The Destruction of National Will

Suez Invasion and Aden Evacuation

No sooner had the British left Palestine than its Arab neighbours entered, eager to strangle the state of Israel at birth. Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq expected an easy victory. King Farouk, who had inherited the crown of Egypt from his father Fuad in April 1936, staked it on the outcome of the war in May 1948—he sent his forces into battle without even consulting his Prime Minister. This proved to be one of the rashest gambles in his rakish career. The Haganah, with guns, tanks and even Messerschmitt fighter planes purchased from Czechoslovakia, routed all but Jordan’s Arab Legion. Commanded by John Glubb, known as Glubb Pasha, together with a cadre of British officers, it captured the Old City of Jerusalem. King Abdullah was able to incorporate the West Bank of the Jordan River into his realm, an appropriation that Israel preferred to the creation of a Palestinian state. The triumph of “Mr Bevin’s Little King”1 emphasised the disaster that overtook his royal rival for the leadership of the Arab world. Farouk exposed not only his own ineptitude but the failings of his army.

No one observed them with a sharper eye than Captain Gamal Abdel Nasser, a fiery young patriot who was wounded during the fighting. He noted that the high command tried to hide its incompetence by fostering fantastic myths about the enemy, who were said to have electrically operated towers that rose from the ground and fired in all directions. Yet on his own side, wrote Nasser, there was “no concentration of forces, no accumulation of ammunition and equipment. There was no reconnaissance, no intelligence, no plans.”2 Nor was there military secrecy: Cairo newspapers published Nasser’s marching orders before he had time to obey them. So in the end Israel secured the Negev, which was likened to a dagger blade dividing the Arab world, splitting the Muslims of Asia from those of Africa. And until restrained by Truman, the Haganah menaced the land of the Nile itself. Nasser attributed the spoiling of the Egyptians less to Jewish invaders than to British occupiers. During a truce he even quizzed an Israeli counterpart about how the Zionists had succeeded in their “struggle with the English.” Nasser concluded that Egypt, so long demoralised by colonial oppression, had become prey to a corrupt and decadent ruling order. It had been “left to the mercy of monsters.”3

The most profane of these monsters was King Farouk himself, who typified the impotence of Egyptian government under British tutelage. In theory, of course, the treaty of 1936 had confirmed Egypt’s independence, withdrawing foreign privileges and confining the British garrison of ten thousand troops to the zone around the Suez Canal. In practice, the imperial force always exceeded that limit and it swelled to vast proportions during the Second World War. Similarly, Sir Miles Lampson was demoted from High Commissioner to ambassador in 1936 but he was urged by the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, to make his new role “in fact, though not in appearance,”4 as effective as his old one. Nothing loath, Lampson continued to dominate the land of the Nile in the spirit of Lord Cromer. He kept the Union Jack flying at the Residency, travelled the country by special train and rode through Cairo in a Rolls-Royce preceded by two motorcyclists blowing whistles. Too grand to carry money, he maintained “an exceptionally grandiose establishment.” It even included a clerk to look after his game book. Mad about blood sports, Lampson shot kites on the golf course as well as ducks in the Delta. He amused his hard-worked staff by saying, “I like coot; they kill so well.”5 A huge man with a bulbous nose and a blistering manner, the ambassador bullied Egyptian politicians and lectured the King. Farouk nicknamed him “Professor” and “Gamoose”—water buffalo. Lampson called Farouk “the boy” and said that he was “becoming a fair pickle.”6

He meant that the monarch was a grotesque voluptuary who, like Heliogabalus, “abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures with ungoverned fury.”7 Gourmand, libertine, kleptomaniac, drug-trafficker and buffoon, Farouk surrounded himself with a camarilla of Nubian flunkeys, Italian toadies and Levantine pimps. He played cruel practical jokes. He sold fine titles and bought smart cars, which he drove at breakneck speed. He was an insatiable collector, hoarding everything from paperweights to pornography, from Fabergé eggs to match-box tops, from cuckoo clocks to pictures of copulating elephants. Farouk also liked to accumulate the latch keys of nubile young women. His sexual antics caused scandal even in a city with an international reputation for vice—during the war one Cairo brothel displayed a sign saying “Esperanto spoken here.”8 A slave to caprice, Farouk resisted all other forms of control. In February 1942 he tried to defy Lampson himself, just as German panzers were sweeping across the western desert and Cairo mobs were shouting, “Forward Rommel; Long Live Rommel.”9 The only thing that could hold up Rommel, wits suggested, was the slow service in Shepheard’s Hotel. The ambassador demanded that the King should invite the pro-British Mustafa Nahas, leader of the Wafd, to form a government. When Farouk procrastinated, Lampson ringed the Abdin Palace with troops, tanks and armoured cars, and burst in with a letter of abdication for him to sign. According to Lampson’s gloating account, Farouk “asked almost pathetically and with none of his previous bravado if I would not give him one more chance.”10

The ambassador reluctantly agreed, convinced that “we have a rotter on the Throne” who would seize any opportunity to “stab us in the back.”11 It was a shrewd summation. Farouk fantasised about shooting Lampson and evicting the British. The bitterness of the humiliation poisoned his life and apparently induced persecution mania. Despite strict censorship, the palace coup could not be kept secret for long. News of it particularly outraged Egyptian soldiers. General Mohammed Neguib offered to resign because he was ashamed to wear his uniform. Nasser thought that the army was disgraced by its failure to intervene: “If it had dared the English would have retreated like pansies (khawalates).12 He and other young officers began to plot revenge. So did politicians, writers, students, workers and nationalists of all sorts when wartime restrictions were lifted. Inspired by creeds ranging from Islam to Marxism, they agitated for radical programmes. Militants held mass demonstrations that led to bloody clashes with police and troops. Terrorists assassinated Egyptian collaborators and threw bombs into British barracks and clubs. Behind the disturbances was a common demand for the complete evacuation of all foreign servicemen, without which independence was a sham.

Bevin wanted an equal alliance and hoped to lease the Suez Canal base. Early in 1946, as an earnest of his good intentions, he recalled Lampson (now ennobled as Lord Killearn). The ambassador’s parting shot was to assure the Foreign Office, in an echo of Cromer, that Egyptians were much like children and needed “a fair and helpful hand to guide them.” The removal of Killearn’s hand delighted many in Egypt, no one more than its sovereign. But others thought that the new ambassador merely implemented the old “colonialist policy with silken gloves.”13 This was not entirely fair. In May 1946 Attlee announced that all British forces would quit Egypt. And when Churchill damned the decision, Bevin, his mouth so swollen after the extraction of three teeth that he looked just like a bloodhound, decried his “Poona mentality.”14 Yet no agreement was reached. This was because Bevin rejected Egypt’s claim to the Sudan, which should also, he insisted, enjoy eventual self-government. Farouk won some fleeting popularity by wearing the crown of both countries and claiming to embody in his increasingly corpulent person the unity of the Nile Valley. But when it came to resolving the Anglo-Egyptian stalemate, the King was a pawn. Moreover, he discredited himself hopelessly in 1948, divorcing his popular wife Farida (“the only one”) and appearing at casinos during the war against Israel dressed in the uniform of a field-marshal. After the defeat he presided over a victory parade. Like England’s Prince Regent, who sometimes claimed to have fought heroically at Waterloo, Farouk afterwards boasted that he had personally led his troops into battle.

Such extravagances encouraged the revival of Nasser’s dormant conspiracy. Many of those who joined the ranks of his Free Officers had, like Nasser himself, humble origins. They deplored the abject plight of the fellaheen and Nasser quoted Mustapha Kemal: “To live in despair is not to live at all.”15 They contrasted the grinding poverty of the many with the flaunted opulence of the few. This was a familiar refrain. Winston Churchill himself had urged Farouk to promote social welfare since “nowhere in the world were the conditions of extreme wealth and poverty so glaring.”16 But coming from him it was an audacious criticism. For during the war Churchill’s own government had squeezed Egypt more fiercely than ever, incurring a debt of over £350 million. The Free Officers blamed Britain not only for gross exploitation but also for inadequate military training and deficient weaponry, which put them at the mercy of the Haganah in 1948. The arms scandal also reflected corruption in high places of the Egyptian government. The wife of Mustafa Nahas, who himself led the Wafd to victory in the election of 1950, was heavily implicated. Moreover, the Prime Minister, primped, powdered and perfumed, with a gleaming Cabochon emerald ring worn outside his grey silk gloves, seemed a model of decadence to rival the King himself. The Free Officers were not impressed that Nahas now became more politically radical, championing social reform and repudiating the treaty of alliance with Britain that he himself had signed in 1936. And the Egyptian masses, their struggle for survival aggravated by a slump in cotton prices, were not appeased by the fact that British forces had (in 1947) withdrawn into the Canal Zone. For this was a mortifying symbol of Egyptian subservience, “a state within the state.”17

Eclipsing Singapore, as well as the spreading archipelago of American bases in Arab states (Morocco, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Bahrein), it was the most elaborate overseas military installation in the world. The Canal Zone consisted of 750 square miles of desert between Suez and the Nile delta, equipped with ports and seaplane docks, ten airfields, a railway system for nine hundred carriages and a road network for thousands of vehicles. It contained barracks, hospitals, factories, bakeries, power stations, coal bunkers, oil tanks, supply depots, ammunition dumps, sewage farms, water filtration plants and recreation facilities. But by the end of 1951 the garrison, intended to protect the jugular vein of the Empire, faced the task of protecting itself. The 38,000 troops (their number soon doubling) were beset by Egyptian strikers, saboteurs and so-called “liberation commandos,” or fedayeen. These were mainly peasants, workers, students and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, acting with the tacit support of the government. Back in power and fuelled by whisky, Churchill responded like the cavalry subaltern of Omdurman. Advancing towards Eden with clenched fists, he growled: “Tell them that if we have any more of their cheek we will set the Jews on them and drive them into the gutter from which they should never have emerged.”18 Guerrilla raids prompted regular retaliation. On 25 January 1952 British soldiers used tanks and artillery to demolish the police barracks at Ismailiya, with the loss of over fifty lives. The following day, The Timesindignantly reported, “frenzied crowds” subjected Cairo to “anarchy, destruction, incendiarism and pillage,” leaving the streets looking “as though they had been attacked by a fleet of bombers.”19

The prime targets on this “Black Saturday” were British bastions such as Thomas Cook’s travel agency, Barclays Bank, Shepheard’s Hotel and the Turf Club. But the mob also burned edifices patronised by pashas and beys—smart department stores, luxury cinemas and fashionable nightclubs such as Madame Badia’s, haunt of Farouk’s favourite belly dancer, Tahia Carioca, known to the British as “Gippy Tummy.” They even menaced the Abdin Palace where the King was holding a vast, gold-plated banquet to celebrate the birth of a crown prince. The authorities were slow to restore order, the Minister of the Interior being preoccupied with the purchase of a house and the Prime Minister, Nahas, being “busy having his corns cut.”20 In fact the riots signalled the start of a revolution against an ancien régime in the last stages of decrepitude. What ultimately brought it down was its failure to get rid of the British. In July 1952 the Free Officers completed the work of the mob. They mounted a putsch and forced the King to abdicate. Dressed in an admiral’s uniform and given a twenty-one-gun salute, Farouk sailed away from Alexandria on board the Mahroussa. It was the same royal yacht, once again freighted with gold ingots, that had taken his grandfather, Khedive Ismail, into exile in 1879. The Free Officers, led by General Neguib but dominated by Colonel Nasser, had resisted the temptation to execute the King. “History will sentence him to death,” said Nasser.21 He himself was intent on liquidating the twin evils of colonialism and feudalism.

Despite a power struggle lasting two years, he made progress on both counts. First the new regime crushed external opponents, including the Wafd and the Muslim Brotherhood. Then Nasser purged rivals within the junta, notably the pipe-puffing Neguib, who had put forward liberal-democratic policies known as “the ideas of March.”22 The new dictator was initially awkward and unpopular, the son of a postal clerk who had usurped the purple. He admitted to remaining a revolutionary conspirator at heart, “suspicious of everyone.”23 But Nasser was a model of probity beside Farouk. He lived modestly with his family in the suburb of Heliopolis, building extra rooms on to his house as they became necessary. The CIA merely demonstrated its ineptitude by offering him a $3 million bribe—though he did use part of a huge sum given to Neguib by Kermit Roosevelt, a ubiquitous CIA operative, to build the Cairo Tower, the granite landmark that Nasser called “Roosevelt’s erection.”24 Nasser’s worst vice was chain-smoking Craven A cigarettes. Unlike the King, he radiated energy. Tall and muscular, he moved like a panther. His olive-skinned countenance, white teeth gleaming between aquiline nose and prognathous jaw, was spellbindingly expressive. Whether plotting, raging, joking, gossiping or orating, he behaved like the embodiment of the national will.

Without delay he assaulted the old order, abolishing Ottoman pashadom, founding a republic and initiating agrarian reform at a time when landless labourers were earning ten piastres (ten pence) a day. He also set about restoring the dignity of Egypt, fatally impaired by the alien incubus. A vital step was to abandon Egyptian claims to the Sudan, on the grounds that its people too had the right to decide their own destiny. At a stroke the Nile Valley, though itself divided, united against the imperial power. Britain felt bound to honour its pledge granting Sudanese independence, which came into effect in 1956. Anthony Eden was responsible for this course of action, designed to secure a settlement in Egypt. Ironically, in view of his subsequent gunboat diplomacy, the Foreign Secretary told the cabinet that it was impossible “to maintain our position in the Middle East by the methods of the last century.”25 Eden further succeeded in reaching an agreement whereby British forces would leave the Canal Zone within twenty months, by June 1956, though they would have the right to return if Egypt were attacked. Under pressure from President Eisenhower’s ponderous Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, Churchill was reluctantly persuaded to accept this. The Prime Minister inveighed against “Dull, Duller, Dulles.”26 And he harped on a perennial theme, the eclipse of British power by the United States. His doctor, Lord Moran, said that “it was a canker in his mind, he grieves that England in her fallen state can no longer address America as an equal, but must come, cap in hand, to do her bidding.”27 Churchill would have grieved more had he known that Nasser referred to the Americans and the British respectively as the “coming” and the “going”—“el gayin wa el rayin.” 28

Yet Churchill remained furiously ambivalent about the “scuttle”29 from Egypt. With his head he recognised that the Canal Zone was only held at crippling cost—over £50 million a year. The bill was harder to bear since Britain, which had produced more than a quarter (in value) of the world’s manufactured exports in 1950, was now being swiftly overtaken by European rivals recovering from the devastation of the world war. Moreover, there would be additional demands, for blood as well as money, if the Egyptians mounted another guerrilla campaign. Although a third of the ships passing through Suez were still British, the Canal was no longer the vital imperial artery it had been in the days of the Indian Raj. Its importance was further diminished by the advent of the hydrogen bomb, which meant that Britain’s global strategy might rest on a scattering of Gibraltars. Coming to terms with Nasser could win Egypt for the West in the Cold War and help to improve the lot of a people whose average expectation of life was about half that of Britons. Yet in his heart Churchill detested any surrender of British power. He had condemned Attlee’s refusal to confront Mohammed Mossadeq (“Mussy Duck,” in Churchill’s parlance), the pyjama-wearing Prime Minister who nationalised Iran’s oil, including the largest refinery in the world at Abadan. And Churchill supported the secret American coup to change the regime in 1953, which put the Shah on the peacock throne and left Dulles “purring like a giant cat.”30

Now Churchill kept grumbling about the “appeasement” of military dictators in Egypt. He wanted to kick “Neg-wib” and said that “he never knew before that Munich was situated on the Nile.”31 Capitulation there would lead to the collapse of Britain’s colonial position from the Niger to the Limpopo. Churchill’s gut feelings were best expressed by the “Suez Group” of right-wing Conservatives, devotees of the evanescent cult of Empire. They believed that it was shameful for a nation which had won “the biggest war in history” to retreat in the face of Egyptian “terrorism.” The evacuation of the Canal Zone, wrote Leo Amery’s die-hard son Julian, “would mean the end of the Commonwealth as an independent force in the world.” If pushed too far, Churchill should take vigorous action, ignoring opposition from aspirant arbiters of international conduct in the United States and the United Nations. Britain should “occupy Cairo and install a new and friendlier Egyptian government.”32 Invited to a meeting of Conservative backbenchers to discuss the government’s policy, Churchill said: “I’m not sure I’m on our side!”33

Churchill was also uncertain about Anthony Eden’s capacity to lead the country. Keen to remain Prime Minister himself, he did not hide his doubts that the Tory crown prince (or, as he wickedly called him, “my Princess Elizabeth”) might turn out to be a dud. In particular Churchill suspected that the sleek, buck-toothed Eden lacked the moral fibre to defend Britain’s interests overseas. “I’m worried about this myxomatosis,” Churchill told the Minister of Agriculture in cabinet. “You don’t think there’s any chance of Anthony catching it?”34 Certainly Eden was prone to ill health and he was plagued by inflammation of the bile duct resulting from a botched operation on his gall bladder. He was also subject to tantrums and nerve storms. When they subsided he would apologise effusively, confessing to being “a bloody prima donna.”35 The son of a half-mad baronet and an exceedingly beautiful woman, Eden was said to be a bit of both. He veered between consuming vanity and crippling self-doubt. Eden usually advocated sensible colonial policies and always had the courage of his clichés—Bevin was famously quoted as saying that he uttered “clitch after clitch after clitch.”36 But Eden had been equivocal over Munich and, despite his progressive instincts, he was fearful of adopting any course that could be branded as appeasement. After succeeding the octogenarian Churchill in April 1955, he writhed at charges that he was inclined to dither and scuttle, that he was incapable of administering the smack of firm government. One journalist wrote that when he made the emphatic gesture of punching his fist into the palm of his hand, no sound was heard. Another said that his words of command had all the dynamism of a radio “talk on the place of the potato in English folklore.”37Psychologically Eden became a prisoner of the Suez Group, which itself reflected public anxiety about British decline and “advancing American imperialism.”38 The Group’s members were not immune to the dazzling charm that made Eden, it was said, “the best hostess in London.”39 But they generally disliked his effete ways, his addiction to double-breasted waistcoats and his habit of calling men “my dear.” Especially offensive was the manner in which his “moustache curled inside out.”40 One young Tory MP said, “Eden had to prove he had a real moustache.”41 Clarissa Eden did her best to help. Moments before her husband’s eve-of-invasion broadcast on 3 November 1956, she saw on a television monitor that his moustache was almost invisible and quickly blackened the bristles with her mascara.

The symbol of Eden’s determination to maintain British paramountcy in the Middle East, despite the withdrawal from Egypt, was the Baghdad Pact. This was a security agreement signed in 1955 by Turkey, Iraq, Britain, Pakistan and Iran. Its avowed aim was to defend the region from any Soviet threat. But the Pact was also a form of diplomatic imperialism. Although apt to confuse nationalists with Communists, Eisenhower would not sign it for that reason, though he did support it. And over the air waves Nasser vehemently denounced it for splitting the Arab world, which he aspired to lead. Eden found him adamant, even bitter, on the subject during their only personal encounter, which took place at the British embassy in Cairo on 20 February 1955. Immaculate in a dinner jacket, Eden upstaged the khaki-uniformed Nasser by addressing him in Arabic, which he had learned at Oxford (where the oriental syllabus ended in the Middle Ages). When Nasser said that he was interested to see inside the building from which Egypt had been governed, Eden, who had instructed Lampson to ape Cromer, silkily corrected him. “Not governed perhaps,” he said, “advised, rather.”42 According to one of several differing accounts of the evening, Nasser felt patronised by Eden, who behaved like “a prince dealing with vagabonds.”43 He had acted in a similar manner towards Mussolini, giving the impression that he thought “Wogs begin at Calais.”44

Nasser became more bellicose a few days after meeting Eden, when Egypt’s smouldering conflict with Israel once more burst into flame. On Ben-Gurion’s orders a young officer called Ariel Sharon led a ferocious attack on three Egyptian camps in Gaza. Nasser’s forces were too weak to retaliate in kind so he at once embarked on a quest for arms. Frustrated by months of fruitless negotiation with the West, he struck a weapons-for-cotton deal with the Soviet Union. All the old fears about the advance of the Russian Bear, now metamorphosed by Bolshevism and slavering for Suez, returned to haunt the British. One senior official at the Foreign Office concluded that “we must first try to frighten Nasser, then to bribe him, and if neither works, get rid of him.”45Nasser, influenced towards non-alignment by Nehru among others, could not be intimidated. So Eden and Dulles attempted to outbid the USSR by proffering aid to build the Aswan Dam. Intended to harness the Nile, transform Egypt’s economy through hydro-electricity and feed its rapidly increasing population by means of irrigation, this was the biggest civil engineering project in the world, one that would raise a structure seventeen times larger than the Great Pyramid. Indeed the “Red Pharaoh,”46 as Americans called Nasser, referred to it as his pyramid. But he remained intransigent over Israel and he continued to attack the Baghdad Pact. Eden blamed him for Jordan’s refusal to join, comparing him to Mussolini and saying that “his object was to be a Caesar from the Gulf to the Atlantic, and to kick us out of it all.”47

Then, on 1 March 1956, the young King Hussein, determined to be master in his own house, summarily dismissed Glubb Pasha from command of the Arab Legion. Vilified as “an imperialist scorpion”48 by Egyptian propaganda, Glubb had been the personification of British sway in the Middle East. For Eden his sacking was an unbearable “blow to Britain’s waning prestige as an imperial power.”49 The Prime Minister was further tormented by the reaction of the Suez Group. Julian Amery told The Timesthat Glubb’s expulsion, which followed the retreats from Palestine, Abadan, the Sudan and the Suez Canal, attested to the complete “bankruptcy of the policy of appeasement.”50 The Prime Minister was harried in the Commons and took out his fury on Nasser. Over an open telephone line he told the junior minister at the Foreign Office, Anthony Nutting, “I want him murdered.”51

Doubtless at the Prime Minister’s behest, the Secret Intelligence Service did hatch plots to assassinate Nasser and to topple his government. Its agents, who proposed to pour nerve gas into Nasser’s office through the ventilation system, were by no means discreet. They spoke to CIA officers without employing euphemisms such as “liquidation” and they collaborated with the Israelis, referred to as “snipcocks.”52 British ministers and diplomats were shocked by their schemes, which never came to fruition. But later in the year President Eisenhower, who authorised covert action of this sort himself on occasion though he would not sanction American involvement in killing Nasser, took a more robust view of imperial prerogatives. “I just can’t understand why the British did not bump off Nasser. They have been doing it for years and then when faced with it they fumble.”53 Dulles also fumbled. At first he agreed with the British to let the Aswan loan “wither on the vine”54 in order to punish Nasser for his continuing links with Communism—in May 1956 Egypt recognised “Red China.” But in the face of mounting American opposition to the offer, Dulles abruptly cancelled it and the British followed suit.

Nasser was expecting the rebuff but he was enraged by the insulting manner in which it was delivered. He thought that Dulles’s slur on Egypt’s economy was a deliberate “slap in the face.”55 Nasser, newly elected President and the first native Egyptian to rule his country for 2,600 years, had no intention of turning the other cheek. He laid his plans carefully. On 26 July 1956, the fourth anniversary of Farouk’s abdication, he addressed 250,000 people from a balcony overlooking Alexandria’s Liberation Square. The speech, broadcast throughout the Arab world, showed that he had finally mastered the demagogue’s black art. It vilified the West for attempting to return Egypt to financial bondage, an enterprise that he called “imperialism without soldiers.” It contained a code name—Ferdinand de Lesseps—which sent Nasser’s occupation squads into action. And it announced, in a peroration greeted with wild enthusiasm, that “some of your Egyptian brethren…are taking over the Canal Company at this very moment.”56 The Canal would pay for the Dam and its control would restore the nation’s pride.

Britain was correspondingly humiliated. So was Eden, who became quite unbalanced by Nasser’s affront to his amour propre. As the crisis developed the Prime Minister raged more furiously than ever at his aides, as if to sharpen the jibe of Churchill’s private secretary, who had told them: “I work for a great historical figure, and you work for a great hysterical one.”57 Eden resorted to a pharmacopoeia of drugs, taking morphine to calm himself down and Benzedrine to pep himself up. He blamed the glare of the lights in a television studio on Communists at the BBC. He became erratic and apocalyptic, saying that, rather than have the Empire nibbled away, he would prefer to see it “fall in one crash.”58 But Eden’s reaction was not just a matter of wounded vanity and impaired ability. He genuinely lamented the collapse of imperial power, agreeing with Harold Macmillan, his initially pugnacious Chancellor of the Exchequer, that unless they met Nasser’s challenge “Britain would become another Netherlands.”59 Like many others, he saw Nasser as heir to the European dictators of the 1930s. Eden compared Nasser’s mildly idealistic book The Philosophy of Revolution to Mein Kampf and thought his expropriation of the Canal Company resembled Hitler’s invasion of the Rhineland. He warned that Nasser’s appetite would grow with feeding and that he would commit further acts of aggression, perhaps stopping the flow of oil from the Gulf.

On 2 August 1956 the British cabinet approved military preparations to overthrow Nasser and seize the Canal. This was the antithesis of appeasement, itself condemned by most British newspapers. None wrote with more vim than The Times, eager to compensate for its pusillanimity towards Nazi Germany:

Nations live by vigorous defence of their own interests…Doubtless it is good to have a flourishing tourist trade, to win Test matches, and to be regaled by pictures of Miss Diana Dors being pushed into a swimming pool. But nations do not live by circuses alone. The people, in their silent way, know this better than the critics. They still want Britain great.60

Eden flattered himself that he “had one outstanding quality and that was his capacity to gauge public opinion.”61 Yet only a third of the population supported the use of force (though that figure rose to just over a half after the conflict ceased). And some people in the know, such as Sir Dermot Boyle, Chief of the Air Staff, quickly concluded that “Eden has gone bananas.”62

Eden’s mental state was not improved over the next three months by having to deal with Dulles, whom he compared unfavourably to Ribbentrop. The Secretary of State’s leaden manner was tiresome enough: his speech was slow, Macmillan memorably observed, but it easily kept pace with his thought. Still more exasperating, though, were Dulles’s tortuous opinions. His message, delivered at Eisenhower’s behest, was that Britain should not try to “break Nasser” by force; but it contained enough ambivalence to foster Eden’s illusion that he might secure American acquiescence, if not support. Dulles’s initial response was that Nasser must be made to “disgorge his theft”63 so that the Canal could be internationalised and oil supplies secured. After his first meeting with Eden at the start of the crisis, Dulles concluded that Britain and France (intent on ending Egypt’s aid to Algerian rebels) would invade the Canal area. He told Eisenhower, “I am not (repeat not) sure from their standpoint they can be blamed.” But he added, with characteristic contrariness, “I believe I have persuaded them that it would be reckless to take this step.”64

Eisenhower himself was addicted to “zigging and zagging”65 and averse to making categorical statements. The President later claimed that he had told Eden of “our bitter opposition to using force.”66 But he expressed no bitterness. Eisenhower said that force was justifiable as a last resort and, the soul of Rotarian affability, he never threatened a hostile American response to British aggression in Egypt. Furthermore, after seeing him in September, Macmillan confirmed the President’s soft line. They had been comrades in the Mediterranean theatre of war, where Macmillan learned the “strange language of his own”67 that Eisenhower spoke. Macmillan had also learned a more crucial lesson after narrowly surviving a plane crash in Algiers—he emerged from the wreckage with his moustache “burning with a bright blue flame.”68 In hospital he read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, concluding from it that Britons were the Greeks in America’s new Roman Empire and that they must surreptitiously direct their brash masters just “as the Greek slaves ran the operations of the Emperor Claudius.”69 So Macmillan wilfully misinterpreted the President’s words. He reported, “Ike is really determined, somehow or other, to bring Nasser down.”70

Thus encouraged, Eden cooperated with Dulles’s various attempts to find a peaceful solution. There were conferences of interested parties and appeals to the United Nations. A Canal Users’ Association was formed and the Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies was sent as an envoy to Cairo, where he decided that “These Gypos are a dangerous lot of backward adolescents.”71 Nothing came of these efforts. Nasser stood firm, encouraged by the fact that, contrary to western prognostications, Egyptian pilots proved quite capable of running the Canal on their own. So Anglo-French military preparations continued, plagued by predictable snags. The invasion was at first code-named “Hamilcar” but only after British soldiers had painted large capital aitches on their vehicles for aircraft recognition did they realise that the French spelled it “Amilcar.” Although equipped to fight guerrillas in Cyprus, Malaya and Kenya (to which Cairo Radio beamed pro–Mau Mau propaganda in Swahili), British forces were ill prepared to mount a major seaborne invasion. The army had to hire civilian lorries, Coca-Cola trucks and Pickford’s furniture vans to help transport munitions. Moreover, its old breech-loading rifles were inferior to the semi-automatic Czech weapons of the Egyptians. The RAF was beset by technical problems and an acute shortage of transport aircraft; and beside those of the French its planes looked “almost Victorian.”72 The navy was obliged to requisition freighters and passenger ships and to bring back into service Second World War landing craft that had been pensioned off as ferries and pleasure boats. An American admiral thought the British capacity for amphibious lift “nothing short of pitiful.”73 In the days of the Raj London would have expected India to make good some of its military deficiencies. Shrewd observers reckoned that it might recruit Israelis to fill the role of sepoys.

An emissary of the French Prime Minister, Guy Mollet, suggested the idea of a clandestine Anglo-French pact with Ben-Gurion during a meeting with Eden on 14 October 1956. The proposal attracted him. It offered an end to Dulles’s interminable negotiations and an instant pretext for Britain and France to intervene in Egypt. While Israel thrust across the Sinai Desert, its main object being to smash Nasser’s blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba and gain permanent access to the Red Sea, the two European powers would have a justification for “protecting” the Suez Canal, separating the combatants and ousting Nasser. Eden thus embarked on his fatal course. Goaded by the Suez Group, desperate to assert his political virility, convinced that the Empire would rot away unless it took a firm stand, he brushed aside all obstacles. He dismissed political and military reservations. He got an obliging Lord Chancellor to rule that Nasser’s confiscation of the Canal Company was illegal and that the “infringement of an international possession is the equivalent of an attack on national property giving one the right to self-defence.”74 The Prime Minister also overcame the few scruples of his Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, who was described by an English diplomat as Eden’s “bell-hop”75 and by an American diplomat as a “crooked Welsh lawyer.”76 In tribute to his glossy pliability, Churchill called him “Mr. Celluloid.”77

Lloyd was secretly dispatched to a villa at Sèvres, near Paris, with orders to take matters forward with Mollet and Ben-Gurion. The Foreign Secretary disliked foreigners—a positive advantage in such a job, Churchill allegedly told him. Furthermore, Lloyd later wrote, France and Israel were “the two nations in the world I most mistrust.”78 He made his feelings plain after opening the conclave with a joke that fell flat, to the effect that he should have worn a false moustache. According to General Moshe Dayan, Lloyd gave the impression that he was “bargaining with extortionate merchants” and showed a distaste for “the place, the company, and the topic.”79 Nevertheless, progress was made and the negotiations were ratified at a subsequent meeting. To the cynical amusement of the French and the angry scorn of the Israelis, the Foreign Office’s main concern was that Albion’s perfidy should never be divulged. Clearly this was Eden’s chief anxiety, as evidenced by his efforts to purge the written record. He revealed little or nothing to officials. He informed few ministers about the Sèvres protocols, merely getting the cabinet to accept that “in the event of an Israeli attack”80 Britain would join France to separate the belligerents. He misled parliament and the press, though he did confide in the gentlemen of The Times, rightly thinking that they regarded discretion as the better part of journalism. He kept Eisenhower in the dark. Eden did not even take the high command into his confidence. General Sir Hugh Stockwell, the land task force commander, only gathered from the French three days before the event that Israel would assail Egypt. The British invasion fleet itself could not set off from Malta until the expiry of the Anglo-French ultimatum demanding Nasser’s withdrawal from the Canal. In short, the whole enterprise was vitiated by hypocrisy.

So Britain’s military operation, unlike that of its allies, was initially hamstrung and ultimately doomed by the need to conceal its true purposes. The Israelis stormed into the Sinai on 29 October and, after some fierce battles, soon had the Egyptians retreating to guard the Canal. France did not wait for the expiry of the ultimatum demanding the withdrawal of both sides and hardly bothered to hide the fact that it was fighting on behalf of Israel—to Eden’s acute embarrassment. But from its congested base at Akrotiri in Cyprus the RAF was hesitant about unleashing its squadrons of Canberras and Valiants on Egyptian military targets, which prompted Ben-Gurion to impugn Britannia’s virtue: “The old whore!”81 Moreover, the British armada of 130 warships, sailing from their deep harbour at Valletta in Malta at the pace of the slowest landing craft, could not reach Port Said until 6 November. During that week the military were hampered by contradictory and unpremeditated orders from their political masters, who wanted them to win the war while pretending to keep the peace. Meanwhile, there was ample time for opposition to coalesce at home and abroad.

It began in the Tories’ own ranks. Anthony Nutting resigned, unwilling to reveal his motives at the time but unable to stomach what he later called “this squalid piece of collusion.”82 Others followed suit. Foreign Office mandarins protested about a conspiracy that one junior minister called “the most disastrous combination of the unworkable and the unbelievable.”83 Eden’s press secretary quit, evidently thinking that the gods wished to destroy his beleaguered boss, who was now “mad, literally mad.”84 There was also disaffection in the services, Mountbatten begging Eden to “turn back the assault convoy before it is too late.”85 The Labour Party, led by Hugh Gaitskell, made a cogent case against the so-called “police action,” which was really an undeclared war in breach of the United Nations charter and other covenants. Moreover, the ultimatum was self-evidently absurd, since if each side moved ten miles from the Canal Nasser’s forces would have to retreat while Ben-Gurion’s advanced into Egyptian territory. Bombing Egypt, the victim of aggression, rather than Israel, its perpetrator, indicated that Britain’s peace-keeping role was a sham. Using its veto to defeat the motion for a cease-fire in the UN Security Council showed that Britain’s true object was to seize the Canal. Grey-faced, red-eyed and hoarse-voiced, Eden was pushed on to the defensive in parliament. And Selwyn Lloyd was obliged to assure the Commons that there had been “no prior agreement”86 with Israel—a lie that did not prevent him from later becoming Speaker of that honourable House.

Professed patriots of all classes and political persuasions rallied behind the embattled government, regarding the Gaitskellite assault as treason. Lord Home, an appeaser at Munich but an aggressor at Suez, assured Eden: “If our country rediscovers its soul and inspiration, your calm courage will have achieved this miracle.”87 The Suez Group cheered the affirmation of imperial power, one of its members asserting that the area around the Canal was “in some essential sense part of the United Kingdom.”88 The Beefeater press was equally staunch. Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express declared that Eden was acting to “safeguard the life of the British Empire.”89 It was aptly said, though, that no cause was truly lost until it won the backing of the Express. Even more telling than its support was the defection of The Times, whose recent history, Beaverbrook wrote, “was also a history of the decline of the British Empire.”90 The Thunderer rumbled about the damage done to Anglo-American relations by deceiving Eisenhower. Britain was “not a satellite” of the United States but an ally, it stoutly maintained, and what that alliance “cannot stand is a lack of candour.”91

Eisenhower too reckoned that “nothing justifies double-crossing us.”92 Actually both he and Dulles would have accepted even the duplicity if Britain and France had presented them with a swift fait accompli. As it was, the President had to face a fraught hiatus during which Russia crushed the uprising in Hungary (2 November), Dulles went into hospital for a cancer operation (3 November) and he himself was fighting for re-election (6 November). During that critical week he quelled his rage and excelled himself as a global statesman. Freezing out Eden politically, “Ike” affirmed that their personal friendship remained warm. He even professed to understand why the Prime Minister had responded to Nasser’s affront “in the mid-Victorian style,” while wondering if “the hand of Churchill might not be behind this.”93 The President opposed Russian intervention in the Middle East and rejected Moscow’s proposal that the Soviet Union and the United States should make common cause against Britain and France. To enforce his will he deployed America’s overwhelming economic might, instantly transforming Harold Macmillan from hawk to dove. “We must stop, we must stop,” the Chancellor exclaimed, “or we will have no dollars left by the end of the week.”94

Eisenhower not only refused to buoy up sterling but insisted that “the purposes of peace and stability would be served by not being too quick in attempting to render extraordinary assistance” to Britain over oil supplies.95 He took advantage of the hostility to the Suez operation in Commonwealth countries such as Canada, India and Pakistan. And he mobilised support in the United Nations, not only the forum of world opinion but a body capable of imposing sanctions on pariah states. In the face of this pressure Eden crumbled. He held a cabinet meeting on 6 November at which Macmillan’s warning about a run on the pound proved decisive. Eden therefore telephoned Mollet and told him that he could not continue. A French official recorded this frantic outburst of despair:

I’m finished. I can’t hold on. The whole world reviles me…I can’t even rely on all Conservatives. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Church, the oilmen, everyone is against me. The Commonwealth is tearing itself apart. Nehru wants to smash its bonds. Canada and Australia no longer follow our lead. I can’t dig the Crown’s grave…I can’t make England the only champion.96

So a cease-fire was announced on the very day when the seaborne invasion took place at Port Said. Eden had deemed the Egyptians yellow but they resisted strongly and the Allied forces could only occupy the northern tip of the Canal, itself now blocked with ships sunk by Nasser. So abruptly did hostilities cease that the first British troops were being withdrawn as later units were landing. General Stockwell wryly informed the War Office, “We’ve now achieved the impossible. We’re going both ways at once.”97

Eisenhower single-mindedly pursued his own course, determined to restore the status quo. He bullied and cajoled the Israelis until they withdrew from Sinai. He refused to supply a financial “fig leaf”98 to hide Anglo-French nakedness until Suez was handed over to a UN force. This was agreed within a month. The British government did its best to present retreat as victory, even claiming that the intervention had saved the situation in the Middle East by bringing in the United Nations—a conceit punctured by the future Labour Chancellor, Denis Healey, who said that it was “like Al Capone taking credit for improving the efficiency of the Chicago police.”99 In fact, Nasser only let in the UN peacekeepers on sufferance. His prestige waxed as Eden’s waned. The Prime Minister had conducted, as a Labour MP said, the most spectacular retreat from Suez since the time of Moses. The Suez Group had nothing but contempt for his weakness. Churchill’s verdict was widely quoted: “I doubt whether I would have dared to start; I would never have dared to stop.”100 To mount the invasion and then call it off almost at once, said the Minister of Defence, was “like going through all the preliminaries without having an orgasm.”101 Eden further demonstrated his impotence by flying off to recuperate in Jamaica, despite a friend’s warning that “all the doctors were black.”102

On his return Conservative daggers were out for him, the sharpest wielded by Macmillan. Enough time had elapsed, in the prophetic words of that radical firebrand Aneurin Bevan, “to permit the amenities of political assassination. Even a minor Caesar is entitled to be despatched with due decorum.”103 Ill health provided a genuine excuse for Eden’s resignation. Conservatives preferred Macmillan to R. A. Butler as his successor. So did Eisenhower, who extolled Macmillan’s straightness but failed to recognise his Janus face. But on the very day when Queen Elizabeth asked Macmillan to form a government, 10 January 1957, the President had second thoughts. He said that Butler would have been easier to work with because “Macmillan and Eden were somewhat alike in the fact that both could not bear to see the dying of Britain as a colonial power.”104 Although the French, incensed by the desertion of their ally, had other ideas, Eisenhower himself reckoned that Britain’s post-imperial destiny lay in Europe. A possible “blessing” might emerge from Suez, he said, “in the form of impelling them to accept the Common Market.”105 The corollary of this, he considered, was that America would have to fill the vacuum left by Britain (and France) between the Mediterranean and the Gulf “before it is filled by Russia.”106 So early in 1957 he enunciated the so-called “Eisenhower Doctrine.” In the name of the global struggle against Communism, it stipulated that America would give economic aid and, if requested, military assistance to Middle Eastern countries. Few welcomed this neo-colonial overture. Nasser condemned it as an informal version of the Baghdad Pact. The Arab world in general feared, and had some reason to fear, the imposition of a new overlord, Uncle Sam instead of John Bull.

Britain’s retreat from Suez was a “disgraceful and calamitous event” comparable to the expulsion of Byzantium from Alexandria in AD 640, when the Saracens planted the standard of Mohammed on “the walls of the capital of Egypt.”107 Many of Eden’s critics at the time thought that the fiasco spelled the end of the Empire. Anthony Nutting described Suez as the “dying convulsion of British imperialism.”108 The Deputy Cabinet Secretary, appropriately named Burke Trend, judged that the crisis of 1956 was “the psychological watershed, the moment when it became apparent that Britain was no longer capable of being a great imperial power.”109 Even right-wing Tories were downcast. Julian Amery considered that the “destruction of national will power [was] the greatest casualty” of Suez. He further wrote that it marked the end of the Commonwealth as “a military or economic bloc,” dashing hopes that this voluntary association might be an informal substitute for the Empire. Suez also gave a fresh impetus to “our enemies” in Aden, Cyprus, Malta and the “African dependencies.”110 Nasser reached the same verdict, saying that it helped African countries to “insist about their independence” and adding hopefully that it ruled out the future use of the colonial “methods of the nineteenth century.”111 King Hussein of Jordan, who now looked to Washington, exclaimed: “What a tragedy: the day Britain finally fell off its pedestal, particularly around here.”112

Americans also sensed that the tectonic plates of history had shifted at Suez. Reading the fashionable Arnold Toynbee rather than the old-fashioned Edward Gibbon, they reckoned that British civilisation was palpably giving way to their own. And Nasser was evidently a virile new Asian Caesar responding to the challenge of the superpowers. Such conclusions were too catastrophic for some. Duncan Sandys, who became Defence Minister in Macmillan’s government, went so far as to say that fundamentally “the Suez crisis has altered nothing.” For the time being, no doubt, it had “sadly impaired Britain’s prestige.” But Britain had not suddenly become a “second class power” and he anticipated a swift “revulsion of world opinion in our favour.”113 At the beginning of 1957 The Economist issued a more moderate warning against those who envisioned an apocalypse now.

There are few left who doubt that Britain has been trying to play a bigger role than can be sustained by the resources, political, military or financial, that it can bring to bear. Indeed, there are some signs that the reaction has gone too far: there are people who seem to think that there are no intermediate steps between the Empire On Which the Sun Never Sets and the fate of Nineveh or Byzantium.114

That the British did not at once share their fate was largely due to America. Because Eden had suspected that the United States was out “to replace the British Empire” he had made the cardinal mistake over Suez, as Churchill intimated, of not “consulting the Americans.”115 His successors, recognising their country’s satellite status, did not make the same mistake—quite the opposite. For his part Eisenhower aimed to employ the British Lion, injured though it was, in his struggle with the Russian Bear. This meant rebuilding the damaged alliance and shoring up Britain’s position in the Middle East.

Contrary to myth, therefore, the imperial legions did not march home in 1956. Of course, London’s freedom of action was circumscribed by Washington. And severe economic constraints did cause a reduction in the size of the Royal Navy (which lost its last four battleships) and the phasing out of conscription for military service. But in 1957 Macmillan’s government also provided for a strong airborne task force. Although Suez brought the Commonwealth to “the verge of dissolution,”116 according to the Canadian Foreign Minister Lester Pearson, it remained a global body. And Britain, possessing other allies as well as nuclear weapons, still aspired to be a great power. After Suez and with American help, it kept the weakened Baghdad Pact in being under another name, the Central Treaty Organisation. It sustained friends such as the King of Jordan and the Sultan of Muscat. It retained influence in Iraq and Libya until their nationalist coups in 1958 and 1969 respectively. When Kuwait became independent in 1961 its ruler signed a treaty of friendship with Britain to guard against an irredentist Iraq. As late as 1967 there were more than ten thousand British troops in the Persian Gulf. Until financial and anti-imperial pressures combined between 1968 and 1971, Britain dominated feudal sheikhdoms on the fringe of the Arabian peninsula, themselves once gatekeepers to the Indian jewel, now guardians of the Gulf’s black gold.

Moreover, successive governments in London engaged in a bloody contest to preserve the base at Aden. This was one of the most bitter and confused of all independence struggles and it showed that Britain still possessed the resolve and the capacity to remain in the Middle East. On the other hand, Suez had been a clear notice to quit. The debacle had galvanised Arab nationalism. It had inspired a popular loathing and contempt for Britain best expressed by “The Voice of the Arabs” on Cairo Radio. Even members of the Middle East’s Anglophile intelligentsia were alienated by the crass ineptitude of Eden’s adventure. As an Egyptian lawyer said to an English friend in Aden: “You gave us Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Dickens…And all this spoilt, spat upon by Suez, by alliance with the Israelis. How, how could you do it?”117

An equally pertinent question was why, why did the British stay in Aden until 1967 when the base had lost its former raison d’être? The tiny colony had always been an outpost of India, valued for its fine natural harbour enclosed by two reddish volcanic peninsulas sticking “into the sea like the claws of a lobster buried in the sand.”118 Aden was seized as a coaling station and a bastion in 1839, and for almost a century thereafter it was governed from Bombay. Admittedly, Calcutta, Delhi and London had also intervened. For a time, between the wars, the RAF was in charge of Aden’s defence. And when the Colonial Office took control in 1937 (the year of Britain’s last campaign of imperial conquest, in the Hadramaut region of South Yemen) it consigned the crown colony to its Central African Department. Yet the town, which had grown from a decaying cluster of hovels into a thriving free port, still seemed a suburb of the Indian subcontinent. Many of its buildings, notably in the white enclave at Steamer Point, resembled the Indo-Saracenic edifices of Bombay. The dusty cantonments built on cinders and clinker inspired Kipling’s famous simile: Aden was “like a barrick-stove/That no one’s lit for years.”119 The lush public gardens boasted a two-ton bronze statue of Queen Victoria on a white marble throne surveying her first colonial acquisition. Parsee merchant houses flourished. Dhotis were almost as common as futas (Yemeni kilts) in the cosmopolitan old city of Crater. Here the gutters were stacked with charpoys (wooden rope beds, for outdoor sleeping) because “no breath of wind disturbs the sweltering air, and the barren circle of morose grey rock stops the view and traps the sun, turning it into a bake-oven.”120The mud-brick bazaars, browsed by cows and goats, reeked of curry and spice. The khaki-clad police wore scarlet Punjabi turbans.

Furthermore, apart from restoring its ancient fortifications and the water tanks that had supported a city of 350 mosques in the time of Marco Polo, the Bombay Presidency subjected Aden to the hallowed process of salutary neglect. It remained a lava-strewn purgatory for adulterous officers and disgraced Indian regiments. But in 1947 Aden lost its vital strategic role as a link to India. By the time of Suez it had become a stagnant colonial backwater, sustained by past flummery more than present purpose. Under a sun that struck like a scimitar, the senior British dignitaries still paraded in full-bottomed wigs or helmets crested with red and white cocks’ feathers. Even ordinary civil servants had to turn out in white drill tunic with gilt buttons, high collar with oak-leaf gorgets of gold lace, medals, kid gloves, buckskin shoes and tasselled sword. It was garb reminiscent, one complained, of “the stirring days of Omdurman or the annexation of Scinde.”121 The new Governor, Sir William Luce, thought the antique fustiness “as depressing as stale tobacco smoke.”122 He tried to liven up Government House, dominated by another image of Queen Victoria, with games of bicycle polo played on its colonnaded terrace. But imperial Aden was moribund. After the liquidation of the Raj, as an ambassador wrote to Selwyn Lloyd in December 1956, British bases around the Arabian peninsula had become “stations on the route to nowhere.”123

Inside Aden, moreover, hostility to the British presence was crystallising. This was partly because few efforts had been made to improve social conditions. The Colonial Development and Welfare Act (1940) had offered meagre help since, as one minister acknowledged, it was “little but a gesture.”124 Local people also benefited little from the half-million pounds raised annually from a tax on imported qat, a narcotic leaf that plunged those who chewed it into an “ecstatic torpor”125 and turned the faces of addicts green. The state of public welfare could be measured by conditions in Crater’s gaol, which as late as 1967 contained both criminals and lunatics. A visiting English lawyer was horrified by the way in which sane Christian men treated mad Muslim women: “Like animals they were fed, their food being pushed to them between the bars; and like animals they were occasionally hosed down, together with their cells. The whole scene had, shut away under the brilliant blue sky, the quality of a nightmare.”126 Labour relations were equally backward and, with British approval, an Aden Trade Union Congress was formed in 1956. It began by organising strikes and, as political progress was limited, soon became a focus for opposition to imperial rule.

The Suez crisis showed that Britain was vulnerable. And the blocking of the Canal exacerbated animosity since it impaired the prosperity of one of the busiest oil bunkering ports in the world. Cairo Radio poured streams of molten propaganda into Crater. The British could produce nothing to compete with its “appeals to Arab brotherhood and denunciations of colonialism.”127 Pictures of Nasser smiled from every wall and urchins taunted Europeans by shouting his name. The nationalist animus was summed up in a letter sent to one of the most sympathetic (if old-fashioned) British officials. He was a future High Commissioner of Aden, Sir Kennedy Trevaskis, who had long striven to eradicate the race prejudice which he regarded as a “cancer rampant throughout our imperial government.” The letter addressed Trevaskis as “the infidel master of slaves.”128

Aden’s situation had worsened after the Second World War because its hinterland became a siege platform instead of a rampart. From time immemorial, as Gibbon wrote, “Arabia Felix” had been almost immune from landward conquest. The centre of the incense trade in ancient days, it was a natural fortress rising in jagged steps from russet shore to amber massif. Protected by wilderness and desert, the fierce sons of Ishmael had not only kept Pompey and Trajan at bay, they had also denied the Turkish Sultan more than “a shadow of jurisdiction.”129 True, Ottoman forces did reach the outskirts of Aden, known as the Eye of Yemen, during the Great War. According to legend their mortar fire interrupted golf on the Khormaksar links, causing the Committee of the Union Club, “the most powerful body in Aden,” to impel the military “to mount a long overdue counter-offensive.”130 The scattered sheikhdoms in the arid wastes stretching from the Red Sea to the Empty Quarter took note of British weakness. But they could not exploit it since they lived by a “system of anarchy.”131 Their fiefs might consist of little more than an oasis, a pass, a shrine or a hill-top fort set amid stunted acacia and parched tamarisk. Wider suzerainty was limited by intrigue, betrayal and blood feud, just as local authority had always been restricted by “the domestic licence of rapine, murder and revenge.”132

Britain took advantage of this Hobbesian condition to secure its Aden base. It signed dozens of treaties with disruptive neighbours, offering subventions and protection in return for collaboration. Otherwise it adopted a policy of “masterly inactivity in Arabian politics.”133 Between the wars the spread of modern rifles and the claims of the brutal Imam of Yemen to extend his medieval theocracy to the Gulf of Aden aggravated tribal turbulence. RAF bombers quelled it for a time and the British reached an accord with the Imam. This proved ambiguous, giving him ample scope to stir up trouble in the southern protectorates. By the 1950s armed incursions from the Yemen had become more frequent. At the same time, from the other end of the political spectrum a triumphant Nasser fomented revolution in what Cairo Radio provocatively called “Occupied South Yemen.” In 1956 the British Commander-in-Chief failed to recognise that a guerrilla war was in the making and dismissed the clashes as “military tiddlywinks.”134

So the British kept Aden because they could and because they were conditioned by the past. Indeed, neither the death of the Raj nor the disaster of Suez prompted a fundamental readjustment of Britain’s imperial policy. According to official opinion, the United Kingdom remained “much too important a part of the free world”135 to let itself sink into a passive role like that of Sweden or Switzerland. No one in Westminster or Whitehall heeded Lord Curzon’s prophecy, made half a century earlier, that once India and the great colonies had gone, the smaller dependencies would follow.

Your ports and coaling stations, your fortresses and dockyards, your Crown Colonies and protectorates will go too. For either they will be unnecessary as the toll-gates and barbicans of an empire that has vanished, or they will be taken by an enemy more powerful than yourselves.

Labour’s former War Minister John Strachey did call for a revision of Britain’s global strategy, which meant ceasing to “behave as if we were still the leading world empire.”136 But comprehensive plans gave way to piecemeal expedients. It was almost as though, having acquired the Empire in a fit of absence of mind and afterwards taken little interest in it, Britain refused to face its loss. Yet fears were expressed that abandoning imperial commitments would have a catastrophic domino effect. Handing over territory would reduce Britain’s military reach, threaten its control of raw materials, damage its anti-Communist alliance with America, impair its prestige, weaken sterling, harm trade (especially invisible exports) and undermine the domestic standard of living. British politicians and civil servants therefore had reasons, persuasive in the short term but reflecting a long-term reluctance to acknowledge their country’s diminished international position, for denying Aden independence.

At a time when Cyprus threatened to become “a second Palestine,”137 Aden was hailed as a vital link in a chain of strongholds stretching from Gibraltar to Hong Kong. With Washington’s approval, it guarded and serviced the Gulf. It gave Britain an enduring stake in the Middle East. Aden’s hinterland might even contain oil and, as Harold Macmillan cynically observed, this possibility meant that Britain should continue to divide and rule. He thought that

it would be better to leave the local Sheikhs and Rulers in a state of simple rivalry and separateness, in which they are glad of our protection and can, where necessary, be played off one against the other rather than to mould them into a single unit which is most likely (and indeed expressly designed) to create a demand for independence and “self-determination.”138

However, in 1958 a state of emergency was declared after more Yemeni-inspired strife. London reluctantly concluded that Aden would best be secured by further modest advances towards democracy and by amalgamating the protected Arab states to form a cordon sanitaire—though, as one official wrote, it “proved more like a chastity belt: uncomfortable but not proof against impregnation.”139 The merger was celebrated in 1959 by the lofty Colonial Secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, who survived a welcoming salute of rifle fire that came perilously close to his head and “dispensed charm like largesse.”140 In 1963, after much haggling and a promise of self-government qualified by Britain’s avowed determination to retain troops in Aden “permanently,” the colony itself joined the union. Its Governor would now be called the High Commissioner for Aden and the Protectorate of South Arabia. This was, he observed mournfully, like replacing “a classical Roman title, brief, lapidary and to the point, with a late Byzantine one, long, honorific and utterly ambiguous.”141 As his plaint suggests, the South Arabian Federation was doomed. Like the federations in Malaya, the West Indies and central Africa, it was form without substance, the worthless legacy of a senile Empire.

The South Arabian Federation was unable to unite its disparate elements. But its downfall was ensured by Colonel Abdullah Sallal, who in 1962 led a military coup in the Yemen which triggered a bitter civil war that crossed its southern border. Cairo and Moscow supported Sallal, whereas London and Riyadh backed his monarchist foes. Once again, therefore, the British Empire sided with feudal reactionaries against nationalist revolutionaries. Although riven by tribal and personal vendettas, Aden’s own nationalist revolutionaries retaliated. In particular a militant new group called the National Liberation Front (NLF) belied the persistent British belief that the “people of Aden Colony are, like most Arabs in other countries, coffee house politicians whose views change with the mood of the hour.”142 The NLF were responsible for a growing number of strikes, riots and assassinations in the city, which now contained nearly 250,000 inhabitants, many of them migrant workers from the Yemen. High Commissioner Trevaskis himself was wounded by a grenade, which killed his assistant. In October 1963 the NLF launched a full-scale rebellion in the wilds of Radfan, a mountainous region close to the Yemeni frontier. Its impoverished people had a long tradition of brigandage and they were skilled guerrilla fighters. Owing allegiance to no overlord, they called themselves the “Wolves of Radfan.”143 Against them the British deployed some of their most sophisticated armaments, including Centurion tanks, Wessex helicopters and Hunter ground-attack aircraft. Duncan Sandys, now Colonial Secretary and kitted out in an emerald-green shirt, slacks and a straw hat, witnessed their assaults on a flying visit. The RAF not only fire-bombed villages but sprayed crops with poison “in the hope of terrorising the rebels into submission.” Sandys’s secretary later recalled, “it was a pretty nasty policy, a real throwback to colonial times, and it didn’t work.”144

Nothing worked, least of all the bounty of two rifles which the army gave for each mine handed in by tribesmen, who could obtain a mine in the Yemen for one rifle. It proved impossible to eradicate resistance in Radfan, where at least eight thousand people were made homeless. Meanwhile, repressive emergency measures in Aden were ineffective against snipers, let alone bombs, bazookas and booby traps. In this campaign of sabotage and slaughter, the NLF’s favourite targets were the oil pipeline leading to the British Petroleum refinery and the local “running dogs of imperialism,” especially broadcasters and intelligence agents. Eventually they murdered the entire Arab Special Branch. In 1965 the British suspended the constitution and imposed direct rule. To counter terror and obtain information, the army sent suspects to the Interrogation Centre set up in Fort Morbut at Steamer Point. Here the standard forms of brutality were employed but, as an official investigation later revealed, more scientific methods of torture were also secretly developed. Used in Kenya, Cyprus, Brunei, the British Cameroons, the Persian Gulf, Northern Ireland and elsewhere, these techniques included disorientation, electric shocks, “wall-standing, hooding, noise, bread and water diet and deprivation of sleep.” The screams of Aden’s victims could be heard in the nearby Corporals’ Club, where they prompted jokes and comments such as, “That’s another cunt getting fucking done in.”145

In response to pressure from President Lyndon Johnson, who was becoming embroiled in the Vietnam war, Harold Wilson’s Labour government expressed its determination to hang on to Aden. Washington wanted its transatlantic ally to remain East of Suez in order to allay fears that the United States was intent on “dominating the world by trying to become ‘another Rome.’”146 Wilson himself had some feeling for the romance of the Empire. As a schoolboy he had hero-worshipped Baden-Powell and as a flag-wagging politician he was largely immune to Duncan Sandys’s clandestine attempt to identify him with “the best hated man in Britain,” Colonel Nasser.147 Wilson also valued American help in propping up the pound. But he and senior colleagues increasingly came to believe that sterling could only be saved by a drastic reduction in commitments. They dissembled, none more so than the Defence Minister, Denis Healey, who had privately wanted to get out of Aden “from the word go.”148 On 2 February 1966 Healey said that Britain had “no intention of ratting” on its imperial obligations in the Middle East and fully intended “to remain in a military sense a world power.”149 Three weeks later Healey’s Defence White Paper announced severe cuts in British forces east of Suez. All South Arabia would be abandoned including the base at Aden. The decision was confirmed by another financial crisis, which caused a general drawing in of horns. In future, for example, no bases would be held in the face of local opposition—though this proviso was met in the case of the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia by deporting the entire population, to Britain’s continuing shame and disgrace.

Furthermore, Wilson hoped to reorientate British foreign policy by joining the European Common Market. Finally, it had become clear that the Aden base was less of a shield than a target. This was certainly true once the White Paper appeared. Now friends of the Federation had nothing more to gain from the alien power, while its foes were encouraged by the assurance of victory. Unable to drum up local support, the British garrison in Aden felt betrayed. In the words of the last High Commissioner, Sir Humphrey Trevelyan, “When a Colonial Power turns its back, it presents its bottom to be kicked.”150 The NLF duly mounted more assaults on the British Army, which suffered 369 casualties in 1967, 44 of them fatal.151 It also struck at its main rival, the Nasserite Front for the Liberation of South Yemen (FLOSY), founded in January 1966. A visiting trio of UN representatives, described by the Sunday Telegraph as “three stormy petulants,”152 did nothing to keep the peace but much to discredit Britain’s role in a colonial conflict growing more vicious by the minute. Race hatred charged the atmosphere of Aden like thunder. It was almost tactile, “a palpable thing, seeping into one’s skin, seeking to…take possession of one’s senses.”153

Israel’s victory over Egypt in the Six Day War of June 1967 further inflamed the antagonism. Aden’s Arabs chanted the slogan “A bullet against Britain is a bullet against Israel.” The security forces were assailed by rockets, mortars, grenades and bombs as well as small arms fire. One private had a narrow escape when a bullet entered the barrel of his rifle, “peeling it back like a banana skin and knocking him across the room.”154 Outside a wire-fenced picket post the Lancashire Fusiliers put up a sign saying “Please do not fire rockets at this structure, which is unsafe.”155The injunction was ignored. Later in June, the Federation disintegrated and its forces mutinied. NLF fighters seized Crater, looting, burning and murdering at will. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders under the command of Colonel Colin Mitchell, an imperial throwback nicknamed “Mad Mitch,” reoccupied it. He and his men went in to the sound of a pipe band playing “The Barren Rocks of Aden,” putting on “a bloody marvellous show.”156 But they advanced only to cover Britain’s retreat. Everywhere the NLF gained ground. It was dedicated to winning power through the barrel of a gun. So while negotiations took place in Geneva, firefights still raged in the streets of Aden. Leaders of the Federation fled to Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, sending their limousines by sea.

The British left with as much dignity as they could muster. On the dark, overcast evening of 14 November 1967 two hundred expatriates attended the final cocktail party at Government House presided over by Trevelyan, a tough little man with enormous ears which wiggled when he talked. All clutched their drinks and chattered with “that especial, glassy frenzy found only on such occasions.”157 The frenetic mood was tempered by nostalgia, best expressed in an official’s pastiche of Gray’s Elegy:

Now fades the glimmering heat haze from our view,

The Union Jack descends its downward track,

Far off explodes a hand grenade or two

And still is heard the sharp bazooka’s crack…

The Flag is down, another flag is raised,

Gone is the symbol of the heir to Rome.

The Bedou stop and stare, amazed,

And, empty-handed, wander slowly home.158

Two weeks later Trevelyan inspected a guard of honour drawn from all the services. Disdaining “Auld Lang Syne,” the band of the Royal Marines from HMS Eagle struck up “Fings Ain’t Wot They Used To Be.” The High Commissioner’s Security Adviser was the last man to board the RAF Britannia, which stood with its engines idling on the tarmac at Khormaksar airfield. He climbed the steps backwards, holding a Walther PPK pistol in his hand.

Trevelyan was unhappy about transferring power to Marxist revolutionaries. But at least, he said, the British had not been forced to fight their way out of Aden leaving anarchy behind, as in Palestine. Some of his colleagues were equally sanguine. A future Foreign Secretary, David Owen, went so far as to extol “our glorious decolonisation record.” But an old imperial hand, Sir Brian Crowe, sharply reminded Owen that “there was the small matter of Aden, South Arabia, which we handed over to an unknown gang of violent thugs whose only credential was that they beat another gang of thugs in a civil war.”159 Others who served in Aden saw Britain’s involvement in the region as morally defective from start to finish. In his unpublished memoir Reginald Hickling, the High Commissioner’s Legal Adviser, deplored the unprincipled dominion that Britons had exercised over Arabs for whom they had no sympathy. He speculated about what a

distant historian will make of Britain’s last days of colonialism in the Arabian peninsula. I think he will see our whole exercise, from 1799 to 1968, as one of selfish power politics, overtaken in its decline by a casual interest in self-government. If he is something of a philosopher, he will also conclude that a nation cannot successfully govern a people it dislikes.160

Towards the end, Trevelyan’s predecessor complained, the colonial power had conducted its activities in Aden with an air of guilt. As Hickling’s comments suggest, it lingered on in Britain after the evacuation, adding to the climate of anti-imperial feeling.

The abandonment of Aden took place at a time of acute anxiety about Britain’s decline. During the fortnight between Trevelyan’s valedictory cocktail party and his flight from Khormaksar, the pound was devalued by 14.3 per cent. Harold Wilson did his best to present this as a patriotic triumph, particularly when speaking to the bevy of tame journalists known as the “White Commonwealth.”161 “We’re on our own now,” he told the nation, in a vain attempt to conjure up the Dunkirk spirit. “It means Britain first.”162 It also meant an end to the Prime Minister’s inflated rhetoric about being a world power or nothing. Admittedly he did try to safeguard the country’s prestige by clinging to nuclear weapons. But aircraft carriers would be sacrificed to keep Polaris submarines. And there was no more talk about the frontiers of the United Kingdom being situated in the Himalayas. The change of heart was not just a matter of cutting Britain’s commitments to fit its capacities. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States offered to subsidise a continuing British presence east of Suez. Wilson was now convinced that, despite the French veto, his country’s future lay in Europe, which involved sloughing off imperial entanglements. In January 1968 he made the momentous announcement that Britain would withdraw from the Far East (except Hong Kong) and the Gulf region within three years.

Wilson was widely reckoned to have signed the death warrant of the British Empire. And he caused shock and upset from Amman to Bahrain, from Singapore to Canberra, from Wellington to Washington. When George Brown, the British Foreign Secretary, crossed the Atlantic with prior news of his country’s retreat, the American Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, was “bloody unpleasant.” The soft-spoken Rusk much resented “the acrid aroma of the fait accompli” but said that he would leave it to Brown, who was vociferous as well as bibulous, “to add several decibels” when reporting his comments to London. Rusk “could not believe that free aspirins and false teeth were more important than Britain’s role in the world.” He deplored its withdrawal into a “little England” isolationism and urged, “for God’s sake be Britain.” It was ironic that the United States, which had once repulsed and often reviled the British Empire, should officially regard its current contraction as “a catastrophic loss to human society.”163 Rusk feared that the United States would have to face the cost of taking over as the global policeman, since it would be impossible for Britain to play an effective part from its European base. He was right. Britain’s power vanished with its eagles. Yet America had long regarded the process as inevitable and quickly resigned itself to filling the vacuum. Lyndon Johnson was not above mocking Harold Wilson musically, once ensuring that his mendicant guest was serenaded with “Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?” But Wilson was happy that the only reference to Britain’s withdrawal from east of Suez on his visit to the White House in February 1968 was baritone Robert Merrill’s after-dinner rendition of “The Road to Mandalay.”

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