It’s the evening of July 26th, 1956, in Port Said on the north coast of Egypt.
An Egyptian army truck is parked in a side street close to the harbor.
Huddled in the back is a squad of Egyptian soldiers. Their officer leans down and adjusts a tiny radio set on the floor by their feet…
The soldiers listen as a man’s voice booms through the device. The charismatic speaker is the President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser. He’s speaking before a crowd of thousands in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. But it’s not just Nasser’s electrifying speech that holds the soldiers’ attention. The officer glances around at his men and reminds them of the codeword they’re listening for: the name ‘Ferdinand de Lesseps’.
Ferdinand was the 19th Century Frenchman who built the Suez Canal, the waterway in Egypt that links the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. When the President says Ferdinand’s name, that’s the soldiers’ signal to begin their secretly planned operation.
So the men listen intently as Nasser works up the crowd with attacks on Western imperialism, criticizing the attempts by countries like America and Britain to control the Arab world. As Nasser begins talking about the Suez Canal, he then says the crucial words: ‘Ferdinand de Lesseps’.
Readying their weapons, the soldiers leap out the back of the truck. With the officer leading the way, they hurry across the street and burst through the front doors of an office building.
The soldiers pass a startled doorman and dash up the stairs to the offices of the Suez Canal Company.
The men push through the door, and the officer in charge roars at the top of his voice for the workers in the room to remain at their desks. There are terrified gasps as the armed soldiers fan out, but the officer assures them that nobody will be hurt if they behave sensibly. Then, he explains that the foreign-owned Suez Canal Company has just been nationalized by President Nasser, and the Egyptian soldiers are here to take possession.
The Suez Canal is one of the most important trade routes in the world. Before it was built in the 1860s, ships bound for Asia from Europe had to mount an arduous and dangerous journey around the southern tip of Africa. The hundred-mile-long Canal through Egypt is a shortcut that shaves thousands of miles off the trip.
And by the mid-1950s, Europe is utterly dependent on the Canal, with two-thirds of the continent’s fuel supply flowing through it. Any disruption to traffic would be disastrous, so the Western powers have kept close control over the Suez ever since it was built. The canal is operated by a private company, but its biggest shareholders are the United Kingdom and France.
This arrangement suits the West – but not the Egyptians. Their President feels the country gets too little in return. By nationalizing the Canal, President Nasser hopes to get a bigger piece of the pie and show Western powers like Britain that they can no longer boss Egypt around.
But Nasser’s sudden move will have unintended consequences. Eventually, it will unleash a global crisis, one that will lead to the outbreak of war in Egypt – and thousands of miles away in London, to the resignation of British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden on January 9th, 1957.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is January 9th, 1957: The Resignation of Sir Anthony Eden.
Act One: Retaliation
It’s the morning of July 27th, 1956. In less than six months, Sir Anthony Eden will be forced to resign as British Prime Minister, but today he’s at the peak of his power.
The 59-year-old marches through the corridors of Number 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s official home in London. He trots downstairs, through an office, and then a doorway into the Cabinet Room at the back of the building.
All his senior ministers are gathered around the long table inside, along with the heads of the British military. The room falls silent as Eden enters and takes a seat. And now, the meeting to discuss the crisis in Egypt can begin.
Sir Anthony Eden has been Prime Minister for little over a year. It’s the pinnacle of a long and successful career in politics. The Conservative statesman has been a Member of Parliament since 1923 and served as Foreign Secretary during World War II. After Winston Churchill retired as Prime Minister last year, Eden was seen as the natural replacement. Good-looking and urbane, he quickly called a general election and was rewarded by voters with an increased majority. So now, Eden looks set to dominate politics in Britain for the rest of the decade.
But the seizing of the Suez Canal by Egyptian President Nasser is a greater test than any Eden has faced so far. So, today, he’s called his cabinet and military chiefs together to decide how the United Kingdom should respond.
Eden leads the debate outlining how serious he believes the situation to be. Egypt is not a friendly nation and Eden regards its leader Nasser as a fascist, but they now have control over the most important trade route in the world. Britain has just six weeks of oil in reserve. If President Nasser closes the Canal, the country will quickly run out of fuel and tumble into an economic crisis.
The Cabinet agrees; it’s vital to the national interest that the Western Powers regain control over the Suez Canal. All political and economic pressure must be brought to bear on President Nasser. But, if that fails, military action may be necessary to take back the Canal.
Eden orders the military chiefs in the room to prepare for war. He believes that the United Kingdom is still a great power, equal to any other in the world, and can act alone if need be. But, before any invasion is launched, Eden still decides to consult the country’s closest allies: France, which is just as reliant on the Suez Canal as Britain, and, most importantly, the United States of America.
In the coming weeks, the British government works closely with the French on a shared response to the crisis. Initially, France favors taking immediate military action – and Sir Anthony Eden agrees. But Eden is warned by his defense chiefs that it would take months to prepare for an invasion. So, the Prime Minister agrees to try diplomacy first.
At a conference in London, proposals are put forward for shared control of the Canal by a consortium of nations. But Egypt refuses to engage with the talks and no deal is reached. Following this diplomatic failure, France and Britain begin ratcheting up their preparations for war. The only question that remains is whether America will stand in their way. So, Eden sends the second most powerful man in the British government to find out.
At the gates of the White House, Chancellor of the Exchequer Harold Macmillan nods through the window of his car at the uniformed guard on duty. The gates swing open and the car carrying the Chancellor sweeps down the drive toward the home of the President of the United States.
Officially, Macmillan has come to America for the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Unofficially, he’s here on a diplomatic mission, to gauge American support for military action against Egypt.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower welcomes Macmillan warmly. The politicians know each other well – they worked together during the Second World War, and the two men have kept in touch ever since. Chatting amicably, the statesmen wander through the White House gardens, talking about golf as much as they do the crisis in Egypt. Nevertheless, Macmillan leaves the meeting utterly convinced that the United Kingdom will have Eisenhower’s support; that America won’t intervene directly to help Britain and France, but it won’t stop them either.
But, in time, it will become clear that Macmillan has misread the Americans. Eisenhower is in fact firmly against Britain and France taking military action. And this mistake will lead to national humiliation for the United Kingdom and deliver a fatal blow to the leader of Macmillan’s boss, Sir Anthony Eden.
Act Two: Humiliation
It’s October 31st, 1956, just over two months before Sir Anthony Eden will resign as British Prime Minister.
On board, a British aircraft carrier stationed in the Mediterranean, a young Royal Navy pilot flexes his gloved hands on the controls of his Sea Hawk jet as he waits in the cockpit for his signal. Outside, the deck crew makes their final checks and then clear out of the way. It’s time to go.
The young man is pressed back into his seat as his jet catapults forward, barreling down the deck and up into the sky. The pilot guides his warplane toward the clouds far overhead and sets a course for Egypt.
This is one of the first missions of the joint Anglo-French military intervention in Egypt. But this operation - codenamed Musketeer - has been months in the making. Ever since Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser seized control of the Suez Canal, the militaries of the United Kingdom and France have been working up their plans of attack. And recently, a new partner has secretly joined their alliance.
At a meeting outside Paris earlier this month, Britain and France struck a deal with Israel. The three countries agreed on a plan. Israel would invade the Egyptian-held Sinai Peninsula, east of the Suez Canal. Feigning surprise and horror at the outbreak of war, Britain and France would then pose as peacekeepers deploying their troops to keep the Israelis and Egyptians apart. But their real goal is to seize the Suez Canal and ensure it remains open to trade with the West.
Now, the operation is underway. Israeli forces are advancing rapidly across the Sinai, as French and British warplanes take to the air over Egypt.
After speeding over the Mediterranean, the young British pilot wings his way down toward an Egyptian airfield. Flak from anti-aircraft guns pops in the sky around him, but that doesn’t stop him from releasing his bombs. There’s a burst of flame and black smoke on the ground below as his targets, the airfield’s fuel tanks, explode.
So far, all is going as planned. And soon, British and French troops launch ground assaults on Egypt. Within 24 hours, they seize crucial ports along the Suez Canal.
But the military success of Operation Musketeer isn’t enough to stop a political storm from growing. Quickly, the invasion of Egypt becomes a diplomatic disaster for Britain and one that threatens to bring down the Prime Minister.
Six days after the start of Operation Musketeer, Sir Anthony Eden meets with his senior cabinet members in his office at Westminster. This time, his face is gray, and his usual confidence is absent.
The Prime Minister tells the gathered men that he has grim news from New York. The British ambassador to the United Nations has reported that a devastating Security Council resolution will soon be brought forward. It will condemn Britain and France for their invasion of Egypt and impose economic sanctions on the two countries – unless they agree to an immediate ceasefire.
The Prime Minister watches the cabinet members’ eyes widen at his words. Their expressions mirror Eden’s own feelings of shock and disappointment. Eden expected a move like this from their enemies, the Soviets. But he did not anticipate the resolution to be backed by the Americans.
Eden knew the invasion would be controversial abroad and unpopular with some even in Britain. He also realized he couldn’t count on full-throated support from Washington, especially with Eisenhower distracted by his campaign for re-election. But Eden never expected this outright hostility. Now, he faces a humiliating decision.
Looking around at the ministers gathered in his office, Eden gravely tells them that he has no choice. With American backing, the UN resolution is certain to pass. And the economic sanctions it promises would be crippling for the British economy. Eden must agree to a ceasefire.
The despondent ministers file out. As the last one leaves, Eden makes a call to the White House. And on a crackling transatlantic line, he tells President Eisenhower that Britain has agreed to America’s demands. The fighting will stop at midnight Egyptian time.
The end of hostilities will send an unmistakable signal to the world about the power and standing of the United Kingdom. The days when the British Empire was the globe’s foremost power are gone. It will be a humiliation which the country will never forget and a political setback from which Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden will never recover.
Act Three: Resignation
It’s January 9th, 1957 at Buckingham Palace in London.
A servant leads British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden through the gleaming chambers of the palace. He’s shown into a comfortable room, with a fire burning in the grate. Next to the fireplace is Queen Elizabeth II who stands to welcome him. Eden bows to the young Queen before formally resigning as her Prime Minister.
After agreeing to the ceasefire in Egypt and withdrawing British troops, Sir Anthony Eden’s political authority quickly drained away. He still believes his actions were right, but it’s clear he’s lost the confidence of many colleagues in Parliament. And without that, he can’t continue as Prime Minister. Over the recent Christmas break, it became obvious even to Eden that he couldn’t go on.
Officially, he blames ill health for stepping aside – Eden has suffered chronic pain and frequent infections ever since he had surgery four years ago. But everyone knows the real reason. Eden has been responsible for the worst days for the United Kingdom since it faced near defeat at the hands of the Nazis early in World War II. The humiliating public reversal in Egypt has exposed Britain’s weakness, shredded the country’s reputation, and badly damaged the so-called ‘Special Relationship’ with its closest ally: the United States.
In time, those diplomatic ties will rebuild. Eden will be followed as Prime Minister by the man who was his Chancellor, Harold Macmillan. And Macmillan will become one of the most successful British Prime Ministers of the 20th Century. During his six-year stint in office, Macmillan will work hard to rebuild the relationship with America and move Britain beyond the days of Empire, and toward a new role in the world.
But even today, the Suez Crisis is remembered in the United Kingdom as a byword for political catastrophe and the national humiliation that began with the nationalization of a trade route and ended with the resignation of a Prime Minister on January 9th, 1957.
Next onHistory Daily: January 10th, 1990. Seven months after pro-democracy protests led to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, China finally lifts martial law in Beijing.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.