Hook and Crook

Peter Clarke

  • Suez by Keith Kyle
    Weidenfeld, 656 pp, £25.00, May 1991, ISBN 0 297 81162 2

There was a message on the piece of paper which fluttered to the floor when someone opened the door of the Commander-in-Chief’s room: ‘Hooknoses’ D-Day – 29 Oct.’ Throughout the late summer and early autumn of 1956 there had been a build-up of British and French forces in the Mediterranean, following President Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal. The possibility of military operations by the former imperialist masters of the region was the object alike of Egyptian propaganda and American concern. Nor did it take much imagination to foresee that Israel might characteristically conclude that aggression was the best form of self-defence. This opened up the possibility of a collision between the war plans of the anti-Egyptian powers. But whatever the Hooknoses were up to, how could General Sir Charles Keightley, as Allied Commander-in-Chief, apparently possess privileged knowledge of what was afoot? Had collision been averted by collusion? This shocking thought crossed the mind of Air Marshal Bennett, commander of the Air Task Force, as soon as he gained his inadvertent glimpse of the note on Keightley’s floor. ‘Christ,’ he thought, ‘you aren’t in some bloody awful hook-up, are you?’

This anecdote is part of the formidable mosaic of evidence which Keith Kyle has assembled in his study of the making and ending of the 1956 crisis. If there are still secrets of Suez awaiting explosive detonation, they must be well-hidden indeed to have escaped detection in the course of his relentless research, which draws on a unique range of sources, not only private and official archives but published and unpublished testimony, both written and oral. As a working journalist who lived through the crisis and now seeks to record it as history, he invites comparison with William Shirer, whose vast chronicle of the Third Reich sat on all our bookshelves thirty years ago. Kyle may have done enough research to take on the academics at their own game, but he shows that the hard-earned skills of his old trade have not deserted him in his zest for getting the story out to the public. And quite a story it is. For an intertwined juxtaposition of geopolitical imperatives with personal sub-plots it remains the best thing of its kind since Antony and Cleopatra. Age cannot wither it, nor custom stale its infinite variety.

Unburnished, throneless, the first encounter between Eden and Nasser may leave description unbeggared but Kyle nonetheless conveys its piquancy. This meeting took place in February 1955 at the British Embassy in Cairo, which Eden was visiting in his capacity as Churchill’s Foreign Secretary. Eden took the opportunity to exercise not only his legendary charm but also the Arabic for which he had been awarded a First at Oxford thirty years previously. Nasser was surprised, perhaps disconcerted – not quite what he had expected on his first visit to, as he put it, the place from which Egypt had been governed. His host exquisitely demurred: ‘Not governed, advised, perhaps.’ Whether Nasser was favourably impressed by this kid-glove treatment depends upon which subsequent version of the exchanges gains most credence. If he said later that Eden behaved like ‘a prince among beggars’, this may only have been a throwaway reference to the fact that the British party were attired in evening dress. It was not to be the last time that Eden found himself all dressed up with nowhere to go.

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