Resignation of a First Sea Lord: Mountbatten and the 1956 Suez Crisis

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Abstract

During the Suez crisis the head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Lord Mountbatten, twice appeared to offer his resignation, fearing Sir Anthony Eden favoured a military resolution of Britain's dispute with President Nasser over Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal. Mountbatten believed that an Anglo-French seizure of the Canal Zone would destabilize the Middle East, undermine the authority of the UN, divide the Commonwealth and diminish Britain's global standing. Within the Chiefs of Staff Committee, and in advice to cabinet, the First Sea Lord voiced his fears, querying what the exit strategy was. The parallels with the Iraq war are striking, except that in 1956 the White House opposed military intervention, compounding Mountbatten's unease by deploying the US Navy to delay its erstwhile allies' taskforce en route to Port Said. Mountbatten believed his unique status as royal confidant and imperial consul, and presumed close friend of the prime minister, allowed him to buck constitutional convention and complement military advice with keenly felt political opinion. Yet at the same time he prepared the Royal Navy for war with characteristic professionalism and thoroughness, finding himself party to the collusion with Israel which he later condemned. How did Mountbatten reconcile genuine dissent with a state servant's obvious sense of duty, and was this achieved through constructing an alternative version of events that ran counter to actuality? From a contemporary perspective what insight does this episode offer into the historic relationship between executive and chiefs of staff within the British model of civil–military relations?

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