The Suez Crisis 1956 Part 4: The Failed Invasion of Suez

Egyptian Tanks Destroyed in Sinai in the Suez Crisis
Egyptian Tanks Destroyed in Sinai in the Suez Crisis. United States Army Heritage and Education Center

Misleading the World

Parts 1, 2 and 3. Eden now lied about the collusion behind this plan and presented it to his government as the option to be followed if Israel happened to launch an attack, which he knew they would. Many in the cabinet were opposed, others warned that even this involvement would destroy the UK currency. This would become vitally important later on. Israel now began mobilising forces.

The US realised, but didn’t know what the target was. To be fair, hardly anyone in the UK knew either, such was Eden’s secrecy, including the heads of the military. Attempts were made to get troops and ships in the right places without being open about it, but this didn’t go to plan.

Israel was also forming a plan. They had built a military that operated on speed and aggression but now they were going to have to be careful and do some waiting, in case the UK quit on them. Colonel Sharon and a battalion would fly to the Mitla Pass and the rest of the brigade would come up by road. Tanks and other units would hold back until the allies had begun bombing, in case of betrayal, which would turn the raid into a huge Sharon led reprisal. As they readied, French trucks arrived to make it possible. Now the US, watching the troop movements realised Egypt was the target. They couldn’t believe it. Many in the UK government hadn’t even got this far and were confused as to what was happening.

Israel Invades Egypt

Monday 29th October was the day Israel attacked Egypt. Paratroops landed east of Suez, 395 on Mitla Pass, 45 miles from the canal and 156 miles from Israel, with the rest coming to meet them. The enemies of Israel had been harassing over the borders elsewhere, and the first deaths in the war were Palestinian farm workers killed in a massacre that brought Israeli soldiers only minor criminal sentences.

Despite poor equipment and organisation that ruined their transport, the two Israeli units linked up without trouble.

In Egypt, Nasser was taken by surprise. He had been pulling troops out of the Sinai, the area between the canal and Israel, ready for the British to attack on the other side of the canal. Nasser only had one Egyptian infantry division, one Palestinian infantry division, a battalion of scout cars and a super strength battalion at Sharm-el-Sheikh, an Israeli target. Following German advisors, they had a series of fixed defensive points. Nasser thought it odd that Israel was not using aircraft: a sign this was a raid and not conquest? Or where the UK and France coming? He didn’t believe they would risk it, and sent reinforcements to Sinai. Despite shipping on the canal still receiving priority, Egyptian troops reached Mitla Pass.

The British and French Ultimatum

Eisenhower and the US planned to stop Israel, and the first move would be an immediate approach to the UN. They thought the French were probably secretly working with Israel (correct) but were unsure if the UK was too. The US planned to approach the UK in such a way as to pull them away from whatever secret plan might be in place.

Eisenhower wrote to Eden personally, to ask what was going on and come to a joint approach. As British ministers tried to find a way forward, Eden’s response was that the UK and France must take decisive action to protect the canal. Eisenhower now knew there was a plot, and wondered how the UK could cope without US support.

Then the British and French presented their prearranged ultimatum to Egypt and Israel: both to pull back ten miles from the canal, Egypt to accept imperial forces or invasion. Eden stood and lied in Parliament. A twelve hour clock was set. Eden was confused by an opposition leader who pointed out there was no legal justification for what was happening. The House of Commons split, with Eden winning a majority. Britain would not unite around their leader. Eisenhower came out against the UK and the UN Security Council started arguing.

A UN Security Council resolution was vetoed by the UK to stop their plan being stopped in turn. Another resolution was formed, clearer and starker than before, ordering a full Israeli evacuation of Egypt, to leave Egyptian forces to advance to their border and prevent the UK and France moving in. It was also vetoed.

Nasser was stunned, but didn’t believe the UK would invade. France was clearly helping Israel already. His troops were fighting Israel well, but not winning, and his air force was focusing on the battle zone and not punitive bombing in Israel as Ben-Gurion feared. Would soviet ‘volunteers’ turn up and effectively bomb Israel? Ben-Gurion, one of the few Israelis who knew what was meant to be happening, was appalled the UK would not attack yet. Time ticked away and he grew nervous.

A Very Slow Invasion

Then the allied attackers sailed. From Malta to Port Said was 936 miles, and the flotilla would take six days to arrive. Six days while the world watched and spoke. The bombers which would destroy Egyptian air power were caught in an argument – the RAF wanted to attack at night, then the day, for greater success, but that would be later than Israel had been promised.

In the British parliament opposition made it clear they were livid, suspicious of an earlier deal with Israel, and would try and stop what was happening. In Egypt, arms were shared out and a militia assembled. Sharon, in Mitla Pass, pressed to move forward, but Israel was never going to try for the canal, which was left to their allies. Elsewhere on the Israeli front there was combat, as their goals were met one after one. Then their allies finally started bombing. This has been accused of being haphazard, not following through with a proper military plan, and too small, all true. But the Egyptian air force was neutralised nonetheless. A quality enemy air force would have been more resistant. But what the bombing didn’t do was turn Egypt against Nasser. He stayed in power.

Eisenhower announced the US was against the bombing and the invasion fleet; the UK opposition praised him for it, and then asked Eden have you even declared war?

What is this if not war? The UK and France hadn’t just lost US favour, world opinion was, on a whole, against them: it was self-declared policing, if not an act of imperial aggression. Why, many wondered, were the allies bombing the air force of the victim and leaving the invading Israelis alone? Syria and Jordan thought the same, but decided not to help Egypt.

There was a distraction to the world: Hungary, where an anti-Soviet uprising was being crushed by the USSR. The world seemed to be convulsing. The UK descended into verbal civil war. Even now opinion is sharply divided; this article will receive complaints. In France, most of the establishment was pleased to strike at Nasser, and they had never been worried about ongoing US support anyway. They aided Israel much closer than the UK ever did from the start, with planes and ships, prompting Keightley, head of the UK / French force, to ask if they were now officially allies of Israel.

The US weren’t sitting quietly. They had their Sixth Naval Fleet in the Mediterranean and this kept such a close watch on the allied flotilla they actually got in the way. Had Egypt been able to reach out and strike the allied fleet the allies would have been severely impacted by the US navy, if they didn’t end up attacking it by accident. Meanwhile Nasser, facing his army being cut off, ordered a fighting retreat of out Sinai, and they fought hard as they left. The result was Egypt escaping total encirclement. It’s still debated whether Israel won this fight or if the Egyptians simply pulled back. By now Egypt had no air force to target and the allied bombing was to break the morale of the nation. However the allies felt the weight of public relations and avoided many leading targets to reduce civilian damage. Even so Nasser was asked to quit by some commanders, but he was strong enough to stay and planned to remain until Cairo had fallen.

The UN Invited

Israel had expected an allied landing by now, but the flotilla was closing and France demanded a parachute jump to Port Said. However, the allies realised the area had been heavily defended, and even when the fleet arrived it would need a heavy, civilian and building destroying bombardment to land. Other landing spots were now looked at in desperation, including Gaza. Elsewhere, Dulles was rendered too ill to work; Hoover became acting Secretary of State.

Minds were changing. The UK began to offer to carry on with their plan, hold the canal, and then wait until a UN peacekeeping force could take over and do the same thing, despite the UN basically disagreeing with the whole thing. Israel hadn’t yet taken Sharm-el-Sheik, their main target, but were closing in and told the UN they would agree to a ceasefire with Egypt and the presence of UN peacekeepers in key areas, which begged the question of why the UK and France were needed at all. The UN agreed and told the UK and France to stop. At the same time the Hungarian capital was burning.

The allies now had a decision: still land? The UN threatened sanctions, including stopping oil supplies, but France wanted to go ahead. Eden made a decision: he said that as Israel had not yet pulled right back and started their ceasefire (because they were waiting to see if Egypt would do so too), UK forces would invade Egypt and take the canal off the nation who had been attacked. The invasion was on.

Britain and France Invade

Port Said was again the target. On November 5th paratroops were dropped to try and reduce the need to bomb the civilians, because the Egyptians had left some of their defences and pulled back for a defence of Cairo. Over a thousand UK and French paratroops landed successfully. At the same time the UN agreed to an international force to step in and stop everything. Nasser sent reinforcements to Said. He even went to oversee but was advised to return. In November 5th Israel took Sharm-el-Sheik, and stopped fighting. Combat now was done by the ‘police’ who claimed to bring peace. Poorly equipped, the paratroops made headway and readied for the seaborne assault to reinforce them. In Port Fuad the French Paratroops took enough key points to allow an unopposed landing. In Said, the Egyptians asked for a cease-fire to discuss a local government, or surrender. To try and mollify the UN Eden now stopped bombing but the troops were still to land. The Egyptians decided to refuse to surrender.

November 6th 1956 was the allied landing in Port Said. They did so without a full naval bombardment to reduce civilian casualties, and sometimes had to fight house to house. Port Said was taken. Eden and his men reflected. They had boots on the ground, faced a Russian intervention, collapsing currency reserves, and UN sanctions. Israel had stopped fighting, and an international force was being mobilised. There seemed no justification for carrying on. Eden faced such opposition in the cabinet, and the economics seemed so bad, that he gave in and a ceasefire was called. France, however, wanted to occupy the whole canal before conceding, but stopped as their ally had given up. Eden claimed to the world they had saved Egypt from Israel. Attempts were made on the ground to rush troops as far as possible down the canal before the ceasefire took effect. Then the physical violence was over.

Resolving the Issue

Ben-Gurion wanted to stay in Sinai, but US and Soviet pressure made him pull Israel back. Eisenhower and the UN were still moving. An agreement had been formed to use international peacekeepers, but none from the ‘big five’ nations, ostensibly to keep the soviets off the canal, but also to get the UK and France out ASAP. Some Britons were asking why were they giving up what they had just taken? A debate about pleasing the US and trying to use commonwealth troops versus clinging on began in the British government, but they hadn’t got clarity about what the world wanted. France surprised everyone by agreeing  to the UN plan, and the UK now insisted peacekeepers should stay, not until the canal issue was agreed, but until Palestine was settled, which could arguably still see peacekeepers on the canal today. UNEF was formed to keep peace, but they would only enter Egypt with local approval. Egypt thought about it, barred Anglophile Canadians from being in UNEF, and agreed. The UK and France found themselves naked on the shore of Egypt.

Nasser seized all the UK and French owned business and property in Egypt. The US were not for forgiving, nor the Arab world. The itself canal had been blocked by sabotage during the invasion so a UK salvage force laded, but could only operate safely in the toehold the allies had. The USSR was rumoured to be sending troops to help the locals, and British political life was collapsing into rancour with cries of traitors to those who opposed. There were also calls for Eden to quit, but he felt he could use this toehold to gain concessions. Meanwhile France was justifying what they’d done by saying they had stopped a soviet led Arab union assault in Israel.

Of practical importance were the oil and currency shortages, growing to the point of crippling the UK; US help was urgently needed. But how to get it? The only way seemed to be leave Suez. Eden, now terribly ill, decided on a short holiday in the sun. With UK troops uncertain in Said, Eden went for a break in Jamaica. His deputy now asked the US: If Eden lost power, and they formed a new government and pulled troops out, would the US help them? When Eden readied to return to the UK they and the French gave in: troops would be pulled out. They claimed they had stopped two wars and had been successful. The world didn’t see it that way, but shortly after oil and cash began to flow back into the UK.

Aftermath

Eden faced an opposition that believed France had colluded with the Israelis. But had Eden? They asked, and he lied and said no. The UK now wrangled over the salvage, but were rebuffed: Egypt and the world wanted the attackers gone. On December 23rd they disembarked. The British lead in the Middle East, which the US had been happy to allow, was gone. Many Arab nations turned against them. The US would start a new policy of heavy involvement to fill the void. More chaos would result.

Eden had held on despite Suez, but in January 1957 he had to resign due to ill health. He believed events in the Middle East would justify what he had done. Favourite replacement Rab Butler was overlooked, and Harold MacMillan became PM. He had been Chancellor during Suez, had pushed for an attack on Nasser, then pleaded the economy was about to fail and helped cause the early exit. The Anglo-American friendship was restarted by wartime associates Eisenhower and Macmillan. France sneaked back into international acceptance by aiding in the Treaty of Rome, which united some of Europe into an economic community, a step towards the European Union. The US was impressed.

Israel retreated, but kept Sharm-el-Sheik, demanding an end to border raids and the naval blockade before giving them back. US and UN negotiations with Israel stalled, and Eisenhower began exerting financial pressure. Eventually Israel withdrew, stating any more blockade, or trouble in Gaza, and it might attack again. Israeli troops were replaced, as agreed, by UNEF. Amazingly, UNEF in Gaza worked and peace broke out. Ben-Gurion conceded that Israel could not govern Gaza, and had no hope of doing so, nor did it want that Arab population. Nasser also had success, getting agreement on an Egyptian run Suez Canal.

The era of European dominance of the Middle East was over. America's had begun.