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Forgotten in Suez

I have not seen the original transcript of this article and regret I know nothing about its background, but have re-written it here as it appeared on the original SVA website.  I will be making enquiries to find details of the author and where it was first published etc. If, or when, I have this information I will add it to this heading.
Richard (Dick) W.  Webmaster.

Fifty years ago, parallel to Operation Kadesh, Britain and France began Operation Musketeer to invade the Suez Canal.  The Veterans remember the events and express protest at the Government's attitude.
Fifty years ago they were young soldiers who received an order to leave on a Military Operation far from home - to conquer the Suez Canal from the Egyptian ruler, Gamal Abdel Nasser.  Today these soldiers, all now passed the age of 70, look back and remember with pride, even if with some criticism, what has essentially become the last significant operation of the British Empire. "We went to serve the Country with no questions asked" they say, but add that "there isn't a lot of respect from the Government towards the ex-servicemen".

Operation Musketeer began on the 31st of October 1956, two days after the Israeli Operation Kadesh began, in the command of the British General Charles Keightley and the French Admiral Pierre Barjot - with the participation of 45 thousand British soldiers and 34 thousand French soldiers.  The purpose of the Operation was to take back the control over the Suez Canal which Nasser had nationalised in July 1956.

The beginning of the Operation was co-ordinated a few days earlier in a secret meeting in the town Sevres, close to Paris, which included the Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, the French Prime Minister Guy Alcide Mollet and the British Defence Minister.  The British Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, was in contact with thos present from London.

After five massive bombings of airports, train stations and other targets across Egypt, the Anglo-French forces landed in Port Said and Port Fuad in the northern part of the Suez Canal.  Only on the 5th of November, two days later, the two cities were conquered and the forces prepared to advance south.  However, international pressure brought to a UN resolution put an end to the war, and by the end of December the forces were cleared from Egyptian ground.

In Britain, until this day, the Operation is perceived as a failure, and thatis also how some soldiers see it.  In conversations with them their pain arises for not being appreciated by the Government for their devotion.  Even though fifty years have passed the soldiers reconstruct the events and the disappointment with great force, yet with restraint as suited for a British Officer, a gentleman.


David Newman, a pensioner in his seventies, grew up and was educated in Kent.  He now lives in London, is married and a father of two.  Even though he left the army years ago with three medals under his belt, he still has his military flags raised above his house.  "I am proud of that" he says in the kindliness of the elderly which posses good humour.  At the age of eighteen, Newman was part of the National recruitment when he was called to take part in the action in Egypt.  His force was one of the first forces to arrive to the region.  "We were charged with preparing the ground for the forces which were to come" he tells Maariv NRG.

William Avis, called 'Bill', was recruited during the National Emergency to serve in the Navy's Royal Engineers.  He noted down his experience in a personal journal.  "Arrived at Military docks at Southampton for Army Emergency Training for two weeks" he wrote.  "At Hampshire we were fitted with uniform and equipment and started to do Port Training duties once again, and waited to fly out to Egypt".

Both soldier's route to Egypt was through Cyprus, where still today, there is a British Military Base.  However, in contrast with the tranquillity which characterises the Mediterranean island today, at that time it was storming, the Gorilla group EOKA were fighting the British Colonial rule.  Avis continues to reconstruct, "Arrived at 4.00 a.m. at Nicosia, transported to camp near airport.  We were told there would be a briefing at 12 noon.  Before going to briefing we made some tea; while drinking the tea there was a terrible explosion blowing the roof off where we were having our briefing, troops in the canteen were badly injured and a few died, the EOKA terrorists had tied explosives to the chairs".  He believes the soldiers injured were those in the briefing.

Newman says that the terror today is not the terror of then, "The EOKA shot at us and bombed us but there weren't any suicide bombers then, what our forces are going through today is much harder" he says with a feeling of identifying with the young men serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Despite the terrorist's bombing the soldiers stayed in Cyprus.  "We had to leave the camp every night at great speed because we were fired on by EOKA snipers" he recalls "it was a very frightening time."


On the 3rd of November Avis's Regiment left Famagusta on a troopship called 'Empire Ken' and three days later arrived at Port Said.  "Our crafts, when we arrived at the shore line, came under fire from the Egyptians using Russian and Checkoslavian weapons".  This was just an opening shot for Avis and his comrades.  "Landing crafts arrived, we then went down the roped ladders onto the landing craft; when we arrived at the shore line we came under fire" he recalls.  "Soon as the front of the craft was forward Cpl John Fisher was told to fire at the buildings from where the Egyptians were firing at us."  The battle lasted several long moments and then suddenly stopped.  "We had time to find accommodation for our entire Unit.  We had to clear through the place.  Blood was everywhere, there was firing still going on at different times."  He tells how after settling down they got to work. "We started to unload ships carrying Jerry cans of water, petrol, diesel and other stores.  When we were not working aboard ships we were told to do patrol duties around Port Said".
At that time Newman was part of the Tank Regiment in the Port Said area, he tells that in addition to these duties they also dealt with patrol shifts of the area.


After the Military Operation was stopped and the UN soldiers arrived at the Canal region they began taking charge of the patrol replacing British and French soldiers, and thus Avis's crew could continue their work aboard the ships, parallel to this longing grew.  "We now saw some awful sights at Port Said and were looking forward to coming home" he said.  On the 16th of December they began their journey back home and reached Britain on the 22nd, but were not greeted.  "Arrived Portsmouth harbour but could not land because of the fog.  Eventually we landed.  The camp was closed for Christmas, nobody seemed to know we were coming home.  Our Commanding Officer telephoned the officer who was in charge of the camp and told him to open it up" Avis recalls.  After handing the equipment and kit, young Avis made his way home to the family.  "Arrived home early morning of 23rd December 1956, the family all asleep" he remembers, "they did not know I was coming home for Christmas or anytime".

Despite the criticism about the essence of the Operation, the soldiers do not regret taking part in it.  "We did our job, there is no room for emotions" Newman says, "we were sent by the Country to carry out a mission and it was upon us to carry it out, and we carried it out.  We went to serve the Country without questions about the essence of war, the governmental decisions and the politics",  With that, in Newman's opinion, Operation Suez was "a waste of time",  He adds, "we were there for a very short time and had many losses".  In total 22 British men and 10 French men were killed in Operation Musketeer.


Avis also asked himself if it was a waste of time, "I don't know; we were able to open the Suez Canal again" he says, but adds that 21 fighters were lost.  "The experience and comradeship I will never forget.  The comradeship awakes pride in Newman too. "A soldier would not inform on a soldier, and a soldier knew that what he had to do was help his comrades.  Everyone knew that sometimes unpleasant things had to be carried out, and of course no one wanted to report to the media on every issue".
However, the thing which disturbs these two Veterans, like their comrades, more than anything is the treatment by the Country. Three years after the Operation Newman was married and left the army, even though he was signed for another twenty years. "When I was discharged I was a nobody, I made my way through civilian life and worked for my living at different jobs".  He says, "There wasn't and there isn't  respect.  Soldiers who took part in wars for the sake of the Country, and weren't signed on for a military career had to find their own way through civilian life afterwards.  To see an ex-serviceman living in a cardboard box, homeless, is not something that should happen".


In 'Sapper' Dave's forum, Veterans which served in Suez gather.  Not just those who took part in Operation Musketeer.  Even though many of them left the Service years ago, the Military way is preserved.  This week when fifty years to the Operation is celebrated, the members of the forum were upset about the little public interest in their work at the Canal.  The BBC network which aired a series of programs about the Suez Crisis also received criticism.  One of the Veterans, Tony Tolan, protests against the one sided report of the events.  It appears that not only in Israel is this network perceived as one-sided.  "There is a programme currently running on BBC2 about Suez" Tolan told Maariv-NRG.  "We had a request from the BBC to supply information, and many Vets were interviewed, and when the programme was shown only one Vet appeared for a brief moment, the rest of the one hour was mainly Egyptian orientated, and we were made out the aggressors and the Egyptians brave freedom fighters".  Tolan's disappointment of the report expresses in his view the general disrespect towards those who risked their lives in devotion to the homeland.  It makes me question if it was worth the trouble, and I hope that you will give credit where credit is due" he said.  "to all those who lost their lives, not just in the invasion, but the troubled years before.  Our casualties were the eighth highest of any campaign since WW2".


During the conversations the connection between the Anglo-French Operation and the parallel war of Israel in Sinai came up.  "At least they are doing something to celebrate fifty years since Operation Musketeer.  Not much happening in this Country".  'Sapper' Dave wrote in a message he left on the forum. Tolan says, "I can understand that the invasion is the only connection the Israeli's have with Suez, and that they were waiting in the wings ready to move in the invasion was a success, but as history is told, it was the beginning of the end of British influence in the Middle East".  At a glance back it seems to Tolan that, "Things have not changed much today in that war torn area, and young British and Commonwealth troops are still dying there, so we have learned little from past experiences".  Newman tells that while he was doing his job in Suez he did not think about politics or Israel, but adds, "I have a lot of sympathy for Israel, and I get along well with Israelis and Jews".  Until this day the history of the Jewish people touches his heart.  "I am not religious and I think that Israel has a right to exist. Jesus was also a Jew" he says "in any case, I think that people should get off the backs of the Jews.  These people were in gas tanks.  They should be left alone and be let to live quietly in the Country they deserve by right.  And it is not that I have anything against the Arabs but it is about time to leave the Jews to lead their own lives" he concluded.

Yael Arava.  31st  October 2006.

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