First Victory - the Middle East, May-Sep 1941

Discussion in 'WW2 General' started by buffnut453, Feb 4, 2013.

  1. buffnut453

    buffnut453 Well-Known Member

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    #1 buffnut453, Feb 4, 2013
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2013
    I just finished reading Robert Lyman's excellent book "First Victory":

    [​IMG]

    I had read Tony Dudgeon's "Hidden Victory" about the defence of RAF Habbaniyah against Iraqi forces in May 1941 (and for those who haven't read that little gem, I strongly recommend it!) but, for the first time, Lyman's book put that important victory in the wider context of the Middle East campaign of 1941. To be honest, I got shivers down my spine as some of the place-names mentioned in the book are eerily reminiscent of more recent conflicts - Basrah, Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Damascus, Beirut, the Bekaa Valley, Homs etc etc.

    For the uninitiated, essentially Britain secured Iraq, Syria and Iran in the space of 4 months using unfeasibly inadequate forces and, by so doing, secured access to Britain's primary sources of oil in Iraq and Iran. Lyman posits that without this series of victories in the Middle East, the course of WWII would have been very different, indeed Britain may have been unable to continue global operations without the oil to power the weapons of war. Securing the Middle East also ensure the British forces in North Africa could not be flanked, and hence

    Anyone else out there have an interest in this topic and, if so, care to discuss? Key areas I'd like to engage on are:

    1. Is Lyman's perspective (and that of Dudgeon, too, for that matter) correct? Did Britain's success in WWII hang by a thread in the summer of 1941, a thread that was only prevented from severing by the training aircraft of 4 FTS at RAF Habbaniyah and a scratch team of understrength and ill-equipped army units that gambled and won in battles across the Middle East?

    2. Was Britain's invasion of Iran justified?

    3. Why on earth did Hitler fail to realise the vital importance of the Middle East to Britain and what could/should he have done differently?

    I know each of these could be discussed in their own threads but since this is a rather esoteric subject, and separating them is rather hard to do without crossing from one topic to the others, I thought I'd lump them all together...we can add others if the discussion meanders around (but never off!...yeah, right!) the topic.

    Cheers,
    B-N
     
  2. parsifal

    parsifal Well-Known Member

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    I think it was Caesar that said (something like), "from trivial things big changes emerge". Not an exact quote but you get the drift.

    I havent read the book, which I should, but my understanding is that Italian and german forces infiltrated into Iraq to assist the Iraqi leader in their rebellion. There is every chance, if the rebellion had succeeded that firstly the Levant and then possibly and encircled Turkey may well have succumbed to Nazi threats. It would certainly make an attack on Cyprus a possibility.

    But even if the Axis simply destroyed the wells, this would have had enormous implications for the British..

    It was no accident that the British deployed a full Army strength occupation force from that date on until the end of the war. It was initially known as PaiForce, but later became a combination of 9th and 10th Indian Armies.

    Humanity has been fighting over these cities since the dawn of civilisation.
     
  3. buffnut453

    buffnut453 Well-Known Member

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    Yep, the area has certainly been a crucible of war for centuries. The thing that really flummoxed me was the inability of Hitler to see how vital the region was to Britain. In early 1941 he could have taken the entire region with a brigade of Hitler Youth and a couple of properly-supported fighter and bomber squadrons. Instead, he wastes time trying to promote anti-British feeling in the region and then sends in a small, and pretty much unsupported air fleet when it's too late. How different things might have been had Hitler been influenced by smart strategy rather than ideology and emotion.

    For the record, I can heartily recommend Lyman's book. He gets a few facts wrong - mostly about air force strengths and some odd terminology (eg "two squadrons of bombers and one squadron of Blenheims") - but he's an ex-Pongo so I can forgive him those minor errors. The book is immensely readable and has sparked my interest in learning more about Field Marshall Bill Slim.
     
  4. buffnut453

    buffnut453 Well-Known Member

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    For those who may not have seen/read Dudgeon's book (the actual title is "Hidden Victory" - I corrected the mistake in my first post), here's the cover showing a section of Frank Wootton's stirring depiction of Oxfords and Audaxes of 4 FTS attacking Iraqi Army positions on the plateau above RAF Habbaniyah:

    [​IMG]
     
  5. parsifal

    parsifal Well-Known Member

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    This is a review I found at the Stone Stone website for a book entitled Rashid Alii and the Golden Square at War". I was curious as to whether this account aligned with the narrative in the book you have read...

    "Background

    Although Iraq was technically independent at the beginning of WWII, by treaty it was in fact very much subject to British influence. The RAF maintained bases at Habbaniya (outside Baghdad) and Shaibah (near Basra) -- both were on the peacetime air route to India -- and retained tranist rights for troops.

    In 1939 King Feisal II was only four years old, so the Regency had been established under Adb al-Ilah. (Note that there seems to be no standardized Western spelling for many of these names.) The Prime Minister was Nuri as-Sa'id who was pro-British but also very much a nationalist. Increasingly, however, power was being gathered by the pan-Arabist -- and fiercely anti-colonialist -- Rashid Ali al-Gaylani and a cabal of four colonels dubbed the "Golden Square".

    Per provisions of the Anglo-Iraq treaty, Iraq broke relations with Germany in September 1939. By March 1940, though, Rashid Ali had become prime minister. Although he and the pan-Arabists had no particular love for Germany or Italy, they realized that in the prevailing world situation the Axis offered the best opportunity for support in achieving pan-Arabist anti-colonial political goals. Consequently, when Italy entered the war in June 1940 Iraq did not sever relations. Churchill was not amused.

    In July 1940 an Indian brigade group from India was earmarked for movement to Basra to show the flag, but it was diverted to the Sudan for operations in Italian East Africa.

    By December 1940 British demands for removal of Rashid Ali were increasingly strident, and in January he was replaced with General Taha el Hashimi, another pan-Arabist but rather more palatable to London.

    Rashid Ali and the Golden Square conspired to regain power. On 31 March 1941, learning of a plot to arrest him, the Regent fled to Basra and gained refuge aboard a British warship. At the beginning of April the Golden Square seized power and installed Rashid Ali as "Chief of the National Defense Government". Churchill remained unamused.

    Seeking to gain control of the situation, the British on 16 April informed the Iraqi government that, per treaty terms, British troops would be landing at Basra and moving through Iraq en route to Palestine. No objections were raised in Baghdad. The next day British troops arrived by air from Karachi to reinforce the garrison at Shaibah and cover Basra. On 18 April Indian 20th Infantry Brigade, along with HQ Indian 10th Division, arrived by sea at Basra from India.

    On 27 April Rashid Ali declared that no additional British troops would be allowed into Iraq until the current formations had departed. British infantry began shuttling by air from Shaibah to reinforce Habbaniya; approximately 400 troops were airlifted north. That night the British ambassabor informed the Iraqi goverment that additional troops would be landing at Basra.

    On the night of 29/30 April 1941 Iraqi troops surrounded the British base at Habbaniya.

    Battle of Habbaniya

    RAF Number 4 Service Flying Training School was located at Habbaniya inside a steel fence-enclosed compound along the Euphrates. This unit mustered:


    Audax - 32
    Oxford - 29
    Gladiator - 9
    Gordon - 8
    Valentia transports - 3
    Blenheim I - 1
    Hart trainers - "a few"
    Even by mid-1941 standards, this was a pitiful handful of useless junk.

    For base defense Habbanyia fielded the 400 newly arrived troops (of 1st King's Own Regiment), a battalion of native levies ("mainly Assyrian, but including Arabs and Kurds"), and eighteen RAF armored cars. There were also wives and families of the garrison.

    The Iraqi armed forces included four infantry divisions (one at Kirkuk watching the Kurds, two in Baghdad, and one south of Baghdad), a mechanized brigade (sixteen light tanks, fourteen armored cars, and two battalions of lorried infantry), four river gunboats, and sixty aircraft (miscellanous British, American, and Italian models).

    Iraqi troops occupied positions on the escarpment overlooking the Habbanyia airfield, barely 1000 yards from the perimeter; this force eventually numbered some 9000 troops with 50 guns. Although no hostile action was initiated, the British commander, Air Vice Marshal H. G. Smart, was warned that firing would commence if aircraft attempted to take off.

    Smart elected to take the initiative. At dawn on 2 May 1941 his aircraft attacked Iraqi positions on the escarpment. The Iraqis replied with AA fire and shelled the cantonment, while Iraqi fighters from Baghdad attempted to intervene. Despite the extremely vulnerable position of the base, the Iraqis attempted no ground assault.

    Within 24 hours of taking action, the besieged British had the upper hand. Their antique flying machines controlled the air and their tiny ground force began to send out raiding parties. On the night of 5/6 May they attacked the escarpment and forced withdrawal of the superior Iraqi strength. By 7 May the siege of Habbaniya had ended.

    Meanwhile

    While the "battle" "raged", other events transpired. On 2 May Rashid Ali appealed to Hitler for armed support, and the Axis immediately began to make moves to assist the Iraqi revolt. During 5 and 6 May a "preliminary agreement" was reached between Germany and Vichy by which "three-quarters of the [Vichy] war material assembled in Syria under control of the the Italian Armistice Commission [is] to be transported to Iraq and the German Air Force granted landing facilities in Syria."

    On 9 May Axis aircraft began to land on Syrian airfields. On the 13th the first German aircraft flew into Mosul and the first trainload of war material arrived from Syria in the same city. The next day Allied aircraft began raids on Axis aircraft on Vichy fields in Syria.

    From Palestine, Habforce -- comprised mainly of British 4th Cavalry Brigade (newly motorized), plus elements of the Arab Legion and the Transjordan Frontier Force -- was organized and set out to relieve Habbaniya. It crossed the desert via the oil pipeline route (including some of the pumping stations, such as H3) but did not arrive at Habbaniya until 18 May, by which time the garrison had already lifted the siege.

    Indian brigades continued to land at Basra and began to push slowly north.

    On 19 May Allied forces at Habbaniya began a slow advance on Baghdad, still heavily outnumbered. Axis aicraft continued to arrive, including 12 Italian CR42s on 27 May. Axis air operations were, however, greatly hampered by lack of suitable quantities and grades of aviation fuel. On the 30th British troops from Habbaniya reached the outskirts of Baghdad.

    Although the British forces were quite weak and Baghdad was held by an Iraqi division, Rashid Ali fled. The revolt collapsed and on 31 May an armistice was declared in Baghdad and a pro-British government took office. The remaining Aixs aircraft and ground personnel withdrew.

    Aftermath

    Largely due to its willingness to permit Axis aircraft to assist Iraq, the Allies invaded the Vichy Levant in June. Habforce turned around and participated in that campaign as well, following which its main components (redesignated 9th Armored Brigade, but without tanks) also managed to join the Allied invasion of Persia.

    Iraq, now firmly under British control, declared war against the Axis early in 1943.

    Rashid Ali escaped to Germany where, as a guest of the Fuehrer and rival to another guest, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, he spent the remainder of the war broadcasting to the Arab world and planning to regain power when German pincers from Egypt and the Caucasus finally met at the Persian Gulf. He survived the war and escaped to Saudi Arabia where he was granted asylum, returning to Iraq after the 1958 revolution. In more recent years various points of interest in and around Baghdad have been named after the WWII-era leader."

    Interesting that Rashid Ali escaped any retributiuon for siding with the Axis. He was similar in this respect to the Thai leader who was re-elected after the war I believe.
     
  6. buffnut453

    buffnut453 Well-Known Member

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    That pretty much sums it up, Parsifal. According to the King's Own Royal Regiment Museum, Lancaster, only 350 officers and men were airlifted to Basrah - at the time, the RAF's troop-carrying/air transport fleet in Iraq comprised just 4 ancient Vickers Valentias each of which could only carry 22 men.

    The comment that British forces were "quite weak" has to be one of the biggest understatements of all time. Habforce comprised an understrength Brigade and was the only combat force available for the move against Baghdad. As for the aircraft, 4 FTS was a training unit and hardly equipped in either aircraft or personnel for combat operations - flying into battle in an all-yellow Airspeed Oxford armed with one .303 machine gun and 8x20lb bombs takes a certain type of courage! However, other aircraft were involved including a small number of Vickers Wellingtons which considerably added to the RAF's striking force.

    Finally, the comments about Churchill being "unamused" are a little glib and make it sound like a petulant attempt by Britain to keep a small country in line. In reality, Britain relied on Iraq and Iran for most of its oil. A nationalist regime in Baghdad that was hostile to Britain could do serious damage to the entire war effort.

    "First Victory" does take a wider view of the entire theatre. For example, the Luftwaffe forces used in Iraq (Sonderkommando Junck, or Fliegerf├╝hrer Irak, which consisted 12xBf110s of ZG 76, 12xHe111s, 13xJu52 and Ju90 transports) flew into Mosul via Syria which was controlled by Vichy France. Once Iraq was secured, Habforce was sent back west to assist in the subjugation of Syria to prevent further transit of German forces through that country.
     
  7. vinnye

    vinnye Member

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    It is amazing what the forces based in the Middle East had to achieve with so few resources available!
    They had to "look after" Egypt etc engage firsltly the Italian forces in Libya - then the Afrika Korps. At the same time troops were being re-directed to combat in Africa, Greece and Crete etc.
     
  8. yulzari

    yulzari Active Member

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    And take Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somaliland, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon never mind defend Britain against an expected invasion taking on the combined armed forces of Germany, Italy and France, carry on a continuous naval battle in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean while bombing Germany whilst being bankrupt having expended all it's foreign financial reserves buying weapons in the USA and selling off it's huge stakes in US commerce at rock bottom prices.. It explains (if not excuses) much of the neglect of Malayan defence.
     
  9. vinnye

    vinnye Member

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    When you put it that way, we did quite well really!
     
  10. parsifal

    parsifal Well-Known Member

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    The book title "First Victory" needs some explanation IMO. The victory occured in May 1941, didnt the Brits win the BoB, and the offensive into Cyrenaica, as well as into Abyssinia by that stage?

    perhaps its because none of therse victories were complete....
     
  11. merlin

    merlin Member

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    I have an earlier book "Iraq and Syria 1941 by Geoffrey Warner published in 1974. Perhaps it was a 'first' in the sense of the RAF and CAS - though perhaps forced upon them , but Smart did seem to be unrewarded for his sucess! Especially with the way the 'third-line' aircraft were able to be hurriedly fitted with makeshift bomb racks etc.
     
  12. buffnut453

    buffnut453 Well-Known Member

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    Yes, it's something of an odd title. The BoB was potentially excluded because the author is an ex-Army man. I've had many long and tedious arguments in which Army officers, usually staff college-trained, try to argue that the BoB wasn't really a battle. Needless to say I disagreed...! Sadly Lyman doesn't give any real insight into why he chose the title of the book. Your idea about the "completeness" or otherwise of victories is as good a reason as any I can come up with.
     
  13. buffnut453

    buffnut453 Well-Known Member

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    I suspect part of the problem was that Smart didn't really provide the motivating drive that resulted in victory. Many accounts, including Dudgeon's, aren't complimentary of Smart's performance prior to and during the actual fighting and there remain persistent rumours that he suffered a nervous breakdown in the closing phases of the fighting for Habbaniyah. According to Dudgeon it was he who came up with the idea of fitting bomb racks to Oxfords although it was more of a team effort when one includes Audaxes and Gordons. That said, Dudgeon definitely gives the impression that it was the more junior officers (Sqn Ldr and below) who provided the impetus to defend Habbaniyah and that the senior officers (Wg Cdr and above) who were slow to respond, inflexible and lacking in leadership. Sadly, we have few other accounts of the battle from the RAF perspective and so there's not much published info out there to determine whether Dudgeon's view is correct (although the lack of plaudits for Smart may, itself, be an indicator that Dudgeon was correct).

    I think it's stretching things to say Iraq was a first for CAS. To me, CAS is the coordinated use of air power to provide direct combat support to troops on the ground. At Habbaniyah, there weren't any troops on the ground and the tasking of the RAF across the entire conflict, with the possible exception of a few raids during the fighting for Fallujah, had little to do with Commonwealth ground forces.
     
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