1950-1959 | Egypt

Ministers unable to say if Britain is at war as Cairo Airport is bombed

An RAF Vickers Valiant bomber. The RAF deliberately attacked civilian targets in Cairo –
Source: Wikimedia – San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives.

1 November 1956

On 1 November 1956, an editorial in the Daily Mail was headlined ‘Britain at War’, however neither Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd nor Minister of Defence Antony Head were able to confirm whether or not the country was actually at war with Egypt. The infuriating lack of clarity fomented consternation among MPs and the speaker was forced to suspend the session.1 Egyptians, however, had little doubt. They had been heavily bombed by British Canberra and Valiant aircraft since the day before.  Although Egypt’s navy and air force were initially the intended targets, bombs fell on Cairo’s international airport instead of the Al Maza military aerodrome. The following day, the RAF deliberately attacked other civilian targets including Cairo Radio, despite the risk of large numbers of casualties. The British government expected the bombing to incite chaos in Cairo. Such hopes were ill-founded and the British ambassador was disappointed to report no obvious sign of panic or disorder on the Egyptian capital’s streets.2

The writer Frances Partridge noted in her diary, ‘We have started bombing again, and no one is on our side. America (and) even our colonies repudiate us. I feel extremely fatalistic about the whole thing – only a sort of contempt for anyone who holds the belief that you can solve problems by killing people. Ralph bought all the papers he could get.  Today’s had pictures of smug-looking airmen tucking into bacon and eggs after bombing some Egyptians.’3

The  bombing campaign had been ordered by Prime Minister Anthony Eden as a prelude for the military seizure of Egypt’s Suez Canal, which Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had just nationalized.  Though Nasser promised to keep the canal open to shipping of all nations, he infuriated Eden by insisting on exercising what he believed was Egypt’s right of ownership over the canal. It was, after all, the country’s most important strategic and economic asset, and so long as its control was in foreign hands, Egypt had little chance of pursuing a course of independent economic development.

FOOTNOTES

  1. Tony Shaw, Eden, Suez and the Mass Media: Propaganda and Persuasion During the Suez Crisis, I.B. Tauris, London 2009, p. 74.
  2. Mohamed H. Heikal, Cutting the Lion’s Tail: Suez Through Egyptian Eyes, Corgi Books, Lonodn 1986 p. 195 and p. 203.
  3. Travis Elborough (Editor), Our History of the 20th Century: As Told in Dairies, Journals and Letters, Michael O’Mara Books Limited, London 2017 p. 267.

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