The Suez Crisis began on 29 October 1956 when Israel invaded the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula. The invasion took place in response to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s announcement in July 1956 of the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company and the closure of the canal to all Israeli shipping.
The Suez Canal Company was a joint British-French enterprise which had owned and operated the canal since its construction in 1869. The canal, an important maritime route connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, represented the main source of supply of oil for Britain and France. During the post-war period there had been an upsurge of nationalism in Egypt and, in the lead up to the crisis, there was mounting opposition to the political influence of European powers in the region.
On 30 October, the day after the initial invasion by Israeli forces, Britain and France issued a joint ultimatum for an end to hostilities. The ultimatum was rejected by Nassar and a week later, on the night of 5-6 November, British and French troops joined the Israeli invasion and quickly succeeded in taking control of the area around the canal.
However, while the invasion was a military success, it was a political disaster. Not only was there widespread outrage in Britain, the invasion was condemned internationally. Opposition was particularly strong in the United States which saw the action as opening the possibility of Russian intervention in the Middle East. In response to mounting international pressure, British Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, was forced into calling a ceasefire on 7 November. A United Nations peacekeeping force was then sent in to supervise the ceasefire and to restore order following the withdrawal of British, French and Israeli troops.
Special Collections holds material relating to both the canal and the crisis. Prior to 1869, the construction of the canal had been long under consideration. Proposals can be found discussed among the papers of Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston. In a letter from Lord Ponsonby, dated 26 March 1841, a scheme for cutting a canal across the Suez is outlined, as are the many serious political evils which may be a consequence of its execution. [MS 62 PP/ GC/PO/508] One of the key objections was the fear that the canal might interfere with Britain’s India trade. In the end, the British decided on an alternative railway connection linking Alexandria and Suez, via Cairo. The Suez Canal Company was later formed by French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps in 1858.
Lord Mountbatten was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet during the crisis. While he co-operated with preparations to send a naval force to the area, he protested against British military intervention, favouring psychological warfare and pressure from the United Nations. In a draft of a letter to Anthony Eden, dated 1 August 1956, Mountbatten strongly advises against the immediate use of force against Egypt, stressing that “the absolutely paramount consideration is the marshalling of world opinion on our side.” [MS 62 MB1/N106] The letter was vetoed by the First Lord and never sent.
The crisis had a fundamental impact on British politics: Britain’s prestige as a world power was dealt a severe blow, with Eden resigning from office on 9 January 1957.