November 2nd 1951 – Ist Infantry Division flown in to Egypt

Up to 6,000 British troops from the 1st Infantry Division were flown in to the Suez Canal Zone of Egypt as Egyptian resentment to the British presence in the area continued to grow. Royal Air Force Handley-Page Hastings and Vickers Valetta aircraft brought in most of the 3rd Battalion, Coldstream Guards from Tripoli in Libya as part of an effort to try to quell anti-British disturbances in the region although this would ultimately have the opposite effect.

In October 1951, the Egyptian government had dissolved the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, the terms of which granted Britain a lease on the Suez base for an additional 20 years. However Britain refused to withdraw her garrison from Suez citing that the original agreement still stood. Local Egyptians began to refuse to cooperate with British forces and there were numerous strikes amongst Egyptian workers servicing British assets along the canal.

In the first week of November additional men and equipment would arrive from the 3rd Battalion, Grenadier Guards and 1st Battalion, The Cameron Highlanders. Three weeks later, Britain was forced to move out thousands of its citizens trapped in their homes by sporadic gun battles between British soldiers and Egyptian security forces however British forces remained.

On January 25th 1952, British forces attempted to disarm Egyptian police officers at the barracks in Ismailia following repeated clashes. The police refused and in the gun battle that followed, 41 Egyptians were killed. This sparked anti-Western riots in Cairo which saw the deaths of several foreigners, including 11 British citizens, in retaliation. This proved to be a catalyst for the removal of the Egyptian monarchy which opened the door for a military coup by the Egyptian nationalist ‘Free Officers Movement’ on July 23rd 1952. Among its ranks was future Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser.

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The Last RAF Air-to-Air Loss

Please Note: There have been repeated claims that during the 1991 Gulf War an Iraqi MiG-29 shot down an RAF Tornado GR.1. These claims have never been fully substantiated and as such have been largely dismissed. For more information please read RAF Tornado Losses During Desert Storm

Canberra PR.7

English Electric Canberra PR.7 (airrecce.co.uk)

In the general mindset of the British population in the 21st century the 1956 Suez War has largely disappeared in to the abyss of ignorance save for those who have an interest in political and military history. In fact it was one of the most fundamental conflicts in British history because it coldly affirmed Britain’s new position in the post-World War II era and beyond as a second-rate power to the United States. The Empire was already beginning to fracture in to a series of newly-born republics or self-governed territories under the banner of the Commonwealth and the British people themselves were still reeling from the hardship of economic recovery. Given this backdrop it is therefore somewhat symbolic that it would be in this conflict that the Royal Air Force would lose its last aircraft to date in air-to-air combat.

The euphoria of victory against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan still lingered in the British consciousness even ten years after the cessation of the war. The old British sense of superiority in all endeavours seemed reinforced by the country’s thriving air industry that were churning out incredible aircraft that distracted the public from the still rather sorry state of many of the country’s bombed out cities and towns. While fighters still thrilled crowds at the Farnborough air shows the early 1950s actually saw a renaissance for the ‘bomber boys’ whose new mounts seemed light years ahead of the relatively slow and lumbering wartime Avro Lancasters and Handley-Page Halifaxes. These aircraft included the Vickers Valiant, the first V-Bomber designed to give Britain a nuclear knock-out punch, and the earlier English Electric Canberra medium bomber whose grace and performance particularly at altitude seemed to make it almost otherworldly. As crowds watched both the Canberra and the Valiant perform stunning displays at the 1956 air show few could have realized that both these aircraft would be in action by the end of the year.

On July 26th 1956 the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser announced his intention to nationalise the Suez Canal in response to the ongoing Arab conflict with Israel and western attempts to manipulate him in to Gamel Nassermaking peace with Jerusalem and effectively side with the West in the Cold War. His speech served as a codeword for the Egyptian armed forces to seize the canal and put it under Egyptian rule. This threatened British interests in the region and Britain along with France and Israel concocted a secret plan to retake the canal and oust Nasser from power. Under Operation Musketeer the three nations stunned the world with their assault beginning with the Israelis on October 29th 1956. The Anglo-French force arrived a few days later claiming to be acting in protection of the canal zone amid the fighting and began a massive air assault in preparation for the landings on November 6th. The Egyptians had been virtually routed but it was at this point that the fatal political hammer blow would come down on the operation and it came from Washington.

The British and French governments had made a catastrophic error in assuming they would get American support once the operation began but President Dwight D. Eisenhower was furious at being hoodwinked by his allies. World condemnation for the operation was swift and Eisenhower was not about to put America in to the political firing line having not even been consulted first. The Royal Navy had also used an exercise with American forces in the Mediterranean as cover for the build-up of British warships prior to the conflict which didn’t help matters.

Most seriously, as far as Eisenhower was concerned, was the fear that the operation would only push Egypt closer to the Soviet Union in the Cold War (which it largely did) and that it distracted from the more pressing situation in Hungary. The Hungarian Uprising, a nationwide revolt against the government of the Hungarian People’s Republic and its Soviet-imposed policies, broke out just days before the Israeli assault and threatened to destabilise Eastern Europe. The President therefore put his political foot down and demanded the British and French withdraw threatening to cut off financial aid if they didn’t which would have had disastrous consequences for both countries. The conflict officially ended on November 7th 1956 with the British and French withdrawing rather embarrassingly and with Nasser still in power.

Until the order to cease hostilities was given however the British armed forces committed to the fight continued on unabated. One such unit was the Royal Air Force’s No.13 Squadron operating the English Electric Canberra PR.7 out of RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. The Canberra PR.7 was the high altitude photographic reconnaissance variant of the Canberra being equipped with cameras and additional fuel in place of offensive weapons. No.13 Squadron and its resident sister Canberra unit, No.58 Squadron, had been heavily involved in the Suez Crisis from the beginning providing the vital intelligence needed by the Anglo-French forces to suppress the Egyptian Air Force and support the invasion force. With the troops now committed, their intelligence gathering efforts were needed more than ever to guarantee that the landings didn’t fall foul to an Egyptian counterattack.

Subsequently the Akrotiri Canberra squadrons conducted six sorties on November 6th including a long range mission that covered Syrian, Iraqi and Lebanese territory to investigate the amount of military support the Soviet Union was putting in to the region. Syria was a target for the Canberras because on October 25th 1956, days before the start of hostilities, Egypt signed a tripartite agreement with Syria and Jordan placing Nasser in effective command of all three armies. This reinforced his status as the world’s leading anti-Zionist leader but ultimately did little to benefit his forces on the battlefield who remained outclassed. The flight was nothing new to the Akrotiri Canberra squadrons and had become almost routine being referred to as a “milk run” by the crews. The flight path involved photographing Syrian bases at Lattakia, Alepo, Homs and Beirut as well as bases in northern Iraq. The flight path would take the aircraft to within five miles of Damascus which had been heavily fortified.

The designated Canberra left Akrotiri in the morning flying at medium altitudes using cloud to hide the aircraft. The Canberra flew its first leg over Iraq but upon crossing the border in to Syria near the city of Abu Kamal on the Euphrates River a security post spotted the aircraft and telephoned its position back to the Syrian Air Force. The air base at al-Mezze, south of Damascus, scrambled to get its squadron of Gloster Meteor F.8s in to the air to intercept the aircraft. Among the pilots who launched that day was Lieutenant Hafiz al-Asad, the future President of Syria and father of the current controversial Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Gloster Meteor Syria

Syrian Air Force Gloster Meteor F.8 (Wings Pallette) 

The RAF Canberra continued onwards but found that the cloud cover that had afforded them much of their protection was now obscuring their targets. To fly under the cloud would have been to court death and when the silhouettes of the British-built Meteors appeared the crew elected to cut their losses and turn back for Cyprus. The Syrian Meteors pursued the aircraft firing a burst of gunfire at the Canberra at extreme range but failed to find their mark. The Canberra returned to Cyprus with news that the mission was incomplete much to the frustration of the RAF commanders. It is likely that any information regarding the build-up of Soviet-supplied equipment was to be used in trying desperately to sway the Americans back on side because a second Canberra was almost immediately ordered in to the air to essentially repeat the mission.

The aircraft selected was Canberra PR.7 WH799 and the crew that were to fly it consisted of Flight Lieutenant Bernie Hunter as pilot and Flying Officer Roy Erquhart-Pullen as navigator. While reconnaissance Canberras generally flew with a crew of two a third crewmen joined them on this flight namely Flight Lieutenant Sam Small whose purpose was to get operational experience having only just arrived in Cyprus as part of a reinforcement contingent and perhaps more importantly provide an extra set of eyes in the cockpit.

The aircraft launched from RAF Akrotiri at around 1230hrs and proceeded on to the first leg of its mission. Like the previous mission the aircraft went in at around 12,000ft using clouds to mask its approach since even with ground radar stations guiding them the Syrian fighters and anti-aircraft gunners still needed to locate the aircraft visually since they lacked their own radars. Despite this however the aircraft was spotted by Syrian forces positioned around the port city of Lattakia and again the base at al-Mezze scrambled its Meteor F.8s in to the air to try and intercept.

The Canberra made its run over Aleppo but as the it approached Homs the Syrians were directed to climb above the Canberra which unfortunately had now lost its protection by a sudden break in the clouds. In the bulbous cockpit of the Canberra Flt Lt Small stood up alongside Hunter at the controls peering out in to an almost clear sky while Erquhart-Pullen was in the aircraft’s nose in the prone position. Small suddenly spied the unmistakable silhouettes of a pair of twin engined Meteors coming down on to them at a shallow angle.

In order to increase the closing speed and thus limit the time the defenceless Canberra was in the firing line, Hunter turned his aircraft in to the direction of the attacking Syrian fighters. The Syrian pilots squeezed off a few rounds in a desperate bid to hit the British aircraft but got nothing for their effort and passed by at high speed. Their only chance was to try and escape in to Lebanon using the cloud bank above them and so Hunter put the aircraft in to a climb but as he did, Small spotted a second pair of Meteors beginning their attack. Knowing that if he continued climbing then the Meteors would be presented with a clear shot Hunter turned in on the second pair. The second pair of Syrian Meteors opened up on the Canberra with their 20mm cannons as they passed but this time the Canberra’s starboard engine was hit.

The aircraft had been mortally wounded and was now becoming increasingly uncontrollable. Hunter knew the aircraft was doomed and ordered Erquhart-Pullen to return to the main cockpit and abandon the aircraft. Small strapped himself in to the navigator’s ejection seat and was soon launched out of the aircraft. Just why Erquhart-Pullen didn’t respond to Hunter’s instructions is unclear but he never returned to the rear cockpit. Hunter later said that he assumed Erquhart-Pullen had tried to bail out from the front because of a thudding noise he took to be him escaping. With the aircraft no longer flying, Hunter ejected from the aircraft leaving it to begin its final descent to the Earth below landing approximately one mile from the border with Lebanon.

Hunter, somewhat miraculously, landed on the Lebanese side of the border suffering a broken ankle. Small came down a short distance away from him and their two parachutes had attracted a lot of attention from locals who took them to be Israelis. Given the tension between the Arab world and Israel at the time the villagers became intent on venting their anger upon them until an English speaking teacher heard their pleas and managed to calm the crowd down. However, they were still marched by the crowd to a nearby Syrian border post where they were handed over. After a few days of questioning they were met by British officials who arranged to have them taken back to Cyprus by boat.

Flying Officer Roy Erquhart-Pullen’s body was found in the wreckage of the aircraft. It’s possible a stray shell from the attacking Meteors had killed or incapacitated him during the attack. The RAF were criticised by politicians and observers over the incident. The biggest criticism was that an undefended Canberra was instructed to repeat a previous mission that had ended with an interception and had therefore left the Syrians on high alert ready for a follow-up aircraft.

The shooting down of Canberra WH799 was the last time (thus far) that an RAF aircraft was shot down by a hostile fighter in combat. The day after the incident the ceasefire was declared and shortly after that the British and French began their withdrawal amid a new air of Anglo-US hostility that would only be repaired by the need to face an increasingly hostile Soviet Union.

 

Bombardment of Alexandria 1882

Bombardment_of_Alexandria

Up until the Second World War, Egypt had been one of the most important North African posts within the British Empire. It had gained a new importance with the opening of the French-financed Suez Canal on the 17th September 1869 which took off over 4,000 miles of the journey to India and Britain’s Far East possessions. Britain was initially against the opening of the canal for fear it may be used by France to challenge her regional superiority however it was a British warship, HMS Newport, that was the first ship through the canal.

Britain too had strong interests in Egypt and financed many projects that returned a profit for the treasury including the construction of an extensive railway system. At this time Egypt was under the leadership of the Khedives from the Muhammad Ali Dynasty. Seeing profit in working with the European powers the family cooperated with the British and French by authorizing such large scale projects such as the Suez Canal and the rail network as well as providing large numbers of slaves to work on them.

Tewfik Pasha

Tewfik Pasha & Ahmed ‘Urabi

In 1879 the throne passed to Tewfik Pasha and he continued the policy of cooperation but a growing nationalist movement was under way in his country that resented the influence the foreigners were having on Egypt. Leader of this movement was Ahmed ‘Urabi (sometimes known as Ahmad Arabi or Arabi Pasha), an officer in the Egyptian Army who led a mutiny against Tewfik’s rule. Tewfik tried to counter this uprising for fear of looking weak in front of his naturally nervous foreign supporters but the sides in Egypt were rather equally divided. Tewfik therefore agreed to reform his cabinet with a number of ‘Urabi’s supporters holding positions. This did little to curb ‘Urabi’s nationalist movement however and by 1882 he was the de facto head of the Egyptian government.

In June 1882 Urabi’s displeasure at foreign nationals took fruition as he organized a force to march on the port city of Alexandria where a large number of British and French were living. By this time Britain had purchased the Khedive’s share in the Suez Canal and was an equal partner to France in its operation. In what was labelled as anti-Christian rioting by the British press the nationalist supporters forced out British, French and any other non-Egyptian or non-Muslim from the city. Knowing the European powers were responding by sending warships to Alexandria, ‘Urabi then began fortifying the city in preparation for what seemed to be an inevitable confrontation.

The warships sent to Alexandria were of an Anglo-French force and their standing orders were to protect British and French citizens; orders which were open to interpretation with regards to execution. Leading the British fleet was Admiral Frederick Beauchamp Seymour aboard his flagship, HMS Invincible, who had held the post of Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet since 1880. He had therefore kept abreast of events in Egypt and upon learning of the increasing fortifications at Alexandria believed that they would be used to fire on their warships the moment they entered harbour. He therefore issued an ultimatum on the 10th July 1882 to ‘Urabi’s forces demanding they withdraw from the fortifications or they would be bombarded.

HMS Invincible

HMS Invincible – Admiral Seymour’s Flagship

It was at this point that the united front Britain and France were portraying collapsed. Political unrest in France meant that the French Navy was hoping to avoid a fight in case it had to be recalled home and were furious that Seymour had taken it upon himself to issue the ultimatum. They informed him that if the British fully intended to commit to a bombardment that the French fleet would have no part in it and would retreat to Port Said until the exchange stopped. This left Seymour and his force of 16 warships to carry out the bombardment alone. When ‘Urabi learned of this he felt his position had been reinforced believing that either the British were bluffing or that his own forces could repel the ships of the British Mediterranean Fleet. Either way the ultimatum passed and the nationalist forces remained in place. An incensed Seymour, whose honour was now at stake and was still acting under orders that allowed him to do what he felt was necessary, signalled from Invincible for the bombardment to commence at 0700 on July 11th 1882.

From an historical point of view Seymour’s fleet was a fascinating one as it aptly displayed the changing nature of warship design and technology of the era. Gone were the magnificently crafted wooden ships-of-the-line with their immense sails and two decks of muzzle loaded cannon balls. On the surface Seymour’s ships certainly resembled those days but now they were clad in iron armour and had much improved weapons but perhaps even more significantly they were all now powered by a mix of traditional sail and the revolutionary steam power. At the time the Admiralty saw the advantages in steam such as speed and manoeuvrability but didn’t trust its reliability and disliked the limited range compared to sail. Therefore sailing rigs were retained for long distances (with the steam used when the wind was low or combat was expected) and as a back up should the steam engines fail which was surprisingly often in those early days. Some ships such as HMS Monarch also had the first large naval turrets for ocean going use. An interesting addition to the fleet although one which played little part in the bombardment was HMS Hecla, a high speed torpedo boat!

HMS Alexandra

HMS Alexandra

Upon the passing of the deadline, Seymour ordered HMS Alexandra to commence the first attack by shelling the fort at Ras-el-tin. The Alexandra was a central battery ironclad armed with two 11-inch and ten 10-inch guns. Alexandra closed in and fired on the fort which in turn retaliated and was followed with shelling by HMS Sultan and Superb. The obvious advantage enjoyed by a warship over a fort is that it can remain mobile and therefore provide a difficult target. However during the bombardment of Ras-el-tin it was found that the gun crews had difficulty in properly aiming at the fort with shells landing short, too far or on parts of the fort already hit. Therefore by 0940hrs the order was given to bring the ships to a halt and fire a planned-out artillery barrage at the fort. While this improved accuracy it also made the warships more vulnerable and Alexandra took several hits. It would not be until the arrival of HMS Inflexible that the fort’s guns were finally suppressed. It was not the best start.

Further along the coast, HMS Invincible and HMS Temeraire began their attack on the fortifications around the Mex Citadel. Temeraire fired salvoes of 10- and 11-inch ammunition from her rifled guns with a fair degree of accuracy. Invincible supported the attack but occasionally turned guns on the troublesome Ras-el-tin fort to support Alexandra. Meanwhile a small number of the main force fired from long ranges with mixed success. Then disaster struck as Temeraire hit a previously uncharted reef grounding her but fortunately not causing any significant damage to the hull. She was nevertheless a sitting duck to the shore batteries who sensed an opportunity.

HMS Condor

HMS Condor

The grounding was witnessed by HMS Condor, commanded by Lord Charles Bereford, who ordered his ship to steam to Termeraire’s assistance. HMS Condor was categorized as a composite gun vessel which is broadly equivalent to a modern day gunboat in that her size and armament was relatively light and more suited to security missions than bombarding Egyptian forts. Her armament comprised of one 7-inch muzzle loaded gun and two 64-pdr muzzle loaded guns. She displaced just 774 tons compared to Temeraire’s 8,500 tons but nevertheless the two crews persisted and together they pulled Termeraire off the reef and continued their attack on the forts.

With the bulk of the Royal Navy force firing at long ranges to distract or suppress the guns of the main fortifications, three ships – HMS Condor, HMS Monarch and HMS Penelope – were ordered to close in on the nearby forts at Mars-el-kanat and Fort Marabout. Firing from a much shorter range they produced more accurate results. At this point Admiral Seymour’s flagship, HMS Invincible, had strayed into range of the guns at Fort Marabout and sensing an opportunity the Egyptian gunners fired relentlessly at the large British battleship. HMS Condor decided to go to her flagship’s aid and steamed inland to offer an easier target while at the same time firing accurate shells at each of the fort’s gun emplacements. Having saved a second ship and successfully suppressing the gun emplacements at Fort Marabout, Seymour signalled from Invincible “Well done Condor.”

Bombardment of AlexandriaIt was now early afternoon and both sides were trying to take stock of the situation. The forts at Ras-el-tin, the Mex Citadel, Mars-el-kanat and Fort Marabout had all taken a heavy pounding and were either destroyed or their occupiers had retreated. At 1330hrs HMS Superb was shelling a fifth fort, Fort Adda, when a direct hit on stacked ammunition caused an immense explosion that put the entire fort out of action. In the chaos of the fighting the Egyptians had observed several British ships such as the Alexandra receive hits and somehow came to the conclusion that three British warships had been sunk. While the Royal Navy had taken hits from defensive batteries the entire force was still operational.

The British did have a problem however; they had expended a large quantity of their ammunition. Having suppressed the main fortifications he had intended to, Seymour elected to pull his ships back to the open sea and assess the overall condition of his fleet. Despite some casualties the fleet had come out of the action relatively intact. With the fires from the damaged or destroyed forts still burning Seymour decided to wait until the next day to launch a reconnaissance operation to asses the results of the bombardment.

HMS Temeraire

HMS Temeraire

HMS Temeraire was chosen to lead the reconnaissance mission and in the early hours of the morning of the 12th July 1882 the ship returned to the waters off Alexandria. Her lookouts observed that some of the defences were being rebuilt by ‘Uradi’s men and upon reporting this back to Seymour he ordered that Tameraire and Inflexible should return and bombard them again. At 1030hrs the two ships fired on the rebuilt defences. ‘Urabi’s men were not as determined to resist for a second day and within twenty minutes flags of truce appeared on the shore and the bombardment stopped.

An Egyptian boat carrying representatives of ‘Urabi’s government sailed out to the British fleet to begin negotiations. These negotiations failed miserably as neither side were willing to submit. Therefore in late afternoon the bombardment resumed however the spirited defence the British had encountered the day before had gone and many of the forts, against ‘Urabi’s wishes, flew the white flag and were therefore not attacked. As late afternoon gave way to night large numbers of ‘Urabi’s men abandoned their posts believing a British invasion was imminent. With no law in place in Alexandria they went on an orgy of looting and arson.

Seymour had a contingent of Royal Marines at his command but refused to land them until the situation on shore had been established. It would not be until two days later, the 14th July 1882, that he finally took his ships inland and landed his troops. Instead of fighting ‘Urabi’s men the Royal Marines found themselves fighting off bands of looters. Nevertheless Seymour had achieved his goal of securing Alexandria.

There was much criticism of Seymour’s actions after the event. Some were furious that he took it upon himself to effectively make up Britain’s foreign policy, that of armed intervention, regarding Egypt on his own. Some also accused him of exaggerating the strength and threat the fortifications presented to British interests in the region. Others however have argued in his defence stating that even if he had attempted a more diplomatic approach it would only have delayed the inevitable confrontation by which time ‘Urabi’s men would have been even stronger. Either way the event cost Seymour’s force ten men dead and 27 wounded. The number of Egyptians killed in the bombardment and in the chaos of the following two days before Royal Marines restored order is thought to be much higher.

If a hero was to emerge from the whole affair then the title has to go to Lord Charles Bereford, captain of HMS Condor who rescued the grounded Temeraire and then came to the defence of the flagship Invincible. Proof that even in the Victorian era it was not always the biggest ships that had the glory. Despite resistance from the British government under William Gladstone, British troops were eventually landed in Egypt and ‘Urabi’s revolt was crushed once and for all. Tewfik Pasha was restored as head of the Egyptian government and Egypt became a British protectorate. Among the officers of the Army embarked upon this mission was a brash young Lieutenant named Winston Spencer Churchill.