Events in Egypt, the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the increasing heroic status of Nasser, made conflict looked inevitable. On November 3rd 1956, Anthony Eden prepared to address the nation. By now it was clear to those around him, that Eden’s health was suffering. The director of the broadcast, David Attenborough, stated “He looked dreadful, very ill.” At the start of his address, Eden stated:
“All my life I have been a man of peace…. I still have the same devotion to peace.”
However, in the same speech, Eden then went on that now was the right time to stand firm and that action was required to undo what Nasser had done with regards to the Suez Canal.
In Egypt, civilians were given rifles in an effort to produce a makeshift militia that would support the army. The military in Cairo fully expected a full-scale Anglo-French invasion and wanted as many to help as was physically possible.
On November 4th, a major demonstration was held in London with regards to the military build-up. The demonstration was organised by the Labour Party and the most common banner on display was “Law Not War”. The main speaker at Trafalgar Square was Aneurin Bevan. The man credited with founding the National Health Service said:
“If he is sincere in what he is saying, then he is too stupid to be Prime Minister.”
The demonstration turned more unpleasant and the police were needed to restore order near 10, Downing Street.
In Cairo, Nasser saw images of the demonstration. He turned to a colleague and said “Eden is weak, weak in character.”
Diplomatically, the course of events seemed to be turning against Eden. It appeared as if the Israelis were going to accept a United Nation’s proposal for a ceasefire. Even Eden’s cabinet was split on what course of action should be taken. The main opponent to military action was the Leader of the House, Rab Butler. When it became clear that Israel was not going to accept the UN’s ceasefire proposal, the cabinet decided that military action would start. In theory, the action by the armed forces should have been easy, as the Israelis had tied up a lot of the Egyptian Army in the Sinai.
On November 5th, ironically Gunpowder Plot day in Britain, men from the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment took off for El Gamil airfield, to the west of Port Said. At 05.00, the first men landed at the airfield – 668 paratroopers were to parachute into El Gamil in total. The paratroopers faced a mixture of civilians and army fighters. French paratroopers, with some British in support, landed to the west of Port Said. At El Gamil, the resistance put up by the Egyptians was greater than expected and 3 Para took more casualties than had been anticipated. From El Gamil, 3 Para moved on Port Said itself at the mouth of the Suez Canal. The Royal Air Force gave the men fighter cover as they moved. Despite fierce resistance in a cemetery near Port Said, the British force had a successful first day.
However, on that day a letter was received in London – but not shown to the sleeping Eden until the following day – from Bulganin, the Soviet Union’s Prime Minister. As Suez was played out in the background of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, seeming Soviet involvement was a worrying occurrence. Bulganin made it clear that the Soviet Union would take action against any aggressors in Egypt.
In the era of the Cold War and with the world reeling from the Soviet invasion of Hungary, it would have been expected that Britain’s primary ally at the time – the United States of America – would have rallied to support Great Britain. This did not happen – in fact, the opposite happened. Dwight Eisenhower, America’s president, was campaigning to be re-elected as President of America. The global image of an American ally acting like an imperial bully against a nation that probably could not protect itself against such a force was unacceptable to Eisenhower. He had already told Eden that the use of force was unacceptable to the Americans. In a letter to Eisenhower, Eden wrote:
“History alone can judge whether we have made the right decision.”
Militarily, Day One went as well as could have been expected. Diplomatically, things were not going well for Eden.
On November 6th, the sea landings took place in support of the paratroopers on the ground. At 04.00, guns from Royal Navy ships started to pound known defences in Port Said. At 04.45, men from 40 and 42 Commandos, Royal Marines, started their assault on Port Said. 45 Commando went in via helicopters. Faced with a combination of British and French paratroopers, British commandos and the Israeli Army in Sinai, it seemed obvious to many that the Egyptian forces would not last for long.
However, on the same day, politics started to take its toll. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Harold McMillan, told a cabinet meeting that there was a run on sterling, especially in New York and the Britain faced the real prospect of having to devalue sterling and also face the possibility of an Arab oil embargo. Both would have a major negative impact on the British economy. This was also coupled with the prospect of United Nation sanctions. Eisenhower had also made it clear to his cabinet that America would not do anything to prop up sterling until Britain and France had started to withdraw their forces from Egypt.
Faced with the possibility of a major dent in the UK economy, the cabinet took the decision to order a ceasefire.
By the end of November 6th, Port Said had been taken and the military estimated that full control of the Suez Canal would only take another 24 hours. However, they were ordered to stop fighting at midnight on the same day.
By November 7th, casualty figures could be assessed. It is believed that about 650 Egyptians were killed including civilians, with 2,000 wounded.
The Anglo-French forces lost 26 men killed and 129 wounded – included in these figures were Royal Marines killed and wounded in a friendly-fire incident involving the RAF.
There was little doubt that Britain had been humiliated on the international scene. However, Eden remained defiant. On November 17th he said:
“We make no apology and will never make one for the actions which we took.”
On December 20th, in the House of Commons, Eden was asked if he had ever had prior knowledge of an Israeli attack preceding a British/French one. Eden told the House that he had not – clearly misleading the House on what he actually did know. However, his health was failing.
British troops started to withdraw on December 23rd.
On January 8th, 1957, Eden addressed his cabinet for the last time. He gave his reason for resigning as increasingly poor health. The Queen accepted his resignation on January 9th and Harold McMillan succeeded him.
In Egypt and in the whole Arab world, Nasser became a hero idolised by millions. He was seen as the man who had stood up to the ‘imperial ambitions’ of Britain and France and had defeated them.