Middle East Database
The Road to War
The roots of the Suez Crisis were the British and French wish to keep the Suez Canal under their control, as well as the protracted animosity between the Arabs – disappointed by the results of the war in 1948 – and the Israelis, which wanted to secure their position due to being surrounded by enemies.
Despite two treaties – one from 1936, and another from 1946 – which saw a complete British pull-out from Egypt by 1949, the British troops remained stationed in the country well into the 1950s, despite increasing problems this caused in their relations with the new government in Cairo, lead by several former officers of the Egyptian Army, that established itself in power during a coup in October 1952. The new Egyptian government signed a new treaty with the British, which saw a pull out of remaining troops by 1956. In exchange, the Egyptian military was to be made capable of defending the Suez Canal, which the British considered as of their vital interests because of the trade ways into the Middle and the Far East. The British were therefore to be the main supplier of arms for Egypt, but, their governments repeatedly postponed the shipments of ordered weapons – foremost a larger number of DeHavilland Vampire and Gloster Meteor fighters for the Egyptian Air Force – and their instructors were advised not to train their Egyptian pupils in more than only basic combat skills. In part this was motivated by the constant tensions between Egypt and Israel, as well as the British wish to keep the Egyptians dependable on their help. The Egyptians, however, had different ideas about the development of their military.
|This Italian-built Vampire FB.52, "1563" is seen after its delivery to Egypt. In order to evade the British arms embargo, the Egyptians clandestinely purchased 58 Vampires from Italy, where these were built by FIAT. Before delivery, these aircraft were painted in Syrian markings. The first series wore EAF serials 1524 and 1529 thru 1540, initially applied in the Latin digits; later also Arabi serials were applied over these. The serials of the others remain unknown. Italian-built Vampires could be distinguished by the large black anti-glare pannel in front of the cockpit, which was not removed during their short active service with the EAF: considered obsolete even by the Egyptians by 1955, most were apparently given to the Bilbeis Air Academy, and then destroyed by the Anglo-French air strikes. (EAF, via Dr. David Nicolle)|
In September 1955, namely, just as Egypt finally started receiving first larger numbers of Vampire FB.52 fighters from Italy and the UK, tensions with Israel lead to the Egyptians declaring a naval blockade of the Tiran Straits for all the ships bound for the only Israeli Port in the Red Sea, Eilat, strategically important for the Israeli capability to import oil. The Israeli military immediately started preparations for an attack against the Egyptian troops in Sinai, however, after some time it became clear to the Israelis that they lacked a strength to win such a war, foremost due to the lack of modern combat aircraft. The Egyptians also considered themselves not ready for a war and wanted not only to increase their forces, but also to modernize them. As the British continued to deliver the ordered arms only sporadically, the Egyptian President Nasser turned to the USA with a request for help. This was turned down, and finally the Egyptians found help on the „other side“: in Czechoslovakia and the USSR. On 27 September 1955 Cairo concluded a contract with Prague for deliveries of 86 MiG-15 and MiG-15UTI interceptors, 39 Ilushin Il-28 bombers, 20 Il-14 transports, 20 Avia C-11 trainers, as well as 200 T-34 tanks and other weaponry. Only few days later the first Czech and Soviet instructors started arriving in Egypt, and it did took much longer until the orders were increased to include also the first MiG-17s, and over 100 MiG-15s.
|During the display in Almaza, probably in September 1956, all the new types of aircraft purchased from Czechoslovakia and the USSR were shown, including - clockwise: MiG-17F, MiG-15bis, Il-28, Yak-11, Zlin 226, and two Mi-1 helicopters. (EAF, via Tom Cooper)|
The arrival of the MiG-15s in Egypt started changing the strategic situation in the area considerably. By the time the western powers tried to keep a kind of a military balance in the Middle East by delivering – if at all – only obsolete weaponry to both, the Arabs and Israel. But, now other aspects became important as well: the Egyptians were also supporting the Algerian resistance against the French, and thus antagonizing Paris. Consequently, it did not take much longer until good relationship was established between France and Israel. Within few weeks, an Israeli delegation arrived in France to test several fighters, which were in production by the Dassault company: this was already producing a simple fighter jet called Ouragan, and working on the development of the Mystére II. As the Mystéres were neither ready nor satisfying for the Israeli needs a decision was taken to deliver 12 Ouragans to the IDF/AF: these were no match for MiG-15s, but so the Israelis could train their pilots on French jet fighters in anticipation of better French aircraft.
|Row of Israeli Ouragans, showing the mix of camouflaged and non-camouflaged aircraft. The Ouragan proved maneuvreable at low level and suitable as a firing platform during the war, and the Israelis were to purchase 24 additional examples after the war. (IDF)|
Earlier, the British have re-started deliveries of Meteor fighters to Egypt in a vain try to bring Cairo again to their side. Already in early 1955 they have supplied six Meteor NF.13s to the EAF, which enabled the Egyptians to form a night-fighter squadron. Also, the remaining RAF units in Egypt were advised to improve the training of Egyptian pilots. Nevertheless, it was too late: in October 1955 the first MiG-15s were delivered to Egypt, and entered the service with the 1 and 30 Sqn, based at Almaza AB, near Cairo. At the same time, the 9 Sqn EAF was equipped with Il-28 bombers.
|A formation of five brand-new EAF Il-28 bombers, seen at low level over Cairo during a parade in September 1956. As it seems the EAF Il-28s were initially not given serials, but wore code-letters, like E, F, N etc. instead. (EAF)|
The fast influx of many MiGs and Ilushins caused considerable problems for the Egyptians: for years, their training was lagging, but now a large number of completely unknown aircraft was to be made operational, and personnel trained on them. The High Command of the Egyptian military was aware of the problems, but also sure to be able to solve them if there would be enough time. The time was, however, something the Egyptians were soon to lack. By the early 1956, namely, the situation changed in so far that the cooperation between France and Israel reached a point where the IDF/AF and the whole Israeli military were to be considerably reinforced. In May 18 Dassault Mystére IVA fighters were purchased and the Israeli Air Force immediately started re-qualifying a number of Ouragan-pilots on them. Within only few months, the cooperation with France – which was already deeply involved in planning an invasion along the Suez Canal – improved so far, that in August 36 additional Mystéres and six Ouragans were delivered. Simultaneously, also three Gloster Meteor NF.13s were purchased in the UK.
|Mystére IVA of the 101 Sqn, seen shortly before the "Suez Campaign" - as the Israelis call the war in 1956. With the acquizition of the Mystéres, the IDF/AF for the first time had a fighter equal - if not slightly superior - to the enemy top fighters. (IDF)|
In June 1956 the last British troops have left Egypt: the government in London was not the least happy about this fact, but now several heavy blows were to follow. Only one month later the USA cancelled their financial support for the building of the huge Aswan Dam: in response the Egyptian government nationalized the possession of the Suez Canal Corporation, which controlled the strategically important waterway. This caused a shock in the UK, and immediately preparations for an intervention in Egypt were initiated. The French were highly interested to participate as well, and so a joint Operation came into being, initially called „Railcar“, and including some 80.000 troops, which were to capture Alexandria and then march on Cairo. But, later this plan was changed to an occupation of the Suez Canal area, and the establishment of air superiority over Egypt, with the final result of removing the government of President Nasser. After many changes, a new plan resulted in the Operation „Musketeer“, which was to have two phases: during the first phase certain military installations were to be neutralized by massive air strikes, and in the phase two an invasion of the narrow zone along the Canal was to follow. Now only a „direct cause“ for such an operation was needed.
On 1 September 1956 the French suggested the involvement of Israel. The British were reluctant: their relations with Israel were conflicting, and they were not interested in the spread of the Israeli influence in the Middle East. But, by 29th of the same month a decision was taken and the Israelis involved in the planning. The final version of the Operation „Musketeer“ was agreed on a series of secret meetings between the 22 and 24 October, held near Paris: it included an initial Israeli attack against the Egyptian troops on Sinai, which would be followed by a Franco-British ultimatum on both sides – the Egyptians and the Israelis – to stop fighting and pull at least 18km away from the Suez so to ensure the safety of the international shipping. It was clear the Egyptians could not accept such an ultimatum – and therefore would deliver a reason for an intervention by France and the UK. This, of course, was strictly kept secret from the public: the British wanted to remain influential in Arab countries and were skeptical towards the Israelis to such a degree, that they prepared plans for the case Israel would start an attack against Jordan, code-named „Cordage“. This plan saw a deployment of Venom FB.4 fighters to Amman and eventual massive strikes against the IDF/AF from the airfields on Malta and Cyprus. In the end, the British officers briefed for both contingencies – Musketeer and Cordage – would not know what exactly they were about to do until some 24 hours before they went into action.
With the involvement of Israel in the planning of Musketeer, the IDF/AF had to be considerably reinforced. Despite deliveries of the first 36 Mystére IVs in the spring of 1956, it was still far fro being ready. Therefore, the French supplied 12 more Ouragans and 23 additional Mystére IVAs. By mid-1956 the Israeli Air Force therefore boasted no less but 176 combat aircraft, of which 112 were jets. Due to massive French deliveries, the 101 Sqn was reinforced to no less but 52 Mystére IVAs, but had only 16 qualified pilots for them. Additional were to be trained in crash-courses. The 113 Sqn flew 24 Ouragans, the 115 and 117 Meteors, while two other units were equipped with Mustangs. A single transport unit flew C-47/Dakotas and a number of Noratlas‘. In total, there were 131 qualified pilots in the IDF/AF of which by late October only 53 were qualified on jets. The commanders of the IDF/AF thought they could deal with the Egyptians alone and destroy the EAF without any help from the outside. Clearly, the French and the British had their doubts about this idea, and considered the IDF/AF not even capable of defending the Israeli airspace if having to face the EAF: the Israeli politicians shared their opinions. Consequently, and because the British were also not glad about a considerable number of French fighters being stationed at Cyprus, a decision was taken several units of the French Air Force to deploy to Israel: on 23 October 18 Mystére IVA of the EC.1/2 Cigone, EC.2/2 Cote d’Or and EC.3/2 Alsace were deployed to Haifa. These aircraft were painted in Israeli markings and formed the fake 199 Sqn IDF/AF. Additional French pilots were to fly surplus Israeli Mystéres in the case of emergency. One day later also 18 Republic F-84F Thunderstreaks of the EC.1/1 Corse, EC.2/1 Morvan, and EC.3/1 Argonne, arrived – via Cyprus – in Israel. They formed the fake 200 Sqn IDF/AF. The commander of the French contingent in Israel became Col. Perdrizet, while the commander of the two flying units was Cdt. Perseval. The task of the French in Israel was foremost of defensive nature: they were to prevent Egyptian Il-28s from attacking Israeli cities. But, during the conflict they were to become more active than that: after all, the final version of the „Musketeer“ planned the EAF to be destroyed by the British and French air strikes.
There was a considerable urgency for the British and the French to indeed destroy the EAF early during the Operation „Musketeer“ and to do so – if possible at all – on the ground. The reason was, that not only was not a single fighter in the British, French, and the Israeli service capable of matching the new Egyptian MiG-15 in the air, but also that the airfields in Cyprus and Israel were well inside the range of the EAF Il-28 bombers, and – especially those on Cyprus – overcrowded by British and French aircraft.
In fact, the EAF was not yet as dangerous. In the late summer 1956, it was commanded by Air Vice Marshall Sodky, and boasted some 6.400 personnel deployed in two commands: the Eastern, responsible for the border to Israel and Sinai, and the Central, defending the Nile Delta and Cairo. The EAF was still in the middle of transition from some 90 Vampires and 30 Meteor fighters it possessed to roughly 120 MiG-15s and MiG-17s, while simultaneously also under the stress from the need to continue routine operations, while lacking technical personnel. This was to have a serious impact on the operationality of the service, and only some 60% of aircraft could be considered operational at any given time. The 2nd Sqn EAF, for example, had still 18 operational and 12 stored Vampires, and had to hold a detachment at el-Arish AB, in order to face the Israelis, but simultaneously also defend the 39 Il-28 bombers (of which 24 were operational) of the 8 and 9 Sqn, based at Inchas. The 30 Sqn, based at Deverosoir, just finished the initial conversion to MiG-15s, but was not yet fully operational. Two other fighter units were in the process of conversion to the MiG-15s (of which some 69 were operational in total), while the 1 Sqn – based at Deverosoir – was in the middle of conversion to the first 12 MiG-17s.
|Between October 1955 and early November 1956, the EAF acquired between six and 12 MiG-17Fs, and the 1st Sqn was in the process of conversion to the type when the British and French attacked Egypt. The brand-new MiG-17s were flown in combat, and saw at least one air battle with the Israeli fighters. Later also the Soviet "instructors" flew them in a battle against the British. Apparently, most of the MiG-17s survived the war; they have got the new Egyptian markings - consisting of the red-white-black roundels and fin-flashes - immediately after. (EAF, via Dr. David Nicolle)|
In total, by late October 1956 the EAF had no less but 150 operational jet fighters, 39 jet bombers, and 440 pilots – of which some 110 were qualified on MiGs and Ilushins. Even more important, the Czechs and the Soviets have started building comprehensive radar net, including no less but 60 radars and several air-defense centers, which covered most of the airspace over northern Egypt. The whole net was not operational by the time the war broke out, but the EAF could certainly not be ignored.
Compared with each other, the Egyptians and Israelis were roughly equally experienced: the EAF flew better aircraft, but its pilots lacked air-combat maneuvering and gunnery training, while the Israelis were less disciplined – but slightly more aggressive – pilots. Combined with their Israeli pilots, the Mystéres of the IDF/AF were certainly more dangerous in air combats than MiG-15s and MiG-17s, but not that superior as usually described, as the MiGs were slightly more maneuverable and had a better climb rate. On the other side, the EAF had a considerable advantage in air-to-ground role, as it could deploy a larger number of jet fighters equipped with powerful guns: these were less likely to be hit from the ground than the Israeli P-51 Mustangs, and certainly less vulnerable to combat damage than either the Israeli Mystéres, Ouragans, or Mustangs. Both the Israelis and the Egyptians were inexperienced when it came to their brand-new jet fighters.
The Royal Air Force and the French Armeé de’l Air, as well as the Fleet Air Arm and the Aéronavale, of course, were – combined – much more powerful than the EAF, even if none of the types deployed by them was superior to the MiGs on 1:1 basis: although the F-84Fs were faster than the MiGs, they were less maneuverable and not as well armed. On the contrary, the main British fighters – RAF’s Venoms and FAA’s Sea Venoms and Sea Hawks – were definitively underdogs when compared to the MiGs. Also, especially the overcrowded British bases on Cyprus were highly vulnerable to any air attacks, while the same could be said also for the combined British and French fleets – if deliberately attacked by a larger force. Therefore, it was obvious that the British and French had to destroy the EAF on the ground if they were to establish any kind of air superiority needed for an operation the kind of the „Musketeer“.
The British and French „Musketeers“
It is interesting to note that despite the good relationship between the Egyptians and the anti-British resistance movement against the British on Cyprus the Cypriots failed to notice the massive military reinforcements which started arriving at the three large British bases on this island: Cairo was to be taken completely by surprise when the attacks by tactical aircraft stationed at this island and Malta came. This is especially surprising given that the British started their preparations already in early August when the first Canberra and Valiant bombers were deployed to Malta, and then an increasing number of tactical aircraft started arriving on Cyprus until the airfields there were clogged with different fighters and bombers: by late October, there were no less but 112 combat aircraft at Akrotiri, 127 on Nicosia, and 46 in Tymbou. These included two squadrons of brand-new Hawker Hunter F.Mk.1 interceptors and one with Meteor NF.13 night-fighters, three units with some 36 DeHavilland Venom fighter-bombers, as well as 60 French F-84Fs and 16 RF-84Fs. On Cyprus also shorter-ranged English Electric Canberra B.Mk.2 bombers were stationed, which were foremost to mark targets for Vickers Valiant and Canberra bombers based on Malta.
Meanwhile, on the sea a huge invasion fleet was gathered as well. In August 1956 the Royal Navy (RN) had only one operational aircraft carrier: the brand-new HMS Eagle. Two months later, however, several additional carriers were readied. The HMS Bulwark initially sortied without any air complement, simply in order to give the crew some training. The HMS Centaur was in dry-dock and could not be made operational in time, and the HMS Albion was in the finishing stages of a complex refurbishment, and now used to ferry troops and equipment to Malta. Nevertheless, the Eagle, Bulwark, and Albion were to become fully operational by the time Musketeer was about to start. In total 163 fighter jets were based on them, including 117 Hawker Sea Hawks, Sea Venoms, and Wyvrens. Additionally, the HMS Theseus and HMS Ocean were to act as troop-transports, but then the British developed a revolutionary idea in regards to development of carrier operations: in order to fasten and ease the disembarkation of the troops from these two ships, they equipped each with around a dozen of helicopters, which were to fly the soldiers to the shores. Thus came a completely new and original tactical doctrine – the one of the „vertical deployment“, now so frequently used by the US and British marines – into existence. Together with the five British carriers, also an invasion fleet of five cruisers, 13 destroyers, six frigates and five submarines, as well as some 60 other ships sortied from Malta on the evening of 30 October 1956.
The French had enough ships for Musketeer, even if these had to cross larger distances in order to reach the operational area, as most were at the time involved in the war in Indochina. When the French Task Force sailed from Cap Bone, in Algeria, on 27 October, it included the carriers Arromanches (purchased from the British, in 1948), and LaFayette (loaned from the USA, in 1951), which operated relatively obsolete F-4 Corsair propeller-driven fighter-bombers and few TBD Avenger ASW aircraft. Furthermore, the French Navy deployed its last battleship, Richellieu, and 20 other escorts and supply ships.
But, there was another naval force active in the Eastern Mediterranean as well: the US 6th Fleet, which had a large carrier battle group, cantered around the USS Coral Sea (CVB-43) and USS Randolph (CVA-15), as well as the cruiser USS Salem (CA-138). The Americans knew about the British and French deployment but would not reveal it to the public, nor do anything directly against the French or British ships – at least not for the start: their ships – and almost 200 embarked aircraft and helicopters – were in the area, and were to monitor the developments very closely.
The Israeli participaton in this operation was code-named „Kadesh“, and it saw an initial strike with six infantry, two mechanized and one armored brigade, as well a single brigade of paratroopers, deep into the Sinai, under the explanation of another „anti-terror“ mission, with an eventual option of a foray towards the Suez. The IDF/AF was to play a highly important role, foremost by neutralizing the EAF over the Sinai, and preventing it to disturb the Israeli troops on the ground, which were to make a swift advance along three exposed routes: one from Gaza, via Rafah and el-Arish to el-Qantara; the other from Beersheba, via Abu Agheila, and Bir Jifjafa to Ismailia; the third was the most problematic, and went from Kuntila, via Themed, Nakhle, and the Mittla Pass to Suez. The Egyptians, on the contrary, had one Infantry Division between Gaza and Rafah, one in el-Arish and Abu Agheila, a brigade in Bir Jifjafa, and two divisions west of the Mittla Pass. These were relatively well deployed and dug in, but – except the two divisions west of Mittla Pass – largely immobilized and not really capable of fighting a highly mobile warfare the Israelis were expected to fight.
The Israeli part of the operation was initiated on 29 October 1956, when several DeHavilland Mosquito PR.16 recce aircraft, covered by several Mystéres and two North American F-51D Mustangs flew a number of reconnaissance missions deep over the Sinai and also over the Canal.
|A Mosquito TR.Mk.33 seen at the time of the Sinai Campaign. Note the "Invasion Stripes" on the rear fuselage. Some 14 Mosquito TR.Mk.33, three Mosquito T.Mk.III, and at least seven Mosquito PR.Mk.XVIs were purchased in different ways between 1948 and 1955 and flown to Israel after being extensively refurbished. The IDF/AF also operated the NF.Mk.30 night-fighter version of the Mosquito, but the PR - recce- versions of the type were most important for the Israelis becoming excellently informed about the Egyptian predispositions in the days before the war. (IDF)|
Around 14:00hrs, six Mustangs of the 116 Sqn then penetrated deep into the airspace over Sinai with the task of cutting the telegraph-lines with their propellers or gunfire. Approximately one hour later, 16 Douglas C-47/Dakotas, and a number of Nord Noratlass transporters – with troops of the 202 Para Brigade aboard, and escorted by several Meteor F.Mk.8 fighters – followed. Around 17:00hrs, these arrived over the east side of the Mittla Pass, where the paras were deployed. In the same evening, another wave of transports followed, delivering eight jeeps, four 106mm recoilless guns, two 120mm mortars and ammunition to the paras. The Israelis now had a considerable task force over 200km deep behind the Egyptian lines. The Egyptians were initially slow to react and the High Command – disturbed by the lack of informations – in Cairo could not understand the reason for this raid so deep into Sinai: as the Israeli paras were digging in, three brigades of the Egyptian Army were moved from the Suez to confront them. The three divisions deployed along the border with Israel were to remain in their positions even if the first Israeli mechanized columns were already driving around their flanks and up to 40km behind their lines.
By the morning of 30 October, the Israelis at Mittla cleared a small runway for light aircraft, which were now able to fly in some more ammunition and evacuate casualties. Shortly after the dawn the first three Piper Cubs – escorted by Mystéres of the 101 Sqn – arrived as first. Around 07:30hrs the first EAF fighters arrived over the Sinai as well, and their crews reported the size of the Israeli movement to the High Command; as there was no Franco-British attack, a decision was taken to strike back with all available power.
Two MiG-15s first attacked the Israeli strip at Mittla, destroying one Piper Cub they found there. Then two MiG-15 attacked a column of the 202 Brigade near al-Thamed, destroying at least six vehicles, and finally two other MiGs intercepted another Israeli Piper deep over Sinai and shot it down. By 11:00hrs also four Vampires strafed the Israeli column near al-Thamed, causing even more damage. They were followed by more Vampires and also Meteors of the 5 Sqn EAF, all of which were escorted by the MiG-15 and hit the Israelis very hard.
The series of Egyptian strikes became very unpleasant for the Israelis, and it was now clear that the IDF/AF had to do something about. In total, 37 Ouragans, Mystére IVA, and Meteors were scrambled during the morning to hit different Egyptian positions, foremost the units moving towards the Mittla Pass. Around 15:30hrs, some of these clashed with six MiG-15s and two Meteor F.Mk.8s of the EAF, which were scrambled from Kibrit AB, and were forced to retreat, after which the Egyptian fighters were free to strafe the Israeli paras on the ground. The situation of these Israeli troops now slowly became serious: the columns, which were to reinforce them, were hit repeatedly from the air and then became stuck in the soft sand. The IDF/AF thus reinforced patrols over the Sinai, and around 16:00hrs six Mystéres clashed with several MiG-17s near Kibrit. The Israelis attacked while the MiGs were climbing and shot one down, but then also a Mystére was damaged in turn, so the Israeli formation had to pull away. Nevertheless, this made the Egyptians busy enough to enable several Ouragans to destroy many vehicles of the Egyptian 2 Brigade, which in turn made it possible for parts of the 202 Israeli Brigade to reach as first the paras on Mittla on the same evening. In response, in the night the EAF Il-28 bombers flew several strikes against the Israeli airfields on Tel Nov, Eilat, and Ramat Rachel. It is unknown if these caused any damage (the Israelis deny this), and one of the bombers – flown by Sqn. Ldr. Hilmi – crashed either due to a mechanical mishap or a navigational mistake. The Soviet and Czech instructors helped prepare many sorties of the EAF, but were not flying any combat sorties.
|MiG-17F of the 1st Sqn scrambling in full afterburner from Almaza AB. (EAF, via Dr. David Nicolle)|
With this, the Israelis completed their part of the operation: they now established what appeared to be a strong position only some 80km from the Suez, which was a „reason enough“ for the French and the British to issue their „ultimatum“ for both the Israelis and the Egyptians to pull their troops 20km away from the Canal. The situation was, of course, absurd: the Israelis never came as far, even if some of their units penetrated deep into Sinai by driving around the Egyptian positions on the border, and the Egyptians could not accept such conditions; but, if nothing else, Nasser's government now finally realized why was such a large number of British and French ships concentrated in front of their shores.
The Slugging Match on 31 October
In the morning of 31 October, the fighting escalated. On the sea, the Egyptian destroyer Ibrahim al-Awal shelled Haifa and hit the harbor, which caused a counterattack by the French destroyer Kersaint, and Israeli Yaffo and Eilat. The Egyptian destroyer was first forced to steam back towards Port Said and then also attacked by two IDF/AF Ouragans and a Dakota: the crew of the badly damaged vessel finally capitulated, and the ship was towed by the Israelis to Haifa. Meanwhile, two Ouragans and the Meteors of the 117 Sqn flew a strike against the EAF airfield on al-Arish, hitting a number of excellently prepared decoys.
On the ground, an Israeli attack against the Abu Agheila complex was repulsed by the 3rd Egyptian Division already on the evening of 30 October, and new attacks of the 4th and 10th Israeli Infantry Brigades, and the 37th Mechanized Brigade against the heavily fortified omm-Kattef on the following morning failed as well. At the same time the commander of the 202 Brigade, Col. Sharon, ordered – against instructions from his superiors – a completely needless attack from Mittla towards the West. The IDF/AF was involved with supporting the attack of the 7 Armored Brigade on Abu Agheila, and was not supporting paras, so - just as the these jumped out of their positions – they were hit by the Egyptian Vampires, which caused considerable losses. Only then did the Israeli Mystéres react, downing three EAF fighters and damaging the fourth. This forced the Egyptians to stop further operations of the type, as it was obviously not able to confront the faster and more maneuverable Israeli interceptors. The air combats so far showed the Egyptian pilots to be far better than expected: only the fact that the Mystéres had power steering and faster-firing cannons and the Israeli pilots have got better gunnery-training made a difference. Nevertheless, on this day the Soviet Union rushed a number of additional MiG-15s and MiG-17s to Egypt.
Around 08:00hrs, the Israelis detected the Egyptian 1st Armored Brigade, which was underway to reinforce Bir Jifjafa, and the IDF/AF immediately reacted dispatching four Harvards of the 140 Sqn to attack. The slow training planes were confronted by fierce anti-aircraft fire: one was shot down while diving towards the target, and the second crashed while trying to pull out although the pilot survived and was later recovered. Another formation of Harvards failed to find their targets, while two Meteors of the 117 Sqn were also damaged while attack omm-Kattef. Simultaneously, Mustangs of the 116 Sqn also attacked the Egyptian 1st Armored Brigade, destroying six tanks in the process, but two planes were damaged as well: while flying back to the base, one of the damaged F-51Ds was hit again by an EAF MiG-15s and forced to crash-land. The pilot was later found dead in the cockpit. The MiG that downed the Israeli Mustang was probably a member of a formation of seven MiG-17s which then clashed with two Mystéres, around 10:30hrs. Three of the MiGs entered a dogfight with Lt. Yak Nevo, but this managed to outmaneuver them and distance safely. While underway back to their base, the same two Mystéres then meet two others, which were returning from supporting the paras at the Mittla pass, but the formation was then surprised by an attack of several MiGs. The Egyptians failed to hit any of their opponents, and in the ensuing dogfight one of the MiG-15s was damaged heavily enough to be forced to make an emergency landing in the shallow waters of the Sabkhet al-Bardawil Laguna. Much later it was found there by the Israelis, salvaged and towed to Israel for testing.
Hardly one hour later the Ouragans of the 113 Sqn IDF/AF were underway to strike different targets between Bir Hasana and Jebel Libni, when several MiGs appeared over them. Misidentifying the MiGs as Mystéres, the Israelis continued their mission when the Egyptians attacked them in turn, forcing both Ouragan-pilots to jettison their drop tanks and rockets in order to evade safely. Despite managing to disengage from the fiercely attacking MiGs, the Ouragan of Lt. Sharon finally run out of fuel and he was forced to make a belly landing. The other Ouragan was heavily damaged by a single round of 23mm. Shortly after, the same Egyptian formation also intercepted an Israeli Piper L-18 over the Mittla Pass and shot it down.
More air combats were to follow. Two Mystéres clashed with several MiG-17s of the 1 Sqn from Almaza, which were escorting a formation of 5 Sqn Meteors into a strike against an Israeli column near Bir Hassana. Lt. Nevo hit one of the MiGs heavily enough to cause it to enter a spin and the pilot to eject: his parachute reportedly failed to deploy, but the EAF reported no casualties on this day. The Meteors continued and hit the Israelis, causing 27 casualties in the process, albeit the Meteor F.Mk.8 „1424“ was also hit and forced to make a crash landing. Some 45 minutes later, around 13:30hrs, two Ouragans clashed with several MiG-15s over the Mittla Pass and this time Lt. Agasi damaged the MiG flown by Flt. Lt. Farouke. Nevertheless, the Egyptian managed a safe landing back in Egypt.
In the afternoon four Israeli Harvards flew another strike against the 1st Egyptian Armored Brigade, and came away without being hit. Around 14:00hrs also four Mustangs of the 105 Sqn dropped napalm bombs against an Egyptian column near Bir Jifjafa, but lost the F-51D of Lt. Paz, which was forced to crash-land in the desert.
|The P-51D flown by Capt. Elad Paz was shot down over Sinai by Egyptian AAA. Note the variant of the "Invasion Stripes". (IDF)|
The Meteors of the 117 Sqn also bombed and strafed the 1st Armored Brigade near Abu Agheila, but four of them were hit in return, and two had to make emergency landings. Another series of strikes by the IDF/AF 105 and 117 Sqns followed, yet during these no less than 14 Mustangs were damaged to one degree or the other, and the CO of the 105 Sqn, Maj. Tadmor, was killed: although the Egyptians also suffered losses during these strikes, just like during the Korean War, the F-51Ds proved highly vulnerable to hits in the exposed radiator in the belly. By the evening of the 31 October also the 110 Sqn Mosquito, flown by Lt. Ash, was heavily damaged by ground fire.
|Ouragan "445": the serialling of the Israeli Ouragans is relatively unclear. The first plane delivered to Israel was the c/n M.D.450-378, marked 4.X.FRB for transit purposes, and getting the official IDF-AF serial 5642. As it seems, the two first digits - at the time used to designate the type - were usually removed. So, the 5642 is known to became "42" already on arrival in Israel. This example is actually either "44" or "45", with one digit added for security purposes. (AMD)|
Chaotic Night to 1 November
By the evening of the 31 October, the IDF/AF flew 150 combat sorties over the Sinai, of which 48 by Ouragans, and 30 by Meteors. Despite numerous losses, the Israelis managed to prevent the Egyptian columns from reaching the forward positions along the border, and the defenders of Abu Agheila were now cut off from their rear areas. At Mittla, however, the Israelis were pinned down in the face of heavy Egyptian defenses: despite a considerable chaos in the Egyptian chain of command, heavy losses were inflicted upon the 202 Brigade, which was subsequently also put under heavy strikes from the air, flown not only by MiG-15s, Meteors and Vampires, but even the older Spitfires and Sea Furies! The EAF flew slightly over 100 combat sorties on this day, and as the fighting intensified so the morale of the Egyptian pilots soared: they have not managed to shot down more Israelis in air combats, but were highly successful in air-to-ground role, demonstrating a high degree of effective cooperation with ground forces, good discipline, and causing lots of damage, casualties, and problems for the Israelis. Even the first reconnaissance missions of the British and French air forces could not disturb their high spirits: in the night to 1 November several Il-28s – some of them flown by Soviet „advisors“ – again tried to bomb the Israeli airfield at Hatzor, but their bombs apparently missed the target.
The situation on the ground then slowly started to change, however. In the evening of 31 October the 27th Israeli Mechanized Brigade broke through the Egyptian positions at Gazah, and subsequently the Egyptian resistance in northern Sinai fell apart. Within only few hours the Egyptian units, which fought so vigorously for two days, started falling apart, and many troops fled into the desert, leaving their weapons behind them. The Israelis were not to wait: in a swift maneuver they drove towards the west and north, capturing large amounts of equipment in the process, and increasing the panic. Many units become stuck in the sand during the night, or got lost in the desert, but their commanders pushed the men forward relentlessly. In the middle of this chaos then came the first British and French strikes against Egypt.
The RAF and the AdA were to start an attack against Egypt already at 04:45hrs of 31 October, but the operation was postponed in order to fly a series of reconnaissance sorties in order to update the picture of the EAF’s situation, and properly establish the deployment of Egyptian MiGs. During the day four RAF Canberras and seven RF-84Fs thundered high over Egypt, and on the basis of the photographs they brought back the British concluded that at the time the EAF had over 110 operational MiG-15s, 14 Meteors, 44 Vampires, and 48 Il-28 bombers, deployed as follows:
- Abu Swayr: 35 MiG-15s
- Kibrit: 31 MiG-15s
- Inchas: 20 MiG-15s
- Almaza: 25 MiG-15/17s, four Meteors, 21 Vampires, ten Il-28s
- Fayd: nine Meteors, 12 Vampires
- Cairo West: nine Vampires, 16 Il-28s
- Luxor: 22 Il-28s
- Kasfareet: one Meteor, two Vampires
The EAF scrambled several MiGs to intercept the reconnaissance aircraft. Two of these intercepted a solitary French RF-84F, the pilot of which never noticed his opponents but – upon seeing the tracer wizzing past his cockpit, immediately aborted the mission and returned to Cyprus.
The British and French were considerably disturbed also by the US operation „Cover“, in which the US citizens were evacuated from Egypt and Israel. The British tried to evade any possibility of destroying any US aircraft, which were known to have landed at Cairo West. In the end, this caused a considerable traffic jams at the airfields on Cyprus, and the RAF was forced to pull out the Meteor FR.9s from Akrotiri back to Malta.
When the counter air offensive was finally started, on the evening of 31 October, new problems developed. The first wave of Valiants of the 148 Sqn RAF took off at 17:20 from Malta, but was then ordered to abort after US transport aircraft were detected at their target: Cairo West. The heavy bombers turned back and flew straight into the aircraft of the second wave, which were just taking off. Eleven Canberras that subsequently started from Cyprus with the task of bombing Cairo West as well were diverted to attack Almaza, while eleven other Canberras from Cyprus, as well as five Valiants and seven Canberras from Malta were diverted to bomb Kibrit. The third wave consisted from 18 Canberras from Cyprus and Malta, and four Valiants from Malta, which were to hit Abu Swayr, as well as 17 Canberras tasked to attack Inchas. In total, some 100 British bombers were underway to finally start the Operation „Musketeer“.
|Pictures of the RAF aircraft from the Suez Crisis campaign are rare; also, there are not many illustrations of how cramped with aircraft the airfields on Cyprus were. Even a single Egyptian bomber could wreack havoc and neutralize a large part of the British and French contingents stationed there. Here the RAF Venom WR398/H of the 249 Sqn taxis past RF-84F 52-7325/33-DD of the ER.4/33 at Akrotiri. ("Wings over Suez")|
The First Destruction of the EAF
The Canberras of the 139 Sqn were the first to arrive over their target – Almaza – around 21:30hrs. Cairo was still in full light and their task – marking the target – should not have been all too problematic. Seven Canberras of the 10, 15, 44, and 139 Sqn then dropped 41 bombs caliber 454kg over the same airfield, and reported to have caused damage on the hangars and several transport aircraft. Later, however, the British had to find out with horror that this attack was actually flown against Cairo West, but that no damage was caused at all. Minutes later, the first Valiants arrived over Almaza and dropped their bombs on the runways. By now the EAF already started reacting: the newly established radar-net was functional and three Meteor NF.13s of the 10 Sqn were scrambled to intercept. One of these was vectored into a favorable position behind one of the Valiants, causing the pilot to initiate a series of hard evasive maneuvers: despite coming away untouched, the crew of the RAF bomber had no doubts any more about the actual capabilities of the Egyptian pilots.
After the actual strike against Cairo West was aborted, and the attack on Almaza failed, seven Canberras dropped 132 bombs caliber 454kg at Kibrit. Their crews reported causing considerable damage and destroying several EAF aircraft on the ground, but in fact their success was only very limited, mainly because the crews were advised to bomb from a level of 13.000m, instead from 15.000m, as they were trained, and there were also some technical problems, as well as strong winds (the crews immediately asked for change of the orders, and during the following nights attacks were flown from higher levels - when the bombers were out of reach of Egyptian interceptors, and also the air was smoother, enabling better maneuvering and more precise targeting).
Finally, around the midnight, the next wave hit Abu Swayr and Inchas: this strike was considerably disrupted by the Egyptian Meteors, one of which opened fire at a single Canberra: the bomber-crew knew how to evade.
The Egyptian President Nasser observed the RAF strikes from the roof of his home at Almaza, and then brought a – from military standpoint – highly contradictive, but from a political standpoint pretty sound, decision to order the EAF not to confront the British. He considered the continuous antagonism with Israel as more important, and expected – correctly, as the history was to confirm him – the British and French to attack Egypt, but not to remain in the area for too long. Namely, Nasser knew his pilots were not trained well enough to confront the British or French, but badly needed for confronting the Israelis. Consequently, he decided to spare his pilots and leave the Egyptian airspace to the enemy. This decision was to prove devastating for the EAF foremost in the number of aircraft that were to be lost in the subsequent days, as it was not followed by proper orders for evacuation of the air force into safer airfields in Lower Egypt, or even outside the country. Instead from the morning of 1 November the Egyptian air force was actually grounded and waiting for destruction. Even more so, this decision was to cause heavy suffering to the Egyptian Army, which was now ordered to pull back from its fortified positions along the Israeli border, and concentrate in the Suez area.
Under such conditions, on the morning of 1 November the EAF flew only a very small number of combat sorties over the Sinai. Four MiG-17s of the 1 Sqn, lead by Sqn. Ldr. al-Hinnawi, strafed again the positions of the 202 Brigade at Mittla, destroying several vehicles in the process.
Simultaneously, a wave of two Canberra PR.7s and several RF-84Fs was underway over Egypt in order to photograph the results of the counter air strikes flown in the night. The photographs they brought back were clear: no serious damage was caused to the EAF. Besides, the crews came back considerably excited: Egyptian MiGs intercepted both Canberras, and one even damaged by gunfire. This caused a true shock for the RAF, which did not expect anything similar. Nevertheless, the war was now to experience a completely different quality as – while the reconnaissance aircraft were still over Egypt – around 05:00hrs, the first British and French fighter-bombers took off from their bases on Cyprus with the task of destroying the EAF on the ground. Only 15 minutes later the Royal Navy carriers HMS Eagle, HMS Albion, and HMS Bulwark, at the time operating only some 90km north of Alexandria, started launching the first wave of fighters as well. Due to both the British and the Egyptians flying very similar aircraft, a decision was taken the naval aircraft to attack airfields east of Cairo, and the ground-based fighters to strike western bases. In addition, all the involved aircraft were marked with very distinct „invasion stripes“.
|Sea Venoms, Sea Hawks, Wyverns and a single Skyraider can be seen on this photograph of the deck of HMS Eagle, taken shortly before the ship commenced launching another strike against Egypt. The three British aircraft carriers - HMS Eagle, HMS Bulwark, and HMS Albion - proved their worth during this campaign beyond any doubt. (FAA Museum)|
Despite the nocturnal bombings, the first attacks against their airfields took the Egyptians completely by surprise. Except the formation lead by Sqn. Ldr. al-Hinnawi, and few MiG-15s which were intercepting the reconnaissance Canberras, no other fighters were in the air, and the British and French Venom, F-84F Thunderstreak, Sea Hawk, Sea Venom, and Wyvern fighter-bombers now delivered a series of devastating blows. Around 06:04hrs on Kasfareet and Kibrit whole rows of EAF planes were destroyed on the ground. Minutes later, 16 Sea Hawks from Eagle hit Inchas, 12 Sea Hawks from Bulwark Cairo West, and Sea Venoms from Albion Almaza, followed by 12 additional Sea Hawks from Bulwark strafing and rocketing Cairo West. The British pilots took great care not to hit any of the US aircraft at Cairo West – even if not being informed about their presence – but destroyed scores of EAF aircraft on this and the other airfields. By 08:45hrs the RAF and AdA ground-based fighters flew 58 combat sorties against Abu Swayr, Faridan, Kibrit, Fayd, and Kasfareet, and finally the naval aircraft hit Almaza again. The second wave followed between 09:30 and 13:30hrs, hitting not only parked aircraft, but also hangars, shops, and munition depots. The FAA fighters hit two additional airfields, Deklia and Cairo West.
Although the success of the attacks was different, foremost because on some airfields the planes were well dispersed, and some even evacuated, while on others no similar measures were taken, within only few hours some 40% of Egyptian combat aircraft were destroyed or damaged by air strikes. The feelings of EAF pilots were between frustrated and furious: they had no permission to start and confront the attackers, and in many cases there was even no permission to evacuate their planes from the exposed airfields. Instead they could only watch as one MiG after the other was blown sky-high by the attacking British and French fighters. The third attack wave lasted from 13:30 until 17:00hrs, and included 187 combat sorties by the RAF and AdA fighters from Cyprus, as well as some 200 combat sorties from three British carriers. The precision of these strikes was very good: by the evening, the FAA-pilots claimed destruction of no less but 22 MiG-15s at Almaza alone, and this was confirmed by the reconnaissance photographs shot by Canberra PR.7s and RF-84Fs sent over Egypt in the late afternoon. The EAF reacted relatively slow, only in the afternoon starting to move some aircraft, first to airfields in the Nile Delta, and then also to southern Egypt, Syria, and even Saudi Arabia. Consequently, no less but 100 Egyptian fighters and bombers were destroyed on that day on the ground alone. In the night some first EAF bombers were evacuated to Syria. One of these, an Il-28 flown by a Soviet crew, was intercepted by an Israeli Mateor NF.13, which misidentified it for a RAF Canberra. The Soviets later reported being intercepted by ten fighters, two of which should have been damaged by the fire from the tail turret of the bomber.
The British and French pilots got no opportunity to confront the Egyptians in air combats, but were increasingly disturbed by the operations of the USN aircraft through 1 November. At least two times the USN Furies penetrated deep into the defensive perimeter around the British carriers, forcing these to scramble their interceptors and disturbing flying operations in the process. The local USN commanders demanded even a permission to strike the British and the French, so bad were mutual US-British relations at the time.
The Catastrophe in Sinai
The massive onslaught against the EAF made it clear to the Egyptian leadership that an Anglo-French invasion was imminent. Consequently, the order for the pullout of the Army troops from Sinai was repeated, and additional units sent towards Port Said area. For the units deployed along the Israeli border this was as start of a catastrophe: so far they fought from well fortified positions, but now – with part of them was already broken, while others were outmaneuvered by the Israelis – they had to retreat towards the west along only three roads, which were also used by the Israelis, and under constant air attacks of the IDF/AF, which was not contested by the EAF any more. As soon as the Israelis noticed this movement, they of course tried their best to put the Egyptians under a heavy pressure, and the result was a rout of the Egyptian Army on Sinai
Most of the remaining intact Egyptian units were pulling back along the coastal road from al-Arish. Mustangs repeatedly hit their columns. Much less hampered by the enemy anti-aircraft fire, the Israelis also suffered not as heavily as the day before: on 1 November only one Mustang was shot down. The pilot managed a crash-landing in the desert and was later recovered.
|The Israeli Mustangs were continuously sent in new strikes against the Egyptian Army in Sinai. They caused some losses, but also suffered heavily from the fierce Egyptian defences. At the time, the IDF/AF was far from the glamour of its later days: note the improvised bomb-trolley. (IDF)|
In addition, also a part of the French contingent in Israel was permitted to start flying combat sorties. The F-84Fs and Mystéres flew 62 combat sorties on this day, claiming destruction of 38 T-34 tanks alone. None were shot down, but several were damaged by ground fire, and two crashed on landing. Elsewhere, the IDF/AF flew a series of strikes in the Mittla, Bir Jifjafa, and Bir Salim areas in an effort to prevent the Egyptians for establishing a second defensive line. Finally, in the afternoon, the 27th Israeli Mechanized Brigade occupied al-Arish, capturing piles of ammunition, 20 T-34s and six SU-100 tanks, and two Mraz training aircraft.
In the following night, the RAF repeated a series of strikes with Valiant and Canberra bombers hitting Cairo West, Fayd, Kasfareet, and Luxor. Canberras of the 15 Sqn were credited with destruction of four Il-28s at Luxor, where also the runways were cut in several pieces. By the morning of 2 November, the EAF was not an effective combat force any more: most of the remaining aircraft were not operational and destined to be destroyed during additional strikes against different airfields. The rest of the Egyptian MiG-15s and few Il-28s, as well as a number of Syrian MiG-15, which were to be put together, tested, and used for training of Syrian pilots in Egypt, were flown out of the country. Understanding the situation, the Anglo-French HQs ordered the start of the 2nd Phase of the Operation Musketeer, which intended to interdict the bases and the supply system of the Egyptian Army, and demoralize the population.
The first such strike was flown against the radio station in Cairo by 18 Canberras of the 27, 44, and 61 Sqns, based at Nicosia, escorted by 12 F-84Fs. The target was marked by two Canberras of the 18 Sqn, and particularly successful: dropping their bombs from a level of only 1.000m, the British hit the building and destroyed the main antenna mast. For the next two days, the British Radio Sharq al-Adna was able to emit propagandistic shows on the same frequency completely undisturbed. Other strikes on the same day hit again the airfields at Almaza and Cairo, but foremost the Egyptian Army bases nearby, and also the large material depot at Huckstep. The USN, however, was still very active, and a pair of RAF Venoms was bounced by two VA-94 F-9F-8s (based on USS Randolph), while underway to strafe Kibrit.
On the sea, the Corsairs and Avengers of the French Aéronavale sunk an Egyptian patrol boat, but also almost clashed with two USN destroyers near Alexandria. The FAA Sea Hawks and Sea Venoms repeated strikes against Cairo West, Bilbeis, Dekhlia, Inchas, and Almaza, where the Egyptian AAA was meanwhile weak. Nevertheless, over Almaza a Sea Venom of the NAS 893 was damaged, and the pilot, Lt.Cdr. Willcox, had to make an emergency landing aboard the HMS Eagle. But, it was the depot at Huckstep that became the main target for the rest of the day, and repeatedly hit by more RAF Venoms and AdA F-84Fs, as well as some naval aircraft. Hundreds of tanks and different other vehicles were destroyed despite fierce Egyptian AAA. As the EAF was not responding also slower aircraft, like Wyvrens and French Corsairs could now be deployed, albeit one of the later was badly damaged during an attack against Dekhlia, and had to be abandoned by the pilot, Lt. Nève, which was recovered by SAR helicopters.
In Sinai, the Israeli 37th Brigade attacked omm-Kattef on the morning of 2 November, supported by Mustangs. This time the unit broke through and then started moving westwards as the nearby 7th Armored Brigade misidentified it for the Egyptians: in the following fratricide battle, the CO and numerous troops of the 37th Brigade were killed. Meanwhile, the IDF/AF turned its attention to south Sinai, in order to support the 9th Brigade, deployed to capture Sharm el-Sheikh and thus open the Straits of Tyran for Israeli shipping. Sharm el-Sheikh, however, was a tough nut, and during the first series of strikes – undertaken by some 30 Israeli aircraft (foremost including the older types, such like Mosquitoes, Mustangs, and even B-17s), the Mystére flown by Maj. Peled was shot down. The pilot was recovered by an L-18 in the following night. Several other aircraft were badly damaged and barely managed it back to Israel for emergency landings. These strikes were actually flown too early, as the 9th Brigade – moving along the narrow and poor roads – could reach the town only two days later. But, the Israelis were in a rush, and so a decision was taken the C-47/Dakotas of the 103 Sqn to fly two companies of paras to A-Tur, a small town south of Port Said. 175 paras were dropped over the place around 17:00hrs, which by the evening have cleared a small landing strip, where additional transports could bring reinforcements, supplies, and even some vehicles, which made it possible to mount a second prong of the offensive towards Sharm al-Sheikh.
In the night to 3 November the RAF sent 22 Canberras from Cyprus in a new raid against the Luxor airfield, where more damage was caused. Two additional waves of Canberras and Valiants then hit Huckstep before the bad weather precluded any additional starts from Malta. The material losses of the Egyptians by this time became so catastrophic, that Col. Salim suggested Nasser to commit a suicide. But, the public – encouraged by wrong reports about large victories against Israel – was supportive for the President in these decisive moments. The British and the French, namely, were already under a massive pressure to stop their operations from different sides, and had to considerably change their plans. In order to accelerate the preparations – and due to there being no MiGs to intercept them – on 3 November 20 Canberras of the 10, 15, and 44 Sqn, escorted by Hunters, flew strikes against the train stations at Nfisha, and Ismailia, as well as the barracks at Almaza. The EAF, on the contrary, almost ceased any operations: only a very small number of flights were recorded, mainly for the purpose of moving remaining aircraft to safer places.
Even these efforts were not easy to organized. At Fayd, RAF Venoms cached two EAF Meteors during refueling, and destroyed them both, and at Kibrit the last intact MiG-15 in Egypt was destroyed by the pilots of the 6 Sqn RAF. Four other Venoms from the same unit were on armed reconnaissance mission, at very low level, near al-Qantara, when they suffered their fist loss, as the formation first stumbled over a concentration of Egyptian flaks, and then the plane flown by Flt. Lt. Sheehan hit the water surface and crashed while trying to evade.
On the sea, there was frantic activity. The HMS Albion was taken out of the line in order to replenish in preparation for supporting the invasion. The remaining two British and two French carriers therefore had to accelerate their operations to compensate. The Avengers from Arromanches then detected the USN submarine USS Cutlass in the middle of the French task force, and forced it to surface. Finally, the HMS Eagle was ordered to send a strike against the Gamil Bridge, west from the Gamil airfield, which was to become one of the first targets of the invasion. Several Sea Venoms and Wyvrens flew the attack, but missed, while eight Sea Hawks from HMS Bulwark hit the Almaza, destroying one Meteor, a C-46 transport, and a single T-6 Harvard on the ground. The French Corsairs also attacked Almaza, where Lt.deV Lancrenon observed two EAF Meteors at take-off. While the rest of his formation started evasive maneuvering, Lancrenon initiated a pursuit: in the chaos which then developed he seems to have been shot down by the Egyptian AAA and was never seen again (the fate of Lt.deV Lancrenon remains unknown until today: Radio Cairo reported that his Corsair came down in the suburbs of Cairo and the pilot was killed in the cockpit; the Italian Military attaché in Egypt, however, later reported Lancrenon managed to bail out, but was subsequently lynched by mob). During the same attack, another Corsair was damaged by AAA as well, one landed aboard LaFayette with a bomb hung up under its wing, and a third example barely managed to return due to engine problems.
During additional strikes against the Gamil Bridge finally also the Wyvern flown by Lt. McCarthy was hit. The British pilot flew out over the sea and then ejected safely. Only recently it became known that this formation of Royal Navy fighters was actually intercepted by two Soviet-flown MiG-17Fs, lead by advisor-pilot Sincov Sergeiy Anatolievich, which were underway on a patrol north of the Suez Canal. The Soviets found the solitary Wyvern and attacked, with Sincov scoring several hits. As his gun-camera was not working he was never credited with this air-to-air victory. Nevertheless, the bridge was finally dropped by a direct hit of a 454kg bomb in additional attacks. In the late afternoon, the Sea Hawks from HMS Bulwark bombed Almaza, claiming destruction of 18 Chipmunks, Meteors, Furies, Harvards, and Lancasters in several waves.
As the Anglo-French operations were continued, and the Soviets threated with retaliation against Paris and London, the USA felt forced to prepare for all eventualities as well. The SAC put the 306th BW, equipped with B-47s and stationed at Ben Guerir, in Morocco, on alert. Already on 26 October, additional B-47s of the 70th SRW were deployed to Sidi Slimane, also in Morocco, in order to fly reconnaissance over Cyprus and Egypt. They were intercepted several times by RAF Hunters. The fighters from the USS Coral Sea and USS Randolph intensified their disturbing of British and French naval operations as well, forcing British carriers to repeatedly scramble Sea Hawks and Sea Venoms to intercept. This forced the British to deploy Shackleton MR.2s of the 37 Sqn, based at Malta and in Libya, in order to keep the US carriers under control. The ASW aircraft of the USN were active as well, as the E-1 Trackers were searching for French and British subs in the area south of Cyprus. The situation thus became even more tense, and the tensions probably reached their peak when on the afternoon of 3 November Israeli aircraft attacked a Royal Navy destroyer that operated near Sharm el-Sheikh: for a moment there was a serious threat of the Anglo-French-Israeli coalition falling apart, and the British requested the Israeli officers to be excluded from the joint HQ while considering attacking Israel as well.
The Strike against Luxor
The tempo of Anglo-French operations was not decreased on 4 November, although both the HMS Eagle and the two French carriers were pulled out of the line for replenishment, and no additional counter air strikes by Valiants and Canberras were flown. The reconnaissance showed, that so far an estimated 158 out of 216 EAF aircraft were destroyed. Nevertheless, the fighters from HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion flew no less but 355 combat sorties on the day, mainly striking different Egyptian Army columns and bases, foremost Huckstep, and also – around 07:00hrs – against several patrol boats of the Egyptian Navy. In the middle of this activity, the USN’s Coral Sea carrier battle group sailed though the center of the Royal Navy Task Force launching own aircraft! As in a miracle, there were no collisions – neither between the ships, nor between the aircraft. The RAF Venoms repeated their strikes against EAF airfields, claiming destruction of five MiG-15s at Abu Swayr, while the AdA F-84Fs targeted different radar stations with unguided rockets. In the afternoon, the first out of a series of strikes against different targets in the Port Said area were flown, with the aim of interdicting the traffic of the local Egyptian units, and hitting these in their barracks.
As the EAF was not active any more, and the situation in Sinai was under control, the commander of the French contingent in Israel, Cdt. Perseval, then requested a permission to strike Luxor, where the EAF concentrated the rest of its Il-28-fleet. The permission was granted, and around 06:00hrs 13 F-84Fs of the EC.1, lead by Perseval personally, took off for their long trip. They caused a complete surprise, catching the EAF again off guard and finding no less but 20 Il-28s neatly parked in two rows. The French opened fire at anything they could make out, causing heavy damage. Five hours later, six F-84Fs appeared over Luxor again, this time followed by a single RF-84F of the ER.4/33, based on Cyprus, to complete the destruction. In total, 17 EAF aircraft – including at least ten Il-28s – were destroyed during these two strikes. Pilot Usama “Bunny” Sidki then flew out the last remaining Il-28s of the EAF to Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia.
While the French were decimating the remnants of the Egyptian bomber-fleet, the Israelis were busy with their operations against Sharm el-Sheikh. At noon five Mustangs attacked the town with napalm, and this seems to have caused the local Egyptian commander to order an evacuation with help of several small ships. The local Egyptian garrison capitulated – after more Mustang strikes and a fierce attack of Israeli paras – on the next morning: 834 Egyptian troops became PoWs.
The rest of the Egyptian Army in Sinai meanwhile managed somehow to retreat into the Canal Zone. The war in Sinai was thus over.
The Landing at Gamil
Only in the night from 4 to 5 November did the RAF Valiants and Canberras re-appear over Egypt, but this time to hit targets away from the intended landing zones, so to divert the attention of the enemy. 19 bombers hit the artillery positions near al-Agami, while 22 hit Huckstep, where the destruction of pilled materials and equipment reached catastrophic relations already days before.
Simultaneously, the invasion fleet moved closer to Port Said, and – after intensive preparations – the landings were started at 07:00hrs, with 18 Valetta transports of the 30 and 83 Sqn RAF and six of the 114 Sqn dropping 600 paras of the 3 Para/16 Brigade (which, only days before, were fighting Greek guerilla on Cyprus). The first target of the British paras was the Gamil airfield, near Port Said, and their landing was introduced with a series of heavy raids against nearby Egyptian positions flown by Venoms of the 249 Sqn. Additional strikes were simultaneously flown against Huckstep again, while brand-new Hunter interceptors were covering the paras during their landing. The Egyptian air defense was still very fierce, and two RAF fighters were damaged. By 07:15hrs the C Company of the 3 Para was on the ground, and within only few minutes the control tower and nearby buildings was secured. The B Company meanwhile captured the eastern side of the airfield, securing the landing strip and nearby buildings. From that moment on, the paras were supported by the artillery from British and French warships, even if these could not move closer to the coast, as the local waters were not yet secured from mines, but this presented no serious problem, as the Egyptian resistance was initially weak, and only one soldier was killed while landing in a minefield.
The situation changed soon enough, however, as two squadrons of Egyptian SU-110 tanks appeared. These were in turn attacked by French Corsairs and forced to pull back. Additional strikes then destroyed numerous Egyptian vehicles and also broke the resistance at the Coast Guards barracks.
In the morning also two French Avengers were sent to attack some Egyptian warships near Port Said, but they had to turn back after only one bomb- and strafing pass due to heavy anti-air defenses, and the appearance of two USN Furies in their backs.
Nevertheless, by 09:00hrs Gamil airfield was secured, and the situation stabilized. Minutes later the first Whirlwind helicopters from HMS Eagle landed there, delivering supplies and evacuating injured. Meanwhile, the Venoms from Akrotiri started suppressing Egyptian flaks in the vicinity, while other fighter-bombers interdicted several columns of the Egyptian Army moving towards Gamil, and 16 Canberras hit Huckstep again. At least three British planes were damaged during these operations but all returned to their bases safely. By 13:00hrs, the paras at Gamil were surrounded by one battalion of the Egyptian Army, two battalions of the Egyptian National Guards, two squadrons of SU-100s. But during the following 45 minutes the constant air support surprised the Egyptians enough for 100 additional paras, seven jeeps with 106mm recoilless guns, and some ammunition to be flown in.
Meanwhile, the carrier-borne aircraft flew new strikes against Almaza, where a number of MiGs and even one Il-28 were observed, claiming destruction of ten EAF additional aircraft. The FAA and Aéronavale fighters also had to take care about several Egyptian flaks in the Port Said area, one of which was positioned on the roof of the local hospital. These had to be taken out with special care not to hit the civilian objects nearby, but the FAA pilots solved most of these problems by flying extremely low and opening their fire only in the last moment, from closest possible range. Nevertheless, the Wyvern flown by Lt.Cdr. Vowling was hit during the attack on the Coast Guards base, and the pilot ejected to be recovered by the Whirlwind helicopters from HMS Eagle.
Despite all the problems, already by noon of 5 November, the British paras broke out of their bridgehead. In a swift and furious battle, they inflicted heavy losses on the Egyptians, capturing one position after the other, and by the evening Port Said was cut off from the rest of Egypt. The Egyptians had probably over 200 killed and injured; the British suffered a loss of four killed and 36 injured. In the late afternoon the situation at Gamil was already considered safe enough to permit the landings of the French C-47 transports. The Egyptian commander of Port Said already considered a capitulation when the Radio Cairo reported about an outbreak of the WWIII, and that the Soviet Union was coming to help Egypt.
Simultaneously with British, also 500 paras of the 2. RPC (Colonial Paras) jumped over the al-Raswa bridges from F-84F-escorted Noratlas transports of the ET.1/61 and ET.3/61, together with some combat engineers of the Guards Ind. Parachute Company. Despite a loss of two soldiers, the western bridge was swiftly secured, and then the Corsairs of the 14F and 15F flew a series of close-air-support missions, destroying several SU-100s. The F-84Fs also hit two large oil tanks in Port Said, which went up in flames and covered most of the city in a thick cloud of smoke for the next several days. In the afternoon, 522 additional French paras were dropped near Port Fuad. These were also constantly supported by the Corsairs of the Aéronavale, which flew very intensive operations: for example, although the carrier LaFayette developed catapult problems, no less but 40 combat sorties were started; the last five Corsairs airborne on that day landed already well after the sunset, despite their crews not being qualified for night-landings! In total, the French lost ten killed and 30 injured troops during the landing and the subsequent battles.
The Egyptians were again taken by surprise by the landings of British and French paras; President Nasser tried to ascertain help from the USSR, but the Soviets – busy with their own intervention in Hungary – were reluctant to do more than issue threats towards London and Paris. Although it was later often explained that these threats stopped the Anglo-French invasion, it was actually the USA, which was the only power capable of doing this. Washington issued a counter-threat against Moscow, explaining it would defend its NATO allies if these would be attacked, and simultaneously increased the pressure on the French and the British. These, however, initially reacted with another escalation, as the 1.100 paras in Port Said and near Port Fuad could obviously not hold their positions alone.
As in the night from 5 to 6 November the invasion fleet finally came close under the Egyptian coast, the French battleship Jean Bart, the British cruisers Ceylon and Jamaica, as well as the French cruiser Georges Leygues started shelling Egyptian coastal batteries (albeit only using artillery under the caliber 114mm, in order to minimize the danger for the civilians living near the targets). Shortly after the dawn the Venoms of the 249 Sqn RAF flew a strike against the Egyptian artillery positions as well, and they appeared over the Port Said just in the same moment as a solitary EAF MiG-15 flew the one and only strike against the British paras at Gamil. Flg. Off. Budd immediately tried to attack the MiG, but this managed to get away due to its higher speed. Nevertheless, the landing was then started, and around 05:45 the first troops of the 40 and 42 Commando arrived on the beach near Port Said. Half an hour later the first Centurion MBTs followed. Together, the commandos and tanks then drove thought the city towards South.
Simultaneously, the Whirlwind helicopters of the NAS 845 landed the first troops of the 45 Commando near the football stadion: this group of the British was, however, only minutes later surrounded by the Egyptians and had to be evacuated by the helicopters, one of which was hit no less but 22 times. Nevertheless, the heliborne-landings were continued to other places in the city, and within only 1 ½ hours six Whirlwind HAR.2 and six Sycamore HC-14 of the Joint Helicopter Unit (JHU), as well as seven Whirlwind HAR.22 of the NAS 845 delivered 417 troops and 20ts of equipment, in turn evacuating the injured (one of the injured commandos was flown back to the aircraft carrier only 19 minutes after taking-off from there aboard a helicopter). Only one helicopter was lost: a Whirlwind of NAS 845 run out of fuel while transferring injured between HMS Eagle and HMS Theseus, while only some 800m away from the last ship, and ditched. The crew and the passengers were all recovered by another helicopter. Also a Sycamore of the JHU made a hard landing on HMS Ocean and was damaged.
|"Helicopter carrier": HMS Theseus see during the Suez action with Whirlwinds and Sycamores of the Joint Army/RAF Helicopter Development Unit,. which operated alongside Naval Air Squadron 845. Together with the carrier Ocean, Theseus acted as a training ship before being sent into the Mediterranean, but was then hastiliy fitted out as a Commando Carrier and she performed - together with HMS Ocean - admirably in this role, leadin to a later decision to convert two other carriers permanently to commando helicopter support role. (FAA Museum)|
While the commandos and Centurion tanks breached through to the paras at Gamil, these were also reinforced as now all the available Dakotas and Valettas were flying reinforcements to this airfield. The Egyptian resistance in the Port Said area became subsequently so weak, that the British troops needed no air support any more. Nevertheless, the Venoms and F-84Fs flew some additional strikes, foremost in the Ismailia area.
Contrary to the ground-based fighters, the naval aviation was very busy, foremost by cleaning eventual obstacles in the way of the commandos and Centurion tanks which rushed towards the south. By 10:00hrs no less but 70 combat sorties were flown. The Egyptian AAA was still active, time and again scoring some hits, and a NAS 800 Sea Hawk, flown by Lt. Stuart-Jervis, was shot down. He ejected over the sea and was recovered (the later Lt.Cdr. Stuart-Jervis MBE RN was killed in September 1995, when – while taking part in the Gordon Bennett Trophy – his blimp was shot down by Belarus helicopters near the military airfield of Osowtsy). Shortly after also a NAS 897 Sea Hawk, flown by Lt. Mills, was shot down over the road from Port Fuad and Ismailia. The pilot ejected over the enemy-held territory, but was recovered by a Whirlwind helicopter, covered by the rest of his flight and despite a number of Egyptian tanks nearby.
In the early afternoon the 40 Commando was stopped by Egyptian resistance south of Port Said, but the Sea Hawks from British carriers then flew a series of highly effective strikes, and the advance was continued. Simultaneously, the rest of the 16 Brigade and the Centurions of the 6 RTR arrived on the beach and reinforced the drive towards the south. On the east side of the Suez, the French 1e REF landed, together with some Marines and the AMX-13 light tanks of the 7 Division; these units were also swift to organize an advance towards the south.
The Consequences of an Adventure
With more time at their disposal it is highly likely that the British and the French would have managed to occupy the whole Canal Zone. But, the international pressure – foremost from the USA – became so severe, that finally both countries agreed to accept a cease-fire. Thus, an additional landing of the French 1 RCP paras near Ismailia was cancelled, and the British Centurions and paras were stopped at el-Cap, only few kilometers from al-Qantara, where by 14:00hrs also a Sea Hawk from HMS Eagle was so heavily damaged, that it had to be written off after the landing back aboard the carrier. The British also had to write off two Whirlwind helicopters, both of which were heavily damaged by ground fire.
One of the reasons for the British and French accepting the cease-fire were US reports about a concentration of „almost 132 MiGs“ in Syria. If true, such reports would indicate a possible counter-offensive against the vulnerable airfields on Cyprus. In order to find out if the reports were true the RAF dispatched several Canberras over Syria, one of which was almost intercepted by a SyAF Meteor F.Mk.8, flown by Lt. al-Assad. Two other Canberras did reconnaissance over Rayak airfield, in Lebanon, as well as Aleppo, in Syria. Hardly inside the Syrian airspace, however, one of them was intercepted by two Meteors and shot down. One crewmember was killed, while the other two ejected and came to the ground only meters inside Lebanon (the full coverage about this affair is provided by Dr. David Nicolle, in his excellent article „Canberra Down“). Afterwards, all the other recce flights over Syria were undertaken only with the escort of RAF Hunters or French Thunderstreaks.
Certainly, even after the cease-fire the USA and the Soviets continued to exercise pressure against the British and the French, the governments of which also had to do with anti-war opposition at home. Although all the air arms otherwise did a splendid service, a single RAF pilot, for example, had to be court-martialed after purposedly damaging his Canberra bomber during the take-off from Malta, in order not to be able to fly an attack against Egypt. Already before the cease-fire was agreed, the UN started readying a contingent of peace-keepers which were to be sent to Egypt, and already on 15 November the first UN troops arrived at Abu Swayr aboard Swissair DC-4s and DC-6s. The Operation Musketeer, which involved 80.000 troops, airmen, and sailors, 550 aircraft on five different air bases and seven carriers, as well as 130 ships, which had excellent chances for a success already due to achieving a complete surprise, failed because its initiators ignored the political aspects of the time.
The involved air forces showed different performance. The IDF/AF flew a total of 1.846 combat sorties, of which no less but 831 by the Piper Cubs and Kayders. Three Cubs were lost: one shot down by a MiG-15, one destroyed on the ground, and the third crashed over Jordan on the last day of the war, killing one of the top Israeli officers. 192 sorties were undertaken by Dakotas and Noratlas transports, while the Mystéres, Ouragans, Mustangs, Meteors, and Harvards all together flew only 489 sorties, losing nine Mustangs, one Mystére, and two Harvards in the process. Five additional F-51s were probably written off due to heavy damage, while two Meteors, one Ouragan, a Mystére and two Harvards were damaged to different degree. Five Israeli pilots were killed and one was captured. In exchange, the Israelis claimed destruction of four Vampires, three MiG-15s, and one Il-14 in air combats, as well as 22 tanks, 17 armored and 260 other vehicles.
|Ouragan "44", with a large shark-mouth insignia, usually associated with the "113" or "Lion Head Squadron" IDF/AF. During the Sinai campaign similar marking was applied to at least three Israeli Ouragans, 29, 44, and 59. (IDF)|
Although no exact details are known, it is estimated that the French planes stationed in Israel flew approximately 100 combat sorties. Two Thunderstreaks were lost in accidents.
The EAF flew at least 200 combat sorties against the Israeli Army and suffered a loss of three MiG-15s (of which one was captured by the Israelis), probably one MiG-17, four Vampire FB.52s, two Meteors, and two Mraz Sokols (one of which was captured in intact condition). In addition, it is estimated that their army lost 1.000 dead and 4.000 injured during the fighting in Sinai, together with some 400 tanks and other combat vehicles. Nevertheless, the EAF Egyptians was proud for the performance of their pilots, especially their air-to-ground attacks. Their performance against the Anglo-French invasion, however, was completely different.
Although the EAF suffered a loss of only five pilots and some 200 other ranks killed and injured during the fierce air strikes of the British and French fighter-bombers, the EAF was actually completely destroyed, with all its operational airfields badly damaged, control towers, hangars, radar stations, shops, and depots destroyed. Although the claims of the British and French were almost two times as high, the British later estimated that the EAF lost 104 MiG-15s and MiG-17s, 26 Il-28s, 30 Vampires, eleven Meteors, and 63 other assorted aircraft (foremost trainers, but also some Sea Furies and Spitfires), while 50 others were heavily damaged. They also estimated that additional ten MiG-15s, 16 Il-28s, four Meteors, 14 Vampires, six Spitfire, 30 training aircraft, 31 transport, and 22 other aircraft were either lightly damaged, or flown out to Syria and Saudi Arabia. These figures indicate, that the Soviets have probably managed to bring up to 30 MiG-15s and MiG-17s to Egypt between 29 October and 6 November 1956. On the ground, during the fighting in the Port Said area, the British estimated the Egyptian losses with 650 killed and 900 injured.
|The EAF MiG-15 that crash-landed in the shallows of the Bardavil Laguna was recovered by the Israelis and placed on display as a war memorial. (IDF)|
The RAF, FAA, AdA and Aéronavale flew more than 5.000 operational sorties during the short war, and the counter-air offensive was the most intensive flown since the Korean War. The Canberras flew 72 missions from Malta, and Valiants additional 49, dropping at least 1.439 bombs caliber 454kg. The fighters from HMS Eagle, for example, flew 621 combat sortie, and those from Albion 415. They spent 72 bombs caliber 454kg, 157 bombs caliber 250kg, 1.448 rockets, and 88.000 rounds 30mm. 23 British pilots were and soldiers were killed, and 96 injured. One Canberra (over Syria), one Venom, two Sea Hawks, two Wyvrens, and two Whirlwind helicopters were shot down during the fighting, and over 50 other aircraft were damaged to one or other degree. The French lost ten killed and 33 injured, as well as only one Corsair, although numerous F-84Fs and F-4U-7 Corsairs (which flew 132 combat sorties) were damaged.
Both the British and the French learned several important lessons from this war. As first, their aircraft carriers proved indispensable, and – even more so – the Royal Navy developed, demonstrated, and proved the concept of the helicopter carrier, capable of deploying a large number of troops and huge amounts of supplies within the shortest possible time. Interestingly, another lesson was that air superiority fighters are not needed when the moment of surprise is achieved and the enemy air force destroyed on the ground, or kept under constant pressure. Canberra and Valiant bombers, however, proved vulnerable to enemy interceptors, and not effective for interdiction strikes, which indicated that more flexible – but also much faster – interdictor/strike fighter-bombers were needed: such aircraft were in development in the UK at the time the government stopped their development, in 1960, signing the death-warrant of the independent British aircraft industry.
The French learned properly also about the importance of their carriers, albeit also that the ships available at the time were too small, and the aircraft they carried on the limit of being useful and effective. Therefore, the Marine Nationale was immediately authorized to order two new medium attack carriers, both of which were completed in the early 1960s. For these aircraft, also a new generation of naval aircraft was developed, which became so successful, that it was to remain in use well into the 1990s. Contrary to the Royal Navy and the RAF, however, the French noticed the reasons for the absence of Egyptian interceptors, and therefore ensured their navy to be better equipped for similar contingencies in the future, by ordering F-8 Crusader interceptors in the USA.
In strategic sense, the Suez Crisis had a significant importance for the development of both the French and the British air force as well: both countries pushed their own projects for the development of nuclear weapons, in order to establish own means for defense against such threats like the Soviet Union. Also, the fleets of transport aircraft and helicopters were to be reinforced in the following years, and an idea of constantly ready “rapid reaction troops” was born, which ensured that each country had a contingent of troops always ready to move on a short notice. These processes were to last well into the 1990s, although by the late 1960s the British have largely forgotten about the experiences from the Suez Crisis, and had to learn their lessons again at the Falklands, in 1982.
The Israelis were actually the only side that could felt as a winner in both, military, and political sense: even more so, from that time on their military became respected in the West – even if much of its fame from 1956 was already based on overclaiming. The deliveries of huge amounts of weapons and ammunition by France ensured the IDF – and especially the IDF/AF – to become significant and modern-equipped forces, even if it was to take several years longer until enough pilots were trained for all the aircraft. Nevertheless, the organization and training of the Israeli Air Force proved successful, and the cooperation with ground troops was excellent.
Under the pressure and control of the UN, the last British and French troops pulled out of Egypt on 22 November 1956. Already two weeks before, on 7 November, the return of the Canberras and Valiants from Cyprus and Malta was initiated. Most of the units deployed in the area came back home by Christmas, although the RAF Squadrons 15, 61, and 109 remained on Cyprus well into 1957. Both the British and the French task forces left the area between Cyprus and the Egyptian coast already by 10 November, together with the large carrier battle group of the USN: the crews of the combat aircraft were already particularly tired after almost a week of exceptionally intensive operations, and this was – sadly – very good illustrated by a series of accidents that happened between 14 and 18 November, during which one Sea Hawk was lost while on landing, one Sea Venom was destroyed and a technician killed in an hangar-accident aboard the HMS Eagle, and a Corsair from Arromanches as well as an RF-84F from Akrotiri were lost.
On the other side, with the pull back of the last foreign troops, Egypt was finally free of any kind of foreign influence. That is: the Soviets were now to become influential instead the British and French. Nevertheless, it was clear that neither the British nor French would ever come back in the similar manner. For Egypt – and even more so for many other Arab nations – a new age of development came, which was to bring considerable changes in their political and social life, but also more conflicts.
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