Harried by Churchill, Wavell instructed Major-General Clark, temporary commander in Palestine, to assemble a column. It was to be known as “Habforce” with the orders to relieve the RAF base at Habbaniya. It was very much an ad-hoc unit, cobbled together from any formations that could be spared or found. The military units in Palestine had already been denuded by the requirement to support British operations in Greece and Crete. To say that General Wavell wasn’t exactly brimming with confidence was something of an understatement. He cabled London:
Very doubtful whether above force strong enough to relieve Habbaniya or whether Habbaniya can prolong resistance till its arrival. I am afraid I can only regard it as an outside chance…
I don’t want to denigrate General Wavell who had done an outstanding job inflicting on the Italians defeat after defeat. The wolf closest to his sledge was now Rommel’s Africa Corps and the defence of Egypt and the Canal Zone. He had been forced to send troops to the disastrous Greek campaign and now he was being ordered to move scarce troops into Iraq.
The 4th Cavalry Brigade formed the bulk of Habforce and most of the units such as the Household Cavalry had only just got rid of their horses to convert to a mechanised unit. They had no combat experience in theatre. As the cavalrymen had been forced to shoot their horses, the new handle of a “mechanised” unit was something that was difficult for this traditional unit to live with. It didn’t help that the trucks were extremely unreliable. The force of 6,000 was pooled together from components outwith Palestine and some units were pressed into service as soon as they stepped off the boats. The RAF’s No 2 Armoured Car Company was still guarding the airfields in Egypt and had to drive 1,000 miles east to join Habforce. That they made it is a credit to the RAF technicians and the outstanding quality of the Fordson armoured cars. There was an infectious and naive enthusiasm within Habforce about the 500 mile trek across the desert and the adventure that lay ahead.
Habforce was supported by Major “Glubb Pasha’s” Desert Mechanised Regiment of the Arab Legion. This unit was armed with antiquated Lewis and Hotchkiss machine guns and were mounted on civilian Ford trucks and home-made armoured cars. The unit was on loan to General Wavell by the Emir of Transjordan who was the brother of the Regent of Iraq and had no love for Rashid Ali and his rebels. Plans were finalised in Jerusalem, where Major General Clark was told his secondary mission was the relief of the embassy in Baghdad.
|RAF Armoured Car enters Rutbah Wells Fort|
The route across Transjordan to Habbaniya was difficult with an ill-defined track that rose 1,650 feet above sea level to a lava rock plateau. In many places dead reckoning on a compass bearing would be required. Civilian trucks and their Jewish drivers were drafted in to carry supplies and a motley selection of flatbed trucks, busses and military vehicles set off from Biet Lid on 9th May 1941. The vehicles carried one gallon of water per man per day with one gallon for each vehicle. The quality of the water supplied by the Arabs was in many cases undrinkable and had to be settled before the top of the liquid could be drunk. The British staff at the pumping stations had fled at the start of the rebellion and many had been looted and significant numbers of the Arab Legion refused to fight against brother Arabs and had to be disarmed. Crucial to the journey was the re-capture of Rutbah Wells Fort where Habforce could replenish water supplies.
Clark decided to split Habforce into two components. Kingcol commanded by Brigadier Kingstone would be a flying column comprised of Headquarters Cavalry Brigade, The Household Cavalry Regiment and the RAF Armoured Cars went ahead to cross the Jordan and up to the Transjordan Plateau. They halted at Mafraq on the first night, with the armoured cars providing all-round defence. 0n 9th May, RAF Blenheim long range fighters from 203 Squadron had attacked Rutbah Wells Fort in support of Glubb Pasha’s forces. The Arab Legion were unable to take the fort and a Blenheim was shot down and the crew killed. This was gleefully reported in Baghdad. On the arrival of the armoured cars, the rebels abandoned the fort and melted into the desert. The route to Habbaniya was now open.
Kingcol left Transjorda on 12th May and reached the pumping station at H4 a few hours later. They linked up with Glubb Pasha’s troops who had captured the pumping station after the Iraqi police had abandoned it. Kingcol raced east towards Habbaniya and turned south to avoid the Iraqi Brigade at Ramadi, skirting Lake Habbaniya, entering the cantonment via Mujara. Kincol was attacked by high flying aircraft, which ineffectually bombed the spread-out column. They were thought to be Iraqi Blenheims but the aircraft were in fact Heinkel 111s and the RIAF had no Blenheims, so their aircraft recognition was extremely suspect. On reaching Mujara, three BF 110s attacked the vehicles of the Arab Legion, killing one Legionnaire and wounding four men of the Household Cavalry.
The Luftwaffe had joined battle on 14th and 15th of May after prolonged negotiations between Baghdad and Berlin. Luftwaffe Lieutenant Colonel Junck had been tasked with setting up a forward operating base at Mosul with two Staffels (equivalent to an RAF Squadron), of Heinkel 111s and BF 110s, supported by fifteen JU 52 transport aircraft. All the aircraft were painted in Iraqi colours. Additionally, the French administration in Syria released impounded weapons to arm the Iraqi rebels of Rashid Ali. The aim of the German force Fliegerfuhrer Irak was to destroy the RAF in Habbaniya and attacked the base on 16th May. Once again the outnumbered and outclassed RAF air component flew in defence of the base and lost two aircraft, an Audax and a Gladiator in return for a Heinkel 111. On 17th May reinforcements arrived from Egypt, in the form of four Gladiators, two long range, cannon armed Hurricanes and six Blenheims. The Wellingtons at Shaibah had been withdrawn to Egypt to bomb Rommel’s logistics tail.
The following day the Blenheims and Hurricanes flew a long range mission against Mosul, while Gladiators stooged around the Baghdad airfields. Six German aircraft were destroyed at Mosul for the loss of a precious Hurricane and two BF 110s were shot down by the Gladiators whilst attempting to take off. By the end of May Junck had lost fourteen BF 110s and five Heinkel 111s. This was over 95% of his original bomber and fighter strength and inevitably, the Luftwaffe would be forced to withdraw from Iraq.
Falluja and Baghdad
In the week following the break of the siege of Habbaniya, Colonel Roberts, the de facto commander grouped infantry reinforcements from Basra, 2/4 Gurkha and 1 Essex from Kincol into the Habbaniya Brigade and made preparations for taking Falluja prior to moving on Baghdad. The Iraqi forces at Ramadi had been self-isolated by flooding the area around the town and the key was seizing the vital crossings of the Euphrates at Falluja. It was critical that the momentum was maintained to prevent the Iraqis from digging-in, especially now that the Luftwaffe was operating in Iraqi skies. AVM D’Albiac and Major General Clark arrived at Habbaniya by air and agreed to allow Colonel Roberts to carry out the operation without interference.
The main crossing at Falluja was a 177-foot steel girder bridge, but the approaches from the west were under water because of the deliberate flooding. Roberts had neither the river crossing or bridge building equipment, nor engineers and surprise was essential to prevent the Iraqis from blowing the bridge. Roberts also wanted to avoid extensive street fighting in Falluja to minimise civilian casualties.
|Seizing the Falluja Crossing|
Roberts came up with a three-phase battle plan. Firstly the Iraqi defenders would be showered with leaflets before they were annihilated by the huge (and imaginary) British Army that was heading towards them. The leaflets would be followed by a heavy bombing raid at first light to condition the defenders. At the same time, Falluja would be isolated from Baghdad by having Audax aircraft fly through the telegraph lines to cut them. If there were multiple lines, the aircraft would land and the crews cut them by hand. The air and ground forces were by now so integrated that the aircrews didn’t baulk at such a bizarre scheme.
The second phase was a three-pronged assault on Falluja with the primary objective, the bridge. One column of 100 Levies would cross the Gap in Hammond’s Bund by pleasure boats brought up from Lake Habbaniya and then rush the bridge at dawn on 19th May. The 2/4 Gurkhas supported by RAF armoured cars would cross the Euphrates at Sin-el-Dhibban by ferry the night before and threaten Falluja from the northwest. The remaining forces would attack Falluja from the west and prevent reinforcement from Ramadi. Flooding prevented this force from closing in on the town. The third phase would see four Vickers Valentia biplane transport aircraft, fly elements of the Kings Own at dawn to land and interdict the Falluja/Baghdad road.
|Vickers Valentias over Iraq|
That evening the RAF duly leafletted and cut telephone and telegraph lines, while the Gurkhas and armoured cars captured the ferry and crossed the Euphrates. The next day, the 19th May the bombing began, the RAF flying 134 sorties and dropping over ten tons of bombs in and around Falluja. The bridge was taken at 1445 by the Levies from the south and the Gurkhas and armoured cars from the north. Over 300 prisoners were taken, but most of the Iraqis melted away as Roberts had hoped. Major Graham leading the Levies was awarded the Military Cross for his actions on the bridge and the Levies sustained not one single casualty.
For the next two days Falluja was cleared up, but on 22nd May a large Iraqi force supported by light tanks approached from Baghdad. The Kings Own were forced back into Falluja and two Iraqi tanks that probed into the town were destroyed by grenades. The fighting in and around the town went on for nine hours and reinforcements came in from Habbaniya to support British Forces. The Iraqi 6th Brigade had made a gallant attempt to eject the British from Falluja, but in fierce street fighting they were repulsed. The Kings Own suffered over 50 casualties and the Luftwaffe strafed the town, but it was the last throw for the Iraqis and the road to Baghdad remained open.
Meanwhile, Glubb Pasha’s Arab Legion had moved north to dominate the land between the Euphrates and Tigris, persuading local tribes to withdraw their support for the uprising. The Arab Legion was such an important influence that German and Iraqi propaganda insisted that Glubb had been killed on several occasions and a huge price in gold had been put on his head.
The Battle of Baghdad
The most obvious route into the capital from the West was likely to be strongly defended. Indian troops were ordered to head north from Basra on 25th May but would be unlikely to arrive in time, so Major General Clark decided that as well as thrusting from the west, a strong detachment would head north east and to cut the Baghdad/Mosul road and rail links, then to advance southeast to attack Baghdad. Clark was in a tenuous position. He had 1,400 men against Iraqi forces around Baghdad of 20,000. He hoped that moral superiority, air power, bluff and momentum would carry the day.
A force commanded by Brigadier Kingstone headed east along the Falluja/Baghdad road while Lieutenant-Colonel Ferguson took the Household Cavalry across the desert to the main road to Mosul. Kingstone had 700 men supported by a few guns and armoured cars, with Ferguson’s about the same. Ferguson bivouacked for the night and missed a golden opportunity to press on and take Baghdad, which at that time was undefended. The next morning their way was blocked by a strong Iraqi infantry force. The element of surprise was lost and Ferguson’s force’s progress was contested every inch of the way south. Kingstone was facing similar opposition as his force moved in from Falluja.
By 28th May a force on Indian troops was approaching Baghdad from the south and bluff and momentum was paying off for the British. The Iraqi government felt that they were surrounded by superior British forces and under constant assault from the air. The German Ambassador Fritz Grobba in Baghdad sent a panicked message to Berlin stating the British were close to the city with over 100 tanks. The German air component was down to two aircraft and four bombs. On 29th May Junck’s air component was evacuated to Syria and Grobba headed out of the city towards Mosul. Rashid Ali with the Grand Mufti and 40 rebel officers fled out of the city to Iran. On 31st May the Mayor of Baghdad led a delegation to meet with Sir Kingham Cornwallis to agree terms of surrender to the British. They had no idea just how inferior the force was that they were surrendering to. The British forces in Iraq would go on to fight and defeat Vichy French forces in Syria, thus maintaining a fine 1000-year-old British tradition of thwarting and annoying the French.
The importance of holding on to Iraq in 1941 should not be understated and of course petroleum was the driving factor. I believe that this campaign does not receive the recognition it deserves. A vast numerically inferior force equipped with outdated equipment, defeated an Iraqi army and air force, on which had been lavished the latest armaments and paraphernalia. It would make a great war-gaming campaign for those who have interest in such things and was a textbook example of manoeuvre warfare. The British got it so right in 1941. How could we get it so wrong in 2003?
© Blown Periphery 2017
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