Smoke rises from oil tanks beside the Suez Canal hit during the initial Anglo-French assault on Port Said, 5 November 1956.
The British also sought to resolve their problems in the Middle East with the use of force. In 1951 a dispute with the nationalist government in Iran over its nationalization of British oil interests led to Plan Y, the plan for a military intervention by the seizure of Abadan, the centre of the oil industry. It was not, however, pursued, in large part because in the absence of the Indian Army, which had been a vital prop to British power during the colonial period, it no longer seemed militarily viable. This was a major contrast to 1941 when the availability of the Indian Army had helped in the occupation of Iraq.
In 1956 a more assertive stance was taken towards Egypt, in what was seen as a more threatening situation. Britain and France attacked Egypt in an intervention publicly justified as a way of safeguarding the Suez Canal, which had been nationalized that July by the aggressive Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and that now appeared threatened by a successful Israeli attack on Egypt with which Britain and France had secretly colluded. Nasser’s Arab nationalism was seen as a threat to Britain’s Arab allies and to the French position in Algeria, and the British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, saw Nasser as another Fascist dictator. References to the manner in which the 1930s had shown the dangers of appeasement were a good example of the perils of using inappropriate historical parallels, but decision-makers felt that it was important to stop a dictator in his tracks.
Although poorly planned and badly affected by shortages of equipment, both reflections of the limited amphibious capability of British forces, the invasion saw a major display of military power, with a large force sent to the eastern Mediterranean and the extensive use of warships and air attack, including helicopter-borne troops and parachutists. Much of the Egyptian air force was destroyed as a result of air attacks on its bases. Nevertheless, the invasion was rapidly abandoned, in large part because of us opposition, although the Soviet threat to fire missiles against Anglo-French forces also helped raise tension. Concerned about the impact of the invasion on attitudes in the Third World, the Americans, who were ambivalent about many aspects of British policy, refused to extend any credits to support sterling, blocked British access to the International Monetary Fund until she withdrew her troops from Suez, and refused to provide oil to compensate for interrupted supplies from the Middle East. us opposition was crucial in weakening British resolve and led to a humiliating withdrawal, although, had the British and French persisted, it is unclear how readily they could have translated battlefield success into an acceptable outcome, a point that was to be recalled before the attack on Iraq in 2003. In 1958, both the USA (in Lebanon) and Britain (in Jordan) were to deploy forces in the region as Syria’s espousal of left-wing Arab nationalism threatened friendly regimes, but these commitments were easy to contain as they were in support of friendly governments.
The Suez crisis revealed the limitations of British strength, encouraging a new attitude towards empire in Britain, which led to rapid decolonization, especially in Africa, but also in the West Indies and Malaysia.
In 1958 there was an intervention to support Jordan, while in 1961 British and Saudi Arabian troops were moved to Kuwait to thwart a threatened Iraqi attack. More seriously, in Britain’s colony of Aden, nationalist agitation, which had been increasingly strident since 1956, turned into revolt in 1963. The resulting war, which continued until independence was granted in November 1967, involved hostilities both in the city of Aden and in the mountainous hinterland. The British deployed 19,000 troops, as well as tanks and helicopters, but their position was undermined by their failure to sustain local support. The British-officered Federal Reserve Army proved unreliable, and, in June 1967, the South Arabian Police and the Aden Armed Police rebelled in the city of Aden. Furthermore, the British were unable to support allied sheikhs in the interior against the guerrilla attacks of the National Liberation Front (NLF). The British used the scorched earth tactics and the resettlement policies seen in Malaya, but the NLF’s inroads led them to abandon the interior in the early summer of 1967. In tactical terms, the NLF made effective use of snipers. Reduced to holding on to Aden, a base area that had also to be defended from internal disaffection and where the garrison itself had to be protected, the only initiative left to the British was to abandon the position, which they did in November 1967. Once the British were clearly on the way out, they found it hard to get effective intelligence, and this made mounting operations difficult.