Harry Kerr/BIPs/Getty Images
Harry Kerr/BIPs/Getty Images

8 Surprising Facts About the Suez Crisis

Harry Kerr/BIPs/Getty Images
Harry Kerr/BIPs/Getty Images

Season two of The Crown opens on a full-blown catastrophe: 1956's Suez Crisis. This mass failing of diplomacy would diminish Britain’s world standing and severely damage relationships between multiple nations for years to come. It began with the seizure of the Suez Canal and ended with a UN ceasefire. But there was an entire secret invasion in between that. Here are a few key details on the very messy international affair.

1. GAMAL ABDEL NASSER USED A CODE WORD TO SEIZE THE CANAL.

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918 - 1970) with British Prime Minister Anthony Eden (1897 - 1977) in Cairo, 1955
Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser with British Prime Minister Anthony Eden in Cairo in 1955, a year before the Suez Crisis.
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nearly 90 years after the canal opened, Gamal Abdel Nasser became president of Egypt. He spoke extensively about the canal and its creator, Ferdinand de Lesseps, in a July 26, 1956 speech. The Economist estimates he said the name “de Lesseps” at least 13 times. This wasn’t out of admiration. “De Lesseps” turned out to be a code word. Upon hearing it, Colonel Mahmoud Younes and his men seized control of the Suez Canal Company offices in Cairo, Port Said, and Suez. Nasser declared the canal theirs, which is what led to the Suez Crisis.

2. IT WAS ALL OVER A DAM.

Nasser had a specific reason for taking the canal: He wanted to construct the Aswan Dam to control flooding and drought in the region, but he needed money to do so. The United States and Great Britain had offered him a $70 million grant to begin construction on the project, but Nasser was also considering an offer from the Soviet Union. Both America and the UK were growing increasingly frustrated with Nasser. They were outraged over his dealings with communist nations of China and Czechoslovakia, and believed he was playing both sides of the Cold War to his benefit. Britain withdrew its offer first; America followed on July 19, 1956. Just days after Secretary of State John Foster Dulles made the announcement, Nasser seized the canal, intending to use its revenues to finance the dam himself.

3. FRANCE, BRITAIN, AND ISRAEL WERE NO FANS OF NASSER.

Picture released on November 1956 of French troops disembarking at Port Fuad, Egypt, during the Suez crisis
French troops disembarking at Port Fuad, Egypt, in November 1956.
AFP/Getty Images

The Suez Crisis forged an alliance between France, Britain, and Israel, who all despised Nasser. Sir Brian Urquhart, a retired UN diplomat, told NPR, “The one thing I think they all agreed on was the unspoken phrase regime change. They all wanted to see the last of Gamal Abdel Nasser as the president of Egypt.” But they all had separate reasons. By that point, both Britain and France were major shareholders in the Suez Canal Company. France also believed Nasser was assisting Algerian rebels fighting for independence from their French colonizers. By Urquhart’s account, Israel had the biggest grievance: Nasser would not allow Israeli ships through the canal, and his government was also sponsoring Fedayeen terrorist raids into Israel. With these motivations in mind, the three nations hatched a plan to invade Egypt and take the Suez Canal back from Nasser.

4. THOSE THREE COUNTRIES COLLUDED ON A SECRET INVASION.

In October of 1956, representatives from France, Israel, and Britain convened just outside Paris, in Sèvres. They reached an agreement, which would become known as the Protocol of Sèvres: Israel would invade Egypt first, providing Britain and France with an alibi. They would invade next, as supposed peacekeepers. These joint invasions would allow the allies to take back the canal and punish Nasser. Once the protocol was finalized, UK Prime Minister Anthony Eden ordered all evidence of the plot destroyed. But the details did leak, and the impact was catastrophic.

5. QUEEN ELIZABETH HAD RESERVATIONS ABOUT THE PLAN.

Queen Elizabeth II at Badminton House, Gloucestershire in 1956
Tidmarsh/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what Queen Elizabeth II knew about the invasion, much less her opinion on it. Royal historian Robert Lacey has suggested that the Queen was not fully briefed on the Suez strategy. In Elizabeth the Queen, Sally Bedell Smith counters that the monarch had access to Suez documents through her “daily boxes” of important papers and correspondence. Regardless, it appears Elizabeth was not thrilled with the plan. Eden told Lacey that the Queen did not voice any disapproval, “nor would I claim that she was pro-Suez.” Elizabeth’s longtime courtier, Martin Charteris, put it much more bluntly: “I think the Queen believed Eden was mad.”

6. DWIGHT EISENHOWER WAS FURIOUS.

At least one person was openly livid about the plan: Dwight Eisenhower. According to J.P.D. Dunbabin, the American president anticipated some kind of invasion or strike after the U.S. elections. But when Israel took action on October 29, 1956, with France and Britain following just a few days later, he was blindsided. “I’ve just never seen great powers make such a complete mess and botch of things,” he said at the time. “I think that Britain and France have made a terrible mistake.” Eisenhower led the charge in squashing the invasion, pressuring the International Monetary Fund to withhold any loans to Great Britain until they agreed to a ceasefire.

7. THE SUEZ CRISIS SPURRED THE FIRST ARMED UN PEACEKEEPING MISSION.

United Nations troops enter Port Said, on November 15, 1956 during the Suez Crisis.
United Nations troops enter Port Said, on November 15, 1956 during the Suez Crisis.
AFP/Getty Images

UN Peacekeeping officially began in 1948, when a group of UN observers traveled to Israel to monitor a ceasefire between the new nation and its Arab neighbors, but the Suez Crisis marked the first armed UN Peacekeeping intervention. After Britain and France accepted a UN ceasefire on November 7, 1956, the UN dispatched a delegation to monitor the armistice and restore order. According to Urquhart, it was this mission that earned the group its nickname, the “blue helmets.” The UN had wanted to send the taskforce in with blue berets, but didn’t have time to assemble the uniforms. So instead, they spray-painted the liners of their plastic helmets blue.

8. THE CRISIS KILLED ANTHONY EDEN’S CAREER.

The Suez Crisis spelled the end for Anthony Eden. Soon after the ceasefire, he left Britain for three weeks to rest in Jamaica, on doctor’s orders. (He stayed at Ian Fleming’s Goldeneye estate.) When he returned, the British government was still reeling from the Suez Crisis. It was clear Eden would not survive the controversy. On January 10, 1957, he resigned with a report from four doctors stating “his health will no longer enable him to sustain the heavy burdens inseparable from the office of Prime Minister.” (Eden's reliance on Benzedrine has been a major plot point in The Crown, and many believe it's what clouded his judgment.) Eden would live for another 20 years, but the Suez Crisis was his legacy—one that defined his short term in office.

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Watch Apollo 11 Launch
Vice President Spiro Agnew and former President Lyndon Johnson view the liftoff of Apollo 11
Vice President Spiro Agnew and former President Lyndon Johnson view the liftoff of Apollo 11
NASA, Getty Images

Apollo 11 launched on July 16, 1969, on its way to the moon. In the video below, Mark Gray shows slow-motion footage of the launch (a Saturn V rocket) and explains in glorious detail what's going on from a technical perspective—the launch is very complex, and lots of stuff has to happen just right in order to get a safe launch. The video is mesmerizing, the narration is informative. Prepare to geek out about rockets! (Did you know the hold-down arms actually catch on fire after the rocket lifts off?)

Apollo 11 Saturn V Launch (HD) Camera E-8 from Spacecraft Films on Vimeo.

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Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Utility Workers May Have Found One of Rome’s First Churches
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

The remains of what may have been one of Rome’s earliest Christian churches were accidentally discovered along the Tiber River during construction, The Local reports. The four-room structure, which could have been built as early as the 1st century CE, was unearthed by electrical technicians who were laying cables along the Ponte Milvio.

The newly discovered structure next to the river
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

No one is sure what to make of this “archaeological enigma shrouded in mystery,” in the words of Rome’s Archaeological Superintendency. Although there’s no definitive theory as of yet, experts have a few ideas.

The use of colorful African marble for the floors and walls has led archaeologists to believe that the building probably served a prestigious—or perhaps holy—function as the villa of a noble family or as a Christian place of worship. Its proximity to an early cemetery spawned the latter theory, since it's common for churches to have mausoleums attached to them. Several tombs were found in that cemetery, including one containing the intact skeleton of a Roman man.

Marble flooring
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

A tomb
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma1

The walls are made of brick, and the red, green, and beige marble had been imported from Sparta (Greece), Egypt, and present-day Tunisia, The Telegraph reports.

As The Local points out, it’s not all that unusual in Rome for archaeological discoveries to be made by unsuspecting people going about their day. Rome’s oldest aqueduct was found by Metro workers, and an ancient bath house and tombs were found during construction on a new church.

[h/t The Local]

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