1956 – Suez, The Cold War, Airfix and Clean Air

In 1956 there were some really important events around the world that had an influence on international relations over the next twenty years or so.

In the Middle East the Suez Canal was of very high military and commercial strategic importance and the United Kingdom had control of the canal under the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 but on July 26th Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian President, announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company, in which British banks and business had a large financial interest.   The British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, was outraged and up for war and Britain together with France made threatening noises and began to prepare for an invasion with large forces deployed to Cyprus and Malta and the fleet dispatched to the Mediterranean Sea.  On 30th October the allies sent an ultimatum to Egypt and when it was ignored invaded on the following day.  Someone should have told them that this was no longer the nineteenth century and they couldn’t go throwing their weight around like this any more.

Almost simultaneously with this event there was a crisis in Eastern Europe when a revolution in Hungary deposed the pro-Soviet Government there.  The new government formally declared its intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and pledged to re-establish free elections.  By the end of October this had seemed to be successful but on 4th November, a large Soviet force invaded Budapest and during a few days of resistance an estimated two thousand five hundred Hungarians died and two hundred thousand more fled the country as refugees.  Mass arrests and imprisonments followed and a new Soviet inclined government was installed and this action strengthened Soviet control over Central Europe.

From a military perspective the operation to take the Suez Canal was highly successful but was a political disaster due to unfortunate timing.  The US President Eisenhower was dealing with both crises, and faced the public relations embarrassment of opposing the Soviet Union’s military intervention in Hungary while at the same time ignoring the actions of its two principal European allies in Egypt.  It was also rather unnerving that the Soviet Union threatened to intervene and launch nuclear attacks on London and Paris and fearful of a new global conflict Eisenhower forced a ceasefire and demanded that the invasion stop.  Due to a combination of diplomatic and financial pressure Britain and France were obliged to withdraw their troops early in 1957.  Anthony Eden resigned.

The Hungarian revolution and the Suez crisis marked the final transfer of power to the new World superpowers, the USA and the USSR, and it was clear to everyone that only ten years after the Second-World-War Britain was no longer a major world power.  Since that time Britain has only once acted in a military matter without checking with the US first, when Margaret Thatcher sent troops to retake the Falkland Islands from the Argentine invaders and things are so bad now of course that British Prime Ministers like Tony Blair simply do as they are told by the American Head of State as though they are the President’s pet poodle.

In addition to these major events something significant happened in the Caribbean when Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and a small group of followers landed in Cuba intent on revolution, the overthrow of the pro-US Government and a military takeover which would ultimately lead to another world crisis in the early 1960s.

This change in the world balance of power was highly significant and provided the tense atmosphere of the Cold War years that lasted until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.  In 1955 the two British spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who had fled in 1951, turned up in Moscow and I spent my childhood with a dread fear of the USSR and in an environment preparing for imminent nuclear conflict and the end of the world.  During this time the very thought of visiting eastern European countries was completely absurd which makes it all the more extraordinary that in the last couple of years I have been able to visit the previous Eastern-bloc countries of Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Slovakia, Poland, Latvia, Estonia and the Czech Republic.

With Britain’s world humiliation it was significant that also in 1956 the Royal Air Force decommissioned the Second-World-War bomber, the iconic Avro Lancaster.  Along with the spitfire this was the most successful British wartime plane and I have my own fond memories of the Lancaster because I can remember struggling to assemble an Airfix plastic model of the famous old aircraft.

Airfix kits were notoriously difficult to assemble and the only absolute certainty was that once it was finished it definitely wouldn’t look like the picture on the box!  Getting the fuselage and the wings snapped together was a fairly straightforward procedure but things quickly became difficult after that, with fiddly little bits and pieces that required huge dexterity, great precision and unnatural amounts of patience to position into exactly the right place.  What made this even more difficult was the plastic cement glue with its curious smell that had a habit of exuding the tube nozzle in far greater quantities of stringy ooze than you could ever possibly need for such a delicate operation.  I always found this especially tricky when finally putting the cock-pit window into position at the end and my model was always left with smears on the perspex that if this was a real plane would have made it virtually impossible for the pilot to see where he was flying.  And thinking about the pilot, one of the most irritating things was to discover that I had got the cockpit in place and the whole thing finished before I had placed the pilot into his seat and there he was rattling around in the bottom of the box along with all of the bits of discarded plastic and the assembly instructions.  After the gluing together came the painting and this was an equally messy affair with paint dribbling down the fuselage, bits of wool and hair getting stuck on the model and fingerprints in various places where I had tried in vain to rectify the damage.

Finally came the delicate process of applying the decals which had to be separated from the backing paper by soaking in water and then requiring a most delicate touch to manoeuvre them carefully into position.  Sometimes if I was lucky they could be used to cover up the dodgy paintwork but mostly they would end up on first contact in the wrong place and crease and tear as I tried to correct the error.  I finished the Lancaster to some sort of sub-standard but I can recall making such a mess of Lysander that as soon as it was completed I was so ashamed of it that I immediately consigned it to the bin.

Airfix was also popular in the United States, France and Germany, but here the swastika transfers on Heinkels and Messerschmitts were banned.  An important thing about Airfix was that it taught important life skills like reading impenetrably detailed assembly instructions that were useful later in life for dealing with flat-pack furniture assembly.

Four years earlier the Great Smog of 1952 had darkened the streets of London and killed an estimated four thousand people in the frighteningly short time of just four days and a further eight thousand died later from its effects in the following weeks and months.  This must have been a bit of a worry to mum and dad especially as they lived in London at the time and experienced it first hand.  In response the 1956 Clean Air Act introduced smokeless zones in the capital.  Consequently, reduced sulphur dioxide levels made the intense and persistent London smog a thing of the past.  It was after this the great clean-up of London began and buildings recovered their original stone façades which, during the previous two centuries, had gradually blackened due to smoke pollution.

The summer of 1956 was abysmal: rain, hail, lightning, floods, gales and miserable cold. It was the wettest July in London since records began, and August was one of the coldest and wettest on record across Britain, as barrages of depressions swept the country.  But there was a silver lining to this cloud and September was such an improvement it was warmer than August, a very rare occurrence, and the rest of autumn turned into a glorious Indian summer.

Two final facts about 1956 that I have found interesting are that this was the year of the first Eurovision song contest (The United Kingdom did not participate) that was held in and won by Switzerland,  and in cricket, Jim Laker took nineteen wickets for England in a test match against Australia a feat never achieved before or since.  The twentieth Australian wicket was taken by Tony Lock and without that intervention Laker would probably have made a clean sweep.

One response to “1956 – Suez, The Cold War, Airfix and Clean Air

  1. I was 8 years-old at the time but I remember those events.

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