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Civilian Casualties from British Military: The Anglo-Egyptian War

This section provides a detailed account of recorded civilian casualties that resulted from the British military’s involvement in the Anglo-Egyptian War.

When did this conflict occur?

15th October, 1951^ – 25th January, 1952*

^ – The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty was formally abrogated on the 15th of October, 1951, but violence by Egyptian insurgents against British military personnel and civilian dependents only began the following day. [1]

* –  The 25th of January, 1952, marks the storming of Egyptian police facilities in Ismailia, the final offensive action conducted by the British military during the Anglo-Egyptian War; however, British troops remained stationed in Egypt until 1956 as part of a process of gradual evacuation under the Anglo-Egyptian Agreement of 1954. [2]

What is the background to this conflict?

The British military presence in Egypt originated in the aftermath of the British Expeditionary Force’s victory during the 1882 Anglo-Egyptian War. Though initially deemed a ‘veiled protectorate’ not formally part of the British Empire, the outbreak of the First World War saw the creation of a de jure protectorate in Egypt which remained in place until the British government issued the Unilateral Declaration of Egyptian Independence in 1922. Reserve clauses within the declaration in addition to the subsequent Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, however, allowed a continued British military garrison of 10000 troops to remain in place and provide security for the Suez Canal, the primary maritime connection to the British Raj. [3] This status quo remained in place until the 15th of October, 1951, when the Egyptian Parliament unilaterally abrogated the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936. [4] Violence began the following day as Egyptian insurgents, supported by Interior Minister Serag ed Din, attempted to force a British withdrawal by targeting service members and dependents in Port Said and Ismailiya. [5] A brief calm followed this initial outburst, but violence continued as members of the Egyptian Auxiliary Police, a uniformed reserve tasked primarily with riot control, renewed their attacks. Following the rejection of a demand to disarm the Auxiliary Police, British troops stormed police installations in Ismailia and sparked a wave of anti-Western protests in Cairo the following day. [6] Though the Egyptian Army succeeded in quelling the unrest, Prime Minister Mostafa Nahas’ failure to maintain order fatally weakened the political foundations of the government and paved the way for a military coup months later. A new Anglo-Egyptian Agreement was formalised in 1954, requiring the gradual evacuation of British troops from the Suez Canal, and the final British ground forces departed Egypt in June of 1956. 

What role did British military forces play?

British forces stationed in the Suez Canal Zone were largely composed of national servicemembers, males between 17 and 21 who underwent two years of obligatory military service, drawn from both combat arms as well as support corps such as Royal Logistics or Royal Ordnance Corps. [7] Though this presence was initially centred on maintaining a consistent British presence within the Canal Zone, escalating violence by Egyptian insurgents in October of 1951 resulted in the declaration of ‘Active Service’ status. Servicemembers found themselves targeted both in and out of uniform, with a concentrated attack by the Auxiliary Police on British personnel and civilians on the 18th of November resulting in off-duty troops employing personal small arms to defend themselves. [8] As violence worsened and family members evacuated, the British military presence swelled as more than 60000 troops, among them elements from all three battalions of the Parachute Regiment, arrived in Egypt. A relentless cycle of patrols, cordon and searches, and convoy duties took hold, as British service members embarked upon an increasingly familiar routine of internal security operations in late 1951. [9] By January of 1952, as attacks by the Egyptian Auxiliary Police continued, British leaders elected an offensive action to forcibly disarm Egyptian forces. Lieutenant General Sir George Erskine, General Officer Commanding of British Troops in Egypt, issued an ultimatum on the 25th of January, 1952, demanding that the Governor of Ismailiya disarm the Auxiliary Police. When the terms were rejected, 1st Battalion, the Lancashire Fusiliers, conducted a raid on the headquarters of the Egyptian Police and Auxiliary Police in Ismailia with Centurion tanks in support. [10] This action marked the final large-scale offensive operation in the Suez Canal Zone, and, by 1956, remaining forces from 2nd Battalion, the Grenadier Guards, withdrew from Egypt. 

Can a figure of civilian deaths due to British military action be determined?

Yes. Over the course of the Anglo-Egyptian War, there were 2 confirmed killings of civilians by British military forces. In contrast to these 2 civilian deaths, 405 British military personnel died between 1951 and the final withdrawal in 1954. [11]

Are there any trends or incidents of note?

Both civilian deaths as a result of British military action occurred prior to the storming of Egyptian Police facilities in Ismailia in January of 1952, an operation which was subsequently determined to have resulted in no noncombatant fatalities. [12] It is important to note, however, that the figure of two deaths is likely to be an underestimate and only refers to instances in which a confirmed number of civilian fatalities can be attributed to British servicemembers. These included:

  • 27th October, 1951: An Egyptian male driver and female passenger were travelling from Cairo to the port city of Ismailia when they encountered a British Army checkpoint. Upon failing to halt for the British troops, soldiers stationed at the checkpoint opened fire on the vehicle and fatally injured the passenger. [13]
  • 3rd December, 1951: a Royal Engineer working party tasked with dismantling a petrol point was engaged by Egyptian Auxiliary Police who passed in a lorry. The Egyptian officers soon dismounted, assumed positions of cover, and continued the firefight as local civilians moved towards them. Reinforcements from 1st Battalion, the Royal Sussex Regiment arrived and opened fire in an effort to extricate the Royal Engineer element, killing one Egyptian civilian. [14]

Endnotes:

[1] Egypt (British Military Action, Ismailia), UK Parliament, 1952, https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1952/jan/31/egypt-british-military-action-ismailia

[2] Suez Canal Zone, National Army Museum, 2017, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/suez-canal-zone

[3] Morsy, Laila, “The Military Clauses of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of Friendship and Alliance, 1936”, International Journal of Middle East Studies 16, no.1 (1984): 67-97. https://www.jstor.org/stable/162941

[4] G. E. K, “Anglo-Egyptian Relations, 1950-1.” The World Today 7, no. 11 (1951): 458–65. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40392371.

[5] Murphy, J W, “The First Round on the Suez Canal, 1951-52”, An Irish Quarterly Review 45, no. 180 (1956): 430-431. https://www.jstor.org/stable/30098832

[6] 1952: Britons killed in Cairo riots, BBC On This Day, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/january/26/newsid_2506000/2506301.stm

[7] Parkes, Pamela, “The Suez Emergency: The forgotten war of the conscript soldier”, BBC News, 2016, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-36985325

[8] See primary source

[9] Canal Zone Egypt, ParaData, 2022, https://www.paradata.org.uk/event/canal-zone-egypt

[10] “The Battle of Ismailia | British Troops Fight Egyptian Auxiliary Police | January 1952”, Gaumont British News, 1952, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rbfr6TZAkas

[11] UK armed forces Deaths: Operational deaths post World War II, Ministry of Defence, 2021, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/972075/20210325_UK_armed_forces_Operational_deaths_post_World_War_II-O.pdf

[12] See primary source

[13] French, David. The British Way in Counterinsurgency: 1945-1967 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011): 107.

[14] See primary source