Suez Disaster Half 2 of two

published on July 2, 2020

In July 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel
Nasser announced the nationalisation of the

Suez Canal Company

Egyptians would take charge of this vital
strategic waterway, connecting Europe to Asia,

with immediate effect

Britain and France relied on the Canal route
for their vital supplies of Middle East oil,

which fuelled their economies

In their eyes, Nasser was a threat – a dictator
intent on uniting the Arab world against them,

destroying their influence in the Middle East
and North Africa, and using control of the

canal as a weapon against them

Secretly, Britain and France agreed to force
regime change on Egypt – a joint military

intervention to depose Nasser, and reassert
their standing as global powers

But it was not Britain or France that struck
first against Nasser it was Israel

On 29th October, Israeli paratroopers landed
in the Egyptian Sinai, seizing the strategic

Mitla Pass, and paving the way for an invasion
by ground forces

At the UN, Israel insisted it was acting in
self-defence, against raids by Palestinian

fighters known as fedayeen, operating from
bases in Gaza and Sinai

But there were no fedayeen bases in Sinai

Britain and France, claiming to be acting
on behalf of the international community,

issued an ultimatum to both sides: stop fighting
within 12 hours, and withdraw all forces 10

miles from the Suez Canal – or they would
intervene to enforce compliance

Egypt was effectively been told to abandon
the Sinai and the Canal Israel accepted the

terms; Nasser refused

So on 31st October, British and French aircraft,
taking off from carriers in the Mediterranean,

and bases in Cyprus and Malta, began bombing
Egyptian airfields, air defences and infrastructure

But not all was as it seemed

Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion had
been considering an attack on Egypt for many


He was encouraged by Moshe Dayan, the hawkish
commander of Israel's armed forces

Nasser, like all leaders of Arab states, did
not view the new Jewish state as legitimate:

now receiving modern weapons from Czechoslovakia,
he was seen as a potential threat to Israel's


They were also determined to end Egypt's blockade
of the Straits of Tiran, which prevented Israeli

access to the Red Sea, and limited opportunities
for trade

France wanted to ally with the Israelis to
get rid of Nasser But British Prime Minister

Sir Anthony Eden was anxious about being seen
as the aggressor So the French came up with

an idea

At Sèvres, near Paris, representatives of
Britain, France and Israel met in secret to

plan a war:

Israel would invade Egypt – allowing Britain
and France, posing as peacemakers, to issue

an ultimatum they knew only Israel would accept
Then, claiming to be acting to safeguard the

canal, they would invade Egypt and overthrow
Nasser – though they had no real plan for

what to do once he was gone

It would take years for the full details of
this conspiracy to emerge

On 5th November, after a week of bombing,
and with Israeli troops winning the battle

in Sinai, British and French paratroopers
were dropped onto targets around Port Said

and Port Fuad, at the mouth of the Suez Canal

Once on the ground, they quickly seized Egyptian
airfields and key infrastructure

The next morning, under cover of air strikes
and naval bombardment, British and French

landings began

Fierce street-fighting raged throughout the

But the Egyptians were massively outgunned,
and it proved a one-sided contest

Around 600 Egyptian soldiers and police were
killed – British and French deaths totalled

just 26

Egyptian civilians suffered most – up to
one thousand lost their lives, with many more

left homeless by air raids and shelling

By the end of the day, the British and French
were in control

But they couldn't prevent the Egyptians sabotaging
the Suez Canal itself They sank ships in

its narrow channel, blocking the canal, and
putting it out of action for several months

It wasn't hard to see that the British, French
and Israelis were working together – and at

the United Nations, world opinion quickly
turned against them

For once, the US and Soviet Union were united
in condemnation – a typically animated Soviet

Premier Nikita Khrushchev even threatened
to fire rockets at Paris and London

President Eisenhower thought the invasion
had no moral or legal justification And he

was furious with his British ally for going
behind his back

"The British and French Governments delivered
a 12 hour ultimatum to Israel and Egypt now

followed up by armed attacks against Egypt
The United States was not consulted in any

way about any phase of these actions nor were
we informed of them in advance, as it is the

manifest right of any of these nations to
take such decisions and actions it is likewise

our right if our judgement so dictates, for
we do not accept the use of force as a wise

or proper instrument for the settlement of
international disputes"

Eisenhower wanted international attention
focused on Hungary, where Soviet troops were,

at that moment, brutally crushing a popular

Instead, Britain and France's reckless intervention
was likely to push Arab states closer to the

Soviet Union

In the UN Security Council, Britain and France
used their veto to block resolutions that

criticised Israel's attack on Egypt, or their
own intervention

But with both world superpowers condemning
their attack, they now faced a vote in the

General Assembly, and the threat of UN sanctions

Britain's economy had been fragile before
the crisis began Now, market fears caused

the British currency to crash, threatening
economic disaster

Only a massive loan from the International
Monetary Fund could save Britain, but Eisenhower

blocked any IMF aid until Britain agreed to
a UN-backed ceasefire in Egypt

Eden, facing growing opposition abroad, at
home and from within his own government, had

few options

Just two days after British troops landed
in Egypt, they announced a ceasefire The

French, abandoned by their ally, had no choice
but to follow suit

Within days, the UN's first major peacekeeping
operation got underway, as Danish UN troops

arrived in Egypt to takeover from the British
and French

As they packed up, and re-embarked on their
landing ships to return home – it was officially

'job well done' – but in truth, Suez had
been a humiliating fiasco

The political leadership had been reckless,
the military objectives confused – and as

soon as international pressure had mounted
up, the British had had no option but to abort

the entire mission

That winter, under intense American pressure,
Israeli forces also withdrew from Sinai

The Suez Crisis forced Britain and France
to accept that they were now second-rank powers

No longer could they act as they wished on
the world stage, without first considering

the view of the United States

The lesson taken by the British was never
again to jeopardise their so-called 'special

relationship' with America

For France, the lesson was that Britain and
America were unreliable allies, and their

interests were better served by closer ties
within Europe

Israel achieved some objectives – including
the opening of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli

shipping – but with Nasser still in power,
future conflict with Egypt and its other Arab

neighbours was almost certain: the Sinai War
proved to be a precursor to the far more decisive

'Six Day War' fought a decade later

British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden's
career, and health, were ruined He resigned,

but not before lying to Parliament about his
knowledge of the secret deal with Israel

“I wish my successor all good fortune
God speed to you all Goodbye”

President Nasser, feted as the hero of the
Arab world for having stood up to European

imperialists, had in reality been saved by
US and UN intervention But his modernising

reforms, championing of the Arab cause, and
opposition to foreign intervention, mean his

memory is still revered by Arabs across the
Middle East

impact of the Suez Crisis on America was perhaps

the most far-reaching

The collapse of British and French prestige
amongst Arab nations meant the US would now

take the lead in countering Soviet expansion
in the Middle East, and securing the West's

oil supplies

The Suez Crisis would accelerate US involvement
in this volatile region The consequences

would stretch well into the 21st century

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