensions reached an apex... .

Egyptian History
Nasser was new on the scene ...

Some 3 years earlier, on the 22 July 1932, as Lieutenant Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser he had led a group of disaffected army officers in a coup and overthrown King Farouk, the last of a decadent monarchy originally placed there by Britain. They then declared Egypt a republic on June 18, 1953.

Up to that time, from 1882 Egypt had been a de facto British colony.

Nasser

It soon became clear that Colonel Nasser had broader goals than simple control in Egypt. He strove to put himself on top of the Arab nationalist movement that was gaining pace throughout the Arab world by promoting and implementing "an Arab socialism."

During his first years in office, he played Western and Soviet powers off against each other to gain concessions for his country. This was the period of the cold war.

Central to his ambitions to modernise Egypt was the building of a second dam on the Nile at Aswan. An earlier dam had been completed by the British in 1902 but it had become inadequate and he had received offers from the West to help in the financing of this new project of a second dam. However, after his overtures to Russia and when they began to rearm Egypt, the Americans and the British withdrew their offer of loans saying that they thought the dam would place too much strain on the resources of the newly independent Egypt.

Foster Dulles, the American Secretary of State thought it best to let the Russians take on the costly financing of the dam, as he knew they would if the West backed out, but he apparently had not considered the other collateral possibilities.

On JULY 26th 1936 Nasser, addressed a huge crowd in the city of Alexandria with a violent diatribe against British imperialism and the decadent monarchy overthrown in the coup of 1952. In that speech he chose to delve back into history, in a long digression on the building of the Suez canal a century earlier. That gave him the chance to mention the name of the Frenchman who had built the canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps.
This he did at least 13 times.
"De Lesseps", it turned out, was the codeword for the Egyptian army to start the seizure, and nationalisation, of the canal.

Dulles had underestimated Nasser and not foreseen such an Egyptian response - their nationalisation of the Suez canal, whose revenues, Nasser argued, Egypt now needed to replace the loans.

This was now really treading on Britain's & France's toes ... and they reacted immediately

... but let's look, for a moment ... at the history of the Canal

Suez Canal History

* From the time of the Pharaohs - BC Seti I or Ramese II had been responsible for the first efforts. Then 600BC Necho II ______ valley to B ____ then 500 BC Denis 100AD Trajan

Technically, the territory of the canal proper was on sovereign Egyptian territory, and the operating company, the (Suez Canal Company) was a company chartered by Ottoman Turkish Empire with a 99 year lease. (At the time of the construction Egypt was still part of the Ottoman Empire)

Opening

The Canal was opened in 1869, having been financed initially by the French and then also by the Egyptian government when it was forced to help resolve some of the financial problems that arose.

Ownership of Canal

In 1873, the British government of Benjamin Disraeli managed to buy this Egyptian share of the operating company, (44%) thus obtaining partial control of the canal's operations, which it shared with mostly the French private investors.
However soon after, in 1882, during their intervention in Egypt, the British took de facto control of the canal proper.

With the later Convention of Constantinople (1888) the canal was declared a neutral zone under British protection.
In ratifying it, the Ottoman Empire agreed to permit international shipping to pass freely through the canal, in time of war and peace and as the successor of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt was bound by the same treaty.

Britain however had seen to it, over the years, that this international convention was often "bent" according to it's own foreign policies. The Canal had always been "Hot Property" ... and Britain used it as such.. Refer 1904 Jap/Russia WW1 Feb 1915 Kressertein/Bersheba/Gallipoli WW2 Rommel threat

The canal had been strategically important to the British as the ocean link with its colonies in India, the Far East, Australia, and New Zealand. However Post W II the canal had already lost its traditional rationale ...
It was no longer critical to the defense either of India or of an independant empire and petroleum accounted for over half of the canal's traffic, and two thirds of Europe's needs.

The Reaction

The reaction to the Egyptian nationalization in Britain was unanimous in condemning "Grabber Nasser", as the Daily Mirror put it and comparisons were immediately made to Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s: "if he got away with this, where would he - and other post-colonial leaders - stop?"

Grabber Nasser It's ours!! Antony Eden

Eden, who had succeeded Churchill as prime minister the year before, argued that the canal was Britain's "great imperial lifeline", especially for oil. Nasser could not be allowed to have his hand "on the British windpipe".

Robert Anthony Eden, came from an old titled landowning family. During the First World War, he had reached the rank of captain, received a Military Cross, and at the age of twenty-one became the youngest brigade-major in the British Army. He first entered Parliament in 1923 and became Foreign Secretary in 1933 but resigned three years later in protest at what be saw as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement. He returned to the cabinet under Churchill's war leadership and became again foreign secretary. He succeeded Churchill in 1933 and was a popular prime minister at first. (He was quite a linguist and was fluent in French, German and Persian and he also spoke Russian and Arabic)

Eden & Mollet

Guy Mollet who was the newly elected French prime minister at the time was a former English teacher and a politician who had been a wartime resistance fighter.

They, the French, reacted just as strongly, but for different reasons

So the French were as eager as the British to see the back of him and Britain and France immediately began to co-ordinate plans for a military invasion of Egypt and the reoccupation of the canal zone

Unfortunately for them, their ideas were countered by the scepticism of the Americans, and of Eisenhower in particular, who from the beginning was against the use of force by his two main allies.

To head off any Anglo-French military action, Eisenhower and his secretary of state ensnared the Europeans in a fruitless round of talks and conferences, but the increasingly histrionic Eden, in particular, wanted not only the reversal of the canal's nationalisation but also regime change ... he wanted Nasser "destroyed."

The Secret Agreement

In secret Britain & France decided that the Israelis could provide them with a pretext for their desired action, with a plan whereby

So, collusion was born. The details were agreed on at a secret meeting in Sèvres, outside Paris and thus the Suez crisis is known in Egypt as the "tripartite aggression". Prior to the operation Britain deliberately neglected to inform the Americans, trusting instead that Nasser's engagement with communist states would persuade the Americans to accept British and French actions if they were presented as a fait accompli.

This proved to be a fatal miscalculation for the colonial powers.

The Israeli Strategy

Moshe Dayan

The Israeli chief-of-staff was Major General Moshe Dayan. During WW2 Dayan had been attached to the Australian 7th Division and this unit was used to prepare for the Allied invasion of Syria and Lebanon. He frequently infiltrated Vichy French Lebanon, wearing traditional Arab dress, on covert surveillance missions and he had been decorated with the DSO for exceptional initiative and bravery. He had lost an eye on one of these missions when a bullet struck the binoculars he was using and unable to be fitted with a glass eye he was forced to adopt the black eyepatch that became his trademark.

The war plan called for Israel to race across the Sinai while the British and French forces took control of the Canal.
The Israelis planned this operation in the Sinai around four main military objectives;

Sinai Peninsula

The initial objectives were al-Arish and Abu Uwayulah

These were important hubs for soldiers, equipment, and centres of control of the Egyptian Army in the Sinai. The potential for Egyptian flanking attacks on the planned Israeli moves in the other areas made capturing these hubs essential as it would also stifle any Egyptian counter operation in the entire Peninsula.

Another objective was the Mitla Pass

The Mitla Pass lies 174 km from the Israeli border and 66 km east of the city of Suez and controls one of the major east-west roads in the Sinai The Israelis aimed to block the Mitla Pass to prevent Egyptian reinforcements heading east, and to cut off any Egyptians retreating from the Egyptian front line The plan was for a paratroop battalion to seal the pass and fend off any counter-attacks until the remainder of the Brigade that operated as a mechanised force arrived in support. This was a risky and courageous strategy.

There was the Gaza Strip

The Gaza Strip was chosen as another military objective because Israel wished to remove the training grounds for Fedayeen groups, and because Israel recognised that Egypt could use the territory as a staging ground for attacks against the advancing Israeli troops.

Lastly there was Sharm el-Sheikh

The Egyptian blockade of the Tiran Straits was based at Sharm el-Sheikh, and by capturing the town, Israel would have access to the Red Sea for the first time since 1953, which would allow it to restore the trade benefits of secure passage to the Indian Ocean.

The plan was that the successful capture of these objectives would force the Egyptian Army to fall back into Egypt proper and the British and French forces could then push up against it and complete the action in a decisive encounter.

The Egyptian Army

The Egyptian army was large and well equipped but it was an inferior fighting unit. Their troops were poorly trained and led, and had little incentive to fight. Motivation was low as the Egyptians used conscription and possibly worse still, at that time, the predominantly upper class Egyptian Officers considered it beneath them to train their men.

Finally communication between the field and HQ was poor. (It is said that Field commanders invented successes and/or exaggerated enemy numbers, and then ignored orders they received since they knew those orders would be based on the same fabricated reports identical to their own exaggerations!)

Until 1952 the Egyptian army was largely trained and equipped by the British. However, after the disasters experienced in their 1948 invasion of Israel the Egyptians looked elsewhere for military ideas; a small number of German instructors were used and later they also turned to military Soviet doctrine.

The attack in the Sinai

The plan for the conquest of the Sinai was coded "Kadesh" It received its name from the ancient city of that name, located in the northern Sinai Area and mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy.

On the 29 October 1956, the attack began with two daring missions. In the first, four World War II vintage Mustangs disrupted Egyptian communications in the Sinai by severing telephone wires with specially mounted cutting cables. After the cables broke off, the pilots continued to cut the wires with their wings and propellers!

29th October

The mission created confusion and helped mask an even riskier operation: ... the dropping of a full battalion of paratroopers into the heart of Sinai, The 1st Battalion, 202nd Paratroop Brigade, dropped onto the Parker Memorial to the east of the Mitla Pass. The plan was that they would dig in, receive artillery and weapons from another airlift, and await the rest of the mobile brigade. (Lt Gen Palwe)

These slow moving Dakota transports would have made easy targets for Egyptian Mig-15s, based only a few minutes away from the drop-zone and Mysteres of the IAF prevented these Egyptian fighters from taking off from the nearby Sinai airfield.

30/31 October

The next day an Armoured Brigade advanced toward Abu Ageila and after its capture and after successfully holding off an armoured counter-attack, they succeeding in advancing to Bir Hassna. Along a parallel line to the south the 4th Infantry brigade took Kusseima, and later moved toward Nakhel.

The third line of attack was further South close to Eilat, where two companies of 9th Infantry Brigade captured Ras en-Nakeb that evening.

Abba Eban at UN

1st/2nd November

In early morning of the 1st the Armoured Brigade were able to break through the Rafah defensive positions and El Arish was captured in the morning of the next day. Following this they managed to rapidly advance to within 16 km of the Suez Canal.

Gaza and the northern part of the Strip was captured a day after and these forces then advanced toward Khan Yunis.

The IAF struck Egyptian convoys and took part in the land battles by giving close support along the front. Modern fighters and ancient war horses, such as the B-17 and Harvards, took part in the bombing. IAF fighters also acquitted themselves well in dogfights, downing seven enemy planes with no losses.

The operation at the Mitla pass hadn't gone quite as planned. That portion of the 202nd under Colonel Ariel Sharon's command that had moved on Kuntilla in the first evening had continued to advance over some 70 miles in the day to link up with advanced group the next day.

Dayan had no plans for further advances beyond the passes, but Sharon decided to attack the Egyptian positions at Jebel Heitan. Lightly armed paratroopers were sent in against dug-in Egyptians supported by heavy artillery and tanks. Although the Israelis succeeded in forcing the Egyptians to retreat, the heavy casualties sustained would surround Sharon with a lot of controversy. Most of the deaths sustained by the Israelis in the entire operation, occurred at Jebel Heitan.

3rd / 5th November

In one of the last operations two companies parachuted at Tor, along the gulf of the Red Sea, followed by an airborne landing of a battalion of the 12th Infantry Brigade. They were then joined by a battalion of the 202nd Paratroop that had previously taken Ras Sudar and advanced south toward Sharm el-Sheikh.

Here they met up with 9th Infantry Brigade that had proceded along the Gulf of Aqaba. Instead of a frontal attack on Sharm, they enveloped the town, and surprised the Egyptians before they could ready themselves to defend. Incredibly the Egyptians surrendered and it was taken without any Israeli casualties.

In a few days, the Israeli forces had practically swept across the Sinai to within a few miles of the Suez Canal, destroying Egyptian armour and taking thousands of prisoners.

Within just a week the entire Egyptian army in the Sinai was routed.

Swim in Canal

The Allied Operations for the Canal invasion were code named "Musketeer" and "Telescope" (3?)

British Naval Forces

In preparation for the invasion, Britain and France deployed many aircraft carriers and increased their air forces in Cyprus and Malta. The UK aircraft carriers were HMS Eagle, Albion and Bulwark and France had deployed the Arromanches and Lafayette.
In addition, HMS Ocean and Theseus acted as jumping-off points for Britain's helicopter-borne assault.

On October 30, as planned, Britain and France had issued an ultimatum demanding that both Israeli and Egyptian forces withdraw from the Suez Canal so that a combined British and French military contingent could establish control along the length of the canal.

When the ultimatum was not accepted by the Egyptians they initiated Operation Musketeer in the morning of October 31, with a bombing campaign. Twenty Corsairs took off from the Arromanches and Lafayette carriers, and attacked the Cairo aerodrome, destroying much of the Egyptian air force on the ground.
A French F-84 squadron at the same time also neutralized Egypt's long-range threat by destroying the IL-28 bombers based at Luxor.

Nasser blocks the Canal

In retaliation, Nasser immediately ordered the scuttling of the 40 ships of all nations that were in the Suez Canal, totally blocking the waterway.

There were two naval engagements of note at this time.

On 31 October 1956, the Egyptian frigate Domiat was cruising South of the Suez Canal in the Red Sea, when HMS Newfoundland a Crown Colony-class light cruiser of the Royal Navy encountered her and ordered her to heave to.

Aware that Britain and Egypt had just gone to war in the Suez Crisis, the Domiat refused and opened fire on the cruiser, causing some damage and casualties.

The cruiser, with the destroyer HMS Diana, then returned fire and sank her opponent, rescuing 69 survivors from the wreckage.

The other event concerns a daring attack by an Egyptian destroyer Ibrahim al Awal early on the third morning of the Sinai Campaign. The destroyer sailed into Haifa Bay from Port Said in the dark and began shelling with its four-inch guns at the port and the nearby oil refinery. A French warship anchored in the harbor (I can't find any French reference to it!) quickly returned fire, but the Ibrahim al Awal was able to slip away under the cover of darkness.

She sailed northwest towards a group of neutral American ships followed by two Israeli naval ships, until discovered by a Dakota and the sea battle began in earnest. After taking a few hits, the Ibrahim al Awal began running towards Beirut.

The Israeli Air Force then entered the fight and the destroyer was rocketed and strafed. They knocked out her electrical system, her steering capability and put the munitions elevators out of operation. Israeli sailors then boarded the destroyer she was towed back to Haifa where she was repaired and later entered the Israel Navy as the I.N.S. Haifa.

British - French Attack 5th /7th November

In the early darkness of November 5, the 3rd Battalion of the British 16th Independent Parachute Brigade Group, the "Red Devils" with more than 600 men boarded obsolete Handley Pages and Vickers Valetta transports on Cyprus. The drop zone was Gamil airfield, located on a narrow strip of water-flanked land three miles west of Port Said.

Acting in concert with British forces, 500 paratroopers of the French 2nd Colonial Parachute Regiment (2ème RPC), together with some combat engineers of the Guards Independent Parachute Company were dropped on the south side of two bridges spanning the Raswa Channel below Port Said and in a second zone south of Said's twin city of Port Fuad.

They secured the main Raswa road-and-railroad bridge, Port Said's only land link to the south so that Said was cut off completely from Egyptian reinforcements.

The French, with their objectives attained, sent a patrol motoring six miles southward preparatory to the next days expected drive toward Qantara and Suez.

Musketeers amphibious phase began the next day on November 6 with an air sweep of the landing beaches and the covering fire for the landings by the offshore battlegroup that caused considerable damage to the Egyptian gun emplacements and to the town of Port Said. Then, at first light the Commandos of the Royal Marines stormed the beaches, using landing craft of World War II vintage. The French meanwhile, landed unopposed on the other side of the canal's eastern breakwater.

An hour after these initial landings the first helicopter-borne assault landing in history, took off from the British carriers Theseus and Ocean. In just over an hour, 22 Westland Mark 2s choppers, each carrying five green-bereted men of the No 45 Commando of the Royal Marines put ashore 415 marines and 23 tons of stores.

Eisenhower & Dulles

The U.S. sponsored resolutions in the UN Security Council for a cease-fire to stop the invasion, but Britain and France, as permanent members of the Security Council, vetoed the resolutions. The U.S. then appealed to the United Nations General Assembly calling for a cease-fire and the withdrawal of forces and this was passed in an emergency session.