Bob O'Hara - Public Record Searches
"Proceed with utmost dispatch in support of Operation
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
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
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.
C in C Med and his staff move from Malta to Episkopi
Anglo/French ultimatum to Egypt and Israel to halt the war
French Admiral reports meeting a US carrier group in
position 3412N 2809E, (north of Egypt).
HMS Ceylon arrives in Cyprus from UK
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
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
Carrier-based planes attack Egyptian tanks and vehicles in
US submarines reported operating near 3300N 3000E.
US personnel being withdrawn by US Navy from Alexandria and
US submarines instructed by the Commander of the 6th Fleet
to remain on the surface.
British assault troops land at Port Said beach.
C in C Med warns the invasion force that Soviet Union may
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.
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
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
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
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, 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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