By James Robinson
ex Royal Marine 1947 to 1971
British troops came to Egypt in 1882 in order to suppress a nationalist, military uprising against the Viceroy of the Turkish Sultan. Contrary to the original intention, they remained, until Egypt gained full independence under the treaty of 1936. It was signed in London by Nahas Pasha, Prime Minister of Egypt, and Mr. Anthony Eden, the then foreign secretary, which allowed a garrison in the Canal Zone, of 10,000 troops, and was charged with the task of the defence of the Canal. With the outbreak of war England could claim right to full occupation under the treaty. Egypt was both battle area and base and accommodated hundreds of thousands of wartime troops. By the end of the war, Egypt had become a gigantic staging post. G.H.Q. Middle East Command were lodged in Cairo and had an immense problems on their hands with the emergency in Palestine and the evacuation of British Troops from India.
The Egyptian people meanwhile gave an alarming display of their temper. Near the end of December 1945, rioting broke out, reaching its peak in February 1946, with violent attacks on British Service Clubs, and other service property in Cairo. The barracks Kasr-el-Nil, which housed the District H.Q., came under heavy siege and the Egyptian police, in putting down the riot, caused 140 casualties amongst the rioters. At Alexandria on March 4th, two British Military Policemen manning a control post were overwhelmed by a mass onslaught and killed. The severed head of one was displayed in triumph.
Negotiations were opened in May and Prime Minister Attlee announced a plan for the complete withdrawal of troops from Egypt. On July 4th, The Citadel was the first fortress to be handed over and the 1st Highland light Infantry handed over the gaunt bastion over to an Egyptian battalion and marched away with pomp and elegance, and by the end of September the G.O.C.
British Troops Egypt, Lt-Gen Sir Charles Allfrey, had moved his headquarters into barracks at Moascar, a suburb of Ismailia. In October, the Egyptian hopes for the complete removal of the British were dashed, by the announcement by the Egyptian Prime Minister, that he had for Egypt obtained full possession of the Sudan. This was strongly denied by the British and negotiations collapsed. There was still a remnant of British troops left in the big cities with the final evacuation from Alexandria on February 9th 1947, where the 2nd Royal Fusiliers handed over Mustapha Barracks to the Egyptian Army with an imposing ceremony, and then the Fusiliers marched off. On March 28th the Life Guards left Kasr-el-Nil Barracks with C Squadron forming the rearguard and at about 5am their armoured cars quietly moved out of the Barracks. A few miles east of Cairo they met up with B Squadron who had come to cover their withdrawal to the Canal. The Canal Zone was divided militarily into two Brigade districts. The 3rd Infantry Brigade formed the northern one and was available as strategic reserve, in which role it had sent a battalion to Akaba in January 1949 and had only two other battalions in Egypt with a regiment of field Artillery.
One George Medal, one British Empire Medal, and one Queens Commendation were won for acts of gallantry. With the battle over, Brigadier Exham meanwhile had begun to parley with the police at the main police station and while he spoke to the police captain, policemen on the roof opened fire, which was not returned. After many broadcast appeals, the Lancashire Fusilier cordon company opened fire. After further appeals and further defiance, a more intensive burst of fire at the rooftop positions produced the required surrender. On the next day, Saturday January 26th, came the counter attack, directed at British property in Cairo by mobs swollen by the workless thousands. The Turf Club, being the most prominent British stronghold left, was the first to go up in flames and eleven of its members done to death inside. This was the worst of the killings. Shops, offices, restaurants, cinemas, and Shepheard's Hotel was set alight, while guests cowered in the courtyard. The British Embassy, which the military attaché had organized for defence, approached by a crowd in the afternoon that was dispersed by three shots.
There was a plan for the dispatch of British troops by direct call from the Ambassador if required. The G.O.C. 1st Division, Major General F. R. G. Mathews, was ready to advance along the road from Suez with a mixed infantry and armoured force built around 2nd Brigade and 16th Para. Despite the presence of 2 Egyptian Brigade groups dug in astride the Suez road, there was ample confidence that the task could be achieved if needed. In the event, King Farouk finally made a move and gave orders to summon Egyptian soldiers, who cleared the streets of arsonists and looters as night was falling. Next day Farouk dismissed Nahas for his failure to keep order. His successor turned to other less dangerous ways of ridding his country of the British. The 'Heroes of The Liberation' were called off. They had killed at least forty British soldiers and of these, thirty-three together with sixty-nine wounded, belonged to the 3rd Brigade and units under its command in the Ismailia area. Never can a Brigade have suffered heavier casualties when not on active service.
After the battle of Ismailia, came the easing of tension, which brought only a slight improvement to the lot of the British soldier in the Canal zone. A few of the Egyptian work force did return to the British Camps to alleviate the domestic situation, conditions in the camps were primitive, with no permanent fixtures. There was no diminishing of the garrison. It became even larger in the February, when a second Brigade of the 3rd Division, the 32nd Guards Brigade came from Cyprus. The 1st Division moved to the southern part of the Canal zone, and the 3rd took over the northern commitment, guard duties, construction work, and domestic chores imposed a heavy burden. It took a battalion to guard the great ordnance depot at Tel-el-Kebir, with its 17 mile perimeter, wire entanglements, minefields, and searchlights.
In July 1952 King Farouk deposed of by a military junta. Major-General- Mohammed Neguib was made Prime Minister. The relationship between Britain and Egypt took a turn for the better. Neguib who was half Sudanese, gave up the Egyptian claim to sovereignty over the Sudan. In February 1953 he reached agreement with the British Government for Independence for the Sudan, it was completed on August 16th 1955, and the 1st battalion Royal Leicestershire Regiment marched out bringing a end to British occupation begun in 1898.
In the July of 1953 negotiations were again opened for the evacuation of the Canal zone. General Harding C.I.G.S. did not believe it was feasible to maintain troops in the Canal zone without the cooperation from the Egyptian Government which would always tie them down to self-defence, he therefore proposed that only an administrative base should be maintained in Egypt and that Cyprus, should be used as command centre and as base for an air portable reserve within easy reach of the countries through which the threat to the Suez Canal might develop. This would rid the army of a commitment of using 70.000 troops in the Canal Zone. The Egyptians conceded that the British might retain a base for maintenance purposes, but they would allow no British flag to be flown or uniform to be worn by any of its staff. This condition the British Government would not accept. The Egyptian Government retaliated by imposing a ban on the entry of foodstuffs into the Canal Zone. The situation blackened in the March 1954. Fire was opened on British Troops, resulting in the deaths of a medical officer and two soldiers, and the burning of some vehicles in Port Said. Once again security had to be tightened down.
Meanwhile the grappling for power was going on in Cairo and on April 17th Nasser emerged and took over as Prime Minister, With Neguib relegated to the puppet role of President. At the end of May Nasser called an end to the campaign of violence in the Canal Zone, and soon afterwards detailed negotiations for the evacuation of the Canal Zone Began. One base could still be retained and would be manned by civilians. Many details of the agreement remained to be settled and not until October did the negotiating teams finish their work. The departure of British Forces would be phased over a period of twenty months. They were to retain the workshops at Tel-el-Kebir,and various depots around Ismailia and Fayid, containing petrol, ammunition and stores. Up to 800 civilians could be brought in to run these depots, and a further 400 civilians enrolled locally. General Keightley was now C-in-C, and by December 1st had transferred G.H.Q. to Cyprus. By the end of 1954 both the 3rd Division and the 16th Para Brigade had returned to the U.K. The 1st Division returned to England at the end of 1955, leaving the 1st Guards Brigade in occupation of Moascar and Port Said, and the R.A.F. had handed over all but one of their nine aerodromes. The last fighting troops to leave were the 2nd Grenadier Guards. The main body slipped away by ship on the night of March 24th 1956, I Company was left behind as rear party, they thankfully handed over the camp at dawn next morning and made their departure from the R.A.F.'s last stronghold, Abu Sueir Aerodrome. The rear guard performed their final duties of disposal from Navy House, Port Said. At sunrise on Wednesday June 13th 1956, Brigadier Lacey handed over Navy House to an Egyptian colonel, and after a cheerful farewell stepped onto a launch, and was taken to a charted L.S.T. the Evan Gibb, where he joined his seventy-eight officers and men the remnant of a army that had been in occupation for seventy-four years. The ship sailed Away quietly, as the green flag of Egypt went up over the the imposing Navy House to announce the fall of the last Bastion.
The gang war since its start in October 1951 had cost the lives of Fifty-four British Soldiers. The British troops were not eligible for decorations or campaign medals, as it was not rated as being on active service, this was the policy of the Government at the time, of playing the crisis down.