• Who: Egypt and Britain with France and Israel
  • What: Britain, France and Israel respond to the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company by Egyptian President Nasser with a combined military operation.
  • Where: The Suez Canal in Egypt
  • When: November 1956
  • Result: The landings receive international condemnation. Under intense pressure, particularly from the US, troops were rapidly withdrawn and replaced by a UN force. Britain’s declining status was highlighted and its Prime Minister - Anthony Eden - resigned. Egypt was granted ownership and sovereignty of the Suez Canal and it was re-opened in April 1957.

Suez Canal, Port Said

The entrance to the Suez Canal at Port Said with the blockships sunk by the Egyptians. The canal was closed to traffic for five months while Royal Navy salvage teams worked on clearing them.

The 1956 Suez Crisis, when Britain along with France and Israel invaded Egypt to recover control of the Suez Canal, was arguably one of the most significant episodes in post-1945 British history. Its outcome highlighted Britain’s declining status and confirmed it as a ‘second tier’ world power. Domestically it caused a massive political fallout in Britain and resulted in an economic crisis, while internationally it further complicated the politics of the Middle East, threatening Britain’s key diplomatic relationships with Commonwealth nations and the United States-United Kingdom ‘special relationship’.

On 4 November the United Nations threatened Britain with sanctions if there were any civilian casualties from British aerial bombing of targets in Egypt. This led to economic panic in the first week of November 1956 and resulted in tens of millions of pounds being lost from the country’s reserves. Britain faced having to devalue its currency. Appalled that military operations had begun without his knowledge, US President Eisenhower put pressure on the International Monetary Fund to deny Britain any financial assistance. With few options the British Prime Minister Anthony Eden reluctantly accepted a UN proposed ceasefire. Under Resolution 1001 on 7 November 1956 the United Nations deployed an emergency force (UNEF) of peacekeepers into Egypt to halt the conflict. It had lasted just two days and Britain, and Eden personally, had been left humiliated.

The crisis had a serious impact on Britain’s international relationships. Eisenhower regarded Suez as an unnecessary distraction from the Soviet Union’s brutal suppression of an uprising in Hungary. Several recently independent former-British colonies agreed. Only Australia supported Britain, while Pakistan threatened to leave the Commonwealth. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev attacked ‘British imperialism’, threatening to attack London with rockets, as well as sending troops to Egypt, potentially dragging NATO into the conflict.

Within Britain the conflict divided opinion. The Conservative government faced significant hostility from the Labour opposition and even experienced division in its own party. Intervention in Suez was initially popular with the British public, but following the humiliation caused by the conflict the government rapidly lost the support of the country. Nation-wide anti-war protests sprung up and several civil servants resigned in protest. 

What Britain had hoped to prevent by the actions in November 1956, it actually succeeded in guaranteeing. Egypt maintained control of the canal with the support of the United Nations and the United States. The canal was closed to traffic for five months by ships sunk by the Egyptians during the operations. British access to fuel and oil became limited and resulted in shortages. Petrol rationing was introduced in December 1956, lasting until May 1957. Under huge domestic pressure and suffering ill-health Eden resigned in January 1957, less than two years after becoming prime minister.

As Eisenhower had feared, the Suez Crisis also increased Soviet influence over Egypt. Khrushchev’s intervention on the side of Egypt placed the Soviet Union as the natural friend of Arab nations. It emboldened Arab nationalists and spurred the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to aid rebel groups seeking independence in British territories across the Middle East.

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