The nine-day Suez Crisis of 1956 was sparked by a series of what in hindsight seem playground-worthy disputes, though they could have led to global Armageddon. That year Egypt switched its allegiance from Western arms suppliers to the Soviet bloc, buying a package of jet fighters, armor and artillery from Czechoslovakia. In response the United States withdrew its promise of funding for the colossal Aswan Dam project. Egyptian President Gamal Nasser then seized the Suez Canal.
The British weren’t about to let the Egyptians nationalize a waterway they felt they owned—which, in terms of canal corporation stock, the Brits did. But they needed an excuse to invade. Enter Israel, with whom Britain and France secretly formed an anti-Egypt coalition. The Israelis would pre-emptively seize Sinai, a vast quadrant of desert they’d long wanted as a buffer zone, and as they advanced toward the Suez from the east, an Anglo-French force would land paratroopers and marines west of the canal, ostensibly to protect their liquid asset. The pincers would trap and annihilate the Egyptian army. The excuse for the invasion would be the issuance of an Anglo-French ultimatum to Israel and Egypt to cease fire and accept Western control of the canal, which the coalition knew Nasser would reject. While British bagpipers skirled and French Foreign Legionnaires flipped stiff salutes to their kepis, the 800-megaton gorilla in the room was the inevitability that Egypt would appeal to the Soviets for help.
The United States was blissfully unaware of the Anglo-French-Israeli coalition until it was almost too late. President Dwight Eisenhower had suffered a heart attack and was in the midst of campaigning for a second term, and the Hungarian Revolution had everyone’s attention. Eisenhower was furious at his World War II allies. On November 1, under heavy U.S. pressure, the UN General Assembly voted for a cease-fire, which took effect a week later. By that time the Israelis owned Sinai, and the British had occupied Port Said. That wouldn’t last long. On December 22 Britain pulled its troops from Egypt, ending 74 years of occupation of the canal zone. Three months later Israel withdrew from Sinai.
Final score: Egypt 3; Britain, France and Israel 0.
■ Always let an ally know if you’re about to do something that might spark a nuclear holocaust.
■ Helicopters are handy. The Royal Marines pulled off history’s first troop-carrying helo assault, on Port Said. Unfortunately, they hadn’t yet figured out how to establish a proper LZ; one landed in the middle of an Egyptian-held stadium.
■ Don’t annoy the guy whose carriers are twice as big as yours. When Admiral Arleigh Burke was asked if Sixth Fleet could stop the Anglo-French invasion fleet, he said, hell yes, not just the fleet but he could take out the Israelis and Egyptians in the bargain.
■ Untrained fighter pilots are useless. Egypt got a shipment of new MiG-15s from Czechoslovakia but didn’t have time to train its pilots how to fly them.
■ Untrained fighter pilots flying first-generation MiG-15s and de Havilland Vampires against second-generation Israeli Dassault Mystère IVs are not just useless but dead.
■ If you’re going to fight a war in a desert, make sure you have vehicles that can drive on sand. The Israelis didn’t, having depended on a shipment of French front-wheel-drive trucks that never showed up.
■ You’re in trouble if your commander is an alcoholic drug user, which described incompetent Egyptian General Abdel Hakim Amer, who 11 years later killed himself after losing the Six-Day War to Israel.
■ The French learned not to trust the Americans or the British. France dropped out of NATO as a result of the Suez War and eventually developed its own nuclear force but was never again a world power.
■ The Israelis learned never to rely on another country for tactical assistance. The Suez Crisis also taught Israel the value of the pre-emptive strike —a principle it employed to effect in the Six-Day War.
Originally published in the July 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.