Subtitles prepared by human
In July 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company. Egyptians would take charge of this vital strategic waterway, connecting Europe to Asia, with immediate effect. Britain and France relied on the Canal route for their vital supplies of Middle East oil, which fuelled their economies. In their eyes, Nasser was a threat – a dictator intent on uniting the Arab world against them, destroying their influence in the Middle East and North Africa, and using control of the canal as a weapon against them. Secretly, Britain and France agreed to force regime change on Egypt – a joint military intervention to depose Nasser, and reassert their standing as global powers.
But it was not Britain or France that struck first against Nasser... it was Israel. On 29th October, Israeli paratroopers landed in the Egyptian Sinai, seizing the strategic Mitla Pass, and paving the way for an invasion by ground forces. At the UN, Israel insisted it was acting in self-defence, against raids by Palestinian fighters known as fedayeen, operating from bases in Gaza and Sinai. But there were no fedayeen bases in Sinai.
Britain and France, claiming to be acting on behalf of the international community, issued an ultimatum to both sides: stop fighting within 12 hours, and withdraw all forces 10 miles from the Suez Canal – or they would intervene to enforce compliance. Egypt was effectively been told to abandon the Sinai and the Canal. Israel accepted the terms; Nasser refused. So on 31st October, British and French aircraft, taking off from carriers in the Mediterranean, and bases in Cyprus and Malta, began bombing Egyptian airfields, air defences and infrastructure. But not all was as it seemed.
Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion had been considering an attack on Egypt for many months. He was encouraged by Moshe Dayan, the hawkish commander of Israel's armed forces. Nasser, like all leaders of Arab states, did not view the new Jewish state as legitimate: now receiving modern weapons from Czechoslovakia, he was seen as a potential threat to Israel's survival. They were also determined to end Egypt's blockade of the Straits of Tiran, which prevented Israeli access to the Red Sea, and limited opportunities for trade. France wanted to ally with the Israelis to get rid of Nasser. But British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden was anxious about being seen as the aggressor. So the French came up with an idea...
At Sèvres, near Paris, representatives of Britain, France and Israel met in secret to plan a war: Israel would invade Egypt – allowing Britain and France, posing as peacemakers, to issue an ultimatum they knew only Israel would accept. Then, claiming to be acting to safeguard the canal, they would invade Egypt and overthrow Nasser - though they had no real plan for what to do once he was gone. It would take years for the full details of this conspiracy to emerge. On 5th November, after a week of bombing, and with Israeli troops winning the battle in Sinai, British and French paratroopers were dropped onto targets around Port Said and Port Fuad, at the mouth of the Suez Canal.
Once on the ground, they quickly seized Egyptian airfields and key infrastructure. The next morning, under cover of air strikes and naval bombardment, British and French landings began. Fierce street-fighting raged throughout the day. But the Egyptians were massively outgunned, and it proved a one-sided contest. Around 600 Egyptian soldiers and police were killed – British and French deaths totalled just 26. Egyptian civilians suffered most – up to one thousand lost their lives, with many more left homeless by air raids and shelling. By the end of the day, the British and French were in control.
But they couldn't prevent the Egyptians sabotaging the Suez Canal itself. They sank ships in its narrow channel, blocking the canal, and putting it out of action for several months. It wasn't hard to see that the British, French and Israelis were working together - and at the United Nations, world opinion quickly turned against them. For once, the US and Soviet Union were united in condemnation - a typically animated Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev even threatened to fire rockets at Paris and London.
President Eisenhower thought the invasion had no moral or legal justification. And he was furious with his British ally for going behind his back. "The British and French Governments delivered a 12 hour ultimatum to Israel and Egypt now followed up by armed attacks against Egypt. The United States was not consulted in any way about any phase of these actions nor were we informed of them in advance, as it is the manifest right of any of these nations to take such decisions and actions it is likewise our right if our judgement so dictates, for we do not accept the use of force as a wise or proper instrument for the settlement of international disputes." Eisenhower wanted international attention focused on Hungary, where Soviet troops were, at that moment, brutally crushing a popular uprising.
Instead, Britain and France's reckless intervention was likely to push Arab states closer to the Soviet Union. In the UN Security Council, Britain and France used their veto to block resolutions that criticised Israel's attack on Egypt, or their own intervention. But with both world superpowers condemning their attack, they now faced a vote in the General Assembly, and the threat of UN sanctions. Britain's economy had been fragile before the crisis began. Now, market fears caused the British currency to crash, threatening economic disaster. Only a massive loan from the International Monetary Fund could save Britain, but Eisenhower
blocked any IMF aid until Britain agreed to a UN-backed ceasefire in Egypt. Eden, facing growing opposition abroad, at home and from within his own government, had few options. Just two days after British troops landed in Egypt, they announced a ceasefire... The French, abandoned by their ally, had no choice but to follow suit. Within days, the UN's first major peacekeeping operation got underway, as Danish UN troops arrived in Egypt to takeover from the British and French. As they packed up, and re-embarked on their landing ships to return home - it was officially
'job well done' – but in truth, Suez had been a humiliating fiasco. The political leadership had been reckless, the military objectives confused – and as soon as international pressure had mounted up, the British had had no option but to abort the entire mission. That winter, under intense American pressure, Israeli forces also withdrew from Sinai. The Suez Crisis forced Britain and France to accept that they were now second-rank powers. No longer could they act as they wished on the world stage, without first considering the view of the United States. The lesson taken by the British was never again to jeopardise their so-called 'special
relationship' with America. For France, the lesson was that Britain and America were unreliable allies, and their interests were better served by closer ties within Europe. Israel achieved some objectives – including the opening of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping – but with Nasser still in power, future conflict with Egypt and its other Arab neighbours was almost certain: the Sinai War proved to be a precursor to the far more decisive 'Six Day War' fought a decade later. British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden's career, and health, were ruined. He resigned, but not before lying to Parliament about his knowledge of the secret deal with Israel. “...I wish my successor all good fortune.
God speed to you all. Goodbye.” President Nasser, feted as the hero of the Arab world for having stood up to European imperialists, had in reality been saved by US and UN intervention. But his modernising reforms, championing of the Arab cause, and opposition to foreign intervention, mean his memory is still revered by Arabs across the Middle East. The impact of the Suez Crisis on America was perhaps the most far-reaching. The collapse of British and French prestige amongst Arab nations meant the US would now take the lead in countering Soviet expansion in the Middle East, and securing the West's oil supplies.
The Suez Crisis would accelerate US involvement in this volatile region... The consequences would stretch well into the 21st century. Join the ranks of our brilliant Patreon supporters like these, and get perks including early access to new videos, exclusive updates and a vote on what we do next. Any contribution is a huge help, and makes sure Epic History TV can continue making history videos. Thank you for watching.
Watch, read, educate! © 2022