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The Suez War of 1956

His plans for industrialization highlighted with the construction of the Aswan Dam also meant buying military weapons such as bombers, fighter aircraft and tanks from the Soviet Union. This “indiscriminate” patronizing of the western world’s arch nemesis created funding complications for the Aswan Dam. Both the United States and Britain had already pledged loans which were becoming increasingly involved with diplomatic wrangling over Egypt’s ties with the Soviet Union and later with China.

A World Bank loan which came with a stipulation that it be monitored by World Bank officials and not Egyptian trustees was increasingly making Nasser doubtful and belligerent. It was said that Nasser was returning to Cairo from a meeting with some world leaders when he was given word of all the pledged loans being revoked upon the instigation of the United States (GSO, 2008). Six days later and incidentally on the fourth anniversary of deposed King Farouk’s exile, Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal, the implications of which were far too well known by the countries who raised indignant diplomatic protests.

Anthony Eden, then British prime minister, called the nationalization of the canal “theft,” and United States secretary of state Dulles said Nasser would have to be made to “disgorge” it (GSO, 2008). Already facing the dissolution of their last remaining strongholds in North Africa and the possibility of Egypt cutting oil supplies, Britain contemplated on retaking the canal by force, but was persuaded that the timing was not right.

The only response that Britain and France could do was to freeze all Egyptian assets within their countries as well as gear up for what they expected to be an inevitable confrontation. American President Dwight Eisenhower also felt that the timing was not right and was instrumental in persuading Britain and France to hold back for a little while they waited for an opportunity. But Nasser had everything planned; he vowed to compensate the Paris based operating company of the canal as well as its stockholders and soothed fears that the canal would be closed to crucial international shipping.

When the agreement on the canal’s use proved reliable over the succeeding weeks, it became more and more difficult to justify military action. Still, the French and British desperately wanted to put Nasser in his place and recapture their strategic asset (JVL, 2008) At this point, existing alliances began to coalesce and strengthen. In what was going to become the Tripartite Invasion, Britain, France and Israel set their plans in motion.

This cooperative effort had a storied if not uneven history; France found itself keen on establishing political, economic and diplomatic ties with the new Jewish State; Britain tended to be wary because it didn’t exactly have a cordial relationship with Israel plus the fact that it had an alliance with Jordan which Israel had accused of being party to the fedayeen attacks. But in the end, it was France, playing on Israel’s annoyance at being prevented from using the canal for its crucial shipping needs that forged an agreement with Britain joining in.

All three had large stakes in the endeavor anyway; Britain wanted to have continued links with the remaining outposts of its once vast empire; France was looking out for its own interest as well in the North African region and Israel was itching to end the blockade that was affecting its shipping requirements as well as a chance to strengthen its southern borders. In this equation, the Americans, who had been taking the neutral route, preferring instead to talk, were not informed of the plan being hatched by the three countries.

They assumed that American cooperation with the impending war effort would eventually fall into place anyway, to be prompted by America’s continuing belief that Egypt was in deep collusion with the Soviet Union (Shaw, 1996). The plan called for Israel to send its armies and invade the Sinai area; British and French forces would then come in and mediate. Called Operation Kadesh, the invasion was focused on four critical areas. First critical area was the town of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Egypt had placed its Tiran Straits blockade in the town and Israel hoped that by capturing it, it would open access to the Red Sea which Egypt had closed in 1953 to hurt Israel’s trading projects in the Indian Ocean (HLS, 2007). The Invasion Second and third critical areas were al-Arish and Abu Uwayulah where Egypt had the bulk of its soldiers, equipment, and command centers important to its armies stationed in the Sinai. To be able to capture them would effectively damage Egyptian capability in the entire Peninsula.

The last critical area was the Gaza Strip which held a special interest for Israel specifically because it was where Egypt trained its notorious fedayeens. It was also a significant geographical area which Egypt could use against them. By October of 1956, Operation Kadesh was in motion; Israeli chief-of-staff, Major General Moshe Dayan along with Lieutenant Colonel Rafael Eytan commanding the 1st Battalion, 202nd Paratroop Brigade began their initial forays into the Southern Sinai. Along the Gulf of Agaba, the the 9th Infantry Brigade captured Ras an-Naqb which would prove pivotal in staging the plan to capture the town of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Simultaneously, Colonel Josef Harpaz and his 4th Infantry Brigade captured al-Qusaymah, which would also prove to be crucial in facing the forces at Abu Uwayulah (Derek, 2003). But the Israeli offensive had its low moments, at the battle of Jebel Heitan, Israeli forces sustained their worst casualties. Dayan was hesitant to move further up the passes but Sharon pressed on intent to crush the Egyptian forces stationed at Jebel Haitan. It was a tactical mistake; even as the Egyptians retreated, their relative force and firepower inflicted heavy damage on Sharon’s lightly armed troops.

The substantial number of deaths cast a dark shadow over the rest of Sharon’s career. Another low-point of the invasion was the Kafr Qasim massacre; militarizing its border with Jordan, Israeli soldiers inadvertently mistook 48 Arabs to be sympathizers and gunning them down (Fraser, 2004). And then it was time for British and French forces to come into the picture. For air-power, Britain and France had their aircraft carriers crowd the small ports of the island nations of Cyprus and Malta.

British aircraft carriers, the HMS Eagle, Albion and Bulwark rubbed bows with the French contingent, the Arromanches and La Fayatte (Gorst, et. al, 1997). It was a chance to display modern warfare and technological advances; two additional aircraft carriers, the HMS Ocean and the Theseus were used to launch the world’s first helicopter-borne assault (Gorst, et. al, 1997) The United States for its part, moved to sponsor a Security Council resolution calling for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces but Britain and France vetoed it.

Barely a day after the launch of Operation Kadesh, Britan and France already sent Egypt an ultimatum; 24 hours later, Operation Musketeer began a bombing campaign that resulted in the bombing of the Cairo aerodome by F4U-7 Corsairs. Nasser boldly answered by sinking 40 ships docked at the canal. At this point, British offensive was in full swing; its 3rd Battalion of the British Parachute Regiment came in at the El Gamil Airfield and claimed the area as a base for aircraft and further reinforcements.

The Royal Marines came unto the beaches in landing crafts that had seen action during WWII; in no time, Egyptian forces were driven back and the town of Port Said was burning by dusk’s end (Derek, 2003). For their part, the French deployed forces fresh from their North African strongholds; paratroopers from the French 2nd Colonial Parachute Regiment worked in tandem with British forces, capturing Port Said and advancing to within 25 miles of Suez City before abruptly agreeing to a cease-fire (Derek, 2003). The reason?

The Soviets warned them that if they advanced any further, it was willing to use all means possible including the threat of nuclear warfare to stop the invasion. At this point, France and Britain’s gamble, despite the obvious supremacy of their military forces along with the Israelis, faced grim losses. Again, political confluences conspired to take the outcome of the war into a different direction as “there was almost universal condemnation of the Tripartite Invasion. ” The important member of the equation which Britain and France were counting on to come to their aid and give the attack legitimacy was facing diplomatic problems of its own.

With the incident at the Suez and another one involving Hungary and the Soviet Union, the United States found its hands tied; angered at the deliberate effort of Britain and France to keep the invasion a secret, it was faced with the choice of legitimizing imperialism if it sided with the two countries. There was also great concern over the Soviet threat against the invading forces with what could possibly be nuclear weapons and of Nikita Khrushchev’s avowal to even attack London and Paris with the same kind of weapons. President Eisenhower pressured Britain and France to accept a ceasefire which the two countries initially rejected.

They vetoed an initial American sponsored resolution lodged with the United Nations Security Council. The U. S. then brought its appeal to the UN General Assembly which Britain and France could have rejected again except for the fact that the United States had to resort to unusual measures to force the ceasefire (Gorst, et. al, 1997). With the British pound already falling as a backlash of the invasion, Britain faced further economic ruin when Eisenhower threatened to accelerate the pound’s fall by selling it own reserves.

The United States also sided with Saudi Arabia who already launched an oil embargo against Britain and France. To add to the pressure, even Britain’s own former colonies such as the Commonwealth of Canada voiced their own disapproval of its actions. Withdrawal of Troops Feeling the pinch, they succumbed; Britain and France accepted a cease-fire November 6 even as their troops were just a few miles away from advancing towards the entire ength of the canal. By December 6, final evacuation of all forces was initiated and completed.

The Israelis left the Sinai in March, 1957 but not after also facing stiff pressure from the American government upon the threat of sanctions if it did not leave and at the same time, give up all territories acquired during the invasion. Reluctantly, Israeli forces left Egypt but not without one final message; they willfully implemented a scorched-earth policy, destroying roads, railroads, and military installations as they went out of the country (GSO, 2008).

Upon the suggestion of future Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson, the United Nations established its presence in the area through a United Nations Emergency Force which began to arrive on November 21st. They were stationed on the Egyptian side of the Egyptian-Israeli border as well as along the eastern coast of Sinai although Israel refused to allow UN troops on its territory (Gorst, 1997). The UN troops stayed in Egypt until 1967 when their removal actually contributed to the June 1967 War also known as the Six-Day war; two years later, Egypt and British relations were restored (GSO, 2008).

The implications of the Suez echoed long after it was over. For Nasser, the outcome was a personal victory for a man seen as a champion against western imperialism. Yet the fruits of his Israeli incursions through his fedayeen were the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its violent avowal for Palestinian liberation. His actions also re-affirmed and strengthened an Arabian identity that increasingly fed and even encouraged anti-Western sentiments.

France continued its friendship and alliance with Israel, even to the point of providing it with the means of creating its own nuclear technology and even as Israel did not win freedom to use the canal it did regain shipping rights in the Straits of Tiran (USP, 2004).


Barry, T. (2007) Suez 1956: The Inside Story of the First Oil War. Hodder Headline Derek, V. (2003) The Suez Crisis 1956 (Essential Histories). Osprey Publishing Fraser, T. G. (2004) The Arab-Israeli Conflict, Second Edition (Studies in Contemporary History). Palgrave Macmillan Global Security. Org (2008) Egypt 1956 war. Retrieved January 12, 2008 from

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