Suez Crisis

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HM Ships Eagle, Bulwark, and Albion of the British Royal Navy. All three ships were engaged in strikes against Egyptian forces

The Suez Crisis, also known as the Suez War or 1956 War (and more rarely as the Suez-Sinai war, 1956 Arab-Israeli War, Suez Campaign, Kadesh Operation, Operation Musketeer, or Tripartite aggression) was a war fought on Egyptian territory in 1956. The conflict pitted Egypt against an alliance between the French Fourth Republic, the United Kingdom and Israel. The alliance between the two European nations and Israel was largely one of convenience; the European nations had economic and trading interests in the Suez Canal, while Israel wanted to open the canal for Israeli shipping. When the USSR threatened to intervene on behalf of Egypt, the United States feared a larger war, and forced the British and French to withdraw. The Crisis resulted in the resignation of the British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, and marked the completion of the shift in the global balance of power from European powers to the US and Russia.



The Suez Canal was opened in 1869, having been financed by France and the Egyptian government. Later, the Egyptian government's share was bought by the British. The canal was of strategic importance, being the link between Britain and its Empire of India, and the area as a whole was strategic to North Africa and the Middle East.

The importance of the Canal was clear during both World Wars. During the first, it was closed to non-Allied shipping by the British and French. During the Second World War, it was tenaciously defended during the North African Campaign.

Daniel Yergin, a historian of the oil industry, has written:

[I]n 1948, the canal abruptly lost its traditional rationale. For in that year India became independent, and control over the canal could no longer be preserved on grounds that it was critical to the defense either of India or of an empire that was being liquidated. And yet, at exactly the same moment, the canal was gaining a new role -- as the highway not of empire, but of oil. The Suez Canal was the way most of the swelling volumes of Persian Gulf oil got to Europe, cutting the 11,000-mile journey around the Cape of Good Hope to Southampton down to 6,500 miles. By 1955, petroleum accounted for two-thirds of all the canal's traffic, and in turn two-thirds of Europe's oil passed through it. Flanked to the north by Tapline and the Iraq Petroleum Company pipelines, the canal was the critical link in the postwar structure of the international oil industry.1

British troops were withdrawn from Palestine in 1947 and the state of Israel was formally established in 1948, shortly followed by the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, which established Israel's independence. See history of Israel, history of Egypt.

In 1952, officers in the Egyptian army overthrew the monarchy under King Farouk, who had previously employed a British puppet government. Abandoning policies which were co-operative with European powers, the new government asserted an independent and Arab nationalist identity. This led to conflict with Israel and the European powers over the Suez Canal.

Throughout 1956, tensions increased between Israel and Egypt, with Egyptian fedayeen launching frequent incursions into Israeli territory and Israel launching raids into Egyptian territory. On July 26, 1956, Egypt, under the leadership of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba, closed the Suez canal to Israeli shipping, and announced the nationalization of the canal, a vital trade route to the east, in which British banks and business held a 44% stake. This was done in order to raise revenue for the construction of the Aswan High Dam on the Nile River. Previously, the United States and Britain had agreed to help pay for this project, but cancelled their support after Egypt had bought tanks from communist Czechoslovakia, then under the control of the Soviet Union, and extended diplomatic recognition to Communist China. The better relationship with the Chinese was the result of the Bandung Conference in 1955, where Nasser had asked the Chinese to use their influence on the Soviets to supply Egypt with the necessary arms. The British Prime Minister of the time, Sir Anthony Eden, tried to persuade the British public of the need for war and so, perhaps in an attempt to recall World War II-era patriotism, he compared Nasser's nationalisation of the Suez Canal with the nationalism of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler twenty years earlier. However, it is interesting to note that the very first comparisons between 1930s dictators and Nasser during the crisis was made by the opposition Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell and the left-leaning tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mirror. Eden had been a staunch opponent of Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement and he claimed that a display of force was needed to prevent Nasser becoming another expansionist military threat.

In the months that followed Egypt's nationalisation of the canal, a secret meeting between Israel, France and Britain took place at Svres, outside Paris. Details only emerged years later, as records of the meeting were suppressed and destroyed. All parties agreed that Israel should invade and that Britain and France would subsequently intervene, instruct the Israeli and Egyptian armies to withdraw their forces to a distance of ten miles from either side of the canal, and then place an Anglo-French intervention force in the Canal Zone around Port Said. It was to be called "Operation Musketeer".


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Israeli conquest of Sinai

On October 29, Israel invaded the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula and made rapid progress towards the Canal Zone. As per the agreement, Britain and France offered to reoccupy the area and separate the warring armies. Nasser (whose nationalisation of the company had been greeted with joy by the Egyptian public) refused the offer, which gave the European powers a pretext for a joint invasion to regain control of the canal and topple the Nasser regime. To support the invasion, large air forces had been deployed to Cyprus and Malta by the UK and France and many aircraft carriers were deployed. The two regularly available airfields on Cyprus were so congested that a third field which was in dubious condition had to be brought into use for French aircraft. Even RAF Luqa on Malta was extremely crowded with RAF Bomber Command aircraft. The UK deployed the aircraft carriers HM ships Eagle, Albion and Bulwark and France had FS Arromanches and Lafayette on station. In addition, HM ships Ocean and Theseus acted as jumping off points for the world's first helicopter-borne assault. The United Kingdom and France began to bomb Egypt on October 31 to force the reopening of the canal with Operation Musketeer. Nasser responded by sinking all 40 ships then present in the canal, closing it to further shipping until early 1957.

On late 5 November the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment dropped at El Gamil Airfield, clearing the area and establishing a secure base for incoming support aircraft and reinforcements. At first light on the 6 November Commandos of Nos 42 and 40 Commando Royal Marines stormed the beaches, using landing craft of WW2 vintage. Salvos from the battlegroup standing offshore opened fire, giving good covering fire for the landings and causing considerable damage to the Egyptian batteries and gun emplacements. The town of Port Said sustained great damage and was seen to be alight.

Meeting stiff resistance, No. 45 Commando assaulted by helicopter and upon landing, moved inland. Several helicopters were hit from shore batteries and casualties were sustained. Friendly fire from British carrier borne aircraft caused heavy casualties to 45 Commando and HQ. Street fighting and house clearing was the order of the day. Again, stiff opposition came from well entrenched sniper positions which caused a number of casualties.

Cease fire and withdrawal

The operation to take the canal was highly successful from a military point of view, but a political disaster due to external forces. Along with Suez, the United States was also dealing with the near-simultaneous Hungary crisis, and faced the public relations embarrassment (especially in the eyes of the Third World) of criticizing the USSR's military intervention there while not also criticizing its two principal European allies' actions. Perhaps more significantly, the US also feared a wider war after the USSR threatened to intervene on the Egyptian side and launch attacks by "all types of modern weapons of destruction" on London and Paris.

Thus, the Eisenhower administration forced a cease-fire on Britain and France, which it had previously told the Allies it would not do. Part of the pressure that the United States used against Britain was financial, as Eisenhower threatened to sell the United States reserves of the British pound and thereby precipitate a collapse of the British currency.

The British government and the pound thus both came under pressure. Eden was forced to resign, and the invading forces withdrew in March 1957. Before the withdrawal, Lester Pearson, Canada's acting cabinet minister for external affairs, had gone to the United Nations and suggested creating a United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) in the Suez to "keep the borders at peace while a political settlement is being worked out." The United Nations eagerly accepted this suggestion, and the force was sent, greatly improving conditions in the area. Lester Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for his efforts. The United Nations Peacekeeping Force was Pearson's creation and he is considered the father of the modern concept "peacekeeping".


Eden's resignation marked, at least until the Falklands War, the end of the last attempt Britain would ever make to establish, as Scott Lucas writes, "that Britain did not require Washington's endorsement to defend her interests". However, Nigel Ashton argues "that British strategy in the region changed very little in the wake of Suez. Macmillan was every bit as determined as Eden had been to stop Nasser" although he was more willing to enlist American support in the future for that end. In a way, it also marked the symbolic end of the British Empire, though it had in reality been in decline for decades, even before World War II. The crisis also marked the transfer of power to the new superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union.

The incident demonstrated the weakness of the NATO alliance regarding prior consultation with allies before a use of force and NATO's lack of planning and cooperation outside the European theatre. From the point of view of General de Gaulle, the Suez events demonstrated that in case of actual need, France should not have to rely on allies, especially the United States, which may pursue different objectives.

The crisis also greatly improved Nasser's standing in the Arab world and helped to promote pan-Arabism. It also hastened the process of decolonization as the remaining colonies of both Britain and France become independent over the next several years. In reaction to the war, the Egyptian government expelled almost 25,000 Egyptian Jews and confiscated their property, and sent approximately 1,000 more Jews to prisons and detention camps.[1] (

After Suez, Aden and Iraq became the main bases for the British in the region.

The British government failed to award military medals to its soldiers until many years later [2] (

By early 1957 all Israeli troops had withdrawn from Sinai.


Note 1: Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power [NY: Simon & Schuster, 1991], p. 480; ch. 24 in its entirety is devoted to the SuezСуецка криза cs:Suezsk krize de:Sueskrise fr:Crise du canal de Suez he:מבצע קדש nl:Suezcrisis pl:Kryzys sueski sk:Suezsk krza fi:Suezin kriisi sv:Suezkrisen zh:苏伊士运河危机


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