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The Suez Canal Zone

A short modern history 1950-1954

The best and perhaps the most complete history of the Canal Zone during this time frame is best described by the man who not only was the General Officer Commanding the British Forces there but played the major role in securing a treaty with Egypt for the pull-out of British troops and the maintenance of all of the huge bases and workshops there.

In his memoirs " A Most Diplomatic General ", The Life of General Lord Robertson of Oakridge, (By David Williamson) this very clever and complex man describes in detail the very difficult task of obtaining a treaty with the nationalistic and anti-British Egyptian Government negotiators.

Because of the length of the chapter involved, it was not possible to include everything but most of the important parts are included. Some points were copied verbatim and other points summarized. In doing this we have tried to get as much information as possible and without taking anything out of context.

In 1936 the then Egyptian Government signed a treaty with the British Government giving the British a base in the Suez Canal Zone. The Egyptians feared the Italians and their Fascist Government and what was happening in East Africa. Having the British there gave them security and in return the British received a huge base in the Mediterranean with control of the world's busiest waterway. This treaty was for twenty years and would expire in 1956, when all British troops would leave the Canal Zone.

When General Lord Robertson took over as G.O.C Middle East, he inherited the huge base and workshops plus command of 20,000 troops (Army and RAF personnel). The Korean War was taking place, and there was a general fear that the Russians would invade the Middle East through Turkey, leaving the Middle East oil producing nations open to attack, and Western Europe without oil.

Britain and the United States wanted Egypt to join a southern front against Russia. The Arabs, especially Egypt, were still smarting after their defeat by Israel, a war which the Arab nations could have won if they had co-ordinated their efforts. The Egyptians were not only anti- Israel but anti British Imperialism

On June 1950 Mussadiq, Premier of Persia, (now Iran) nationalized all the oil facilities of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, especially the huge oil installations in Abadan.

The only troops in the vicinity were those of the 1st Infantry Division stationed in the Suez Canal Zone. These men were put on a six-hour alert to move en masse with their equipment to Abadan. The operation would be called "Midget'. This standby was changed to a 72 hr alert, and finally cancelled.

Back in 1949 the Nationalist Government in Egypt wanted to revise the treaty with Great Britain and have the British leave the Canal Zone before the treaty was due to expire in 1956, to them the sooner the better. Britain wanted to stay until it ended and then phase out the bases. General Lord Robertson put it this way; "For Britain to leave Egypt would place a serious restraint on our ability to defend the Middle East in event of a war". There seemed no solutions

The Nationalist (Wafd) Government of Egypt started fomenting trouble in the Canal Zone (mainly to cover for their own inefficiencies and blundering), with government sanctioned demonstrations and defamatory articles in the Egyptian press against the British. The British retaliated by putting most cities and towns out of bounds to British troops and direct control was assumed over the whole Canal Zone.

It was decided that this huge base couldn't be left to the Egyptians, who were technically inept, and on the strength of that the British decided to stay until 1956. The fact that the British Government had backed down from the Persian Government encouraged the Egyptian Government to finally cancel (unilaterally) the treaty of 1936 and declare a union with the Sudan under the Egyptian Crown.

Trouble (fomented by Cairo), erupted in the Canal Zone, with stabbings, riots, vehicles overturned and burned. Egypt shut down the railways and roads, and withdrew labour from the Zone. Britain flew in the 3rd Infantry Division and the 16th Independent Parachute Brigade bringing the troop strength up to about 80,000. The British forces were now capable of occupying Cairo and Alexandria.

The Egyptians soon targeted the water filtration plants near Suez (the main source of drinking water for the Canal Zone) blowing up and severely flooding the plant. To prevent this in future, a number of mud huts were destroyed and the Egyptian Government exploited this for propaganda purposes.

As a result of this British vehicles were attacked on the Old Cairo Road outside Ismailia. British troops moved out into the desert beyond the Canal Zone perimeter. Operations 'Flail" and "Rodeo" were set up as plans to attack and occupy Cairo and Alexandria (the Delta).

Large numbers of Egyptian troops had moved into the Delta and Alexandria. There was also a chance that the Egyptian division in the Southern Sinai could attack us from the other side.

As a result of attacks on our vehicles and military personnel, as well as the riots in Ismailia and an armed police force in their midst, the British Army set about disarming the Egyptian police. In January of 1952, the British Army finally set about removing them. After a pitched battle, in which four British soldiers were killed and thirteen wounded, the Egyptians suffered 42 killed and 800 detained, and finally order was restored to the city of Ismailia. Small attacks and sniping continued.

In 1953 the chance of settlement improved considerably. Egypt decided not to insist that the Sudan was part of Egypt. The Republican Government under Nasser and Neguib were willing to try a political union between Egypt and the Sudan. These men were in power now and had sent King Farouk into exile in July 1952.

Negotiations with the newly established Revolutionary Government in Cairo was a long drawn out process and the Egyptians weren't above instigating a few attacks on British military personnel and property hoping to speed up the negotiation process.

A lot of proposals were put forward. Things like joint Anglo-Egyptian control, with British technicians teaching the technically incompetent Egyptians. Churchill insisted that the British troops left in the Canal be armed and in uniform.

To duplicate this enormous base, workshops, camps and RAF bases would mean enormous expenditure; was Britain willing to spend this amount of money to relocate?

The War Office, and the Foreign Office wanted a settlement soon. They were willing to offer British and American economic and military assistance, a gradual withdrawal of most, but not all, the British troops in return for maintenance of the bases and workshops, with the assistance of several thousand technicians. This would allow a quick return of Allied forces in event of a war. Egyptians, in turn, would join the Middle East Defence Organization.

To conclude the Anglo-Egyptian negotiations it was brought down to three points;

Case A: UK keeps control and 5000 technical personnel there.

Case B: UK leaves a small staff to supervise these installations.

Case C: Only a few inspectors would be left.

Lord Robertson, would try for case .A

The negotiating Team would be as follows;

1) Ambassador to Egypt Sir Ralph Stevenson

2) Co Delegate General Lord Robertson

From the start, the Egyptians started playing games. They broke the negotiations off when it was discovered that the US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was on a State Visit to Egypt and they hoped that there was a chance that he would take their side against the British, but it didn't happen.

The Egyptians now insisted that the entire base be under Egyptian control and that their Government have full control. In spite of their brave words they were not prepared to resort to force.

Talks again broke off and General Lord Robertson left for talks with Churchill. He had to somehow overcome the Egyptians natural reluctance to allow the British to re-occupy the base in case of war.

Great Britain needed an agreement because of the expense of other overseas commitments and even if we did stay until 1956, or re-occupy the Canal Zone without local co-operation, the base would be useless. At this point three courses were open

1) Tell the Egyptians to go to hell, which would result in an all-out war and the resulting expense.

2) Clear out lock, stock, and barrel.

3) Reach an agreement with Egypt.

By mid July 1953, the first unofficial meeting between the two sides came at a meeting at a dinner party at the house of the Pakistani Charge d' Áffair. Lord Robertson let the other side know, informally, what British policy was. It was that Britain's right to re-enter the base should be automatically reactivated if a major war broke out or if there was an attack or a threat of aggression against Egypt or any other of the Arab countries, including Turkey and Persia.

Two weeks and four meetings later there was no breakthrough. The Egyptians, under President Nasser, were proving to be formidable negotiators. There was a stalemate. The British armed forces would have to occupy the Delta and be targets for terrorists' attacks.

The press and outspoken speeches by politicians on both sides seemed to exacerbate the situation. There was no pretence of co-operation. Lord Robertson advised that the best Cabinet Minister be the one who sells the British/Egyptian Agreement to the press and the British public

Lord Robertson, over the months of negotiations, had developed a healthy respect for the Egyptian negotiators. Although at times they were ruthless, they were determined, lived austerely and put Egypt first.

The British final proposals were delivered to the Egyptian Government and no further talks were arranged. The second phase of the talks had been concluded.

Talks were concluded the following summer, with Nasser completely in charge and the Agreement was signed on the 27th July 1954, with the subsequent Treaty on 19th October 1954.

"The base was to be maintained by British and Egyptian technicians and it was to be reactivated in the event of an attack on Egypt, the Arab League or Turkey"

Anthony Eden told Lord Robertson that it couldn't have been done without him. Anthony Head confirmed the Agreement.

Lord Robertson was the only one to attend the ceremonies in Cairo to mark the final withdrawal of British forces from the Canal Zone and he attended as a counterweight to Shepelof, the Russian Foreign Minister.

John (Jock) Marrs


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