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THE STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE of the SUEZ CANAL [EGYPT]

This First Day Cover celebrating the Coronation of King George VI with its purple cachet is commonly seen in boxes of covers at Canadian stamp shows. The Cairns postmark is dated 10 MY 37/ QLD-AUST which is the first day of issue of ASC #175 and #177, the Die I Queen Elizabeth and Die I George VI, respectively. The cachet maker must have been uncertain as to the day of issue for it is only labeled MAY 1937 (Figure 1).

The addressee is of limited interest, but this is not so for the address: H. Wemys./ "A" Company/ Royal Berkshire Regt./ Moascar./ Ismailia./ Egypt. The potential interest picks up considerably on the reverse, for there are 3 legible arrival postmarks. The first reads 13 JU 37 9-10P./ PORT TAUFIQ, with arabic script used in the upper third. The second reads 14 JU.37. 9.25A/ ISMAILIA-CAMP, and the upper third is also in arabic script. The third postmark is of the same configuration but of smaller size, and is in arabic script its upper third, and the lower third is totally illegible, but the date reads 14. JU.37. T-100 (Figure 2).

This cover predates the outbreak of World War II by 4 months but this region of the Suez Canal had been the centre of foreign intrigue for centuries and had been occupied by forces from Great Britain for decades. In 1858 the Universal Company of the Suez Maritime Canal was formed by Ferdinand de Lesseps who in 1854 had gained a 99-year concession to dig and operate a sea-level canal linking the Mediterranean and Red Seas. The company was formed of French shareholders, capital and management with Egypt providing unpaid forced labour, land grants and customs exemptions. The Suez Canal opened in 1869 and the opening was attended by Royalty from around the world. A map of the Canal, and Ismailia and Port Tewfik (Taufiq), (both shown by arrows) are germane to this cover (Figure 3).

No attempt will be made to expand on the interval history (from the opening of the Canal to WW II), for a fast-forward will be made to events which are relevant to the involvement of British troops and the presence of military camps in Ismailia. British troops had occupied Egypt since 1882 and they had informally controlled the country when World War I had erupted in 1914. The British army and navy were over-extended after the war and the Suez Canal appeared to vanish from the strategic interests of the Empire during the early 1930's, but all this changed with the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935-36.

The years 1936-39 saw the Italians threaten the British position in the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal was again imperilled by hostilities. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of Alliance of 1936 allowed for full independence of Egypt with the removal of British troops, but with an allowance for 10,000 troops and fly-over rights for the RAF in the Canal Zone. The Moascar Camp at Ismailia existed for years (going back to at least 1922) prior to WW II, and Australians and New Zealanders were also subsequently housed there. The Royal Berkshire Regiment has been documented in a book of the history of this regiment and although the name of H.Wemys could not be found, a Private D. Wemyss was listed for that regiment.

In 1938 reinforcements began to be sent to Egypt, and in 1939 Churchill proclaimed the Mediterranean as Great Britain's first battlefield and the Egyptians asked for further troops to be sent. In spite of the relative inactivity of the Middle Eastern garrisons at this time, the British Chiefs of Staff ordered the garrison in Egypt to concentrate on preserving the Canal. On September 3, 1939, Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany, and the rest is history.

Going back again in the history of the region, Ebay stamp auctions have listed several items related to the early days of the Suez Canal. The Suez Canal Company carried mail between the two canal ports, Port Said in the north and Port Suez in the south. The service was free until July 1868 (prior to the Canal's full opening), when the company started to charge for this service and issued stamps. These stamps were recognized by the French consulates at the two ports, but not by the Egyptian Government, who suppressed them in October of the same year (another source states they were withdrawn from sale August 1868 and demonetized August 31, 1868). The 4 values were issued imperforate and the following details have been recorded for stamps issued: 1 cent black 11,820; 5 cents green 61,235; 20 cents blue 205,665; 40 cents red 20,860.The vast majority of stamps (shown x2) in collections are forgeries or reprints (Figure 4).

The stamps are a reminder of the continued strategic importance of the Suez Canal.

This paper was published in the New South Wales Philatelist, November 2004,Volume 26, Number 4, pages 5-7.


 
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