Economically and strategically, the Suez Canal was a vital route for both Middle Eastern oil and trade with the Far East. Britain had maintained a military presence in Egypt to protect the canal under the terms of a treaty signed in 1936. But dissident locals, Egyptian nationalists, resented the British presence in their country.  British forces concentrated in the area immediately adjacent to the canal, known as ‘the Canal Zone’, and withdrew from the cities.  

Opened in the 1880s the British-French-owned Suez Canal, which connected the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, provided Britain with a shorter shipping route to its empire but also to the crucially important oilfields of the Persian Gulf.  A treaty signed in 1936 with the Egyptian government allowed the British to stay in the country but concentrated in the Suez Canal Zone, an area running along the length of the waterway.   But Egyptian nationalists, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, fought back and demanded a revision of the treaty and the immediate withdrawal of all British troops. The British and French-owned canal was nationalised by Nasser, prompting military action by Israel, Britain and France to restore Western control.

Previous agreements were torn up and in October 1951, the Egyptian government repealed the 1936 treaty. In October 1954, Britain and Egypt agreed on the evacuation of Britain’s Canal Zone garrison, and the treaty provided that the Suez Canal Company would transfer to Egyptian government control in 1968.

The Stand-Off

In the years after World War Two the British government was struggling to maintain its colonial empire in Egypt and beyond; national servicemen were seen as having a crucial role in keeping control.

By the 1950s males between 17 and 21 had to spend two years in the armed forces, with nearly two million going through national service between 1939 and 1960.  They were deployed all over the world to protect British economic and strategic interests – and nowhere was more important to these than the Suez Canal Zone.

In October 1951, a tense stand-off between the British and Egyptian governments broke down over the number of UK troops stationed in the country. In response, the British government mobilised 60,000 troops in 10 days, in what was described as the biggest airlift of troops since World War Two.

The Conscription

In the years after World War Two the British government was struggling to maintain its colonial empire in Egypt and beyond; national servicemen were seen as having a crucial role in keeping control.  By the 1950s, males between 17 and 21 had to spend two years in the armed forces, with nearly two million going through national service between 1939 and 1960.  They were deployed all over the world to protect British economic and strategic interests – and nowhere was more important to these than the Suez Canal Zone.

The National Army Museum records that, between 1945 and 1956, British soldiers manned bases on the Suez Canal in Egypt. It was not a popular posting for the soldiers: as well as being subjected to regular attacks by local nationalists, they also had to endure disease and a harsh climate.

The Suez Crisis (see more detail, here)

The Suez Crisis, or the Second Arab–Israeli war, was an invasion of Egypt in late 1956 by Israel, followed by the United Kingdom and France. The aims were to regain Western control of the Suez Canal and to remove Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had just nationalised the canal.  After the fighting had started, political pressure from the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Nations led to a withdrawal by the three invading Nations. The episode humiliated the UK and France and strengthened the position of the Egyptian president Col. Nasser.

On 29th October 1956, Israel invaded the Egyptian Sinai. Britain and France issued a joint ultimatum to cease fire, which was ignored. On 5th November 1956, Britain and France landed paratroopers along the Suez Canal.

British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden, said on 8th August 1956:

‘Our quarrel is not with Egypt, still less with the Arab world. It is with Colonel Nasser. He has shown that he is not a man who can be trusted to keep an agreement. Now he has torn up all his country’s promises to the Suez Canal Company and has even gone back on his own statements.  We cannot agree that an act of plunder which threatens the livelihood of many nations should be allowed to succeed. And we must make sure that the life of the great trading nations of the world cannot in the future be strangled at any moment by some interruption to the free passage of the canal.’

While the Egyptian forces were defeated, they had blocked the canal to all shipping, and the canal was useless. Historians conclude the crisis “signified the end of Great Britain’s role as one of the world’s major powers”.  

The Debacle

Pamela Parkes, wrote about the Suez Emergency on BBC News on 24th October 2016, here.

The operation was hampered from the very start by a severe lack of resources. There were insufficient ships and landing craft. And, when it was decided to add armour to the force, a shortage of transporters meant that the tanks had to be moved to their embarkation points by a commercial removals firm.

Thousands of British conscripts were sent to Egypt to defend the Suez Canal in the wake of rising Egyptian nationalism.  The troops were poorly trained and under-equipped, they faced a brutal and bloody situation, protecting British interests in a conflict they wanted no part of.

It was the beginning of the end of Western control of the Suez Canal and the start of the three-year Suez Emergency, which has been described as a “forgotten war fought by a forgotten army”. British prime minister Anthony Eden resigned over the debacle.

Footnote: My conscription was deferred until completion of my articles as a trainee accountant otherwise I’d have been off to the Suez Canal in 1956.

Martin Pollins
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