There was apparently no way of stopping him. Most Egyptians were delighted, for the Suez Canal Company was widely hated as a symbol of foreign exploitation. And, according to international law the act of Nationalisation, was impeccable because Nasser offered full compensation to the shareholders. This was implicitly acknowledged by Eden. At once Eden began to discuss with his colleagues means of bringing the strongest political pressure on Egypt to accept international control. If this failed, he was determined to use force. His difficulty was that while many countries, including Egypt’s friends such as India, disliked the way Nasser had nationalised the Canal Company, the great majority - including the United States - were resolutely opposed to the use of force. In addition to the all party support at home Eden had the full support of the British press and public and also the French government, led by the Socialist Guy Mollet, which had convinced itself that Egyptian support was keeping the Algerian Rebellion alive.
By the end of July, British and French ministers were preparing joint plans for the invasion of Egypt. Early in August , Eden announced partial mobilisation; the proclamation was rushed to the Queen at Goodwood Racecourse where she signed it on the rump of a racehorse. The next Anglo-French step was to withdraw all their pilots from the Suez Canal Company in the expectation that this would slow or stop traffic and provide an excuse for intervention. This failed. In September, the Eden government began to think in terms of collaborating with Israel in an attack on Egypt. Israel had its own reasons for wishing to attack. France was already in close contact with Israel and Britain was now brought in to form a tripartite front. Israel invaded Sinai on October 29. The next day Britain and France issued a joint ultimatum calling on Egypt and Israel to cease fighting and to withdraw their forces 10 miles from the Canal, failing which Anglo-French forces would intervene. Israel whose forces were nowhere near the Canal yet, accepted the ultimatum whilst Nasser who by the terms of the ultimatum would have to voluntarily abandon territory he had not yet lost, rejected it. On October 31, when the ultimatum expired, the British and French planes began to bomb Egyptian airfields and radio stations and within three days almost the entire Egyptian Air Force except for planes lying in Syria for safety, had been destroyed on the ground. November 5, the Anglo-French invasion force which had been assembled on Cyprus landed near Port Said. In retaliation, Egypt blocked the Canal with scores of ships and the Syrians blew up the oil pipelines thus threatening Western Europe with a possible serious shortage of oil.
On July 26, 1956, Egypt’s President Nasser nationalised the French and British owned Suez Canal. Seeing this as a threat to British interests so serious as to justify the use of force, Britain’s Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, secretly initiated plans for an Anglo-French invasion. The two countries prepared for joint operations by air, land and sea, inviting Israel, long angered by Egypt’s attacks on her territory and support for Palestinian guerrillas, to strike at the same time. On October 29, the Israelis attacked, giving Britain and France an excuse to invade Egypt in the guise of peacemakers and protectors of the Canal. The World, undeceived, rounded upon them and enforced withdrawal, humiliating proof that Britain’s days of Big Power intervention were well and truly over.
Anxious to carry out her part in the secret agreement with Britain and France, Israel made a four pronged attack on Sinai with airborne and ground troops on October 29, and by the 30th had, with French and British aid, inflicted a heavy defeat on the ill-organised Egyptian army.
Assuming the role of spontaneous peacemakers, Britain and France on that day issued a joint ultimatum, which,as part of the conspiracy, had been drawn up five days before. It demanded that both belligerents should cease fighting and that within 12 hours, the Egyptians should move 10 miles west and the Israelis 10 miles east of the Canal leaving the Canal Zone neutral.
Since the Egyptian troops were already fighting the Israelis on Egyptian soil, up to 125 miles East of the Canal, the ultimatum now asked that they retire 135 miles into their own country while the Israelis moved into it no less than 115 miles.
If both sides did not agree to comply by the end of the time limit, Anglo-French forces would seize the Canal. Israel quickly agreed; Egypt naturally refused, and the Anglo-French military operations, code named “musketeer” by supreme commander General Sir Charles Keigthley, were authorised at 3 pm on October 31. The first strikes against the Egyptian Air Force began a few hours later. RAF and French Air Force bombers in Malta and Cyprus, aided by raiders from the Combined Fleet’s five carriers screamed over Egyptian airfields, knocking out aircraft on the ground, blowing huge holes in the runways and setting hangers aflame.
In 36 hours the enemy air force was annihilated. Port Said military targets were next destroyed. By Sunday, November 4, the way was clear for the airborne landings. On the stage of world politics, the issues were equally clear-cut: other nations were almost unanimously incensed at the blatant cynicism with which the invasion had been engineered.
Britain and France were assailed by an overnight chorus of loud and worldwide disapproval. The Russians threatened them with rockets, members of the U.N. Security Council called for a cease fire, which they twice vetoed. Even President Eisenhower, on whom Eden had relied for support, publicly upbraided Britain. On November 2, the General Assembly of the U.N. Voted for an immediate cease fire, with only Australia and New Zealand upholding Britain. To make matters worse, Israel, which had gained vastly, and Egypt, which had suffered enough, both agreed to end the fighting. Swift action by Britain and France was now vital if their declared aim of “separating the combatants” and seizing the Canal was to be a success.
They therefore, advanced the date of their airborne assault, even though this would cause the paratroops to be unsupported for 24 hours by armoured units sailing from Malta. At 5 am on November 5, British troops dropped on Port Said’s Gamil airfield, capturing it after 2 hours of fierce fighting. The French seized two vital bridges and, later, Port Fuad. The Canal was nearly theirs.
November 6, 1956, was to mark the end of an epoch. In the early hours, British sea borne reinforcements poured into Port Said from Malta and the bitter struggle for the town began. That evening, while the battle still raged, a column of tanks and paratroopers was roaring south towards Suez.
But suddenly the political and economic opposition became decisive. The pound plummeted throughout the world, while Arab countries stopped the flow of oil. Britain lacked dollars to buy American oil and President Eisenhower refused American credit unless Britain ordered a cease fire by midnight that night and agreed to quit Egypt completely. Eden had no choice but to surrender. The units racing down the Canal road ground to a midnight halt at El Cap, a quarter of the way to Suez. Soon a U.N. Emergency Force moved in to police the cease fire and withdrawal. The last fling of the Empire had failed!
The Egyptians were enormously aided by world reaction to the invasion. By an overwhelming majority the nations of the world including the U.S. and all the Commonwealth countries except Australia and New Zealand, opposed the Anglo-French action and called for an immediate ceasefire. The Soviet Premier, Bulganin, sent threatening messages to London, Paris and Tel Aviv. It was the U.S. attitude above all that proved decisive: President Eisenhower refused to supply oil to the West until Britain called a halt.
Faced with a drastic run on sterling in addition to the oil crisis, the British government turned with relief to a Canadian proposal to form a U.N. Emergency Force for Suez and on November 6 both Britain and France accepted a cease fire. The Eden government still hoped to extract concessions from Egypt in return for the withdrawal of British troops. But Eisenhower was adamant, there would be no help with oil supplies until the troops were out. By December 23 they had all been withdrawn.
The Suez affair accomplished precisely the opposite of its intended aims: it strengthened Nasser and was a disastrous failure for Britain. Apart from the false assumption that the Egyptians would be unable to manage the Canal on their own, there had been a major miscalculation in the assumption that the bombing and the invasion would turn the people against Nasser. In fact, he subsequently rose to the height of his prestige.
As a consequence of the attack, the 17,000 British subjects in Egypt - British, Maltese and Cypriots, many of whose families had lived there for generations - were expelled; all the still considerable British assets in Egypt were seized; the huge quantities of arms and stores in the Suez base were confiscated; the hard won Anglo-Egyptian Agreement of 1954 was cancelled; most of Britain’s remaining political and military influence in the Middle east was liquidated; and the destruction two years later, of Britain’s only remaining ally of importance in the Arab World - the Iraq monarchy- was due at least in part to the ill-concealed sympathy of King Feisal for the British invasion of Egypt.
Yet it is almost certain that a “British” success at Suez would in the long term been even more disastrous. If the Eden Government had defied the United Nations and carried on until achieving its objective of overthrowing Nasser, it would have provoked a far more bitter reaction in the Third World and quite probably caused the immediate break -up of the Commonwealth. Moreover no one had given serious thought to who would replace Nasser in Egypt. Even Eden did not contemplate another British occupation and any regime imposed by Britain would have hardly lasted any more than a few weeks at most.
Suez was the last hunting expedition of the aged British imperial lion. The experience may have been necessary to help the British people thorough the difficult experience of accepting that they were no longer one of Lord Cromer’s Governing Races. When the episode was over the British people as a whole accepted, some ruefully and some gladly, that Britain was no longer capable of engaging in an adventure which was opposed by the new super powers.
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