THE REVOLT IN IRAQ
The Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930 provided that in time of peace we should, among other things, maintain air bases near Basra and at Habbaniya, and have the right of transit for military forces and supplies at all times. The treaty also provided that in war we should have all possible facilities, including the use of railways, rivers, ports, and airfields, for the passage of our armed forces. When war came Iraq broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, but did not declare war; and when Italy came into the war the Iraq Government did not even sever relations. Thus the Italian Legation in Baghdad became the chief centre for Axis propaganda and for fomenting anti-British feeling. In this they were aided by the Mufti of Jerusalem, who had fled from Palestine shortly before the outbreak of war and later received asylum in Baghdad.
With the collapse of France and the arrival of the Axis Armistice Commission
in Syria British prestige sank very low, and the situation gave us much anxiety.
But with our preoccupations elsewhere military action was out of the question,
and we had to carry on as best we could. In March 1941 there was a turn for
worse. Rashid Ali, who was working with the Germans, became Prime Minister, and began a conspiracy with three prominent Iraqi officers, who were styled "the Golden Square". At the end of March the pro-British Regent, Emir Abdul-Ilah, fled from Baghdad.
It was now more than ever important to make sure of Basra, the main port of Iraq on the Persian Gulf, and I minuted to the Secretary of State for India:
Prime Minister to Secretary of State for India 8 Apr 41
Some time ago you suggested that you might be able to spare another division from the frontier troops for the Middle East. The situation in Iraq has turned sour. We must make sure of Basra, as the Americans are increasingly keen on a great air assembling base being formed there to which they could deliver direct. This plan seems of high importance in view of the undoubted Eastern trend of the war.
I am telling the Chiefs of Staff that you will look into these possibilities. General Auchinleck also had ideas that an additional force could be spared.
Mr. Amery telegraphed in this scnse to the Viceroy on the same day, and Lord Linlithgow and the Commander-in-Chief, General Auchinleck, promptly offered to divert to Basra an infantry brigade and a regiment of field artillery, most of which was already on board ship for Malaya. Other troops were to follow as quickly as possible. The brigade group disembarked without opposition at Basra on April 18, under cover of an airborne British battalion which had alighted at Shaiba the day before. The Government of India was requested to follow them up as quickly as possible with two more brigades also assigned to Malaya.
Prime Minister to General Ismay,for C.O.S. Committee, and all concerned 20 Apr 41
Troops should be sent to Basra as fast as possible. At least the three brigades originally promised should be hurried there.
Prime Minister to Foreign Secretary 20 Apr 41
It should be made clear to Sir Kinahan Cornwallis [The British Ambassador in Baghdad] that our chief interest in sending troops to Iraq is the covering and establishment of a great assembly base at Basra, and that what happens up-country, except at Habbaniya, is at the present time on an altogether lower priority. Our rights under the treaty were invoked to cover this disembarkation and to avoid bloodshed, but force would have been used to the utmost limit to secure the disembarkation, if necessary. Our position at Basra therefore does not rest solely on the treaty, but also on a new event arising out of the war. No undertakings can be given that troops will be sent to Baghdad or moved through to Palestine, and the right to require such undertakings should not be recognised in respect of a Government which has in itself usurped power by a coup d'etat, or in a country where our treaty rights have so long been frustrated in the spirit. Sir Kinahan Cornwallis should not however entangle himself by explanations.
When accordingly Rashid Ali was informed by our Ambassador that more transports would reach Basra on the 30th, he said that he could not give permission for any fresh landings until the troops already at Basra had passed through the port. General Auchinleck was told that the landings should go forward none the less, and Rashid Ali, who had been counting on the assistance of German aircraft, and even of German airborne troops, was forced into action.
His first hostile move was towards Habbaniya, our Air Force training base in the Iraqi desert. On April 29, 230 British women and children had been flown to Habbaniya from Baghdad. The total number in the cantonment was just over 2,200 fighting men, with no fewer than 9,000 civilians. The Flying School thus became a point of grave importance. Air Vice-Marshal Smart, who commanded there, took bold and timely precautions to meet the mounting crisis. The Flying School had previously held only obsolescent or training types, but a few Gladiator fighters had arrived from Egypt, and eighty-two aircraft of all sorts were improvised into four squadrons. A British battalion, flown from India, had arrived on the 29th. The ground defence of the seven miles perimeter, with its solitary wire fence, was indeed scanty. On the 30th Iraqi troops from Baghdad appeared barely a mile away on the plateau overlooking both the, airfield and the camp. They were soon reinforced from Baghdad, until they numbered about 9,000 men, with fifty guns. The next two days were spent in fruitless parleys, and at dawn on May 2 fighting began.
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From the outset of this new danger General Wavell showed himself most reluctant to assume more burdens. He said he would make preparations and do what he could to create the impression of a large force being prepared for action from Palestine, which might have some effect on the Iraqi Government. The force he could make available would in his opinion be both inadequate and too late. It would be at least a week before it could start. Its departure would leave Palestine most dangerously weak, and incitement to rebellion there was already taking place. "I have consistently warned you," he said, "that no assistance could be given to Iraq from Palestine in present circumstances, and have always advised that a commitment in Iraq should be avoided...My forces are stretched to the limit everywhere, and I simply cannot afford to risk part of them on what cannot produce any effect."
In Syria resources were equally strained. The Commanders-in-Chief Middle East had said that the maximum force that could be spared for Syria until the Australians were re-equipped was one mechanised cavalry brigade, one regiment of artillery, and one infantry battalion, subject to no Iraq commitment. This force could not be expected to deal with the number of troops which the Germans would be able to dispatch to Syria, and should not be sent unless the Vichy French were actively resisting. If it was decided to advance into Syria it would certainly be better that the troops should be British in the first instance and not Free French, whose intervention would be bitterly resented.
On May 4 we sent General Wavell our decisions about Iraq:
A commitment in Iraq was inevitable. We had to establish a base at Basra, and control that port to safeguard Persian oil in case of need.
The line of communication to Turkey through Iraq hasalso assumed greater importance owing to German air superiority in the Aegean Sea. . . . Had we sent no forces to Basra the present situation at Habbaniya might still have arisen under Axis direction, and we should also have had to face an opposed landing at Basra later on instead of being able to secure a bridgehead there without opposition. . . . There can be no question of accepting the Turkish offer of mediation. We can make no concessions. The security of Egypt remains paramount. But it is essential to do all in our power to save Habbaniya and to control the pipe-line to the Mediterranean.
General Auchinleck continued to offer reinforcements up to five infantry brigades and ancillary troops by June to if shipping could be provided. We were gratified by his forward mood. General Wavell only obeyed under protest. "Your message," he said on the 5th, "takes little account of realities. You must face facts." He doubted whether the forces he himself was gathering were strong enough to relieve Habbaniya, or whether Habbaniya could hold out till they might arrive on the 12th. "I feel it my duty to warn you in the gravest possible terms," he said, "that I consider the prolongation of fighting in Iraq will seriously endanger the defence of Palestine and Egypt. The political repercussions will be incalculable, and may result in what I have spent nearly two years trying to avoid, namely, serious internal trouble in our bases. I therefore urge again most strongly that a settlement should be negotiated as early as possible."
I was not content with this.
Prime Minister to General Ismay, for C.O.S. Committee 6 May 41
The telegrams from Generals Wavell and Auchinleck should be considered forthwith, and a report made to me at the House of Commons before luncheon to-day.
The following points require attention:
(1) Why should the force mentioned, which seems considerable, be deemed insufficient to deal with the Iraq Army? What do you say about this? Fancy having kept the Cavalry Division in Palestine all this time without having the rudiments of a mobile column organised!
(2) Why should the troops at Habbaniya give in before May 12? Their losses have been nominal as so far reported. Their infantry made a successfiul sortie last night, and we are told that the bombardment stops whenever our aircraft appear. Great efforts should be made by the Air Force to aid and encourage Habbaniya. Surely some additional infantry can be flown there as reinforcements from Egypt? The most strenuous orders should be given to the officer commanding to hold out.
How can a settlement be negotiated, as General Wavell suggests? Suppose the Iraqis, under German instigation, insist upon our evacuating Basra, or moving in small detachments at their mercy across the country to Palestine. The opinion of the Senior Naval Officer at Basra is that a collapse or surrender there would be disastrous. This is also the opinion of the Government of India. I am deeply disturbed at General Wavell's attitude. He seems to have been taken as much by surprise on his eastern as he was on his western flank, and in spite of the enormous number of men at his disposal, and the great convoys reaching him, he seems to be hard up for battaliops and companies. He gives me the impression of being tired out.
The proposals of C.-in-C. India for reinforcing Basra seem to deserve most favourable consideration.
* * * * *
Supported by the Chiefs of Staff, I brought all this to an issue before the Defence Committee when it met at noon. There was a resolute temper. The following orders were sent at their direction:
Chiefs of Staff to General Wavell and others concerned 6 May 41
Your telegram of yesterday has been considered by Defence Committee. Settlement by negotiation cannot be entertained except on the basis of a climb down by Iraqis, with safeguard against future Axis designs on Iraq. Realities of the situation are that Rashid Ali has all along been hand-in-glove with Axis Powers, and was merely waiting until they could support him before exposing his hand. Our arrival at Basra forced him to go off at half-cock before the Axis was ready. Thus there is an excellent chance of restoring the situation by bold action, if it is not delayed.
Chiefs of Staff have therefore advised Defence Committee that they are prepared to accept responsibility for dispatch of the force specified in your telegram at the earliest possible moment. Defence Committee direct that Air Vice-Marshal Smart should be informed that he will be given assistance, and that in the meanwhile it is his duty to defend Habbaniya to the last. Subject to the security of Egypt being maintained, maximum air support possible should be given to operations in Iraq.
* * * * *
Meanwhile at Habbaniya the squadrons of the Flying School, together with Wellington bombers from Shaiba, at the head of the Persian Gulf, attacked the Iraqi troops on the plateau. They replied by shelling the cantonment, their aircraft joining in with bombs and machine-guns. Over forty of our men were killed or wounded that day, and twenty-two aircraft destroyed or disabled. Despite the difficulty of taking off under close artillery fire, our airmen continued their attacks. No enemy infantry assault developed, and gradually their batteries were mastered. It was found that the enemy gunners would not stand to their pieces under air attack, or even if our aircraft were to be seen overhead. Full advantage was taken oi their nervousness, and it was possible from the second day to turn a proportion of our air effort to dealing with the Iraqi Air Force and their bases. On the nights of May 3 and 4 offensive land patrols from Habbaniya moved out to raid the enemy lines, and by the 5th, after four days of attack from the Royal Air Force, the enemy had had enough. That night they withdrew from the plateau. They were followed up, and a very successful action yielded 400 prisoners, a dozen guns, sixty machine-guns, and ten armoured cars. A reinforcing column from Falluja was caught on the road and destroyed by forty of our aircraft dispatched from Habbaniya for the purpose. By May 7 therefore the siege of Habbaniya was over. The defenders had been reinforced by fighter aircraft from Egypt; British women and children had all been evacuated by air to Basra; the Iraqi Air Force of about sixty planes had been virtually destroyed. This good news only reached us late and bit by bit.
Prime Minister to Air Vice-Marshal Smart 7 May 41
Your vigorous and splendid action has largely restored the situation.
We are all watching the grand fight you are making. All possible aid will be sent. Keep it up.
* * * * *
Prime Minister to General Wavell 7 May 41
It would seem that the Habbaniya show has greatly improved, and audacious action now against the Iraqis may crush the revolt before the Germans arrive. They can of course fly there direct in heavy bombers, but these would only have what they stand up in and could not operate long. We must forestall the moral effect of their arrival by a stunning blow. I presume that if Rutba and Habbaniya are clear [our] column will take possession of Baghdad or otherwise exploit success to the full. Other telegrams are being sent to you about rousing the tribes and about Government policy.
General Wavell replied to the Chiefs of Staff direct.
8 May 41
I think you should appreciate the limits of military action in Iraq during next few months without a favourable political situation. Forces from India can secure Basra, but cannot, in my opinion, advance northwards unless the co-operation of the local population and tribes is fully secured. Force from Palestine can relieve Habbaniya and hold approaches from Baghdad to prevent further advance on Habbaniya, but it is not capable of entering Baghdad against opposition or maintaining itself there. . . . In order therefore to avoid a heavy military commitment in a non-vital area, I still recommend that a political solution be sought by all available means.
Although I realised his cares and his devotion. I continued to press General Wavell hard.
Prime Minister to General Wavell 9 May 41
The Defence Committee have considered your telegram of May 8 about Iraq. Our information is that Rashid Ali and his partisans are in desperate straits. However this may be, you are to fight hard against them. The mobile column being prepared in Palestine should advance as you propose, or earlier if possible, and actively engage the enemy, whether at Rutba or Habbaniya. Having joined tbe Habbaniya forces, you should exploit the situation to the utmost, not hesitating to try to break into Baghdad even with quite small forces, and running the same kind of risks as the Germans are accustomed to run and profit by.
2. There can be no question of negotiation with Rasbid Ali unless he immediately accepts the terms in C.O.S. telegram. Such negotiation would only lead to delay, during which the German Air Force will arrive. We do not think that any ground forces you may be able to divert to Iraq will affect your immediate problem in the Western Desert. The Air Force must do its best to cover both situations. Only in the event of your being actually engaged or about to engage in an offensive in the Western Desert should Tedder deny the necessary air support to the Iraq operations.
I tried to reassure General Wavell that we had no extensive operation in view and were only seeking to cope with the immediate need.
You do not need to bother too much about the long future in Iraq. Your immediate task is to get a friendly Government set up in Baghdad, and to beat down Rashid Ali's forces with the utmost vigour. We do not wish to be involved at present in any large-scale advance up the river from Basra, nor have we prescribed the occupation of Kirkuk or Mosul. We do not seek any change in the independent status of Iraq, and full instructions have been given in accordance with your own ideas upon this point. But what matters is action; namely, the swift advance of the mobile column to establish effective contact between Baghdad and Palestine. Every day counts, for the Germans may not be long. We hoped that the column would be ready to move on the 10th, and would reach Habbaniya on the 12th, assuming Habbaniya could hold out, which they have done, and a good deal more.
We trust these dates have been kept, and that you will do your utmost to accelerate movement.
Wavell responded gallantly to the many cumulative calls made upon him. "Without waiting for 'Tiger'," he reported on the 13th, "I ordered all available tanks to join Gott's force and attack the enemy in the Sollum area. . . . If things go well in the Western Desert I will try to move additional troops to Palestine for action towards Iraq. . . . We will try to liquidate this tiresome Iraq business quickly. . .. I am doing my best to strengthen Crete against impending attack. I discussed the question of Syria with Catroux this afternoon."
* * * * *
By this time "Tiger" had begun to arrive safely at Alexandria, and I cherished many hopes of good results in Crete, in the Western Desert, and in Syria. Varied fortunes attended these interrelated ventures.
Prime Minister to General Auchinleck 14 May 41
I am very glad you are going to meet Wavell at Basra. He will tell you about "Tiger" and "Scorcher" [defence of Crete]. A victory in Libya would alter all values in Iraq, both in German and Iraqi minds.
2. We are most grateful to you for the energetic efforts you have made about Basra. The stronger the forces India can assemble there the better. But we have not yet felt able to commit ourselves to any advance (except with small parties when the going is good) northward towards Baghdad, and still less to occupation in force of Kirkuk and/or MosuL This cannot be contemplated until we see what happens about "Tiger" and "Scorcher". We are therefore confined at the moment to trying to get a friendly Government installed in Baghdad and building up the largest possible bridgehead at Basra. Even less can we attempt to dominate Syria at the present time, though the Free French may be allowed to do their best there. The defeat of the Germans in Libya is the commanding event, and larger and longer views cannot be taken till that is achieved. Everything will be much easier then.
* * * * *
It will be well to complete the Iraq story before the impact of more sanguinary events, though not graver dangers, fell upon us in Crete.
The advance-guard of the relieving "Habforce", a motorised brigade group from Palestine, arrived at Habbaniya on May 18 to resume the attack on the enemy, now holding the bridge across the Euphrates at Falluja. By this time the Iraqis were not the only enemy. The first German aircraft were established on Mosul airfield on May 13, and thenceforward our Air Force had as a principal task to attack them and prevent their being supplied by railway from Syria. The attack on Falluja by the advance-guard of "Habforce" and the land elements of the Habbaniya garrison took place on May 19. Inundations hampered direct approach from the west, and small columns were therefore dispatched over a flying bridge upstream from the town to cut off the retreat of the defenders; another party made an air landing to block the road to Baghdad. It had been expected that this action, together with air bombardment, would make the enemy, about a brigade strong, surrender or disperse. But in the end ground attack was needed. A small force on the west bank whose task had been to prevent by rifle-fire the demolition of the vital bridge was ordered to rush it; they did so successfully and without casualties. The enemy gave way; 300 prisoners were taken. A counter-attack three days later was beaten off.
Some days were spent in making preparations for the final advance on Baghdad, during which our air action against the German Air Force on the northern airfields of Iraq finally crushed their effort. Later an Italian fighter squadron appeared, but accomplished nothing. The German officer charged with coordinating the action of the Axis air squadrons with the Iraqi forces, a son of Field-Marshal Blomberg, landed at Baghdad with a bullet in his head, thanks to misjudged firing by his allies. His successor, General Felmy, though more fortunate in his landing, could do nothing. His vigorous instructions from Hitler were dated May 23, by which time all chance of useful Axis intervennon had passed.
HITLER'S DIRECTIVE No. 30. MIDDLE EAST
FIELD HEADQUARTERS: May 23, 1941
The Arab Freedom Movement is, in the Middle East, our natural ally against England. In this connection, the raising of rebellion in Iraq is of special importance. Such rebellion will extend across the Iraq frontiers to strengthen the forces which are hostile to England in the Middle East, interrupt the British lines of communication, and tie down both English troops and English shipping space at the expense of other theatres of war. For these reasons I have decided to push the development of operations in the Middle East through the medium of going to the support of Iraq. Whether and in what way it may later be possible to wreck finally the English position between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, in conjunction with an offensive against the Suez Canal, is still in the lap of the gods. . .
The advance upon Baghdad began on the night of May 27, and made slow progress, being hindered by extensive inundations and blown-up bridges over the many irrigation waterways. However, our forward troops reached the outskirts of Baghdad on May 30. Although they were weak in numbers and there was an Iraqi division in the city, their presence was too much for Rashid Ali and his companions, who that day fled to Persia, accompanied by other trouble-makers, the German and Italian Ministers and the ex-Mufti of Jerusalem. The next day, May 31, an armistice was signed, the Regent of Iraq was reinstated, and a new Government took office. We soon occupied with land and air forces all the important points in the country.
Thus the German plan for raising rebellion in Iraq and mastering cheaply this wide area was frustrated on a small margin. The landing of an Indian brigade at Basra on April 18 was timely. It forced Rashid Ali into premature action. Even so there was a race with our meagre forces against time. The spirited defence of Habbaniya by the Flying School was a prime factor in our success. The Germans had of course at their disposal an airborne force which would have given them at this time Syria, Iraq, and Persia, with their precious oil-fields. Hitler's hand might have reached out very far towards India, and beckoned to Japan. He had chosen however, as we shall soon see, to employ and expend his prime air organism in another direction. We often hear military experts inculcate the doctrine of giving priority to the decisive theatre. There is a lot in this. But in war this principle, like all others, is governed by facts and circumstances; otherwise strategy would be too easy. It would become a drill-book and not an art; it would depend upon rules and not on an instructed and fortunate judgment of the proportions of an ever-changing scene. Hitler certainly cast away the opportunity of taking a great prize for little cost in the Middle East. We in Britain, a!though pressed to the extreme, managed with scanty forces to save ourselves from far-reaching or lasting injury.
It must be remembered that the revolt in Iraq was but one small sector of the immense emergency in the Middle East which lapped General Wavell on all sides simultaneously. This comprised the impending German onslaught upon Crete, our plans to attack Rommel in the Western Desert, the campaigns in Abyssinia and Eritrea, and the bitter need to forestall the Germans in Syria. In the same way the whole Mediterranean scene, as viewed from London, was but a secondary part of our world problem, in which the Invasion menace, the U-boat war, and the attitude of Japan were dominant features. Only the strength and cohesion of the War Cabinet, the relations of mutual respect and harmony of outlook between political and military chiefs, and the smooth working of.our war machine enabled us to surmount, though sorely mauled, these trials and perils.
The reader will be conscious of the tension which grew between the British War Cabinet and Chiefs of Staff and their over-strained but gallantly struggling Commander-in-Chief in Cairo. The authorities at home, over whom I presided, directly overruled from Whitehall the judgment of the man on the spot. They took the issue out of his hands and assumed the responsibility themselves for ordering the relief of Habbaniya and for rejecting all ideas of negotiation with Rashid Ali or accepting Turkish mediation, which at one time was mentioned. The result was crowned with swift and complete success. Although no one was more pleased and relieved than Wavell himself the episode could not pass without leaving impressions in his mind, and in ours. At the same time General Auchinleck's forthcoming attitude in sending, at our desire, and with the Viceroy's cordial assent, the Indian division to Basra so promptly, and the readiness with which Indian reinforcements were supplied, gave us the feeling of a fresh mind and a hitherto untaxed personal energy. The consequences of these impressions will be seen as the story unfolds.
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