Autumn 1956 and crisis in the Middle East, with Britain and France under the heavy fire of criticism.
Britain believes nevertheless that the Anglo-French action can open the way to new opportunity for the United Nations and the world.
Here’s the story of what happened and why.
The countries of the Middle East are important in many ways, as a centre of world sea routes and air routes and they are the most vital source of oil in the world.
First, let’s look at Palestine as it used to be.
For some 30 years tension has steadily mounted over the Palestine Question, fostered by the quarrel between Arab and Jew. During long years of unrest, it was Britain who held the international mandate. The task was thankless and difficult, with British troops and police employed in maintaining order. These pictures recall and document that uneasy period.
When Britain relinquished the mandate a short but violent conflict between Israel and Egypt in 1948 ended in an armistice which has never blossomed into a peace.
A United Nations police force was to have been established. It was never formed. True, United Nations observers investigated incident after incident and reported back. Over 200 United Nations Resolutions proved totally ineffective.
Next, revolution in Egypt, and before long Colonel Nasser became dictator. In Cairo, as in other Middle Eastern capitals, popular endorsement of this ominous event produced scenes of frenzied acclamation. Promises of peace and prosperity for every Egyptian explained the enthusiasm for a regime which has proved incapable of fulfilling them.
Meanwhile Britain offered friendship by agreeing to withdraw from the Canal Zone surely in earnest of her desire for good relations with Egypt.
Soon afterwards, a significant visit to Egypt was paid by Mr Shepilov, Russia’s new Foreign Minister. It seemed certain that a bargain was being struck between Nasser and Shepilov, and so it proved to be.
The first evidence was apparent in the big military parade in Cairo. Russia was supplying arms for Nasser’s oft-declared intention of wiping Israel off the map.
The climax came when Nasser seized the Suez Canal, an international waterway. To Britain and France this was a danger signal that the whole Middle East might soon be aflame. They therefore reinforced their Mediterranean garrisons as an insurance against a sudden outbreak.
Cairo in 1956 reminded many of Berlin in 1939. Warlike signs in the streets and violent radio propaganda starkly reveal the mood of Egyptian defiance. Nasser himself created and sustained the uncompromising and bellicose attitude. He had made no secret of his intentions. He had already seized the Canal. What next?
At this tense moment, on the 29th of October, Israel struck. Routing the Egyptians, Israeli columns swept forward across Sinai towards the Canal. Who knows how far they might have gone. The Canal was a natural anti-tank ditch and Nasser’s obvious next line of defence. It had to be protected from war. It was also the only place where Britain and France could physically intervene.
Together, on the 30th of October, Britain and France issued a forthright warning to both countries. Israel was prepared to heed it. Egypt refused point-blank. The Anglo-French operation was planned with care and skill to achieve its objective with minimum loss of life.
In the Mediterranean, aircraft carriers and other warships were ready to take part in the action and, for the first time in history, attacking forces announced their objectives and the time of the attack. At additional risk to the air crews, the Egyptian people were warned by precise and repeated broadcasts to keep away from airfields and other specified military targets.
The briefing of Royal Air Force pilots was clear and precise. Their targets were exclusively military, such as airfields and the Egyptian aircraft on them – mostly Russian-built fighters and bombers.
As well as the Royal Air Force, the Fleet Air Arm played its part in the attack. It flew many sorties every one carried out with meticulous and care and the utmost accuracy.
After the attack on Egyptian airfields came the assault on Port Said. Paratroops were flown across on the 5th of November. These are the men of the British Para troop Brigade. On landing they went into swift and brilliantly successful action. Before nightfall, seeing that resistance was hopeless, the Egyptians in Port Said agreed to discuss surrender terms.
Then, on orders from Cairo, the offer was rejected and fighting was resumed at 10.30 pm local time.
Early next day, Royal Marine Commandos carried a landing by helicopter. This action, apart from being most spectacular, was also unique.
Simultaneously, Allied forces landed from the sea against an impressive pall of smoke arising from an oil-storage tank fired by the Egyptians. The necessity for the sea-borne attack on Port Said, which had in fact been captured virtually undamaged, was due solely to the rejection of the surrender terms.
But now, Allied troops had to go ashore to overcome Egyptian resistance in the streets of the town.
This second operation, now unavoidable, brought the only significant damage and casualties.
After the assault, troops moved on into the town, and a considerable build-up followed.
Even now, the fighting in Port Said was of short duration. British armour was quickly in command of the situation here and it wasn’t long before numbers of the civilian population began to emerge.
Some of Nasser’s troops had fought in civilian clothes. In fact, it was often difficult to distinguish civilians from soldiers.
It was inevitable that some damage should occur in Port Said during the fighting that followed the rejection of the ceasefire. It was chiefly due to fires caused by the exploding ammunition dumped by the Egyptians in the slums of the town.
A view of the place from the air shows conclusively by the clear-cut limits of the damage that this was not done by bombing – anyone looking at this picture can easily see for himself.
Casualties too were very small in number, in spite of Egyptian propaganda stories to the contrary. The same care and attention was given to Egyptian wounded as our men themselves would receive. The hospital train for Cairo went out half empty.
In New York, the United Nations called for a ceasefire. The United Kingdom, France and Israel agreed. Egypt agreed too.
Allied troops had reached Elcat – a short distance down the Canal. There they halted and there they waited.
In Port Said too, the troops relaxed. A small Egyptian youngster is seen getting along nicely with a group of paratroops.
Off-duty relaxation quite naturally included a spot of football.
Port Said had suffered very little damage, for example, public utilities such as the water works captured by the French were unscathed.
Nasser’s propaganda, by the way, claimed that the greater part of the town had been smashed by bombing from the air and by bombardment from the sea.
It doesn’t look like it, does it?
These fly-over pictures were taken on the 22nd of November, and if the place had been bombed from the air or bombarded from the sea, you would expect to see some signs somewhere. No bombs were dropped. Only a few defined military targets were attacked by shells and rocket fire.
The Egyptians said that the entire population was destitute and 50,000 homeless.
Absolute nonsense. House after house. Street after street. And not a vestige of destruction can be seen. Port Said was never a target, only military objectives on its fringes.
Port Said in ruins?
Well, take a look at Port Said.
Now let’s turn to the sabotage in the Canal carried out on Nasser’s orders. The obstacles number about 50 altogether, most of them ships sunk after Egypt had agreed to the ceasefire. Some 20 wrecks in the Port Said area completely obstructed the entrance to the Canal itself. Here indeed is overwhelming evidence of the danger of allowing one man or one government to have sole control over this international sea route. The fact that Nasser could block it at any moment was one of the main arguments of the 18 Powers, who reached agreement after the Canal seizure. This link between East and West is of the utmost importance to millions throughout the world, including the Egyptians themselves.
Port Said quickly began to return to its ordinary daily routine. At first there was a few cases of looting or at any rate “grabbing”, shall we say. But soon, with the bakeries open, again British troops took over the job of seeing fair play. The people had to do a bit of queuing. 5 at a time in this particular shop, then everyone gets his share.
In the first week alone after the action, 2500 tons of food were distributed to the population.
Hospitals were in full operation from the first.
Children were well looked after throughout this period.
Power stations had only suffered slight damage and British engineers, with what Egyptian co-operation they could muster, were quickly on the job checking and repairing.
Yes, Port Said soon got back to normal. Though it continued under occupation of course, it was perfectly possible for the people to resume their everyday life.
In the harbour and the entrance to the Canal, work on salvaging the sunken ships had been put in hand at once. There was obviously a huge job to be done and no time to be lost.
First, British divers went down to inspect the wrecks. Theirs was a difficult task, for visibility in the sandy water was very poor. Then wrecks were lifted from the bottom and towed away. In quick time, a channel was cleared for ships of up to about 10,000 tons to get through. Britain placed her salvage resources at the United Nations’ disposal, but the Canal beyond Elcat remained blocked for the time being. British and French minesweepers swept the Canal as far as Elcat.
Beyond that, they could not go.
Concrete evidence of the vast supply of Russian war material to Egypt has been obtained. It is particularly interesting to observe that among captured weapons since brought back to Britain that many types are so new that they have not yet been supplied to the East European Soviet satellites. Egypt had a priority. Why?
The first United Nations representatives to appear in Egypt, a small body of observers arrived in a tank landing ship. They were naturally given every possible facility by the British.
Presently they drove off in a small convoy to pass through advance positions en route for Cairo.
Canada’s proposal in the United Nations that a UN Emergency Force be despatched had been accepted. The first unit to reach Port Said was a company of Norwegians. What a different story it might have been had a similar emergency force come to this part of the world when Britain gave up her mandate in Palestine in 1948. The Norwegians received a warm welcome from the people of Port Said. For the Allies, the great thing was that the United Nations had acted.
As the UN takes over and Allied troops withdraw, we see not the end of the story – perhaps only the beginning.
On the 3rd of November, Sir Winston Churchill wrote: “In Britain we have the choice of taking decisive action or admitting once and for all our inability to put an end to strife.” That is the summing-up of a great man and a great statesman.
But what of the future?
The Middle East, the United Nations, the whole world have been given a new opportunity. Let the world welcome this opportunity and use it for the future security and happiness of mankind.