An Egyptian boy stands near a British tank amid the rubble of destroyed buildings in Port Said after the British and French assault on the city during the Suez Crisis, November 1956.
Start Date: July 26, 1956
End Date: March 6, 1957
Over the months that followed Egyptian nationalization of the Suez Canal, the community of interest among British, French, and Israeli leaders developed into secret planning for a joint military operation to topple Nasser. The U.S. government was not consulted and indeed opposed the use of force. The British and French governments either did not understand the American attitude or, if they did, believed that Washington would give approval after the fact to policies believed by its major allies to be absolutely necessary.
The British government first tried diplomacy. Two conferences in London attended by the representatives of 24 nations using the canal failed to produce agreement on a course of action, and Egypt refused to participate. A proposal by Secretary of State Dulles for a canal users’ club of nations failed, as did an appeal to the United Nations (UN) Security Council. On October 1 Dulles announced that the United States was disassociating itself from British and French actions in the Middle East and asserted that the United States intended to play a more independent role.
Meanwhile, secret talks were going forward, first between the British and French for joint military action against Egypt. Military representatives of the two governments met in London on August 10 and hammered out the details of a joint military plan known as musketeer, which would involve occupation of both Alexandria and Port Said. The French then brought the Israeli government in on the plan, and General Maurice Challe, deputy chief of staff of the French Air Force, undertook a secret trip to the Middle East to meet with Israeli government and military leaders. The Israelis were at first skeptical about British and French support. They also had no intention of moving as far as the canal itself. The Israelis stated that their plan was merely to send light detachments to link up with British and French forces. They also insisted that British and French military intervention occur simultaneously with their own attack.
General André Beaufre, the designated French military commander for the operation, then came up with a new plan. Under it, the Israelis would initiate hostilities against Egypt in order to provide the pretext for military intervention by French and British forces to protect the canal. This action would technically be in accord with the terms of the 1954 treaty between Egypt and Britain that had given Britain the right to send forces to occupy the Suez Canal zone in the event of an attack against Egypt by a third power.
On October 23 Mollet and French foreign minister Christian Pineau met in the Paris suburbs at Sévres with Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion, defense minister Shimon Peres, and chief of the Israeli General Staff Lieutenant General Moshe Dayan. The French agreed to provide additional air cover for Israel. French ships supposedly searching for Egyptian arms shipments to the Algerian rebels would move to the Israeli coast immediately, and French Mystére aircraft flown by French pilots would be repositioned in Israel. That afternoon British foreign secretary Selwyn Lloyd and Foreign Office undersecretary of state Patrick Dean joined the discussions. The British, while staunchly pro-intervention, were deeply concerned about their position in the Arab world and were not anxious to be seen in collusion with the Israelis. Thus, an Israeli strike toward the canal through the Sinai would enable the British to have it both ways: they could join the French in demanding of Nasser the right to protect the canal. When he refused, as he certainly would, they could join the French in destroying the Egyptian Air Force, eliminating the one possible threat to Israeli success on the ground. All parties agreed to this new plan, informally dubbed the “Treaty of Sévres” and signed by Dean, Pineau, and Ben-Gurion.
On October 23, meanwhile, unrest began in Hungary. The next day Soviet tanks entered Budapest to put down what had become the Hungarian Revolution. French and British planners were delighted at this international distraction that seemed to provide them a degree of freedom of action.
On the afternoon of October 29 Israeli forces began Operation Kadesh, the invasion of the Sinai Peninsula. Sixteen C-47 transports took off from Israeli fields, each with a paratroop platoon. The objective of the 395-man paratroop battalion was the key Mitla Pass, 156 miles from the Israeli border and only 45 miles from the canal. Meanwhile, the remainder of Colonel Ariel Sharon’s 202nd Parachute Brigade would race for the pass in French-provided trucks, linking up with the paratroopers within 36 hours. This operation was designed to trigger a major Egyptian response and threaten the canal in order to trigger the planned British-French response.
The announced objective of Operation kadesh was the eradication of the fedayeen bases, but it was begun so as to appear to the Egyptians as if it were the beginning of an all-out war. Dayan’s detailed plan called for nothing less than a weeklong lightning advance that would end with Israeli forces securing the entire Sinai and a total victory over Egypt. The destruction of Nasser’s prestige in the Arab world and final Egyptian recognition of the impossibility of an Arab military victory over Israel were the goals, rather than destruction of the Egyptian Army or acquisition of its new Soviet equipment.
A day later, October 30, the British and French governments issued an ultimatum, nominally to both the Egyptian and Israeli governments but in reality only to Egypt, expressing the need to separate the combatants and demanding the right to provide for the security of the Suez Canal. The ultimatum called on both sides to withdraw their forces 10 miles from the canal and gave them 12 hours to reply. The Israelis, of course, immediately accepted the ultimatum, while the Egyptians just as promptly rejected it.
At dusk on October 31, British and French aircraft struck Egyptian airfields and military installations from bases on Cyprus and Malta and from aircraft carriers. The aircraft attacked four Egyptian bases that day and nine the next. On November 1, meanwhile, a British and French naval task force sailed from Malta to join with other ships at Cyprus. In all, the allied landing force numbered some 80,000 men: 50,000 British and 30,000 French. There were 100 British and 30 French warships, including 7 aircraft carriers (5 British) and the French battleship Jean Bart; hundreds of landing craft; and some 80 merchant ships carrying 20,000 vehicles and stores. Yet when Eden reported to the House of Commons on events, he encountered a surprisingly strong negative reaction from the opposition Labour Party.
Also, following the initial British and French military action, the Egyptians immediately sank a number of ships in the canal to make it unusable. Meanwhile, the Israelis, battling against ineffective Egyptian forces, swept across the Sinai in only four days. Finally, on November 5, British and French paratroopers carried out a vertical envelopment of Port Said, Egypt, at the Mediterranean terminus of the canal, while at the same time French and British destroyers carried out a shore bombardment against those targets likely to impede a landing. Early on November 6, British troops began coming ashore at Port Said, while the French landed at Port Faud. A single day of fighting saw the ports in allied hands. French and British forces then began a virtually unopposed advance southward along the canal.
U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower had already entered the picture. On October 31 he described the British attack as “taken in error.” He was personally furious at Eden over events and is supposed to have asked when he first telephoned the British leader, “Anthony, have you gone out of your mind?” The United States applied immediate and heavy financial threats, both on a bilateral basis and through the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to bring the British government to heel. Eisenhower also refused any further dealings with Eden personally.
The Soviets, preoccupied by Hungary, took some five days to come to the conclusion that the United States was actually opposing the British and French action. On November 5, Moscow threatened to send “volunteers” to Egypt. This proved a further embarrassment for the British government, but it was U.S. pressure that was decisive. Nonetheless, the world beheld the strange spectacle of the United States cooperating with the Soviet Union to condemn Britain and France in the UN Security Council and call for an end to the use of force. Although Britain and France vetoed the Security Council resolution, the matter was referred to the General Assembly, which demanded a cease-fire and withdrawal.
Israel and Egypt agreed to a cease-fire on November 4. At midnight on November 6, the day of the U.S. presidential election, the British and French governments also accepted a cease-fire, the French only with the greatest reluctance. By the time the cease-fire went into effect, the French and British controlled about half of the canal’s length. French and British losses in the operation were 33 dead and 129 wounded. Egyptian losses are unknown.
A 4,000-man UN Emergency Force, authorized on November 4 and made up of contingents from the Scandinavian countries, Brazil, Colombia, India, and Indonesia, then arrived in Egypt to take up positions to keep Israeli and Egyptian forces separated. At the end of November the British and French governments both agreed to withdraw their forces from Egypt by December 22, and on December 1 Eisenhower announced that he had instructed U.S. oil companies to resume shipping supplies to both Britain and France. Under pressure from both the United States and the UN, Israel withdrew its forces from the Sinai, including the Gaza Strip, during February 5–March 6, 1957. A UN observer force of 3,500 men then took up station in Gaza, at Sharm al-Shaykhh, and along the Sinai border. Although Israel had been assured that Egyptian forces would not return to Gaza, the Egyptians were there within 48 hours of the Israeli withdrawal.
Nasser and Arab self-confidence were the chief beneficiaries of the crisis. The abysmal performance of Egyptian military forces in the crisis was forgotten in Nasser’s ultimate triumph. Nasser found his prestige dramatically increased throughout the Arab world. Israel also benefited. The presence of the UN force guaranteed an end to the fedayeen raids, and Israel had also broken the Egyptian blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba, although its ships could still not transit the Suez Canal. The crisis also enhanced Soviet prestige in the Middle East, and the UN emerged with enhanced prestige, helping to boost world confidence in that organization.
The Suez Crisis ended Eden’s political career. Ill and under tremendous criticism in Parliament from the Labour Party, he resigned from office in January 1957. Events also placed a serious, albeit temporary, strain on U.S.-British relations. More importantly, they revealed the serious limitations in British military strength. Indeed, observers are unanimous in declaring 1956 a seminal date in British imperial history, marking the effective end of Britain’s tenure as a great power. The events had less impact in France. Mollet left office in May 1957 but not as a result of the Suez intervention. The crisis was costly to both Britain and France in economic terms, for Saudi Arabia had halted oil shipments to both countries.
Finally, the Suez Crisis could not have come at a worse time for the West because the event diverted world attention from the concurrent brutal Soviet military intervention in Hungary. Eisenhower believed, rightly or wrongly, that without the Suez diversion there would have been far stronger Western reaction to the Soviet invasion of its satellite.
References Beaufre, André. The Suez Expedition, 1956. Translated by Richard Barry. New York: Praeger, 1969. Cooper, Chester L. The Lion’s Last Roar: Suez, 1956. New York: Harper and Row, 1978. Eden, Anthony. The Suez Crisis of 1956. Boston: Beacon, 1968. Freiberger, Steven Z. Dawn over Suez: The Rise of American Power in the Middle East, 1953–1957. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992. Gorst, Anthony, and Lewis Johnman. The Suez Crisis. London: Routledge, 1997.