The canal was strategically important to the British, and hence to the other European powers. To the British, the canal was the ocean link with its colonies in India, the Far East, Australia, and New Zealand. Because the canal was strategically important, the area as a whole became strategically important. Thus, in 1875, the British government of Benjamin Disraeli bought the Egyptian share of the operating company, obtaining partial control of the canal's operations and sharing it with mostly-French private investors. In 1882, during the invasion and occupation of Egypt, the United Kingdom took de facto control of the canal proper, finance and operation.
The Convention of Constantinople (1888) declared the canal a neutral zone under British protection. In ratifying it, the Ottoman Empire agreed to permit international shipping to freely pass through the canal, in time of war and peace.
The Suez Canal proved its strategic importance during the Russo-Japanese War when the Japanese entered an agreement with the British. The Japanese launched a surprise attack on the Russian Pacific Fleet, based at Port Arthur. When the Russians sent reinforcements from the Baltic, the British denied them access to the canal. This forced the Russian fleet to steam around the entire continent of Africa, giving the Japanese forces time to regroup and solidify their position in the area.
The importance of the canal as a strategic center was also apparent during both World Wars; in the First World War, the British and French closed the canal to non-Allied shipping, in the Second World War, it was tenaciously defended in the North African Campaign.
Petroleum business historian Daniel Yergin wrote:
[I]n 1948, the canal abruptly lost its traditional rationale . . . . [C]ontrol over the canal could no longer be preserved on grounds that it was critical to the defense either of India or of an empire that was being liquidated. And yet, at exactly the same moment, the canal was gaining a new role — as the highway not of empire, but of oil . . . . By 1955, petroleum accounted for half of the canal's traffic, and, in turn, two thirds of Europe's oil passed through it.
In 1948, the British Mandate of Palestine ended, the British forces withdrew from Palestine, and Israel declared independence on the territory partitioned by UNSCOP (United Nations Special Committee on Palestine) for the Jewish state. The Arab League declared its refusal to recognize the UN resolution and the two-state solution, favoring a one-state solution run by an Arab majority, and including both the Jewish and Arab territories. This led to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War from which Israel emerged victorious over the Arabs, including Egypt. Failed peace talks in the aftermath of the war, combined with escalating border violence between Israel and its neighbours in the following years, helped to cement Arab-Israeli enmity.
At the outset of the 1950s Great Britain, the predominant foreign power in the Middle East, was reassessing its position in the region. The economic potential of the Middle East, with its vast oil reserves and the Suez Canal, as well as its geo-strategic importance in the context of the Cold War, prompted Britain to consolidate and strengthen its position there. Vital to maintaining British influence in the region were the kingdoms of Egypt and Iraq.
Britain's military strength was spread throughout the region, including the vast military complex at Suez with a garrison of some 80,000 making it one of the largest military installations in the world. The Suez base was considered an important part of Britain's strategic position in the Middle East; yet it was increasingly becoming a source of tension in Anglo-Egyptian relations. In the wake of the Second World War Egyptian domestic politics were experiencing a radical change, prompted in no small part by economic instability, inflation and unemployment. Unrest began to manifest itself in the growth of radical political groups, such as the Communist Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, and an increasingly hostile attitude towards Britain and her presence in the country. Added to this anti-British fervour was the perceived role Britain had held in the creation of Israel.As such, the actions of the Egyptian government began to mirror those of its populace and an anti-British policy began to permeate Egypt's relations with Britain.
In October 1951, the Egyptian government unilaterally abrogated the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, the terms of which granted Britain lease on the Suez base for 20 years. Britain refused to withdraw from Suez relying upon its impinged treaty rights, as well as the sheer presence of the Suez garrison. The price of such a course of action was a steady escalation in increasingly violent hostility towards Britain and British troops in Egypt, which the Egyptian authorities did little to curb. On January 25th 1952, British attempts to disarm a troublesome auxiliary police force barracks in Ismailia resulted in the deaths of 41 Egyptians. This in turn led to anti-Western riots in Cairo resulting in heavy damage to property and the deaths of several foreigners, including 11 British citizens. This proved to be a catalyst for the removal of the Egyptian monarchy. On July 23rd 1952 a military coup by the 'Free Officers Movement'- led by Muhammad Neguib and future Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser - overthrew King Farouk and established an Egyptian republic.
From the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 (On 1 September 1951, the Security Council called upon Egypt: ". . . to terminate the restrictions on the passage of international commercial ships and goods through the Suez Canal wherever bound and to cease all interference with such shipping"), cargoes to and from Israel were intercepted and removed or destroyed by the Egyptians whilst attempting to pass through the canal. This interference, quite contrary to the laws of the canal (Article 1 of the 1888 Suez Canal Convention), increased further from 1953; for example on 31 October 1952, a cargo of meat was confiscated, on 2 September 1953, 500 tons of asphalt and a number of Israel-assembled cars were detained, on 4 November 1953, two boats destined for Italy were removed, on 28 September 1954 a shipment of 93 tons of meat, 42 tons of plywood and 30 tons of hides was confiscated, and the crew thrown in jail. On 8 July 1955, a Dutch ship was detained en route to Haifa. Part of its cargo was confiscated. On 25 May 1956, a Greek ship en route to Eilat was detained in the Suez Canal with a cargo of 520 tons of cement. The crew was not allowed ashore for three months despite a severe shortage of water and the spread of sickness.
Britain's desire to mend Anglo-Egyptian relations in the wake of the coup saw her strive for rapprochement throughout 1953 and 1954. Part of this process was the agreement, in 1953, to terminate British rule in Sudan by 1956 in return for Cairo's abandoning of its claim to suzerainty over the Nile Valley region. In October 1954, Britain and Egypt concluded an agreement on the phased evacuation of British troops from the Suez base, the terms of which agreed to withdrawal of all troops within 20 months, maintenance of the base to be continued, and for Britain to hold the right to return for seven years.
Despite the establishment of such an agreement with the British, Nasser's position remained tenuous. The loss of Egypt's claim to Sudan, coupled with the continued presence of Britain at Suez for a further two years, led to domestic unrest including an assassination attempt against him in October 1954. The tenuous nature of Nasser's rule caused him to believe that neither his regime, nor Egypt's independence would be safe until Egypt had established itself as head of the Arab world. This would manifest itself in the challenging of British Middle Eastern interests throughout 1955.
Britain's close relationship with the two Hashemite kingdoms of Iraq and Jordan were of particular concern to Nasser. In particular, Iraq's increasingly amicable relations with Britain were a threat to Nasser's desire to see Egypt as head of the Arab world. The creation of the Baghdad Pact in 1955 seemed to confirm Nasser's fears that Britain was attempting to draw the Eastern Arab World into a bloc centred upon Iraq, and sympathetic to Britain. Nasser's response was a series of challenges to British influence in the region that would culminate in the Suez Crisis.
Throughout 1955 and 1956 Nasser pursued a number of policies that would frustrate British aims throughout the Middle East, and result in increasing hostility between Britain and Egypt. Nasser "...played on the widespread suspicion that any Western defence pact was merely veiled colonialism and that Arab disunity and weakness—especially in the struggle with Israel—was a consequence of British machinations. He also began to align Egypt with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia—whose rulers were hereditary enemies of the Hashemites—in an effort to frustrate British efforts to draw Syria, Jordan and Lebanon into the orbit of the Baghdad Pact. Nasser frustrated British attempts to amalgamate Jordan into the pact by sponsoring demonstrations in Amman, leading King Hussein to dismiss the British commander of the Arab Legion Glubb Pasha in March 1956 and throwing Britain's Middle Eastern security policy into chaos.
Nasser struck a further blow against Britain by negotiating an arms deal with Czechoslovakia in September 1955 thereby ending Egypt's reliance on Western arms. Under the terms of this deal, Czechoslovakia sold Egypt 200 tanks, 150 artillery pieces, 120 MiG jet fighters, 50 jet bombers, 20 transport planes, 15 helicopters, and hundreds of vehicles and thousands of modern rifles and machine guns. Although the arms were to be delivered promptly, Egypt paid for them over the span of 12 years with shipments of cotton to Czechoslovakia. This volume of arms was unlike any the Middle East had ever seen, and it was coupled with the sale of 100 tanks, 100 MiG fighters and hundreds of other items to Syria, as well as the provision of Czechoslovakian trainers and assistance personnel. Bulgaria later sold four destroyers, two submarines, and one frigate to Egypt, and two submarines and a missile boat to Syria, as well as minesweepers to both nations.
This caused tensions in the United States because Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria now had a strong presence in the region. Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria were joined by the other members of the Warsaw Pact in selling arms to Egypt and Syria. Increasingly Nasser came to be viewed in British circles—and in particular by Prime Minister Anthony Eden—as a dictator, akin to Mussolini. Anglo-Egyptian relations would continue on their downward spiral.
Britain was eager to tame Nasser and looked towards the U.S. for support. However, Eisenhower remained unresponsive; America's closest ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, was just as fundamentally opposed to the Hashemite dominated Baghdad Pact as Egypt, and the U.S. was keen to increase its influence in the region. The failure of the Baghdad Pact aided such a goal by reducing Britain's dominance over the region. "Great Britain would have preferred to overthrow Nasser; America, however uncomfortable with the Czech arms deal, thought it wiser to propitiate him.
The events that brought the crisis to a head occurred in the spring/summer of 1956. On May 16th Nasser officially recognized the People's Republic of China, a move that angered the U.S. and its Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, a keen sponsor of Taiwan. This move, coupled with the impression that the project was beyond Egypt's economic capabilities, caused Eisenhower to withdraw all American financial aid for the Aswan Dam project on July 19th. Nasser's response was the nationalization of the Suez Canal. On July 26th in a speech in Alexandria, Nasser gave a riposte to Dulles. During his speech he deliberately pronounced the name of Ferdinand de Lesseps, constructor of the Canal, a code-word for Egyptian forces to seize control of the Canal and implement nationalization of it.
In his July 26th speech in Alexandria, Nasser announced that the Nationalization Law had been published, that all assets of the Suez Canal Company had been frozen, and that stockholders would be paid the price of their shares according to the day's closing price on the Paris Stock Exchange.
The nationalization of the Suez Canal hit British economic and military interests in the region. Britain was under immense domestic pressure from Conservative MPs who drew direct comparisons between the events of 1956 and those of the Munich Agreement in 1938. After the American government didn't support the British protests, the British government decided in favor of military intervention against Egypt to avoid the complete collapse of British prestige in the region.
However, direct military intervention ran the risk of angering Washington and damaging Anglo-Arab relations. As a result, the British government concluded a secret military pact with France and Israel that aimed at regaining the Suez Canal.
Soon an alliance was formed between Eden and French Prime Minister Guy Mollet, with headquarters based in London. Chief of Staff was made of General Stockwell and Admiral Barjot. The British sought cooperation with the United States throughout 1956 to deal with what it maintained was a threat of Israeli attack against Egypt, to little effect. Between July and October 1956, unsuccessful initiatives encouraged by the United States were made to reduce the tensions that would ultimately lead to war. International conferences were organized to secure agreement on canal operations; all were ultimately fruitless.
The interests of the parties were various. Britain was anxious lest it lose efficient access to the remains of its empire. France was nervous about the growing influence that Nasser exerted on its North African colonies and protectorates. Both Britain and France were eager that the canal should remain open as an important conduit of oil. Israel wanted to reopen the canal to Israeli shipping, and saw the opportunity to strengthen its southern border and to weaken a dangerous and hostile state.
Prior to the operation, Britain deliberately neglected to take counsel with the Americans, trusting instead that Nasser's engagement with communist states would persuade the Americans to accept British and French actions if they were presented as a fait accompli. This proved to be a fatal miscalculation for the colonial powers.
Operation Kadesh received its name from the ancient city of Kadesh, mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy and in more distant antiquity the site of the decisive battle fought by the forces of Pharaoh Ramses II against the Hittites, located in the northern Sinai Area. Israeli military planning for this operation in the Sinai hinged on four main military objectives; Sharm el-Sheikh, al-Arish, Abu Uwayulah, and the Gaza Strip. The Egyptian blockade of the Tiran Straits was based at Sharm el-Sheikh, and by capturing the town, Israel would have access to the Red Sea for the first time since 1953, which would allow it to restore the trade benefits of secure passage to the Indian Ocean. The Gaza Strip was chosen as another military objective because Israel wished to remove the training grounds for Fedayeen groups, and because Israel recognised that Egypt could use the territory as a staging ground for attacks against the advancing Israeli troops. Israel advocated rapid advances, for which a potential Egyptian flanking attack would present even more of a risk. al-Arish and Abu Uwayulah were important hubs for soldiers, equipment, and centres of command and control of the Egyptian Army in the Sinai. Capturing them would deal a deathblow to the Egyptian's strategic operation in the entire Peninsula. The capture of these four objectives were hoped to be the means by which the entire Egyptian Army would rout, and fall back into Egypt proper, which British and French forces would then be able to push up against an Israeli advance, and crush in a decisive encounter.
The Israeli chief-of-staff, Major General Moshe Dayan, first planned to take the vital Mitla Pass. Dayan planned for the 1st Battalion, 890 Paratroop Brigade, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Rafael Eitan, a veteran of the Israel War of Independence, and future head of the IDF; to drop at Parker's Memorial, near one of the defiles of the pass, Jebel Heitan. The rest of the brigade, under the command of Colonel Ariel Sharon would then advance to meet with the battalion, and consolidate their holdings.
On 29 October 1956, Operation Kadesh, the conquest of the Sinai, began when the battalion dropped into the Peninsula. However, the landing had not gone as planned, and the forces were now several miles from their target, and wasted valuable hours, and physical energy, moving into their positions opposite the Egyptian positions in the pass. The Israelis then dug in, received artillery and weapons from another airlift, and awaited the rest of the brigade.
Meanwhile, the 9th Infantry Brigade captured Ras an-Naqb, an important staging ground for that brigade's later attack against Sharm el-Sheikh. Instead of attacking the town by a frontal attack, they enveloped the town, and negotiated their way through some of the natural chokepoints into the rear of the town, and surprised the Egyptians before they could ready themselves to defend. The Egyptians surrendered, with no Israeli casualties sustained. The 4th Infantry Brigade, under the command of Colonel Josef Harpaz, captured al-Qusaymah, which would be used as a jumping off point for the assault against Abu Uwayulah.
The portion of the 890 under Sharon's command continued to advance to meet with the 1st Brigade. En route, Sharon assaulted Themed, and was able to storm the town through the Themed Gap, and was able to capture the settlement. On the 30th, Sharon linked up with Eytan near Nakla.
Dayan had no more plans for further advances beyond the passes, but Sharon decided to attack the Egyptian positions at Jebel Heitan. Sharon would send his lightly armed paratroopers against dug-in Egyptians supported by air and heavy artillery, as well as tanks. Although the Israelis succeeded in forcing the Egyptians to retreat, the heavy casualties sustained would surround Sharon with a lot of controversy. Most of the deaths sustained by the Israelis in the entire operation, were sustained at Jebel Heitan.
On October 30, in the morning, Britain and France sent an ultimatum to Egypt. They initiated Operation Musketeer on October 31, with a bombing campaign. On November 3, 20 F4U-7 Corsairs from the 14.F and 15.F Aéronavale taking off from the French carriers Arromanches and La Fayette, attacked the Cairo aerodrome. Nasser responded by sinking all 40 ships present in the canal, closing it to further shipping until early 1957.
On late November 5, the 3rd Battalion of the British Parachute Regiment dropped at El Gamil Airfield, clearing the area and establishing a secure base for incoming support aircraft and reinforcements. At first light on November 6, Commandos of Nos 42 and 40 Commando Royal Marines stormed the beaches, using landing craft of World War II vintage (LCA's and LVT's). The battlegroup standing offshore opened fire, giving covering fire for the landings and causing considerable damage to the Egyptian batteries and gun emplacements. The town of Port Said sustained great damage and was seen to be alight.
Acting in concert with British forces, 500 heavily-armed paratroopers of the French 2nd Colonial Parachute Regiment (2ème RPC), hastily redeployed from combat in Algeria, jumped over the al-Raswa bridges from Noratlas Nord 2501 transports of the ET (Escadrille de Transport) 1/61 and ET 3/61, together with some combat engineers of the Guards Independent Parachute Company. Despite the loss of two soldiers, the western bridge was swiftly secured by the paras, and F4U Corsairs of the Aéronavale 14.F and 15.F flew a series of close-air-support missions, destroying several SU-100 tank destroyers. F-84Fs also hit two large oil storage tanks in Port Said, which went up in flames and covered most of the city in a thick cloud of smoke for the next several days. Egyptian resistance varied, with some positions fighting back until destroyed, while others were abandoned with little resistance.
In the afternoon, 522 additional French paras of the 1er REP (Régiment Étranger Parachutiste, 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment) were dropped near Port Fouad. These were also constantly supported by the Corsairs of the French Aéronavale, which flew very intensive operations: for example, although the French carrier La Fayette developed catapult problems, no less than 40 combat sorties were completed. In total, 10 French soldiers were killed and 30 injured during the landing and the subsequent battles.
British commandos of No. 45 Commando assaulted by helicopter, meeting stiff resistance, with shore batteries striking several helicopters, while friendly fire from British carrier-borne aircraft caused heavy casualties to 45 Commando and HQ. Street fighting and house clearing, with strong opposition from well-entrenched Egyptian sniper positions, caused further casualties.
The operation to take the canal was highly successful from a military point of view, but was a political disaster due to external forces. Along with Suez, the United States was also dealing with the near-simultaneous Hungarian revolution, and faced the public relations embarrassment of criticizing the Soviet Union's suppression of the revolutionaries there while at the same time avoiding criticism of its two principal European allies' actions. Perhaps more significantly, the United States also feared a wider war after the Soviet Union and the other Warsaw Pact nations threatened to intervene on the Egyptian side and use "all types of weapons of destruction" on London, Tel Aviv, and Paris.
Thus, the Eisenhower administration forced a cease-fire on Britain, Israel, and France which it had previously told the Allies it would not do. The U.S. demanded that the invasion stop and sponsored resolutions in the UN Security Council calling for a cease-fire. Britain and France, as permanent members of the Council, vetoed these draft resolutions. The U.S. then appealed to the United Nations General Assembly and proposed a resolution calling for a cease-fire and a withdrawal of forces. The General Assembly consequently held an 'emergency special session' under the terms of Uniting for Peace resolution, and adopted Assembly resolution 1001, which established the first United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF), and called for "an immediate cease-fire". Portugal and Iceland went so far as to suggest ejecting Britain and France from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) defense pact if they didn't withdraw from Egypt. Britain and France withdrew from Egypt within a week.
Part of the pressure that the United States' orchestrated against the invasion was financial, and was directed against Great Britain. President Eisenhower warned the British that unless they withdrew, he would order the sale of the United States' Reserve currency reserves of British Pounds and Sterling Bonds; thereby precipitating a collapse of the British currencies' exchange rate. Eisenhower in fact ordered his Secretary of the Treasury, George M. Humphrey to prepare to sell part of the US Government's Sterling Bond holdings. The Government held these bonds in part to aid post war Britain’s economy (during the Cold War), and as partial payment of Britain’s enormous Second World War debt to the US Government, American corporations, and individuals. It was also part of the overall effort of Marshall Plan aid, in the rebuilding of the Western European economies.
Britain’s then Chancellor of the Exchequer (Secretary of the Treasury) Harold Macmillan advised his Prime Minister Anthony Eden that the United States was fully prepared to carry out this threat. He also warned his Prime Minister that Britain’s foreign exchange reserves simply could not sustain a devaluation of Pound that would come after the United States’ actions; and that within weeks of such a move; the country would be unable to import the food and energy supplies needed simply to sustain the population on the islands.
Furthermore, in concert with US actions Saudi Arabia started an oil embargo against Britain and France, the U.S. refused to fill the gap, until Britain and France agreed to a rapid withdrawal. The other NATO members refused to sell oil they received from Arab nations to Britain or France. There was also a measure of discouragement for Britain in the rebuke by the Commonwealth Prime Ministers St. Laurent of Canada and Menzies of Australia at a time when Britain was still continuing to regard the Commonwealth as an entity of importance as the residue of the British Empire and as an automatic supporter in its effort to remain a world power.
The British government and the pound thus both came under pressure. Sir Anthony Eden, the British Prime Minister at the time, was forced to resign and announced a cease fire on November 6, warning neither France nor Israel beforehand. Troops were still in Port Said when the order came from London. Without further guarantee, the Anglo-French Task Force had to finish withdrawing by December 22, 1956, to be replaced by Danish and Colombian units of UNEF. The Israelis left the Sinai in March, 1957.
Before the withdrawal, Canadian Lester B. Pearson, who would later become the Prime Minister of Canada, had gone to the United Nations and suggested creating a United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) in the Suez to "keep the borders at peace while a political settlement is being worked out." The United Nations accepted this suggestion, and after several days of tense diplomacy, a neutral force not involving the major alliances (NATO and the Warsaw Pact) was sent with the consent of Nasser, stabilizing conditions in the area. Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for his efforts. The United Nations Peacekeeping Force was Pearson's creation and he is considered the father of the modern concept of "peacekeeping".
The incident demonstrated the weakness of the NATO alliance in its lack of planning and cooperation beyond the European stage. From the point of view of General de Gaulle, the Suez events demonstrated that France could not rely on allies any more. Britain withdrew its troops in the midst of the battle without warning its allies. In 1957, following these events, the French government launched an autonomous nuclear programme conducted in the Sahara, known as Force de frappe, as a deterrent not only against the USSR but vis-à-vis every potential threat around the globe. By 1966 de Gaulle withdrew France from the integrated NATO military command. According to the protocol of Sèvres agreements, France secretly transmitted parts of its own atomic technology to Israel, including a detonator.
The imposed end to the crisis signalled the definitive weakening of the United Kingdom and France as Global Powers. Nasser's standing in the Arab world was greatly improved, with his stance helping to promote pan-Arabism. The crisis also arguably hastened the process of decolonization, as the remaining colonies of both Britain and France gained independence over the next several years.
UNEF was placed in the Sinai (on Egyptian territory only) with the express purpose of maintaining the cease-fire. While effective in preventing the small-scale warfare that prevailed before 1956 and after 1967, budgetary cutbacks and changing needs had seen the force shrink to 3,378 by 1967.
After border disputes led to a series of military clashes between Israel and Syria, the Egyptian government, warned by a false Soviet intelligence report of an imminent Israeli invasion of Syria, began to remilitarize the Sinai in support of its ally, and demanded that UNEF withdraw. This action, along with the blockade of the Strait of Tiran, was the final step in a series of escalations between the two sides that led to the Six Day War of June 1967. During the war, Israeli armed forces captured the east bank of the canal, which subsequently became a de facto boundary between Egypt and Israel and the canal was therefore closed until June, 1975.