en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 26, Number 5September/October 1975

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents


The Reopening

"After eight years of stagnant stillness one of the world's greatest man-made waterways was alive and open again."

Written by Robert Arndt
Photographed by Thomas Sennett
Additional photographs by Associated Press and U.S. Navy

On June 5, 1975, amid the echoes of a 21-gun salute, a seven-ship flotilla eased through ceremonial gates in mid-Canal waters off Port Said and steamed south through the Sues Canal to Ismailia in a five-hour voyage marking the official reopening of the Canal exactly eight years after its closure during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

For the maritime nations of the world, for the Middle East and, above all, for Egypt, it was an event of historic proportions. And if the ceremonies were less spectacular than those marking the original opening of the Canal (see page 4) they were, nonetheless, impressive.

The ceremonies began on a symbolically decorated platform in the Canal just in front of Port Said's ornate Canal Authority building overlooking a waterway again alive with ships in the sparkling sunshine. There, Egypt's President Anwar Sadat, impeccable in a white admiral's uniform, surrounded by some 600 dignitaries, opened the "Day of Joy" by signing a document transferring the Canal from military to civilian control. Then, amid a din of horns, whistles and martial music uncomfortably mixed with the recorded tones of Um Kalthum, the late, revered Egyptian singer, he boarded the destroyer that would carry him to Ismailia. Minutes later, as the last salvo of the destroyer's 21-gun salute echoed across the Canal's blue water, the stately 10-knots-per-hour voyage began and one of the world's greatest man-made waterways was again open.

Behind the ceremonies, of course, was another story: the long, technically challenging and highly dangerous task of clearing the Canal of the debris of war. This task, largely overlooked during the tense, uncertain negotiations that preceded Egypt's decision to reopen the Canal, is the subject of this article.

In 1974, after two brisk wars and seven years as an embattled frontier, the Suez Canal, a waterway that once carried a sixth of the world's trade and an even greater proportion of its oil, had been reduced to a stagnant cesspool. The days when the Canal had earned Egypt an annual $220 million in foreign exchange were over and there were those who said that they were over for good. That seven years of disuse and the development of supertankers—fast, efficient and cheap—had made the Suez Canal obsolete.

The government of Egypt and the Suez Canal Authority disagreed. They believed that rising costs of building, operating and insuring supertankers had begun to cancel the original economies of scale soon after 1970. They knew that the closure of the Canal had cost the world nearly eight billion dollars in increased shipping costs alone and that East African and Asian nations had lost a further four billion in calculable export growth. There was no question, the Authority decided, that the Canal was still viable.

The problem was: could it be cleared? The Canal, 102 miles long and 38 feet deep, was jammed from one end to the other with sunken ships, boats and trucks loaded with ammunition; solidly blocked at one point with a causeway; and strewn with live artillery shells and unexploded grenades. Even worse, the Canal and its sloping banks were thought to be carpeted with mines. Clearance, therefore, would not only be difficult; it would also be extremely dangerous.

"We believed," said Ahmad Amar of the SCA, "that up and down the waterway, and on both banks, were innumerable mines, many of them of the very latest types, some of which would explode even with a decrease of light."

The first priority was the waterway itself, but how? The Canal was so chockablock with wreckage that any minesweeper would tear its bottom out before it had gone a mile, and there could be no question of trying to sweep mines with divers. Only aerial minesweeping, it seemed, could interrupt this cycle of impossibilities. From that very practical suggestion grew the series of complex, coordinated international operations that, over a year's time and at a cost of nearly $10 million, succeeded in restoring the Suez Canal to utility and profitability and reopening it to the world's shipping.

Under overall Egyptian direction, the undertaking involved primarily the Egyptian, American, British and French navies, the Suez Canal Authority and its salvage divers, other divers of the Cairo police force, American Army personnel and two commercial salvage companies—one American, one German. The varied capabilities of this polyglot force had to be harnessed and coordinated into an effective whole if the work was to go forward at all, and that delicate task was handed to U.S. Admiral Brian McCauley, who had only two years ago run Operation Endsweep, the clearing of Vietnam's Haiphong harbor of American.

The same methods were used in the Canal as in Haiphong. Airlifted in giant C-5A Galaxy transports from the U.S. east coast came a dozen Sea Stallion twin-turbine helicopters, and from the Mediterranean came the 18,000-ton helicopter assault ship Iwo Jima to take up its role as floating command center and landing pad. The helicopter squadron, specialized in minesweeping, brought along two cryptically named items from its largely secret bag of tricks: a MOP and a Sled. Both were devices intended to be towed over the surface of the water by a low-flying helicopter and to detonate any mines near their path by "imitating" the effects of a passing ship.

Of the two devices, the MOP—for Magnetic Orange Pipe—was the simpler. It was just an eight-foot length of heavy magnetized iron pipe, capped at the ends and painted international orange; its field was sufficient to detonate magnetic mines. The Sled was more complex both in its uses and in its effects. It was a high-amperage electrical generator driven by a compact gas-turbine engine. Engine and generator were mounted together on a hydrofoil platform that could be air-towed at high speed; whether the power generated was used to set up a magnetic field that could detonate a mine, or instead produce an acoustic or other kind of signal, no one would say—but whatever mines were there would be taken care of.

"It's a little like fly fishing," said a Navy officer. "You figure there's something there, so you choose your fly, drop it in, and see if you get a bite." And the minesweepers displayed a true angler's patience. They had 121 square miles of waterway to cover, and flying an average of almost 13 hours a day over 39 days, they swept 7,616 linear miles, chopping up and down the Canal from Port Said to Suez, waiting for the bang and the waterspout that would mean a "bite" at last.

As it turned out, there were no bangs. The only result of over five weeks of helicopter minesweeping of the Canal was the discovery that the waterway had never been mined.

The banks, however, were. As American and Egyptian engineers put it, land mines were sown so densely that "even the snakes were moving on tiptoe."

The first step was training. The American engineers and a group of Army specialists in handling and disposing of unexploded ordnance trained 173 Egyptian officers in mine detection and disposal, and stood by while the officers trained nearly 1,700 Egyptian troops.

This group then began the dangerous and delicate job of clearing a strip of land 800 feet wide along both banks of the Canal and over its full 102-mile length. In the desert heat, they worked by inches, finding one anti-tank or anti-personnel mine per 10 square feet on the average and carefully excavating it—often with brushes as the safest tool—then disarming it; where safety allowed, the mine might be detonated on the spot. Over the three months that the operation lasted the Egyptian troops found an average of one mine every six seconds—not counting other types of ordnance—for a total of 686,000 mines and some 13,500 other satanic devices. Finding them cost the lives of 96 men.

With the Canal banks clear, the more difficult phases of the work could begin. For even though unmined, the Canal's waters concealed great dangers. For seven years, thousands of artillery shells had been fired across those waters—and into them; trucks carrying war materiel had driven across pontoon bridges—or fallen from them; bombs had fallen and planes and missiles had crashed in the Canal, and all had been concealed in its waters; amphibious tanks had sunk. The result was what one French officer called "a military bouillabaisse"—and a perfect paradigm for the synonymy of "war" and "waste."

But it had to be cleared—and not only of the larger obstacles. Even a hand grenade left on the bottom could one day be brought up by a dredger and explode, and anything that protruded significantly from the bottom meant, potentially, a damaged ship and the closure of the Canal sometime in the future. It had to be cleared—and the united efforts of four navies were not too much for this job, which combined dullest routine with sharpest danger, and high technology with the most primitive grope-and-grab methods.

Four full sweeps were made of the Canal, each slower and more painstaking than the last. Simultaneously with the first of them, American Explosive Ordnance Disposal diving teams gave specialized instruction to divers of the Egyptian Navy, training them in pattern-search methods and in the safe handling of the live and utterly unreliable explosives that they would be dealing with. Small naval vessels equipped with special sonar devices then began the search, starting at the Canal's southern end and working north toward the Little Bitter Lake.

The special devices—side-scanning sonar—were exceptionally precise instruments. "You just about have the name and address of anything lying on the bottom there," said a technician proudly. The essential phrase in that sentence is "just about." For although it could pinpoint both the shape and location of objects, it could not tell whether the find was a hand grenade or a beer can, or distinguish between a tangle of old steampipe and a 250-pound bomb. Only a diver, working on the bottom by sight and feel, can distinguish—sometimes—between a find that must be brought up and disposed of, or whether it can be safely left where it lies.

As to the "address" of the find: the diver underwater cannot locate himself as exactly as the surface sonar ship can, and he must still search a certain area of the bottom to find the object he knows is there. When one adds to these difficulties the facts that a heavy falling object can easily bury itself in the sand and ooze of the bottom; that there is, in parts of the Canal, a certain amount of silting; and that underwater visibility is limited, then the difficulty of the job faced by the Egyptian Army divers becomes clear. For all the expert technological help they had, their work, in the end, came down again to the "grope, grub and tremble" of the salvage divers' motto. In this way they worked the length of the Canal, from Suez north, then skipping from the Little Bitter Lake to Port Said and working south again from there to the Great Bitter Lake and its channel.

Almost every find on the bottom and banks of the Canal had to be brought up or countercharged—blown up—where it lay. Hand grenades by the hundreds were bundled with wire, interspersed with explosives, snarled with a tangle of fuse and set off in a few feet of muffling water, and the tall white waterspouts punctuated the Canal's length like momentary exclamation points. When the whole length of the Canal had been swept, the Egyptian-American team went back to those areas that had been particularly rich in finds and searched them again, and again found a rich harvest.

At the same time, starting at the north end of the Canal, the Royal Navy began two sweeps of its own. Whereas the Egyptian-American operation had covered all the banks and bottom of the waterway, the three British mine-hunting ships made a sonar and magnetometer search of that part of the banks and bottom below the 25-foot depth line, producing a map of every metal object that protruded more than two feet. Then the Royal Navy's Fleet Clearance Diving Team swam pattern searches along the banks between the 10 and 25-foot depth lines: slow and arduous work that was for that very reason one of the most reliable search methods.

Pattern searches of this kind could not be used in very deep water, because the divers search by sight and touch as they swim and so need the light that does not penetrate to deeper levels. Swimming slowly in line abreast, the divers orient their sweep by a guide rope strung along the bank of the shallow side of their search area; eyes and fingers investigate possible finds, which are carefully extracted, passed into shallow water and parked by the guide rope for later disposal. Swimming speed is very slow, and slowed further as any find is dealt with; setting up the guide rope for each dive takes further time and currents in the southern half of the Canal limited diving to a few hours a day. So it is not surprising that the Royal Navy took seven months to complete the job but also found an important percentage of the ordnance disposed of. At the cost of one "minor accident with injury," and by a process that a diver later described as "long periods of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror," the two British sweeps found 27 large bombs, 508 small ones, 78 missiles, 517 anti-personnel mines, 209 tons of TNT in trucks and lighters, seven planes, three tanks, 15 trucks and personnel carriers, six bodies, and assorted explosives of Russian, American, Egyptian, Czech, Israeli, Danish, British and Swiss manufacture.

Then the French Navy took its turn, concentrating on the banks between the 10-foot line and the high-water mark. Again, large quantities of explosives were found, especially land mines that had probably fallen in from dry areas of the bank.

By the end of 1974, the four navies had found and disposed of nearly 10,000 pieces of live ordnance, as well as some 800 major non-explosive obstructions. More than 100 of the latter were boats and barges, but the list also included 15 aircraft wrecks, oil drums, large anchors, buoys and beacons, tanks, trucks and amphibious vehicles, and 127 pontoon-bridge sections. It also included the most difficult obstruction of all: the Deversoir Causeway.

This was a permanent, 65-foot-wide roadway across the Canal near the town of Deversoir just north of the Great Bitter Lake. It had been built during the 1973 war by simply filling in the Canal at that point, and its foundation consisted of barges. There were 29 of them, each of 75 tons weight and each loaded with another 75 tons of sand and stone. They had been drawn into position and sunk in sequence so that they lay atop each other like a row of dominoes that has been knocked down. On top of them and alongside was a jumble of giant four-ton concrete blocks—12,000 of them—and an unknown quantity of rubble, stone and earth fill. And as a final complication, the length of the causeway, even more than the sites of the pontoon bridges elsewhere on the Canal, was lined with trucks, tanks and other vehicles that had fallen or been blown off the roadway while crossing. All of these had to be presumed full of explosives—indeed, nearly-all were—and every one had to be cleared before the causewav itself could be dismantled. But it was done. Grenade by grenade, truck by truck, step by step the preliminary obstructions were located, raised and disposed of.

Then came the causeway itself. For this job the Suez Canal Authority's own salvage divers teamed up with an expert group of divers from the Cairo police force, working in the closest, most painstaking cooperation with land-based cranes and lifters to remove the 50,000 tons of concrete block by block. Then, with less finesse and a great deal more muscle, the barges followed, and for the second time since 1869 the waters of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean were joined.

Besides symbolism, there were some very specific reasons to be glad of that. There had been hardly any time since the Canal clearance operation began in April of 1974 when divers had not been at work in the Great Bitter Lake, and operations there had been more difficult than in any other part of the Canal. The channel through the lake, where it includes a bypass and two widenings of irregular shape, was no longer marked by buoys and beacons and its boundaries had in effect to be relocated for every dive until new markers were placed. But more distressing still, as one of the divers said, "There was something down there!"

He was not talking about explosives, or man-traps of wreckage but about a strange water layer that hung above the bottom of the lake, 45 feet below the surface. It was impenetrable to sonar and, more remarkably, impenetrable also to the divers who were sent down to find out why the sonar wasn't working. "They couldn't swim through it: they just bounced off," said an American naval officer.

The Navy, however, was determined to sink if it couldn't swim, and so more divers went down, carrying a total of 40 pounds of lead around their waists. When they surfaced they had the answer.

The discrete layer was a mixture of heavily saline water plus oil—leakage from the fuel tanks of the 15 ships that the 1967 war had trapped in the Bitter Lakes. The normal currents in that part of the Canal, which ranged up to five knots, had been cut off by the Deversoir Causeway, and in the suddenly still waters this opaque, salty layer had been able to form—though even now no one is sure by what process. Until the layer began to break up and disappear after the removal of the causeway its effectiveness as an obstacle was high: the British mine-hunters had to be called in to sweep the area with magnetometer equipment when the American sonars proved useless. Unfortunately for the divers, who in any case could work there only during the few daily hours of slack water and had to be hosed off thoroughly after every dive, over 10,000 magnetic contacts were found under that layer of oily water; every one of those that was in the fairway had to be investigated, collected, detonated or dumped in other parts of the lake—a wearisome process that lasted well into the first part of this year.

The rest of .the Canal, north and south of the lakes was largely clear of explosives by mid-August of 1974, by which time the various national authorities agreed that the waterway was finally safe enough for "the real muscle work" to begin: the raising of the ten major and over 60 minor wrecks that still blocked the Suez Canal.

The 10 large wrecks averaged 2,500 tons each, with the largest 6,700 tons. They were spotted over the full length of the Canal, in some cases with only 200 to 600 yards of maneuvering room between them. Several had been carefully scuttled across the axis of the waterway to block traffic more efficiently; only one lay in a bypass area of the Canal where salvage craft could creep around it.

To move them the Canal Authority employed two YHLC's—curious lifting devices that seemed both efficient and incompetent at the same time, rather like animals so over-specialized by evolution that they can do only one thing—but that superbly. Brought 6,000 miles to Suez from storage at Subic Bay in the Philippines—a trip that took 58 days under tow, because they have no engines of their own—the YHLC's (their naval designation) are the only two heavy-lift craft in the world, a pair of ungainly black hulls with no superstructure to speak of. But between them they can lift 4,000-ton chunks of sunken ship, working from a position moored side-by-side on either side of the wreck. Divers pass lines between the two YHLC's, passing them under the wreck; the lift craft then ballast down like submarines, flooding  large hull tanks with seawater.

Then the lines are gathered in tight and cinched up, and the seawater tanks are gradually pumped out; as the two YHLC's rise higher in the water the submerged wreck is raised to a corresponding degree until it hangs below and between the lift craft a few feet off the bottom. In the Suez Canal operation, the entire unit—two YHLC's and the wreck—would then be towed off to the Great Bitter Lake where, far from the fairway, the wreck would be deposited in a wet dump area designated by the Canal Authority.

Workers at this stage also used a pair of German giant floating cranes that had one great advantage over the lift craft: the cranes could lift their burdens clear of the water and dump them on the banks.

In use, the cranes too depended on salvage divers, not only for the attachment of lifting tackle but also for the far more difficult work of breaking the larger wrecks into pieces small enough to lift. In the case of the largest wreck, the 6700-ton Egyptian passenger ship Mecca, the 584-foot-long wreck was cut into 10 pieces. Carefully placed shear charges were used: explosives placed opposite each other, slightly offset, so that when they were detonated simultaneously they acted like the opposing blades of a pair of scissors, shearing the wreck into two parts. After each 50-foot piece of wreck had been sheared off, the German cranes—named Thor and Roland—picked it up and placed it on the Canal's east bank. The same method was used for the Ismailia, a 1,500-ton Egyptian freighter, reduced to five small mouthfuls for the patient heron-like cranes.

Some minor wrecks presented problems, like a series of four 1,200-ton ships—two tugs, a tanker and a dredge—that the lift craft and the cranes raised, moved and dumped in the Great Bitter Lake or another dump area in Suez Bay. Others were somewhat more complex: the tanker Madg had to be blown in two before it could be raised; and a 3,800-ton concrete caisson—almost a floating shipyard, measuring 203 by 44 feet and drawing 40 feet of water, scuttled south of Lake Timsah—had to be cut into seven pieces before the YHLC's could carry it off. But all the wrecks were dealt with, one after the other, along with a swarm of smaller irritations: 35 miscellaneous obstacles in Port Said harbor, ten near Kantara, eight others in Suez harbor, and sunken buoys, motorboats, stone-crushers and bridge sections that dotted the Canal in profusion.

Throughout all this, and well into the early part of this year, Egyptian-American diving teams still swept and reswept sections of the waterway, each time slightly increasing the security of the Canal's future traffic at ever-greater costs in effort and time; foundations were poured and sites readied for the re-installation of the radio-telephone and other communications systems that will coordinate the passage of ships again when the waterway is reopened; the Canal Authority's 230 professional pilots, many of whom had found work as far afield as Hong Kong during the years since 1967, were warned that their services would be needed again soon; the SCA headquarters and operations buildings in Port Said, Ismailia and Suez were rebuilt and began filling with the buzz of bureaucratic activity; and in the Egyptian press, in the Authority's Cairo boardrooms and in similar rooms around the world, the levels of transit fees and other questions of transport economics came up for debate.

One by one, the ships of four navies weighed anchor and slipped away; piece by piece, heavy equipment was shipped off to be refitted for other mammoth jobs elsewhere in the world, and technicians flew home, their work done. A full year of technical skill and sheer dogged tenacity had conquered, bite by bite, a complex problem that had been thought too big a mouthful for anyone to chew. After eight years of stagnant stillness one of the world's greatest man-made waterways was alive and open again.

Robert Arndt, a free-lance writer based in Istanbul, contributes regularly to Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 10-19 of the September/October 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1975 images.