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Suez 1956

Timothy Benson, whose new book explores how the Suez Crisis was viewed in the world’s press and by cartoonists in particular, here tells the story of a tumultuous year.

Britain’s first occupation of Egypt, supposedly temporary, had begun in 1882 and lasted until June 1956. Thus Egypt became, in all but name, a British protectorate. The Canal became vital to British trade especially oil imports, as by 1956 nearly two-thirds of Britain’s oil came through the Canal.

In 1952, the coup by the Free Officers led by General Neguib forced the abdication of King Farouk. By June 1956, Neguib had been replaced by Nasser who became President in 1954. On April 6th, 1955, Anthony Eden became prime minister in Britain and quickly won a General Election. However, economic difficulties soon brought a great deal of criticism of Eden, incensing a notoriously thin-skinned man. Particularly irritating was a passage in a Daily Telegraph article entitled ‘The Firm Smack of Government’ which suggested that he was indecisive.

The Middle East dominated foreign affairs. Britain had sought to maintain a military balance in the Arab-Israeli dispute by supplying limited amounts of essentially obsolete weapons, but an arms deal with the Soviet bloc in September 1955 meant Egypt was now receiving Czechoslovakian tanks and modern aircraft. As a result, Eden began to think in terms of isolating Egypt from other Arab states but he did not wish to push Nasser further into the orbit of the Soviet bloc, so in November talks began in Washington on funding for the Aswan Dam project.

However, in July 1956 Eisenhower cancelled the promised grant of $56 million towards the dam. The furious Nasser decided to nationalize the Suez Canal so that the revenues from it would finance the Dam instead. The announcement was made on the anniversary of the abdication of King Farouk on July 26th, in Alexandria. The offices of the Suez Canal Company were occupied, but he stated that shareholders would be compensated at the prevailing market price and the operation of the canal would be administered by an independent body.

News of the nationalization reached Eden at a dinner in Downing Street that he was hosting in honour of King Feisal of Iraq and his prime minister Nuri es Said. The latter encouraged Eden to take a robust line, while the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, who was also present, stressed the necessity for a quick response in co-ordination with the US. Eden was determined that a strong line be taken against Egypt and Nasser removed by military action. However, an immediate military response was out of the question. There were no contingency plans for taking control of the Canal if Egypt opposed it. The forces Britain had immediately available were insufficient to launch a quick operation, and it would take considerable time to assemble forces within striking range of Egypt. So, in the short term at least, a diplomatic process was needed.

Most of the British press roundly condemned the nationalization. The Times compared Nasser’s ‘coup’ with Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland, and argued that if Nasser was to get away with it then British and Western interests in the Middle East would crumble.

All Egyptian funds in Britain were blocked. Political and diplomatic pressure were to be applied. In the last resort, force would be used. For Eden the issue was simple – was Britain prepared, with or without the US and France or alone, to use force? The Cabinet agreed that unilateral action might be necessary in the last resort as the nationalization of the Canal represented a threat to all Britain’s interests in the Middle East.

On July 27th, Eden denounced the nationalization in the House of Commons. Gaitskell, though, indicated that the dispute should be referred to the UN Security Council, something Eden was reluctant to do as this would have involved the Soviet Union directly.

In August, British and French military strategists began to plan an invasion, while Eden, conscious of the need to secure the support of public opinion, broadcast to the nation. He directed his fire squarely at Nasser, arguing that he was a man not to be trusted and making frequent references to fascism, dictatorship and the consequences of appeasement. Meanwhile it was increasingly clear that the US was unwilling to sanction the use of force and the Labour Party pressed Eden to involve the UN.

The London Conference opened on August 16th, 1956, with all interested parties – bar Egypt – to approve the resumption of international control over the Canal. One stumbling block was the insistence of India that Egypt was entitled to nationalize the Canal. India was supported in this by the Soviet Union, Ceylon and Indonesia. The remaining eighteen nations supported a plan put forward by US Secretary of State Dulles which sought to secure the Canal as an international waterway, and a convention negotiated with Egypt to place operation of the Canal under an international Suez Canal Board. This proposal was presented to Nasser by a mission headed by Australian prime minister Robert Menzies. Nasser turned it down flat, repeating that the nationalization was legal and that the Canal remained open and operating normally.

On September 4th, Dulles, anticipating the failure of Menzies mission, put forward a new proposal: the Suez Canal Users Association. Dulles suggested that Canal users should run the Canal themselves. This would remove revenues from the hands of Nasser and strengthen the hands of the users in the UN. Eden was not convinced but saw this proposal as a step to American participation in a policy of compelling Egypt to accept international control of the Canal. Dulles, though, continued to warn of America’s opposition to the use of force, pointing out the results might be calamitous, and the West could lose influence in the Middle East and much of Africa as well.

Ignoring Dulles’s warnings, Eden and Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd, together with the French, now set in train a highly secret process of collusion with Israel against Egypt. The mechanics were worked out at Sèvres near Paris on October 22nd–24th. The Israelis were to invade Egypt on the evening of October 29th, aiming to reach the Canal Zone the following day, thus threatening the Canal. Britain and France were to issue an ultimatum on October 30th to both Israel and Egypt to accept a ceasefire and withdraw ten miles from the Canal. Within twelve hours Britain and France would  commence military operations against the party that refused, as they expected Egypt to do.

On October 29th, Israel’s army duly attacked, and made rapid progress. On October 30th Britain and France issued their ultimatums, which Egypt rejected, ordering a full mobilization and announcing that they would refer the matter to the Security Council. Anglo-French air attacks began at midnight on October 30th. However, a delay meant that the raids did not begin until late afternoon the next day. The initial strikes destroyed much of the Egyptian Air Force, and within days the bombing, together with the rapid advance of the Israelis, meant the Egyptian armed forces were increasingly incapable of action, leading some – including Gaitskell – to suggest that there was no need for continued operations.

In the Commons Gaitskell condemned the action as an act of disastrous folly with profound consequences for Britain’s relationship with the US and the Commonwealth. Two junior ministers resigned. For many, Eden, whose claims to office derived from his foreign affairs expertize and his  reputation as a peacemaker, had betrayed the principles that he had represented since the 1930s.

In opinion polls support from Conservative voters remained solid. But criticism in the British press continued. On November 1st, the Guardian called the attack on Egypt a disaster; the Daily Mirror labelled it a ‘blunder’ that would ‘achieve nothing’ and the Daily Herald stated that the war was ‘unnecessary’ and ‘illegal’. Even The Times was lukewarm in its support for Eden.

On November 2nd, the UN passed a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, but Britain, together with France who as yet had no forces ashore, continued air operations, attacking installations in the Canal Zone, and targeting Egyptian ships blocking the Canal. An Anglo-French parachute drop was ordered against airfields near Port Said at dawn on November 5th. A confused situation ensued with surrender negotiations with the Governor of Port Said being announced by Eden, but, Egyptian forces in Port Said fought on when Nasser rejected the terms. A long-awaited seaborne assault went ahead at first light on November 6th, and just as there seemed little to prevent the occupation of the length of the Canal, the operation was brought to a premature halt: the British and French governments accepted a ceasefire at midnight on November 6th.

It was American pressure that had forced Eden’s hand. This became apparent when the US blocked a British approach to the IMF to access funds to stave off a run on sterling. Some $50 million of the reserves went in the first forty-eight hours. This and the prospect of oil sanctions convinced the Cabinet that an acceptance of a ceasefire was necessary to restore relations with the US.

Nasser remained firmly in power; the Canal was blocked; Britain’s relations with its allies were in disarray and its prestige and moral standing were badly damaged.

The pressure took its toll on Eden. On November 22nd, after his doctor advised him he was in urgent need of rest, he departed with his wife Clarissa for Jamaica. He returned on  December 14th, and publicly blamed the outcome of the crisis on the lack of the support from the US. He then sealed his fate when, in the Commons, he came under pressure from the Labour Party over the extent of collusion with the Israelis. Eden denied that there had been any foreknowledge of Israel’s action against Egypt. Against this backdrop the evacuation of British forces from Egypt was completed on December 22nd. Eden resigned on January 9th, 1957.

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