‘Suez’ is a useful shorthand term. To anyone familiar with 20th-century history and international relations, it is shorthand for Great Britain’s forced sharp break with its colonial past and the moment it became obvious it was a second tier power.
As shorthand, or a broad-brush description of the meaning of the events of November 1956, it is fair enough, though the detail, naturally, shows a more nuanced picture.
It is useful for us to divide history into understandable packages of time, even if the world did not change on a certain date. 1918, 1945, 1989, for example all give us a frame on which to hang ideas about the post WW1, WW2, and Cold War years, and indeed there were fundamental differences between the periods before and after each date.
Suez is not in that category. The build-up to it – and its ramifications – played out over a much longer period.
The Suez Canal, cut through 100 miles of desert, had opened in 1869. It cut thousands of miles from sea journeys and gave Britain a faster route to the empire and later to the oil fields. In the first few years the majority of traffic was British, but it became an international waterway.
In 1954, Gamel Abul Nasser came to power in what was now an independent Egypt, bent on ending the agreement by which British troops could be stationed in the Canal zone. He was also determined to build the Aswan Dam to irrigate the Nile valley, and to build the Egyptian military for readiness to destroy Israel.
The British left the zone in July 1956 but under an agreement that they could return if a foreign power threatened the canal. Meanwhile, Nasser’s military build-up had been gathering pace, alarming the Israelis.
The catalyst for the crisis came when the Americans announced they would not fund the construction of the Aswan Dam. The British followed suit, as did the World Bank. Nasser promptly nationalised the Canal, saying he would use its revenue to fund the project.
A crisis had arisen – which British Prime Minister Anthony Eden saw as an opportunity to halt the decline in British power which had been glaringly apparent since the end of WWII.
Together with the French and Israelis he secretly put together the now notorious ‘Sevres Protocol’, in which the Israelis would attack Egypt, giving the British and French an excuse to intervene to ‘separate the combatants’.
On October 29th Israel attacked. On November 5th, after Israel ‘ignored’ calls for a halt to fighting, Anglo-French air strikes destroyed the Egyptian Air Force on the ground. Soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment quickly took the El Gamil airfield while French paratroopers took Port Fuad, with the British then advancing on Port Said.
The following day Royal Marine Commandos staged a sea and helicopter-borne assault, and with more and more British and French forces pouring in, the Egyptian Army was quickly overwhelmed and most of the Suez region was taken. That night the UN, with full American backing, forced a ceasefire.
It was a quick military success, but a political disaster.
The British had gone ahead without American approval. Dwight Eisenhower was running for re-election as President on a ticket of peace and prosperity and the Americans were in no mood to give the green light to what was seen as a colonial adventure undertaken behind their backs. Eisenhower was particularly angered that the British had so enraged the Russians that Moscow had spent the first few days of the crisis muttering about nuclear war.
The Israelis, French, and mostly the British, were condemned across the world. Although the ‘Sevres Protocol’ was not revealed until the 1960s, it was obvious what had happened.
The three foreign powers were forced to withdraw their troops. Britain was humiliated.
The Russians had used Suez as cover to brutally put down the Hungarian uprising, the Americans had publically shown the British who was boss, there was a run on the pound and a political crisis. Eden hung on for a few weeks, then went off the Jamaica for a bit of winter sunshine – but the chill followed him. On his return he resigned on grounds of ill-health, but not before telling Parliament in his final address that ‘There was no foreknowledge that Israel would attack Egypt’.
It took almost a decade before the truth emerged. By then some of the lessons had been learned. The Age of Empire was over and subsequent governments turned more to Europe.
However, in 1956 this was not as obvious as it would become. Suez was a one-off event that was part of the continuum – the long, drawn-out sigh of retreat from Empire.
This article first appeared at Forces TV.