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.

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.

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