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Civilian Casualties from British Military: The Suez Crisis

This section provides a detailed account of recorded civilian casualties that resulted from the British military’s involvement in the Suez Crisis.

When did this conflict occur?

29th October, 1956^ – 7th November, 1956*

^ – Though the Israeli offensive against Egyptian positions defending the Suez Canal on the 29th of October marked the beginning of the Suez Crisis, the Anglo-French military effort, Operation Musketeer, only began on November 5th, 1956. [1]

* – British and French forces formally halted offensive operations in Egypt following the declaration of a ceasefire on the 7th of November, 1956; however, the Anglo-French task force was only withdrawn from the Suez Canal Zone by the 22nd of December, 1956. [2]

What is the background to this conflict?

The end of the 1951-1952 Anglo-Egyptian conflict in the Suez Canal Zone saw the weakening of Egyptian King Farouk’s government amidst escalating levels of social unrest and cabinet-level involvement in insurgent attacks against British troops. In July of 1952, the Arab nationalist Free Officers Movement, led by Mohammed Naguib and Gamal Nasser, leveraged this vulnerability and staged a military coup which resulted in the overthrow of King Farouk. [3] Nasser’s government moved rapidly to institute a new Anglo-Egyptian Agreement by 1954, requiring the gradual evacuation of British troops in the Suez Canal by 1956 and halting the transfer of the Suez Canal Company to the Egyptian state until 1968. In July of 1956, however, President Nasser marked the fourth anniversary of the 1952 coup by nationalising the Suez Canal Company, effectively abrogating the Anglo-Egyptian Agreement signed years earlier. [4] In response, the United Kingdom, France, and Israel began preparations for a combined effort to secure the Suez Canal and oust President Nasser from power. The initiation of offensive manoeuvres fell to Israel who, seeking to reinforce its Southern border and weaken a hostile Egypt, launched Operation Kadesh on the 29th of October and quickly routed Egyptian forces defending the Suez Canal. Simultaneously, British and French representatives in the United Nations urged the demilitarisation of the canal and announced a joint intervention to enforce a ceasefire. An Anglo-French military campaign commenced as airborne and amphibious forces, aided by aircraft as well as surface ships from both states, landed in the Egyptian city of Port Said on the 5th of November. [5] International pressure in response to the invasion soon mounted, with the United States, fearful of a USSR counteroffensive or the loss of neighbouring Arab states to the Soviet sphere of regional influence, demanding the withdrawal of British and French troops. When combined with growing anti-war protests in the UK, the Anglo-French force was withdrawn from the Suez and a UN Emergency Force formed to safeguard Egyptian sovereignty over the Suez Canal.

What role did British military forces play?

The Anglo-French military effort in the Suez Crisis, known as Operation Musketeer, centred on two primary components: an extensive ‘aero-psychological’ campaign by the British RAF and French Armée de l’Air as well as a combined airborne and amphibious operation to seize the Suez Canal Zone. [6] This ‘aero-psychological’ campaign, originally intended as a ten-day Phase II of Operation Musketeer once air superiority had been gained by Anglo-French fighter aircraft in Phase I, lasted just two days due largely to hesitancy by British Prime Minister Anthony Eden to select targets potentially occupied by non-combatants. Instead, Phase III of Operation Musketeer commenced on the 5th of November as British elements of 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, seized El Gamil Airfield in Port Said and French paratroopers captured key bridges and choke points around the coastal city. [7] The following day, 40 and 42 Commando Royal Marines conducted an amphibious landing in Port Said with naval gunfire in support, while 45 Commando conducted a helicopter-borne assault and made British military history with the first use of rotary-wing transports to airlift personnel directly into combat. [8] Fierce urban fighting erupted in Port Said as the Royal Marines battled deeply entrenched Egyptian troops and armed civilians in an attempt to link up with the Anglo-French airborne force dropped a day earlier. Upon learning of the impending UN ceasefire, British forces conducted a rapid advance in an effort to improve the Anglo-French bargaining position and succeeded in reaching the village of al-Cap, located approximately 54 kilometres from Port Said, by November 7th.

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

Yes. Over the course of the Suez Crisis, there were 163 confirmed killings of civilians by British military forces. In contrast to these 163 civilian deaths, 24 British military personnel died in the conflict. [9] 

Are there any trends or incidents of note?

The overwhelming majority of confirmed civilian fatalities as a result of British military action stemmed from the invasion of Port Said and the neighbouring city of Port Fouad on November 6th, 1956. British civilian leaders took steps to limit the possibility of non-combatant deaths: naval guns of calibres larger than 4.5 inches were prohibited and a bombardment of Port Said planned in support of the Royal Marines landing was cancelled immediately prior to the assault. Naval commanders, however, did not comply wholly with these measures and exploited a semantic difference between naval bombardments, the act of firing directly at targets with maritime-based gun platforms, and naval gunfire support, firing over friendly forces at targets posing a threat to them, to strike Port Said. [10] When combined with intensive urban fighting, which saw Egyptian forces fall back to defensive positions in non-combatant areas and dress in civilian clothing to ambush the Anglo-French force in the narrow confines of Port Said, an estimated 162 civilians are believed to have been killed during the British landing in accordance with an inquiry published by Sir Edwin Herbert of the Law Society. [11] A final civilian fatality took place on the 15th of November, 1956, when British troops manning positions in Port Said opened fire on an Egyptian sailing boat which refused to halt and fatally injured a female refugee. [12]While no similar figure exists for civilian fatalities as a result of the Anglo-French bombardment in Phase II of Operation Musketeer, it is highly probable that non-combatants were killed regardless of steps taken to mitigate collateral damage. British pilots were, ultimately, operating new weapons systems over unfamiliar territory where military targets resided in close proximity to residential areas; in fact, a Foreign Office memorandum from the 5th of November indicates a British and French operation targeting a railway line located 500 metres from Cairo’s Central Station with additional fighter-bomber aircraft striking military barracks located in a “densely populated area”. [13]

Endnotes:

[1] Garrett, William B., “THE U.S. NAVY’S ROLE IN THE 1956 SUEZ CRISIS,” Naval War College Review 22, no. 7 (1970): 66-78. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44639541

[2] First United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF I), United Nations Peacekeeping, 2003, https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/mission/past/unef1backgr1.html

[3] Badeau, John S., “A Role in Search of a Hero: A Brief Study of the Egyptian Revolution,” Middle East Journal 9, no.4 (1955): 373-384. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4322746

[4] The Suez Canal, UK Parliament, 1956, https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1956/sep/12/the-suez-canal

[5] Coles, Michael H., “SUEZ, 1956: A Successful Naval Operation Compromised by Inept Political Leadership.” Naval War College Review 59, no. 4 (2006): 100–118. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26396772.

[6] Varble, Derek. The Suez Crisis 1956 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2003): 25.

[7] Jouko, Petteri. Strike Hard, Strike Sure – Operation Musketeer British Military Planning during the Suez Crisis (Helsinki: National Defence University Department of Tactics, 2007): 292.

[8] Benbow, Tim, SUEZ SIXTY YEARS ON: IMPLICATIONS FOR THE ROYAL NAVY, Defence-in-Depth, 2016, https://defenceindepth.co/2016/11/11/suez-sixty-years-on-implications-for-the-royal-navy/

[9] 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

[10] Varble, The Suez Crisis, 65.

[11] See primary source

[12] See primary source

[13] See primary source