The British Western Desert Force and, later, the British Eighth Army relied considerably on Iranian and Iraqi oil to fuel military operations during the North African campaign. While major military clashes were occurring during the North African campaign, other military operations in the Middle East were beginning to undermine Britain’s primacy in the region. In the spring of 1941, Axis intrigue in undermining Britain’s influence in Iraq culminated in armed clashes during the Anglo-Iraqi War (May 2–31). During this conflict, the German Luftwaffe flew from airfields in Syria and Lebanon to attack British forces in Iraq. Under Vichy French control, Germany also used Syria and Lebanon to resupply Axis-aligned Iraqi forces. In response, Britain struck targets in both Syria and Lebanon during Operation Exporter (June 8–14, 1941).
Following the demise of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, the League of Nations designated Mesopotamia a “mandatory” administrative political entity. As a result, the region was referred to in the aftermath of the Great War as the British Mandate of Mesopotamia. With the rise of both Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism in the two centuries prior to World War I, the population in Iraq was in no mood to move from Ottoman domination to British control. Recognizing this reality, Britain transitioned the Mandate (1920) into the Kingdom of Iraq, with nominal independence, in 1932.
However, given the strategic necessities brought on by global war in 1939, London moved toward the re-creation of the joint “RAF Iraq Command,” which served as the umbrella group for the RAF, Royal Navy, British army, Commonwealth, and locally developed military units falling under the command of an RAF officer who served at the air vice-marshal rank. While the British Mandate of Mesopotamia officially came to an end in 1932, two years prior, in 1930, the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty was created permitting Britain to maintain a troop presence beyond the Mandate. As a result, RAF Iraq Command transitioned to “British Forces in Iraq,” and their presence was kept to a minimum in terms of troop strength and confined to two RAF bases, RAF Shaibah, near the key Persian Gulf port of Basra, and RAF Habbaniya, about 50 miles west of Baghdad. Besides having a general presence in the land between the two rivers, Britain’s interests in Iraq as World War II approached were in protecting its investments in the development of Iraq’s oil reserves (at the time near Mosul and Kirkuk) and in maintaining a vital link in air communications between India and Egypt.
By 1937, however, Britain removed all but a small force to guard the air bases, as the nationalist sentiment grew in fervor. Following 1937, the government within Iraq assumed full responsibility for the internal security of the country. Italian intelligence operations within Iraq soon increased with the aim of undermining British influence. By March 31, 1941, as the war raged in Europe and North Africa, the regent of Iraq, Prince Abd al-Ilah, was made aware of a plot to overthrow the monarchy. The prince was subsequently whisked away to RAF Habbaniya and then transferred to the British warship HMS Cockchafter. Prime Minister Rashid Ali seized power April 3, 1941, in a coup backed by the “Golden Square,” which became the collective name for three top-level Royal Iraqi Army officers and one top-level Royal Iraqi Air Force officer.
Ali’s government was immediately recognized by Italy and Nazi Germany. Ali signed a secret agreement with the Italian ambassador that was intended to unite Syria and Iraq and nationalize all oil resources as well as provide the Axis powers three key fortified port facilities, with control for a radius of 20 miles. Iraq then cut off the pipeline of the British-controlled Iraq Petroleum Company in Haifa, Palestine, and redirected oil to Tripoli in Lebanon, which was then under the control of the Vichy French regime. In a side deal with the Germans, Ali promised the use of all military facilities in Iraq, should the British be evicted successfully.
Ali then demanded that Britain remove all military personnel from Iraq. While Ali was initially supported by Rome, on April 17, 1941, he requested military assistance from Berlin, should Britain take any military action against his “National Defence Government.” General Headquarters (GHQ) India dispatched the “Sabine Force,” a brigade based in Karachi (present-day Pakistan), with orders to secure Basra and lend support as best as possible to the British forces at RAF Shaibah and RAF Habbaniya. However, upon landing in Basra on April 18, the brigade was captured by Iraqi forces. Britain then dispatched the 2nd Brigade of the 10th Indian Infantry Division, which arrived at Basra on April 29, along with the carrier Hermes and two cruisers.
Once apprised of Britain’s decision to escalate rather than acquiesce, Ali mobilized the Iraqi army and air forces and ordered them to seize the RAF base at Habbaniya. By May 1, about 9,000 Iraqi troops and an assortment of armored cars, guns, and artillery threatened the base that housed fairly obsolete British aircraft, which was utilized primarily to serve as a cadet flying school with older biplane, World War I-era aircraft. Present at RAF Habbaniya were about 1,350 British personnel at the base (1,000 RAF and the 350-man 1st Battalion of the King’s Own Royal Regiment [KORR]), in addition to approximately 1,200 Iraqi and Kurdish constabulary personnel. Nonetheless, Air Vice Marshal Harry Smart had only 35 airmen at the base who knew how to fly an airplane, with only three of those pilots having combat experience.
In the midst of the crisis, cables went back and forth with London, as Smart attempted to ascertain what was expected and what course of action the British high command was prepared to authorize. The contacts were with the foreign ministry rather than British military leadership, which gave rise to increased concerns within Iraq with the level of ambiguity in the communications coming from the diplomatic corps as to what London actually wanted. Smart sought something more definitive and if possible something directly from the British military high command, because each time he asked for guidance from his military superiors, he sensed no one wanted to take ownership of any military action, even in defense, within Iraq. Nevertheless, his determination finally required London to respond with concrete authorization to take military action when Churchill finally cabled back personally: “If you have to strike, strike hard.”
Smart subsequently had the British ambassador in Baghdad issue a demand for the Iraqi troops to withdraw from the perimeter of the air base by 8 a.m. on May 2. However, apparently seeking the advantages of darkness and believing the Iraqis had no intention of withdrawing, Smart ordered his available aircraft to start engines at 4:30 a.m. Thirty minutes later, the RAF began attacking Iraqi positions that surrounded the air base. By day’s end, each pilot had flown six bombing strikes against the entrenched forces. The 33 aircraft flying out of Habbaniya were soon joined with 8 Wellington bombers flying out of RAF Shaibah.
The Committee of Imperial Defense, now at war in Iraq, transferred command of land forces within the country to British Middle East Command from India and called on General Wavell to provide a relief force for the air base. The force established for entry into Iraq was called the “Habforce” (short for Habbaniya Force) and consisted of a British joint force, which immediately set out for the 535-mile journey from Haifa, Palestine, through Transjordan to Habbaniya on May 11. Remarkably, particularly given the primitive state of the equipment and paucity of trained airmen, the forces at RAF Habbaniya were able to neutralize the threat to the base before Habforce arrived.
At the beginning of May 1941, the Vichy French government and Germany signed the Paris Protocols, whereby Germany was able to send troops into French North Africa and Syria. This provided Berlin with the opportunity for setting up bases for projecting military force into Iraq and Iran and, in the case of Tunisia, for the purposes of challenging British control in Egypt. On May 6, Germany concluded an agreement with the Vichy French to release war materials, including aircraft, from sealed stockpiles in Syria and ship them to the Iraqi forces then fighting Britain. These arrangements included making available several airbases in northern Syria to Germany for transporting Luftwaffe aircraft to Iraq. From May 9 to 31, about 100 German aircraft and 20 Italian aircraft landed on Syrian airfields. In Syria, German aircraft were painted with Royal Iraqi Air Force markings. Between May 10 and 15, these planes flew into Mosul, Iraq, and commenced aerial attacks on British forces throughout Iraq.
On May 13, the first trainload of Axis and Vichy supplies from Syria arrived in Mosul via Turkey, and the Iraqis took delivery of 15,500 rifles, 6 million rounds of ammunition, 200 machine guns, 900 belts of ammunition, and four 75mm field guns with 10,000 shells. Two additional deliveries were made on May 26 and 28, which included eight 155mm guns, 6,000 shells, 354 machine pistols, 30,000 grenades, and 32 trucks.
With the dissipation of the immediate threat to RAF Habbaniya by late May, British leaders set their sights on Rashid Ali, who was then ensconced in Baghdad. Elements of the Habforce were combined with select units that had advanced on Habbaniya from Basra. The Habbaniya “Brigade” consisted of the Kingcol, which was reinforced with the 2nd Battalion Gurkha Rifles, Indian army, assorted light artillery, and a group of RAF Assyrian Levies.
The brigade marched on Baghdad by way of Fallujah, which contained a key bridge over the Euphrates River. However, on May 22, the Iraqi 6th Infantry Brigade (Iraqi 3rd Infantry Division) counterattacked in the vicinity of Fallujah, with support from Italian light tanks (Fiat). British leaders moved in reserve forces to counter the attack and pushed the Iraqi 6th back. The following day, Luftwaffe aircraft attacked, and Allied and British positions in and around Fallujah were strafed by the Fliegerfuhrer Irak. German forces under such commanders as Rommel and Heinz Wilhelm Guderian had the ability to coordinate their attacks, effectively combining air and ground operations. However, beyond the German joint operations, when Germany attempted to aid other militaries such as the Iraqi army at Fallujah, attacks were not as efficiently coordinated, resulting in strikes that were not as effective as they otherwise might have been. For instance, as the Iraqi 6th counterattacked on May 22, and if the Fliegerfuhrer Irak had been directed to have flown in support at that time, the effectiveness of the counterattack would have been significantly amplified.
Instead, the 6th attacked without air support, and air attacks only took place after the Iraqi 6th had been driven back and had lost the initiative. While the Axis powers indeed had powerful militaries, their power projection capability vis-à-vis the British lacked a similarly robust forward presence and, in the British model, a forward presence aimed at conducting integrated and combined operations at the coalition level. This highlights a comparative advantage of the British Empire in relation to its competitors and its opponents. This advantage in the modern era arose from the ability of Britain to have trained with a variety of military forces around the world, as contrasted with the limited training for joint operations by Axis forces in the Middle East—outside of North Africa.
A strictly German battle against strictly British forces between 1940 and 1942 provided a competitive advantage to the joint German capability (panzers, infantry, artillery, air) of coordinating in a lightning-fast engagement or series of engagements (campaign). However, British military doctrine was not based on unilateral doctrine, that is, fighting alone. It had built and relied upon its worldwide strategic, multilateral, and competitive advantage in overcoming operational and tactical challenges. This required working closely with Commonwealth and Allied forces in combined joint operations. Thus, the Germans, try as they might, were unable to set the conditions in which the fight was simply a German versus Briton war—a war wherein London’s coalition advantages would be neutralized.
Nowhere was this better exemplified than operations in the Middle East during World War II, as Germany simply did not possess the wherewithal to coordinate, generate resources, and fight jointly as effectively as Britain did with its allies in North Africa or in the Middle East. This can be attributed to the inability of German armor to transit the English Channel, its inability to overcome the vastness of the Soviet Union, and the inability of the Luftwaffe to strike at the arsenal of democracy (America), which provided both British and Soviet forces the materials needed to stay in the fight much longer perhaps than otherwise would have been the case.
As the Habbaniya Brigade continued toward Baghdad, British Commonwealth (Indian army) forces in Basra began advancing northward toward the Iraqi capital. In two complementary operations launched on May 27, 1941, the “Euphrates Brigade” (20th Indian Infantry Brigade) in Operation Regatta moved north by road and riverboat up the Euphrates River, while the “Tigris Brigade” (21st Indian Infantry Brigade) transited by boat up the Tigris River during Operation Regatta. Seventy-two hours later, the 25th Indian Infantry Brigade (3rd Brigade, 10th Indian Infantry Division) landed in Basra and immediately proceeded north toward Baghdad. On May 29, Ali’s National Defence Government collapsed, and Ali departed first to Iran and then proceeded to Berlin where he was greeted by Hitler as the head of the Iraqi government.
In order to neutralize Germany’s efforts in establishing a military presence in Syria and Lebanon (which would give Berlin the ability to project military power into both Egypt and Iraq), Britain conducted the Syrian-Lebanon campaign (code-named Operation Exporter) from June 8 to July 14, 1941. Operation Exporter entailed a combined Allied force of British, Indian, Australian, Arab, and Free French, attacking Vichy French forces aligned with Germany in both Syria and Lebanon. Exporter called for four lines of advance by Allied forces: one moving on Damascus (Syria); a second advancing on Beirut (Lebanon) from forces originating in Palestine; a third against Ottoman forces in northern Syria and on Palmyra (central Syria); and the fourth advancing on Tripoli by Allied troops within Iraq.
By June 21, Allied forces occupied Damascus, and on the following day Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa—the invasion of the Soviet Union. Any additional support, materiel, or manpower Axis forces fighting in Syria and Lebanon had originally planned for would, henceforth, be quite limited, as Germany, locked in an existential struggle with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, that is, the Soviet Union (USSR), simply would not be able to properly supply its units fighting in North Africa and within the Middle East. By the second week of July, the Vichy French position with Syria and Lebanon had collapsed, and mass surrenders led to these forces being moved out of the Middle East. Of the 38,000 Vichy French taken prisoners, only about 6,000 opted to join the Free French led by Charles de Gaulle who flew into the region in late July 1941 to personally congratulate the victors. Shortly thereafter, Free French General Georges Catroux was installed as the military governor of Syria and Lebanon.