Nasser having nationalised the Suez Canal waited to see what would happen. Nasser confidently predicted that Britain would not use military force to reclaim the Suez Canal and that diplomacy would not work. Therefore he concluded that his gamble over the Suez Canal had worked.
On August 8th,1956 Anthony Eden went on television to explain his policy towards Egypt. He told the British public that “Our quarrel is not with Egypt, still less with the Arab world. It is with Colonel Nasser. He is not a man who can be trusted to keep an agreement.” During the speech, Eden compared Nasser to the recent Fascist leaders of Europe – a comparison that did not go down well in the Arabic world.
In August 1956, 20,000 reservists were called up in Britain. Men were sent to Malta and Cyprus as the two obvious forward military bases. Britain drew up, in secret, plans to re-capture the Suez Canal and to force through a change of regime in Egypt. Eden’s main advisor at the Foreign Office on Egyptian issues was Adam Watson. He got the clear impression that Eden believed that the Egyptian people would welcome a strong but benevolent British government in Egypt – a throwback to the days of the British Empire at its peak.
The United States of America made it clear that it was against any form of military action and Dwight Eisenhower made this clear in communications with Eden. The American Secretary of State at the time was John Foster Dulles. It was Dulles who had frequent contact with Eden and his messages to the Prime Minister were ambivalent and far from clear. If Eden believed that America was not against military action as a result of his meetings with Dulles, this may well have encouraged him to not only think about it but also to actively follow it up.
Eden got the full backing of France for action against Egypt, especially from the French Foreign Minister Christian Pireau. Nasser had helped Algerian rebels against the ruling French government in Algiers and this Pireau could not tolerate. Nasser backed up his stance when he publicly stated “It is our duty to help our Arab brothers.”
A third nation covertly made its feeling plan on the topic of Egypt – Israel. Officials from France and Israel met in secret to discuss what could be done against Egypt. Israel was greatly concerned by Egypt’s military power that was becoming greater as a result of Czech military imports. On July 27th, France had openly asked Israel if they were considering attacking Egypt in what would be a pre-emptive strike – attack before being attacked. Shimon Peres told the French that an Israeli attack could take place within two weeks of the 27th but that modern weapons were needed. In response to this, France secretly exported to Israel modern weaponry. Because of a trade embargo on military equipment to the Middle East, the landing of this equipment took place at night – Moshe Dayan was there to observe the landings near Haifa.
As a result of his concern for what was going on in the Middle East, Eisenhower ordered U2 spy planes to fly over the Israel/Egypt area to give US Intelligence more of a clear picture as to what military equipment both sides had. The results greatly angered Eisenhower. The photos showed that Israel had been equipped with sixty French Mystere fighter planes whereas the French government had told Eisenhower that they had only handed over to Israel twelve Mystere’s. Eisenhower saw the planes as changing the balance of power in the region and that such a move could provoke a response.
On October 13th, Eden addressed the Conservative Party conference at Llandudno. Eden clearly stated that he did not rule out the use of military force. However, he also knew that he had to do something decisive as little had been seemingly done since the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in July.
On October 14th, Eden met the French Deputy Chief of Staff at Chequers. It was at this meeting that there was the first mention of a possible military input by the Israelis. The French plan was to get Israel to attack Egypt across the Sinai Desert. As Israel moved nearer to the Suez Canal, Britain and France would call on both forces to withdraw ten miles both sides of the Suez Canal (Egypt to the west and Israel to the east) and both nations would send in troops to ensure the safety of this vital international waterway. On October 16th Eden told the French that the plan had his support. Secrecy was paramount and America was not told.
The three nations involved met at a remote villa at Sevres near Paris. Ben Gurion, Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan made the secret journey from Israel to the villa while the British representative there was the Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd. The meeting did not go well. Gurion wanted Britain to promise to intervene in the region 72 hours earlier than Britain had planned to do so. Lloyd refused to give such an assurance and Ben Guiron was all for leaving the meeting. He was stopped when Shimon Peres told him that their plane had developed ‘mechanical problems’ and that they would have to stay at the villa to ensure that their presence there remained secret. As a result, the talk continued.
On October 23rd, Pineau flew to London to see Eden to sort out the problems. On the following day, Eden sent Patrick Dean to Paris. Dean was the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and his task was to ensure that any Israeli attack actually seemed as if it was going to threaten the Suez Canal. Therefore, in the eyes of the world, Britain and France would be justified in sending in troops. Dean signed a document that confirmed all the details. He brought a copy back to Eden who was horrified that anything had been put in writing as this, Eden believed, jeopardised the whole secrecy of the mission.
On October 28th, Israel launched a secret strike on Egypt – so secret that for years the Egyptians had no idea as to what had happened. Israeli intelligence had found out via a spy when and where an aeroplane carrying senior Egyptian military commanders would be flying. It was shot down killing all on board. Many in Egypt believed it to have been a tragic accident.
At the same time, twelve French fighter jets flew from Cyprus to Israel. Dayan was concerned about the aerial strength of the Egyptian air force and the French fighters were a guarantee against this. The fighter planes were given Israeli markings and the French pilots given the appropriate documentation.
On October 29th, 395 Israeli paratroopers were dropped in the Sinai Desert – about twenty miles from the Suez Canal. Eden had expected a larger force and the attack even puzzled Nasser who was informed that the Israelis seemed to be going from one sand hill to another with no obvious strategic cohesion to what they were doing.
On October 30th, Eden informed the House of Commons and the Queen of what had happened in the Sinai. The Israeli and Egyptian ambassadors were summoned and told to inform their respective governments that both forces should withdraw ten miles either side of the Suez Canal to ensure that the canal was not damaged. Nasser rejected this and it was this that gave Britain and France the excuse to start an attack.
The United Nations called on all sides not to use violence in the attempts to solve the problem. Britain used its right of veto in the Security Council to reject this.
Britain started its attack when RAF bombers attacked the international airport in Cairo. Eisenhower was furious and he made his anger known in public when he said “We believe these actions to be taken in error.” However, his comments did not stop the bombings. On November 1st, more British aerial bombings destroyed many Mig 15 fighters on the ground.
In Britain, Eden faced embarrassment from one of his own MP’s – William Yates. He had found out about the secret plan to attack Egypt. However, Yates had no details about it – if he had, Eden could have been in far more political trouble than he was as it would have been obvious that Britain and France were trying to precipitate a situation in which they could attack as opposed to avoiding one.
The attack on Egypt was scheduled for November 5th.