The (forgotten) Iraq war

When pro-German Iraqis seized power in Baghdad in 1941, they threatened to shut off the oil supply to Britain's war machine. But, writes John Broich, they hadn't reckoned on a ragtag collection of Allied fighters armed with dilapidated planes and phantom tanks

British soldiers guard an oil pipeline, leading from Iraq to Palestine, at the Kishon river, in what is now Israel, in 1941. When Baghdad was retaken, the flow of oil was restored. (Image by Bridgeman)

George Orwell felt helpless as he watched the latest in a series of disasters loom for Britain and her allies. Already, British cities were bombed nightly by the Luftwaffe, nearly all of Europe was dominated by the Axis powers, and an Allied force was fleeing for the sea before German forces sweeping down Greece. Everywhere Orwell looked, he saw dire threats and failures.

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Now, at the turn of May 1941, he wrote despondently in his diary of a new emergency to which, he feared, the British would not respond quickly or resolutely. In Iraq (where Britain exerted a significant influence), four German-friendly officers had launched a coup, chased away Iraq’s young British-aligned king, and installed a hand-picked prime minister. The first thing this military junta did was shut off the flow of Iraqi oil from Kirkuk to British refineries on the Mediterranean – oil critical to the Royal Navy, but even more important to the oil-poor German war machine.

“At the very best, this is a disaster,” Orwell wrote in his diary. “Presently you will hear that German experts are arriving by plane or via Turkey; or we shall stand on the defensive and do nothing until the Germans have managed to transport an army by air…”

The situation in Iraq was as bad as Orwell imagined. The four coup plotters, who called themselves the Golden Square, had immediately made overtures to the Germans upon seizing the government. In part, it was simply because the enemy of their enemy was their friend. The resented British had never stopped ham-fistedly meddling in Iraqi politics and maintained two airbases (doubling as spy centres) in the country. The Golden Square’s invitations also stemmed from the fact that its members had served in the Ottoman military during the First World War, and were well disposed to their old German comrades. Meanwhile, as everywhere else, the ideals of fascism had made inroads into Iraq. In the country’s military, ethno-nationalism and opposition to democracy were rife.

Allied troops were borne by threadbare buses ‘requisitioned’ off the streets of Haifa

The overtures were most welcome in Berlin. “There would seem to be a great opportunity,” German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop wrote to Hitler, “for establishing a base for warfare against England through an armed Iraq.” Ribbentrop immediately dispatched envoys bearing purses of silver to facilitate military cooperation in Iraq.

Things moved fast, and before long the Axis won oil rights from the Iraqis – an oil supply that alone would have been sufficient to fuel their military efforts in Europe. A pipeline was already in place to deliver that oil to a refinery in coastal Lebanon (then governed by France’s Vichy government, which despite its official line was privately cooperating with the Nazis). Or it might have taken a safer overland route via abundant Turkish railways to Europe. The Germans and the Italians, in turn, promised cash and aid in throwing out the British, along with the creation of an independent united kingdom of Iraq and the Levant in the fascist New World Order.

It was, as Orwell wrote, a disaster – and one with potentially dire consequences for the wider region.

Profound impact

In Rome, Mussolini was galvanised by news of the Golden Square takeover. He considered Iraq a linchpin of the British empire and its loss, he eagerly told a German military liaison, “might have an even more profound effect upon the British world position than a landing in the British Isles themselves”.

Now a debate began among British and Allied top brass in Westminster, Cairo, New Delhi and elsewhere about how to react to the coup. Indeed, there was a debate about whether to “stand on the defensive”, as Orwell had feared. But there was also a question about the practicality of a successful military intervention. In Cairo, General Archie Wavell, fighting the Hydra-headed monster of multiple battles around the Mediterranean and Red seas, warned of the danger of adding another head and spreading Allied forces too thinly.

“My forces are stretched to limit everywhere,” he wired to the joint chiefs of staff in Westminster, “and I simply cannot afford to risk part of forces on what cannot produce any effect.” Even if he could scrape up some units, he couldn’t imagine them being enough to face the Royal Iraqi Army’s 30,000 or so troops. Yet when Churchill made it clear that this was an order, Wavell began scraping.

Meanwhile, India stepped up. Its experienced, professional army was already fighting in north-east Africa; now its leaders ordered a force of roughly 3,000 to the key Iraqi city of Basra. When the Indian troops landed unopposed, they did not start a fight but began to dig in. Watching from Baghdad, the Golden Square were worried. They sent urgent messages to Berlin and Rome to hurry their help. Soon, the first Luftwaffe craft landed in Iraq: fighter-bombers and transports carrying ground crew and staff, and even a plane-fuel refinery in miniature.

But the shuttling process took a long time, and it would be weeks before the Luftwaffe forces reached their peak of two dozen planes. Well before then – probably too early for their own good – the Golden Square sent around 7,500 troops, guns and armoured cars to the key RAF airbase 50 miles west of Baghdad. This was intended to encourage the withdrawal of the Indian army force in Basra. The Iraqis declared the base closed to  operations until further notice; any more flights would constitute an act of war.

That airbase – at Habbaniya – was not a centre of operations, but mainly a flight school for British and Allied pilots badly needed on multiple fronts. It was also a centre for spying, an open secret among Iraqi officials, making it the focus of well-earned animosity. It had no modern fighters or bombers, and its security force was mainly composed of Iraqis like Assyrian riflemen who, while proud and professional, numbered only around 1,000. A few hundred Lancashire men of the King’s Own Royal Regiment had just been shuttled in by US-built airliners from their base in Karachi. About a dozen RAF armoured cars dating to 1915 added little more.

Two days after the Iraqis delivered their ultimatum, on 2 May, the war for Iraq began. The RAF personnel at Habbaniya knew they could not repel 7,500 Iraqis with their 1,300 men, so their only hope was to take to the air and bomb the besiegers incessantly to prevent them forming up and rushing the base. The troops in Basra lacked transport to provide assistance and Wavell’s troops forming up in Palestine would not reach them in time.

Habbaniya’s commanders received the go-ahead from Churchill, who signalled: “If you have to strike, strike hard” – and so they did, in a surprise attack before dawn: not very sporting, perhaps, but exactly the sort of decisive act of which George Orwell wanted to see more. There followed a desperate week for the base personnel. Habbaniya had only legacy fighters and bombers, and after a week of constant flying they were barely holding together.

Yet it worked. The relentless air bombardment by the makeshift squadron, and its attacks on water and other incoming supplies, led to the collapse of the Iraqi siege. The first part of the 1941 war for Iraq was over; the second part was about to begin, with the arrival of Wavell’s relief force of about 2,000 from the west.

These were a curious composite, including the famous Household Cavalry, more used to ceremonial parading than war-making, and now riding lorries rather than Cavalry Blacks. There was also the bloodied 1st Essex Regiment, men and boys from the Southend area who’d recently broken and fled under a mind-breaking Italian air bombardment on the Sudanese frontier. There were gunners from Lincolnshire who’d started the war as lighthearted Territorials but had become bitterly experienced in the battle of France before their escape via Dunkirk. And some Royal Engineers were among them, there to dynamite Iraqi oil infrastructure if the Golden Square could not be defeated. Many of these troops were borne by buses ‘requisitioned’ off the streets of Haifa – threadbare, secondhand things from the US.

Leading these forces into Iraq, around traps of soft dust and by secret ways, were the desert rangers of Transjordan’s Arab Legion, who also had swapped their horses and camels for Chevys and armoured cars.

And it was this force that exchanged the first fire between Germans and Allies in the battle, when four Messerschmitt 110s surprised the relief force then entering Iraq and let loose with their cannon. Defiant Arab Legion gunners jumped in their Chevy truck beds and responded with mounted machine-gun fire in an effort to protect the column, one legionnaire dying in the attack.

Vastly outnumbered

In mid-May, refreshed and refitted at Habbaniya but harried by strafing Luftwaffe planes and wary of a delay that would allow more to arrive in the country, these troops began their push in the direction of Baghdad. First, some of the newcomers combined with Habbaniya’s Assyrian companies and the King’s Own to win Fallujah and its critical Euphrates bridge. There followed a battle spread over several days – a bombardment by Habbaniya planes won the first round, but an Iraqi counterattack led by a few tanks nearly won the second – which saw the Allies victorious, but the citizens of Fallujah suffer.

Fallujah was taken. Now the Allies set their sights on Baghdad. But they had insufficient troops at their disposal – no more than 1,500 – to threaten the vastly larger Royal Iraqi Army. Aware they were badly outnumbered, and further split into two 750-man columns, they moved out in pre-dawn darkness on 28 May. The Allies only hope was to rattle the Golden Square and send the junta retreating north. They knew that, if the Iraqis realised just how pathetic the invasion force was, they would sit tight until more German aid appeared on the scene.

Ghost tanks spread panic

That’s why the actions of a sole interpreter played such a vital role in this final battle. As the invasion force marched on Baghdad, a Palestinian Arab, his name lost to history, was among a group of soldiers who stumbled on a telephone switchboard, a nexus of circuits being used by the Iraqi military. No sooner had the young man connected when a frantic voice came over the line: “I’ve been trying to raise you for two hours. What’s the matter?” Officers in Baghdad asked after the state of battle west of the city, and the Palestinian adopted his best Iraqi accent to report that a column of British tanks (of course, there were none) had skirted the Euphrates flood waters and was approaching the city. The fiction spread, and soon Iraqi observers on other fronts reported seeing, even engaging with, nonexistent British tanks.

Subsequent Iraqi and German reports tell of how these fabled tanks were the last straw, sending the Golden Square and its supporters into flight in the last days of May 1941. Mosul had been cut off, so those who managed to escape the country fled by way of Iran; all four leaders would be rounded up and executed before the war’s end. The last Luftwaffe planes  and personnel, meanwhile, retreated via Syria because, they told Berlin, of the “increased number of armoured cars and tanks” attacking Baghdad.

“The Iraqis have asked for a flag of truce,” George Clark, the major-general leading the gambit on Baghdad, messaged his superior before dawn on 31 May. He didn’t hide his relief: “Allah be praised!”

The Palestinian Arab adopted his best Iraqi accent to report a unit of British tanks that didn’t exist

One of the first acts of the triumphant Allies was to restore the flow of oil to British Palestine, and stop the flow to Vichy Syria, a bounty of oil denied the Axis. The Reich’s foreign ministry complained that the Iraqis had acted too quickly, before sufficient Axis aid could reach them. But Nazi leaders comforted themselves that Operation Barbarossa, set to commence in a few weeks, would yield its own bounty of Soviet oil.

Since, in fact, the Germans would not take those oilfields, the Allied victory in Iraq is more important than most realise, ennobling the sacrifice of roughly 75 Indians, Assyrians and other Iraqis, Transjordanians and British, with many uncounted civilian Iraqis suffering in places like Fallujah and Baghdad.

“At the very best,” wrote George Orwell in his diary upon hearing of the coup, “this is a disaster.” But this, at least, proved a case of disaster averted.

John Broich is a historian of the British empire at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. His latest book, Blood, Oil and the Axis: The Allied Resistance Against a Fascist State in Iraq and the Levant, 1941, is published by Abrams Press


The Middle East at war

How Europe’s conflict had spilled into the oil-rich region by 1941

PALESTINE Having driven the Ottomans from Palestine in 1918, Britain received a League of Nations mandate to govern the country after the First World War. There, it sat on top of a tinderbox of rival Palestinian and Zionist nationalisms. In the event of an Axis-aligned invasion from Lebanon or Iraq, British military observers saw no hope of defending or evacuating Palestine’s Jewish population of roughly 400,000, including around 60,000 recent émigrés from Hitler’s Germany.

TRANSJORDAN Transjordan came into existence in 1922 as part of a post-First World War League of Nations mandate to Britain. Britain, in turn, handed it as a protectorate to the al-Hussein family, its allies in the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans. Transjordan’s emir, Abdullah I, immediately declared for his old ally in 1939. But Transjordan joined the Allies at its peril, badly outnumbered by Iraqi and Vichy Syrian forces.

TURKEY In the dark days of early 1941, Turkey strove hard for its neutrality. Syria and Iraq bordered the country to its south and east, while the Axis-dominated Balkans encroached on its western border. This would have put Turkey in a vice should Iraq have aligned with the Axis.

EGYPT Egypt had largely won its independence from Britain in 1922, but the British claimed the right to defend the Suez Canal (pictured right) by whatever means necessary. The canal was the prize over which the war was essentially fought in the first half of 1941, when it became clear that Germany could not invade Britain by sea and that the best route forward was to capture its supply routes.

SYRIA-LEBANON In the Levant, the League of Nations granted a colonial mandate to France in 1922, subdivided into Lebanon and Syria. When France fell in 1940, Syria-Lebanon’s officials sided with Philippe Pétain’s regime in Vichy. While Vichy authorities denied their complicity, decrypted Enigma-encoded messages revealed their cooperation with the German Luftwaffe during the Iraq war. This alarming new development was to be addressed in an Allied invasion immediately following the war in Iraq in summer 1941.

IRAN Iran was neutral in the Second World War, its shah trying to chart a course between the Axis and Allies that maintained its independence and oil wealth. Shaken by events in Iraq in May, and needing a lifeline to a Soviet Union attacked by Germany in June 1941, the British and Soviets invaded Iran that August.

SAUDI ARABIA While its relations with Transjordan were tense, and the Germans cultivated friendship, Saudi Arabia carefully maintained its neutrality until near the war’s end. Meanwhile, it sold vital oil to the Allies, while hewing closer and closer to the Americans as the war progressed.

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This article was first published in the July 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine