- Sep 14, 2020
Canal Zoners - Suez Crisis
PORT SAID BEACH LANDINGS - 6th NOVEMBER 1956
MEMORIES FROM A MEMBER OF
THE ROYAL ARTILLERY
Canal Zoners - Suez Crisis
In November 1956, Royal Marine Commando Units 40 & 42, supported by 6th Royal Tank Regiment, landed on the beaches of Port Said in a combined attack with British Paratroopers and French forces prompted by the Egyptian nationalisation of the Suez Canal. The Canal was of strategic importance of Britain and France who felt this action threatened their trading and economic interests so staged an attack designed to allow them to regain control of the Canal area.
"At the time of Suez we were in HMS Phoenicia situated on Maneol Island in Valetta harbour and attached to 3 Commando Brigade for operational purposes.
The unit's name had changed over the years and in 1956 it was 166 Amphibious Observation Battery, R.A. The designation 'Battery' was an exaggeration as we never had more than 25 on strength complared to around 200 in a conventional Artillery Battery. For the Suez operation we received reinforcements from our Headquarters in the UK and from our sister unit in Hong Kong.
By late October 1956, I was stationed with the R.A. on Malta as a sergeant but soon to a Warrant Officer. The Suez Crisis created a surge in training in landing craft operations especially embarking and disembarking from LCAs (Landing Craft Assault) which were lowered into the sea. On one occasion we were lowered by an inexperienced crew who had to contend with fairly rough seas and winds.
These unpredictable forces caused our craft to crash into the side of the mother ship on its way down. Once in the sea we were directed to our position in the line of assault carft by a Naval Officer with a megaphone onboard the control ship. His orders were picked up by the Royal Coxswain of our LCA.
The Coxswain replied, initially in a low voice, with some choice Anglo saxon expletives! These were followed by a louder response informing the control officer that we were sinking! We had sprung a leak from the damage caused in lowering the craft and returned to the mother ship to be lifted clear of the water. We retrieved the LCA just in time and it took almost 24 hours for the sea water to drain out. We were fortunate to avoid fatalities especially since, I for one, could not swim!
On the 31st October we embarked on the LST Lofoten (Landing Ship Tank).
The other five parties in our group were dispersed to other ships. The voyage took 6 days and the LST anchored off Port Said. At around 0500 hrs on the 6th November we boarded our LCA. About half and hour earlier we were informed that we were up against the Egyptian Army. Once lowered into the sea we formed up for the run in and found ourselves in the first wave along with 40 and 42 Commando Royal Marines, some in LCAs and others in LVTs (Landing Vehicle Tracked). 45 Commando went in by helicopters thus making this the first Amphibious/Helicopter assault in the world. During this period we were shelled from ashore but luckily no craft were hit.
As the ramps went down we disembarked into waist deep water with some trepidation. As we waded ashore we pushed aside pieces of wood and other burning debris floating on the surface. We had no idea what was facing us but luckily the enemey's T34 Soviet made tanks, which were lined up at the top of the beach, had been abandoned. On reaching the shore we passed a number of beach huts which were on fire.
There were explosions from time to time and we convinced ourselves that the huts contained ammunition. Much to our chagrin we later discovered that the 'lethal' contents of the huts were bottles of soft drinks blowing up in the heat! Some of the huts were beach cafes hurriedly abandoned as we approached the area.
I was heavily laden with equipment as I ran up the beach - sub-machine gun, two hand grenades, six magazines of ammunition and a radio on my back. A voice came over the radio from one of the other parties still to land asking if the beach was mined. This rather slowed down our progress since we hadn't given the possibility of mines a thought. Amidst all this mayhem one of the locals stood at the top of the beach shoutig "Haircut Johnny?" - the one comical episode of the whole operation.
We established an observation post in the French Lycee (school) which had been the HQ of the Egyptian garrison in Port Said. After a while a group of Marines came in wth an Egyptian Brigadier General who had been the garrison commander. Without any warning or hesitation my CO, a Major, embraced the Brigadier like a long lost friend. They had been on the same gunnery course in England some years earlier. Such is war!
Later in the morning I venured outside to see what the situation was and almost immediately I was knocked backwards by the impact of a bullet hitting my hand and severing tendons. I was sent to the RAP (Regimental Aid Post) which had been set up in the Casino Palace Hotel. On entering the RAP my arms and ammunition was taken from me so I felt quite naked as fighting was going on all around the hotel.
While waiting for first aid, some Egyptians to the rear of the property were shooting at the casualties lying inside the RAP. Our troops chased them off before any of our wounded were hit.
After being patched up I made my way to an area alongside De Lessep's statue for evacuation where the bodies of three dead Marines were lying waiting to be collected.
They were covered in blankets with just their boots showing. Strangely, I was most struck by how still they were despite knowing that they were dead. I also remember looking at their sand covered boots and thinking that these poor devils were running up the beach with me just a few hours previously.
I then made my way up to the casualty pick up point to await a helicopter. A passing Marine Captain stopped to say how sorry he was that I had been wounded and wished me all the best. Some hours later he was shot in the head - but I never found out whether he survived or not.
Casualties for this operation were 22 killed and around 100 wounded. A Wessex helicopter eventually picked me up and conveyed me the HMS Ocean, an aircraft carrier, part of which had been converted to hospital wards. i shared the chopper with three more seriously wounded Egyptian soldiers and the thought crossed my mind that they could overpower me and decant me into the sea.
I was later shipped out to Malta for surgery under the supervision of medical staff known as the sick berth attendents. They did a marvellous job. At one stage I was destined to return to the UK for treatment and convalescence but I persuaded the officers that I should remain in Malta. I made the case that I was as much Navy as I was Army.
On arrival in Malta I was taken by ambulance to the BMH, Imtarfa at the northern end of the island. I was operated on and had a plaster cast fitted. Because of the number of casualties one of the maternity wards for service wives was emptied for us. When my wife visited me for the first time there were three or four very pregnant women sitting on my bed sharing their grapes and chocolates! After about a week I was discharged and reported back to my unit.
Two or three weeks later I received a bill for the weapons and ammunition I had "LOST" in Suez! This pleased me no end as you can imagine. After calming down I was informed that it was normal army proceedure for writing off these items, although, in practice, they would have been returned to an ordnance depot somewhere.
Back to Recalled for Suez Crisis
Dr. Yahia Al Shaer