Egypt and Suez

In Egypt tensions grew over the British failure to produce an acceptable Anglo-Egyptian Treaty to replace the pre-war one, which had expired and required renegotiation. Anti-British demonstrations took place in Cairo and the threat to British installations in the Canal Zone jeopardised the effectiveness of the main British base in the Middle East.

Map showing the location of the Suez Canal
Map showing the location of the Suez Canal.

Anti-British feeling grew ever stronger and after the killing of 40 rioters in Ismailia in 1952, a coup was orchestrated by Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser which deposed the monarchy and put a Military Junta in place. Nasser’s tactics of steering a non-aligned political path was supported by the Muslim Brotherhood; relations with UK and France became very strained. A new agreement was eventually reached in 1954 with the premise that British Forces would have a phased withdrawal. It was decided to relocate the British base to Cyprus. The concept was that this would preserve a British military presence in the eastern Mediterranean, which could be expanded by a return to the Canal Zone in an emergency under the terms agreed between Egypt and Britain. All British Forces were withdrawn to Cyprus by June 1956. Nasser had taken over leadership of Egypt and was actively courting the Warsaw Pact for arms.

The Anglo-Egyptian treaty which provided for a British return to Egypt in the event of an external threat to the Suez Canal was, in British eyes, seriously compromised by the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company by the Egyptian government. The subsequent Anglo-French attempt to regain control of the Canal involved a hastily-planned military intervention based on the contrived claim that this was necessary to prevent the Canal from being seized by the Israeli army. Apart from the fact that the British military operation had to be improvised with whatever resources could be found, regardless of their suitability, the length of time needed to prepare the assault gave ample scope for the mobilisation of hostile international opinion by Egypt and its allies. In the event, the combination of American and Soviet opposition to the Anglo-French adventure brought it to a halt before most of the military objectives had been gained.

Operation Musketeer was launched in November 1956 and 48 Squadron RAF Regiment went ashore from HMS Ocean by helicopter to secure Gamil airfield from which RAF aircraft were to operate. This was part of the world’s first heli-assault, together with RM Commando landings in Port Said. The Air Commander stated “Had it not been for the presence of 48 Squadron RAF Regiment, which did invaluable work in securing Gamil airfield, the task might well have been beyond the slender resources of 215 Wing.”

No.48 Squadron had, in fact, been bombarded with conflicting orders while it was preparing for the operation at its Rudloe Manor base. Initially a Field Squadron, it had been ordered to convert to the LAA role for Musketeer but no sooner had this been completed than it was re-roled as a Field Squadron and embarked as such for Suez. The final touch was an order to leave its support weapons (3-inch mortars) behind and deploy as four rifle flights. 63 and 194 Squadrons were tasked to follow-up 48 Squadron, but neither had reached further east than Malta when the Suez cease-fire came into effect, leaving 194 Squadron to move on to Cyprus while 63 Squadron remained in Malta.