Suez Crisis of 1956

Suez Crisis of 1956

On 26th of July, 1956,  Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt, announced that the Suez canal would be nationalised. On the same day, the canal and the Straits of Tiran were closed to Israeli shipping. The move infuriated both France and the United Kingdom, who were large shareholders in the Suez Canal Company. Both countries and Israel secretly agreed to re-occupy the canal and depose Nasser.

British Prime Minister Anthony Eden's cabinet was split on the appropriate course of action. Rab Butler, the Leader of the House, was the main opponent to military action. Even so, on 25th October, 1956, Eden managed to persuade his cabinet to approve military intervention.

On 29 October 1956, Israeli troops entered Egypt.

On 3 November 1956, Anthony Eden made an address to the nation. At the start of his address, Eden proclaimed: “There are times for action, times for courage, and this is one of them”.

Three British aircraft carriers during the Suez operation
Three British aircraft carriers during the Suez operation

However, Eden went on to argue that the time was right to stand firm. Action was required to undo Nasser’s actions over the Suez Canal. After the speech, Eden received a flood of letters from listeners who approved of his approach.

Civilians in Egypt were given rifles in an effort to build up a makeshift militia that could support the army and oppose the intervention. The military in Cairo expected a full-scale Anglo-French invasion.

On 4 November, a major protest against the military build-up was held in London. Many protesters brandished banners emblazoned with the words “Law Not War”. Aneurin Bevan, famous for pioneering the National Health Service, was the main speaker at Trafalgar Square. He famously said that if Eden was sincere in what he was saying, he was too stupid to be prime minister. The police were called when the demonstration turned violent.

On 5-6 November, French and British Forces invaded Egypt. At 5am on 5 November, men from the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment landed at the El Gamil airfield. In total 668 paratroopers parachuted into El Gamil. Army fighters as well civilians offered resistance. French paratroopers, accompanied by British support, landed to the west of Port Said.

At El Gamil, the Egyptians put up a stronger than expected resistance, leading to more casualties on the British and French side than was expected. 3 PARA went on to conduct the first and last battalion parachute assault since the War when it attacked El Gamil airfield west of Port Said on 5 November 1956.

However, on that day Eden received less positive news. He received a letter from Bulganin, the president of the USSR, in which Bulganin made it clear that the Soviets would take action if any nation attacked Egypt. This may have been especially worrying against the backdrop of the Hungarian Uprising. On 4 November Soviet troops invaded Hungary to crush the rebellions. The Soviets had shown themselves willing to use force when necessary.

Following the Cold War, many expected Britain’s great ally, the USA, to rally to support Great Britain. However, this was far from the case. America was in the midst of an election campaign and President Eisenhower was campaigning for reelection. The Eisenhower administration did not want to present itself as an ally of European imperialism. It was also worried that the USSR would intervene to support Nasser.

Day One was a success militarily. But in the diplomatic sphere, Eden was struggling.

In a meeting of the British cabinet on 6 November, Harold Macmillan raised stark warnings of economic peril as a result of action in Egypt. Macmillan had previously been one of the strongest supporters of resolute action. The US Presidential election results in the re-election of President Eisenhower.

The British and French launched sea landings on 6 November to support the paratroopers on the ground. The Royal Navy ships began the day by aiming at Port Said’s defences, and the Commandos and Royal Marines began their assault, with 45 Commando landing on Port Said by helicopter. Egypt’s defence was being pounded by French and British paratroopers, British commandos and the Israeli Army.

But the politics of the invasion was to get even messier. Harold MacMillan had warned the country that international investors were hurriedly selling their sterling, in New York in particular. Britain faced the real prospect of having to devalue sterling. She also faced the looming threat of an Arab oil embargo - both of which threatened the UK economy. There was also the threat of United Nation sanctions. Eisenhower had made it clear to his cabinet that America would not help support the sterling until France and Britain had taken their troops out of Egypt.

On 2 November the United Nations voted for a ceasefire. The United States and the UN condemned the invasion.

In light of these economic and diplomatic pressures, Anthony Eden announced a ceasefire on 6 November.

By 6 November, Port Said had been taken. The military estimated that gaining full control of the Suez Canal could be achieved in a day. However, troops were ordered to stop fighting at midnight. British troops started to withdraw on 23 December.

It is believed that about 650 Egyptians, including civilians, were killed. Around 2,000 were wounded. Anglo-French forces lost 26 men; 129 were wounded.

Britain had been humiliated. In the House of Commons on 20 December, Eden was asked if he had known about the Israeli attack which preceded the Franco-British attack. Eden misled the House by telling the House that he had not had prior knowledge. At this point Eden's health was deteriorating.

On 8 January 1957, Eden addressed his cabinet for the last time. He resigned on 9 January, citing his declining health as an important factor in his decision. Harold MacMillan succeeded him as Prime Minister on 10 January.

In the wake of the crisis, Nasser was seen as a hero for standing up to Britain and France’s ‘imperial ambitions’ and defeating them.  The imposed ending to the Crisis gave Nasser an inflated view of his own power. In his mind, he had defeated the combined forces of the United Kingdom, France and Israel, whereas in fact the military operation had been "defeated" by pressure from the United States. The Six Day War against Israel in 1967 was when reality kicked in – a war that would never have taken place if the Suez crisis had had a different resolution.

Meanwhile, for Britain the Suez fiasco proved that she was, to a large extent, isolated from international affairs, had no support for its policies, and in short was no longer a top world power. The Suez crisis is viewed as the final episode in British Colonial history. After Suez, there was a growing realisation that Britain was becoming politically and financially dependent upon the United States, and that no serious attempt to become involved in international politics could be made in isolation.

See also: The Background to the Suez Crisis of 1956

MLA Citation/Reference

"Suez Crisis of 1956". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.