The battle for oil and survival
By 1941, Britain and her Dominions were fighting alone against the Axis forces. The U-Boat menace was gathering impetus in the Atlantic and the Army was fighting Rommel’s Africa Corps in the Western Desert and German and Italian forces in Greece. While we remember operations such as Battleaxe, Crusader and the battles for Tobruk and El Alamein, the War in Iraq seems strangely forgotten. But the battles of Basra, Habbaniya, Fallujah and Baghdad were as important and perhaps more so. If Iraq had fallen, the British ability to wage total war would have been compromised, because modern warfare is totally reliant in a secure and sufficient supply of oil.
In 1941, Iraq and Iran supplied Britain with all of her non-American oil and the area was of vital strategic importance. America was not then committed to the conflict and the loss of this oil supply would have deprived Britain with the means of fighting the war. The pipelines carried the oil 1,200 miles from Kirkuk to Haditha on the Euphrates and then two pipelines moved the oil to the Mediterranean, one pipeline going through Syria to Tripoli, the second through Transjordan to Haifa. Pumping stations were located along the pipelines and they were essential to ensure the flow of oil. They were all manned, self-contained and had small forts for defence.
By commanding these oil reserves, Britain was preventing Germany from getting their hand on this vital commodity and oil production would remain a problem for Germany throughout the war. The loss of Iraq would provide a significant boost for militant Arab nationalism and there had been many uprisings in the Middle-East through the 1930s. The area was susceptible to Axis propaganda and there were many in Egypt who would be happy to see Rommel’s Africa Corps defeat the British. The loss of Iraq would threaten Egypt’s north-eastern flank and cut the lines of supply to India.
Iraq had been mandated to Britain in 1920 by the League of Nations and was granted independence in 1929. Iraq signed the Anglo-Iraq treaty, wedding the country to Britain. Oil was the country’s main export and the British Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) became very wealthy. As part of the Anglo-Iraq treaty, Britain was committed to the defence of the country and was granted land for two air bases and was allowed to recruit local levies to assist in their security. A large RAF base was constructed at Lake Habbaniya, fifty-five miles west of Baghdad. The second was the RAF base at Shaibah, sixteen miles south-west of Basra, as well as the British-run port facilities at Basra.
RAF Habbaniya was also a vital staging post for the Empire Flying Boat run to India and beyond. Unfortunately the base was almost impossible to defend because between the base and Lake Habbaniya lay an escarpment that was 200 feet high and it dominated the area. The airfield was under the escarpment with its camp of 200 acres, behind a seven-mile-long steel fence, guarded by blockhouses and the levies. The base was totally self-contained and was laid out with gardens and trees, a little part of Britain in the desert. It was the home of No 4 Service Flying Training School, the Iraq Communications Flight and No 1 RAF Armoured Car Company.
As the 1930s progressed, Anglo-Iraqi relationships deteriorated. While the British Relationship with King Faisal was good, the country was made up of different religious, tribal and ethnic groupings. King Faisal was a Sunni Muslim, ruling a country comprised of Shi’ite Muslims, Sunnis, Kurds, Assyrians, Christians, Jews and Bedouin Arabs. King Faisal was seen as an external imposition to a disparate peoples who owned allegiance to local or tribal groupings. When King Faisal died in 1931, his nineteen-year-old son Ghazi took over the Hashemite throne only to be killed in a car accident. Emir Abdulla ran Iraq on behalf of five-year-old Faisal II who was Regent, but their position was tenuous and faced constant threats to undermine their authority.
Arabic nationalist sentiment was growing throughout the region. Resentment against the British was coming from a core of younger Iraqi Army officers who saw the British profiting from Iraqi oil wealth and these officers were known as the “Golden Square.” Anti-British hostility was stoked by the German Ambassador, Dr Fritz Gobba. Elements of the Iraqi government had been in secret communications with the Germans and the Italians through the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. Impounded French weaponry in Syria was secretly transported to Iraq.
On 1st April 1941 the “Golden Square” deposed Prime Minister, General Taha el-Hashimi and installed Rashid Ali as leader. The Regent was forced to flee to the American envoy, who transported the boy to RAF Habbaniya under a carpet in the back of his car. He was then flown to Basra and guarded by the elderly British river gunboat, HMS Cockchafer, and thence to Jerusalem. Rashid Ali declared a “National Defence Government” and pro-British politicians were rounded up. The plan was to force the British out by force if necessary and the new government immediately sought ties with the Axis forces.
The new regime began to limit the weak British forces’ schemes of manoeuvre. British forces were prevented from moving between Habbaniya and Baghdad and the British Military Mission had its radios confiscated. The Germans pledged to support any military action against the British. Rashid Ali specifically asked for Axis air support.
The British were caught napping by the Coup d’état and Air Vice Marshall (AVM) Smart the Air Officer Commanding (AOC) Iraq asked Cairo for urgent reinforcements. The AOC Middle-East Air Marshall (AM) Sir Arthur Longmore refused the request as British Forces were embroiled in the Greek Campaign and Iraq was considered a low priority. General Archibald Wavell C-in-C Middle East was of the opinion that reinforcing British Forces in Iraq would exacerbate the situation and inflame anti-British feelings across the region. However, C-in-C India, Lt General Claud Auchinleck urged a swift response to reinforce forces in Iraq, concerned of what effect losing the oil fields would have on India’s security. British forces in India had already made contingency plans to send forces to the Persian Gulf if there was a threat to the oil fields. The plan was codenamed Operation Sabine and it involved reinforcing Basra with three infantry divisions.
Churchill and the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed with Auchinleck, but General Wavell maintained that he could only offer a single infantry Battalion from Palestine and that “any other action was impossible with existing resources. He suggested that a diplomatic solution was found and that the RAF conduct an aerial “Demonstration” to dissuade the Iraqis from military action. On 4th May 1941 Churchill overruled him and ordered Wavell to move troops from Palestine to support British forces facing a threat from an illegal regime. It was the only time a General in the field was overruled by the Prime Minister.
The Order of Battle (ORBAT) 1941
The British forces in Iraq were weak compared to the Axis forces that could be pitted against them. The RAF had been responsible for policing Iraq since 1922, by use of air power against truculent and unruly tribesmen. It had been decided mainly by the Treasury, that the Iraq Mandate could be policed from the air, without the need for a large, expensive, standing Army garrisons. If the natives started getting restless, their villages could be bombed or their flocks strafed by relatively unsophisticated, mainly biplane bombers. Understandably, RAF aircrew were unpopular with the natives who had a penchant for castration. The aircrew would carry a bond written in Arabic, which guaranteed any tribesman who returned said airmen to the British alive and avec testicles would receive a sum in gold sovereigns. Inevitably the bond became known as the “Goolie Chit.” These only worked when the tribesman could read the bonds and despite the enlightening influence of Islam, few of them could.
The RAF also operated Rolls Royce Armoured Cars, which could trundle out into the desert to deal with particularly troublesome tribes or defend the oil pipelines. No Goolie Chits for them. By far the largest fighting force was the Iraq Levies made up of Assyrians or Kurds, based in Habbaniya. These units were roughly equivalent to an Infantry Company and there were six of them, plus a 3”mortar section and an anti-tank rifle.
By the middle of May, the British had the following at Habbaniya: 9 x Gloucester Gladiator fighters, 30 x Hawker Audax fighters, 7 x Fairy Gordon bombers, 27 x Airspeed Oxfords converted to carry 250lb bombs, 25 x Hawker Hart bombers, 24 x unarmed Hart trainers, 4 x Blenheim Mk IVs, 3 x Vickers Valencia bombers, 18 x Rolls Royce Armoured Cars, 1,199 Levies.
At RAF Shaibah there was the following: No 244 Bomber Squadron of Vickers Vincents, No 31 Transport Squadron of Valencias, DC2s and Atlantas, Nos 37 and 70 Squadrons of Vickers Wellingtons.
Royal Navy: HM Ships Seabelle, Yarra, Falmouth, Cockchafer, Emerald, Lawrence, Hermes and No 814 Squadron RNAS flying Swordfish.
Iraqi Forces comprised of the following: Four Infantry Divisions each of 3 Brigades consisting of around 26 officers, 820 other ranks, 48 Bren Guns, 8 Vickers machine guns and 4 Lewis guns on AA mounts.
The Iraqi Air Force operated six front-line squadrons flying Hawker Audaxes, Vincents, Gladiators, Breda 65s, Northrop 8As and Savoia 79 tri-engine bombers.
The Iraqi Navy consisted of four Thornycroft Gunboats based on the Shatt-al-Arab Waterway.
British Operations in Basra – April/May 1941
On 8th April 1941 when New Zealand and British troops were coming into first contact with German paratroopers in Crete, Churchill formally asked India to send troops for the defence of Basra. He also ordered Wavell to send a “sizable force” from Palestine to reinforce RAF Habbaniya. Auchinleck dispatched an Infantry Brigade and a Field Regiment of Artillery that was preparing to set sail from Karachi to Malaya, to reinforce against the growing Japanese threat. The first 364 men of the 1st Battalion Kings Own Royal Regiment had landed at RAF Shaibah on 16th April. They had been airlifted from Trucial Oman and Bahrain by RAF and civilian transport aircraft on loan from Imperial Airways, the first British use of a strategic airlift in a military capacity.
The first naval convoy carrying Brigadier Powell and the 20th Indian Infantry Brigade was approaching Basra. Powel by now expected the landing to be opposed by Iraqi troops and he decided to seize the docks in a coup de main assault rather than land in Kuwait and march over 100 miles through the desert. The landings in the port on 19th April were in the event unopposed and the 2/7 Gurkha Rifles secured the port while 2/8 Gurkha Rifles secured the RAF Hospital, Maqil Keys and the civil airfield. While not being openly hostile at this point, the Iraqi’s were sullen, uncooperative and the dock workers promptly went on strike.
This sudden and decisive move by the Indian Army caught Rashid Ali by surprise. He had received a letter from Berlin on 16th April, assuring him that the Germans would offer support in the event on an Anglo-Iraq war. He had been convinced that the British lacked the wherewithal and the troops to reinforce their forces in Iraq and now a second convoy was underway to bring the 10th Indian Division up to fighting strength. The Iraqis decided not to oppose the landings around Basra but redeployed their forces to attack Habbaniya. 2/8 Gurkha Rifles were moved forward to guard Shaibah airbase, while the main effort remained consolidating British positions around Basra, the Al-Faw peninsular and the Shat-al-Arab waterway.
While not opposed directly by Iraqi military forces, the Indian troops faced rioting and sporadic fire from Iraqi police units and civilians. The local population was described as being “truculent” and 50 policemen were disarmed by the Gurkhas. To prevent Iraqi Army incursions, four Swordfish flying off HMS Hermes attacked a bridge over the Euphrates. On 6th May, 21st Indian Brigade landed at Maqil and 2/7 Gurkhas and a contingent of armoured cars from 13 Lancers secured the Iraqi Army base at Ashar. To further secure the area and protect vital Government buildings, newspaper offices, the radio station and the wider township of Ashar, the plan was for a motorised column of Infantry to come from the Northwest of Basra and a simultaneous amphibious assault from the Shat-al-Arab. Aircraft would support on a pre-planned timetable between 0400 – 0500 and 1800 – 1900.
As in urban fighting in a densely populated area, the plans went awry and the Indian troops came under sustained and accurate sniper fire. It seemed as though the town would have to be cleared house by house, a mammoth undertaking with the limited forces available. By the evening the offensive had stalled, so the defenders were told unless they cease hostile operations, the township would raised to the ground by artillery and bombing. This seemed to do the trick and by nightfall the Gurkha’s patrols had pushed into the township and secured the area by the following day.
While the 10th Indian Division had secured Basra, the docks and reinforced RAF Shaibah, the Division lacked transport. The Iraqis had moved as many river craft north as possible and sabotaged the telegraph wires. In places where the Euphrates was contained by earthen bunds, the Iraqis breached the bunds and allowed areas to flood. It became obvious that whoever was going to relieve the besieged RAF base at Habbaniya, they weren’t going to be moving north from Basra any time soon.
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