Saturday, 24 July 2021

Churchill wanted to bomb Khartoum in the early 1950s

When the Free Officers Society in July 1952 under Colonel Nasser's leadership overthrew the monarchy and took power in Egypt, they put pressure on Britain to leave the Suez Canal. 

They did so by covert guerrilla attacks, American mediation and diplomacy. 

Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary, was already convinced of the need for disengagement, but struggled to get the Conservative cabinet to agree against Churchill's opposition.

I read today that Churchill complained that 'Munich was situated on the Nile' and favoured bombing Khartoum, when anti-British riots took place in the Anglo-Egyptian condominium.

Eden risked his chances of succeeding Churchill as Prime Minister by pushing through the Anglo-Egyptian defence agreement of October 1954, the same month in which he became a Knight of the Garter, by which Britain agreed to withdraw all its forces from the canal zone by June 1956. 

Eden's reputation was therefore dependent on how Nasser behaved in the Middle East.

On 4 April 1955 Churchill hosted a farewell dinner, attended by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, at 10 Downing Street. After the dinner, his long-serving secretary John 'Jock' Colville found the Prime Minister sitting on his bed in evening dress, wearing the Garter and staring into space. Colville asked him softly what he was thinking about. Colville imagined he was looking back over his 55 years in politics, but instead Churchill said, 'I don’t believe Anthony can do it.'

This is the background to Eden's decision to invade Egypt to recapture Suez, in secret collaboration with the Israelis, 
after Nasser nationalised the canal in 1956. Suez sank his premiership, when Eisenhower threatened to sell pounds and wreck the British currency. 

When Eden withdrew Churchill said, 'I do not know if I would have had the courage to go in but I do know I would not have had the courage to pull out.'

Churchill was proven right about Egypt and Eden, though bombing Khartoum would have been an extreme but very Churchillian measure. 

In 1912, in the summer before the First Balkan War, Churchill the First Lord of the Admiralty went pleasure cruising in the Adriatic in the admiralty yacht (no questions were raised about this use of public funds) with the Prime Minister HH Asquith and his daughter. The Prime Minister was amused to hear Churchill regarding Diocletian’s palace at Split and declaring ‘I should like to bombard the swine.’ (In a footnote to his biography Roy Jenkins asks ‘But who were the swine?’ — but provides no answer.)


  1. First of all President Eisenhower threatened no such thing. What was "wreaking the British economy" was, in part, the artificial exchange rate to the Dollar - so had the exchange rate been allowed to fall Britain would have been benefitted (the same could be said of the 1920s). What the American Administration might have have said is that they would not take action to prop up the artificial exchange rate - that they would allow other people (not themselves) to sell Pounds and buy Dollars, to which the British government should have said "thank you very much indeed".

    As for Churchill - he OPPOSED destroying the tomb of the "Mahdi" in the 1890s, and there is no reason to suppose he had a different opinion in the 1950s. Giving air support to British bases that were under attack (not bombing the city in general) is what he meant.

    Eden was a fool to pull British forces out of the Canal Zone in 1954 (trusting in a piece of paper from a dictator - someone who should never have been allowed to take power in Egypt in the first place). And had British forces not been pulled out of the Canal Zone (and had the Constitutional government in Egypt been supported) then they would never had to have been sent back in 1956.

    As for "the swine" - that is obvious, Diocletian was a swine. As soon as anyone came into his presence they were made to grovel on their belly - as if he was a Persian despot rather than a Roman Emperor.


    2. I was in Egypt a while back and should blog about it. It wasn't easy to stop the coup that overthrew King Farouk. How do you think it should have been prevented?

    3. Perhaps it could not have been - but there was not even a real effort to stop it. And, as always, the effort to build "modern institutions" was a mistake - it was the modern institutions (such as the military) that turned on the King.

    4. The coup took place because Farouk had lost the war with the Jews in Palestine. Had he not attacked, Israel would have been much smaller and he might have kept his throne but it is hard to imagine the Arabs not going to war, a war the British knew the Jews would win.

    5. I know rather little about the history of Palestine - did the British warn the Arab states that they would lose a war? I am not sure they did.