SINAI CAMPAIGN (also known as Operation Kadesh), the short war (Oct. 29–Nov. 5, 1956) between Egypt and Israel, partly coinciding with the Anglo-French Suez Campaign, launched by Israel in the wake of mounting aggression by Egyptian fedayeen ("suicide") squads.
Causes of the Campaign
Israel's *War of Independence (1948–49) was terminated by *Armistice Agreements, not peace treaties, between the State of Israel and the neighboring Arab states. The vague conditions of the agreements (especially the provisions for demilitarized zones), the refusal of the Arabs to enter into negotiations for peace, and the absence of progress towards the solution of basic problems inevitably led to the aggravation of relations between Israel and her neighbors. Between 1949 and the Sinai Campaign in 1956, Arab acts of hostility caused approximately 1,300 Israel civilian casualties. In August 1955 Egypt launched the fedayeen squads for murder and sabotage inside Israel, and Israel, in turn, conducted reprisals on an ever-increasing scale.
At the end of September 1955, Egypt and Czechoslovakia, with Soviet blessings, concluded an arms deal for the provision of large quantities of Russian arms to Egypt. This confirmed Israel's suspicions of Egypt's aggressive intentions and, since it changed the balance of armament in the Middle East, provoked a new arms race. On Oct. 24, 1956, two weeks after an Israel reprisal raid on Qalqīliya, a joint Arab military command was established, including Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, with the Egyptian chief of staff at its head. At the same time, Egypt fortified the Straits of Tiran and placed heavy guns at Raʾs Nuṣrānī, thus blocking the Red Sea route to Eilat. The passage of Israel shipping through the Suez Canal was already blocked. Operation Kadesh (the code name of the Sinai Campaign) was a preemptive offensive to catch the Egyptians off balance before their hostile preparations were completed. The timing of the campaign gave Israel apparent advantages. The Egyptian leadership had dissipated its efforts between several uncoordinated political and military objectives. After the nationalization of the Suez Canal, Egypt's expectation of military intervention by the Western Powers (particularly Great Britain and France) compelled her to move armored forces back from Sinai to the canal zone. Nevertheless, she continued to convert the Sinai peninsula into a military base for the invasion of Israel and, simultaneously, continued to provoke Israel with large-scale fedayeen raids. As a result of the arms deal, the Egyptian army was expanding, and engaged in absorbing new Soviet weapons – hitherto, it had been equipped primarily with British arms and its organization had been based on British patterns. The wholesale transition to Soviet weapons necessitated remodeling the army and its operational doctrine. At such a critical time it was a grave blunder to provoke the Western Powers by nationalizing the Suez Canal and to provoke Israel by intensifying fedayeen activities. The reasons for, and objectives of, the Anglo-French attack on Egypt were quite different from those of Israel. Nevertheless, the timing of both campaigns, which was termed by many outside observers as a "collusion" between Israel and the West European powers, had a direct tactical impact on Operation Kadesh. The objectives of Israel's operations, as defined in the order given to the Israel Defense Forces (idf), were: destruction of the fedayeen bases in the Gaza Strip and on the Sinai border; prevention,
for however short a time, of an Egyptian attack on Israel by destroying Egypt's logistic establishment and the airfields in Sinai; and opening the Gulf of Eilat to undisturbed Israeli shipping. All these objectives were achieved.
The idf had undergone many changes since the War of Independence: methods had been organized for the rapid mobilization of reserve units and of civilian vehicles and heavy mechanical equipment; weapons had been standardized and the forces trained in their use, especially in the air force and the armored corps; and a new system of tactics had been formulated and inculcated.
Though the Sinai Campaign lasted only eight days – from Oct. 29 to Nov. 5, 1956 – it may be divided into three phases: the opening phase on October 29–30; decision, October 31–November 1; exploitation, November 2–5.
phase 1: october 29–30
In the late afternoon of October 29, an airborne battalion was dropped near Colonel Parker's Memorial in the west central area of the Sinai peninsula. Other units of the same airborne brigade moved as a mechanized column toward the same point, capturing al-Kuntilla, Thamad, and Nakhl, and reaching their destination on the night of October 30/31. With this opening move, all the Egyptian positions in northeast Sinai were outflanked, and the Suez Canal directly threatened.
In the early hours of October 30, the vital road junction of al-Quseima was captured, affording an additional gateway into Sinai from the east. This directly exposed the southern flank of the Third Egyptian Division in the northeast corner of Sinai. The seizure of the road junction enabled further Israel forces to outflank the Third Division and, at the same time, provided a second link-up with the paratroopers near Parker's Memorial. The most important achievement of this phase was the gaining of air superiority by the Israel Air Force long before the Anglo-French air forces attacked airfields in Egypt.
phase 2: october 30–november 1
On the afternoon of October 30, a reconnaissance company ascertained that the Ḍayqa Pass was free of enemy forces. This enabled the armored brigade of the central task force to avoid a frontal clash with Egyptian forces, to get to the rear of the Abu Aweigila positions, and, in the most spectacular armored battles of the campaign, to seize the Abu Aweigila road junction and the enemy positions at the Rawāfa Dam. These victories blocked the escape route of the Egyptian brigade at Umm Qataf and Umm Shaykhān, between the frontier and Abu Aweigila. On the same afternoon, Israeli forces captured the enemy positions at 'Awja Maṣrī near the frontier, along the Niẓẓanah-Ismailiya road. By the early evening the positions at Tarat Umm Basīs, seven kilometers from the border, had been occupied.
During the night, an infantry force, supported by artillery, took up positions on both sides of the road at Umm Ṭurfa, halfway between Umm Basīs and Umm Qataf, encircling the positions at Umm Qataf and Umm Shaykhān. In spite of transport difficulties caused by an Egyptian attempt to block the road through Umm Shaykhān, fuel and ammunition reached the Israeli armored brigade in the rear of the enemy positions. Head-on idf attacks on these positions had failed, because they had been based on incorrect information and errors of judgment; but during the night of November 1/2, Egyptian troops withdrew from the positions, leaving their heavy equipment. During the next few days, these soldiers roamed aimlessly in the area between El-Arish, Abu Aweigila and the canal, until they were rounded up and taken prisoner.
At the same time, one armored force advanced westward. It had been reported that an Egyptian armored force was moving from the canal zone eastward, and the Israeli force laid an ambush at the Jebel Libni road junction. However, the Egyptian armored force never reached this point, for on the morning of October 31, pilots of the Israel Air Force sighted it on the road between Biʾr Gafgafa and Biʾr Ḥamma and proceeded to immobilize 90 of the vehicles. The remaining vehicles withdrew, and the Israeli armored force continued its advance westward, meeting stiff resistance from armor and artillery intended to delay the Israeli advance and allow the main body of Egyptian troops to withdraw across the Suez Canal. Orderly, organized retreat however, had already become impossible.
During the night of October 31–November 1, the idf northern task force attacked in the northern sector and the fortified positions at Rafah were stormed, thus opening the way to the Suez Canal for an armored brigade. By the evening of November 1, armored forces had reached El-Arish, fighting all the way. At the same time there was a bloody clash in the southern sector, where the airborne brigade advancing westward from Parker's Memorial ran into an enemy ambush positioned in the caves of the Mitlā Pass. Only after fierce fighting were the paratroopers able to overpower the enemy. The general retreat from Sinai, ordered by the Egyptian high command on November 1, soon turned into a rout, with attacks by the Israel Air Force increasing the turmoil. Many Egyptian officers abandoned their men in order to save their own lives. During this phase the Egyptian destroyer Ibrahim al-Awwal was captured off Haifa by a combined operation of the Israel Navy and Air Force.
phase 3: november 2–5
In compliance with the Anglo-French ultimatum, the armored spearheads of the idf halted at points ten miles from the canal on November 2, near Ismailiya on the central axis, and on November 3, in the vicinity of Qantara on the northern axis. There still remained two objectives: the capture of the Gaza Strip and the seizure of the Egyptian strongpoints at Raʾs Nuṣrānī and Sharm el-Sheikh on the Straits of Tiran. After the capture of Rafah, the Gaza Strip was cut off, and there remained only the troublesome task of mopping up scores of fortified positions and taking over the townships of Gaza, Khan Yunis, and Beit Ḥānūn. This action began on November 2 and was completed the following day.
The capture of Raʾs Nuṣrānī and Sharm el-Sheikh was allotted to a reserve infantry brigade moving as a mobile column down the western shore of the Gulf of Eilat. On October 31 this column reached el-Kuntilla and, on the following day, Raʾs al-Naqb, which had been seized two days earlier by other idf troops. Since the Israel Air Force was fully occupied on the central axis, the mobile column waited until November 2 before continuing its advance. As bad road conditions and sporadic clashes with the enemy caused further delay, the general staff ordered the parachute brigade to move from Parker's Memorial toward the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula along the eastern shore of the Red Sea as far as the oil fields of Raʾs Sudar. Simultaneously, paratroopers were dropped on the airfield at el-Tur. A pincer movement now threatened the last remaining Egyptian positions in Sinai. Raʾs Nuṣrānī was evacuated by its garrison and, as the final act of the Sinai Campaign, Sharm el-Sheikh was stormed by the reservists on November 5.
idf losses in the campaign were 171 dead, several hundred wounded, and four Israelis taken prisoner. Egyptian losses were estimated at several thousand dead and wounded, while 6,000 prisoners were taken. Immense quantities of armored vehicles, trucks, guns, and other military equipment were seized.
As the result of a prolonged political struggle, in which both the United States and the Soviet Union opposed Israel, the idf was compelled to evacuate the Sinai peninsula and the Gaza Strip. Troops of the United Nations Emergency Force (unef) were posted on the Egyptian side of the frontier and at Sharm el-Sheikh to guarantee free passage of Israeli shipping through the Straits of Tiran. Israel made it clear that any deviation from these arrangements would constitute a casus belli. The straits remained open until May 23, 1967, when Egypt ordered the evacuation of unef and closed the entrance to the Gulf of Eilat, thus precipitating the *Six-Day War.
M. Dayan, Diary of the Sinai Campaign (1966); R. Henriques, One Hundred Hours to Suez (1957); S.L. Marshall, Sinai Victory (1958); E. O'Ballance, The Sinai Campaign, 1956 (1959); T. Robertson, Conspiracy (1965) includes bibliography; A. Eden, The Memoirs of Rt. Hon. Sir Anthony Eden; Full Circle (1960), 419–584; H. Finer, Dulles Over Suez… (1964), includes bibliography; A. Nutting, No End of a Lesson, The Story of Suez (1967); H. Thomas, The Suez Affair (1967); L.M. Bloomfield, Israel and the Gulf of Aqaba in International Law (1957); A. Baufre, L'expedition de Suez (1967); E. Stock, Israel on the Road to Sinai 1949–56 (1967); D. Ben-Gurion, Israel – Years of Challenge (1963).