The Suez Crisis, or the Second Arab-Israeli war, also called the Tripartite Aggression (Arabic: العدوان الثلاثي, romanised: Al-ʿUdwān aṯ-Ṯulāṯiyy) in the Arab world and the Sinai War in Israel, was an invasion of Egypt in late 1956 by Israel, followed by the United Kingdom and France. The aims were to regain control of the Suez Canal for the Western powers and to remove Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had just nationalised the canal. After the fighting had started, political pressure from the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Nations led to a withdrawal by the three invaders. The episode humiliated the United Kingdom and France and strengthened Nasser.
On 26 July 1956, Nasser nationalised the canal, which prior to that was owned primarily by Britain and France. On 29 October, Israel invaded the Egyptian Sinai. Britain and France issued a joint ultimatum to cease fire, which was ignored. On 05 November, Britain and France landed paratroopers along the Suez Canal. Before the Egyptian forces were defeated, they had blocked the canal to all shipping by sinking 40 ships in the canal. It later became clear that Israel, France and Britain had conspired to plan out the invasion. The three allies had attained a number of their military objectives, but the canal was useless. Heavy political pressure from the United States and the USSR led to a withdrawal. US president Dwight D. Eisenhower had strongly warned Britain not to invade; he threatened serious damage to the British financial system by selling the US government’s pound sterling bonds. Historians conclude the crisis “signified the end of Great Britain’s role as one of the world’s major powers”.
The Suez Canal was closed from October 1956 until March 1957. Israel fulfilled some of its objectives, such as attaining freedom of navigation through the Straits of Tiran, which Egypt had blocked to Israeli shipping since 1950.
As a result of the conflict, the United Nations created the UNEF Peacekeepers to police the Egyptian-Israeli border, British prime minister Anthony Eden resigned, Canadian external affairs minister Lester Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize, and the USSR may have been emboldened to invade Hungary.
Brief History of the Suez Canal
The Suez Canal was opened in 1869, after ten years of work financed by the French and Egyptian governments. The canal was operated by the Universal Company of the Suez Maritime Canal, an Egyptian-chartered company; the area surrounding the canal remained sovereign Egyptian territory and the only land-bridge between Africa and Asia.
The canal instantly became strategically important, as it provided the shortest ocean link between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. The canal eased commerce for trading nations and particularly helped European colonial powers to gain and govern their colonies.
In 1875, as a result of debt and financial crisis, Egypt was forced to sell its shares in the canal operating company to the British government of Benjamin Disraeli. They were willing buyers and obtained a 44% share in the Suez Canal Company for £4 million (£472 million in 2020). This maintained the majority shareholdings of the mostly-French private investors. With the 1882 invasion and occupation of Egypt, the UK took de facto control of the country as well as the canal proper, its finances and operations. The 1888 Convention of Constantinople declared the canal 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. The Convention came into force in 1904, the same year as the Entente cordiale between Britain and France.
Despite this convention, the strategic importance of the Suez Canal and its control were proven during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, after Japan and Britain entered into a separate bilateral agreement. Following the Japanese surprise attack on the Russian Pacific Fleet based at Port Arthur, the Russians sent reinforcements from their fleet in the Baltic Sea. The British denied the Russian fleet use of the canal and forced it to steam around Africa, giving the Japanese forces time to consolidate their position in East Asia.
The importance of the canal as a strategic intersection was again apparent during the First World War, when Britain and France closed the canal to non-Allied shipping. The attempt by German-led Ottoman forces to storm the canal in February 1915 led the British to commit 100,000 troops to the defence of Egypt for the rest of the war.
The canal continued to be strategically important after the Second World War as a conduit for the shipment of oil. Petroleum business historian Daniel Yergin wrote of the period: “In 1948, the canal abruptly lost its traditional rationale. … [British] control over the canal could no longer be preserved on grounds that it was critical to the defence either of India or of an empire that was being liquidated. And yet, at exactly the same moment, the canal was gaining a new role – as the highway not of empire, but of oil. … By 1955, petroleum accounted for half of the canal’s traffic, and, in turn, two thirds of Europe’s oil passed through it”.
At the time, Western Europe imported two million barrels per day from the Middle East, 1,200,000 by tanker through the canal, and another 800,000 via pipeline from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, where tankers received it. The US imported another 300,000 barrels daily from the Middle East. Though pipelines linked the oil fields of Iraq and the Persian Gulf states to the Mediterranean, these routes were prone to suffer from instability, which led British leaders to prefer to use the sea route through the Suez Canal. As it was, the rise of super-tankers for shipping Middle East oil to Europe, which were too big to use the Suez Canal meant that British policy-makers greatly overestimated the importance of the canal. By 2000, only 8 percent of the imported oil in Britain arrived via the Suez canal with the rest coming via the Cape route.
In August 1956 the Royal Institute of International Affairs published a report titled “Britain and the Suez Canal” revealing government perception of the Suez area. It reiterates several times the strategic necessity of the Suez Canal to the United Kingdom, including the need to meet military obligations under the Manila Pact in the Far East and the Baghdad Pact in Iraq, Iran, or Pakistan. The report also points out that the canal had been used in wartime to transport materiel and personnel from and to the UK’s close allies in Australia and New Zealand, and might be vital for such purposes in future. The report also cites the amount of material and oil that passes through the canal to the United Kingdom, and the economic consequences of the canal being put out of commission, concluding:
The possibility of the Canal being closed to troopships makes the question of the control and regime of the Canal as important to Britain today as it ever was.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Britain was reassessing its role in the region in light of the severe economic constraints and its colonial history. The economic potential of the Middle East, with its vast oil reserves, as well as the Suez Canal’s geo-strategic importance against the background of the Cold War, prompted Britain to consolidate and strengthen its position there. The kingdoms of Egypt and Iraq were seen as vital to maintaining strong British influence in the region.
Britain’s military strength was spread throughout the region, including the vast military complex at Suez with a garrison of some 80,000, making it one of the largest military installations in the world. The Suez base was considered an important part of Britain’s strategic position in the Middle East; however, increasingly it became a source of growing tension in Anglo-Egyptian relations. Egypt’s post-war domestic politics were experiencing a radical change, prompted in no small part by economic instability, inflation, and unemployment. Unrest began to manifest itself in the growth of radical political groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and an increasingly hostile attitude towards Britain and its presence in the country. Added to this anti-British fervour was the role Britain had played in the creation of Israel. As a result, the actions of the Egyptian government began to mirror those of its populace and an anti-British policy began to permeate Egypt’s relations with Britain.
In October 1951, the Egyptian government unilaterally abrogated the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, the terms of which granted Britain a lease on the Suez base for 20 more years. Britain refused to withdraw from Suez, relying upon its treaty rights, as well as the presence of the Suez garrison. The price of such a course of action was a steady escalation in increasingly violent hostility towards Britain and British troops in Egypt, which the Egyptian authorities did little to curb.
On 25 January 1952, British forces attempted to disarm a troublesome auxiliary police force barracks in Ismailia, resulting in the deaths of 41 Egyptians. This in turn led to anti-Western riots in Cairo resulting in heavy damage to property and the deaths of several foreigners, including 11 British citizens. This proved to be a catalyst for the removal of the Egyptian monarchy. On 23 July 1952 a military coup by the Egyptian nationalist ‘Free Officers Movement’ – led by Muhammad Neguib and future Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser – overthrew King Farouk and established an Egyptian republic.
Post Egyptian Revolution Period
In the 1950s the Middle East was dominated by four interlinked conflicts:
- The Cold War, the geopolitical battle for influence between the United States and the Soviet Union;
- The Arab Cold War, the race between different Arab states for the leadership of the Arab world;
- The anti-colonial struggle of Arab nationalists against the two remaining imperial powers, Britain and France, in particular the Algerian War; and
- The Arab-Israeli conflict, the political and military conflict between the Arab countries and Israel.
Egypt and Britain
Britain’s desire to mend Anglo-Egyptian relations in the wake of the coup saw the country strive for rapprochement throughout 1953 and 1954. Part of this process was the agreement, in 1953, to terminate British rule in Sudan by 1956 in return for Cairo’s abandoning of its claim to suzerainty over the Nile Valley region. In October 1954, Britain and Egypt concluded the Anglo-Egyptian Agreement of 1954 on the phased evacuation of British troops from the Suez base, the terms of which agreed to withdrawal of all troops within 20 months, maintenance of the base to be continued, and for Britain to hold the right to return for seven years. The Suez Canal Company was not due to revert to the Egyptian government until 16 November 1968 under the terms of the treaty.
Britain’s close relationship with the two Hashemite kingdoms of Iraq and Jordan were of particular concern to Nasser. In particular, Iraq’s increasingly amicable relations with Britain were a threat to Nasser’s desire to see Egypt as head of the Arab world. The creation of the Baghdad Pact in 1955 seemed to confirm Nasser’s fears that Britain was attempting to draw the Eastern Arab World into a bloc centred upon Iraq, and sympathetic to Britain. Nasser’s response was a series of challenges to British influence in the region that would culminate in the Suez Crisis.
Egypt and the Arab Leadership
In regard to the Arab leadership, particularly venomous was the feud between Nasser and the Prime Minister of Iraq, Nuri el-Said, for Arab leadership, with the Cairo-based Voice of the Arabs radio station regularly calling for the overthrow of the government in Baghdad. The most important factors that drove Egyptian foreign policy in this period was on the one hand, a determination to see the entire Middle East as Egypt’s rightful sphere of influence, and on the other, a tendency on the part of Nasser to fortify his pan-Arabist and nationalist credibility by seeking to oppose any and all Western security initiatives in the Near East.
Despite the establishment of such an agreement with the British, Nasser’s position remained tenuous. The loss of Egypt’s claim to Sudan, coupled with the continued presence of Britain at Suez for a further two years, led to domestic unrest including an assassination attempt against him in October 1954. The tenuous nature of Nasser’s rule caused him to believe that neither his regime, nor Egypt’s independence would be safe until Egypt had established itself as head of the Arab world. This would manifest itself in the challenging of British Middle Eastern interests throughout 1955.
US and a Defence Treaty against the Soviet Threat
The United States, while attempting to erect an alliance in the form of a Middle East Defence Organisation to keep the Soviet Union out of the Near East, tried to woo Nasser into this alliance. The central problem for American policy in the Middle East was that this region was perceived as strategically important due to its oil, but the United States, weighed down by defence commitments in Europe and the Far East, lacked sufficient troops to resist a Soviet invasion of the Middle East. In 1952, General Omar Bradley of Joint Chiefs of Staff declared at a planning session about what to do in the event of a Soviet invasion of the Near East: “Where will the staff come from? It will take a lot of stuff to do a job there”.
As a consequence, American diplomats favoured the creation of a NATO-type organisation in the Near East to provide the necessary military power to deter the Soviets from invading the region. The Eisenhower administration, even more than the Truman administration saw the Near East as a huge gap into which Soviet influence could be projected, and accordingly required an American-supported security system. American diplomat Raymond Hare later recalled:
It’s hard to put ourselves back in this period. There was really a definite fear of hostilities, of an active Russian occupation of the Middle East physically, and you practically hear the Russian boots clumping down over the hot desert sands.
The projected Middle East Defence Organisation (MEDO) was to be centered on Egypt. A National Security Council directive of March 1953 called Egypt the “key” to the Near East and advised that Washington “should develop Egypt as a point of strength”.
A major dilemma for American policy was that the two strongest powers in the Near East, Britain and France, were also the nations whose influence many local nationalists most resented. From 1953 onwards, American diplomacy had attempted unsuccessfully to persuade the powers involved in the Near East, both local and imperial, to set aside their differences and unite against the Soviet Union. The Americans took the view that, just as fear of the Soviet Union had helped to end the historic Franco-German enmity, so too could anti-Communism end the more recent Arab-Israeli dispute. It was a source of constant puzzlement to American officials in the 1950s that the Arab states and the Israelis had seemed to have more interest in fighting each other rather than uniting against the Soviet Union. After his visit to the Middle East in May 1953 to drum up support for MEDO, the Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles found much to his astonishment that the Arab states were “more fearful of Zionism than of the Communists”.
The policy of the United States was coloured by considerable uncertainty as to whom to befriend in the Near East. American policy was torn between a desire to maintain good relations with NATO allies such as Britain and France who were also major colonial powers, and a desire to align Third World nationalists with the Free World camp. Though it would be entirely false to describe the coup deposing King Farouk in July 1952 as a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) coup, Nasser and his Society of Free Officers were nonetheless in close contact with CIA operatives led by Miles Copeland beforehand (Nasser maintained links with any and all potential allies from the Egyptian Communist Party on the left to the Muslim Brotherhood on the right).
Nasser’s friendship with certain CIA officers in Cairo led Washington to vastly overestimate its influence in Egypt. That Nasser was close to CIA officers led the Americans for a time to view Nasser as a CIA “asset”. In turn, the British who were aware of Nasser’s CIA ties deeply resented this relationship, which they viewed as an American attempt to push them out of Egypt. The principal reason for Nasser’s courting of the CIA before the July Revolution of 1952 was his hope that the Americans would act as a restraining influence on the British should Britain decide on intervention to put an end to the revolution (until Egypt renounced it in 1951, the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty allowed Britain the right of intervention against all foreign and domestic threats). In turn, many American officials, such as Ambassador Jefferson Caffery, saw the continued British military presence in Egypt as anachronistic, and viewed the Revolutionary Command Council (as Nasser called his government after the coup) in a highly favourable light.
Caffery was consistently very positive about Nasser in his reports to Washington right up until his departure from Cairo in 1955. The regime of King Farouk was viewed in Washington as weak, corrupt, unstable, and anti-American, so Free Officers’ July coup was welcomed by the United States. As it was, Nasser’s contacts with the CIA were not necessary to prevent British intervention against the July coup as Anglo-Egyptian relations had deteriorated so badly in 1951-1952 that the British viewed any Egyptian government not headed by King Farouk as a huge improvement. In May 1953, during a meeting with Secretary Dulles, who asked Egypt to join an anti-Soviet alliance, Nasser responded by saying that the Soviet Union has:
never occupied our territory … but the British have been here for seventy years. How can I go to my people and tell them I am disregarding a killer with a pistol sixty miles from me at the Suez Canal to worry about somebody who is holding a knife a thousand miles away?
Dulles informed Nasser of his belief that the Soviet Union was seeking world conquest, that the principal danger to the Near East came from the Kremlin, and urged Nasser to set aside his differences with Britain to focus on countering the Soviet Union. In this spirit, Dulles suggested that Nasser negotiate a deal that would see Egypt assume sovereignty over the canal zone base, but then allow the British to have “technical control” in the same way that Ford auto company provided parts and training to its Egyptian dealers.
Nasser did not share Dulles’s fear of the Soviet Union taking over the Middle East, and insisted quite vehemently that he wanted to see the total end of all British influence not only in Egypt, but all the Middle East. The CIA offered Nasser a $3 million bribe if he would join the proposed MEDO; Nasser took the money, but then refused to join. At most, Nasser made it clear to the Americans that he wanted an Egyptian-dominated Arab League to be the principal defence organisation in the Near East, which might be informally associated with the United States.
After he returned to Washington, Dulles advised Eisenhower that the Arab states believed “the United States will back the new state of Israel in aggressive expansion. Our basic political problem … is to improve the Moslem states’ attitudes towards Western democracies because our prestige in that area had been in constant decline ever since the war”. The immediate consequence was a new policy of “even-handedness” where the United States very publicly sided with the Arab states in several disputes with Israel in 1953-1954. Moreover, Dulles did not share any sentimental regard for the Anglo-American “special relationship”, which led the Americans to lean towards the Egyptian side in the Anglo-Egyptian disputes. During the extremely difficult negotiations over the British evacuation of the Suez Canal base in 1954-1955, the Americans generally supported Egypt, though at the same time trying hard to limit the extent of the damage that this might cause to Anglo-American relations.
In the same report of May 1953 to Eisenhower calling for “even-handedness”, Dulles stated that the Egyptians were not interested in joining the proposed MEDO; that the Arabs were more interested in their disputes with the British, the French, the Israelis and each other than in standing against the Soviets; and that the “Northern Tier” states of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan were more useful as allies at present than Egypt. Accordingly, the best American policy towards Egypt was to work towards Arab-Israeli peace and the settlement of the Anglo-Egyptian dispute over the British Suez Canal base as the best way of securing Egypt’s ultimate adhesion to an American sponsored alliance centred on the “Northern Tier” states.
The “Northern Tier” alliance was achieved in early 1955 with the creation of the Baghdad Pact comprising Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Iraq and the United Kingdom. The presence of the last two states was due to the British desire to continue to maintain influence in the Middle East, and Nuri Said’s wish to associate his country with the West as the best way of counterbalancing the increasing aggressive Egyptian claims to regional predominance. The conclusion of the Baghdad Pact occurred almost simultaneously with a dramatic Israeli raid on the Gaza Strip on 28 February 1955 in retaliation for fedayeen raids into Israel, during which the Israeli Unit 101 commanded by Ariel Sharon did some damage to Egyptian Army forces.
The close occurrence of the two events was mistakenly interpreted by Nasser as part of coordinated Western effort to push him into joining the Baghdad Pact. The signing of the Baghdad Pact and the Gaza raid marked the beginning of the end of Nasser’s once good relations with the Americans. In particular, Nasser saw Iraq’s participation in the Baghdad Pact as a Western attempt to promote his archenemy Nuri al-Said as an alternative leader of the Arab world.
Nasser and the Soviet Bloc
Instead of siding with either superpower, Nasser took the role of the spoiler and tried to play off the superpowers in order to have them compete with each other in attempts to buy his friendship.
Under the new leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union was making a major effort to win influence in the so-called “third world”. As part of the diplomatic offensive, Khrushchev had abandoned Moscow’s traditional line of treating all non-communists as enemies and adopted a new tactic of befriending so-called “non-aligned” nations, which often were led by leaders who were non-Communists, but in varying ways and degrees were hostile towards the West. Khrushchev had realised that by treating non-communists as being the same thing as being anti-communist, Moscow had needlessly alienated many potential friends over the years in the third world. Under the banner of anti-imperialism, Khrushchev made it clear that the Soviet Union would provide arms to any left-wing government in the third world as a way of undercutting Western influence.
Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai met Nasser at the 1955 Bandung Conference and was impressed by him. Zhou recommended that Khrushchev treat Nasser as a potential ally. Zhou described Nasser to Khrushchev as a young nationalist who, though no Communist, could if used correctly do much damage to Western interests in the Middle East. Marshal Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, who also came to know Nasser at Bandung told Khrushchev in a 1955 meeting that “Nasser was a young man without much political experience, but if we give him the benefit of the doubt, we might be able to exert a beneficial influence on him, both for the sake of the Communist movement, and … the Egyptian people”. Traditionally, most of the equipment in the Egyptian military had come from Britain, but Nasser’s desire to break British influence in Egypt meant that he was desperate to find a new source of weapons to replace Britain. Nasser had first broached the subject of buying weapons from the Soviet Union in 1954.
Nasser and Arms Purchases
Most of all, Nasser wanted the United States to supply arms on a generous scale to Egypt. Nasser refused to promise that any US arms he might buy would not be used against Israel, and rejected out of hand the American demand for a Military Advisory Group to be sent to Egypt as part of the price of arms sales.
Nasser’s first choice for buying weapons was the United States, but his frequent anti-Israeli speeches and his sponsorship for the fedayeen who were making raids into Israel had made it difficult for the Eisenhower administration to get the approval of Congress to sell weapons to Egypt. American public opinion was deeply hostile towards selling arms to Egypt that might be used against Israel, and moreover Eisenhower feared starting a Middle Eastern arms race. Eisenhower very much valued the Tripartite Declaration as a way of keeping peace in the Near East. In 1950, in order to limit the extent that the Arabs and the Israelis could engage in an arms race, the three nations which dominated the arms trade in the non-Communist world, namely the United States, the United Kingdom and France had signed the Tripartite Declaration, where they had committed themselves to limiting how much arms they could sell in the Near East, and also to ensuring that any arms sales to one side was matched by arms sales of equal quantity and quality to the other. Eisenhower viewed the Tripartite Declaration, which sharply restricted how many arms Egypt could buy in the West, as one of the key elements in keeping the peace between Israel and the Arabs, and believed that setting off an arms race would inevitably lead to a new war.
The Egyptians made continuous attempts to purchase heavy arms from Czechoslovakia years before the 1955 deal.
Nasser had let it be known, in 1954-1955, that he was considering buying weapons from the Soviet Union as a way of pressuring the Americans into selling him the arms he desired. Nasser’s hope was that faced with the prospect of Egypt buying Soviet weapons, and thus coming under Soviet influence the Eisenhower administration would be forced to sell Egypt the weapons he wanted. Khrushchev who very much wanted to win the Soviet Union influence in the Middle East, was more than ready to arm Egypt if the Americans proved unwilling. During secret talks with the Soviets in 1955, Nasser’s demands for weapons were more than amply satisfied as the Soviet Union had not signed the Tripartite Declaration. The news in September 1955 of the Egyptian purchase of a huge quantity of Soviet arms via Czechoslovakia was greeted with shock and rage in the West, where this was seen as a major increase in Soviet influence in the Near East. In Britain, the increase of Soviet influence in the Near East was seen as an ominous development that threatened to put an end to British influence in the oil-rich region.
France and the Egyptian Support for the Algeria Rebellion
Refer to Algerian War (1954 to 1962).
Over the same period, the French Premier Guy Mollet, was facing an increasingly serious rebellion in Algeria, where the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) rebels were being verbally supported by Egypt via emissions of the Voice of the Arabs radio, financially supported with Suez Canal revenue and clandestinely owned Egyptian ships were shipping arms to the FLN. Mollet came to perceive Nasser as a major threat. During a visit to London in March 1956, Mollet told Eden his country was faced with an Islamic threat to the very soul of France supported by the Soviet Union. Mollet stated: “All this is in the works of Nasser, just as Hitler’s policy was written down in Mein Kampf. Nasser has the ambition to recreate the conquests of Islam. But his present position is largely due to the policy of the West in building up and flattering him”.
In a May 1956 gathering of French veterans, Louis Mangin spoke in place of the unavailable Minister of Defence and gave a violently anti-Nasser speech, which compared the Egyptian leader to Hitler. He accused Nasser of plotting to rule the entire Middle East and of seeking to annexe Algeria, whose “people live in community with France”. Mangin urged France to stand up to Nasser, and being a strong friend of Israel, urged an alliance with that nation against Egypt.
Egypt and Israel
Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, cargo shipments to and from Israel had been subject to Egyptian authorisation, search and seizure while attempting to pass through the Suez Canal. On 01 September 1951, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 95 called upon Egypt: “to terminate the restrictions on the passage of international commercial ships and goods through the Suez Canal, wherever bound, and to cease all interference with such shipping.” This interference and confiscation, contrary to the laws of the canal (Article 1 of the 1888 Suez Canal Convention), increased following the coup.
In late 1954, Nasser began a policy of sponsoring raids into Israel by the fedayeen, who almost always attacked civilians. The raids triggered a series of Israeli reprisal operations. The raids were targeted as much politically as against Israel militarily. It was Nasser’s intention to win himself the laurels of the foremost anti-Zionist state as a way of establishing his leadership over the Arab world. Before 1954, the principal target of Nasser’s speeches had been Britain. Only after the Anglo-Egyptian agreement on evacuating the canal zone did Israel emerge as one of Nasser’s main enemies.
Franco-Israeli Alliance Emerges
Starting in 1949 owing to shared nuclear research, France and Israel started to move towards an alliance. Following the outbreak of the Algerian War in late 1954, France began to ship more and more arms to Israel. In November 1954, the Director-General of Israel’s Ministry of Defence Shimon Peres visited Paris, where he was received by the French Defence Minister Marie-Pierre Kœnig, who told him that France would sell Israel any weapons it wanted to buy. By early 1955, France was shipping large amounts of weapons to Israel. In April 1956, following another visit to Paris by Peres, France agreed to totally disregard the Tripartite Declaration, and supply even more weapons to Israel. During the same visit, Peres informed the French that Israel had decided upon war with Egypt in 1956. Peres claimed that Nasser was a genocidal maniac intent upon not only destroying Israel, but also exterminating its people, and as such, Israel wanted a war before Egypt received even more Soviet weapons, and there was still a possibility of victory for the Jewish state. Peres asked for the French, who had emerged as Israel’s closest ally by this point, to give Israel all the help they could give in the coming war.
Frustration of British Aims
Throughout 1955 and 1956, Nasser pursued a number of policies that would frustrate British aims throughout the Middle East, and result in increasing hostility between Britain and Egypt. Nasser saw Iraq’s inclusion in the Baghdad Pact as indicating that the United States and Britain had sided with his much hated archenemy Nuri as-Said’s efforts to be the leader of the Arab world, and much of the motivation for Nasser’s turn to an active anti-Western policy starting in 1955 was due to his displeasure with the Baghdad Pact. For Nasser, attendance at such events as the Bandung conference in April 1955 served as both the means of striking a posture as a global leader, and of playing hard to get in his talks with the Americans, especially his demand that the United States sell him vast quantities of arms.
Nasser “played on the widespread suspicion that any Western defence pact was merely veiled colonialism and that Arab disunity and weakness—especially in the struggle with Israel—was a consequence of British machinations.” He also began to align Egypt with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia – whose rulers were hereditary enemies of the Hashemites – in an effort to frustrate British efforts to draw Syria, Jordan and Lebanon into the orbit of the Baghdad Pact. Nasser struck a further blow against Britain by negotiating an arms deal with communist Czechoslovakia in September 1955 thereby ending Egypt’s reliance on Western arms. Later, other members of the Warsaw Pact also sold arms to Egypt and Syria. In practice, all sales from the Eastern Bloc were authorised by the Soviet Union, as an attempt to increase Soviet influence over the Middle East. This caused tensions in the United States because Warsaw Pact nations now had a strong presence in the region.
Nasser and 1956 Events
Nasser and Jordan
Nasser frustrated British attempts to draw Jordan into the pact by sponsoring demonstrations in Amman, leading King Hussein in the Arabization of the Jordanian Army command to dismiss the British commander of the Arab Legion, Sir John Bagot Glubb (known to the Arabs as Glubb Pasha) in March 1956, throwing Britain’s Middle Eastern security policy into chaos. After one round of bloody rioting in December 1955 and another in March 1956 against Jordan joining the Baghdad Pact, both instigated by Cairo-based Voice of the Arabs radio station, Hussein believed his throne was in danger. In private, Hussein assured the British that he was still committed to continuing the traditional Hashemite alliance with Britain, and that his sacking of Glubb Pasha and all the other British officers in the Arab Legion were just gestures to appease the rioters.
Nasser and Britain
British Prime Minister Anthony Eden was especially upset at the sacking of Glubb Pasha, and as one British politician recalled:
For Eden … this was the last straw…. This reverse, he insisted was Nasser’s doing…. Nasser was our Enemy No. 1 in the Middle East and he would not rest until he destroyed all our friends and eliminated the last vestiges of our influence…. Nasser must therefore be … destroyed.
After the sacking of Glubb Pasha, which he saw as a grievous blow to British influence, Eden became consumed with an obsessional hatred for Nasser, and from March 1956 onwards, was in private committed to the overthrow of Nasser. The American historian Donald Neff wrote that Eden’s often hysterical and overwrought views towards Nasser almost certainly reflected the influence of the amphetamines to which Eden had become addicted following a botched operation in 1953 together with the related effects of sustained sleep deprivation (Eden slept on average about 5 hours per night in early 1956).
Increasingly Nasser came to be viewed in British circles – and in particular by Eden – as a dictator, akin to Benito Mussolini. Ironically, in the build-up to the crisis, it was the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell and the left-leaning tabloid newspaper The Mirror that first made the comparison between Nasser and Mussolini. Anglo-Egyptian relations would continue on their downward spiral.
Britain was eager to tame Nasser and looked towards the United States for support. However, Eisenhower strongly opposed British-French military action. America’s closest Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, was just as fundamentally opposed to the Hashemite-dominated Baghdad Pact as Egypt, and the US was keen to increase its own influence in the region. The failure of the Baghdad Pact aided such a goal by reducing Britain’s dominance over the region. “Great Britain would have preferred to overthrow Nasser; America, however uncomfortable with the ‘Czech arms deal’, thought it wiser to propitiate him.”
The United States and the Aswan High Dam
On 16 May 1956, Nasser officially recognised the People’s Republic of China, which angered the US and Secretary Dulles, a sponsor of the Republic of China. This move, coupled with the impression that the project was beyond Egypt’s economic capabilities, caused Eisenhower to withdraw all American financial aid for the Aswan Dam project on 19 July.
The Eisenhower administration believed that if Nasser were able to secure Soviet economic support for the high dam, that would be beyond the capacity of the Soviet Union to support, and in turn would strain Soviet-Egyptian relations. Eisenhower wrote in March 1956 that “If Egypt finds herself thus isolated from the rest of the Arab world, and with no ally in sight except Soviet Russia, she would very quickly get sick of the prospect and would join us in the search for a just and decent peace in the region”. Dulles told his brother, CIA director Allen Dulles, “If they [the Soviets] do make this offer we can make a lot of use of it in propaganda within the satellite bloc. You don’t get bread because you are being squeezed to build a dam”.
Finally, the Eisenhower administration had become very annoyed at Nasser’s efforts to play the United States off against the Soviet Union, and refused to finance the Aswan high dam. As early as September 1955, when Nasser announced the purchase of the Soviet military equipment via Czechoslovakia, Dulles had written that competing for Nasser’s favour was probably going to be “an expensive process”, one that Dulles wanted to avoid as much as possible.
1956 American Peace Initiative
In January 1956, to end the incipient arms race in the Middle East set off by the Soviet Union selling Egypt arms on a scale unlimited by the Tripartite Declaration and with France doing likewise with Israel, which he saw as opening the Near East to Soviet influence, Eisenhower launched a major effort to make peace between Egypt and Israel. Eisenhower sent out his close friend Robert B. Anderson to serve as a secret envoy who would permanently end the Arab-Israeli dispute. During his meetings with Nasser, Anderson offered large quantities of American aid in exchange for a peace treaty with Israel. Nasser demanded the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, wanted to annexe the southern half of Israel and rejected direct talks with Israel. Given Nasser’s territorial and refugee-related demands, the Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion suspected that Nasser was not interested in a settlement. Still, he proposed direct negotiations with Egypt in any level.
A second round of secret diplomacy by Anderson in February 1956 was equally unsuccessful. Nasser sometimes suggested during his talks with Anderson that he was interested in peace with Israel if only the Americans would supply him with unlimited quantities of military and economic aid. In case of Israeli acceptance to the return of the Palestinian refugees to Israel and to Egypt annexing the southern half of Israel, Egypt would not accept a peace settlement. The United States or the United Nations would have to present the Israeli acceptance to all Arabs as a basis for peace settlements. It is not clear if Nasser was sincerely interested in peace, or just merely saying what the Americans wanted to hear in the hope of obtaining American funding for the Aswan high dam and American weapons. The truth will likely never be known as Nasser was an intensely secretive man, who managed to hide his true opinions on most issues from both contemporaries and historians. However, the British historian P.J. Vatikitos noted that Nasser’s determination to promote Egypt as the world’s foremost anti-Zionist state as a way of reinforcing his claim to Arab leadership meant that peace was unlikely.
Hasan Afif El-Hasan says that in 1955-1956 the American proposed Nasser to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict peacefully and in exchange to finance the High Dam on the Nile river, but Nasser rejected the offer because it would mean siding with the West (as opposed to remaining neutral) in the Cold War. Since the alternative to a peace agreement was a war with unpredictable consequences, Nasser’s refusal to accept the proposal was irrational, according to el-Hasan.
Nasser’s response was the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. On 26 July, in a speech in Alexandria, Nasser gave a riposte to Dulles. During his speech he deliberately pronounced the name of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the canal, a code-word for Egyptian forces to seize control of the canal and implement its nationalisation. He announced that the Nationalisation Law had been published, that all assets of the Suez Canal Company had been frozen, and that stockholders would be paid the price of their shares according to the day’s closing price on the Paris Stock Exchange. That same day, Egypt closed the canal to Israeli shipping. Egypt also closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, and blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba, in contravention of the Constantinople Convention of 1888. Many argued that this was also a violation of the 1949 Armistice Agreements.
According to the Egyptian historian Abd al-Azim Ramadan, the events leading up to the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company, as well as other events during Nasser’s rule, showed Nasser to be far from a rational, responsible leader. Ramadan notes Nasser’s decision to nationalise the Suez Canal without political consultation as an example of his predilection for solitary decision-making.
The nationalisation surprised Britain and its Commonwealth. There had been no discussion of the canal at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in London in late June and early July. Egypt’s action, however, threatened British economic and military interests in the region. Prime Minister Eden was under immense domestic pressure from Conservative MPs who drew direct comparisons between the events of 1956 and those of the Munich Agreement in 1938. Since the US government did not support the British protests, the British government decided in favour of military intervention against Egypt to avoid the complete collapse of British prestige in the region.
Eden was hosting a dinner for King Feisal II of Iraq and his Prime Minister, Nuri es-Said, when he learned the canal had been nationalised. They both unequivocally advised Eden to “hit Nasser hard, hit him soon, and hit him by yourself” – a stance shared by the vast majority of the British people in subsequent weeks. “There is a lot of humbug about Suez,” Guy Millard, one of Eden’s private secretaries, later recorded. “People forget that the policy at the time was extremely popular.” Opposition leader Hugh Gaitskell was also at the dinner. He immediately agreed that military action might be inevitable, but warned Eden would have to keep the Americans closely informed. After a session of the House of Commons expressed anger against the Egyptian action on 27 July, Eden justifiably believed that Parliament would support him; Gaitskell spoke for his party when he called the nationalisation a “high-handed and totally unjustifiable step”. When Eden made a ministerial broadcast on the nationalisation, Labour declined its right to reply.
Gaitskell’s support became more cautious. On 2 August he said of Nasser’s behaviour, “It is all very familiar. It is exactly the same that we encountered from Mussolini and Hitler in those years before the war”. He cautioned Eden, however, that “[w]e must not, therefore, allow ourselves to get into a position where we might be denounced in the Security Council as aggressors, or where the majority of the Assembly was against us”. He had earlier warned Eden that Labour might not support Britain acting alone against Egypt. In two letters to Eden sent on 03 and 10 August 1956, Gaitskell condemned Nasser but again warned that he would not support any action that violated the United Nations charter. In his letter of 10 August, Gaitskell wrote:
Lest there should be any doubt in your mind about my personal attitude, let me say that I could not regard an armed attack on Egypt by ourselves and the French as justified by anything which Nasser has done so far or as consistent with the Charter of the United Nations. Nor, in my opinion, would such an attack be justified in order to impose a system of international control over the Canal-desirable though this is. If, of course, the whole matter were to be taken to the United Nations and if Egypt were to be condemned by them as aggressors, then, of course, the position would be different. And if further action which amounted to obvious aggression by Egypt were taken by Nasser, then again it would be different. So far what Nasser has done amounts to a threat, a grave threat to us and to others, which certainly cannot be ignored; but it is only a threat, not in my opinion justifying retaliation by war.
Two dozen Labour MPs issued a statement on 08 August stating that forcing Nasser to denationalise the canal against Egypt’s wishes would violate the UN charter. Other opposition politicians were less conditional in their support. Former Labour Foreign Minister Herbert Morrison hinted that he would support unilateral action by the government. Jo Grimond, who became Liberal Party leader that November, thought if Nasser went unchallenged the whole Middle East would go his way.
In Britain, the nationalisation was perceived as a direct threat to British interests. In a letter to the British Ambassador on 10 September 1956, Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office wrote:
If we sit back while Nasser consolidates his position and gradually acquires control of the oil-bearing countries, he can and is, according to our information, resolved to wreck us. If Middle Eastern oil is denied to us for a year or two, our gold reserves will disappear. If our gold reserves disappear, the sterling area disintegrates. If the sterling area disintegrates and we have no reserves, we shall not be able to maintain a force in Germany, or indeed, anywhere else. I doubt whether we shall be able to pay for the bare minimum necessary for our defence. And a country that cannot provide for its defence is finished.
Direct military intervention, however, ran the risk of angering Washington and damaging Anglo-Arab relations. As a result, the British government concluded a secret military pact with France and Israel that was aimed at regaining control over the Suez Canal.
The French Prime Minister Guy Mollet, outraged by Nasser’s move, determined that Nasser would not get his way. French public opinion very much supported Mollet, and apart from the Communists, all of the criticism of his government came from the right, who very publicly doubted that a socialist like Mollet had the guts to go to war with Nasser. During an interview with publisher Henry Luce, Mollet held up a copy of Nasser’s book The Philosophy of the Revolution and said: “This is Nasser’s Mein Kampf. If we’re too stupid not to read it, understand it and draw the obvious conclusions, then so much the worse for us.”
On 29 July 1956, the French Cabinet decided upon military action against Egypt in alliance with Israel, and Admiral Nomy of the French Naval General Staff was sent to Britain to inform the leaders of that country of France’s decision, and to invite them to co-operate if interested. At the same time, Mollet felt very much offended by what he considered to be the lackadaisical attitude of the Eisenhower administration to the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company. This was especially the case because earlier in 1956 the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov had offered the French a deal whereby if Moscow ended its support of the FLN in Algeria, Paris would pull out of NATO and became neutral in the Cold War.
Given the way that Algeria (which the French considered an integral part of France) had become engulfed in a spiral of increasing savage violence that French leaders longed to put an end to, the Mollet administration had felt tempted by Molotov’s offer, but in the end, Mollet, a firm Atlanticist, had chosen to remain faithful to NATO. In Mollet’s view, his fidelity to NATO had earned him the right to expect firm American support against Egypt, and when that support proved not forthcoming, he became even more determined that if the Americans were not willing to do anything about Nasser, then France would act.
Among the “White Dominions” of the British Commonwealth, Canada had few ties with the Suez Canal and twice had refused British requests for peacetime military aid in the Middle East. It had little reaction to the seizure before military action. By 1956 the Panama Canal was much more important than Suez to Australia and New Zealand; the following year two experts would write that it “is not vital to the Australian economy”. The memory, however, of the two nations fighting in two world wars to protect a canal which many still called their “lifeline” to Britain or “jugular vein”, contributed to Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies and Sidney Holland of New Zealand supporting Britain in the early weeks after the seizure. On 07 August Holland hinted to his parliament that New Zealand might send troops to assist Britain, and received support from the opposition; on 13 August Menzies, who had travelled to London from the United States after hearing of the nationalisation and became an informal member of the British Cabinet discussing the issue, spoke on the BBC in support of the Eden government’s position on the canal. He called the dispute over the canal “a crisis more grave than any since the Second World War ended”. An elder statesman of the Commonwealth who felt that Nasser’s actions threatened trading nations like Australia, he argued publicly that Western powers had built the canal but that Egypt was now seeking to exclude them from a role in its ownership or management. South Africa’s Johannes Strijdom stated “it is best to keep our heads out of the beehive”. His government saw Nasser as an enemy but would benefit economically and geopolitically from a closed canal, and politically from not opposing a nation’s right to govern its internal affairs.
The “non-white Dominions” saw Egypt’s seizing of the canal as an admirable act of anti-imperialism, and Nasser’s Arab nationalism as similar to Asian nationalism. Jawaharlal Nehru of India was with Nasser when he learned of the Anglo-American withdrawal of aid for the Aswan Dam. As India was a user of the canal, however, he remained publicly neutral other than warning that any use of force, or threats, could be “disastrous”. Suez was also very important to Ceylon’s economy, and it was renegotiating defence treaties with Britain, so its government was not as vocal in supporting Egypt as it would have been otherwise. Pakistan was also cautious about supporting Egypt given their rivalry as leading Islamic nations, but its government did state that Nasser had the right to nationalise.
On 01 August 1956, a tripartite meeting was opened at 10 Downing Street between British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd, US Ambassador Robert D. Murphy and French Foreign Affairs Minister Christian Pineau.
An alliance was soon formed between Eden and Guy Mollet, French Prime Minister, with headquarters in London. General Hugh Stockwell and Admiral Barjot were appointed as Chief of Staff. Britain sought co-operation with the United States throughout 1956 to deal with what it maintained was a threat of an Israeli attack against Egypt, but to little effect.
Between July and October 1956, unsuccessful initiatives encouraged by the United States were made to reduce the tension that would ultimately lead to war. International conferences were organised to secure agreement on Suez Canal operations but all were ultimately fruitless.
Almost immediately after the nationalisation, Eisenhower suggested to Eden a conference of maritime nations that used the canal. The British preferred to invite the most important countries, but the Americans believed that inviting as many as possible amid maximum publicity would affect world opinion. Invitations went to the eight surviving signatories of the Constantinople Convention and the 16 other largest users of the canal: Australia, Ceylon, Denmark, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, West Germany, Greece, India, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Portugal, Soviet Union, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. All except Egypt – which sent an observer, and used India and the Soviet Union to represent its interests – and Greece accepted the invitation, and the 22 nations’ representatives met in London from 16 to 23 August.
15 of the nations supported the American-British-French position of international operation of the canal; Pakistan chose its western allies over its sympathy for Egypt’s anti-western position despite resulting great domestic controversy. Ceylon, Indonesia, and the Soviet Union supported India’s competing proposal – which Nasser had preapproved – of international supervision only. India criticised Egypt’s seizure of the canal, but insisted that its ownership and operation now not change. The majority of 18 chose five nations to negotiate with Nasser in Cairo led by Menzies, while their proposal for international operation of the canal would go to the Security Council.
Menzies’ 07 September official communique to Nasser presented a case for compensation for the Suez Canal Company and the “establishment of principles” for the future use of the canal that would ensure that it would “continue to be an international waterway operated free of politics or national discrimination, and with financial structure so secure and an international confidence so high that an expanding and improving future for the Canal could be guaranteed” and called for a convention to recognise Egyptian sovereignty of the canal, but for the establishment of an international body to run the canal. Nasser saw such measures as a “derogation from Egyptian sovereignty” and rejected Menzies’ proposals. Menzies hinted to Nasser that Britain and France might use force to resolve the crisis, but Eisenhower openly opposed the use of force and Menzies left Egypt without success.
Instead of the 18-nation proposal, the United States proposed an association of canal users that would set rules for its operation. 14 of the other nations, not including Pakistan, agreed. Britain, in particular, believed that violation of the association rules would result in military force, but after Eden made a speech to this effect in parliament on 12 September, the US ambassador Dulles insisted “we do not intend to shoot our way through” the canal. The United States worked hard through diplomatic channels to resolve the crisis without resorting to conflict. “The British and French reluctantly agreed to pursue the diplomatic avenue but viewed it as merely an attempt to buy time, during which they continued their military preparations.” The British, Washington’s closest ally, ignored Eisenhower’s pointed warning that the American people would not accept a military solution.
On 25 September 1956 the Chancellor of the Exchequer Harold Macmillan met informally with Eisenhower at the White House. Macmillan misread Eisenhower’s determination to avoid war and told Eden that the Americans would not in any way oppose the attempt to topple Nasser. Though Eden had known Eisenhower for years and had many direct contacts with him during the crisis, he also misread the situation. The Americans refused to support any move that could be seen as imperialism or colonialism, seeing the US as the champion of decolonisation. Eisenhower felt the crisis had to be handled peacefully; he told Eden that American public opinion would not support a military solution. Eden and other leading British officials incorrectly believed Nasser’s support for Palestinian fedayeen against Israel, as well as his attempts to destabilise pro-western regimes in Iraq and other Arab states, would deter the US from intervening with the operation. Eisenhower specifically warned that the Americans, and the world, “would be outraged” unless all peaceful routes had been exhausted, and even then “the eventual price might become far too heavy”. London hoped 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 critical miscalculation.
Franco-British-Israeli War Plan
Britain was anxious lest it lose efficient access to the remains of its empire. Both Britain and France were eager that the canal should remain open as an important conduit of oil.
Both the French and the British felt that Nasser should be removed from power. The French “held the Egyptian president responsible for assisting the anti-colonial rebellion in Algeria”. France was nervous about the growing influence that Nasser exerted on its North African colonies and protectorates.
Israel wanted to reopen the Straits of Tiran leading to the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping, and saw the opportunity to strengthen its southern border and to weaken what it saw as a dangerous and hostile state. This was particularly felt in the form of attacks injuring approximately 1,300 civilians emanating from the Egyptian-held Gaza Strip.
The Israelis were also deeply troubled by Egypt’s procurement of large amounts of Soviet weaponry that included 530 armoured vehicles, of which 230 were tanks; 500 guns; 150 MiG-15 jet fighters; 50 Ilyushin Il-28 bombers; submarines and other naval craft. The influx of this advanced weaponry altered an already shaky balance of power. Israel was alarmed by the Czech arms deal, and believed it had only a narrow window of opportunity to hit Egypt’s army. Additionally, Israel believed Egypt had formed a secret alliance with Jordan and Syria.
In July 1956, Eden ordered his Chief of the General Staff (CIGS), Field Marshal Gerald Templer, to begin planning for an invasion of Egypt. Eden’s plan called for the Cyprus-based 16th Independent Parachute Brigade Group to seize the canal zone. The Prime Minister’s plan was rejected by Templer and the other service chiefs, who argued that the neglect of parachute training in the 16th Independent Parachute Brigade rendered his plan for an airborne assault unsuitable. Instead, they suggested the sea-power based Contingency Plan, which called for the Royal Marines to take Port Said, which would then be used as a base for three British divisions to overrun the canal zone.
In early August, the Contingency Plan was modified by including a strategic bombing campaign that was intended to destroy Egypt’s economy, and thereby hopefully bring about Nasser’s overthrow. In addition, a role was allocated to the 16th Independent Parachute Brigade, which would lead the assault on Port Said in conjunction with the Royal Marine landing. The commanders of the Allied Task Force led by General Stockwell rejected the Contingency Plan, which Stockwell argued failed to destroy the Egyptian military.
In July 1956, IDF chief of staff General Moshe Dayan advised Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion that Israel should attack Egypt at the first chance, but Ben Gurion stated he preferred to attack Egypt with the aid of France. On 07 August 1956 the French Defense Minister Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury asked Ben Gurion if Israel would attack Egypt together with France, to which he received a positive reply. On 01 September 1956 the French government formally asked that France and Israel begin joint planning for a war against Egypt. By 6 September 1956, Dayan’s chief of operations General Meir Amit, was meeting with Admiral Pierre Barjot to discuss joint Franco-Israeli operations. On 25 September 1956 Peres reported to Ben Gurion that France wanted Israel as an ally against Egypt, and that the only problem was Britain, which was opposed to Israel taking action against Nasser. In late September 1956, the French Premier Guy Mollet had embarked upon a dual policy of attacking Egypt with Britain, and if the British backed out (as Mollet believed that they might), with Israel. On 30 September 1956 secret Franco-Israeli talks on planning a war started in Paris, which were based on the assumption that Britain would not be involved. The French very much wanted to use airfields in Cyprus to bomb Egypt, but being not certain about Britain’s attitude, wanted to use Israeli airfields if the ones in Cyprus were not free. Only on 05 October 1956 during a visit by General Maurice Challe to Britain where he met with Eden, were the British informed of the secret Franco-Israeli alliance.
On 22 October 1956, during negotiations leading to the Protocol of Sèvres, David Ben-Gurion, Prime Minister of Israel, gave the most detailed explanation ever to foreign dignitaries, of Israel’s overall strategy for the Middle East. Shlaim called this Ben-Gurion’s “grand design”. His main objection to the “English plan” was that Israel would be branded as the aggressor while Britain and France would pose as peace-makers.
Instead he presented a comprehensive plan, which he himself called “fantastic”, for the reorganization of the Middle East. Jordan, he observed, was not viable as an independent state and should therefore be divided. Iraq would get the East Bank in return for a promise to settle the Palestinian refugees there and to make peace with Israel while the West Bank would be attached to Israel as a semi-autonomous region. Lebanon suffered from having a large Muslim population which was concentrated in the south. The problem could be solved by Israel’s expansion up to the Litani River, thereby helping to turn Lebanon into a more compact Christian state. … Israel declares its intention to keep her forces for the purpose of permanent annexation of the entire area east of the El Arish-Abu Ageila, Nakhl-Sharm el-Sheikh, in order to maintain for the long term the freedom of navigation in the Straits of Eilat and in order to free herself from the scourge of the infiltrators and from the danger posed by the Egyptian army bases in Sinai. … “I told him about the discovery of oil in southern and western Sinai, and that it would be good to tear this peninsula from Egypt because it did not belong to her, rather it was the English who stole it from the Turks when they believed that Egypt was in their pocket. I suggested laying down a pipeline from Sinai to Haifa to refine the oil.”
Protocol of Sèvres
Refer to Protocol of Sèvres (1956).
In October 1956, Eden, after two months of pressure, finally and reluctantly agreed to French requests to include Israel in Operation Revise. The British alliances with the Hashemite kingdoms of Jordan and Iraq had made the British very reluctant to fight alongside Israel, lest the ensuing backlash in the Arab world threaten London’s friends in Baghdad and Amman. The coming of winter weather in November meant that Eden needed a pretext to begin Revise as soon as possible, which meant that Israel had to be included. This was especially the case as many Conservative backbenchers had expected Eden to launch operations against Egypt in the summer, and were disappointed when Eden had instead chosen talks. By the fall of 1956, many Tory backbenchers were starting to grow restive about the government’s seeming inability to start military action, and if Eden had continued to put off military action for the winter of 1956-1957, it is possible that his government might not have survived.
Three months after Egypt’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal company, a secret meeting took place at Sèvres, outside Paris. Britain and France enlisted Israeli support for an alliance against Egypt. The parties agreed that Israel would invade the Sinai. Britain and France would then intervene, purportedly to separate the warring Israeli and Egyptian forces, instructing both to withdraw to a distance of 16 kilometres from either side of the canal.
The British and French would then argue that Egypt’s control of such an important route was too tenuous, and that it needed to be placed under Anglo-French management. David Ben-Gurion did not trust the British in view of their treaty with Jordan and he was not initially in favour of the plan, since it would make Israel alone look like the aggressor; however he soon agreed to it since such a good opportunity to strike back at Egypt might never again present itself.
Under the Protocol of Sèvres, the following was agreed to:
- 29 October: Israel to invade the Sinai.
- 30 October: Anglo-French ultimatum to demand both sides withdraw from the canal zone.
- 31 October: Britain and France begin Revise.
Anglo-French Operation Musketeer
Refer to Operation Musketeer (1956)
Stockwell offered up Operation Musketeer, which was to begin with a two-day air campaign that would see the British gain air superiority. In place of Port Said, Musketeer called for the capture of Alexandria. Once that city had been taken in assault from the sea, British armoured divisions would engage in a decisive battle of annihilation somewhere south of Alexandria and north of Cairo.
Musketeer would require thousands of troops, leading the British to seek out France as an ally. To destroy the 300,000-strong Egyptian Army in his planned battle of annihilation, Stockwell estimated that he needed 80,000 troops, while at most the British Army could spare was 50,000 troops; the French could supply the necessary 30,000 troops to make up the shortfall.
On 11 August 1956, General Keightley was appointed commander of Musketeer with the French Admiral Barjot as his deputy commander. The appointment of Stockwell as the Allied Task Force commander charged with leading the assault on Egypt caused considerable disappointment with the other officers of the Task Force. One French officer recalled that Stockwell was
Extremely excitable, gesticulating, keeping no part of him still, his hands, his feet, and even his head and shoulders perpetually on the go, he starts off by sweeping objects off the table with a swish of his swagger cane or in his room by using it to make golf-strokes with the flower vases and ash-trays. Those are the good moments. You will see him pass in an instant from the most cheerfully expressed optimism to a dejection that amounts to nervous depression. He is a cyclothymic. By turns courteous and brutal, refined and coarse, headstrong in some circumstances, hesitant and indecisive in others, he disconcerts by his unpredictable responses and the contradictions of which he is made up. One only of his qualities remains constant: his courage under fire.
By contrast, the majority of the officers of the Task Force, both French and British, admired Beaufre as an elegant yet tough general with a sharp analytical mind who always kept his cool. Most of the officers of the Anglo-French Task Force expressed regret that it was Beaufre who was Stockwell’s deputy rather the other way around. A major problem both politically and militarily with the planning for Musketeer was the one-week interval between sending troops to the eastern Mediterranean and the beginning of the invasion. Additionally, the coming of winter weather to the Mediterranean in late November would render the invasion impossible, which thus meant the invasion had to begin before then. An additional problem was Eden, who constantly interfered with the planning and was so obsessed with secrecy that he refused to tell Keightley what his political objectives were in attacking Egypt, namely was he interested in retaking the Suez Canal or toppling Nasser, or both. Eden’s refusal to explain to Keightley just what exactly he was hoping to accomplish by attacking Egypt exasperated Keightley to no end, and greatly complicated the planning process.
In late August 1956, the French Admiral Pierre Barjot suggested that Port Said once again be made the main target, which lessened the number of troops needed and thus reduced the interval between sending forces to the eastern Mediterranean and the invasion. Beaufre was strongly opposed to the change, warning that Barjot’s modification of merely capturing the canal zone made for an ambiguous goal, and that the lack of a clear goal was dangerous.
In early September, Keightley embraced Barjot’s idea of seizing Port Said, and presented Revise.
Britain’s First Sea Lord, Admiral Louis Mountbatten strongly advised his old friend Prime Minister Anthony Eden against the Conservative plans to seize the Suez canal. He argued that such a move would destabilize the Middle East, undermine the authority of the United Nations, divide the Commonwealth and diminish Britain’s global standing. His advice was not taken; he tried to resign but the political leadership of the Royal Navy would not let him. Instead he worked hard to prepare the Royal Navy for war with characteristic professionalism and thoroughness.
Anglo-French Operation Revise
Operation Revise called for the following:
- Phase I: Anglo-French air forces to gain air supremacy over Egypt’s skies.
- Phase II: Anglo-French air forces were to launch a 10-day “aero-psychological” campaign that would destroy the Egyptian economy.
- Phase III: Air- and sea-borne landings to capture the canal zone.
On 08 September 1956 Revise was approved by the British and French cabinets.
Both Stockwell and Beaufre were opposed to Revise as an open-ended plan with no clear goal beyond seizing the canal zone, but was embraced by Eden and Mollet as offering greater political flexibility and the prospect of lesser Egyptian civilian casualties.
Israeli Operation Kadesh
At the same time, Israel had been working on Operation Kadesh for the invasion of the Sinai. Dayan’s plan put an emphasis on air power combined with mobile battles of encirclement. Kadesh called for the Israeli air force to win air superiority, which was to be followed up with “one continuous battle” in the Sinai. Israeli forces would in a series of swift operations encircle and then take the main Egyptian strong points in the Sinai.
Reflecting this emphasis on encirclement was the “outside-in” approach of Kadesh, which called for Israeli paratroopers to seize distant points first, with those closer to Israel to be seized later. Thus, the 202nd Paratroop Brigade commanded by Colonel Ariel Sharon was to land in the far-western part of the Sinai to take the Mitla Pass, and thereby cut off the Egyptian forces in the eastern Sinai from their supply lines.
The American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was taking high-altitude photos of the allied activities, and more details came from human sources in London, Paris and Tel Aviv. CIA chief Allen Dulles said that “intelligence was well alerted as to what Israel and then Britain and France were likely to do … In fact, United States intelligence had kept the government informed”.
British troops were well-trained, experienced, and had good morale, but suffered from the economic and technological limitations imposed by post-war austerity. The 16th Independent Parachute Brigade Group, which was intended to be the main British strike force against Egypt, was heavily involved in the Cyprus Emergency, which led to a neglect of paratroop training in favour of counter-insurgency operations. The Royal Navy could project formidable power through the guns of its warships and aircraft flown from its carriers, but a shortage of landing craft proved to be a serious weakness.
The Royal Navy had just undergone a major and innovative carrier modernisation program. The Royal Air Force (RAF) had just introduced two long-range bombers, the Vickers Valiant and the English Electric Canberra, but owing to their recent entry into service the RAF had not yet established proper bombing techniques for these aircraft. Despite this, General Sir Charles Keightley, the commander of the invasion force, believed that air power alone was sufficient to defeat Egypt. By contrast, General Hugh Stockwell, the Task Force’s ground commander believed that methodical and systematic armoured operations centred on the Centurion battle tank would be the key to victory.
French troops were experienced and well-trained but suffered from cutbacks imposed by post-war politics of economic austerity. In 1956, the French military was heavily involved in the Algerian war, which made operations against Egypt a major distraction. French paratroopers of the elite Regiment de Parachutistes Coloniaux (RPC) were extremely experienced, battle-hardened, and very tough soldiers, who had greatly distinguished themselves in the fighting in Indochina and in Algeria. The men of the RPC followed a “shoot first, ask questions later” policy towards civilians, first adopted in Vietnam, which was to lead to the killing of a number of Egyptian civilians. The rest of the French troops were described by the American military historian Derek Varble as “competent, but not outstanding”.
The main French (and Israeli) battle tank, the AMX-13, was designed for mobile, outflanking operations, which led to a tank that was lightly armoured but very fast. General André Beaufre, who served as Stockwell’s subordinate, favoured a swift campaign of movement in which the main objective was to encircle the enemy. Throughout the operation, Beaufre proved himself to be more aggressive than his British counterparts, always urging that some bold step be taken at once. The French Navy had a powerful carrier force which was excellent for projecting power inland, but, like its British counterpart, suffered from a lack of landing craft.
American military historian Derek Varble called the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) the “best” military force in the Middle East while at the same time suffering from “deficiencies” such as “immature doctrine, faulty logistics, and technical inadequacies”. The IDF’s Chief of Staff, Major General Moshe Dayan, encouraged aggression, initiative, and ingenuity among the Israeli officer corps while ignoring logistics and armoured operations. Dayan, a firm infantry man, preferred that arm of the service at the expense of armour, which Dayan saw as clumsy, pricey, and suffering from frequent breakdowns.
At the same time, the IDF had a rather disorganised logistics arm, which was put under severe strain when the IDF invaded the Sinai. Most of the IDF weapons in 1956 came from France. The main IDF tank was the AMX-13 and the main aircraft were the Dassault Mystère IVA and the Ouragan. Superior pilot training was to give the Israeli Air Force an unbeatable edge over their Egyptian opponents. The Israeli Navy consisted of two destroyers, seven frigates, eight minesweepers, several landing craft, and fourteen torpedo boats.
In the Egyptian Armed Forces, politics rather than military competence was the main criterion for promotion. The Egyptian commander, Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, was a purely political appointee who owed his position to his close friendship with Nasser. A heavy drinker, he would prove himself grossly incompetent as a general during the Crisis. In 1956, the Egyptian military was well equipped with weapons from the Soviet Union such as T-34 and IS-3 tanks, MiG-15 fighters, Ilyushin Il-28 bombers, SU-100 self-propelled guns and assault rifles.
Rigid lines between officers and men in the Egyptian Army led to a mutual “mistrust and contempt” between officers and the men who served under them. Egyptian troops were excellent in defensive operations, but had little capacity for offensive operations, owing to the lack of “rapport and effective small-unit leadership”.
The Israeli Operation Kadesh in Sinai
Operation Kadesh received its name from ancient Kadesh, located in the northern Sinai and mentioned several times in the Hebrew Pentateuch. Israeli military planning for this operation in the Sinai hinged on four main military objectives; Sharm el-Sheikh, Arish, Abu Uwayulah (Abu Ageila), and the Gaza Strip. 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 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. Israel advocated rapid advances, for which a potential Egyptian flanking attack would present even more of a risk. Arish and Abu Uwayulah were important hubs for soldiers, equipment, and centres of command and control of the Egyptian Army in the Sinai.
Capturing them would deal a deathblow to the Egyptian’s strategic operation in the entire Peninsula. The capture of these four objectives were hoped to be the means by which the entire Egyptian Army would rout and fall back into Egypt proper, which British and French forces would then be able to push up against an Israeli advance, and crush in a decisive encounter. On 24 October, Dayan ordered a partial mobilisation. When this led to a state of confusion, Dayan ordered full mobilisation, and chose to take the risk that he might alert the Egyptians. As part of an effort to maintain surprise, Dayan ordered Israeli troops that were to go to the Sinai to be ostentatiously concentrated near the border with Jordan first, which was intended to fool the Egyptians into thinking that it was Jordan that the main Israeli blow was to fall on
On 28 October, Operation Tarnegol was effected, during which an Israeli Gloster Meteor NF.13 intercepted and destroyed an Egyptian Ilyushin Il-14 carrying Egyptian officers en route from Syria to Egypt, killing 16 Egyptian officers and journalists and two crewmen. The Ilyushin was believed to be carrying Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer and the Egyptian General Staff; however this was not the case.
The conflict began on 29 October 1956. At about 3:00 pm, Israeli Air Force Mustangs launched a series of attacks on Egyptian positions all over the Sinai. Because Israeli intelligence expected Jordan to enter the war on Egypt’s side, Israeli soldiers were stationed along the Israeli-Jordanian frontier. The Israel Border Police militarised the Israel-Jordan border, including the Green Line with the West Bank, during the first few hours of the war. Israeli-Arab villages along the Jordanian border were placed under curfew. This resulted in the killings of 48 civilians in the Arab village of Kafr Qasim in an event known as the Kafr Qasim massacre. The border policemen involved in the killings were later tried and imprisoned, with an Israeli court finding that the order to shoot civilians was “blatantly illegal”. This event had major effects on Israeli law relating to the ethics in war and more subtle effects on the legal status of Arab citizens of Israel, who at the time were regarded as a fifth column.
Early Actions in Southern Sinai
The IDF chief of staff General Moshe Dayan, first planned to block the vital Mitla Pass. Dayan planned for the Battalion 890 of the Paratroop Brigade, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Rafael Eitan, a veteran of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War and future head of the IDF, to drop at Parker’s Memorial, near one of the defiles of the pass, Jebel Heitan. The rest of the brigade, under the command of Colonel Ariel Sharon would then advance to meet with the battalion, and consolidate their holdings.
On 29 October, Operation Kadesh – the invasion of the Sinai, began when an Israeli paratrooper battalion was air-dropped into the Sinai Peninsula, east of the Suez Canal near the Mitla Pass. In conjunction with the para drop, four Israeli P-51 Mustangs using their wings and propellers, cut all overhead telephone lines in the Sinai, severely disrupting Egyptian command and control. Due to a navigation error, the Israeli DC-3 transports landed Eitan’s 400 paratroopers three miles away from Parker’s Memorial, their intended target. Eitan marched his men towards Jebel Heitan, where they dug in while receiving supplies of weapons dropped by French aircraft.
At the same time, Colonel Sharon’s 202nd Paratroop Brigade raced out towards the Mitla Pass. A major problem for Sharon was vehicle break-down. Dayan’s efforts to maintain strategic surprise bore fruit when the Egyptian commander Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer at first treated the reports of an Israeli incursion into the Sinai as a large raid instead of an invasion, and as such Amer did not order a general alert. By the time that Amer realised his mistake, the Israelis had made significant advances into the Sinai.
Early Actions along the Gulf of Aqaba, and the Central Front
As the paratroopers were being dropped into the Sinai, the Israeli 9th Infantry Brigade captured Ras al-Naqb, an important staging ground for that brigade’s later attack against Sharm el-Sheikh. Instead of attacking the town by a frontal attack, they enveloped the town in a night attack, and negotiated their way through some of the natural chokepoints into the rear of the town, surprising the Egyptians before they could ready themselves to defend. The Egyptians surrendered, with no Israeli casualties sustained.
The 4th Infantry Brigade, under the command of Colonel Josef Harpaz, captured al-Qusaymah, which would be used as a jumping off point for the assault against Abu Uwayulah. Colonel Harpaz out-flanked al-Qusaymah with two pincers from the south-east and north-east in a night attack. In a short battle lasting from 3:00 am to sunrise, the IDF stormed al-Qusaymah.
Battle of Jebel Heitan, Paratroop Brigade under Attack
The portion of the paratroopers under Sharon’s command continued to advance to meet with the 1st Brigade. En route, Sharon assaulted Themed in a dawn attack, and was able to storm the town with his armour through the Themed Gap. Sharon routed the Sudanese police company, and captured the settlement. On his way to the Nakla, Sharon’s men came under attack from Egyptian MIG-15s. On the 30th, Sharon linked up with Eytan near Nakla.
Dayan had no more plans for further advances beyond the passes, but Sharon decided to attack the Egyptian positions at Jebel Heitan. Sharon sent his lightly armed paratroopers against dug-in Egyptians supported by aircraft, tanks and heavy artillery. Sharon’s actions were in response to reports of the arrival of the 1st and 2nd Brigades of the 4th Egyptian Armoured Division in the area, which Sharon believed would annihilate his forces if he did not seize the high ground. Sharon sent two infantry companies, a mortar battery and some AMX-13 tanks under the command of Mordechai Gur into the Heitan Defile on the afternoon of 31 October 1956
The Egyptian forces occupied strong defensive positions and brought down heavy anti-tank, mortar and machine gun fire on the IDF force. Gur’s men were forced to retreat into the “Saucer”, where they were surrounded and came under heavy fire. Hearing of this, Sharon sent in another task force while Gur’s men used the cover of night to scale the walls of the Heitan Defile. During the ensuing action, the Egyptians were defeated and forced to retreat. A total of 260 Egyptian and 38 Israeli soldiers were killed in the battle.
Although the battle was an Israeli victory, the casualties sustained would surround Sharon with controversy. In particular, Sharon was criticised for ordering the attack on Jebel Heitan without authorisation, and not realising that with the Israeli Air Force controlling the skies, his men were in not such danger from the Egyptian tanks as he believed. Dayan himself maintained that Sharon was correct to order the attack without orders, and that under the circumstances, Sharon made the right decision; instead he criticised Sharon for his tactics of attacking the Egyptians head-on, which Dayan claimed led to unnecessary casualties.
Air Operations, First Phase
From the outset, the Israeli Air Force flew paratroop drops, supply flights and medevac sorties. Israel’s new French-made Dassault Mystere IV jet fighters provided air cover for the transport aircraft. In the initial phase of the conflict, the Egyptian Air Force flew attack missions against advancing Israeli ground forces. The Egyptian tactic was to use their new Soviet-made MiG-15 jets as fighter escorts, while their older British-made De Havilland Vampire and Gloster Meteor jets conducted strikes against Israeli troops and vehicles.
In air combat, Israeli aircraft shot down between seven and nine Egyptian jets with the loss of one plane, but Egyptian strikes against the ground forces continued through to 01 November. In a major action on 31 October, waves of Israeli planes attacked the Egyptian 1st Armored Brigade as it moved toward Abu-Ageila, devastating it. According to an Israeli pilot who participated in the attack “Car after car and tank after tank caught fire… At first it looked like a peacetime firing range.” Eight Egyptian MiG-35s attacked the Israeli aircraft, damaging two, while Egyptian anti-aircraft fire hit five more Israeli aircraft and killed two pilots. On the following day, with the Anglo-French entry into the war, a combined force of Israeli and French aircraft again attacked the Egyptian 1st Armoured Brigade. With the attack by the British and French air forces and navies, President Nasser ordered his pilots to disengage and fly their planes to bases in southern Egypt. The Israeli Air Force was then free to strike Egyptian ground forces at will, as Israeli forces advanced into the western Sinai.
On 03 November, Israeli Mystere fighter jets attacked a British warship, the Black Swan class sloop HMS Crane as it was patrolling the approaches to the Gulf of Aqaba after it had been mistaken for an Egyptian warship. The ship was attacked with rockets, cannon fire, and napalm bombs. The attack inflicted widespread damage on the hull, damaging two antiaircraft guns, destroying a depth charge thrower, and cutting various electrical circuits and water mains, but the ship’s fighting efficiency was only slightly impaired. Three crewmen were wounded in the attack. The ship put up heavy anti-aircraft fire, and there are conflicting accounts as to whether or not it shot down one of the attacking jets.
On 30 October, the Egyptian Navy dispatched Ibrahim el Awal, an ex-British Hunt-class destroyer, to Haifa with the aim of shelling that city’s coastal oil installations. On 31 October Ibrahim el Awal reached Haifa and began bombarding the city with its four 102 mm (4 in) guns. The French destroyer Kersaint, which was guarding Haifa port as part of Operation Musketeer, returned fire but failed to score any hits. Ibrahim el Awal disengaged and turned northwest. The Israeli destroyers INS Eilat and INS Yaffo and two Israeli Air Force Dassault Ouragans then gave chase and caught up with the Egyptian warship, and attacked it, damaging the destroyer’s turbo generator, rudder and antiaircraft guns. Left without power and unable to steer, Ibrahim el Awal surrendered to the Israeli destroyers. During the engagement, the Ibrahim el Awal’s crew lost two killed and eight wounded. The Egyptian destroyer was subsequently incorporated into the Israeli Navy and renamed INS Haifa.
On the night of 31 October in the northern Red Sea, the British light cruiser HMS Newfoundland challenged and engaged the Egyptian frigate Domiat, reducing it to a burning hulk in a brief battle, sustaining only light damage in return. The Egyptian warship was then sunk by escorting destroyer HMS Diana. Of the Domiat’s crew, 38 were killed and 69 survived and were rescued. British losses in the engagement were one killed and five wounded. On 04 November, a squadron of Egyptian motor torpedo boats attacked a British destroyer off the northeast coast of the Nile Delta. The attack was repelled, with three torpedo boats sunk and the rest retreating.
Hedgehog-Abu Uwayulah Operations
The village of Abu Uwayulah, 25 km (16 mi) inside Egyptian territory, served as the road centre for the entire Sinai, and thus was a key Israeli target. To the east of Abu Uwayulah were several ridges that formed a natural defensive zone known to the Israelis as the “Hedgehog”. Holding the “Hedgehog” were 3,000 Egyptians of the 17th and 18th battalions of the 3rd Infantry Division commanded by Colonel Sami Yassa. Yassa’s men held a series of well-fortified trenches. The “Hedgehog” could only be assaulted from the east flank of Umm Qataf ridge and the west flank of Ruafa ridge.
On 30 October, a probing attack by Israeli armour under Major Izhak Ben-Ari turned into an assault on the Umm Qataf ridge that ended in failure. During the fighting at Umm Qataf, Colonel Yassa was badly wounded and replaced by Colonel Saadedden Mutawally. To the south, another unit of the Israeli 7th Armoured Brigade discovered the al-Dayyiqa gap in the Jebel Halal ridge of the “Hedgehog”. The Israeli forces stormed and took the al-Dayyiqa gap. Colonel Mutawally failed to appreciate the extent of the danger to his forces posed by the IDF breakthrough at al-Dayyiqa.
Led by Colonel Avraham Adan, an IDF force entered the al-Dayyiqa and at dawn on 31 October attacked Abu Uwayulah. After an hour’s fighting, Abu Uwayulah fell to the IDF. At the same time, another IDF battalion attacked the Ruafa ridge.
Concurrently, another attack was launched on the eastern edge of the “Hedgehog” by the IDF 10th Infantry Brigade (composed mostly of reservists) that ended in failure. By noon, the Israeli Air Force had carried out a series of punishing airstrikes on the Egyptian positions, sometimes accidentally hitting IDF ground forces. Such was the tendency of the IAF to stage “friendly fire” incidents the IAF was arguably as much as danger to the Israeli troops as to the enemy.
After taking Abu Uwayulah, Adan committed all of his forces against the Ruafa ridge of the “Hedgehog”. Adan began a three-pronged attack with one armoured force striking northeastern edge of Ruafa, a mixed infantry/armoured force attacking the north edge and a feint attack from a neighbouring knoll. During the evening attack on 31 October, a chaotic battle raged on Ruafa ridge with much hand-to-hand fighting. Though every IDF tank involved was destroyed, after a night’s fighting, Ruafa had fallen to the IDF. Another IDF assault that night, this time by the 10th Infantry Brigade on Umm Qataf was less successful with much of the attacking force getting lost in the darkness, resulting in a series of confused attacks that ended in failure. Dayan, who had grown impatient with the failure to storm the “Hedgehog”, sacked the 10th Brigade’s commander Colonel Shmuel Golinda and replaced him with Colonel Israel Tal.
On the morning of 01 November, Israeli and French aircraft launched frequent napalm attacks on the Egyptian troops at Umm Qataf. Joined by the 37th Armoured Brigade, the 10th Brigade again assaulted Umm Qataf, and was again defeated. However, the ferocity of the IDF assault combined with rapidly dwindling stocks of water and ammunition caused Colonel Mutawally to order a general retreat from the “Hedgehog” on the evening of 01 November.
Gaza Strip Operations
The city of Rafah was strategically important to Israel because control of that city would sever the Gaza Strip from the Sinai and provide a way to the main centres of the northern Sinai, al-Arish and al-Qantarah. Holding the forts outside of Rafah were a mixture of Egyptian and Palestinian forces in the 5th Infantry Brigade commanded by Brigadier General Jaafar al-Abd. In Rafah itself the 87th Palestinian Infantry Brigade was stationed. Assigned to capture Rafah were 1st Infantry Brigade led by Colonel Benjamin Givli and 27th Armored Brigade commanded by Colonel Haim Bar-Lev of the IDF. To the south of Rafah were a series of mine-filled sand dunes and to the north were a series of fortified hills.
Dayan ordered the IDF forces to seize Crossroads 12 in the central Rafah area, and to focus on breaking through rather than reducing every Egyptian strongpoint. The IDF assault began with Israeli sappers and engineers clearing a path at night through the minefields that surrounded Rafah. French warships led by the cruiser Georges Leygues provided fire support, through Dayan had a low opinion of the French gunnery, complaining that the French only struck the Egyptian reserves.
Using the two paths cleared through the southern minefields, IDF tanks entered the Rafah salient. Under Egyptian artillery fire, the IDF force raced ahead and took Crossroads 12 with the loss of 2 killed and 22 wounded. In the north, the Israeli troops fought a confused series of night actions, but were successful in storming Hills 25, 25A, 27 and 29 with the loss of six killed. In the morning of 1 November, Israeli AMX-13s encircled and took Hills 34 and 36. At that point, General al-Abd ordered his forces to abandon their posts outside of Rafah and retreat into the city.
With Rafah more or less cut off and Israeli forces controlling the northern and eastern roads leading into the city, Dayan ordered the AMX-13s of the 27th Armoured Brigade to strike west and take al-Arish. By this point, Nasser had ordered his forces to fall back towards the Suez Canal, so at first Bar-Lev and his men met little resistance as they advanced across the northern Sinai. Hearing of the order to withdraw, General al-Abd and his men left Rafah on the morning of 1 November through a gap in the Israeli lines, and headed back towards the canal zone. Three hours later, the Israelis took Rafah. It was reported that after taking Rafah, Israeli troops killed 111 people, including 103 refugees, in Rafah’s Palestinian refugee camp. The circumstances of the killings are disputed. Not until the Jeradi Pass in the northern Sinai did the IDF run into serious opposition. A series of hooking attacks that out-flanked the Egyptian positions combined with airstrikes led to an Egyptian defeat at the Jeradi Pass. On 02 November, Bar-Lev’s forces took al-Arish. Although the city itself fell without a fight after its defenders retreated, Bar-Lev’s troops did occasionally come under fire from Egyptian stragglers as they crossed into the Sinai, and Moshe Dayan’s radio operator was killed in one such incident.
Meanwhile, the IDF attacked the Egyptian defences outside of Gaza City late on 01 November. After breaking through the Egyptian lines, the Israeli tanks headed into Gaza City. Joined by infantry, the armour attacked the al-Muntar fortress outside of Gaza City, killing or capturing 3,500 Egyptian National Guard troops. By noon of 02 November, there was no more Egyptian opposition in the Gaza City area. On 03 November, the IDF attacked Egyptian and Palestinian forces at Khan Yunis. After a fierce battle, the Israeli 37th Armoured Brigade’s Sherman tanks broke through the heavily fortified lines outside of Khan Yunis held by the 86th Palestinian Brigade.
After some street-fighting with Egyptian soldiers and Palestinian fedayeen, Khan Yunis fell to the Israelis. There are claims that after taking Khan Yunis, the IDF committed a massacre, known as the Khan Yunis killings. Israel maintained that the Palestinians were killed in street-fighting, while the Palestinians claimed that Israeli troops started executing unarmed Palestinians after the fall of Khan Yunis. The claims of a massacre were reported to the UN General Assembly on 15 December 1956 by the Director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Henry Labouisse, who reported from “trustworthy sources” that 275 people were killed in the massacre of which 140 were refugees and 135 local residents.
In both Gaza City and Khan Yunis, street-fighting led to the deaths of “dozens, perhaps hundreds, of non-combatants”. Food and medicine distribution for refugees in need of assistance was complicated when some Palestinians ransacked the warehouses belonging to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. This was compounded by a widespread view in Israel that the responsibility for the care of the Palestinian refugees rested with the UNRWA, not Israel, which led the Israelis to be slow with providing aid. By noon of 03 November, the Israelis had control of almost the entire Gaza Strip save for a few isolated strong points, which were soon attacked and taken. The UN estimated that in total 447 to 550 Palestinian civilians were killed by Israeli troops during the first weeks of Israeli occupation of the strip. The manner in which these people were killed is disputed.
Sharm el-Sheikh Operations
By 3 November, with the IDF having successfully taken the Gaza Strip, Arish, the Hedgehog, and Mitla Pass, Sharm el-Sheikh was the last Israeli objective. The main difficulty faced by Colonel Abraham Yoffe’s 9th Infantry Brigade was logistical. There were no good roads linking Ras an-Naqb to Sharm el-Sheikh. After taking the border town of Ras an-Naqb on 30 October, Dayan ordered Yoffe to wait until air superiority was ensured.
To outflank Sharm el-Sheikh, Dayan ordered paratroopers to take the town of Tor in the western Sinai. The Egyptian forces at Sharm el-Sheikh had the advantage of holding one of the most strongly fortified positions in the entire Sinai, but had been subjected to heavy Israeli air attacks from the beginning of the war. Yoffe set out for Sharm el-Sheikh on 2 November, and his major obstacles were the terrain and vehicle break-down. Israeli Navy ships provided support to the 9th Division during its advance.
After numerous skirmishes on the outskirts of Sharm el-Sheikh, Yoffe ordered an attack on the port around midnight on 4 November. After four hours of heavy fighting, Yoffe ordered his men to retreat. On the morning of 05 November, Israeli forces launched a massive artillery barrage and napalm strikes against Egyptian forces defending Sharm el-Sheikh. At 9:30 am on 05 November, the Egyptian commander, Colonel Raouf Mahfouz Zaki, surrendered Sharm el-Sheikh. The Israelis had lost 10 killed and 32 wounded, while the Egyptians had lost about 100 killed and 31 wounded. Another 864 Egyptian soldiers were taken prisoner.
Anglo-French Canal Invasion
To support the invasion, large air forces had been deployed to Cyprus and Malta by Britain and France and many aircraft carriers were deployed. The two airbases on Cyprus were so congested that a third field which was in dubious condition had to be brought into use for French aircraft. Even RAF Luqa on Malta was extremely crowded with RAF Bomber Command aircraft.
The British deployed the aircraft carriers HMS Eagle, Albion and Bulwark and France had the battleship Jean Bart and aircraft carriers Arromanches and La Fayette on station. In addition, HMS Ocean and Theseus acted as jumping-off points for Britain’s helicopter-borne assault (the world’s first).
The combined fleet was shadowed and even harassed by the United States Sixth Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Charles R. Brown. The fleet was led by the carriers USS Coral Sea and USS Randolph, later reinforced by USS Forrestal.
Revise: Phases I and II
In the morning of 30 October Britain and France sent ultimatums to Egypt and Israel. They initiated Operation Musketeer on 31 October, with a bombing campaign. Nasser responded by sinking all 40 ships present in the canal closing it to all shipping – shipping would not move again until early 1957. Despite the risk of an invasion in the canal zone, Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer ordered Egyptian troops in the Sinai to stay put, as Amer confidently assured Nasser that the Egyptians could defeat the Israelis in the Sinai and then defeat the Anglo-French forces once they came ashore in the canal zone.
Amer also advised Nasser to send more troops into the Sinai to inflict his promised defeat on Israel, even though the risk of their being cut off if the canal zone were seized by Anglo-French forces was enormous. Not until late on 31 October did Nasser disregard Amer’s rosy assessment and ordered his forces to disengage in the Sinai and to retreat back to the canal zone to face the expected Anglo-French invasion. Eden and Mollet ordered Phase I of Operation Revise to begin 13 hours after the Anglo-French ultimatum.
British bombers based in Cyprus and Malta took off to Cairo with the aim of destroying Cairo airport, only to be personally ordered back by Eden when he learned that American civilians were being evacuated at Cairo airport. Fearful of the backlash that might result if American civilians were killed in a British bombing attack, Eden sent the Valiant bombers back to Malta while the Canberra’s were ordered to hit Almaza airbase outside of Cairo. British night bombing proved ineffective.
Starting on the morning of 01 November, carrier-based de Havilland Sea Venoms, Chance-Vought Corsairs and Hawker Sea Hawks began a series of daytime strikes on Egypt. By the night of 01 November the Egyptian Air Force had lost 200 planes. With the destruction of Egypt’s air force, Keightley ordered the beginning of Revise Phase II. As part of Revise Phase II, a wide-ranging interdiction campaign began. On 03 November F4U-7 Corsairs from the 14.F and 15.F Aéronavale taking off from the French carriers Arromanches and La Fayette, attacked the aerodrome at Cairo. One French Corsair was shot down by Egyptian anti-aircraft fire. Its pilot survived and was subsequently captured and executed by the Egyptians, reportedly by stoning.
The very aggressive French General Beaufre suggested at once that Anglo-French forces seize the canal zone with airborne landings instead of waiting the planned ten days for Revise II to be worked through, and that the risk of sending in paratroopers without the prospect of sea-borne landings for several days be taken. By 03 November, Beaufre finally convinced Keightley and Stockwell of the merits of his approach, and gained the approval for Operation Telescope as Beaufre had code-named the airborne assault on the canal zone.
On 02 November 1956 the First Sea Lord Admiral Mountbatten sent a letter to Eden telling him to stop the invasion before troops landed in the canal zone as the operation had already proved to be too costly politically. The next day, Mountbatten made a desperate phone call to Eden asking for permission to stop the invasion before it began, only to be refused. Mountbatten’s views led to clash of personalities with the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Gerald Templer who supported the invasion. In response to Mountbatten’s call to cancel the invasion, Templer penned a memo, which read:
Some people in England today say that what we’re [sic?] done in the Middle East will have terrible effects in the future. … The reality is that we have checked a drift. With a bit of luck we’re not only stopped a big war in the Middle East, but we’re halted the march of Russia through the Middle East and on to the African continent.
Telescope Modified: The Paratroops Land
On late 05 November, an advance element of the 3rd Battalion of the British Parachute Regiment dropped on El Gamil Airfield, a narrow strip of land, led by Brigadier M.A.H. Butler. The “Red Devils” could not return Egyptian fire while landing, but once the paratroopers landed, they used their Sten guns, three-inch mortars and anti-tank weapons with great effect. Having taken the airfield with a dozen casualties, the remainder of the battalion flew in by helicopter. The Battalion then secured the area around the airfield.
During the ensuing street fighting, the Egyptian forces engaged in methodical tactics, fighting on the defence while inflicting maximum casualties and retreating only when overwhelming force was brought to bear. In particular, the SU-100 tank destroyers proved to be a formidable weapon in urban combat. The British forces moved up towards Port Said with air support before digging in at 13:00 to hold until the beach assault. With close support from carrier-based Hawker Sea Hawks and Westland Wyverns, the British paratroopers took Port Said’s sewage works, after which they captured the cemetery in a battle during which they killed about 30 Egyptians without losing a man in return, and became engaged in a pitched battle for the Coast Guard barracks, during which withering fire from the defenders stalled the advance. An attack by supporting Wyverns inflicted heavy casualties on the defenders, although the lead aircraft was shot down during the attack. Overall, the British paratroopers had managed to inflict a decisive defeat on the Egyptians for the loss of 4 dead and 32 wounded.
At the same time, Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Chateau-Jobert landed with a force of the 2nd RPC at Raswa. Raswa imposed the problem of a small drop zone surrounded by water, but General Jacques Massu of the 10th Parachute Division assured Beaufre that this was not an insolvable problem for his men. 500 heavily armed paratroopers of the French 2nd Colonial Parachute Regiment (2ème RPC), hastily redeployed from combat in Algeria, jumped over the al-Raswa bridges from Nord Noratlas 2501 transports of the Escadrille de Transport (ET) 1/61 and ET 3/61, together with some combat engineers of the Guards Independent Parachute Company.
The paratroopers swiftly secured the western bridge at the cost of two soldiers, putting Egyptian positions out of action with bazookas and mortars, and F4U Corsairs of the Aéronavale 14.F and 15.F flew a series of close-air-support missions, destroying several SU-100s. F-84Fs also hit two large oil storage tanks in Port Said, which went up in flames and covered most of the city in a thick cloud of smoke for the next several days. Egyptian resistance varied, with some positions fighting back until destroyed, while others were abandoned with little resistance. The French paratroopers stormed and took Port Said’s waterworks that morning, an important objective to control in a city in the desert. Chateau-Jobert followed up this success by beginning an attack on Port Fuad. Derek Varble, the American military historian, later wrote “Air support and fierce French assaults transformed the fighting at Port Fuad into a rout”. During the fighting in the canal zone, the French paratroopers often practised their “no-prisoners'” code and executed Egyptian POWs.
The Egyptian commander at Port Said, General Salahedin Moguy then proposed a truce. His offer was taken up, and in the ensuring meeting with General Butler, Chateau-Jobert and General Massu, was offered the terms of surrendering the city and marching his men to the Gamil airfield to be taken off to prisoner-of-war camps in Cyprus. Moguy had no interest in surrendering and had only made the truce offer to buy time for his men to dig in; when fighting began again vans with loudspeakers travelled through the city encouraging resistance against the invaders, by announcing that London and Paris had been bombed by the Russians and that World War III had started. As the paratroopers alone were not enough, Beaufre and British Admiral Manley Laurence Power urged that the sea-borne landings be accelerated and that Allied forces land the very next day.
Stockwell and Knightley, who wished to stick with the original plan, opposed this. Stockwell was always in favour of rigidly following already agreed to plans, and was most reluctant to see any changes, whereas Beaufre was all for changing plans to match with changed circumstances. The differences between Stockwell and Beaufre were summarised by the American historian Derek Varble as: “Stockwell favored existing plans; their methodical construction and underlying staff work reduced risks. Beaufre, by contrast an opportunist, saw plans merely a means to an end, without much inherent value. For him, altered circumstances or assumptions provided adequate justification to jettison part or all of the original plan”.
Royal Marines Come Ashore at Port Said
At first light on 06 November, commandos of No. 42 and 40 Commando Royal Marines stormed the beaches, using landing craft of World War II vintage (Landing Craft Assault and Landing Vehicle Tracked). The battle group standing offshore opened fire, giving covering fire for the landings and causing considerable damage to the Egyptian batteries and gun emplacements. The town of Port Said sustained great damage and was seen to be alight.
The men of 42 Commando as much as possible chose to by-pass Egyptian positions and focused on trying to break through inland. The Royal Marines of 40 Commando had the advantage of being supported by Centurion tanks as they landed on Sierra Red beach. Upon entering downtown Port Said, the Marines became engaged in fierce urban combat as the Egyptians used the Casino Palace Hotel and other strongpoints as fortresses.
Nasser proclaimed the Suez War to be a “people’s war”. As such, Egyptian troops were ordered to don civilian clothes while guns were freely handed out to Egyptian civilians. From Nasser’s point of view, a “people’s war” presented the British and French with an unsolvable dilemma. If the Allies reacted aggressively to the “people’s war”, then that would result in the deaths of innocent civilians and thus bring world sympathy to his cause while weakening morale on the home front in Britain and France. If the Allies reacted cautiously to the “people’s war”, than that would result in Allied forces becoming bogged down by sniper attacks, who had the advantage of attacking “with near impunity by hiding among crowds of apparent non-combatants“.
These tactics worked especially well against the British. British leaders, especially Eden and the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Louis Mountbatten were afraid of being labelled “murderers and baby killers”, and sincerely attempted to limit Egyptian civilian deaths. Eden frequently interfered with Revise Phase I and II bombing, striking off various targets that he felt were likely to cause excessive civilian deaths, and restricted the gun sizes that could be used at the Port Said landings, again to minimise civilian deaths.
The American historian Derek Varble has commented that the paradox between Eden’s concern for Egyptian civilians and the object of Revise Phase II bombing, which was intended to terrorise the Egyptian people, was never resolved. Despite Eden’s best efforts, British bombing still killed hundreds of Egyptian civilians during Revise II, though these deaths were due more to imprecise aiming rather than a deliberate policy of “area bombing” such as that employed against Germany in World War II. At Port Said, the heavy fighting in the streets and the resulting fires destroyed much of the city, killing many civilians.
In the afternoon, 522 additional French paratroopers of the 1er REP (Régiment Étranger Parachutiste, 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment) were dropped near Port Fuad. These were also constantly supported by the Corsairs of the French Aéronavale, which flew very intensive operations: for example, although the French carrier La Fayette developed catapult problems, no less than 40 combat sorties were completed. The French were aided by AMX-13 light tanks. While clearing Port Fuad, the 1er Regiment Etranger Parachutiste killed 100 Egyptians without losing a man in return. After securing Port Fuad, the French continued to face sporadic sniper fire and fought a pitched battle for an Egyptian police post a mile to the east of the town, losing two soldiers while killing or capturing all of its 72 defenders.
British commandos of No. 45 Commando assaulted by helicopter, meeting stiff resistance, with shore batteries striking several helicopters, while friendly fire from British carrier-borne aircraft also mistakenly hit 45 Commando and HQ. One Marine was killed and 15 wounded when a carrier-based Wyvern mistakenly fired into a concentration of Marines. The helicopter-borne assault of 45 Commando was the first time helicopters were used by UK forces to lift men directly into a combat zone. Lieutenant Colonel N.H. Tailyour, who was leading 45 Commando was landed by mistake in a stadium still under Egyptian control resulting in a very hasty retreat. Street fighting and house clearing, with strong opposition from well-entrenched Egyptian sniper positions, caused further casualties. Most Egyptian soldiers now wore civilian clothing and operated in small groups, but remained organized. Civilians who took up arms as guerrillas were organized into eight groups with five additional groups joining them from outside the city. The Egyptians were gradually pushed back as the British took key objectives. In one instance, five British officers were killed or wounded by an Egyptian hidden in a wardrobe.
Especially fierce fighting took place at the Port Said’s Customs House and Navy House. The Egyptians destroyed Port Said’s Inner Harbour, which forced the British to improvise and use the Fishing Harbour to land their forces. The 2nd Bn of the Parachute Regiment landed by ship in the harbour. Centurion tanks of the British 6th Royal Tank Regiment were landed and by 12:00 they had reached the French paratroopers. The link-up of British and French forces occurred close to the offices of the Suez Canal Company. While the building was captured with ease, the surrounding warehouses were heavily defended and were only taken in fierce fighting during which two British soldiers were killed. The warehouses were overrun with the help of supporting fire from Centurion tanks firing at point-blank range. While the British were landing at Port Said, the men of the 2 RPC at Raswa fought off Egyptian counter-attacks featuring SU100 self-propelled guns.
After establishing themselves in a position in downtown Port Said, 42 Commando headed down the Shari Muhammad Ali, the main north-south road to link up with the French forces at the Raswa bridge and the Inner Basin lock. While doing so, the Marines also took Port Said’s gasworks. Meanwhile, 40 Commando supported by the Royal Tank Regiment remained engaged in clearing the downtown of Egyptian snipers. Colonel Tailyour arranged for more reinforcements to be brought in via helicopter.
Hearing rumours that Moguy wished to surrender, both Stockwell and Beaufre left their command ship HMS Tyne for Port Said. Upon landing, they learned the rumours were not true. Instead of returning to the Tyne, both Stockwell and Beaufre spent the day in Port Said, and were thus cut off from the news. Only late in the day did Beaufre and Stockwell learn of the acceptance of the United Nations ceasefire. Rather than focusing on breaking out to take al-Qantarah, the Royal Marines became bogged down in clearing every building in Port Said of snipers. The Centurions of the Royal Tank Regiment supported by the paratroopers of 2 RPC began a slow advance down to al-Qantarah on the night of 6 November.
Egyptian sniper attacks and the need to clear every building led the 3 Para to be slowed in their attempts to link up with the Royal Marines. When Stockwell learned of the ceasefire to come into effect in five hours’ time at 9:00 pm, he ordered Colonel Gibbon and his Centurions to race down and take al-Qantarah with all speed in order to improve the Allied bargaining position. What followed was a confused series of melee actions down the road to al-Qantarah that ended with the British forces at al-Cap, a small village four miles north of al-Qantarah at 2:00 am, when the ceasefire came into effect. Total Royal Marine casualties in the Port Said landings were 9 killed and 60 wounded.
British casualties stood at 16 dead and 96 wounded, while French casualties were 10 dead and 33 wounded. The Israeli losses were 172 dead and 817 wounded. The number of Egyptians killed was “never reliably established”. Egyptian casualties to the Israeli invasion were estimated at 1,000-3,000 dead and 4,000 wounded, while losses to the Anglo-French operation were estimated at 650 dead and 900 wounded. 1,000 Egyptian civilians are estimated to have died.
End of Hostilities
Anti-War Protests in Britain
Although the public believed the British government’s justification of the invasion as a separation of Israeli and Egyptian forces, protests against the war occurred in Britain after it began. On the popular television talk show Free Speech, an especially bitter debate took place on 31 October with the leftist historian A.J.P. Taylor and the Labour journalist and future party leader Michael Foot calling their colleague on Free Speech, the Conservative MP Robert Boothby, a “criminal” for supporting the war. One television critic spoke of Free Speech during the war that “the team seemed to not only on the verge of, but actually losing their tempers…. Boothby boomed, Foot fumed and Taylor trephined, with apparent real malice….” The angry, passionate, much-watched debates about the Suez war on Free Speech mirrored the divided public response to the war. The British government pressured the BBC to support the war, and seriously considered taking over the network.
Eden’s major mistake had been not to strike in July 1956 when there was widespread anger at Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company, as by the fall of 1956 public anger had subsided, with many people in Britain having come to accept the fait accompli, and saw no reason for war. This was especially the case as Eden’s claims that the Egyptians would hopelessly mismanage the canal had proven groundless, and that by September 1956 it was clear that the change of management had not affected shipping. Even more importantly, Eden’s obsession with secrecy and his desire to keep the preparations for war as secret as possible meant that the Eden government did nothing in the months running up to the attack to explain to the British people why it was felt that war was necessary. Many of the reservists who were called up for their National Service in the summer and fall of 1956 recalled feeling bewildered and confused as the Eden government started preparing to attack Egypt while at the same time Eden insisted in public that he wanted a peaceful resolution of the dispute, and was opposed to attacking Egypt. The British author David Pryce-Jones recalled that as a young officer, after the ultimatum was submitted to Egypt he had to explain to his troops why war with Egypt was necessary without believing a word that he was saying. Only one British soldier, however, refused to fight.
Gaitskell was much offended that Eden had kept him in the dark about the planning for action against Egypt, and felt personally insulted that Eden had just assumed that he would support the war without consulting him first. On 31 October he cited in Parliament the fact that, despite Eden’s claim that the British government had consulted closely with the Commonwealth, no other member nation did; in the Security Council, not even Australia had supported the British action. He called the invasion:
an act of disastrous folly whose tragic consequences we shall regret for years. Yes, all of us will regret it, because it will have done irreparable harm to the prestige and reputation of our country … we shall feel bound by every constitutional means at our disposal to oppose it.
The stormy and violent debates in the House of Commons on 1 November 1956 almost degenerated into fist-fights after several Labour MPs compared Eden to Hitler. Yet the Prime Minister insisted, “We [are not] at war with Egypt now.[…] There has not been a declaration of war by us. We are in an armed conflict.” The British historian A.N. Wilson wrote that “The letters to The Times caught the mood of the country, with great majority opposing military intervention….” The journalist Malcolm Muggeridge and actor Robert Speaight wrote in a public letter that:
The bitter division in public opinion provoked by the British intervention in the Middle East has already had one disastrous consequence. It has deflected popular attention from the far more important struggle in Hungary. A week ago the feelings of the British people were fused in a single flame of admiration for the courage and apparent success of the Hungarian revolt. Now, that success seems threatened by Russian treachery and brute force, and Hungary has appealed to the West…. It is the first, and perhaps will prove the only opportunity to reverse the calamitous decisions of Yalta…. The Prime Minister has told us that 50 million tons of British shipping are at stake in his dispute with President Nasser. What is at stake in Central Europe are rather more than 50 million souls. It may be objected that it is not so easy to help the Hungarians; to this excuse they are entitled to reply that it was not so easy to help themselves.
Lady Violet Bonham Carter, an influential Liberal Party member, wrote in a letter to the Times that:
I am one of the millions who watching the martyrdom of Hungary and listening yesterday to the transmission of her agonizing appeals of help (immediately followed by our “successful bombings” of Egyptian “targets”) who have felt a humiliation, shame and anger which are beyond expression…. We cannot order Soviet Russia to obey the edict of the United Nations which we ourselves have defied, nor to withdraw her tanks and guns from Hungary while we are bombing and invading Egypt. Today we are standing in the dock with Russia…. Never in my lifetime has our name stood so low in the eyes of the world. Never have we stood so ingloriously alone.
According to public opinion polls at the time, 37% of the British people supported the war while 44% were opposed. The Observer newspaper in a leader (editorial) attacked the Eden government for its “folly and crookedness” in attacking Egypt while the Manchester Guardian urged its readers to write letters of protest to their MPs. The Economist spoke of the “strange union of cynicism and hysteria” in the government and The Spectator stated that Eden would soon have to face “a terrible indictment”. The majority of letters written to MPs from their constituents were against the Suez attack. Significantly, many of the letters come from voters who identified as Conservatives. The historian Keith Feiling wrote “the harm done seems to me terrifying: for my part I have resigned from the party while the present leader is there”. The law professor and future Conservative cabinet minister Norman St. John-Stevas wrote at the time:
I had wanted to stand for the party at the next election, but I cannot bring myself to vote for the party at the moment, let alone stand for it. I am thinking of joining the Labour Party and am having lunch with Frank Pakenham next week.
The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper expressed regret that no senior minister resigned and hoped “some kind of national Tory party can be saved from the wreck”. A master at Eton College in a letter to his MP declared:
I write to you to express my complete abhorrence of the policy which the government is pursuing…. I have voted Conservative in the last three elections, but I am quite sure my next vote will be for a Labour candidate.
The Labour Party and the Trade Union Congress organised nation-wide anti-war protests, starting on 1 November under the slogan “Law, not war!” On 04 November, at an anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square attended by 30,000 people (making it easily the biggest rally in London since 1945), the Labour MP Aneurin Bevan accused the government of “a policy of bankruptcy and despair”. Bevan stated at the Trafalgar rally:
We are stronger than Egypt but there are other countries stronger than us. Are we prepared to accept for ourselves the logic we are applying to Egypt? If nations more powerful than ourselves accept the absence of principle, the anarchistic attitude of Eden and launch bombs on London, what answer have we got, what complaint have we got? If we are going to appeal to force, if force is to be the arbiter to which we appeal, it would at least make common sense to try to make sure beforehand that we have got it, even if you accept that abysmal logic, that decadent point of view.
We are in fact in the position today of having appealed to force in the case of a small nation, where if it is appealed to against us it will result in the destruction of Great Britain, not only as a nation, but as an island containing living men and women. Therefore I say to Anthony, I say to the British government, there is no count at all upon which they can be defended.
They have besmirched the name of Britain. They have made us ashamed of the things of which formerly we were proud. They have offended against every principle of decency and there is only way in which they can even begin to restore their tarnished reputation and that is to get out! Get out! Get out!
Inspired by Bevan’s speech, the crowd at Trafalgar Square then marched on 10 Downing Street chanting “Eden Must Go!”, and attempted to storm the Prime Minister’s residence. The ensuing clashes between the police and the demonstrators which were captured by television cameras had a huge demoralising effect on the Eden cabinet, which was meeting there. The British historian Anthony Adamthwaite wrote in 1988 that American financial pressure was the key factor that forced Eden to accept a ceasefire, but the public protests, declining poll numbers and signs that many Conservative voters were deserting the government were important secondary factors.
Support for Eden
According to some historians, the majority of British people were on Eden’s side. On 10 and 11 November an opinion poll found 53% supported the war, with 32% opposed.
The majority of Conservative constituency associations passed resolutions of support to “Sir Anthony”. Gilbert Murray was among Oxford scholars who signed a statement supporting Eden; such an act by the famous advocate of internationalism amazed both sides. He explained that, if not stopped, he believed Nasserism would become a Soviet-led worldwide anti-western movement. British historian Barry Turner wrote that:
The public reaction to press comment highlighted the divisions within the country. But there was no doubt that Eden still commanded strong support from a sizeable minority, maybe even a majority, of voters who thought that it was about time that the upset Arabs should be taught a lesson. The Observer and Guardian lost readers; so too did the News Chronicle, a liberal newspaper that was soon to fold as a result of falling circulation.
A. N. Wilson wrote that:
although the bulk of the press, the Labour Party and that equally influential left-leaning party, the London dinner party, were all against Suez, together with the rent-a-mob of poets, dons, clergy and ankle-socked female graduates who deplored British action, they did not necessarily constitute the majority of unexpressed public opinion.
The economist Roy Harrod wrote at the time that the “more level-headed British, whom I believe to be in the majority though not the most vocal” were supporting the “notable act of courage and statesmanship” of the government. Eden himself claimed that his mail went from eight to one against the military action immediately after its start, to four to one in support on the day before the ceasefire.
The conflict exposed the division within the Labour Party between its middle-class internationalist intelligentsia who opposed the conflict, and working-class voters who supported it. One Conservative MP wrote: “I have lost my middle-class followers, but this has been at least balanced by backing from working-class electors who normally vote Socialist and who favour a strong line on Suez”.
The Labour MP Richard Crossman said that “when the Labour Party leadership tried to organise demonstrations in the Provinces of the kind they’d held in Trafalgar Square, there was great reluctance among the working classes, because we were at war. It was Munich in reverse. And it was very, very acute”. Fellow Labour MP James Callaghan agreed: “The horny-handed sons of toil rallied to the call of the bugle. They reacted against us in the same way as they did against Chamberlain a few months after Munich”. “My working mates were solidly in favour of Eden”, recalled future Labour and SDP MP David Owen. Comparing opposition to Suez to what he described as the Cambridge Apostles’s “defeatist, even traitorous” pre-World War II appeasement, Owen told Kenneth Harris of how “there was Gaitskell … criticizing Eden, and here were these men working alongside me, who should have been his natural supporters, furious with him. The Daily Mirror backed Gaitskell, but these men were tearing up their Daily Mirrors every day”. Callaghan recalled that up until the fighting started “we had public opinion on our side; but as soon as we actually went to war, I could feel the change”. Another Labour MP, Barbara Castle, recalled that Labour’s protest against the conflict was “drowned in a wave of public jingoism”.
During the Lewisham North and Warwick and Leamington by-elections held in February and March 1957, Labour instructed its activists not to emphasise their opposition to Suez because the government’s action had considerable support. Callaghan believed that the Conservatives increased their majority at the 1959 election in part because working-class voters were still angry at the party for opposing the conflict. The Labour MP Stanley Evans resigned from his seat and his membership of the party due to his support for British action in Suez.
The operation, aimed at taking control of the Suez Canal, Gaza, and parts of Sinai, was highly successful for the invaders from a military point of view, but was a disaster from a political point of view, resulting in international criticism and diplomatic pressure. Along with the Suez crisis, the United States was also dealing with the near-simultaneous Hungarian revolution. Vice-President Richard Nixon later explained: “We couldn’t on one hand, complain about the Soviets intervening in Hungary and, on the other hand, approve of the British and the French picking that particular time to intervene against Nasser”. Beyond that, it was Eisenhower’s belief that if the United States were seen to acquiesce in the attack on Egypt, that the resulting backlash in the Arab world might win the Arabs over to the Soviet Union.
Despite having no commercial or military interest in the area, many countries were concerned with the growing rift between Western allied nations. The Swedish ambassador to the Court of St. James, Gunnar Hägglöf wrote in a letter to the anti-war Conservative M.P. Edward Boyle:
I don’t think there is any part of the world where the sympathies for England are greater than in Scandinavia. But Scandinavian opinion has never been more shocked by a British government’s action—not even by the British-German Naval Agreement of 1935—than by the Suez intervention.
The attack on Egypt greatly offended many in the Islamic world. In Pakistan, 300,000 people showed up in a rally in Lahore to show solidarity with Egypt while in Karachi a mob chanting anti-British slogans burned down the British High Commission. In Syria, the government blew up the Kirkuk–Baniyas pipeline that allowed Iraqi oil to reach tankers in the Mediterranean to punish Iraq for supporting the invasion, and to cut Britain off from one of its main routes for taking delivery of Iraqi oil. King Saud of Saudi Arabia imposed a total oil embargo on Britain and Franc
When Israel refused to withdraw its troops from the Gaza Strip and Sharm el-Sheikh, Eisenhower declared, “We must not allow Europe to go flat on its back for the want of oil.” He sought UN-backed efforts to impose economic sanctions on Israel until it fully withdrew from Egyptian territory. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson and minority leader William Knowland objected to American pressure on Israel. Johnson told the Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that he wanted him to oppose “with all its skill” any attempt to apply sanctions on Israel. Dulles rebuffed Johnson’s request, and informed Eisenhower of the objections made by the Senate. Eisenhower was “insistent on applying economic sanctions” to the extent of cutting off private American assistance to Israel which was estimated to be over $100 million a year. Ultimately, the Democratic Party-controlled Senate would not co-operate with Eisenhower’s position on Israel. Eisenhower finally told Congress he would take the issue to the American people, saying, “America has either one voice or none, and that voice is the voice of the President – whether everybody agrees with him or not.” The President spoke to the nation by radio and television where he outlined Israel’s refusal to withdraw, explaining his belief that the UN had “no choice but to exert pressure upon Israel”.
On 30 October, the Security Council held a meeting, at the request of the United States, when it submitted a draft resolution calling upon Israel immediately to withdraw its armed forces behind the established armistice lines. It was not adopted because of British and French vetoes. A similar draft resolution sponsored by the Soviet Union was also rejected. On 31 October, also as planned, France and the UK launched an air attack against targets in Egypt, which was followed shortly by a landing of their troops at the northern end of the canal zone. Later that day, considering the grave situation created by the actions against Egypt, and with lack of unanimity among the permanent members preventing it from exercising its primary responsibility to maintain international peace and security, the Security Council passed Resolution 119; it decided to call an emergency special session of the General Assembly for the first time, as provided in the 1950 “Uniting for Peace” resolution, in order to make appropriate recommendations to end the fighting.
The emergency special session was convened 1 November; the same day Nasser requested diplomatic assistance from the US, without requesting the same from the Soviet Union; he was at first sceptical of the efficacy of US diplomatic efforts at the UN, but later gave full credit to Eisenhower’s role in stopping the war.
In the early hours of 2 November, the General Assembly adopted the United States’ proposal for Resolution 997 (ES-I); the vote was 64 in favour and 5 opposed (Australia, New Zealand, Britain, France, and Israel) with 6 abstentions. It called for an immediate ceasefire, the withdrawal of all forces behind the armistice lines, an arms embargo, and the reopening of the Suez Canal, which was now blocked. The Secretary-General was requested to observe and report promptly on compliance to both the Security Council and General Assembly, for further action as deemed appropriate in accordance with the UN Charter. Over the next several days, the emergency special session consequently adopted a series of enabling resolutions, which established the first United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF), on 07 November by Resolution 1001. This proposal of the emergency force and the resulting cease-fire was made possible primarily through the efforts of Lester B. Pearson, the Secretary of External Affairs of Canada, and Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The role of Nehru, both as Indian Prime minister and a leader of the Non Aligned Movement was significant; the Indian historian Inder Malhotra wrote that “Now Nehru—who had tried to be even-handed between the two sides—denounced Eden and co-sponsors of the aggression vigorously. He had a powerful, if relatively silent, ally in the U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower who went to the extent of using America’s clout in the IMF to make Eden and Mollet behave”.
The Indian historian Inder Malhotra wrote about Nehru’s role that: “So the Suez War ended in Britain’s humiliation. Eden lost his job. Nehru achieved his objective of protecting Egypt’s sovereignty and Nasser’s honour”. Britain and France agreed to withdraw from Egypt within a week; Israel did not. A rare example of support for the Anglo-French actions against Egypt came from West Germany; though the Cabinet was divided, the Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was furious with the United States for its “chumminess with the Russians” as Adenauer called the US refusal to intervene in Hungary and voting with the Soviet Union at the UN Security Council, and the traditionally Francophile Adenauer drew closer to Paris as a result. Adenauer told his Cabinet on 07 November that Nasser was a pro-Soviet force that needed to cut down to size, and in his view the attack on Egypt was completely justified. Adenauer maintained to his Cabinet that the French had every right to invade Egypt because of Nasser’s support for the FLN in Algeria, but the British were partly to blame because they “inexplicably” shut down their Suez Canal base in 1954. What appalled Adenauer about the crisis was that the United States had come against the attack on Egypt and voted with the Soviet Union at Security Council against Britain and France, which led Adenauer to fear that the United States and Soviet Union would “carve up the world” according to their own interests with no thought for the interests of European states. Adenauer refused to cancel a planned visit to Paris on 05-06 November 1956 and his summit with Mollet was clearly meant to be seen as a gesture of moral support. Adenauer was especially worried by the fact that the American embassy in Bonn would not provide a clear answer as to what was the American policy in response to the Bulganin letters. One of Adenauer’s aides Fritz von Eckardt commented about the opening ceremony in Paris where Mollet and Adenauer stood side by side while the national anthems were played that “In the most serious hour France had experienced since the end of the war, the two governments were standing shoulder by shoulder”. During the summit in Paris, Mollet commented to Adenauer that a Soviet nuclear strike could destroy Paris at any moment, which added considerably to the tension and helped to draw the French and Germans closer.
On 07 November, David Ben-Gurion addressed the Knesset and declared a great victory, saying that the 1949 armistice agreement with Egypt was dead and buried, and that the armistice lines were no longer valid and could not be restored. Under no circumstances would Israel agree to the stationing of UN forces on its territory or in any area it occupied. He also made an oblique reference to his intention to annexe the Sinai Peninsula. Isaac Alteras writes that Ben-Gurion ‘was carried away by the resounding victory against Egypt’ and while ‘a statesman well known for his sober realism, [he] took flight in dreams of grandeur.’ The speech marked the beginning of a four-month-long diplomatic struggle, culminating in withdrawal from all territory, under conditions far less palatable than those envisioned in the speech, but with conditions for sea access to Eilat and a UNEF presence on Egyptian soil. The speech immediately drew increased international pressure on Israel to withdraw. That day in New York, the emergency session passed Resolution 1002, again calling for the immediate withdrawal of Israeli troops to behind the armistice lines, and for the immediate withdrawal of British and French troops from Egyptian territory. After a long Israeli cabinet meeting late on 08 November, Ben-Gurion informed Eisenhower that Israel declared its willingness to accept withdrawal of Israeli forces from Sinai, ‘when satisfactory arrangements are made with the international force that is about to enter the canal zone’.
Although the Soviet Union’s position in the crisis was as helpless as was the United States’ regarding Hungary’s uprising, Premier Nikolai Bulganin threatened to intervene on the Egyptian side, and to launch rocket attacks on Britain, France and Israel. Bulganin accused Ben-Gurion of supporting European colonialism, and Mollet of hypocrisy for leading a socialist government while pursuing a right-wing foreign policy. He did however concede in his letter to Eden that Britain had legitimate interests in Egypt.
The Soviet threat to send troops to Egypt to fight the Allies led Eisenhower to fear that this might be the beginning of World War III. One of Eisenhower’s aides Emmet Hughes recalled that the reaction at the White House to the Bulganin letters was “sombre” as there was fear that this was the beginning to the countdown to World War III, a war that if it occurred would kill hundreds of millions of people. In private, Eisenhower told Undersecretary of State Herbert Hoover Jr. of his fears that:
The Soviet Union might be ready for to undertake any wild adventure. They are as scared and furious as Hitler was in his last days. There’s nothing more dangerous than a dictatorship in that frame of mind.
If the Soviet Union did go to war with NATO allies Britain and France, then the United States would be unable to remain neutral, because the United States’ obligations under NATO would come into effect, requiring them to go to war with the Soviet Union in defence of Britain and France. Likewise, if the Soviet Union attacked Israel, though there was no formal American commitment to defend Israel, the Eisenhower administration would come under heavy domestic pressure to intervene. From Eisenhower’s viewpoint, it was better to end the war against Egypt rather than run the risk of this escalating into the Third World War, in case Khrushchev was serious about going to war in defence of Egypt as he insisted in public that he was. Eisenhower’s reaction to these threats from the Soviet Union was: “If those fellows start something, we may have to hit ’em — and, if necessary, with everything in the bucket.” Eisenhower immediately ordered Lockheed U-2 flights over Syria and Israel to search for any Soviet air forces on Syrian bases, so the British and French could destroy them. He told Hoover and CIA director Allan Dulles, “If the Soviets attack the French and British directly, we would be in a war and we would be justified in taking military action even if Congress were not in session.” (The Americans excluded Israel from the guarantee against Soviet attack, however, alarming the Israeli government.) The U-2 showed that Soviet aircraft were not in Syria despite the threats.
Khrushchev often claimed to possess a vast arsenal of nuclear-tipped ICBMs, and while disclaiming any intention of starting a war, maintained that he would be more than happy to turn a conventional war into a nuclear one if war did come. U-2 flights over the Soviet Union, which were intended to discover if the country really did have the nuclear arsenal that it claimed to have, only started in July 1956, and it was not until February 1959 that it firmly established that Khrushchev had vastly exaggerated his nuclear strength. In fact, the supposedly huge Soviet arsenal of ICBMs, with which Khrushchev would wipe out the cities of Britain, France, Israel, and if necessary the United States consisted only of four Semyorka missiles stationed at a swamp south of Arkhangelsk. From the viewpoint of Eisenhower, in 1956 he had no way of knowing for certain whether Khrushchev’s nuclear braggadocio was for real or not. Earlier in 1956, Dulles had warned Eisenhower that Khrushchev was “the most dangerous person to lead the Soviet Union since the October Revolution” as Khrushchev was “not a coldly calculating person, but rather one who reacted emotionally. He was obviously intoxicated much of the time and could be expected to commit irrational acts.” Khrushchev later admitted in his memoirs that he was not seriously “thinking of going to war” in November 1956 as he claimed at the time as he lacked the necessary ICBMs to make good his threats.
The United States also put financial pressure on the UK to end the invasion. Because the Bank of England had lost $45 million between 30 October and 02 November, and Britain’s oil supply had been restricted by the closing of the Suez Canal, the British sought immediate assistance from the IMF, but it was denied by the United States. Eisenhower in fact ordered his Secretary of the Treasury, George M. Humphrey, to prepare to sell part of the US Government’s Sterling Bond holdings. The UK government considered invading Kuwait and Qatar if oil sanctions were put in place by the US.
Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Harold Macmillan, advised his Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, that the United States was fully prepared to carry out this threat. He also warned his Prime Minister that Britain’s foreign exchange reserves simply could not sustain the devaluation of the pound that would come after the United States’ actions; and that within weeks of such a move, the country would be unable to import the food and energy supplies needed to sustain the population on the islands. However, there were suspicions in the Cabinet that Macmillan had deliberately overstated the financial situation in order to force Eden out. What Treasury officials had told Macmillan was far less serious than what he told the Cabinet.
In concert with US actions, Saudi Arabia started an oil embargo against Britain and France. The US refused to fill the gap until Britain and France agreed to a rapid withdrawal. Other NATO members refused to sell oil they received from Arab nations to Britain or France.
Because the British government faced political and economic pressure, the Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, announced a cease fire on 06 November, warning neither France nor Israel beforehand. Troops were still in Port Said and on operational manoeuvres when the order came from London. Port Said had been overrun, and the military assessment was that the Suez Canal could have been completely taken within 24 hours. Eisenhower initially agreed to meet with Eden and Mollet to resolve their differences, but then cancelled the proposed meeting after Secretary of State Dulles advised him it risked inflaming the Middle Eastern situation further.
Eisenhower was not in favour of an immediate withdrawal of British, French and Israeli troops until the US ambassador to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. pushed for it. Eden’s predecessor Sir Winston Churchill commented on 22 November, “I cannot understand why our troops were halted. To go so far and not go on was madness.” Churchill further added that while he might not have dared to begin the military operation, nevertheless once having ordered it he would certainly not have dared to stop it before it had achieved its objective. Without further guarantee, the Anglo-French Task Force had to finish withdrawing by 22 December 1956, to be replaced by Danish and Colombian units of the UNEF.
The Israelis refused to host any UN force on Israeli controlled territory and left the Sinai in March 1957. Before the withdrawal the Israeli forces systematically destroyed infrastructure in Sinai peninsula, such as roads, railroads and telephone lines, and all houses in the villages of Abu Ageila and El Quseima. Before the railway was destroyed, Israel Railways captured Egyptian National Railways equipment including six locomotives and a 30-ton breakdown crane.
The UNEF was formed by forces from countries that were not part of the major alliances (NATO and the Warsaw Pact – though Canadian troops participated in later years, since Canada had spearheaded the idea of a neutral force). By 24 April 1957 the canal was fully reopened to shipping.
Egyptian sovereignty and ownership of the canal had been confirmed by the United States and the United Nations. In retirement, Anthony Eden, the British Prime Minister at the time, maintained that the military response had prevented a much larger war in the Middle East. In the context of the massive armament of Egypt via Czechoslovakia, Israel had been expecting an Egyptian invasion in either March or April 1957, as well as a Soviet invasion of Syria. The crisis may also have hastened decolonisation, as many of the remaining British and French colonies gained independence over the next few years. Some argued that the imposed ending to the Crisis led to over-hasty decolonisation in Africa, increasing the chance of civil wars and military dictatorships in newly independent countries.
The fight over the canal also laid the groundwork for the Six-Day War in 1967 due to the lack of a peace settlement following the 1956 war and rising of tensions between Egypt and Israel. Additionally, the Soviet Union was able to avoid most repercussions from its concurrent violent suppression of the rebellion in Hungary, and were able to present an image at the United Nations as a defender of small powers against imperialism.
As a direct result of the Crisis and in order to prevent further Soviet expansion in the region, Eisenhower asked Congress on 05 January 1957 for authorisation to use military force if requested by any Middle Eastern nation to check aggression and, secondly, to set aside $200 million to help Middle Eastern countries that desired aid from the United States. Congress granted both requests and this policy became known as the Eisenhower Doctrine.
The Soviet Union made major gains with regards to influence in the Middle East. As American historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote:
When the British-French-Israeli invasion forced them to choose, Eisenhower and Dulles came down, with instant decisiveness, on the side of the Egyptians. They preferred alignment with Arab nationalism, even if it meant alienating pro-Israeli constituencies on the eve of a presidential election in the United States, even if it meant throwing the NATO alliance into its most divisive crisis yet, even if it meant risking whatever was left of the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’, even if it meant voting with the Soviet Union in the United Nations Security Council at a time when the Russians, themselves, were invading Hungary and crushing—far more brutally than anything that happened in Egypt—a rebellion against their own authority there. The fact that the Eisenhower administration itself applied crushing economic pressure to the British and French to disengage from Suez, and that it subsequently forced an Israeli pull-back from the Sinai as well—all of this, one might thought, would won the United States the lasting gratitude of Nasser, the Egyptians and the Arab world. Instead, the Americans lost influence in the Middle East as a result of Suez, while the Russians gained it.
Nikita Khrushchev’s much publicised threat expressed through letters written by Nikolai Bulganin to begin rocket attacks on 05 November on Britain, France, and Israel if they did not withdraw from Egypt was widely believed at the time to have forced a ceasefire. Accordingly, it enhanced the prestige of the Soviet Union in Egypt, the Arab world, and the Third World, who believed the USSR was prepared to launch a nuclear attack on Britain, France, and Israel for the sake of Egypt. Though Nasser in private admitted that it was American economic pressure that had saved him, it was Khrushchev, not Eisenhower, whom Nasser publicly thanked as Egypt’s saviour and special friend. Khrushchev later boasted in his memoirs:
Our use of international influence to halt England, France and Israel’s aggression against Egypt in 1956 was a historic turning point…Previously they had apparently thought that we were bluffing, when we openly said that the Soviet Union possessed powerful rockets. But then they saw that we really had rockets. And this had its effect.
Khrushchev took the view that the Suez crisis had been a great triumph for Soviet nuclear brinkmanship, arguing publicly and privately that his threat to use nuclear weapons was what had saved Egypt. Khrushchev claimed in his memoirs:
The governments of England and France knew perfectly well that Eisenhower’s speech condemning their aggression was just a gesture for the sake of public appearances. But when we delivered our own stern warning to the three aggressors, they knew we weren’t playing games with public opinion. They took us seriously.
The conclusion that Khrushchev drew from the Suez crisis, which he saw as his own personal triumph, was that the use of nuclear blackmail was a very effective tool for achieving Soviet foreign policy goals. Therefore, a long period of crises began, starting with the Berlin crisis (beginning later in November 1958) and culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles perceived a power vacuum in the Middle East, and he thought the United States should fill it. His policies, which ultimately led to the Eisenhower Doctrine, were based on the assumption that Nasser and other Arab leaders shared America’s fear of the Soviet Union, which was emphatically not the case. In fact, Nasser never wanted Egypt to be aligned with one single superpower, and instead preferred the Americans and Soviets vying for his friendship.
Nasser saw the Eisenhower Doctrine as a heavy-handed American attempt to dominate the Middle East (a region that Nasser believed he ought to dominate), and led him to ally Egypt with the Soviet Union as an effective counter-weight. It was only with the quiet abandonment of the Eisenhower Doctrine in a National Security Council review in mid-1958 that Nasser started pulling away from the Soviet Union to resume his preferred role as an opportunist who tried to use both superpowers to his advantage, playing on their animosity.
The American conservative historian Arthur L. Herman claims that the episode ruined the usefulness of the United Nations to support American ideals:
Suez destroyed the United Nations as well. By handing it over to Dag Hammarskjöld and his feckless ilk, Eisenhower turned the organization from the stout voice of international law and order into at best a meaningless charade; at worst, a Machiavellian cesspool. Instead of teaching Nasser and his fellow dictators that breaking international law does not pay, Suez taught them that every transgression will be forgotten and forgiven, especially if oil is at stake. … Suez destroyed the moral authority of the so-called world community. Fifty years later, we are all still living in the rubble.
The great military lesson that was reinforced by the Suez War was the extent that the desert favoured highly fluid, mobile operations and the power of aerial interdiction. French aircraft destroyed Egyptian forces threatening paratroopers at Raswa and Israeli air power saved the IDF several days’ worth of time. To operate in the open desert without air supremacy proved to be suicidal for the Egyptian forces in the Sinai. The Royal Marine helicopter assault at Port Said “showed promise as a technique for transporting troops into small landing zones”. Strategic bombing proved ineffective.
Revise Phase II failed to achieve its aim of breaking Egyptian morale while at the same time, those civilian deaths that did occur helped to turn world opinion against the invasion and especially hurt support for the war in Britain. Egyptian urban warfare tactics at Port Said proved to be effective at slowing down the Allied advance. Finally, the war showed the importance of diplomacy. Anglo-French operations against Egypt were militarily successful, but proved to be counterproductive as opinion in both in the home front in Britain and France and the world abroad, especially in the United States, was against the operation.
In West Germany, the Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was shocked by the Soviet threat of nuclear strikes against Britain and France, and even more by the quiescent American response to the Soviet threat of nuclear annihilation against two of NATO’s key members. The Bulganin letters showcased Europe’s dependence upon the United States for security against Soviet nuclear threats while at the same time seeming to show that the American nuclear umbrella was not as reliable as had been advertised. As a result, the French became determined to acquire their own nuclear weapons rather than rely upon the Americans while both Germanys became even more interested in the idea of a European “Third Force” in the Cold War. This helped to lead to the formation of the European Economic Community in 1957, which was intended to be the foundation of the European “Third Force”. The European Economic Community was the precursor to the European Union.
With the prompt withdrawal of UK and French troops, later followed by Israeli troop withdraw, Egypt kept control of the Suez Canal. After the fighting ended, the Egyptian Chief-of-Staff Abdel Hakim Amer accused Nasser of provoking an unnecessary war and then blaming the military for the result. The British historian D.R. Thorpe wrote that the outcome gave Nasser “an inflated view of his own power”, thinking he had overcome the combined forces of the United Kingdom, France and Israel, failing to attribute their withdrawal to pressure from the superpowers.
Despite the Egyptian defeat, Nasser emerged a hero in the Arab world. American historian Derek Varble commented, “Although Egyptian forces fought with mediocre skill during the conflict, many Arabs saw Nasser as the conqueror of European colonialism and Zionism, simply because Britain, France and Israel left the Sinai and the northern Canal Zone.” The Greek-American historian P. J. Vatikiotis described Nasser’s speeches in 1956 and after as providing “superficial explanations of Egypt’s military collapse in Sinai, based on some extraordinary strategy” and that “simplistic children’s tales about the Egyptian air force’s prowess in 1956 were linked in the myth of orderly withdrawal from Sinai. All this was necessary to construct yet another myth, that of Port Said. Inflating and magnifying odd and sporadic resistance into a Stalingrad-like tenacious defense, Port Said became the spirit of Egyptian independence and dignity.”
During the Nasser era, the fighting at Port Said become a symbol of Egyptian victory, linked to a global anti-colonial struggle. Of Nasser’s post Suez hubris Thorpe wrote “The Six-Day War against Israel in 1967 was when reality kicked in—a war that would never have taken place if the Suez crisis had had a different resolution.” Of Tawfiq al-Hakim writings about the 1956 and 1967 wars, Vatikiotis summarises “Were bluffing and histrionics in the nature of Nasser? It was bluffing that led to the crushing of Egypt in 1967, because of the mass self-deception exercised by leaders and followers alike ever since the non-existent ‘Stalingrad which was Port Said’ in 1956.”
Abolishing Civil Liberties
In October 1956, when the Suez Crisis erupted, Nasser brought in a set of sweeping regulations abolishing civil liberties and allowing the state to stage mass arrests without charge and strip away Egyptian citizenship from any group it desired; these measures were mostly directed against the Jews of Egypt. As part of its new policy, 1,000 Jews were arrested and 500 Jewish businesses were seized by the government. A statement branding the Jews as “Zionists and enemies of the state” was read out in the mosques of Cairo and Alexandria. Jewish bank accounts were confiscated and many Jews lost their jobs. Lawyers, engineers, doctors and teachers were not allowed to work in their professions. Thousands of Jews were ordered to leave the country. They were allowed to take only one suitcase and a small sum of cash, and forced to sign declarations “donating” their property to the Egyptian government. Some 25,000 Jews, almost half of the Jewish community left, mainly for Israel, Europe, the United States and South America. By 1957 the Jewish population of Egypt had fallen to 15,000.
The political and psychological impact of the crisis had a fundamental impact on British politics. Anthony Eden was accused of misleading parliament and resigned from office on 09 January 1957. Eden had barely been prime minister for two years when he resigned, and his unsuccessful handling of the Suez Crisis eclipsed the successes he had achieved in the previous 30 years.
Eden’s successor, Harold Macmillan, accelerated the process of decolonisation and sought to recapture the benevolence of the United States. He enjoyed a close friendship with Eisenhower, dating from the North African campaign in World War II, where General Eisenhower commanded allied invasion forces and Macmillan provided political liaison with Winston Churchill. Benefiting from his personal popularity and a healthy economy, Macmillan’s government increased its Parliamentary majority in the 1959 general election. The Suez crisis, though a blow to British power in the Near East, did not mark its end. Britain intervened successfully in Jordan to put down riots that threatened the rule of King Hussein in 1958 and in 1961 deployed troops to Kuwait to successfully deter an Iraqi invasion; the latter deployment had been a response to the threats of the Iraqi dictator General Abd al-Karim Qasim that he would invade and annexe Kuwait. However, at the same time, though British influence continued in the Middle East, Suez was a blow to British prestige in the Near East from which the country never recovered. Britain evacuated all positions in the Middle East East of Suez by 1971, though this was due mainly to economic factors.
Increasingly, British foreign policy thinking turned away from acting as a great imperial power. During the 1960s there was much speculation that Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s continued refusals to send British troops to Vietnam, even as a token force, despite President Lyndon B. Johnson’s persistent requests, were partially due to the Americans failing to support Britain during the Suez Crisis. Edward Heath was dismayed by the US opposition to Britain during the Suez Crisis; as Prime Minister in October 1973 he refused the US permission to use any of the UK’s air bases to resupply during the Yom Kippur War, or to allow the Americans to gather intelligence from British bases in Cyprus.
However, the British relationship with the United States did not suffer lasting consequences from the crisis. “The Anglo-American ‘special relationship’ was revitalised immediately after the Suez Crisis”, writes Risse Kappen. The United States wanted to restore the prestige of its closest ally and thus “The two governments…engaged in almost ritualistic reassurances that their ‘special relationship’ would be restored quickly”. One example came with Britain’s first Hydrogen bomb test Operation Grapple which led to the 1958 US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement. Six years after the crisis, the Americans amazed the British by selling them state-of-the-art missile technology at a moderate cost, which became the UK Polaris programme.
Franco-American ties never recovered from the Suez crisis. There were various reasons for this. Previously there had already been strains in the Franco-American relationship triggered by what Paris considered US betrayal of the French war effort in Indochina at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The incident demonstrated the weakness of the NATO alliance in its lack of planning and co-operation beyond the European stage. Mollet believed Eden should have delayed calling the Cabinet together until 7 November, taking the whole canal in the meantime, and then veto with the French any UN resolution on sanctions. From the point of view of General de Gaulle, the Suez events demonstrated to France that it could not rely on its allies; the British had initiated a ceasefire in the midst of the battle without consulting the French, while the Americans had opposed Paris politically. The damage to the ties between Paris and Washington, D.C., “culminated in President de Gaulle’s 1966 decision to withdraw from the military integration of NATO”. The Suez war had an immense impact on French domestic politics. Much of the French Army officer corps felt that they been “betrayed” by what they considered to be the spineless politicians in Paris when they were on the verge of victory just as they believed they had been “betrayed” in Vietnam in 1954, and accordingly become more determined to win the war in Algeria, even if it meant overthrowing the Fourth Republic to do so. The Suez crisis thus help to set the stage for the military disillusionment with the Fourth Republic, which was to lead to the collapse of the republic in 1958. According to the protocol of Sèvres agreements, France secretly transmitted parts of its own atomic technology to Israel, including a detonator.
The Israel Defense Forces gained confidence from the campaign.[according to whom?] The war demonstrated that Israel was capable of executing large scale military manoeuvres in addition to small night-time raids and counter-insurgency operations. David Ben-Gurion, reading on 16 November that 90,000 British and French troops had been involved in the Suez affair, wrote in his diary, ‘If they had only appointed a commander of ours over this force, Nasser would have been destroyed in two days.’
The war also had tangible benefits for Israel. The Straits of Tiran, closed by Egypt since 1950 was re-opened. Israeli shipping could henceforth move freely through the Straits of Tiran to and from Africa and Asia. The Israelis also secured the presence of UN Peacekeepers in Sinai. Operation Kadesh bought Israel an eleven-year lull on its southern border with Egypt.
Israel escaped the political humiliation that befell Britain and France following their swift, forced withdrawal. In addition, its stubborn refusal to withdraw without guarantees, even in defiance of the United States and United Nations, ended all Western efforts, mainly American and British ones, to impose a political settlement in the Middle East without taking Israel’s security needs into consideration.
In October 1965 Eisenhower told Jewish fundraiser and Republican party supporter Max M. Fisher that he greatly regretted forcing Israel to withdraw from the Sinai peninsula; Vice-President Nixon recalled that Eisenhower expressed the same view to him on several occasions.
Lester B. Pearson, who would later become the Prime Minister of Canada, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for his efforts in creating a mandate for a United Nations Peacekeeping Force, and he is considered the father of the modern concept of peacekeeping. The Suez Crisis contributed to the adoption of a new national flag of Canada in 1965, as the Egyptian government had objected to Canadian peacekeeping troops on the grounds that their flag at that time included a British ensign. As Prime Minister, Pearson would advocate the simple Maple Leaf that was eventually adopted.
After Suez, Cyprus, Aden, and Iraq became the main bases for the British in the region while the French concentrated their forces at Bizerte and Beirut. UNEF was placed in the Sinai (on Egyptian territory only) with the express purpose of maintaining the cease-fire. While it was effective in preventing the small-scale warfare that prevailed before 1956 and after 1967, budgetary cutbacks and changing needs had seen the force shrink to 3,378 by 1967.
The Soviet Union, after long peering through the keyhole of a closed door on what it considered a Western sphere of influence, now found itself invited over the threshold as a friend of the Arabs. Shortly after it reopened, the canal was traversed by the first Soviet warships since World War I. The Soviets’ burgeoning influence in the Middle East, although it was not to last, included acquiring Mediterranean bases, introducing multipurpose projects, supporting the budding Palestinian liberation movement and penetrating the Arab countries. Nasser claimed to be the defender of the Palestinian cause, but his anti-Israel warlike rhetoric damaged the Palestinians since it convinced many Israelis to oppose reconciliation with the Palestinians.