The Suez Crisis: Why Israel's Military Success Against Egypt Proved a Political Disaster

September 9, 2020 Topic: History Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: IsraelEgyptSuez CanalSuez CrisisWar

The Suez Crisis: Why Israel's Military Success Against Egypt Proved a Political Disaster

Gamal Abdel Nasser emerged as a hero in the Arab world while Palestinians began the first faint stirrings of social unrest.

Key Point: Militarily, the Suez-Sinai campaign was a great success for Israel, but politically the adventure was a fiasco.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Coupled with the initial parachute drop, one Israeli reserve infantry brigade was to advance from the Israeli town of Nitzana to seize jump-off positions around the important road junction at the Egyptian town of Kusseima. Behind this advance infantry brigade, two Israeli divisional task forces were to move into place and await orders from the government on whether to proceed along the coastal or central approaches from Israel to the canal. Depending on what Great Britain, France, and Egypt did next, the Israelis were to break through whatever Egyptian force they confronted on the coast and in the center, and then advance swiftly across Sinai to within 10 miles of the Suez Canal.

To attain both strategic and operational surprise, the Israeli plan was exactly the reverse of any logical military order. The farthest objective—Mitla Pass—was also the first target. Then the general offensive was to open in the center, followed by an attack on the nearest and most vexatious objectives, Gaza and its teeming guerrilla bases. Sharm-el-Sheikh and the Straits of Tiran, the strategic and political objectives whose control by Egypt had precipitated Israel’s decision to go to war, were left for last.

Operationally speaking, the strengths of the larger and more powerfully equipped Egyptian forces determined the sequence of the Israeli attacks. Holding or seizing Sinai was largely a matter of controlling Sinai’s road network. The Egyptians tended to concentrate their forces at crossroads while leaving natural obstacles unguarded. The seeming illogic of the Israeli objectives was intended to keep the Egyptian commanders guessing about where and when they should commit their mobile reserves. Once a defensive sector close to the Israeli frontier had been reduced or bypassed, long advances into the Egyptian rear could be achieved across unguarded stretches by the relatively more mobile Israeli brigades.

There was considerable concern on the part of French strategists that 10 smallish Israeli brigades would be unable to defeat a much larger Egyptian force consisting of two infantry divisions, seven large independent infantry brigades, one tank brigade, two independent infantry battalions, and assorted garrison units. Dayan had to go out of his way to convince his French colleagues that the Israeli assault force had far greater mobility and agility than the Egyptian force it was facing, and that Israeli leadership, training, morale, and motivation were far superior to those of the Egyptians. The arguments were tenuous at best, but Dayan was given unwitting help by the Egyptians when at the last minute they moved their two infantry divisions and only tank brigade from eastern Sinai to guard the Suez Canal against a feared Anglo-French assault. At that point, even though they enjoyed only a bare advantage in numbers of brigades—and none at all in numbers of troops, tanks, or guns—the Israelis were able to convince their allies that they could indeed achieve their relatively ambitious objectives.

To keep their intentions secret for as long as possible, the Israelis did not begin to mobilize their reserve units until the last possible minute, October 26, and then only the two armored infantry brigades were called up via secret messengers. The next day, only 48 hours before the initial assault, the national radio was employed to call up the bulk of the reserve infantry and selected home guard units. The delay naturally led to mass confusion. The tanks and half-tracks of the two reserve armored infantry brigades could not be fully serviced in the time allotted, a factor that led to numerous breakdowns after the war started, and many of the 13,000 civilian vehicles that were commandeered for Army use could not be readied for combat in less than one day. Indeed, most of the reserve infantrymen themselves could not assemble as quickly as ordered. They all reached their unit depots more or less on time, but equipment either was not issued or else was inadvertently left behind, and few reservists went into battle knowing eactly what their units were supposed to accomplish. Nevertheless, the government and the Army general staff had carefully weighed the risks, and Zahal’s core of battle-tested professionals was prepared to make do as never before.