HC Deb 08 November 1956 vol 560 cc257-64
The Minister of Defence (Mr. Antony Head)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement to the House.

I can now give a fuller statement concerning the military operations and general situation in Port Said. Before the assault took place photographic reconnaissance had shown that there were dug-in tanks, guns and strong points along the buildings facing the sea front in Port Said.

It was, therefore, decided that, 24 hours before the assault, an air drop should take place with a view to clearing these strong points and emplacements before the assault went in and this task was carried out so effectively that the need for a preliminary bombardment, which would undoubtedly have caused considerable destruction and civilian casualties, was avoided. The assault itself was carried out most successfully and organised fighting ceased in Port Said during the night following the landings.

Troops were then engaged in dealing with looters, organising public services and administration, and clearing up. Normal life in Port Said will, it is hoped, be resumed in a few days, or sooner if the Egyptian Administration co-operates.

During the day of the landing there was stubborn street fighting in Port Said, because the enemy had resorted to sniping and several buildings had been turned into strong points which had to be dealt with. A number of Egyptians took part in this fighting dressed in civilian clothes. British troops going down the Canal reached a point just north of Kantara before the cease-fire was ordered. The French are now holding Port Fouad.

Yesterday evening, the Egyptians broke the cease-fire at El Cab when a patrol of between 35 and 50 men advanced north up the Causeway from El Kantara past a company, who refrained from firing and did not disclose themselves. The patrol then approached a troop of tanks. The Egyptians opened fire on them with Brens and rifles. On this, the tanks returned fire in self-defence, killing two Egyptians and wounding one. The patrol made off past the advance company, who still refrained from firing in view of their cease-fire orders. General Keightley has emphasised that our company could have wiped out this patrol, but refrained from doing so.

In Port Said itself, the unloading of stores and administrative units is taking place smoothly, and marine divers and salvage units are clearing the obstructions at the entrance to the Canal.

I still have not final details of casualties but information so far to hand suggests that British casualties for all three Services do not exceed 85, of whom not more than 20 were killed.

I would like to stress two points: first, that there were considerable fixed defences and dug-in tanks among the buildings facing the sea front in Port Said. To have achieved the landing and the capture of the town with such small casualties and with so little infliction of damage to the town and casualties to the civil population is a feat of very considerable military skill which needed the utmost judgment and control by those concerned with the planning and execution of the operation.

Secondly, during all these operations by land, sea and air, our forces have exercised the greatest restraint throughout, and I am sure that the whole House, whatever their political views, would wish me to commend all those concerned in this operation for the way in which they have carried out a difficult and in many ways unprecedented task.

Mr. Stokes

May I join with the Minister of Defence in expressing our appreciation of the way the troops, no doubt under extreme provocation—those of us who have been in action know what that means—have carried out their instructions to show restraint? May I also say how glad we all are that the casualties were so light? Of course, there should not have been any, but that is something altogether different. On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I should like to express our sympathy with the relatives of those who lost their lives.

On the question of the military operations, may we be informed of two things? First, we were told that tanks were dug in and were in action in the original attack on Port Said. Were any tanks in support of our own troops? Secondly, in the, not action, but inaction in which two Egyptians in a patrol were killed, were the original troops in the southern extremity of our position equipped with tanks, or were the tanks found to be a considerable distance in the rear?

Mr. Head

The initial assault, carried out by British commandos and French troops, was supported by tanks as soon as they could be got ashore in L.S.T.s. It is typical of all assaults that infantry must get ashore and make a small bridgehead before L.S.T.s can be brought in to land tanks. So far as this patrol in violation of the cease-fire is concerned, the tanks were immediately behind the leading company and in support of it.

Mr. Ian Harvey

In view of the observation of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes), does not my right hon. Friend agree that, but for the intervention of British troops. Israeli and Egyptian casualties by this time would have been very heavy indeed?

Mr. Wigg

Will the Minister be good enough to tell us what distance was advanced by British forces between the time the Prime Minister made his announcement at six o'clock the night before last and the actual standstill at midnight? Will he explain how it was that the French Ministry of Defence announced that French and British troops were in Ismailia, or had they been in Ismailia and withdrawn northwards to El Kantara?

Mr. Head

I do not know the precise distance covered in those six hours. I cannot say on what information the French Ministry of Defence announcement was made. All I have given to the House is the information available to me.

Mr. Stokes

In view of the quite definite Press reports and noises on the wireless, had our forces, in fact, reached Ismailia, or were those reports merely pure fabrication?

Mr. Head

So far as I am aware, with all the information available to me, no British troops have been beyond Kantara.

Mr. M. Lindsay

Is it proposed to recognise outstanding acts of gallantry and leadership in this remarkable and courageous military operation by the usual decorations and awards to the Air Force and Army?

Mr. Head

These matters, as my hon. Friend may know, rest with a special honours and awards committee, but I have no doubt that they will be very carefully considered.

Mr. Healey

Has the Minister any figures of Egyptian civilian and military casualties? Can he confirm that at present allied troops are occupying only one-quarter of the length of the Canal and are, therefore, neither separating the combatants nor in a position to secure the safety of this great international waterway?

Mr. Hirst


Mr. Head

I have no knowledge additional to such facts as have been published in the newspapers about Egyptian casualties. I feel that the presence of British troops in Port Said has not only stopped a great deal of fighting, but has gone a long way to ensure the Canal's freedom.

Mr. Dugdale

The Minister said that he could not say how far the troops had advanced after the cease-fire. Had they advanced at all after the cease-fire? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Can the Minister confirm or deny reports that he himself paid a visit to Cyprus to make quite certain that the troops were in a sufficient state of readiness for the Cabinet to give the order for the advance in Egypt?

Mr. Head

I have never stated at any time that any of our troops advanced after the cease-fire. This particular order was observed absolutely meticulously and I should have thought that the statement I have made would have shown that.

Secondly, my visit to Cyprus was carried out purely with one object in view. That was to have close liaison with General Keightley to ensure that the operation would be carried out in a way which would ensure the minimum not only of casualties to our own troops, but of damage and civilian casualties to the other side.

Mr. P. Williams

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is still some concern about the possibility of getting the Canal open at the earliest possible moment? [Laughter.] Is my right hon. Friend aware that at any rate we on this side of the House do not regard this as a laughing matter? Can my right hon. Friend state what action has so far been taken about the removal of the block ships?

Mr. Head

As I stated earlier, work is proceeding very intensively on block ships at present in Port Said and it has already progressed sufficiently for unloading to take place. It is, I think, of vital interest to all hon. Members and their constituents that subsequent operations should proceed as quickly as possible. We have already made representations with the United Nations, offering to put the resources available to the French Government and ourselves under the United Nations for the rapid clearing of the Canal. That, so far as I know, was not initially accepted by the Egyptian Government.

Mr. Stokes

I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman says about putting our skill at the disposal of the United Nations, but have the Egyptians said categorically that they will not accept assistance from either the French or the British? Is the Minister able to tell us whether the block ships sank either in the Canal or in the fairway in what I call the Port Said harbour area are hulks or barges, or other vessels filled with concrete?

Mr. Head

As far as we know, the ships sunk in the Port Said harbour do not look like being a major problem of clearance. With regard to those in the Canal, our information at present is entirely reliant on aerial photography, because we have not been there to see. Until a more close reconnaissance of the actual physical problem has been made, it is impossible to say. The reaction of the Egyptian Government is a matter that is at present in the hands of the United Nations. I only hope, for the benefit not only of this country but of all users of the Canal, that an arrangement will rapidly be reached whereby the work can proceed.

Mr. Stokes

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point about the United Nations coming into it. It is a pity that the Government had not thought of that before. What I want to know is whether the Egyptian Government have said categorically that they will not accept the assistance of skilled men, and whatever it may be, for the purpose of clearing the Canal, whether they be French or British.

Mr. Head

The whole point of this is that the Canal cannot and must not be solely the concern of the Egyptian Government. That is what all this has been about. Further, I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that the blocking of the Canal has been carried out by the Egyptian Government. All that Her Majesty's Government and the United Nations, and, indeed, the free world as a whole, wish to achieve is that this vital waterway should be cleared as quickly as possible.

Mr. Bevan

Why does not the right hon. Gentleman answer the question? It is a very simple one. Have the Egyptian Government refused to permit the technicians of France and Britain to assist in clearing the Canal, and is not it a fact that the United Nations administration has decided that the British and French should not be associated in the operation?

Mr. Head

As far as I am aware, from the discussions of the United Nations, the Egyptian Government did not signify their assent to the clearance of these blocks in the Canal. So far as the United Nations ruling is concerned, I know nothing to support the remarks which the right hon. Gentleman has made. It would seem to me that if the United Nations has any purpose in this in solving world problems, one of the major ones is to get the Canal cleared as quickly as possible.

Mr. Gaitskell

In view of the fact that the General Assembly of the United Nations yesterday passed, by a vote of sixty-five to one, a Resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of British and French forces from Egypt, and in view of the fact that the British Government themselves appear to accept that British and French forces will stay only until the United Nations forces arrive, will the Minister give an assurance that the lending of stores will be strictly limited to what is necessary to supply our forces for the shortest possible period?

Mr. Head

On the question of the administration and the security of our forces ashore, nobody can be certain at what time the international force will take over. It would be madness to take steps banking on a very short period. What we are doing, without prejudice to handing over at any time the Government orders, is to ensure that should that period be prolonged we shall not run out administratively and we shall not put ourselves in an insecure position.

Dame Irene Ward

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether he can confirm or deny that the Egyptians are busy repairing the airfields which we put out of action?

Mr. Head

Our reports are that very active work is now taking place at considerable speed to repair the airfields.

Mr. Stokes

In view of what the Minister of Defence has said, not about the length of time but about the time when British troops will leave the Canal or the Port Said area, may I ask him whether he has considered how to obtain the support of the other Arab nations until the British troops are off the Canal bank? It is quite impossible for the other Arab nations to rally to the support of our point of view—or Her Majesty's Government's point of view—[Laughter.] There is nothing to laugh at about this; nothing to laugh at at all. The situation is that if Her Majesty's Government pursue the course which they are now pursuing they will drive all the Arab nations into the Russian camp. Has the Minister thought of that? If so, what is the attitude of the Government? What is he going to do about it?

Mr. Head

I am not entirely clear what was the purpose of the right hon. Gentleman's question, but if he was suggesting that our forces should get out before an international force was in control, the answer is "No". On the other hand, if the right hon. Gentleman was suggesting that to make sure that the Arab world should rally to our cause we should leave a complete vacuum without any agreement having been reached in the United Nations, that, in my opinion, would be a course of utter folly.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

We seem now to be getting into the realms of the debate which is still to come.