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Seeking new members for Suffolk's Suez Canal Zoners
Bernard Mills on the Suez Canal, Ipswich
Bernard Mills on the Suez Canal in August 1954

How do you keep a veteran servicemen's club going in Suffolk, when by its very nature it's got a limited lifespan?

The Canal Zoners is for people who served in Egypt until British Forces left after the Suez Crisis of 1956.

The Suffolk branch meets throughout the year and has around 50 members, but inevitably old age is taking its toll.

"Having been there, you never completely forget," said Bernard Mills of Laxfield. "It's nice to meet up and share that experience and fellowship."

Britain bought Egypt's shares in the man-made canal in the 1870s and British forces were stationed in the 'Suez Canal Zone' to protect what was a major shipping route.

The Egyptian leader Colonel Nasser nationalised the canal in 1956 and Britain, France and Israel mounted a military venture to recapture it, but they didn't have the support of the United Nations or USA.

This resulted in international pressure to end the operation and hand the canal back to Egypt.

A regular and a national serviceman

Bernard Mills and Tony Lloyd of the Suffolk Canal Zoners
Bernard Mills and Tony Lloyd on the Shotley Peninsula in 2010

Bernard Mills, treasurer of Suffolk's Canal Zoners branch, was a national serviceman who served with the Royal Army Service Corps at Base Fayed working on trials of new vehicles and equipment, 1953-55.

"The political situation in Egypt was very, very volatile," said Bernard. "There was a very strong nationalist movement and it was 'let's get rid of the foreigners'."

Tony Lloyd, chairman of the Suffolk branch of the Canal Zoners, spent 34 years in the RAF and was in Egypt at RAF Kasfareet, 1950-52.

"I did question what we were doing in the Suez Canal Zone, because we were protecting the route to India through the canal.

"And since India was now a dominion, I did wonder. The bulk of the boys were national service, aged 19-20 and they did very well."

Bernard agrees, but said times have changed:

"In that period it [national service] was right and proper. We had bases all over the world to send people to do a job and we haven't got that now.

"You can't put a group of people together and give them nothing to do. If you do that, you've got trouble."

Living conditions

We've all had sand in our soup and brown knees and we've all got something in common
Tony Lloyd

Tony and Bernard were both based near the Great Bitter Lake which forms part of the Suez Canal. There were restrictions on their lifestyles.

"If I took my lady friend of the time out, I had to take a rifle with me," said Tony.

"I was lucky - I was on a permanent station and I lived in a proper barrack-type block with my own room and that was fine until 1951 when my room was turned into a billet for guns with ammunition under my bed."

Bernard's living conditions at General Headquarters were more spartan: "The office and dining hall were buildings, but we were living in four-man tents.

"That was all well and good until a sandstorm blew up and it just went everywhere.

"In my case, you didn't do anything for a love life out there. The numbers in the forces were such that your chances of meeting a [British] service woman were pretty minimal.

"It was absolutely forbidden to mix with local women - your chances of picking up some form of venereal disease were pretty near 100%.

"It was very frustrating!"

'Ridiculous operation'

The 1956 climbdown by the British is generally seen as a humiliation for the Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who resigned following the crisis.

"1956 was a ridiculous operation," said Bernard. "The Suez Canal by 1956 had outlived its time because shipping was getting larger and they just couldn't use the canal."

"I did rather admire Nasser and perhaps it wasn't out country anyway," said Tony. "But having said that, there were cruelties too - there were something like 600 British killed during this long period."

Meeting other veterans

The Canal Zoners has around around 3,000 members in the UK. The Suffolk branch meets at the Royal British Legion in Felixstowe.

Tony Lloyd is keen to attract veterans who don't know the Zoners exist:

"We've all had sand in our soup and brown knees and we've all got something in common."

"It's got a limited shelf-life," said Bernard. "We're not going to have too many newcomers coming in at the bottom, we're just going to be losing them at the top."

Tony Lloyd can be contacted on 01473 787461 for membership details or visit the Canal Zoners national website.

In pictures: Suffolk's Suez veterans
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