United Nations Emergency Force I (UNEF I) - RAPID STEP

International Information

International Operation Name: United Nations Emergency Force I

International Mission Name: United Nations Emergency Force I (UNEF I)

Mandating Organization: United Nations

Region Name: Middle East

Location: Sinai

Mission Date: 5 November 1956 - 17 June 1967

Mission Mandate: UNEF I was established to secure and supervise the cessation of hostilities, including the withdrawal of the armed forces of France, Israel and the United Kingdom from Egyptian territory and, after the withdrawal, to serve as a buffer between the Egyptian and Israeli forces.

Canadians in International Mission Command Position: Major-General E.L.M. Burns

Mission/Operation Notes: The State of Israel was created on 14 May 1948 following United Nations acceptance of the Palestine Partition plan embodied in Resolution 181 adopted on 29 November 1947. Despite having broad international support Israel was attacked by its neighbours on 15 May 1948. The fighting continued into 1949 until the United Nations managed to broker ceasefire or armistice agreements with most of the belligerents. These agreements brought neither peace nor stability to the Middle East, however, because they did not resolve a fundamental problem: how to provide permanent, secure, and viable homelands for the Palestinians and Israelis in a way acceptable to all within the limited territories available for that purpose. Tensions remained high; there were calls on the parts of some governments for Israel’s destruction; and when, in October 1956, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria announced the creation of a joint unified military command for their armed forces, the Israeli government was understandably alarmed.

At the same time, relations between Egypt and the United States, United Kingdom, and France were deteriorating over the issue of access to the Suez Canal. Britain had given up its right to defend the Canal Zone and withdrawn from the area in June 1956. Shortly thereafter, the United States and the UK declined to help Egypt finance the Aswan dam project. On 26 July, therefore, Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal, announcing that transit fees would be used to finance the Aswan project.

Britain and France both regarded Egypt’s seizure of the canal as a threat to their national security interests and as an attack on the rights of shareholders in the canal. By August they began planning an attack on Egypt to regain control of the Suez and, as part of a complex political manoeuvre, brought Israel into the plan as a co-belligerent.

Israel attacked Egypt on 29 October. Britain and France then intervened on 31 October, ostensibly to separate the Egyptian and Israeli forces and ensure free passage for shipping through the Canal until a peace could be brokered; but some suspected that the British and French invasion forces would not soon leave. At the United Nations, the United States and the Soviet Union began immediate efforts to force a cease-fire and an Israeli withdrawal. An Extraordinary Meeting of the General Assembly was convened on 1 November, approving a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire. Fearing that any such cease-fire would be temporary, Lester Pearson, Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs, promoted the idea of a UN force to separate the two combatants and to allow (and encourage) the British and French forces to withdraw. This idea gradually took form in General Assembly Resolutions 998 to 1000 on 4-5 November, which established an international emergency force under United Nations Command - what would soon become the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) - and appointed Major-General E.L.M. Burns of Canada as the force commander.

UNEF’s mandate was to secure a cease-fire, supervise the withdrawal of foreign troops, and observe and patrol the armistice line. Militarily, UNEF was to prevent clashes between Egyptian and Israeli forces by interposing itself between the two sides. Despite the overwhelming support for Resolution 1000 in the UN General Assembly, Israel refused to allow UNEF forces onto its territory. Egypt agreed to their presence on Egyptian soil on condition that it was free to revoke its agreement at any time. It also insisted that UNEF troops stationed on Egyptian soil would have no authority over Egyptian territory or citizens.

Because UNEF would have to leave when asked to do so by Egypt - and Israel had not accepted its presence on Israeli territory -- it was not the fully consensual effort usually upheld as the ideal of typical ‘blue beret’ peacekeeping; but in other ways it set the standard for all future such missions. It was UNEF, for example, which initially adopted the light blue headdress now viewed as the universal symbol of UN operations. More important, the idea of an armed force interposing itself between two combatants to keep the peace was born here, at least in the post-Second World War context.

The first UN forces to arrive were from the United Nations Truce Supervisory Organization (UNTSO), which set up a temporary headquarters in Cairo from which to prepare for the UNEF forces. They arrived on 12 November and were followed on the 15th and 16th by Colombian, Danish and Norwegian forces who arrived in Egypt by air. By February 1957, UNEF comprised 6,073 personnel, from ten nations. This number decreased to 3,378 at the time of UNEF’s withdrawal in May 1967. Indonesia and Finland had agreed to short-term commitments and withdrew their forces in September and December 1957. The Colombians withdrew in December 1958.

UNEF achieved its first objective relatively quickly. Once sufficient personnel were in place, and after some prompting by General Burns, the British and French started withdrawing from the Canal Zone in mid-December and were gone completely by 22 December. The withdrawal of Israeli forces took a little longer, but they too were gone by 22 January except for areas along Sharm el-Sheikh and the Gaza Strip, their place being taken by UNEF troops. In the case of the former, Israel wished to ensure that Egypt would not re-impose a blockade on Israeli access once it reoccupied the territory along the Gulf of Aqaba, but following negotiations and discussions at the UN, Israel withdrew from Sharm el-Sheik between 8 and 12 March. Israel’s concerns about the Gaza Strip were related to its previous use as a staging point for guerrilla incursions into Israel. Again, after discussions, Israel withdrew from this area and UNEF forces entered the Gaza Strip on the night of 6/7 March.

By then, UNEF was already heavily engaged in clearing minefields, repairing roads damaged during the fighting, overseeing prisoner of war exchanges and providing security for the British and French warships that cleared the Suez Canal itself of mines. But the major task was to ensure that fighting did not break out again, and to that end UNEF manned some eighty observations posts, conducted mobile patrols, and carried out air surveillance of the frontier region.

For ten years UNEF had great success in keeping the Israeli-Egyptian frontier secure, and the number of incidents there paled in comparison with those occurring on Israel’s borders with Jordan and Syria. But by 1967 the level of tension throughout the region was rising (control of water in the headwaters of the Jordan River and increased terrorist activity directed against Israel from bases in Syria and Jordan were particular problems) and on 16 May 1967, as was his right, the Egyptian President ordered UNEF to leave his country. The Six-Day war began three weeks later, on 5 June, and fifteen UNEF personnel (fourteen Indian and one Brazilian) still in the Gaza Strip awaiting repatriation were killed as fighting occurred around them. When the war was over, Israel was left in possession of the entire Sinai peninsula, Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, and UNTSO returned to the new Egyptian-Israeli frontier to resume its monitoring mission.

Canadian Forces (CF) Information (RAPID STEP)


Date: 6 November 1956 - 31 March 1957

CF Mission/Operation Notes: The Canadian government naturally supported the Pearson UNEF proposal, and plans to contribute a Canadian contingent to UNEF were well underway before Resolution 1000 was formally adopted. It was assumed in Ottawa that Canada would send an infantry battalion - 1st Battalion, The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada - but she had also been asked for support elements and an armoured reconnaissance squadron. The plan was designated Operation RAPID STEP, and because of the changes noted below, three quite separate contingencies end up being covered by that name. RAPID STEP 1 was the proposed deployment of 1 QOR; RAPID STEP 2 covered the actual force despatched between November 1956 and January 1957; and RAPID STEP 3 dealt with the armoured recce squadron sent in March 1957.

RAPID STEP 1 began on 7 November 1956, when the aircraft carrier HMCS Magnificent was ordered back to Halifax at best speed to serve as transport for the Canadian contingent. Arriving in Halifax on 13 November, she underwent a rapid transformation to allow army stores to be loaded, a task that was completed by 18 November. Awaiting the “Maggie” were the 950 men of 1 QOR who had been flown from Calgary to Halifax by 435 Squadron in a two-day period starting November 13th.

The Queen’s Own would not deploy once Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser objected to their selection because - the story goes - their name was too British-sounding and their uniforms too British-looking. It has been suggested, however, that these were simply excuses, and that what was important to Nasser was that he be able to show to his own people that Egypt had not surrendered its sovereignty by accepting UNEF and that it could still exert national control by insisting upon certain conditions. In this interpretation, The Queen’s Own were simply a handy and a useful target. Whatever the reason - and it must be remembered not only that all Canadian Army uniforms at the time closely resembled British uniforms, but also that several Regiments and Corps in the Canadian Army carried the word Royal in their title - on 11 December Canada agreed that 1 QOR would not deploy, and Operation RAPID STEP 1 came to a close. Over the next week, all the embarked stores were disembarked.

In the meantime, General Burns had suggested that Canada should despatch logistics personnel, of which UNEF was desperately short, and his proposal was agreed to. Thus began RAPID STEP 2. Once again HMCS Magnificent was loaded with materiel and equipments and with nearly five hundred officers and men primarily from the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, Royal Canadian Army Service Corps, Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps, and Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers as well as four de Havilland Otter aircraft of the Royal Canadian Air Force. She slipped her lines on 29 December and departed for the Middle East, arriving off Port Said on 12 January 1957. In the meantime, RCAF Transport Command airlifted the remaining personnel to Italy beginning 21 November and then, in Operation READY LIFT, began ferrying Canadian and other UN personnel to Abu Suweir, Egypt. North Stars from 426 Squadron made the trans-Atlantic crossing, while C-119 Boxcars crewed by 435 and 436 Squadrons flew across the Mediterranean. Twelve Boxcars were eventually committed to the task, and by the end of December they had carried 1712 passengers and 306 tons of freight.

Eight of the C119s returned to Canada in January, but the RCAF maintained a strong presence in the area with four Boxcars of what was now designated No 114 Communications Flight as well as the two Dakotas and four Otters No 115 Communications Flight. The former, now renamed No 114 Air Transport Unit, left for Canada in January 1958, while the Dakotas of No 115 Air Transport Unit were eventually replaced by DHC-4 Caribou. These, like all the other aircraft deployed with UNEF, had their Canadian markings muted or removed altogether, to be replaced by the words United Nations on the sides of the fuselage.

The land component, meanwhile, was organised in four newly created units reflecting the functional nature of the Canadian commitment: 56 Canadian Signal Squadron, 56 Canadian Transport Company, 56 Canadian Infantry Workshop and Canadian Base Units, Middle East. Subsequently, when it was found that UNEF lacked a light reconnaissance capability, 56 Canadian Recce Squadron, formed largely from Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) and The Royal Canadian Dragoons, was created and despatched under the designation RAPID STEP 3. It deployed to the Middle East in March 1957, and with its arrival the strength of CANUNEF stood at 1007, all ranks. Its initial task was to occupy a buffer zone between the Egyptian Army and the Anglo-French forces waiting to withdraw. The first to enter this zone were engineers who, from 1 December 1956, began the risky job of clearing mines. Once the foreign forces had withdrawn from Egypt, the main tasks of the Canadians were to conduct reconnaissance, monitor the armistice line, investigate violations and maintain a “UN” presence. 115 ATU meanwhile conducted aerial reconnaissance flights, resupplied UNEF troops, and transported UNEF senior personnel to meetings in Egypt and Israel.

In time UNEF’s presence produced sufficient stability on the Sinai frontier to allow the UN to reduce its size. The Canadian Recce Squadron was not replaced at the end of its 1966 tour, while the amalgamation of the infantry workshop and transport company into Canadian Base Unit (UNEF) in October 1963 had already reduced Canada’s commitment to 780 personnel.

When Egypt demanded that UNEF leave its territory on 16 May 1967, Canada was among the countries that tried to persuade President Nasser to rescind his request. But when these attempts proved fruitless, the UN had to react, and withdrawal was the only course of action. The RCAF began to evacuate the Canadian contingent on 29 May, finishing the job two days later. The Six Day War began on 5 June.

The United Nations presence in the Middle East was not able to prevent the outbreak of war in 1967, but it does not follow that UNEF itself had failed. Rather, in a region alive with tension, UNEF had managed to make the Sinai perhaps the most secure and stable frontier area of all, and that was no minor accomplishment. Thirty-one Canadians died on UNEF service, most in vehicular accidents.

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