Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Issue #10 of the Anglotopia Print Magazine in 2018. Support great long-form writing about British History, Culture, and travel by subscribing to the Anglotopia Magazine. Every subscription helps keep Anglotopia running and provides us to the opportunity to produce articles like this. You can subscribe here.
By Christopher Saunders
On 26 July 1952, Egypt and Great Britain, awoke to a shock. The Young Officers, a coterie of nationalist Egyptian soldiers, ousted the pro-British King Farouk in a near-bloodless coup. Though Mohammed Neguib became Egypt’s head of state, observers knew that the 38-year-old Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser wielded real power. Now British officials confronted a new government with little intention of respecting Western authority, and whose charismatic leader dreamed of a pan-Arab state.
For Anthony Eden, then Foreign Secretary, Nasser’s rise to power “happened so quickly that no one was aware as late as the morning before.” While Winston Churchill advocated “positive action,” hinting at a coup or invasion, Eden urged restraint. “While I do not expect the new Egyptian government to show any marked friendliness towards us,” he wrote, “they do seem to be approaching Anglo-Egyptian problems in a more practical way and this is at last beginning to show results.” One expected nothing less from England’s leading diplomat.
In his third term as Foreign Secretary, Eden enjoyed a reputation as a polished statesman and man of principle. He served with distinction in the First World War, then entered politics; he resigned from Neville Chamberlain’s cabinet in February 1938, unwilling to appease Hitler and Mussolini. His second tenure, under Churchill’s wartime premiership, showed brilliance navigating the complex relationships among the Allied Powers. More recently, he negotiated West Germany’s entry into NATO and Vietnam’s independence from France.
Fifty-eight when he became Prime Minister in April 1955, Eden retained considerable charm and culture. He collected modern art, spoke fluent Arabic and Farsi, read French literature and Shakespeare, even dabbled in photography and travel writing. His second wife, Clarissa (Churchill’s niece), was two decades his junior, a witty, engaging woman beloved of London society. He retained his good looks, with peppery hair and a matinee idol mustache, reminding novelist Robert Graves of actor Ronald Colman.
Yet Eden was vain, resistant to criticism, and savagely temperamental. His secretary, Evelyn Scheckberg, remembered that with Eden, “you can have a scene…of great violence with angry words spoken on both sides, and ten minutes later the whole thing is forgotten.” Less charitably, a Conservative colleague, Rab Butler, called him “half mad baronet and half beautiful woman.” Eden’s health exacerbated these traits: a botched gallbladder operation in 1953 severed his bile duct, causing excruciating pain which Eden combatted with painkillers.
Eden’s better half dominated early dealings with Nasser. He negotiated the withdrawal of British troops from Egypt in 1954, aside from a small force defending the Canal. Nasser assured Eden that “if this question were settled, a great friendship would exist between us.” Along with American President Dwight Eisenhower, eager to woo Nasser away from the Soviet Union, Eden urged funding for the Aswan Dam, a massive project to develop the Nile. It seemed like Britain and Egypt would finally end their colonial relationship and part as friends.
Then Eden actually met Nasser, and their relationship imploded.
The fateful meeting occurred in Cairo on 20 February 1955, two months before Eden assumed the Premiership. Nasser and his entourage arrived in uniform; they were embarrassed when Eden, his wife and staff entered in civilian dress. Afterwards, Eden tried to impress his hosts by reciting Arabic proverbs, striking Nasser as arch and condescending. Their conversation turned to policy, with the two sparring over Nasser’s anti-Western rhetoric and Britain’s relations with the Arab world.
Their discussion was polite, if stilted and occasionally combative. Egyptian journalist Mohamed Heikal felt the Prime Minister “was the sort of person [Nasser] could do business with.” But Nasser complained that “it was made to look as if we were beggars and they were princes!” For his part, Eden dismissed Nasser as suffering from “jealousy” at Britain’s power and “a frustrated desire to lead the Arab world.” In turning Eden and Nasser against each other, the conference provided a curtain raiser on a tragedy.
England and Egypt’s destinies intertwined after Admiral Nelson destroyed Napoleon’s fleet in Aboukir Bay in 1798. As the British Empire grew, policymakers saw Egypt, due to its crucial position astride both Africa and Asia, as a key linking England and India. The Suez Canal’s creation in 1869 made the connection even more crucial: the Canal, jointly owned by Britain and France, provided a vital link for east-west trade, especially in oil. However, British imperialism proved incompatible with Egyptian aspirations.
Britain occupied Egypt outright in 1882 in response to a nationalist uprising. Their relationship remained rocky and often violent, culminating in riots and assassinations following World War I. Britain granted Egypt nominal independence in 1922, while retaining a huge military garrison. During World War II, British troops forced King Farouk to depose a Prime Minister suspected of pro-German sympathies. This incident enraged the young Nasser, who said that “there is something which is called dignity that one must be ready to defend.”
Nasser joined the Young Officers, which formed the nucleus of anti-British agitation. During the war, their agents (including future president Anwar Sadat) contacted Axis officials for assistance expelling the British. War’s end only increased tensions, from the disastrous war with Israel to anti-Western riots and economic turmoil, culminating in January 1952’s Bloody Saturday. Incensed by escalating clashes between British troops and Egyptian police in Ismailia, Egyptian mobs rampaged through Cairo, destroying European businesses and murdering nine Britons.
All prelude to the coup of June 1952. While Western policymakers initially saw Nasser as “an Arab Ataturk,” a secular, modernising nationalist eschewing extremist Islam, he also showed a discomforting independence, espousing a Middle East free of Western rule. Britain, still clinging to its imperial past, saw him as a nationalist troublemaker; America, obsessed with the Cold War, wondered if he was a Communist.
Egypt’s relations with the West swiftly deteriorated. Frustrated by America’s reluctance to sell him arms, Nasser purchased Czech rifles and Soviet tanks instead. He further irritated Eisenhower by recognizing Red China. Then Nasser enraged the British by criticising the Baghdad Pact, Eden’s attempt to form an alliance of Muslim states against Soviet influence.
Now Eden saw Nasser’s hand in every setback Britain experienced. When King Hussein of Jordan dismissed John Glubb, British commander of the Arab Legion in March 1956, Eden blamed Nasser. When rioters stoned Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd in Bahrain, Eden again accused “the Egyptian” of causing trouble. He labeled Nasser both a fascist and a communist, “as much in Khrushchev’s hands as Mussolini was in Hitler’s.”
Nasser laughed at his opponent’s insults. While Nasser hardly mourned the unrest in Iraq, Jordan and other British allies, he played little role in affecting it; he felt Eden blind to anti-Western resentment that transcended Egypt’s borders. In conversation with Mohamed Heikal, Nasser joked that Eden thought he “only had to press one button on [my] desk and a demonstration erupted in Amman; another button and there was a riot in Aden.”
Anthony Nutting, Eden’s protege in the Foreign Office, didn’t find the Prime Minister’s paranoia amusing. One evening in March, while hosting American diplomat Harold Stassen, he received a phone call from Eden. In response to increased tensions with Nasser, Nutting had prepared a memorandum on neutralising Nasser through diplomatic and economic pressure. This wasn’t enough for the Prime Minister, who demanded more drastic action.
“What’s all this nonsense about neutralising [Nasser]?” Eden demanded. “I want him murdered, can’t you understand?”
Maintaining his composure, Nutting suggested that removing Nasser without an “alternative” would only create chaos. “I don’t give a damn if there’s anarchy and chaos in Egypt!” came the reply. A shaken Nutting returned to dinner, fearing that a lunatic inhabited 10 Downing Street.
Eden’s subordinates entertained harebrained ideas to affect his wish. One plan involved encouraging the Muslim Brotherhood to kill Nasser; on their own, they had already tried the previous year. (This fell through, as MI6 felt it couldn’t trust the fanatical Brotherhood to uphold Western interests.) Other plots seem hatched from an Ian Fleming novel: nerve gas pumped into Nasser’s office, paying Nasser’s doctor to poison him, even an exploding razorblade.
For now, the British and Americans settled on economic pressure. The Americans dragged their feet funding the Aswan Dam, which became a symbol both of Egyptian aspirations and Western aid to third world nations. On 19 July, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who saw events purely through a Cold War prism, announced the cancellation of the Western loan. Dulles gloated afterwards that Nasser “is in a hell of a spot and no matter what he does can be used to American advantage.”
Publicly, Egypt shrugged off Dulles’ decision. “Naturally it upsets our plans,” Nasser’s aide Aly Sabry told reporters, “but the High Dam will be built.” Privately, Nasser considered it a “slap in the face.” He ordered Mohammed Younis, an Army engineer, to organise a coup de main that signified Egyptian independence. He told few others, even his inner circle, about his decision.
On 26 July 1956, Nasser made a long, angry speech in Alexandria denouncing Anglo-American perfidy. Repeating the themes of “strength and dignity,” he excoriated Western arrogance (“imperialism without arms”) and defended his own actions as necessary for Egyptian independence. Then, referring to the President of the Suez Canal, he commented: “I began to look at Mr. Black…and I imagined that I was sitting in front of Ferdinand de Lesseps.”
As Nasser evoked Suez’s architect, Younis and 30 picked followers moved to seize the Canal. (“I told them that one man in each group…had instructions to shoot on the spot anyone who violated secrecy,” Younis recalled. Mohamed Heikal claimed that Younis punctuated this threat by slamming a revolver on his desk.) Moving swiftly, his men overwhelmed the Canal’s British and French operators without firing a shot.
Back in Alexandria, Nasser announced: “Brothers of yours, sons of Egypt, are rising up to direct the canal company and undertake its operation.” He proclaimed the Canal “a part of Egypt and the property of Egypt.” Nasser received delirious applause from his listeners. It was the apotheosis of his career: In a stroke, he captured the Canal and threw down a gauntlet Eden and Eisenhower couldn’t possibly ignore.
The West reacted with fury. Eisenhower denounced the “deliberate, unilateral seizure” and demanded United Nations intervention. The British press responded with near-hysteria, with the Times calling it “an act of international brigandage” and claimed that Egyptian pilots lacked the skill to run the Canal (which Younis’s men disproved within 24 hours). Others evoked fascism, with the Daily Mirror encouraging Nasser to “remember Mussolini…[who] ended up hanging upside down by his feet.”
The Mirror’s intemperance echoed the Prime Minister. Eden (whose immediate response was commenting that “the Egyptian has his thumb on our windpipe”) told Eisenhower that “Nasser is not a Hitler…but the parallel with Mussolini is close.” He took the analogy public in a televised address in August. “We all know this is how fascist governments behave,” Eden said. “And we all remember, only too well, what the cost is in giving into fascism.” In other words, stop Nasser or risk World War III.
This miscalculation, more than Eden’s health, temper or even his personal dislike for Nasser, explains the Prime Minister’s actions. Nasser, though a saber-rattling strongman, lacked Hitler’s strength or even his intent; he envisioned an Arab state unified through politics, not an empire forged by conquest. But Eden, who made his reputation opposing appeasement two decades earlier, felt he couldn’t take that risk. As historian Keith Kyle writes, “The battle against Neville Chamberlain, lost in 1937-1938, must be won at Suez.”
The Americans weren’t so sure. Secretary Dulles assured Eden that America would force Nasser to “disgorge” the Canal. Yet Eisenhower, facing reelection, had no intention of embroiling America in a Middle Eastern conflict. He warned Eden of “the unwisdom even of contemplating the use of military force at this moment,” encouraging instead diplomacy. Frustrated, Eden turned to two other allies, less powerful but equally anti-Nasser: France and Israel.
France hated Nasser even earlier than England. Fighting a brutal war in Algeria, French officials blamed Nasser for the FLN’s terror campaign. Indeed, Nasser housed FLN refugees, gave inflammatory speeches supporting them, and even authorised arms shipments. Jacques Soustelle, Governor of Algeria, called Nasser “the octopus whose tentacles have for so many months been strangling North Africa;” Robert Lacoste, a Socialist MP, proclaimed that “one French division in Egypt is worth four divisions in Algeria.”
Guy Mollet, France’s Prime Minister, took office promising to wind down the Algerian War. Now he proposed to expand it. A humiliating visit to Algiers changed his mind, as enraged European Pieds-Noir pelted him with eggs and tomatoes. Now Mollet (a former Resistance fighter who survived Nazi imprisonment) latched onto the anti-Nasser hysteria, echoing Eden by comparing Nasser to Hitler and his writings to Mein Kampf.
Israel needed little encouragement. Nasser backed harsh rhetoric about Israel with action, supporting fedayeen militia units who murdered Israeli soldiers and settlers in the Gaza Strip. Israel, in turn, instituted a brutal policy of retaliation, sending commando teams to annihilate Arab villages in revenge. David Ben-Gurion, recently returned to power, eagerly seized the opportunity to smash a mortal enemy.
Their conspiracy climaxed in the Paris suburb of Sevres on 22 October. Selwyn Lloyd met with Christian Pineau, Mollet’s Foreign Minister, General Challe and Israeli officials including David Ben-Gurion and his one-eyed Chief of Staff, Moshe Dayan. Over the next three days, these allies hatched an incredible plot to justify Western intervention. Israel would attack Egypt, Britain and France would call for a ceasefire and intervene, seizing the Canal in the process.
The charade disgusted even those who planned it. Moshe Dayan thought Lloyd’s “whole demeanor expressed distaste – for the place, the company and the topic.” Lloyd had protested to Eden beforehand, and afterwards vented his spleen to Anthony Nutting, who decided that he “cannot stay in the Government if this sordid conspiracy is carried out.” Christian Pineau admitted that “I wonder how Eden could have thought for one moment that the Arab world would swallow such a story.”
Only the Israelis left Sevres happy. As an incentive for their cooperation, Pineau promised Ben-Gurion and Dayan not only territory in the Sinai, but French cooperation in constructing a nuclear reactor. After the British departed, Mollet and Pineau treated the Israelis to a toast, ushering in Israel as a nuclear power. The balance of power in the Middle East took another fateful turn.
British and French forces massing on Cyprus had little idea of this duplicity, still less how to proceed with their operation. Eden alarmed Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery by saying that he wished to “knock Nasser off his perch.” A pithy phrase, Montgomery thought, but what did it mean? He pressed the Prime Minister for details: Did he want Nasser overthrown or merely humbled? Did he want to reoccupy the Canal Zone or Egypt entirely? The Prime Minister didn’t elaborate, convincing Montgomery that any invasion was foredoomed.
Ultimately, General Sir Hugh Stockwell, commanding the invasion, proposed a dual operation called Musketeer. After an intense aerial and naval bombardment, paratroopers would seize key points along the Canal, while amphibious forces attacked Ports Said and Fuad. The French commander, Andre Beaufre, ridiculed Musketeer as “a second-rate copy of the Normandy landings.” Eden wasn’t the only one trapped in a World War II mindset.
Israel invaded the Sinai on 29 October, their French jets and tanks smashing Egyptian resistance. Eden and Mollet issued their ultimatum, to American befuddlement, Soviet indignation and Arab fury. The United Nations condemned the conspiracy, with America and the USSR in rare agreement. It particularly enraged Eisenhower, then working to support Hungary’s anti-communist revolt. “I just can’t believe it,” Ike told Dulles. “I can’t believe [Eden] would be so stupid.”
Nor were Britons universally supportive, with only 40 percent approving intervention (briefly spiking to 53 percent once fighting began). Eden’s strongest support came from working class Britons, who felt that “the Gyppos had hit us, [and] we should hit them.” Others were sharply divided: when several Oxford dons published an open letter attacking the Prime Minister, other professors responded with a supportive missive. Even Queen Elizabeth, who privately questioned Eden’s policy, wrote that “My lady-in-waiting thinks one thing, one private secretary thinks another, another thinks something else.”
On 3 November, Eden gave a televised broadcast appealing for national unity. (Clearly nervous beforehand, he looked so pale that Clarissa had to darken his mustache with mascara.) His tone was at once resolute and pleading, forthright and dishonest. “All my life I’ve been a man of peace: working for peace, striving force peace and negotiating for peace,” Eden assured viewers. “I could not be other, even if I wished. But I am utterly convinced that the action we have taken is right.”
The next day, 30,000 antiwar demonstrators swarmed Trafalgar Square, London’s largest public protest since 1938. The demonstrators carried placards reading “Law Not War” and chanting “Eden must go!” They listened to fiery orators (including Aneurin Bevan, the Welsh MP who proclaimed Eden “too stupid to be Prime Minister”), threw firecrackers and ball bearings at counter-protestors, then tried to march on 10 Downing Street. There, mounted police set upon them, arresting or injuring dozens.
Eden’s cabinet heard this commotion as they made their final deliberations on using military force. His ministers were divided, with several urging Eden to cancel or postpone the invasion. Then came word that Israel rejected the ceasefire. Clarissa Eden, who witnessed the scene, recalled that “everyone laughed and banged the table with relief except Birch and Manckton, who looked glum.” Their vote became unanimous.
On 6 November, British and French troops attacked Port Said. After a preliminary bombardment, airborne troops landed outside the city. The French paras, battle-hardened in Algeria, fought with matchless skill and brutality: Pierre Leulliette recounted numerous atrocities among his unit, from executing prisoners to looting and even rape. “A prisoner is sacred but so’s a sentinel,” he explained.
British units suffered from poor coordination and outdated equipment: many paratroopers discarded their easily-jammed Sten guns for Egyptian rifles. The red-bereted soldiers of 3rd Para Battalion suffered heavy antiaircraft fire, then fought bloodily for every inch of ground: They stormed a causeway defended by artillery, a cemetery bristling with rifles, and a heavily-guarded airfield.
Meanwhile, the second wave (40 and 42 Commandos of the Royal Marines) landed on Port Said’s beaches, already burning from heavy bombardment. They too faced stiff resistance, with Egyptian machine gunners blasting away at close range, along with snipers and militiamen sniping from buildings along the waterfront. The Marines made little progress until landing several Buffalo tanks, which shrugged off small-arms fire and blasted their way into the city.
Port Said, however, didn’t surrender easily. “Egyptians opened up from windows and side roads at some points with women and children around them,” recalled James Robinson, “and the tanks blazed back with their Brownings and the Commandos with Brens from the top of their Buffaloes.” Fighting raged through residential neighborhoods, government districts, even a cemetery. Machine guns, grenades, and bazookas did deadly work in this close quarter combat.
Eventually, weight of numbers and firepower told, and the Allies cleared the city. More fighting the next day extended their position; with Egyptian troops in full retreat, General Stockwell prepared to thrust further south to secure the Canal. Then, incredibly, he received orders from London and Paris to halt. Two days of bloodshed, which claimed 16 British and 10 French lives, along with dozens more wounded (and more than 500 Egyptian deaths) – all, it appeared, for nothing.
The Allied troops felt angry and betrayed by this sudden about-face. General Beaufre found it so ridiculous that he contemplated ignoring the order and continuing the offensive. General Stockwell contented himself with biting sarcasm. “We have now achieved the impossible,” he wired London: “We’re going both ways at once.”
Ultimately, the superpowers tipped the balance. Nikita Khrushchev gloated that Nasser had “cut the lion’s tail” and threatened nuclear attacks on the West. Eisenhower, furious at Eden for undercutting him as Soviet tanks crushed Hungary, applied more subtle tactics. America froze British assets and instituted sanctions that threatened to sink the British economy. Eden raged against Eisenhower’s actions, but they exposed his impotence. Britain could no longer proceed without American support, and folded.
Now, even Britons who supported Suez abandoned Eden. Several members of Eden’s government followed Anthony Nutting in resigning, with one branding the Prime Minister “a criminal madman.” RAF Marshall Sir Dermot Boyle lamented that British troops “were being stopped when victory was…imminent.” Even Winston Churchill criticized his former protege: “I am not sure I should have dared to start, but I am sure I should not have dared to stop.”
The Prime Minister embodied England’s newfound feebleness. In September, he had suffered a seizure resulting in hospitalisation, a prelude to further dissolution. As the invasion unfolded, Eden paced around his home, called friends and cabinet ministers at night, alternating amphetamines and sedatives at an alarming rate. One evening he called Guy Mollet, complaining to the French Premier that “the whole world reviles me.” The long-suffering Clarissa Eden remarked on “the Suez Canal flowing through my drawing room.”
Finally, under withering domestic criticism and mounting international pressure, he collapsed. J.P.W. Mallalieu, a Labour MP who supported the invasion, found Eden in a pitiable state. “[He] sprawled on the front bench, head back and mouth agape… The face was gray except where black-rimmed caverns surrounded the dying embers of his eyes. The whole personality seemed completely withdrawn.”
Eventually, the United Nations intervened, gradually replacing British and French troops with a multinational peacekeeping force. This allowed the Allies to save face, but underscored their failure. After the last British troops departed in December, an Egyptian mob attacked the statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps at Port Said and destroyed it. A fitting exclamation point on the whole sorry affair.
Afterwards, Eden and Clarissa retreated to Jamaica, spending several weeks at Ian Fleming’s Goldeneye estate. His career in shambles, Eden resigned in January 1957, turning the Premiership over to Harold Macmillan. Eden wrote several memoirs justifying his actions, but never restored his reputation. When he died in 1977, kind eulogists remembered his wartime diplomacy and opposing fascism over his imperial debacle.
Guy Mollet outlasted Eden only by a few months, resigning in June. Disgusted by the Crisis, France’s military decided they could no longer leave government to politicians. In May 1958 they toppled the Fourth Republic and restored Charles De Gaulle to power. While De Gaulle exited Algeria on his own terms, his anti-British policies (especially excluding Britain from the Common Market) stemmed in part from lingering resentment over Suez.
Far from being knocked off his perch, Nasser’s successful defiance enhanced his standing in the Middle East. At home, his regime continued to vacillate between economic development, social reforms and repression of political rivals. His pretensions at a pan-Arab empire resulted in a failed union with Syria, a muddled conflict in Yemen and the disastrous Six Day War with Israel. Still, when Nasser died in 1970 he remained the Arab world’s greatest modern hero.
If Britain retained any illusions about its empire, Suez destroyed them. With Macmillan citing “the wind of change…blowing through this continent,” Britain granted independence to its African colonies over the next decade. In the Middle East, nationalists murdered Iraq’s royal family in 1958, Communists seized power in Yemen, Jordan turned towards the United States. Eisenhower soon proclaimed the Eisenhower Doctrine, committing Americans to an open-ended presence in the Middle East.
More than anything, Suez was an anachronism. Eden acted like nothing had changed since the era of Lord Cromer and General Gordon, when chastising third-world rulers through military force went unchallenged. Unfortunately, 1956 (the era of decolonisation and Cold War tensions) was an entirely different world. Refusing to recognise this, Eden initiated an unnecessary tragedy that shamed his country and destroyed him.