1956, Operation Musketeer: the last colonial enterprise of the Europeans

(To Tiziano Ciocchetti)

At the seizure of power in Egypt by the Arab nationalist party, headed by Gamal Abdel Nasser, he immediately followed the request to withdraw the British forces stationed in the North African country. The last English department left Egypt on 31 March 1956. However, London retained its majority share in the Anglo-French Company in charge of managing the maritime traffic through the Suez Canal, a deal that procured each year about 35 million pounds of profits.

On July 26 President Nasser nationalized the Canal Company to finance the project of the Aswan Dam. It also forbade the Israeli state from using the Suez Canal, thus violating the international treaty of 1888 which guaranteed free transit to all nations. This arbitrary initiative aroused a chorus of international protests and the crisis was addressed in the United Nations Security Council.

Meanwhile, the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) were planning the invasion of the Sinai Peninsula to put Nasser down. An agreement was also reached with Paris and London, according to which the troops of the two European nations would intervene, immediately after the attack launched by the Israelis, on the pretext of defending the Channel from the belligerent countries.

The 29 October 1956 Israelis invade the Sinai. The 31, the RAF, attacks and within four days it destroys the Egyptian aviation.

The November 5 British parades had left Nicosia airport in Cyprus, with the aim of taking control of the Suez Canal.

The operation Musketeer involves the employment of about 80.000 men, whose head include the 16ᵃ Independent Parachute Brigade (Autonomous Parachute Brigade) - commanded by General Butler - and the 3ᵃ Marine Command Brigade. On the French side, the 10ᵃ Paratrooper Division and the 7ᵃ Mechanized Division are employed, both returning from a service shift in Algeria.

The attack plan includes a series of air strikes in order to suppress enemy defenses. The air raid will be followed by the launch of the 3 ° Battalion Parà on the Gamil airport, near Porto Said. At the same time, the French, with the 2 ° Colonial Regiment Parà, have the task of seizing the two bridges of Raswa that connect Porto Said with the mainland. The next day the men of the 3ᵃ Marine Command Brigade and the 1 ° Parà Regiment of the Foreign Legion would land on one of the two sides of the canal and, penetrating inside, would provide support to the paratroopers.

The problem that beset the English commander of the parishes, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Crook, was the area on which the 3 ° Battalion had to descend. The Gamil field is located on a narrow strip of land between the Mediterranean and the lake of El Manzala. It is just 1,5 km long and the paratroopers would have to launch themselves into groups of 20 men at each flight. In the event of a headwind, there is a strong risk that men will fall into the sea or into the lake, while even a small delay in launching could take the paras to a wastewater treatment plant located east of the airport. In addition, the beaches and the tongue of land between the sea and the lake are dotted with mines and machine-gun posts covering the whole area.

Crook decides to get company A down on the west side, isolating him. Company C, on the other hand, should have taken possession of the southern area of ​​the perimeter, while company B would have had to occupy the east side in preparation for the advance on Porto Said. The support of these units is provided by elements of the 33 ° Parachute Light Regiment Royal Artillery and the 9 ° Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers. Also involved in the operation was a medical team for the emergency room and an advanced patrol for air control of the RAF. The airport is defended by an infantry battalion as well as an unspecified number of elements of the Egyptian National Guard, with the support of 4 Soviet-made SU-100 self-propelled guns.

The 3 ° Parà quickly launches out of the Vickers plane Valetta, suddenly finds itself immersed in a dizzying kaleidoscope of colors: the intense blue of the sky, the yellow of the sand and the persimmon of the parachutes. The Egyptians from below began to shoot. The light battery, placed next to the bridge of Gamil, the first goal of the company A, continues to pour bullets against the British plane and soon even the machine guns installed in the concrete forts at both ends of the field start shooting at the aircraft and vulnerable men hanging from their parachutes.

The opposing fire is deadly. For 30 seconds the men, once touched the ground, are not able to get hold of the containers with the equipment and therefore do not have weapons to fight. Then they can arm themselves and begin to respond to the fire. Company C is the one that suffers the greatest losses: within a few minutes it loses 10% of its staff due to machine guns and mortars. The commanding officer of the company, Major Dick Stevens, gathers his men and launches them on the assault of Egyptian positions.

While company B raises the water buildings and reservoirs located in the east, destroying those forts that so many losses caused to the British at the beginning of the assault, company A goes to the control tower and on the airport buildings: they are occupied quickly and with little loss. After occupying the buildings, company A heads over to the other fort, the one on the west side. The officer in command, Major Mike Walsh, entrusts this difficult task to the 1 ° platoon: a very dangerous action because between the British and the target there are about 400 meters of an open stretch of sand to overcome. Lieutenant Peter Coates leads two groups forward while a third group provides coverage. Once a fort is reached a hundred meters, Coates requires heavy artillery support. A soldier carries forward with a rocket launcher from 89mm and with a rocket centers the slot of the fort. Then the platoon quickly advances and wins the position: two Egyptian soldiers remain on the ground and other 9s are captured. The British do not suffer losses at this stage.

The south side of the airport is rounded up by company C, while the headquarters and company D (composed of administrative personnel, cooks and warehouse workers, but trained as reserve combat units since the regiment claimed that every element of the battalion was an expert parachutist) retrieves the heavy equipment launched by the aircraft and set up two commands: one for Lieutenant Colonel Crook and the other more rudimentary, for Brigadier General Butler, who had parachuted together with the men of the battalion.

At this stage of the battle, however, there is a problem: the landing area is so soft that the anti-shock platforms, mounted under the wheels of the jeep to cushion the impact with the ground do not work properly. In fact, the platforms, when they touch the ground, must break, thus automatically freeing the vehicles from the harnesses of the parachutes and making them immediately usable. The parà must therefore struggle hard to free the vehicles stuck in the soft ground, in the meantime they are targeted by the fire of the mortars, to which is added soon that of multiple rocket launchers Katjusha (recently supplied by Moscow).

Heavy equipment prevents people from moving quickly. It is a considerable burden, a common problem in the British Army, but even inevitable in airborne operations, since every man must carry all the necessary equipment on his back, in his rucksack.

Now that the first objectives have been conquered, it is up to the company B to push forward. The serious losses suffered in the early stages of the battle were unforeseen and brutal. Lieutenant Colonel Crook, satisfied with Stevens's advance, goes, together with General Butler, to bring his moral support to the parishes. Their arrival has a positive effect on the soldiers, above all because the two officers wear the traditional red beret of the parà. Soldiers still have steel helmets since they did not have time to take them off, but soon the hats start to appear: silver wings and bayonets glisten in the sun. Now they are ready to move forward. However, at that time the fire of the mortars has never stopped and, a few minutes after Crook's arrival, Stevens is wounded.

Karl Beale, his second, takes command of the company B and sends Sergeant Norman, together with a platoon of non-commissioned officers, to the north, along the road that leads to the sewage treatment plant with the aim of neutralizing another fort that is causing many problems to the British. The battalion mortars come into action to support Norman's assault, paving the way for another platoon, the one commanded by Lieutenant Hogg, who advances under the cover of the anti-tank platoon.

While Hogg leads his paras beyond the plant up to the deserted buildings on the opposite side, the cannons without recoil from 106 mm succeed in centering a self-propelled Egyptian cannon. Meanwhile, support is required for aircraft carriers moored in front of the beach, however, two French Mystères exchange Hogg's paragons for Egyptians and attack them, forcing the platoon to take refuge directly in the tanks of the plant. The parà then succeed, in a second moment, to reach a dense reed bed just in front of the positions held by the company B.

Company C detects the B: at 12.28 a massive air attack, with the support of mortars and cannons without recoil pulverizes the Egyptian station that Hogg had identified in the cemetery and at 10.30 the company leaves the difficult situation in which it was and it exceeds the 300 meters of low sand dunes that separate it from the cemetery wall.

In the enemy positions there was a carnage. However, in the trenches there are still well-placed defenders. The fight is ruthless: few, on both sides, the soldiers taken prisoner.

The conquest of the cemetery appears interminable. Fighting at close range, with gunfire and throwing grenades, the British must appeal to all their training in an attempt to get the better of them.

The defenders finally retreat, and many of them reach the women and children fleeing from Porto Said on the feluccas through the El Manzala Channel, between the city and Gamil. While company C consolidates the positions, many paragons get rid of the Sten machine guns and Lee-Enfield rifles n. 4, which in several cases proved to be unreliable, replacing them with weapons abandoned by the Egyptians: Beretta miter, German MP43, SKS and PPS Soviet rifles and machine guns.

In the control tower of the airport, despite the blows of a SU-100 self-propelled cannon placed in Porto Said, which had found the right lift, the command officers dedicated themselves to planning the second phase of the assault. The Navy helicopters have already evacuated the injured, while the 9ᵃ Parachute team is freeing the track from the barrels put by the Egyptians to prevent the landing of enemy aircraft. Colonel de Fouquères, who acts as liaison officer with the French command, lands on board a Dakota and, ignoring the fire of the mortars and machine-guns that systematically beat the track, after a brief conversation with General Butler, he takes off again for Akrotiri.

Company C, which was fighting in the east, was taken under fire from a group of buildings on the outskirts of Porto Said. The continuing air strikes have now seriously undermined the resistance capacity of the Egyptians. The four SU-100 self-propelled guns, placed in defense of the group of buildings, have been abandoned however the machine guns placed in the apartments still block the advance of the English parades; until Lieutenant Mike Newall, commanding officer of the Platoon Machine Gun, fixes his attention on an Egyptian armored vehicle abandoned in no man's land. He places his platoon in a sheltered spot and then reaches, under enemy fire, the vehicle that, with the help of the sergeant of the company C, manages to set in motion. The two parries attack the Egyptian positions with weapons on board and then return to their lines.

The day is coming to an end, so company C returns to the airport; Company B goes to the wastewater treatment plant, keeping itself ready to support any attacks by the Egyptian side. The following day, the parishes, they wait for the start of the naval bombardment, which would mark the start of the second phase of the operation: the amphibious assault in Porto Said.

All the objectives assigned to the 3 ° Battalion have been achieved and also the French of the 2 ° Colonial Regiment Parachutists have completed their actions in Porto Fuad. The French commander, Colonel Conan, managed to get in touch with the Egyptian commander and is certain that it would now be possible to negotiate the surrender without further bloodshed: consequently he orders that, at 17.00, the airstrikes should cease.

The British general Butler reaches Conan in French helicopter positions and from 18.00 to 20.30 reigns a not easy respite.

However, there are no conditions for a lasting truce. After a relatively quiet night, the 6 November, the 3 ° Parà is located in the port to support the landing of the other departments. After a series of airstrikes and a massive naval bombardment, just before the 7.00 hours, the 40 ° and 42 ° Commando marines reach the beaches, under the cover of the fire of the para machine guns that help them quickly get away from the amphibious vehicles .

A little later, the 45 ° Commando Marines is transferred to the city with helicopters, while the 1 ° Parà Regiment of the Foreign Legion takes land along the breakwater, on the east side of Poro Said. Elements of the 3 ° Parà are involved in firefights all day long and, as soon as night falls, the 2 ° Parà comes ashore with a Centurion tank department.

Reached by General Butler, the 2 ° Parà advances up to El Cap, about thirty kilometers south of the mouth of the Suez Canal and at 23.59 hours the Egyptians accept the ceasefire.

(photo: web)