Many historians consider the Suez-Sinai campaign in the autumn of 1956 the last hurrah for British and French colonialist efforts in the Middle East. Whether or not that was the case, the campaign was certainly a highly successful dress rehearsal for the Israeli Defense Force (Zahal) and the stunning Six-Day War 11 years later, as well as an authentic military campaign in its own right. It was, in every way, Zahal’s coming-out party.
Nasser Takes the Suez
The seeds of the Suez Crisis were sown on July 23, 1952, when Egyptian Army officers overthrew their nation’s long-ruling monarch, King Farouk. Emerging at length to head the new Egyptian government was the mercurial and charismatic Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, a veteran of the Egyptian Army’s humiliating defeat by Israel in 1948. Convinced that he was destined to head the great pan-Arab alliance of millennial myth, Nasser launched an unrelenting rhetorical campaign against Israel in particular and the western world in general, which he denounced as an age-old colonizing menace.
Nasser’s campaign against Israel had less to do with defeating the eight-year-old Jewish state than with providing a convenient rallying cry he could use to unite the divergent Arab masses. Nasser’s efforts took the form of state-sponsored terrorism and as a barrage of vicious radio broadcasts aimed at the Arab street. For all his sound and fury, however, Nasser at first was only mildly annoying to the Israelis, and he was not seen as a serious threat until he successfully brokered a massive 1955 arms deal with Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia, which suddenly placed Egypt in the preeminent military position in the region.
Bolstered and emboldened by his newfound strength, Nasser soon claimed the right to seal the narrow Straits of Tiran against Western shipping bound for the isolated Israeli port of Eilat at the head of the Egyptian-dominated Gulf of Aqaba. At the same time, he closed the air route over the straits to airplanes flying between Israel and destinations in Africa and East Asia. It was all part of a plan to bankrupt Israel and effectively isolate it from the world community. After the United States broke off talks about funding the proposed Aswan Dam across the Nile River in protest of Egypt’s de facto blockade of Israel, an infuriated Nasser unilaterally nationalized the Suez Canal on July 27, 1956.
A Preemptive Strike
Fearful that Nasser meant to control the free flow of all Western goods through the canal, Great Britain and France entered into a secret pact that proposed using military force to guarantee their countries’ continued right of passage. This secret pact mirrored the increasingly embattled psychology prevailing within the Israeli government at the time. Denied lawful access to crucial markets in Asia and Africa, and alarmed by the sudden build-up of the Egyptian armed forces, Israeli leaders were convinced that Nasser intended to launch the often-promised war of annihilation against the Jewish state. In self-defense, the Israeli government began to plan a preemptive strike of its own and attempted to purchase arms from nominally friendly Western nations.
On September 1, 1956, the Israeli military attaché in Paris learned of the secret Anglo-French alliance against Egypt. Secret negotiations ensued at high government and military levels, and a deal was struck between Israel, France, and Great Britain on October 21. As part of a joint military campaign, British and French forces would parachute into Egypt or land amphibiously to secure the Suez Canal, while the Israeli Zahal would invade the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. Zahal had three immediate goals: to destroy a large portion of the Egyptian Army’s offensive potential, to eliminate a number of troublesome guerrilla bases in the Gaza Strip, and to reopen the contested Straits of Tiran after overwhelming the Eyptian garrison at Sharm-el-Sheikh.
Israeli planning for the military offensive was placed in the hands of Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, but it reflected the long-standing philosophy of Chaim Laskov, the spiritual father of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Facing a numerically superior and better-equipped Egyptian battle force, and fully expecting the United States and the Soviet Union to apply immediate pressure for a cessation of hostilities—albeit for entirely divergent reasons—Dayan and his staff outlined a lightning-fast offensive that would achieve all its goals and sow maximum destruction in the shortest possible time. The Israeli assault against Egypt was to commence on October 29, with the supporting Anglo-French air assault slated to begin a day later. The timing placed enormous political and military pressure on Israel by making the Jewish state appear to be the aggressor, but it was necessary in order to mitigate extreme political pressure inside Great Britain and France and deflect world opinion from the European superpowers.
Speed and Surprise
The opening phase of the plan envisaged by Dayan and his planners was a parachute drop far behind Egyptian lines at Mitla Pass, a natural bottleneck on two of the three major east-west highways crisscrossing the Sinai Peninsula. There were only enough C-47 Dakota transport planes in the Israeli Air Force to drop the bulk of one parachute battalion, 395 men in all, east of the pass. Given the high state of readiness the paratroopers of the 1st Battalion, 202nd Brigade had achieved, not to mention their proven combat prowess, a battalion was thought to be sufficient to achieve the straightforward goal of creating a diversion in the rear of the Egyptian forces in Sinai. To ease the isolation of this small force, the rest of the parachute brigade was to rush overland to Mitla Pass by way of the southern road, from Kuntilla via Themed and Nakhle. If successful, the paratroop battalion—and later the entire brigade—would be in position to block an important Egyptian line of reinforcement and retreat.