British Carriers at Suez 1956

Sea Hawk FGA.6 XE364 was assigned to No.899 NAS when photographed complete with a full load of rockets. The aircraft and the squadron would both take part in operations over Suez.

After the Korean War many of the Colossus class carriers were withdrawn from use and placed in reserve causing the Royal Navy to shrink yet again. HMS Glory would finish its working life at the beginning of 1956 having acted as the base ship for a swarm of helicopters acting in the relief role over a deeply snowbound Scotland. A few of the surviving fleet carriers would also go to the breakers’ yards during this fleet rundown. One of these was HMS Illustrious, being paid off in December 1954. Also destined to disappear were two of the modified Illustrious class carriers: Implacable and Indefatigable. The former was paid off in September 1954, having acted as a troop ferry ship, while the latter was also retired during the same month. Indefatigable would be retired in October 1953, its withdrawal being hastened by an explosion which caused serious damage below the island, killing eight crew and wounding a further 32. During the subsequent fire and rescue ten gallantry awards, including two George Medals, were given in recognition of the crew’s bravery.

The maintenance carriers were also decimated, HMS Perseus, having served with distinction in Korea was de-stored by the end of 1954. The original intention had been to tow the carrier to Belfast for conversion to a submarine depot vessel. Arriving in Belfast in early 1955, the carrier was worked on until work was suspended in 1957 and it was placed on the disposal list; finally being broken up in 1958. One of shortest carrier careers was that of HMS Pioneer which had been commissioned in 1945. After service as a ferry vessel in the Far East the Pioneer was finally disposed off for scrap in September 1954. HMS Unicorn would also be retired during this period having served with honour during the Korean War. Arriving at Devonport in November 1953 the vessel was paid off and sold for scrap in June 1959.

In October 1951 the dictator president of Egypt, General Gamal Abdel Nassar, unilaterally seized control of the Suez canal in abrogation of an Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 which gave Britain access to the canal and its established bases in the area for a period of 20 years. The seizure of the assets of the Universal Suez Canal Company had been precipitated by the withdrawal of the financial support by America, Britain and the International Bank that was required for the construction of the Aswan Dam. The cause of this withdrawal was Egypt’s move towards the Eastern Bloc for the purchase of weapons and other materials. Both Britain and France were alarmed by the threatened closure of the canal as this waterway was deemed essential for the transport of oil and it gave access to the trade markets of India and the Far East.

In response, Britain, France and Israel together decided to launch an armed seizure of the canal. Planning of the operation began in late July 1956 when the Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, the French Prime Minister Guy Alicide Mollet and the British Defence Minister met in secret in the French town of Sevres near Paris. During this meeting the British Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, was kept informed of events and decisions reached throughout the conference.

In response to Egypt’s move General Sir Charles Keightley was appointed as commander in chief of all British and French forces on 11 August for the forthcoming military operations. Supporting the General would be Air Marshall D H F Barnett as the Air Task Force Commander. The rear echelon command for the Royal Navy was supplied by the Commander in Chief Mediterranean Fleet who moved, with his staff, from Malta to Episkopi, Cyprus on 30 October. As this was a joint Anglo-French operation an ultimatum was issued to the Egyptian government to withdraw its forces, however Nassar had sabotaged the canal by sinking 49 ships along its length. Even as the Anglo-French forces were moving towards a war footing Israel had already launched its own attack on Egypt codenamed Operation Kadesh on 29 October. American disapproval of British and French actions saw the French Navy carrier group sighting units of the US Navy just north of Egypt. The Americans would make their presence felt throughout the entire operation. When the Anglo-French ultimatum expired the US Navy sailed two destroyers into Alexandria and the carrier group moved slightly closer to the area of operations. On 1 November the C-in-C Mediterranean Fleet sent an urgent signal to the Admiral of the 6th US Navy asking that he and his carrier go and play somewhere else as the British had no desire to inflict damage on the ships and equipment of a close ally. Further reports of American interest were received on 3 November when submarines were detected. However, a flow of signals between the British and American navies soon saw the submarines being ordered to patrol on the surface.

The Royal Navy sent the aircraft carriers HMSs Albion, Bulwark and Eagle. Albion had just completed a full refit and had sailed from Portsmouth on 15 September 1956 with Nos.800 and 802 NAS with Hawker Sea Hawks, No.809 NAS with eight Sea Venom FAW.21s and No.849 NAS ‘C’ Flight with Douglas Skyraider Airborne Early Warning(AEW) aircraft aboard. Also sent to support the Suez operations were the carriers HMS Ocean and Theseus. Flying operations would begin on 1 November when Operation Musketeer began with air attacks. Aircraft from Albion would cover the parachute drops by the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment on El Gamil airfield near Port Said on 5 November. After the airfield had been captured and made secure, helicopters from Ocean and Theseus plus Albion’s Skyraiders undertook relief missions into the airfield taking in vital supplies and flying out the wounded. The vital supplies included beer; it had been discovered that by removing the rear observer seats at least 1,000 cans of beer could be carried, a load most welcomed by the troops. Albion would return to Grand Harbour, Malta, after hostilities had ended.

HMS Bulwark sailed for Musketeer duties on 6 August and embarked Nos.804, 897 and 810 NAS with Seahawks en route. During its part in Operation Musketeer the Bulwark aircraft flew over 600 sorties in support of the various segments of the Anglo-French landings before departing the area for a much needed refit in Portsmouth. The newest carrier in the fleet, HMS Eagle, with the Flag Officer Aircraft Carriers, Vice Admiral Manley Power, aboard had been undertaking exercises off Malta when warned for Musketeer duties. Aboard Eagle were No.898 NAS with Seahawks, Nos.892 and 893 NAS with Sea Venom FAW.21s operating eight and nine aircraft respectively, No.830 NAS with Westland Wyverns plus No.849 NAS ‘A’ Flight operating Douglas Skyraiders in the AEW role. Eagle would be in position to undertake its share of the air cover duties during the landings of 1 November. The Sea Venoms began operations on 1 November with a surprise attack on the Egyptian airfields in the canal zone. No.893 NAS was responsible for the destruction of many of the MiG 15s on Almaza airfield near Cairo while the other Sea Venom squadrons also shot up the other airfields nearby. Alongside attacking ground targets the Sea Venoms also supplied Combat Air Patrols(CAP) over the fleet against possible retaliation that never materialised. Continued operations by the Sea Venoms were carried out against various ground targets using both cannon and rocket fire.

When the Port Said landings began on 3 November the Sea Venoms provided top cover. This was integrated into the ‘cab rank’ holding pattern from which aircraft were sent to attack targets of opportunity. It was during one of these attacks that the Commanding Officer of No.893 NAS, Lt Cdr R A Shilcock, attacked and sank an Egyptian ‘T’ boat that was attempting to close in on the fleet. During the entire period of Musketeer only one Sea Venom was lost: WW281 of No.893 NAS which crash landed on HMS Eagle during which the cross deck nylon-barrier was used for the first time. Fortunately the crew escaped, although the navigator, Flt Lt R C Odling was badly injured while the pilot Lt Cdr Wilcox suffered minor injuries. The aircraft was written off. During the ceasefire period the Sea Venoms acted as top cover for the troop withdrawals.

In the early hours of 1 November the Sea Hawks began their briefed objective of destroying the Egyptian air assets either on the ground and the air (while avoiding the possible heavy flak if possible). Surprisingly, the Egyptian Air Force did manage to get a patrol of MiG15s airborne, although, given the lack of training in combat techniques and a lack of ammunition, combat was not engaged. Fortunately, the flying time to the targets was only in the region of 30 minutes as the carriers were only 60 miles offshore. As the Sea Hawks closed in on Almaza Air Base the pilots were astonished to see the shiny silver MiGs parked in long rows on the airfield hard standing. Although the local defence gunners did their best to shoot down their attackers the Sea Hawks swept in firing their cannons at the parked aircraft. As the aircraft passed off to the north they left behind a shambles of exploding MiGs. Although the Sea Hawks had used a High-Low-High flight plan to reach and leave their targets the aircraft arrived over their carriers with little fuel available should a diversion have been needed. The successful first day attacks on the EAF air assets had the desired effect of giving the attackers air superiority, however, the anti-aircraft gunners obviously caused problems because, by day five of the attacks, many of the Sea Hawks were sporting minor repairs after being hit sometime during the campaign. Only one abort was called during Musketeer which was against Cairo West. This was fortunate because this part of the airfield was being used as the evacuation point for American citizens leaving Egypt. During Musketeer the Sea Hawk pilots flew a minimum of four sorties a day, they also paid the anti-aircraft gunners the compliment of attacking them once they had completed their missions.

No.830 NAS commanded by Lt Cdr C V Howard embarked on HMS Eagle in April 1956 with a strength of nine Westland Wyvern S.4s. When the carrier was warned that it would be needed for Operation Musketeer the Wyverns had the obligatory yellow and black stripes applied to the fuselage and wings. When offensive operations began on 1 November the Wyverns were briefed to attack the airfield at Dekheila, once a home to the Fleet Air Arm. Eighteen sorties were flown by the squadron, their remit was to strafe and bomb the airfield and its aircraft during which eighteen 1,000 lb bombs were dropped and 420 rounds Of 20 mm were fired. During this attack some light flak was encountered although none of the Wyverns were hit. The second day of operations saw the number of aircraft missions drop to 15 during which Dekheila was attacked again and military vehicles south of Cairo were attacked. On 3 November the squadron suffered its first casualty when Wyvern, WN330, piloted by Lt McCarthy was hit by anti-aircraft fire while attacking the bridge at El Gamil near Port Said. Fortunately the aircraft was still controllable and the pilot was able to glide his aircraft towards Eagle before ejecting and was quickly picked up by the rescue helicopter. No.830 NAS flew no sorties during the fourth day but resumed operations on day five. Instead of attacking airfield and structures the Wyverns were assigned to the support of Army units. A total of 16 individual sorties were flown during which rockets and bombs were dispensed as required. It was during these missions that the squadron’s senior pilot Lt Cdr W H Cowling was forced to eject from WN328 when the engine was hit by flak. Again the pilot was able to glide towards Eagle before ejecting safely being rescued quickly by the carrier’s rescue helicopter. Overall, three strikes were launched from Eagle during which the squadron dropped seventeen 1,000 lb bombs, fired 176 rockets with 60 lb warheads and 2,250 rounds of 20 mm cannon ammunition were fired, all being used during that day’s 473 sorties. The final day of operations on 5 November saw the squadron flying 17 individual sorties during which they were employed on ‘cab rank’ duties for which they all sported long-range fuel tanks and bombs or rockets. During Musketeer the squadron lost two aircraft while others suffered minor damage to their tailplanes and engine installations. Aircraft deployed by No.830 NAS included WL888, WN325, WN326, WN328, WN330, WN336, WP337, WP338 and WP341. Although No.830 NAS would receive two replacement Wyverns its life was short as the squadron was disbanded in January 1957.

As mentioned before, also sent to support the Suez operations were the carriers HMS Ocean and Theseus, both veterans of the Korean war. Ocean, having returned to Devonport for refit, had been used as a troop ferry during 1955, moving troops and their equipment to Cyprus. When the Suez crisis started to develop Ocean in company with Theseus transported the 16th Parachute Brigade to Cyprus. As the helicopter was now the favoured transport the carrier was quickly returned to Britain for conversion for their operation. During October 1956 with No.845 NAS and Whirlwinds aboard, and in company with Theseus, she undertook commando assault exercises in the English Channel. At the completion of these exercises No.845 NAS had transferred to Theseus while Ocean had embarked the Joint Service Experimental Helicopter Unit. Both vessels arrived in Grand Harbour, Malta, at the close of October 1956.

During the attack on Port Said the troops of 45 Royal Marine Commando were landed by helicopter. This was the first time that vertical replenishment had been used in action, this method of deploying troops and materials meant that 415 men and 23 tons of stores were landed in one and a half hours. After this last military adventure Ocean would return to Britain where it would enter Devonport to be converted for the training role. Theseus had also undergone a quick conversion for the operation of helicopters. It too would be involved in the Port Said landings although its career would end when it returned to Britain in December 1956.

Hostilities ceased at midnight of 6 November after pressure was put on both British and French governments by the United States acting through the United Nations, whose Security Council recommended the placement of an Emergency Force to safeguard the canal and ensure the withdrawal of the combatants. Much to the chagrin of the British and French, who had been making good progress along the canal, they were forced to withdraw. During this short sharp conflict the Fleet Air Arm had lost two Hawker Sea Hawks, two Westland Wyverns and a pair of Whirlwind helicopters. The final fallout of this debacle was the resignation of the British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden who resigned from office in January 1957.

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1 thought on “British Carriers at Suez 1956

  1. Pingback: MUSKETEER – Suez Crisis (1956) | Weapons and Warfare

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