Apparently, in the Mideast not much has changed in the past five decades. Osprey's Essential Histories #49, The Suez Crisis 1956 by Dr. Derek Varble, offers modern readers a chance to review this first major crisis in the Mideast. Not only is The Suez Crisis 1956 well written, but it offers a sense of déjà vu with the recent conflict in Iraq. In particular, military officers serving in the Mideast would find their time well spent in perusing these pages and reflecting on the mistakes made in an earlier Western military intervention in the region.
The Suez Crisis 1956 follows the usual Essential Histories format in regard to section on background to the crisis, the fighting and portrait of a warrior. However, the section on "portrait of a civilian" is not particularly good since it fails to use first-person accounts to humanize the Egyptian population. The lack of the section entitled "world around the war" is also unfortunate, since without it the author misses the opportunity to explain the critical diplomatic actions in the United Nations that ultimately curtailed the Anglo-French operation. Furthermore, the author fails to tackle the issue of why Egypt received no material aid from other Arab states and why Israel was able to fight a one-front war. There are a total of eight very good maps in this volume: Kadesh Opening Phase; Mitla Pass; Deadlock in Central Sinai; Abu Aoueigila; Egyptian Retreat from Sinai; Rafah and Gaza Strip; Israel secures Sinai; and Sharm el-Sheikh. Unfortunately, there are no detailed maps of the Port Said area, which makes it difficult to follow the author's very tactical narrative of the Anglo-French invasion.
Egyptian leader Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 was the proximate cause of the crisis, but England, France and Israel connived to remove him for reasons beyond the canal. France detested Nasser for his aid to the Algerian rebels, just as Israel detested him for his support for Palestinian guerrilla attacks on Israel. Britain wanted Nasser removed because his call for "Arab unity threatened a key client [of Britain], Iraq's Hashemite dynasty. Cheap Iraqi petroleum, vital to Britain's economy, depended on Hashemite rule." Even the United States, which feared Nasser's growing ties to the USSR wanted him removed and the author notes that, "in 1956, American and British leaders began Omega, a plan for regime change in Egypt." The similarities between Western desire for regime change with Nasser and Saddam Hussein are striking, and Arab writers could easily use these examples to claim that a strong Arab leader who stands up the West and Israel will not be tolerated for long.
Militarily, Varble demonstrates that the Israeli Army was still evolving from an infantry-heavy defensive force into a modern, combined arms force but was still immature in 1956. In particular, Moshe Dayan had neglected armor and logistics, as well as sufficient wheeled transport, which made it difficult for the Israelis to conduct rapid desert movements. The Israelis also made frequent navigational errors and fratricide was common (incl. one bizarre incident on 2 November when one Israeli tank company mistakenly ambushed another Israeli company, knocking out 8 of 9 tanks.). Israel was still able to smash Egyptian resistance in Sinai in eight days, but the campaign indicated a number of deficiencies that led to a vast improvement in Israeli military capabilities.
For the Anglo-French coalition, the invasion of Egypt was frustrating, as it was fruitless. Initially, the British leaders thought "bombers alone could attain victory" and they hoped that an "aero-psychological campaign" of strategic bombing would topple Nasser's regime. This sounds a great deal like "Shock and Awe" in Baghdad in 2003. At any rate, the British had only 18 bombers and they were employed in futile high-altitude, night attacks with "dumb" bombs, and their only success was to knock out Radio Cairo for a few days. Once the strategic air campaign failed, naval aircraft from Anglo-French carriers were called in and they annihilated the bulk of Egyptian Air Force on the ground.
Anglo-French ground operations were even more sobering. The first airborne landings at Port Said consisted of only two battalions, and although reinforced, these troops had to hold without heavy weapons for 24 hours. The first amphibious wave for the "main invasion" on 6 November 1956 was laughably only 12 landing craft with 240 troops. What if it had been an opposed landing? What if the Egyptian armor brigades had arrived? Indeed, the Anglo-French operation was hobbled from the beginning by insufficient air transport and amphibious vehicles. Coalition forces attacked with only 2-1 odds into a major urban area, Port Said, and quickly got bogged down in house-to-house fighting. On the other hand, Varble notes that the Allies did introduce one innovation, which was the first air-assault in history, when 45 Marine Commando lifted into Port Said on 6 November. Due to unexpectedly protracted urban combat, the Allies lost their focus and never reached their prime objective - the Suez Canal - before the UN-imposed cease-fire. Varble notes, "judicious exchanges of territory and time by Egyptian soldiers cheated Britain and France of a rapid tactical victory." Significantly, the Anglo-French also failed to plan for civil-military operations in Port Said and after the cease-fire, they were confronted with managing 200,000 Egyptian civilians whose water, food and electricity had been cut-off. Sound familiar?
The Suez Crisis also revealed the pitfalls of coalition warfare. While the British sought to minimize collateral damage in Egypt by limiting naval gunfire support and air attacks, the French troops often employed a "no prisoners" policy. British commanders were meticulous and sought to follow the operational plan. French commanders were opportunistic and were willing to "jettison part or all of the original plan" based on changing circumstances.