The Egyptian Air Force 1956

Meteor NF.Mk.13. Unit: REAF. The Meteor NF.Mk.13 was externally similar to the NF.Mk.11 of which it was a tropicalised variant for RAF service in the Middle East. The Egyptian Air Force, in whose markings this example is illustrated, acquired six surplus NF.Mk.13s in middle of 1955. Three were destroyed during the Suez Canal conflict at the end of 1956.

MiG-15bis: This aircraft was shot down on 1st November 1956 in aerial combat and fell into the lake. Later it was lifted up by Israeli and exhibited at air force flying school.

Anticolonial movements around the world were invigorated by the shock of World War II, which undermined the authority and wealth of the imperial powers. British statesmen managed to disengage the United Kingdom from most of its overseas possessions with a degree of civility, but the Suez Canal was an exception: because of its importance to trade, military deployments, and the flow of oil, guaranteed access was regarded as a strategic imperative.

In July 1952 a revolution in Egypt led by army officers saw the overthrow of the king, the establishment of a republic, the replacement of constitutional monarchy with parliamentary government, and a reduction in British garrison forces. In mid-1956 the leader of the revolution, Nasser, now the president, nationalized the Suez Canal, a move that precipitated military intervention by the United Kingdom, France, and Israel.

Before addressing that intervention, the modernization program initiated by Egypt’s new government in 1952 must be outlined because of its implications for airpower. Reform was introduced across most sectors of society—political, legal, educational, financial, agricultural, military, and industrial. Included in the latter was the establishment of the Egyptian Aircraft Construction Factory at Helwan, near Cairo. The factory drew on expert assistance from foreign sources such as the renowned designer of the Bf-109 and convicted Nazi collaborator Willy Messerschmitt and the air force of fascist Spain. A primary trainer based on the German Bucker Bu 181D went into production, as did aero engines also derived from imported technology. Cairo’s Kader Factory for Developed Industries was another center of aircraft engineering.

President Nasser had served in the Egyptian Army in the 1948–49 war against Israel and was aware of the military’s deficiencies; consequently, post-revolution modernization was extended to the armed services.

After the war the United Kingdom had reequipped the REAF with small numbers of jet fighters and trainers, including the frontline Gloster Meteor. But the British attitude was disrespectful. Twelve Meteor F8s were promised, but five were diverted to Brazil and three to Israel, while the four that arrived in Egypt had had their guns removed. Several years later fourteen more Meteors were delivered, but half were dual-seat trainers, and drop-tanks that increased the aircraft’s range and, therefore, its combat capability were withheld. Requests to the United States for F-86 Sabres were rejected.

RAF instructors who trained Egyptian pilots on the Meteor found their students to be enthusiastic but below average. Poor standards extended to maintenance and logistics procedures, which were under-resourced and disorganized. At least leadership and flying training were placed on a potentially more professional basis with the formal establishment in 1951 of the Egyptian Air Academy.

As Egypt sought to exercise greater independence, the United Kingdom sought to maintain its grip on the Suez Canal. Additional strain was placed on the relationship by a series of terrorist raids by the Israeli secret service against British and U.S. interests in Egypt, intended to be perceived as the work of local anti-imperialists. In what became known as the “Lavon Affair” after the defense minister who approved it, Israeli agents placed bombs in British- and U.S.-sponsored libraries, movie theaters, and cultural centers around Egypt. Israel simultaneously pursued a policy of “active defense” against its prospective enemies, including “preemptive” strikes against Palestinian communities in the Egyptian-ruled Gaza Strip.

In an atmosphere of deteriorating relations with the West, the Egyptian government turned to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) for military aid. For the Soviets, this was an opportunity to strengthen their hand in the Cold War. Toward the end of 1955 air warfare matériel started pouring in to Egypt. Eighty-six MiG-15 interceptor/fighters headed the list, together with thirty-nine Il-28 twin-engine bombers, twenty Il-14 airlifters, training and support equipment, and ground-based defense systems. Egyptian Air Force (EAF) pilots were given hurried conversions, and on January 15, 1956, a flight of MiG-15s overflew Cairo to show the Egyptian people their new air force.

MiG-15s and Il-28s were good aircraft. The question was: did the EAF have the full suite of competencies—all of the elements of the Trenchard model—to use its equipment effectively? The challenge of changing from Western-bloc aircraft, systems, and practices was enormous. The language shift alone was demanding, affecting flight manuals, cockpit instrumentation, and maintenance publications. Furthermore, Russian air force training was notoriously rigid and controlled (like Soviet society itself), so while basic flying instruction was reasonable, pilots received little exposure to advanced combat maneuvers and tactics.

A report submitted to London early in 1956 by the British air attaché in Cairo noted that while the EAF’s handful of experienced pilots were good, the majority were ill disciplined, had poor flying techniques, were below standard in instrument and night flying, and had little comprehension of air warfare operations and tactics. And the shortage of qualified mechanics was a greater problem. In the attaché’s opinion, the EAF was in “no position to take on the Israelis.” In truth, the EAF’s ability to attack Israel was more image than substance, and the assertion made by some commentators that the influx of Soviet aircraft had altered the balance of power in the Middle East was disingenuous.

Egypt’s air strategy was shaped as much by its air force’s limitations and the defensive doctrine of its Soviet mentors as it was by the prevailing circumstances. Controlling Egyptian airspace and protecting the army were the EAF’s primary tasks, followed by close attack (noting that the EAF’s best aircraft, the MiG-15 air superiority fighter, was unsuited to that role). Given the EAF’s low standards—including a reluctance to fly at night—and the qualitative and numerical superiority of the Anglo-French land- and naval-based air forces, neither of those objectives was credible.

The Anglo-French plan centered on a large-scale amphibious and airborne invasion to seize control of the canal, but the British Army commander in chief of British and French forces, Gen. Charles Keightley, thought that a “strategic” bombing campaign might by itself be sufficient to achieve victory. An advocate of advanced technology, Keightley believed that the RAF’s new fleet of Valiant and Canberra jet bombers would be able to achieve a politically inexpensive victory by destroying the Egyptian economy and national will and precipitating a popular uprising against Nasser.

General Keightley’s analysis suffered from considerable technical, doctrinal, and political shortcomings. Technically, the Valiants and Canberras had only recently entered service, and concepts for their use were immature. Bombing accuracy was an issue. Because several daytime reconnaissance flights over Egypt by RAF Canberra PR7s had been attacked by EAF MiG-15s, British planners decided that the offensive would be conducted at night and from high altitude. Those parameters enhanced safety but at the cost of bombing accuracy. Doctrinally, while Egypt was making economic and industrial progress, it was still an undeveloped, agrarian-based society, and as the failed U.S. Air Force (USAF) campaign against North Korea several years previously had revealed, a scarcity of high-value targets can negate the concept of strategic bombing. Finally, in the postcolonial world, there was already international unease at the prospect of two advanced, wealthy states attacking a backward, poor state for entirely selfish reasons. Even before the fighting began, the United Kingdom and France had very little political capital to expend.

A three-phase plan for the invasion was endorsed on September 8, 1956. Phases 1 and 2 were to be solely air campaigns in which winning air supremacy over Egypt would be followed by a ten-day “aero-psychological” offensive directed against “transportation, communication, and economic centers [and] Egyptian morale” that would, if General Keightley were correct, bring about the country’s collapse and Nasser’s overthrow. Air- and sea-borne forces would then land unopposed in phase 3 and seize the canal.

The war started on October 29, 1956, when, before the Anglo-French offensive in the Suez zone had begun, Israel invaded the Sinai Peninsula. As part of Dayan’s maneuver and encirclement plan, C-47 airlifter crews flew at low level under enemy radar to drop paratroopers, and P-51 Mustang pilots disrupted the Egyptian command-and-control system by cutting telephone lines with specially designed chain devices attached to their aircrafts’ wings or, if that failed, with their propellers. Air defense was provided by patrols of Mystère fighters. Once Israeli soldiers were on the ground, the IAF turned its attention to close attack and interdiction.

For a period the EAF fought back. MiG-15, Meteor, and Vampire units attacked the Israeli Army, and MiG-15s clashed with Mystères. However, the IAF quickly asserted its dominance. The Israelis also dominated another vital component of airpower: the contest for management and maintenance superiority. IAF engineers were able to generate four sorties a day from their strike/fighters—a rate twice that of their enemies, which effectively doubled the size of the IAF’s fleet. Fighting between the opposing armies was sometimes intense, but within days the Sinai was under Israeli control.