The War In Iraq 1941, Part Two

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

The Siege of RAF Habbaniya

The arrival of the second convoy at Basra caused the Iraqi leadership considerable panic. Rashid Ali continued to pester his newly-found Axis allies for financial and military aid. Specifically, he asked the Germans for captured British weaponry as the Iraqi army was familiar with and had trained on British weapons. The British Ambassador in Baghdad Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, had sent communications to Rashid Ali that Iraqi forces should immediately stop any aggression against British forces in the country and honour the terms of the Anglo-Iraq treaty. Baghdad was now a hostile city and on 29th April 1941, Cornwallis decided to evacuate non-essential British nationals from the Capital to Habbaniya.

On the same day a large contingent of Iraqi soldiers left Baghdad and headed west towards Fallujah, the Euphrates and Habbaniya. The river bunds were destroyed in several places, flooding the land east of the RAF base, which was now effectively isolated. In Baghdad, 150 British personnel sought refuge in the American Legation and the British Embassy was in a state of siege. The Iraqi forces deployed on the escarpment overlooking RAF Habbaniya and the road to Fallujah was closed. Rashid Ali was hoping to force the British out of the base without resorting to fighting.

On 30th April the Garrison at Habbaniya stood-to at 0420 hours, knowing they were surrounded and overlooked by a sizable Iraqi force of over 1,000 supported by field artillery. RAF Intelligence estimates put the force on the escarpment at three infantry battalions, an artillery brigade, at least 20 armoured cars and light tanks and a mechanised machine gun company. By 2nd May the force on the escarpment had increased to over 9,000 Iraqi troops. Air Vice Marshall (AVM) Smart was ordered to the main gate by an Iraqi officer who delivered the following message:

For the purposes of training we have occupied the Habbaniya Hills. Please make no flying or the going-out of any force or persons from the cantonment. If any aircraft or armoured car attempts to go out it will be shelled by our batteries and we will not be responsible for it.

AVM Smart replied:

Any interference with training flights will be considered an “act of war” and will be met by immediate counter-offensive action. We demand the immediate withdrawal of the Iraqi forces from positions which are clearly hostile and must place my camp at their mercy.

AVM Smart was between a rock and a hard place. The garrison had been reinforced by 364 men of the Kings Own, flown in from Shaibah, but even with the Levies, the RAF technicians and ground personnel, his forces amounted to less than 1,700 personnel. The Rolls Royce armoured cars of No 1 RAF Armoured Car Company were 1915 vintage, hand-me-downs from the Royal Navy. Nevertheless, Smart knew that he would have to defend the airbase aggressively, making the best of his limited resources.

Two Imperial Airways flying boats managed to take off from Lake Habbaniya the following morning with some of the women and children from Baghdad on board. Smart ordered the extensive digging of trenches and weapon pits by the RAF ground and aircrews. The Army and Levies provided force protection while preparations were made and I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when that order was promulgated in Emergency SROs. Where possible the aircraft were sheltered between buildings and a battle roster was organised. The aircraft were split into two battle groups: The 21 Audax bombers commanded by Wing Commander “Larry” Ling were to operate from the polo field, out of sight of the Iraqi guns. The remaining 43 aircraft commanded by Squadron Leader Tony Dudgeon would have to operate from the main runways that were overlooked by the enemy, or the polo field when space permitted.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

The technicians fitted bomb racks and release mechanisms to the training aircraft and the DC2s flew in additional bombs and ammunition from Basra. Smart’s main issue was the shortages of pilots. As Habbaniya was a flying training station, very few of the 39 pilots that were mustered had any combat experience and more than half hadn’t finished their flying training. They were up against a formidable Royal Iraqi Air Force (RIAF) that was armed with over 70 modern aircraft including the latest Italian and American fighters, many of their pilots having been trained by the RAF.

AVM Smart was desperate for clear and decisive military and diplomatic guidance from his own chain of command, Air Marshall Longmore in Cairo and Cornwallis from the British Embassy in Baghdad. He decided to stall for time as neither was forthcoming. The Iraqi envoy made a second appearance and demanded that all flying in and out of Habbaniya must cease forthwith. Smart politely replied that he would comply when the Iraqis had removed all military forces from the escarpment and north of the river. The RAF base was in a precarious position as it still contained British men, women and children from Baghdad and a single, well-aimed shell could knock out the base’s huge water tower or the power station. The base could not withstand a prolonged siege as the refugees were rapidly denuding rations and Smart realised that he would have to take pre-emptive action.

On 1st May the Foreign Office gave Cornwallis instructions that he should seize the initiative and Lt General Auchinleck signalled that Smart should attack at once. Longmore in Cairo finally seemed to realise the impending danger and ordered eight Wellington bombers from Egypt to Shaibah. Smart wanted all day of the 1st May to prepare his forces and asked Cornwallis to issue an ultimatum to the Iraqis at 1700. On 2nd May in the early hours of the morning, the aircraft were armed and turned into the direction they would take off. They took off at 0500 into the darkness, every single operational aircraft on the base. Some were crewed by volunteer ground crews and at first light, they were joined by Wellingtons from Shaibah. In one mass the hodgepodge of aircraft swooped down to the escarpment.

The primary objectives were the artillery and machine gun emplacements and to hit the Iraqis hard and quickly to prevent an attack on the base. Pilots described the scene over the plateau as like a swarm of wasps with 49 aircraft of different handling and speeds, wheeling over a relatively small area. Squadron Leader Tony Dudgeon described the sight:

“In my Oxford I would stare down into the dust, trying to distinguish a juicy target like a gun emplacement – and an Audax would swoop past at some crazy angle. Or a Wellington would sail majestically across my bows, giving me heart failure and leaving my machine bucketing about in its slipstream.”

Iraqi anti-aircraft and small-arms fire went up and the plateau was pockmarked by clouds of dust and exploding bombs. The Iraqi artillery began to fire randomly and sporadically into the base. Their muzzle flashes drew in the British bombers like moths to a flame. Most of the aircraft could only carry 250lb anti-personnel bombs, but their effect was magnified within the weapons emplacements. As soon as they had bombed, the aircraft beetled back to Habbaniya to re-arm. The pilots would run to the Ops room to report their sortie and receive instructions for the next one, while the ground crews sweated in the heat.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

Rashid Ali and the Golden Square had never expected the British to use lethal force in order to hold onto their bases in Iraq. It wasn’t the last time that Iraqi leaders would so badly misunderstand intent or grossly misread the situation. They were incandescent with rage because it was a Friday and the Iraqi army had been preparing for morning prayers. Predictably, the Grand Mufti Jerusalem declared a jihad against Great Britain.

In the first day several aircraft were lost. A Wellington was hit by flak and crash landed. The crew got out, but it was destroyed by Iraqi artillery. As well as the bombing, there was an aggressive ground action by the Levies and the men of the Kings Own. Fighting patrols were sent across the Euphrates to deal with Iraqi gun positions north of the base by 8 (Kurdish) Levies by an old motorboat, but they were pinned down. Aircraft were tasked with supporting the ground troops and these batteries were destroyed. A probe by Iraqi forces from the southern escarpment was repulsed by 4 (Assyrian) Company.

The British block houses had been well sited and had excellent fields of fire. None were knocked out during the siege, although No 8 was under continuous machine gun fire and No 9 was badly damaged by an Iraqi shell. It was the aggressive fire from these blockhouses that prevented the Iraqis from using their armour to any effect.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The Habbaniya Watch Tower
All of the blockhouses were of a similar construction

As dusk fell on the first day, a worried Smart evaluated the day’s operations. The Iraqis had not attempted a direct attack on the base, but they still occupied the high ground and the area north of the river. Twenty-two aircraft had been shot down and ten pilots killed. Each aircraft had flown at least six sorties and the crews were exhausted. The Iraqis fired at least 200 shells into the base during the hours of darkness. Barrack blocks, the Christian, Assyrian and Kurdish churches were damaged, but the crucial water tower and power station were not hit. What gave Smart comfort was the conduct of the civilian evacuees who tended the wounded and formed labour parties. Morale was further raised during the night when the besieged garrison heard the RIAF bombing their own troop positions at Ramadi by mistake. Also during the night, the RAF Armoured Cars and Levies sallied out to dominate no-mans’-land and keep the Iraqis on edge. They disrupted several Iraqi patrols and no further night activities from the Iraqis occurred during the siege.

On the second day, the aircraft were readied for an 0500 take-off. The Gladiators flew escort for the DC2s, which came in from Shaibah to evacuate the last of the women and children. The armoured cars would race down the runways with the DC2s, firing at the Iraqi positions in protection. During air operations on 3rd May, as well as attacking Iraqi positions, the aircraft attacked RIAF Bases around Baghdad and the Baghdad/Falluja/Ramadi road, which was the Iraqi’s main supply route.

On Sunday 4th May, the Wellingtons were particularly effective against the airfields, dropping over 15,000lbs of bombs, destroying aircraft and hangers, as well as shattering the Iraqi Air Force’s morale. On 5th May, AVM Smart was injured in a car accident during the night-time blackout and was evacuated out of Habbaniya on medical grounds with multiple injuries. Smart was evacuated to Basra and then onto India, together with his wife and daughter, who had been tending the wounded in the hospital but were evacuated from Habbaniya to Basra on the 3rd day of the Siege. Colonel Ouvry Roberts had flown in on 1st May from Basra, with orders to form a communications link between the two bases and Army units. Wing Commander Hawtrey with other officers pressed the Colonel to stay, and he took command of the base with Smart’s departure.

Two First World War 18lb artillery pieces had been mounted outside of Habbaniya’s Station Headquarters as decoration and had been painted over the years. Colonel Roberts believed they could be pressed into service and an RA Artificer was flown in from Basra to strip them down and clean them. 31 Squadron DC2s flew in quantities of 4.5” ammunition and the guns not only worked, they were gratifyingly effective against the Iraqi positions. The bombers continued to attack the escarpment and the airfields, 29 RIAF aircraft were destroyed on Rashid airfield, 13 at Ba’quba. The vital air bridge provided by 31 Squadron continued to bring in essential supplies and evacuate the wounded throughout the siege.

By Tuesday 6th May only four Airspeed Oxfords were still flying and the other aircraft were a patchwork of doped cloth and repairs. Photographic reconnaissance indicated that the Iraqis were reinforcing the escarpment to mount a final assault to eliminate the British forces. The RIAF made its heaviest raid to date, but unaccountably, the Iraqi forces on the plateau decided that enough was enough and began to abandon their positions in dribs and drabs. The trickle became a stream as the Iraqi army vacated the defences. The constant air attacks together with their deploying with insufficient water and rations had led to a dramatic loss of morale among the Iraqi troops. Later it was discovered that a significant number of the Iraqi army were unhappy with waging war on their British allies.

Other troops were more difficult to deal with and armoured reinforcement were seen heading for the ferry crossing at Falluja. Every British aircraft that still flew was mustered to attack them and the road was reported to have been left as a strip of fire with ammunition trucks exploding. The end of the siege was approaching and on 6th May the garrison took 408 prisoners. The garrison was bolstered by the heavy weapons and tanks abandoned on the plateau. The weapons were the finest, supplied to the Iraqis by the British, far superior to the Great War Hotchkiss and Lewis guns the garrison had been issued with. The armoured cars went up to the plateau on 7th May and found it deserted. The siege was over.

In the five days the RAF had dropped over 3,000 bombs totalling over 50 tons and the garrison had fired over 500,000 rounds of ammunition. Operations recorded 647 completed sorties. Thirteen pilots were killed with twenty-one too badly wounded to continue. Four were grounded with combat stress. Twenty-eight aircraft were lost and around thirty soldiers, Levies and RAF ground personnel were killed. Iraq lost around 500 personnel killed and virtually its entire air force was wiped out. Churchill cabled Habbaniya on 7th May to say:

“Your vigorous and splendid action has restored the situation. We are watching the grand fight you are making. All possible aid will be sent. Keep it up!”

If the garrison of Habbaniya thought that the relief was going to be swift in coming, they would be sorely disappointed. There were three important results from the Battle of Habbaniya. The base was not overrun and its defenders were not defeated by the Iraqis. Rashid Ali intended to use Habbaniya as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Britain and did not believe that Britain possessed the determination and political will to fight. His political standing and legitimacy was severely compromised as a result. A vastly superior army and air force possessing the latest weapons, was comprehensively defeated by an ad-hoc air component armed mainly with biplanes, used in co-operation with limited ground forces. The study of history is much more than understanding the past. It’s about analysis and applying the relative certainties of the past to the present and the uncertainties of the future.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

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