From South Shields to Suez Canal crisis

Egyptians celebrate after forces under President Nasser siezed and nationalised the Suez Canal.
Egyptians celebrate after forces under President Nasser siezed and nationalised the Suez Canal.

Today former South Shields councillor Arthur Meeks recalls his involvement in two of Britain’s most dramatic (yet largely forgotten) military actions since the end of the Second World War – the Suez Canal crisis and the Cyprus “emergency”.

Seventy-nine-year-old Mr Meeks begins his account by looking back at his own early years.

He explains how he joined the Merchant Navy for a couple of years when he was 16 years old.

Then, upon leaving the Merchant Navy, he had to do his national service.

“I joined the Army in 1955, serving in the Royal Engineers as a driver,” he reveals.

Having trained at Aldershot, Mr Meeks was stationed in Cyprus for a while before heading back to England.

But he wasn’t home for long – due to the Suez Canal crisis.

Historically, the canal provided Britain with a shorter sea route to its empire and, as the 20th century dawned and oil grew in importance, it provided a strategic link to the oilfields of the Persian Gulf.

As a result, Britain was committed to protect the canal.

At this point, I think it is important to trace the background to the crisis, so here is a brief summary:

The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, signed in London, in 1936, proclaimed Egypt to be an independent sovereign state.

But it allowed for British troops to continue to be stationed in the Suez Canal zone in order to protect Britain’s financial and strategic interest in the canal until 1956 – at which time the need for their presence would be re-examined and, if necessary, renegotiated

The Suez crisis has its roots in the post-war upsurge of nationalism in Egypt. In 1951, Nahas Pasha, leader of the recently-elected nationalist Wafd party, revoked the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, and attacks on the British garrison soon followed.

British threats to occupy Cairo prompted King Farouk to dismiss Pasha, but in July 1952 Farouk was overthrown in a military coup, and General Mohammed Neguib seized power.

Rather than insist on Britain’s rights under the 1936 treaty, Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary at the time, tried to negotiate with the new government.

In 1954, Colonel Gamel Abdul Nasser, who was intent on ending British occupation, replaced General Neguib.

Even so, in the October of that year, Nasser signed a fresh treaty which would see British troops being withdrawn from Egypt by June, 1956.

Nevertheless, it was agreed that British troops would be permitted to return, if the Suez Canal was threatened, which it was – from Egypt itself.

For when plans to fund the Aswan Dam project were withdrawn, President Nasser nationalised the Anglo-French Suez Canal Company on July 26, 1956, declaring that he would take the revenue from the canal to finance his dam.

Eden looked to military action to restore Britain’s influence in the region.

The United States, however, made it clear that unjustified military action would not be tolerated.

Justification for such intervention would soon present itself, however, following conflict between the Egyptians and Israel, which had launched an airborne attack on the Mitla Pass.

Britain and France issued ultimatums to both sides to stop the fighting, but the Israelis continued their operations, expecting an Egyptian counter-attack – instead, Nasser’s army was already withdrawing.

As a result of Israel’s on-going hostilities, on November 5, some three months and 10 days after Nasser had nationalised the canal, the Anglo-French assault on Suez was launched.

It was preceded by an aerial bombardment, which grounded and destroyed the Egyptian Air Force.

Soon after dawn, soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, dropped onto El Gamil airfield, while French paratroopers landed south of the Raswa bridges and at Port Fuad.

It was into this war-zone that Royal Engineer Meeks found himself heading for, after leaving Southampton on the troop ship Asturias.

l Tomorrow, Mr Meeks talks about his role in that conflict as well as the terror and death awaiting him in Cyprus.