THE MONTHS LEADING UP TO THE SUEZ CRISIS
& "OPERATION MUSKETEER"
In June 1956, the last British soldier left Egypt. As the last British troops left Egypt, Nasser was completing the purchase of Soviet made aircraft, tanks and arms from Czechoslovakia, which might help him realize one of his goals, the destruction of Israel.
Despite anti-western demonstrations in Egypt, in January 1956 the United States and Britain had pledged funding to help finance the construction of a new High Dam at Aswan. The US, however, became convinced that the Dam project would not be a success and wanted to reduce expenditure on foreign aid. It was also concerned about Nasser’s purchase of Soviet arms. On 19th July, US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, informed the Egyptian ambassador in Washington that his government had decided that it would not provide funding for the construction of the Dam. The World Bank then refused to advance Egypt a promised $200 million. Eden, who recalled Britain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, looked to military action which might result in Nasser’s downfall and restore Britain’s influence in the region.
On July 26th, Gamel Abdul Nasser, president of Egypt, address a huge crowd in Alexandria announcing his intention to nationalize the Anglo/French Suez Canal Company, declaring that he would take the revenue (some $30+ million per year) from the canal to finance his dam. In that speech Nasser chose to delve back even further into history in a long digression on the building of the Suez Canal a century earlier. That gave him the chance to mention the name of the Frenchman who had built the canal, Ferdinand de Lessops. This he did at least 13 times. “De Lessops”, it turned out, was the code word for the Egyptian army to start the seizure, and nationalization of the Canal.
On 2nd August 1956 the governments of the United State, Great Britain and France summoned an international conference in London to discuss further steps to secure “freedom and safety” of the Canal. They announced that they considered the Suez Canal an “international institute”, and so they refused to recognize legitimacy of it nationalization. The Anglo-French political and military leadership was determined to restore the colonial status of the Suez Canal by force. They obtained support from Israel, which could not tolerate Egypt’s quick growth in power and its influence on the unity of the Arab world. The United States, however, made it clear that unjustified military action would not be tolerated. Eisenhower in particular was concerned for the presidential election due that November, which he intended to win as the incumbent ‘peace’ president. He knew that the voters would not thank him for taking them into a war in which America had no direct interest.
To head off Anglo-French military action, Eisenhower and his secretary of state ensnared the Europeans in a fruitless round of talks and conferences. Aware that they were on shaky legal ground for an invasion, the British and French reluctantly played along. But they were losing the momentum for military action, which was the American intention. The increasingly histrionic Eden, in particular, wanted not only the reversal of the Canal’s nationalization but also regime change; he wanted Nasser ‘destroyed’.
On 8th August in London, under the command of general Hugh Stockwell, was created
the Anglo-French staff for planning the war against Egypt. According to its
plans, military operations had to be conducted in two stages. The first stage
would start with the advance of the Israeli army in the Sinai Peninsula in order
to contain the main groupings of the Egyptian army in fights. On the second
stage the Anglo-French forces would carry out seaborne landings in Port Said
and Port Fouad (Operation Musketeer) in order to seize bridgeheads. After concentrating
sufficient forces and equipment, they had to advance along the Suez Canal and
force Egypt to withdraw its troops from the Canal Zone. Therefore, to the joint
Anglo-French fleet, the focal operation of the campaign was the Suez Canal landing
On 30th September a delegation secretly presented the French with a fabricated casus belli; Israel would invade Egypt and race to the Canal. The French and British could then invade, posing as peacekeepers to separate the two sides, and occupy the Canal, ostensibly to guarantee the free passage of shipping. When this plan was presented to Eden, he jumped at it. Thus was collusion born. The details were agreed on at a secret meeting in Sevres, outside Paris. Not for nothing is the Suez Crisis know in Egypt as the “tripartite aggression”. The British and French forces now had a pretext to invade. For the Israelis, it would punish Egypt for it escalating incursions into Israel from Gaza. It would also hitch the major European powers to the cause of Israel; up to that point, the French had tried to be evenhanded between Israel and its neighbours; the British had leaned towards the Arab states.
Only a handful of people were let in on the collusion. Most of them thought it was mad from the start, arguing, quite correctly, that the cover for the invasion was so flimsy it would soon be blown. To disguise what was going on, the British, in particular, were drawn ever deeper into a bog of lies and deception, particularly with the Americans. Parliament was also deceived. Both Eden and Selwyn Lloyd, his foreign secretary, told the House of Commons that, as Lloyd put it, “there was no prior agreement” with Israel.
The general command of the invasion was exercised by the joint Anglo-French headquarters in Cyprus. The British General Charles Keightly became the commander-in-chief, and the French Vice-Admiral Pierre Barjot became his deputy. Apart from regular structures, the headquarters had also accommodated a psychological warfare division. There were no Israeli representatives in the headquarters, but the Israeli command followed the general plan of the campaign. It attached a big role to such activities like intelligence and masking. While preparing the seaborne landing, the French airforces conducted systematic reconnaissance; in order to conceal the objectives of the pending operation, the reconnaissance enveloped vast areas – particularly the whole Mediterranean coast of Egypt. Intelligence also supplied the Anglo-French command with information concerning the Egyptian defence installations in the areas of planned landings. Concentration of the Anglo-French naval forces was disguised as common manoeuvres. Originally the areas of concentration were kept secret; once the secrecy could not be maintained any more, there were applied demonstrations that had to convince the Egyptians that the seaborne landing would be staged in the vicinity of Alexandria. Many Allied aircraft were painted in yellow and brown colours, and bore identification markings of the Egyptian air forces.
It was considered indispensable to achieve superiority in forces and equipment. The Anglo-French fleet numbered more that 130 ships, including 7 aircraft-carriers, 3 light cruisers, 13 destroyers, 14 patrol boats, 6 submarines, 11 landing crafts, 8 minesweepers, 60 transports and other ships and vessels. The ships were grouped in the Task Force 345, divided into tactical groups of different designations: 345.4 – carriers; 345.5 – seaborne; 345.7 – marines; 345.2 – support. A mine-sweeping group was created to make passages in possible minefields. The Anglo-French air forces possessed 461 aircraft, including 70 bombers, 228 fighters, 81 reconnaissance planes and 82 transport planes. The air forces were grouped in five wings; two bomber, one mixed, and two transport ones. Moreover, more than 290 aircraft were based on the carriers of the Group 345.4. altogether the invading forces had 751 aircraft.
For the landing forces Great Britain had detached an infantry and an armoured division, three infantry and one airborne brigade, two independent tank regiments, two army artillery groups, and independent armoured regiment, six independent artillery regiments and three independent infantry battalions. Altogether the British contingent number about 45 thousand men. The French forces comprised a mechanized and an airborne division, an independent airborne brigade and an independent tank regiment. Altogether the French contingent numbered more than 20 thousand men. For the helicopter operation was created a separate group comprising two aircraft-carriers (Theseus and Ocean) with 22 helicopters aboard. They had to carry the Commando No. 45 of 600 men. They achieved their readiness on 4th October. While preparing the Suez landing, the Anglo-French command staged in various places of the Mediterranean 10 exercises in seaborne landings with their seaborne and minesweeping forces, and two exercises in airborne landings. Simultaneously the troops were trained in the communications. The plan of the operation also foresaw decoy landings, in particular in the Red Sea, near Suez (Operation Toreador)
Once the Egyptian command received reliable information about the pending invasion, it undertook a number of measures aimed at consolidation of the country’s defences. The troops were put on alert, a partial mobilization was announced, and the civil population was submitted to military training and service in the popular militia. Yet Egypt’s capabilities of repelling the aggression were limited; it lacked professional military cadres, and the armed forces did not have enough modern weapons and equipment. A seaborne landing at Port Said was deemed unlikely and no defences were organized there. The military equipment, and particularly aircraft, were not dispersed or camouflaged. Out of 128 aircraft, the Egyptian air forces possessed, only 30 fighters and 12 bombers were fit for combat actions. At the outbreak of the hostilities the Egyptian army numbered about 140 thousand men, and together with the National Guard and volunteers – 240 thousand. They were organized in infantry, armoured and artillery brigades. In general in the vicinity of Port Said the Allies enjoyed five-fold superiority over the Egyptians in the troops, and absolute superiority in naval and air forces. At the end of October the Allied forces completed the deployment in the eastern Mediterranean and were ready to start the war.
On 29th October, Israeli paratroopers, led by a zealous officer called Ariel Sharon, were dropped into Sinai to fulfill their side of the bargain. Feigning surprise, the British and French issued an ultimatum to both sides to cease fire. When the Egyptians rejected this, British planes started bombing the Egyptian air force on the ground and on 5th November Anglo-French troops went ashore to begin the invasion of the Canal Zone and, it was hoped, to topple Nasser.
On 5th November, some three months and 10 days after Nasser had nationalized the Canal, the Anglo-French assault on Suez was launched. It was preceded by an aerial bombardment, which grounded and destroyed the Egyptian air force. Soon after dawn, soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment dropped onto El Gamil airfield, while French paratroopers landed south of the Raswa bridges and at Port Fouad. Within 45 minutes, all Egyptian resistance on the airfield had been overcome and Royal Naval helicopters were bringing in supplies. With El Gamil secured, the British Paras moved eastwards towards Port Said, meeting their first serious opposition en route. With air support, they overwhelmed the Egyptian forces then stopped and dug in overnight because the beach area of Port Said was to be bombarded next day during the seaborne landing.
Altogether, between 31st October and 5th November, the Anglo-French air forces made more thank 2000 sorties to strike again the targets in Egypt. Those were indiscriminate strikes, which brought huge casualties among the civilian population. Particularly badly damaged were the densely populated quarters of Cairo, Ismailia, Alexandria, Suez and especially Port Said where many quarters were leveled.
On 6th November, the sea and helicopter borne assault went in. Royal Marine Commandos, together with British and French airborne forces supported by British tanks soon defeated the Egyptian forces, capturing men, vehicles and many of the newly purchased Czech manufactured weapons. During one of the raids the Egyptian frigate, Akka, was sunk in the Suez Canal, which resulted in paralysing of the shipping there. Later another five ships and vessels were sunk in the Canal.
Eisenhower, kept completely in the dark, felt utterly betrayed by his erstwhile allies. “I’ve just never seen great powers make such a complete mess and botch of things” he told his aides. He was determined to put a stop to the whole enterprise, America struck at Britain’s fragile economy. It refused to allow the IMF to give emergency loans to Britain unless it called off the invasion. Faced by imminent financial collapse, as the British Treasury saw it, on 7th November Eden surrendered to American demands and stopped the operation, with his troops stranded half way down the Canal. The French were furious, but obliged to agree; their troops were under British command.
America also proved adept at working through the UN. On 2nd November an American resolution demanding a ceasefire was passed by a majority of 64 to 5, the Russians voting with the United States. And to sidestep Anglo-French vetoes at the Security Council, for the first time the General Assembly met in emergency session (where no country held a veto) and took up a Canadian suggestion to assemble an international emergency force to go to the Canal and monitor the ceasefire. They were to be the first “blue hat” UN peacekeepers. The organization was one of the clear winners of the crisis, gaining an enhanced role in the world.
Accusations of collusion between Britain, France and Israel were denied in
parliament by Eden who tried to avoid giving a clear and categorical answer.
He was at last asked whether there was foreknowledge of the Israeli attack and,
on 20th December, in his last address to the House of Commons, recorded in Hansard,
he replied “I want to say this on the question of foreknowledge, and to
say it quite bluntly to the House, that there was not foreknowledge that Israel
would attack Egypt. There was not” In January 1957, his health shattered
and his political credibility severely damaged, Sir Anthony Eden, the British
prime minister, resigned.
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