Britain drew up secret plans to cut off the flow of the River Nile to Egypt in 1956 in an attempt to force president Gamal Abdel Nasser to give up the Suez Canal, according to official files made public today.
Papers released to the National Archives in Kew, west London, show military planners believed they could reduce the White Nile to a trickle – hitting agriculture and cutting communications.
The plan was presented to Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden just six weeks before British and French forces invaded Egypt in November 1956 in a catastrophic operation to seize the canal following its nationalisation by Nasser.
The scheme was never adopted amid fears of a violent backlash, although officials thought it could still offer a useful “black propaganda” threat to put pressure on Nasser.
In the event, Eden and the French colluded with the Israelis, who launched an attack on the canal zone to give the Anglo-French force a pretext to go in.
The following day, however, a humiliated Eden was forced to declare a ceasefire in the face of concerted international pressure to withdraw led by a furious US President Dwight Eisenhower.
Under the Nile plan, Britain would have used the Owen Falls dam in Uganda to cut the flow of the White Nile by seven-eighths.
However, planners were forced to admit the scheme had several drawbacks.
It would be 16 months before it would have an appreciable effect on river levels in Egypt while there would be “serious repercussions” in other friendly states such as Kenya and Uganda.
While Egypt’s cotton and rice crops would be damaged, it was unlikely to destroy the economy or cause serious famine.
“Since the river is vital to Egypt they have always been uneasy about British control of the headwater,” the planning paper warned.
“Thus any suggestion of controlling the Nile without Egypt’s consent is certain to cause the most violent repercussions.”
John Hunt, a senior Cabinet Office official, noted that while the plan was “probably not a sound one to carry out” it still offered “useful possibilities for clandestine action”. He wrote: “It might be possible to spread the word among the more illiterate Egyptians that ‘unless Nasser climbs down, Britain will cut off the Nile’.”
Despite Eisenhower’s opposition to the seizure of the canal, MI6 had been secretly working with the CIA in America on a plan to bring down Nasser, whom Eden regarded as a Middle Eastern Hitler.
On October 8, a month before the invasion, Cabinet Secretary Sir Norman Brook reported to Eden on secret talks the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Patrick Dean, had been holding in Washington with the CIA and the State Department.
“The American agencies have joined with us in declaring that our joint objectives require Nasser’s removal from power,” Brook said.
“The Americans have agreed that, if no occasion presents itself for taking the appropriate steps to contribute to Nasser’s downfall, it may be necessary for us to create such an occasion.
“The political and economic measures needed for this purpose have been discussed and agreed, at least in outline.
“The main lines of approach have been canvassed much more freely than ever before.”