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9 October 2006

Memories of Suez

Fifty years ago, Britain was preparing for a military adventure that was to divide the country and l

By Anthony Howard

It all occurred half a century ago and now, I can hardly believe it ever happened. In mid-October 1956, at the age of 22 and fresh out of the National Service infantry officer cadet school at Eaton Hall near Chester, I had just reported for duty to the regiment in which I had been commissioned, the 1st Bn Royal Fusiliers, then stationed at Connaught Barracks, Dover.

I had been there little over a fortnight when – on the evening of Tuesday 30 October, I think it was – I went out with a couple of fellow subalterns to have dinner at a restaurant called the Crypt in downtown Dover. When we had left the barracks at around half past seven everything had seemed calm and placid enough . . .

By eleven o’clock, when (slightly the worse for wear) we returned, the entire scene had been transformed. The place was ablaze with lights, various vehicles were revving up outside the officers’ mess and everywhere people seemed to be rushing about issuing orders.

At long last the War Office instruction had come for the embarkation of the 29th Infantry Brigade, of which the Royal Fusiliers formed a part. Probably it should not have come as a shock – the battalion’s heavy equipment had, after all, been riding at anchor in a bay off Milford Haven for the past two months – but somehow the order still managed to materialise as an uncovenanted development.

So long had the wait been for “Eden’s war” to begin that most of us (including the 350 “Z” reservists who had been yanked out of civilian life a full two months earlier) had become convinced that it was never going to happen. At Dover we had settled into a mundane daily routine of muster parades, kit inspections and (dreaded) twice-weekly cross-country runs along the cliffs.

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Then, overnight, and quite without warning, everything was transformed. As dawn broke the next morning Connaught Barracks resembled nothing so much as an abandoned Roman camp. Our battalion and the two others that went to make up the 29th Infantry Brigade were all assembled in not very orderly fashion on the platforms of Dover Marine Station, where the Royal Military Police did their best to see that we all (give or take a few AWOL cases) piled into the military transport trains scheduled to take us to Southampton.

Unknown destination

There, later that same day, we boarded the £10-a-passage immigrant liner New Australia, which, along with much of the merchant fleet, had recently been commandeered by the War Office for emergency military use.

She wasn’t much of a ship, I recall, and the conditions on the troop decks, where the other ranks slept in hammocks, were pretty gruesome. They weren’t much better for the junior officers, either, with eight or nine of us squeezing into four-berth cabins designed to accommodate hopeful emigrants setting out on the journey to start a new life in Australia.

Nor did it help much that few, if any, of us had the slightest idea of what was going on. All that we had been told was that we were embarking for “an unknown destination” and, given the Anglo-French ultimatum that had been delivered to the Egyptians and the Israelis on 30 October, it hardly required second sight to guess that the destination might be Port Said. But it could equally well have been Malta, or even Cyprus.

In any event, the urgency of our enterprise did not at first seem overwhelming. Once we had ploughed through the Bay of Biscay, we docked in Gibraltar so that a fusilier on board who had been diagnosed with appendicitis could be transferred to the military hospital there.

Yet, once we got past Malta (Valletta glittering in the early-morning sunshine is one of my most vivid memories of the whole ten-day voyage), things began to hot up. Morale-building sessions, known as “battle-warmers for the troops”, took place each morning when middle-aged majors with clipped moustaches and uncomfortable recollections of tours in the pre-1954 Canal Zone waxed eloquent about what “a nasty customer Johnnie Gyppo could be”.

Street patrol

By this stage, the bombings of Cairo and Port Said had already taken place and on 5 November the first airborne troops had landed, capturing a couple of airfields in and around Port Said. We, however, were still pitching our way across the Mediterranean and it was not until Sunday 11 November (by a nice irony the First World War anniversary of Armistice Day) that we first clambered into our tank landing craft and then, about a mile from shore, waded into the sea with weapons held aloft to take possession of Port Said’s grubby beach.

That night, spent among the sand dunes and the shingle, was just about the most surreal of the whole experience. Someone had brought out with him an early battery transistor radio, and through it we heard the announcement on Radio Cairo that the Soviet Union was about to launch a rocket attack on London (in fact, Nikita Khrushchev had his hands more than full trying to suppress the anti-communist revolution in Hungary). But, in our bivouac on the beach, we knew little or nothing about that, and if there was a moment when I at least half believed that we were on the brink of the Third World War, that moment occurred during the first night we spent on Egyptian soil.

However, you can quickly get used to anything and, once we were established in Port Said’s relatively modern maternity hospital, military routine once again became the order of the day.

Our main task was to patrol the streets of that somewhat insalubrious seaport, an activity in which I fell short of giving complete satisfaction through my failure to return with sufficient numbers of prisoners and suspects (the Egyptian army having meanwhile dissolved itself into plain clothes). Later I was to be consoled by a message that came back from Brigade HQ begging us not to waste their time by sending up so many plainly unsinister characters for interrogation.

I suppose the nearest we ever got to real military action, as the ceasefire imposed by the Americans had come into effect four days before we even landed, was at the canal station at El Cap, where for a couple of weeks we occupied a position on the front line facing the Egyptians between the Suez and the Sweet Water Canals. There it really was rather like being in a road company production of Journey’s End – trenches, command posts, no man’s land, the lot. But with the French Foreign Legion on the other side of the Sweet Water Canal and the UN vehicles scooting up and down the main Canal Road trying to keep the peace as much between us and the French as between them and the Egyptians, it never seemed to me to be a confrontation that would last – and it didn’t.

By the beginning of December we were back in a far more tranquil Port Said and a few days later were once again embarking on a troopship, this time the SS Dilwara, bound for home. We were back in time for Christmas and everyone made an effort to make us feel good, with the regimental band even turning out to greet our less-than-triumphant return to Dover Marine Station. But I doubt if anyone mistook us for conquering heroes.

The whole expedition had been a fiasco and, for those who were not around at that mad and crazy time, it ought perhaps to serve as a salutary reminder that there is no figure in politics more dangerous than a weak and petulant leader who suddenly feels the need to assert himself. Suez was not the first time such a thing had happened in our history: nor, I fear, has it been the last.

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