I know, I was there as a young sprog of 19 in the British Army with no proper training or experience of war. I was barely out of basic training when I, and the rest of the platoon were shipped out to fight an experienced Arab army when the poo hit the fan.
The Suez Crisis, also named Tripartite Aggression, was an invasion of Egypt in late 1956 by Israel, followed by Britain and France. The aims were to regain Western control of the Suez Canal and to remove Egyptian president Nasser from power. It was only years later with the advent of the Internet I found out what really happened to involve us and the French. I wont go into it here because it is well documented on the Net. If you are interested enough then go there to get some background information.
This post is only about my own experience of that time, and to be honest I was quite frightened for most of it, and with good reason at one point. If a certain Arab sniper hadn’t been such a lousy shot I wouldn’t be here now writing this. In the background of the photograph above are the blocks of flats which were in the path of the British parachutists’ advance from Gamil Airfield. It was from there that I nearly went to Hell with a hole in the head!
It was by pure chance I found that picture on the Net while I was looking for something else. As soon as I saw it I recognised the road and the flats and it sent a shiver down my spine. I had to have a double whisky to calm down, the memory of what happened there had long since faded away; then suddenly it all came flooding back. That picture must have been taken before we got there because the maintenance truck, with me in it, was just behind that column of tanks going into Port Said.
We arrived at the steel tower in the picture just in time to see the tanks disappearing down the road. The other soldier with me suggested that we wait awhile to see if there were any stragglers trying to catch up. After all it was our job to be the last in the convoy if there were any breakdowns.
It never occurred to us that it may be us that broke down. We sat in the cab of the Bedford 3 ton truck having a cigarette. After about half an hour when no other tanks or vehicles turned up we decided to go on.
I tried to start the truck. The starter turned over but the engine didn’t start. After several attempts my companion decided to have a look under the hood. I opted to stand guard because we were still in hostile territory.
While he was tinkering under the hood I stood by him, looking around all the time, my Sterling gun cocked and ready for trouble. After a while I heard a buzz close to my head and thinking it was an insect I tried to swat it. Shortly after that I saw the sand in front of me suddenly spurt up in the air and then I heard the crack of a rifle.
“We’re being attacked!” I shouted, “Quick, under the truck”. We both scrabbled under the back of the truck and waited for the inevitable, but nothing happened. We lay still for what seemed hours, but it may only have been minutes. My friend was peering out at the side of the truck when we heard a loud thud as a bullet smacked into the truck.
“I saw him” he said “he’s in the top window of the flats. I’m going to radio for help.” “You can’t, its all open ground out there, he’ll pick you off easily”
He said “He’s such a lousy shot, I’ll have risk it” and with that he rolled out from under the truck and wrenched open the cab door, grabbed the radio and ran behind the truck. I lay still and tried to watch the building while got in touch with base.
He crawled back under the truck and said “They are getting in touch some paras who are nearby and they will deal with him”. We lay flat and peered out from the front of the vehicle, because we reasoned that if he was in one of the top flats he couldn’t shoot because he would have to lean out the window to get the right angle to hit us and he wouldn’t risk that because he didn’t know what weapons we had; just a short range automatic gun (the Sterling) and a boy scout knife!.
About twenty minutes later we saw three or four soldiers creeping round the building and edging towards a door. We knew from the red berets they were on our side! One by one they slipped into the building. The sniper hadn’t seen them because he was three floors up and couldn’t see the doors. Anyway he was probably waiting for use to make a run for it. No chance, we were staying put to watch the forthcoming show.
Suddenly there was a burst of automatic gunfire, then silence. A body came flying out the window and a Para appeared at the window and shouted “It’s Ok, you chaps, you can come out now. This shop is closed; the owner was suddenly taken ill!”
They come over to us and we thanked them, but we couldn’t give them a lift to the base because our truck was now well and truly buggered. That last bullet had hit the trucks battery of all things!
Although this incident was only a little thing amongst a lot of other incidents in the battle for the Suez, but to me it was a ‘Big Thing’, and it shook me up for a long time just thinking about it. The Company Commander just told us to put in down to experience. “War isn’t a playground game you know”.
After that war British casualties stood at 16 dead and 96 wounded. I am glad it wasn’t 17 dead!