The Last Drop
By the time the 3rd Parachute Battalion landed at El Gamil airfield, Operation Musketeer had suffered a series of last minute changes from it's regional plan. The airborne operation of the invasion of the Suez, called for a British parachute drop on Port Said airfield, El Gamil, and a French drop at Port Fouad. The British paratroopers were to secure the airfield, and then link up with the seaborne troops in Port Said. The airborne operation could not take place before the 6th of November, because the invasion convoys could not sail from Malta until the 31st of October. The French government, fearing that the delay would damage the operation, pressed for an earlier drop and an amended plan. The British 16th Independent Parachute Brigade would still drop at El Gamil, but the French would now drop at Raswa. The British agreed to launch this updated operation on the 5th of November at dawn. This would mean the Battalion would be on the ground fighting for 24 hours before the main seaborne invasion arrived.
The British operation was limited to just 600 troops of the 3rd Battalion. The Battalion would fly from RAF air fields on Cyprus, but, because of lack of parking space at the airfields, and because of the older British aircraft, obsolete side loading Hastings and Valentines, the initial assault would be dangerously small. One of the main reasons the British had to use these older aircraft was the United States, who were totally against any military action, refused to supply any help to Britain and France, especially in the form of Aircraft. Also, because of the shortage of aircraft, the Battalion would have to land with no heavy weapons support. The plan allowed the Battalion eight minutes to drop all its troops and equipment at El Gamil, an airfield that was 1 mile long and only half a mile wide, bounded on both sides by water. To avoid drifting in the air they planned to drop in 3 waves at varying heights. The first wave would drop at 500 ft, the second wave, , the Heavy lift, at 800 ft, and the third and last wave at 1,000 ft. This also met the Paratroops would be in the air the shortest amount of time possible.
Early on the 5th of November, the Battalion boarded their aircraft in Nicosia, Cyprus. 3 Para would drop before the French. Three companies, (A, B and C), and their suppliers, were lifted from Nicosia aboard 26 Hastings and Valetta's. Protected by RAF fighters and ground attack aircraft, the heavily laden transports approached the DZ. at 0515, flying from the northwest directly into the sun. At 0715 hours, despite the delays, caused by the old side loading aircraft, 85% of the Battalion was on the ground within 10 minutes, having suffered only one fatality, and a few major injuries.
The above painting is available
Unlike their French Allies, the British did not carry any personal weapons for using during their descent, and had to wait until they were on the ground before they could break open the containers that carried their small arms and ammunition. Many of the British paratroopers would have been killed as they landed on the open airfield, but the Egyptians, fearing a landing, had covered the runway with sand filled oil drums. These drums provided cover for the British paratroopers, and they were able to secure their weapons, reorganize, and move in to attack the defenders.
A Company rushed to secure the northwestern end of the airfield, encountering only sporadic resistance from Egyptian defenders. B company moved towards the Port Said end of the airfield, to block Egyptian reinforcements. The fighting was a short and bloody, hand to hand engagement all the way. C Company cleared the airfield itself setting up a command post and defensive positions among oil drums strewn across the runway. Within 30 minutes the objective was firmly in British hands. A second lift brought in the rest of 3 Para, and on the return trip the helicopters evacuated the wounded to the fleet offshore. During the day, 3 Para was attacked by French jet fighters. Fortunately the Battalion did not suffer casualties from this attack. Not the first time friendly fire would problems during Operation Musketeer.
Meanwhile, the French 2 RCP, who had dropped onto a smaller DZ. south of the Raswa bridges at 0530, had a very successful assault. They landed in an incredibly short period time, 4 minutes, but had to fight to establish their hold, having dropped literally on to the heads of the Egyptian defenders. They advanced, and captured the western end of the Raswa Bridge by 0900. The French dug in around their objective, sending out probing patrols towards Port Said. At 1530 they were joined by a second battalion, which dropped onto salt pans to the east of Port Fuad. Meanwhile, a small detachment of British Paras from the 9th Independent Squadron Royal Engineers, who had landed with the French first wave, conducted a reconnaissance down the canal towards Ismailia, but found no signs of the enemy.
Back at El Gamil airfield, 3 Para had destroyed all opposition at the airfield. Throughout the day, close air support from both British and French aircraft, supported 3 Para, who by now, were having great difficulty overcoming resistance around the nearby sewage farm, which also was home to thousands of mosquitoes, who proved to be more irritating than the Egyptians. A big fire fight also took place at the cemetery and the Coast Guard barracks, on the outskirts of Port Said. By 1300 hours they're running short of ammunition, and the order was given to dig in. They remained in these positions, under constant sniper fire, and waited for the morning to arrive and the seaborne landings to begin.
At 900 hours the next morning, the 6th of November, communications were established with the seaborne assault
force, who, were still 15 miles out to sea. H.M.S. Ceylon was assigned as fire support for 3 Para. A forward fire
control unit, which had dropped with 3 Para on the airfield, now started looking for targets for the big guns offshore, but none could be found.
3 Para resumed its attack towards Port Said, from the direction of El Gamil airport. The French Paras, reinforced from the sea by the 1st Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment, and a unit of AMX 13 light tanks. They were able to consolidate their hold on the important Raswa Bridge and Port Fuad. House clearing operations continued throughout the day, but by 1200 hours Centurion tanks of A Squadron, 6th Royal Tank Regiment finally linked up with the French. The Egyptian positions in and around Port Said were no longer tenable.
With all objectives taken, the emphasis now shifted to the main objective, the Canal. The plan was to advance down the Canal road running south towards Ismailia. A squadron, 6 RTR, with French Para support, began to move down the narrow causeway towards more open ground at El Cap without delay. The 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment, who had originally been assigned this task, arrived via the troopship Empire Parkeston, sometime in the afternoon of the 6th. The Battalion's disembarkation was delayed due to sniper fire and the sudden arrival of two Russian built, T34 tanks only 200 yards from the harbour. RAF and Fleet Air Arm aircraft soon knocked these out. Due to this delay in disembarkation, 2 Para did not assemble at Raswa until 1900 hours, to spearhead the advance.
The aim was to establish positions beyond the causeway by the time of the cease-fire, which the Allied General Command knew was coming. This would gain more room for maneuvering, should the fighting flare up again. 2 Para started their advance towards Ismailia at 2300 hours, accompanied by the tanks of A squadron, 6th RTR. British troops did manage to reach El Cap, about 40 km south of Port Said, by the time the cease-fire was announced. As the British troops dug in they realized, that they were just a few short hours from taking their main objective.
During the Suez Invasion, 3rd Para had lost 4 dead and 36 wounded and had taken 17 prisoners. The 3rd Battalion's drop on El Gamil Airfield was the first and last combat jump by a battalion group, (Support Arms also jumped) since the 2nd World War.