OPERATION M USKATEER THE SUEZ WAR 1956 After a last run ashore down Strait Street in Valletta Malta we made our way back to the Aircraft Carrier HMS Theseus which was to transport Baker Troop 45 Commando Royal Marines part of 3 Command Brigade Royal Marines to Egypt on Operation Muskateer
Baker Troop consisted of a mix of Regular Marines and National Service Marines. We met in Cyprus, soldiered there on anti Terrorist duties and became as one in soldiering and comradeship. Both of the highest order
After 3 days or so on board following numerous briefings and lectures and adapting to our new surroundings including finding our way around the ship during night time blackouts.
About the second day out saw he appearance of the American 6th Fleet who apparently sought to indicate their Presidential disapproval of the venture sailed across our path. Following a friendly exchange of greetings they turned and sailed away. I believe one of the Frigates tracked them with her guns. We cleaned our kit and weapons. There was also a rumour that a Russian submarine was following us. This caused us some concern as it was thought before we left Malta that we might be going to Hungary, as there was rioting by the people in Budapest, which the Russians suppressed is quickly. We wrote our Wills and last letters home, before… early am around 0600 we rode up on the lift platforms to the flight deck, formed up in Sections and were led to the helicopters embarked and lifted off bound for Port Said
As we circled around the form up area of the Carrier we looked out of the open doorway of the Whirlwind helicopter and saw other choppers circling to form up. We looked down and watched 42 Commando embarked in their Landing Craft their wake making crested circles in the water as they formed up ready to proceed ashore
Looking shoreward we could see the smoke rising up over Port Said and the entrance to the Suez Canal. It seemed to me at this point that the invasion was on and that it was to be opposed (up to this moment many of us thought that the matter would be resolved peacefully and that there would be no fighting to be done). Frigates of the UK Fleet had softened up the enemy defences prior to the assault.
“Troops Out”. The order to disembark the chopper was given although not heard over the noise of the engines. Hand gestures activated the Section and one by one we jumped out onto Egyptian soil. We were laden down by extra ammunition and I had 2 x 3.5mm rocket launcher shells in their casing in my arms as I jumped. Goggles worn kept the sand from our eyes as the chopper hovered disgorging its load before heading back to the mother ship
So far so good I thought and although there had been signs of enemy resistance – wounded being returned to the ship and bullet holes in the helicopters returning to the Carrier as we were waiting to load up ready for the off – I could not sense the presence of any real or immediate danger. Some one pointed out a big statue nearby and turning to look at it we could see chips flying off of it as it was hit by incoming rounds over our heads. The statue was one of De Lesseps, the Engineer who designed the canal. We quickly picked up our stores, formed up and moved out
The sun was hot on our backs as we waited in our position in the Command snake ready to move off to secure our allotted objectives. We were to precede parallel to the water prior to turning into the town. We moved off passing burning beach huts dotted along the shore to our right along the way
The sounds of battle and the scream of aircraft overhead filled the air. We could see the fleet air arm planes overhead firing their cannons and rockets taking out various objectives, and we were making steady progress. Suddenly one of the Fleet Air Arm Wyvern Fighter aircraft swung round and flew low over our column, it was low enough for us to see it’s marking and the pilot. It banked and returned. The Troops looked up, some of us waving, wondering what he was looking for when he opened fire. We broke ranks and dived for cover although there was none that we could reach in time. I looked up and saw oblong balls of fire bouncing off the road and witnessed our Commanding Officer Lt. Colonel Norman Tailyour leading 45’s Tac HQ being hit along with his signaller- Marine Fowler. This blue on blue contact resulting in one mortality, Marine Fowler and several of Baker Troop members being wounded, along with our C.O. of 45 Cdo. I was lucky I survived without a scratch, but the Marine in front and the one behind me were hit
The wounded were given basic medical attention along with a shot of morphine to deaden the pain, and the letter “M” painted on their forehead to avoid overdosing on the drug. Nevertheless Tuffer Smith was given two shots and laughed all the way back to HMS Ocean which was acting as the hospital ship as well as carrying other Troops of the Commando
The Troop was settled down with the worst affected Sections being reformed. I was to be the 94 grenade (Energa Rocket) man. The buzz was received that Russian made enemy tanks were patrolling in the area and my Section Sgt told me that I might be needed in the event they turned our way.
We moved off crossing open ground and moved inland passing enemy dead along the way. We reached a part of the town consisting of five storey blocks of flats with colonnades surrounding a large gardened area where we came under fire from along the road running at right angles to us . There was a gun emplacement with several enemy gunmen manning it and firing at anything that crossed their line of fire. We recrossed the road and took shelter in the gardens. There was also firing from a block of flats overlooking the gardens. Our Troop sniper was called forward to pin down the gunmen in these flats. Not being able to advance we settled down and made a brew of tea and rested and awaited developments. Eventually a 106 mm anti tank gun mounted on a bren gun carrier arrived and took out the complete corner of the block of flats and the enemy gunmen
We were ordered back across the road and took shelter under the protection of the colonnades. An LMG (a light machine gun) commonly referred to as a bren gun) position was set up so as to engage the gun emplacement. My section fed the bren with spare ammunition magazines, passing the magazines from man to man to his No2, so that the No.1 on the bren was able to discharge a continuous rate of fire whilst his No2 changed the red hot gun barrels. He accounted for many of the enemy in this way whilst we stayed in comparative safety
During this period my Section was called upon to give assistance to Marines of Z Troop who had taken casualties and were trapped in one of the blocks of flats along our route of advance. We were given covering fire and moved along on the opposite side of the road taking shelter in the recessed entrance doors to ground floor flats until we were opposite the building the wounded Marines were in. We made our way up the inside of the building clearing the rooms as we went until we were at a level where we could fire at the enemy. Captain Meadows our Company Commando indicated for me to fire an Energa Grenade into the next to top storey of the building opposite whilst I was given covering fire. I fired one grenade which exploded into the building. After looking over at the damage caused he asked me to put another one into the top storey, which I did. Other Marines were then able to reach, give medical attention and evacuate the wounded. Years later I was fortunate enough to meet up with one of these wounded Marines a guy named Leon Cowling from Leytonstone
We rejoined the Troop and continued our line of advance working our way up clearing the rooms of buildings as we proceeded. One Marine would kick the door in and another would throw a grenade in. After the grenade went off and the explosion finished the Bren Gunner would enter the room spraying it with bullets if he detected an enemy presence. Looking around these rooms and the possessions left lying around it was obvious that the occupants had left in a hurry. We came across a wedding dress in one room and I can remember thinking what a horrible experience the bride and groom had had to suffer and whether or not the Wedding Ceremony had taken place before the invasion
Baker Troop moved forward together. Eventually at late afternoon we came across an empty girls school, which we secured and set about settling in. Guards were placed around the building overlooking the streets below. Shortly after this we were told that a cease-fire had been agreed and that it would be effective from midnight. We were ordered not to open fire unless we came under direct attack. Guard rosters were made out by Section NCOs along with instructions. The Troop settled down for the night and awaited the next days duties
That night after I had completed my spell on guard I can remember lying on the hard floor with my smallpack as a pillow and my rifle by my side thinking over the events of the day and wondering if the cease-fire would hold. The silence of the night was broken by a prolonged burst on the bren. The Marine on guard had opened fire on a suspected gunmen. On investigation it was found to be a skeleton found in the biology lab and hung up by the previous guard. The movement of the skeleton along with the chinking of its bones had frightened the daylights out of the poor Marine
The next day my section along with the rest of Baker Troop was tasked with searching for weapons hidden in the dwellings in our area. We exercised our customary hearts and minds approach, although just how kind it is to hand out pussers hard tack biscuits, I do not know. The boiled sweets went down well with the children. This we were quite successful at. We eventually found ourselves in the local hospital, which had hardly been affected by the fighting, but had suffered considerably by the hands of the looters in the local population. We stopped one man as he lowered a mattress out of a window. Although our orders were to shoot looters we only ordered him to leave it and go. I could not understand how they could steal from their own sick
It was during this time that we met up with some of the French Paratroopers which had taken over Port Faid the other side of the canal. They had crossed the canal to see how we had fared. We exchanged greetings. We had to explain to them that that our orders were to shoot looters and we then went our separate ways
I was sent out on vehicle patrol touring the nearby streets and alleyways. Life for the inhabitants was returning to some resemblance of normality. I can still remember the sight of dead meat hanging up in the open fronted shops with the flies swarming all around it.
As the water supply had been disrupted by the shelling there was a danger of cholera breaking out and we were all issued with anti cholera tablets
As there was still the possibility of the cease-fire being broken we established gun emplacements on the roof of the building we were occupying. We had to haul the full bags up the side of the building and stack them in the form of a compound around the gun, a bren mounted on a stand
Baker Troop was given the task to search the local poor area or shanty town. We were transported there by 3 ton lorries. Practically all the buildings were empty of human inhabitants. As there was still no electricity at this time all the paraffin lamps that we came across we put in sacks for use back at the school. I can again remember the shacks being made of flattened out tins nailed to flimsy frameworks and the floors being covered in bluebottle flies, which squelched under foot. The sacks of lamps were stacked outside ready to load onto the lorries
We were formed up in three ranks outside when a plane screamed overhead, because of our previous experience every one of us as a man dived for cover and took up defensive positions. When we had decided it was all al false alarm we went to load the sacks onto the lorries only to find that someone had taken advantage of our fright and stolen them away without anyone spotting them. This taught us all a salutary lesson
By now the British paratroopers were circulating our area and some of them asked if they could look over the pile of weaponry. What we at the time didn’t know was that a Newspaper Reporter had dropped with them to report on their part of the action. It was considered by the powers to be that it would be too dangerous for anyone to land with the Commandos. When we got back to Malta and were again receiving mail from the UK one of the guys received a newspaper cutting from home showing these same Paratroopers on top of the pile of weapons with the headline story saying how well they had done. Nothing changes!
We were given the news that the United Nations were to take over as a peace keeping force and we were to be relieved by other Troops from the UK. We packed our kit and to the tune of the bagpipes we were relieved by one of the Scottish regiments. We were on the rooftop of the school and watched them marching towards us along the road we had secured just a week or so ago
We formed up and marched to the quayside ready to embark for Malta on the Troop Ship Empire Fowey. We spent the next Three days or so just taking things easy, catching up with our dhobying, writing letters and just sitting around playing cards or chatting
We landed at Valetta harbour ( I can’t remember even being met by a Band playing for us as other returning Troops have) and were transported to Emtarfa Barracks where we met up with the replacements of the guys wounded and after a couple of days resumed training and bringing the new guys up to speed. As part of this we did a sweep across the tank range. As we were covering ground doing various Troop and Section movements a plane flew over low. We all went to ground. When we looked up and around the only ones standing were the replacement Marines
I was repatriated to the UK some months later. Boarding a Bus to cross London the conductor greeted me as “Royal” asking me if was I at Suez. I replied yes. He said “the fares on me”. The same thing happened again when I took a Taxi back to the Union Jack Club after seeing the girl who was to become my wife. She worked at the Festival Hall whilst attending Stage School. I went on to serve in the Royal Marines for another five and a half years or so
Whether it was all worth it I left to others to judge. I only know that the Royal Marine Commandos did their job well, making history along the way with the first opposed Helicopter assault in military history. Our actions were to be instrumental in the introduction of the Commando Carrier and the concept of troop delivery to the battle scene that we now know
3 Commando Brigade suffered 9 dead and sixty wounded. The Brigade that day earned six decorations on Operation Muskateer
Mne. B.D. Harris