THE CLEARING & RE-OPENING OF THE SUEZ CANAL
During the Suez Crisis (Operation Musketeer), the Egyptians deliberately and systematically sabotaged the Canal, sinking 47 vessels (which included a frigate, dredgers, tugs, floating cranes & docks, hoppers and salvage craft) and destroying two bridges successfully blocking the Canal between Port Said in the north and Suez in the south. Twenty of the vessels where in Port Said Harbour, their bottoms ripped out by explosives, were successfully blocking entry into the Suez Canal – the others, including the concrete filled Akka and the frigate Abikir were scuttled between Port Said and Suez. The Egyptians had successfully blown up both the El Firdan railway bridge and the pontoon bridge at the southern end of Lake Timsah, leaving even more debris in the Canal. Sixteen merchant ships and tankers were now trapped in the Suez Canal by these wrecks.
It had been foreseen before the onset of Operation Musketeer that the entrance to the Suez Canal at Port Said may be blocked and, accordingly, the survey ship HMS Dalrymple, the salvage vessel RFA Sea Salvor (already part of the Mediterranean Fleet), the coastal salvage vessel HMS Kingarth together with an ocean tug and four harbour tugs had accompanied the assault convoys. HMS Rampara joined the convoy on the 5th November and more salvage vessels arrived during the next week.
It was vital to clear a passage to the Commercial Basin in order that much needed vehicles and stores could be sent ashore for the troops on the ground. Lifting operations commenced immediately with the boom defence ship Barhill working to get wires under the wreck of the 150 ton floating crane at the mouth of the harbour. Meanwhile the wreck of the 1,700 ton hopper, Triton, was the first wreck moved by two Lifting Crafts (LC10 & LC11) and Kingarth, who then assisted Barhill in the removal of the crane. The Paul Solente, a 4,000 ton suction dredger, was found to have the most extensive damage by explosives so underwater repairs where necessary before lifting could be considered. By the end of November the Anglo-French salvage teams had cleared a 25 ft deep channel as far as El Cap as well as opening up Port Said Harbour to vessels of up to 10,000 tons.
With the “Cease Fire” of Operation Musketeer having come into force at midnight, 7th November, control, not only of the armed forces but of the salvage operations was to be handed over to the United Nations. The UN Secretary General appointed Lt General Raymond A. Wheeler, a 71 year old retired US Army engineer who had been responsible for many harbour clearance operations during WWII, to take charge of the salvage operations and also engage two salvage firms, one Danish and the other Dutch, who duly arrived on the 26th November and assumed his duties at Headquarters in Ismailia. He was also given the task of raising the 40 million dollars estimated cost of the operation.
Wheeler started negotiations with the Egyptian authorities in Cairo on 8th December and a complete technical survey by the United Nations of obstructions in the Canal and surrounding base workshops at Port Fouad was agreed to. On 14th November the Egyptian Government had announced the presence of mines in the approaches to the Suez Canal. During General Wheeler’s negotiations with the Egyptians it was revealed more explosive charges had been laid in the Canal south of El Cap. Also the sunken tug Edgar Bonnet and the frigate Abukir contained extensive explosives. Therefore it was not until the 30th December when Wheeler had confirmation that the final explosives had been removed from Canal waters that work recommenced south of El Cap with the three UN salvage vessels being piloted by Egyptian naval craft through mine fields in the southern end of the Canal.
Although the Anglo-French salvage teams were working relentlessly to clear the Canal, matters soon came to the front when the final troops were due to leave on 22nd December. Egypt would not allow the British or French to continue working (even though many of the vessels were manned by civilians), nor would they allow any British or French person to go ashore but the British would not remain without the protection of their troops. At that time the salvage team consisted of 14 British vessels, 3 French and 2 German Lifting Craft vessels, with 11 more ships on their way across the Mediterranean and 8 more at Aden & Djibputi. Wheeler had strong negotiations ahead of him if he was to retain enough crafts to complete the task in hand. It was proposed that all vessels fly under the United Nations flag and all existing crew be dressed in civilian clothes. Many civilian crew decided not to remain – some were persuaded to stay and those who left were replaced by naval officers and volunteer ratings who donned Merchant Navy uniforms. Officers had to provide their own clothes, while ratings were supplied with War Office “de-mob suits”. Finally it was decided that 12 salvage vessels would remain with their support vessels. The salvage ships were: the Royal Navy’s Dalrymple, Kingarth, Uplifter and Barnstone; the British RFA Sea Salvor, Kinbrace, Succour; the civilian owned Salveda and Dispenser; the French LST 525 and two Lifting Craft, LC10 and LC11. The supports supply ships included the LST Striker, the RFA Fort Duquesne, Blude Ranger and Spapool and the tug Careful.
As everything changed on the 22nd December with the troops now departed, the salvage operations were under constant attack from small arms with tracer bullets aimed at the fleet in Avant Port where they were berthed. The firing continued throughout the night and into the next day. It was decided that only the Sea Salvor and Salveda could resume work in raising the Paul Solente and the LCT 525 worked on the tug Hercule. That morning everyone was given a fine display on how to remove Union Jacks from the hands of de Lessops statue and a slippery flag pole. After much encouragement from a large mob and lots of fist shaking in the fleets direction, the Egyptians achieved their objective. On the 30th December de Lessops statue was blown up and the mighty statue toppled onto the quayside.
Finally the Egyptians agreed all could resume work if, and only if, Dalrymple
and Fort Duquesne departed – which they did on the 31st December and 3rd
No further ships were allowed in Egyptian waters but the British did keep watch from 25 miles north of Port Said where they remained, patrolling until the 4th January. On the 2nd January the tug RFA Prosperous brought the first mail to reach the salvage crews but even she was not permitted in Egyptian waters so General Wheeler arranged for it to be collected by a small Dutch vessel. The next lot from Cyprus being met by UN officials in an Egyptian pilot launch.
The wreck disposal work allocated to the Anglo-French salvage teams by the United Nations was completed on the 21st January, including the heavily damaged Paul Solente, the largest blockship in the Canal. 13 wrecks, totaling nearly 17,000 tons had been removed since work had started on the 7th November. Almost immediately the salvage team started to disperse. The clearance works from El Cap to Suez carried on with almost half the wrecks removed by the 1st February. The concrete laden LST Akka took a further 2 weeks to raise. The final works were completed on 7th May, even though both British and French ships had already passed through in April.
BLOCKSHIPS AT PORT SAID
Brief timetable of work carried out by the UK & French Salvage Units:
|Wreck||Displacement||Date Started||Date Lifted|
|Floating Crane (lifted by Kingarth, Barhill & LCs 10 & 11)||365 tons||7 Nov 56||30 Nov 56|
|Paul Solente Suction Dredger (lifted by Sea Salvor, Salveda & LCs 10 & 11)||4,000 tons||9 Nov 56||16 Jan 57|
|Triton Sand Hopper||1,5000 tons||15 Nov 56||16 Jan 57|
|Floating Dock||5,000 tons||28 Nov 56||6 Dec 56|
|Bassel - Tug||450 tons||28 Nov 56||6 Dec 56|
|Gar II - Tug||235 tons||28 Nov 56||7 Dec 56|
|Hardi - Pilot Boat||490 tons||28 Nov 56||17 Dec 56|
|Barq - Tug (lifted by Kingarth & Succour)||350 tons||1 Dec 56||3 Dec 56|
|Sand Hopper No. 44||1,000 tons||6 Dec 56||15 Dec 56|
|Sand Hopper No. 45||1,000 tons||9 Dec 56||13 Dec 56|
|Floating Crane & Pontoon||2,180 tons||31 Dec 56||21 Jan 57|
|Hurcule - Suez Canal Tug||1,200 tons||1 Jan 57||11 Jan 57|
(Approx Total Displacement Lifted 16,870 tons)
Prior to the closure of the Canal in October 1956, maintenance dredging needs had been met both by equipment operated by the Egyptian Canal Authority and external contractors. Approximately 3,600,000 cubic metres of deposits had to be removed annually to maintain the proper depth of the waterway. Surveys showed that to completely re-open the Canal 500,000 cubic metres of silt first had to be removed. Of the two suction dredgers and nine bucket dredgers operated by the Authority, seven had been sunk or damaged. The two small remaining dredgers were now working but replacement equipment had to be sourced.
The navigational lighting system was found to be out of commission mainly as the result of the destruction of the central gas-producing plant serving the system from Ismailia. A temporary system, using locally produced butane gas was provided until conversation to the lighting buoys to a permanent electric system could be undertaken.
Even though the workshops at Port Tewfik and Ismailia were undamaged, substantial
damaged occurred at Port Fouad. It was agreed that the Egyptian Canal Authority would undertake the restoration works, the United Nations would replace the non-repairable machine tools and equipment required for normal resumption of traffic through the Canal.
Rehabilitation of floating equipment – many of the tugs were able to be restored after they were re-floated. Extensive replacement of equipment would be essential to ensure continuing operational and maintenance needs which included lifting craft, floating cranes, hoppers and a floating dock.
In response to a letter to Member States to make available to him contributions by way of an advance of funds toward the discharge of his responsibilities in connection with the Canal clearance operation the Secretary-General received the following response:
|States||Approx equivalent in US dollars|
|Federal Republic of Germany||1,000,000.00|
|United States of America||5,000,000.00|
The advances were deposited with the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development which acted as fiscal agent for the United Nations for this purpose.
Services and supplies, valued at $500,000 on a comparable basis for similar services and supplies provided under United Nations commercial contractual standards, were commissioned by the United Nations subsequent to its assumption of responsibility for the operation, from resources made available by Governments of the UK and France.
|Administrative and general expenses||357,093.57|
|Operating costs of United Nations contractors||6,306,368.63|
|Survey and rehabilitation costs of Canal base workshops, navigational lighting system and the Telecommunication system||962,580.67|
|Reimbursement for service supplied provided by the Governments of the UK and France at the request of the United Nations||500,000.00|
|Contribution to essential dredging services||250,000.00|
After consideration of various possible alternatives for meeting the costs
of the operation, the Secretary-General would recommend that, subject to reduction
by such resources as might become otherwise available, repayment to contributor
countries be effected by means of the application of a surcharge on Canal traffic
under which arrangement a levy of 3 per cent on Canal tolls would be paid into
a special United Nations account, the procedures to govern such payments to
be negotiated with the Egyptian Government and with the other parties to the
payments. On the basis of the current level of Canal traffic, it can be estimated
that by this method the costs would be reimbursed over a period of about
(Researched by Patricia Jezzard, President, The Canal Zoners)
Back to The Suez Crisis
Back to Main Page