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The Suez Crisis: Israel Wins a War (France and Britain Were Never the Same)

October 20, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Suez CrisisBritish EmpireFranceIsraelEgypt

The Suez Crisis: Israel Wins a War (France and Britain Were Never the Same)

The Suez Crisis quickly got out of control.

As Simchoni hectored the 10th Reserve Brigade to get on with it, two battalions of infantry attempted to deliver a night attack against Umm Katef’s northern and southern flanks. Both units, predictably, went astray in the dark. One of them finally found Umm Katef, but only after sunrise, by which time the Egyptian artillery was able to blow it off the battlefield. The second battalion missed Umm Katef altogether and settled for capturing a small outlying position. Simchoni and Dayan, who was following the action closely, were not impressed. The brigade commander was replaced on the spot and two armored infantry task forces of the 37th Reserve Armored Infantry Brigade were ordered up to resume the assault.

The Israeli tanks and armored infantrymen attacked Umm Katef frontally. In the course of yet another bloody repulse, the brigade commander was killed while leading a futile last-ditch assault. As the Israeli survivors pulled back, the Egyptians, perhaps convinced that they were about to be cut off, slipped away during the night. The next morning, after clearing routes through the Egyptian minefields, the 37th Reserve Armored Infantry Brigade captured Umm Katef without further loss of life.

While the fighting was raging in the center, an Israeli divisional task force commanded by Brig. Gen. Chaim Laskov and consisting of the 1st Infantry Brigade and the 27th Reserve Armored Infantry Brigade opened an attack through Rafah to seal off the southwestern end of the Gaza Strip. Launched just after midnight on November 1, the meticulously planned attack by one armored infantry and four infantry battalions quickly ran afoul of Egyptian minefields, but the commanders were able to improvise a path that carried their forces into and through the Egyptian defenses. By dawn, Laskov’s main body was in the clear on the coastal highway, bound for the main Egyptian headquarters at El Arish. That afternoon the Egyptians mounted a strong defense at Jiradi Pass. By the time the Israelis overran the pass, it was late in the day. Dayan had become unnerved by reports that the Egyptians were holding El Arish in considerable strength. Not wanting to risk heavy casualties, he ordered Laskov to stop a few miles east of El Arish and spend the night preparing to deliver a major assault.When the attack was renewed at 0600 on November 2, the 27th Reserve Armored Infantry Brigade spearhead entered the city virtually without a fight. From there, Laskov raced almost to the Suez Canal, rolling up retreating Egyptians along the way. At the same time, two reserve infantry brigades supported by the 37th Reserve Armored Infantry Brigade were launching their attack on the city of Gaza. While 120mm mortars and tank guns dropped shells on the stoutly defended ridges that dominated the sprawling city, an armored infantry battalion and a squadron of tanks broke through the Egyptian main line of defense. An Israeli infantry battalion then entered the city on foot to mop up Egyptian defenders, most of whom were eager to surrender. At noon the city’s governor capitulated, and the bulk of the Egyptian Army garrison followed suit.

The Israeli attackers met resolute resistance only at Khan Yunis. There a brigade of the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) refused to bow to reality—Israelis held all of the Gaza Strip to the north, south, and east of them—and it took until the afternoon of November 3 for an Israeli reserve infantry brigade and armored combat team to secure the town.

Military Win, Political Loss

By prior arrangement, Israel had already accepted a disingenuous October 30 Anglo-French ultimatum that all Egyptian and Israeli forces remain clear of a cordon sanitaire extending 10 miles on either side of the Suez Canal. While British and French forces, as planned, occupied the “demilitarized” zone, Israeli brigades advancing along the coastal and central highways hounded the disintegrating Egyptian Army all the way across Sinai before halting on November 3. At the same time, a pincer force consisting of the 202nd Parachute Brigade and a fresh reserve infantry contingent closed on Sharm-el-Sheikh. Following a huge air strike on November 4, the two Israeli brigades moved into the battered city and effectively reopened the Straits of Tiran. The last Egyptian holdouts in Sinai and Gaza surrendered or withdrew on November 5.

Militarily, the Suez-Sinai campaign was a great success for Israel, but politically the adventure was a fiasco. England and France, under pressure from the United States, were forced to withdraw their forces from the region in mid-November, and a United Nations peacekeeping force moved into the Sinai in their place. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden resigned in disgrace two months later, and the seeds were planted for a rebellion of French Army officers a year later that toppled the nation’s Fourth Republic and returned Charles de Gaulle to power. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the so-called “Muslim Mussolini,” emerged as hero in the Arab world and, most ominously, Palestinians within Israel began the first faint stirrings of social unrest that would ignite into a continuing and as yet uncontained forest fire of rebellion whose flames would be felt as far away as the World Trade Center in New York City.

Originally Published in 2018.

This article by Eric Hammel originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikipedia.