Skip to 0 minutes and 6 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: Now when we consider the RAF in a global role, possibly the most contentious event that the RAF did participate in in the Cold War period is the Suez Crisis of 1956. Now Ross, when we consider the Suez Crisis, we might think about it as the last figurative flexing of imperial muscles by France and Britain. Diplomatically, it was something of a disaster.

Skip to 0 minutes and 38 secondsROSS MAHONEY: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, Operation Musketeer-- which was the code name for the operation against the Suez canal-- which is the largest operation in terms of Britain's limited wars in this period. And it is seen as a colonial operation. And it is that last-- lack of a better description-- hurrah --it's a realisation that Britain and France cannot act in a way that misaligns itself with, say for example, America. And that's not to say that there wasn't cause. The nationalisation of the Suez by Egypt in 1956, increasing communist aid to Egypt in this period, creates concern in Britain.

Skip to 1 minute and 25 secondsNot helped by the fact that in 1954 the Egyptian government abrogated on its treaty with Britain to allow bases in the Suez canal region until 1956. That changes. So that's the reason why the operation is launched. But of course, the outcome of that is that after seven days, the operation is ended because of pressure from America and the Soviet Union.

Skip to 1 minute and 51 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: Now in terms of the actual operation, how did the RAF participate in gaining control of the canal?

Skip to 2 minutes and 1 secondROSS MAHONEY: The RAF's primary role during Operation Musketeer is what we would refer to as a counter-air strategy. Its purpose was to gain air superiority over the canal. So this primarily meant medium-high level operations by aircraft such as the Canberra and the first of the RAF's V-force and the Vickers Valiant, and conducting precision bombing attacks against the airfields, and also low-level attacks by Canberras and by fighter bombers to take out the Egyptian Air Force. And roughly after about two days or so, the Egyptian Air Force's force of MiG-15s and Il-28s have been destroyed by the RAF, and also supported by the French Air Force as well.

Skip to 2 minutes and 43 secondsBut when the assault phase comes in terms of the operation-- the amphibious and airborne operation-- of course, the RAF is providing support in terms of its air transport fleet, conducting airborne operations over Suez, there are aircraft such as the Valetta supporting in that operation. Suez is a diplomatic disaster essentially for Britain. It essentially brings down the Eden government. How does Britain go about rebuilding those bridges with its major ally-- the USA?

Skip to 3 minutes and 11 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: Well, it doesn't take very long before cordial relations are reestablished. There are some readings of the history that says that Eisenhower was particularly annoyed at not being briefed about the Anglo-French proposal when France and Britain were working with Israel. So they could tell Israel, but they couldn't tell their major ally over the re-annexation of the canal. And there's a reading of the history which suggests that the back door channels through these sort of American officials, if that had been pushed forward and actually Eisenhower had been informed, there might have been a different response. That's counterfactual, so we can work on that.

Skip to 3 minutes and 57 secondsWe're going to talk in a couple of weeks' time about Eisenhower's desire to station nuclear-armed intermediate-range missiles in Britain. So very soon after the change of administration in Britain with Eden stepping down, you find Eisenhower engaging with the Conservative Party and Macmillan, starting to say, well, can we actually move this forward, can we reforge the alliance when it comes to the threat that we do consider to be the most obvious, which is the Soviet Union. So if you're looking at joint programmes, the development of missile technology and cooperation in the field via NATO, it doesn't take very long for the outrage of Suez to go away.

Skip to 4 minutes and 46 secondsThe main problem is that America is trying to encourage its allies, its Western allies after the Second World War, that maintaining empires is against the spirit of why America and the Allies fought the, quote, "good war" in Studs Terkel's phrase. So therefore actually having imperial powers, acting as an imperial powers, is something that the Americans couldn't easily publicly tolerate. That said, we move on reasonably rapidly.

Skip to 5 minutes and 23 secondsROSS MAHONEY: So the Suez Crisis-- an interesting case of the RAF as a force being used effectively, but illustrating the problems that diplomacy has on the conduct of campaigns and the problems that it creates for nations.

The Suez Crisis

An error in Egypt.

In this video we explore the questions and comments:

  1. The Suez crisis can be seen as the (last) flexing of French and British imperialism. Diplomatically, it was something of a disaster.

  2. How did the RAF participate in the attempts to retake the Canal?

  3. Suez drove a temporary rift with Eisenhower, and ended Anthony Eden’s political career. How were bridges built after Suez with our allies?

As ever, this is how Ross and I thought about shaping the discussions in the video. You, undoubtedly, will have your own questions for the comments.

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This video is from the free online course:

From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

Royal Holloway, University of London