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Operation Musketeer

"Proceed with utmost dispatch in support of Operation MUSKETEER"
was the signal received by the newly commissioned HMS Wakeful tied up in Portsmouth Harbour on 25th October 1956. What and where was Operation MUSKETEEER? What part could a frigate like Wakeful play?

A look at the current media headlines answered some of the questions. The Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, with his French counterpart, Guy Mollet, decided that the Suez Canal had to be safeguarded. Operation MUSKETEER was the joint British/ French operation to protect the Canal following President Nasser's takeover. Those who looked beyond the headlines wondered why there was apparently to be no US participation.Indeed President Eisenhower firmly disapproved of the action. Undoubtedly, he was distracted by the US presidential elections which were only a week away and by the Soviet Union?s fierce suppression of anti-communist uprisings in Hungary. But Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, feared that the Suez action would lead to WW3 and behind the scenes they had urged Eden not to proceed with this act of colonialism.

However, in his memoirs, "Full Circle", Eden argued that his reaction to President Nasser's seizure of the Canal had nothing to do with colonialism but much to do with international rights. If the US had to defend her treaty rights in Panama, would Mr Dulles regard that as colonialism? Eden says that it would be foolish to pretend that Dulles' remarks did not represent the anti-colonial feelings of many Americans and goes on to say that George III had much to answer for.

Forty six years after Suez and in the midst of yet another Arab / Israeli conflict, it is hard not to sympathise with Dulles. Eden was smarting because Britain had lost a short cut to the east but a far bigger danger existed. Dulles genuinely feared WW3 and had avoided supporting the uprisings in East Germany in 1953 and Hungary in 1956, (despite his personal views on communism), which might have set the world alight. He certainly did not want to take the risk of a world conflagration over what he saw as a colonial adventure.

Some excerpts from the Diary of Events drawn up by the Chiefs of Staff to be found in ADM 116/6136 at the National Archives illustrate how precariously international events were poised and why Dulles wanted to tread cautiously.

30th Oct
C in C Med and his staff move from Malta to Episkopi
Anglo/French ultimatum to Egypt and Israel to halt the war issued
French Admiral reports meeting a US carrier group in position 3412N 2809E, (north of Egypt).
HMS Ceylon arrives in Cyprus from UK

31st Oct
Anglo/French ultimatum expires.
RAF bombers attack Egyptian airfields
The French report two US destroyers entering Alexandria and that the carrier group reported the day before was patrolling in the vicinity of 3500N 3000E

1st Nov
Terse Top Secret signals from C in C Med to Admiral of the US 6th Fleet urging that US forces operate in some other area.
Torquay, (F5), Whirlwind and Wizard join anti-smuggling patrol off Cyprus to prevent arms reaching EOKA

3rd Nov
Carrier-based planes attack Egyptian tanks and vehicles in Pyramids area.
US submarines reported operating near 3300N 3000E.
US personnel being withdrawn by US Navy from Alexandria and Port Said.

4th Nov
US submarines instructed by the Commander of the 6th Fleet to remain on the surface.

6th Nov
British assault troops land at Port Said beach.
C in C Med warns the invasion force that Soviet Union may intervene imminently.
Port Said captured by British assault troops.
HMG ordered cease fire from 2359.
Helicopters from Ocean and Theseus employed in casualty evacuation after landing 45 RM Commando.

7th Nov
Mail censorship discontinued

From 8th November, under the heading of 'Lessons Learnt', C in C Med's Director of Communications said that the Royal Navy's Communications Branch was insufficiently manned and equipped to meet the demands of operations such as MUSKETEER. He quotes failures in ship/shore links particularly between Malta and Tyne, Forth and Meon. On the other hand Eagle with its teleprinter radio circuits handled large volumes of traffic with Air Force HQ in Cyprus.

Cryptography proved to be an almost fatal bottleneck, both in tactical and long-haul communications. Provisions for SIGINT and radio warfare though were more than adequate and provided extra cover to GCHQ who operated a special encrypted channel from Malta and Cyprus to Force Commanders.

The Chief Staff Officer (Intelligence) said that the supply of intelligence during Operation MUSKETEER appeared to have been reasonably satisfactory but against this it must be remembered that enemy action was negligible.

In a signal to the Chiefs of Staff dated 8th November 1956, the Allied Commander in Chief summarised the operation by saying that the build-up at Port Said had gone smoothly and that the next phase would be attempts to clear the Canal. The army were in full control in Port Said and the RAF were limited to reconnaissance.

And so, almost as soon as it started, Operation MUSKETEER was history. The active units of MUSKETEER were stood down and all that remained was the huge task of re-opening the Suez Canal. There were 22 wrecks in Port Said Harbour alone and uncounted ones in the Canal and the Bitter Lakes.

President Eisenhower went on to be elected for a second term. Anthony Eden resigned on 9th January 1957 as British Prime Minister. In his memoirs he said he thought it unfair to surprise the Queen with a sudden resignation and so went to Sandringham on 8th January to tell her that he was coming to see her on the following day at Buckingham Palace. In "Full Circle" he firmly blamed Dulles, (and George III), for having let him down. Dulles was already a sick man and died of cancer in May 1959.

Guy Mollet lost the French presidential election to Mitterand and died in 1975.

Nasser had become President of Egypt in 1952 following a coup. He was highly praised in Egypt for his agrarian and social reforms but was not wholly trusted outside of his own country. However, following the Suez crisis, Nasser received unprecedented support throughout the Arab world and became a founder member, with Nehru, of the non-aligned movement. He died in 1970.

And what of Wakeful? Despite her dash for glory, she just managed to get in at the end of MUSKETEER and the build-up at Port Said. But in an amphibious operation of carriers and assault forces, was the day of frigates and destroyers done? Perhaps. On 10th November 1956, Wakeful was withdrawn from Port Said and joined the anti-smuggling patrol off Cyprus.

After service on HMS Wakeful, Bob O'Hara left the Navy and joined GCHQ where he served for 35 years. He currently works as an independent Naval and Military researcher at Public Record Offices in London.

Peter Unwin and Bob O'Hara
Peter Unwin, author of 1956 Power Defied, shown here in conversation with Bob O'Hara who did much of the historical research in the National Archives.

During the autumn of 1956, Peter was serving in a Middle East department of the Foreign Office and later joined the British Legation in Budapest whilst Bob was on one of Her Majesty's frigates at Suez. Two different seats in an arena which nearly witnessed the start of WW3.

Writer and one-time ambassador Peter Unwin wanted to write a book to mark the fiftieth anniversary of that most tumultuous of years, 1956. In that year Khrushchev denounced Stalin, Egypt's Colonel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, Britain and France conspired with Israel to get it back, Hungary rose in revolt against its communist masters and the Soviet Union stepped in to put the uprising down. Peter needed to trawl National Archive records on matters ranging from the assessment of the British ambassador in Moscow to the Royal Navy's role in putting troops ashore at Port Said at the entrance to the Suez Canal. The result of his and Bob O'Hara's research is a new book, 1956: Power Defied.

In the book Peter traces the stories of the Hungarian and Suez crises, asking what provoked them, what happened, and what were their long-term consequences. He examines the parts played in these dramas by the central actors: Nasser of Egypt, Imre Nagy in Hungary, Moscow's Khrushchev and Britain's Anthony Eden. He looks also at other players, from President Eisenhower (who turned on his European allies to back the United Nations) to Tito of Yugoslavia, Menzies of Australia, Gomulka of Poland and Dag Hammarskjold, the indefatigable Secretary General of the United Nations.

Unwin also traces other stories of 1956. How the British deported Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus to the Seychelles, only to bring him back a few years later to lead Cyprus to independence and have tea with Her Majesty the Queen. How Fidel Castro came back from exile to invade Cuba and make himself a thorn in America's flesh for the next fifty years. How "Look Back in Anger" was first staged in the Royal Court Theatre in London. And how Marilyn Monroe married Arthur Miller and went on honeymoon in Englefield Green, in the heart of the Surrey countryside. A great read by a great writer.

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