The Background to The Suez Crisis of 1956

The Background to The Suez Crisis of 1956

Gamal Abdel Nasser announced that the Suez Canal would be nationalised on 26 July 1956, causing an immediate diplomatic crisis.

On 8 August 1956, Anthony Eden, the British Prime Minister, made a television appearance to explain his Egyptian policy. His most memorable comment was: “Our quarrel is not with Egypt, still less with the Arab world. It is with Colonel Nasser. He is not a man who can be trusted to keep an agreement.” Eden also made a comparison of Nasser to Fascist leaders in Europe’s recent history. Unsurprisingly, this comparison received a poor reception in Egypt.

In August 1956, the British Government called up 20,000 reservists who were sent to Cyprus and Malta. In secret, the British government drew up plans to attack the Egyptians at the Suez Canal and to topple Nasser. Adam Watson, Eden’s chief Foreign Office advisor on Egypt, said that Eden believed the Egyptians would welcome a benevolent but strong British government in Egypt.

Opens internal link in current window, the USA was against - what it saw as unjustifiable - military intervention.

Eden gained France’s backing for an attack against Egypt, spearheaded by Christian Pireau, the French Foreign Minister. Nasser had aided Algerian rebels fighting the Algiers-based ruling French government. Nasser justified his stance by stating: "It is our duty to help our Arab brothers."

Israel was also plotting action against Egypt. Officials from Israel and France met behind closed doors to discuss possible courses of action. Israel was worried about Egypt’s military power, which was growing as a result of military imports from Czechoslovakia.

On 27 July, France publicly asked Israel whether they were considering launching a preemptive strike on Egypt, before they themselves were attacked. The Director General of the Defense Ministry, Shimon Peres,  (later Prime Minister and President of Israel) told the French that if they got hold of modern weapons the Israeli attack could go ahead within two weeks. In response, France secretly exported modern weaponry to Israel. Because of an embargo on the trade of military supplies to the Middle East, this equipment was landed at night.

Dwight Eisenhower was concerned by the escalating situation in the Middle East and organised for U2 spy planes to travel to the area to give a report on the situation to US Intelligence. What they found angered Eisenhower. It became apparent that Israel actually had possession of 60 French Mystere fighter planes, despite the fact the French government had informed the US that they had only given Israel 12 Mystere’s. Eisenhower interpreted the fighter planes as disrupting the power balance in the region and he worried that this could provoke a response.

On 13 October, Anthony Eden made an address at the annual Conservative Party conference in the Welsh town of Llandudno. He made it clear that he had not ruled out use of military force. He knew that he needed to take decisive action: little seemed to have been done since the the Suez Canal was nationalised in July.

On 14 October, Eden met with the French Deputy Chief of Staff at his country house retreat, Chequers. In this meeting, Israeli involvement in a possible attack was first mentioned. The plan put forward by the French involved an Israeli attack on Egypt via the Sinai Desert. France and Britain would then retreat ten miles from the canal as Israel moved nearer. Both nations would despatch troops to safeguard this vital waterway. On 16 October, Eden let the French know that he supported the plan. Secrecy was of paramount importance and even America was not told of the plan.

Representatives of France, Britain and Israel met in a remote villa at Sèvres, on the outskirts of Paris. Ben Gurion, Prime Minister of Israel, Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres made the journey secretly from Israel to the villa. Representing Britain was the Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd.

On 14th October 1956, General Maurice Challe, France's deputy chief of staff of the armed forces, made the suggestion that “Israel would be invited to attack the Egyptian army in Sinai and pose a threat to the Suez Canal and this would provide Britain and France with the pretext to activate their military plans and occupy the Suez Canal Zone, ostensibly in order to separate the combatants and protect the canal.”

Unfortunately the meeting did not go particularly well. Gurion demanded that Britain intervene in the region three days earlier than Britain had anticipated. Selwyn Lloyd refused to agree and Ben Gurion nearly left the meeting. However he was prevented from doing so when he was informed by Shimon Peres that ‘mechanical problems’ had grounded their plane and would therefore have to stay on at the villa to ensure the secrecy of their presence in France. The talks subsequently continued.

On 23 October, Pineau flew to meet Eden in London to sort out the remaining problems. The next day, Eden sent Patrick Dean, the chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, to Paris. Dean’s remit was to ensure that the future Israeli attack would look as if it was going to pose a serious threat to the Suez Canal. This would allow France and Britain to send in troops to ‘protect’ the canal. Dean was party to the signing of a document confirming all the details. Upon return to Britain, Dean gave a copy to Eden who was mortified that the agreement had literally been put into writing. He was convinced that this compromised the secrecy of the entire mission.

On 28 October, Israel launched a low-profile strike on Egypt. Israeli intelligence discovered through espionage the flight-path of a plane transporting senior Egyptian military leaders. The plane was shot down and everyone on board was killed.  Many Egyptians believed that this was simply a tragic accident.

On 29 October, 395 Israeli paratroopers landed in the Sinai Desert, around 20 miles from the Suez Canal. Eden had expected a larger attacking force. The invasion even puzzled Nasser, who was told that the Israelis seemed to be travelling from one sand hill to another with no obvious strategy.

On 30 October, Eden informed the Queen and the House of Commons of the events in Sinai. The Egyptian and Israeli ambassadors were summoned and asked to inform their governments that both sides should retreat ten miles to either side of the canal to ensure the its safety. Nasser flatly rejected this proposition. This gave Britain and France a pretext to attack.

The United Nations intervened, calling on all involved to avoid violence in trying to solve the problem. However Britain used its position on the Security Council to veto the suggestion.

Britain’s attack started with RAF bombers targeting the Cairo international airport. This deeply angered Eisenhower, who publicly stated: “We believe these actions to be taken in error.” But his comments were not enough to prevent the bombings. On 1 November, British aerial bombing destroyed a large number of Mig 15 fighter planes on the ground.

In Britain, Eden faced a formidable opponent in the shape of one of his own Conservative MPs : William Yates. On 1 November, William Yates said in the House of Commons:

I have come to the conclusion that Her Majesty's Government has been involved in an international conspiracy."

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

Anthony Eden capitulated and announced a ceasefire on 6 November.

See also: Suez Crisis of 1956

MLA Citation/Reference

"The Background to The Suez Crisis of 1956". 2023. Web.