PORT SAID, Egypt: At Port Said's nautical club, overlooking the mouth of the Suez Canal, Sami Khodeir relives the landing of the paratroopers from the triple alliance that attacked Egypt 50 years ago.
"We weren't expecting them and they weren't expecting our level of resistance," says this former governor of Port Said, who at the age of 26 was one of the youngest leaders of the Arab partisans who opposed the disastrous Anglo-French operation against the city.
On Oct. 29, 1956, Israel stormed the Sinai Peninsula, rushing towards the canal zone which France and Britain, the former administrators of the canal, claimed they had to protect.
Three months earlier, on July 26, Egypt's charismatic leader Gamal Abdel Nasser had shocked the world by nationalizing the strategic waterway.
The aborted 10-day retaliatory war launched by Israel, France and Britain went down in Egyptian history as the "tripartite aggression".
The alliance's "Operation Musketeer" kicked off on Nov. 5 when some 500 French paratroopers redeployed from combat in Algeria and, backed by warplanes, landed at the Raswa Bridge while British forces seized the El-Gamil airfield.
"I rushed, but too late, to a water storage tank, as the bridge was being well defended by mortars and machine guns," recalls Khodeir, then a police captain who was swiftly promoted coordinator with the central army command in Cairo.
The next day at dawn, French and British troops effortlessly invaded Port Said and nearby Port Fouad, whose shores had not been mined. Resistance hastily organised itself in a bid to repel the alliance's formidable military might.
"We didn't have the weapons to match them so we ended up using simple revolvers to pick off the soldiers during their patrols," says Ahmed Hilal, then a 25-year-old steelworker who volunteered for the resistance.
How many enemies did he shoot down with his makeshift sniper weapon? "I know of at least five for sure," he says proudly.
Faced with rumbling AMX and Centurion tanks, guerrilla tactics were the only resort for the resistance. "I also took part in the operation during which Moorehouse was taken hostage," Hilal claims.
Antony Moorehouse, a young lieutenant from the West Yorkshire regiment, was taken hostage in December and eventually killed by resistors who had intended to exchange him for Egyptian prisoners.
George Ishak, now 67 years old and a leader of the opposition Kefaya movement, remembers the wind of patriotism that swept his native city of Port Said.
"I was dumbfounded and initially wanted to leave the city, but my professor told me to stay and take up arms. My life was never the same" again, he explains.
On the French-British side, limited fighting and skirmishes did little to obstruct a rout of the Egyptian forces until a ceasefire was declared on Nov. 7, after just 48 hours of land operations.
"There were a number of demonstrations, invariably peaceful and dispersed easily. More serious were the occasional shootings but I don't remember the battalion taking any casualties," wrote Peter Hinchcliffe, a former member of the West Yorks.
US pressure, a Russian ultimatum and a vote by the United Nations General Assembly brought an end to the Suez expedition, which Hinchcliffe describes as "militarily successful but politically disastrous".
The Suez crisis, which precipitated the decline of France and Britain as world superpowers, killed 1,250 Egyptians — most of them civilians — as well as 231 Israelis, 22 Britons and 11 Frenchmen.
Nasser had scuttled some 40 ships in the Suez canal, blocking the waterway immediately after the alliance launched its attack.
Khodeir, Hilal and Ishak all agree that a new chapter has been opened with France and Britain, but that the Israelis, who returned to the shores of Port Said during the 1967 war, remain their enemies.
"The vendetta with Israel is not over," says Hilal, in spite of the 1979 peace treaty Egypt signed with the Jewish state.
"The French admitted their mistakes and have changed," argues Khodeir.
When he later became the governor of Port Said, he tried in vain to re-erect the statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the 19th century French diplomat who masterminded the construction of the Suez Canal, which resistors had blown up.
The last French red berets and British green berets to leave the Mediterranean port city 50 years ago were met by the first ever "blue helmets" — UN peacekeepers — ever to be deployed by the world body.