The Axis in Iraq 1941 I

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The Axis in Iraq 1941 I

Two weeks into the campaign and the British were secure in Basra and had lifted the siege of Habbaniya. They had also degraded the Iraqi air force, which had been reduced, the War Cabinet were told, to about fifty aircraft, of which only six were first-line operational types. But though the Iraqi army had suffered a demoralizing reverse, it was still largely intact, with 20,000 troops in and around Baghdad and 15,000 in the north. Rashid Ali’s government still ruled unmolested in Baghdad and the Indian Army troops decanted into Basra were bogged down and making exceedingly slow progress in their endeavours to move north to threaten the capital. Most worryingly, German forces and ammunition trains had started to arrive. The British government believed that the Germans might send up to sixty fighters and bombers. About thirty Luftwaffe aircraft were reported to have landed in Aleppo and Damascus en route to Iraq. By this stage, British objectives had crystallized around the overthrow of Rashid Ali, the removal of the Golden Square and the return of Prince Abdulillah as regent.

The Chiefs of Staff remained distinctly worried, despite the success at Habbaniya. Dill confided to Auchinleck on 21 May: ‘If we cannot quickly scotch the trouble that has started with Rashid Ali it is difficult to see where it will all end’. There were wider implications, too, the longer the situation in Iraq remained unresolved. As Eden wrote to Churchill on 19 May, ‘these developments cause me most concern on account of their influence on Turkey’s policy [as to whether to remain neutral or actively assist Germany]. The Turks are concentrating troops on the Iraqi and Syrian frontiers and are asking us in return for our plans for dealing with the situation in these recalcitrant countries’.

A message from Churchill to Roosevelt on 14 May reflected the finely balanced situation, as well as allied ambitions. ‘In Iraq,’ the British prime minister told the American president, ‘we are trying to regain control and anyhow we are making a large strong bridgehead at Basra where later on in the war American machines may be assembled and supplies unloaded.’ But, Churchill cautioned, ‘there is no doubt’ that Admiral Darlan, leader of Vichy Syria, ‘will sell the pass if he can, and German aircraft are already passing into Iraq’.4 The unfolding situation was difficult to read, and the British needed a quick resolution, not least so that Iraq could play its part in the wider war effort. It was infuriating to be fighting the locals – who were supposed to be allies – when there was a world war to be won. For both sides, it was a race against time: for the British, to get more troops into Iraq and onto the battlefield, and for the Iraqis, to get the Germans in and crush British resistance before it was fully mobilized.

Fevered Iraqi appeals to Berlin had been made from the start of hostilities. On 4 May a coded radio message had been picked up by the British. ‘This is Baghdad,’ the announcer repeated three times. ‘This is a message to the Iraki legation in Ankara [repeated]. It is the Iraki Foreign Office.’ The message instructed Iraq’s Ankara legation to keep the pressure on German officials to send military aid forthwith. War Minister Naji Shawkat also travelled to Ankara ‘to impress upon the German authorities Iraq’s urgent need for military assistance’. But the Iraqi government was simultaneously exploring options for a return to peace. On 13 May the American ambassador in Ankara, John Van Antwerp MacMurray, reported that Shawkat had ‘sought to obtain [the Turkish] Government’s assistance in formulating acceptable basis of understanding with the British’. In response, Turkish officials made plain their conviction that Iraq had violated the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty and taken a ‘course whose successful outcome could only place it and [the] Moslem world at [the] mercy of [a] power far less indulgent and more oppressive’. Rashid Ali also sent his Foreign Minister to Saudi Arabia, where he was given short shrift by King Ibn Saud. The British also appealed for the Saudi king’s aid, on 2 May telegramming Jeddah to ask him to make a public statement ‘deploring the situation, to which Rashid Ali’s disastrous policy has brought Iraq, and expressing the hope that Iraqis would disown him’.

Intelligence decrypts kept London informed about the build-up of Fliegerkorps XI in the Balkans, for a time entertaining the idea that the threat to Crete might be a cover for an operation in Iraq. On 9 May, Ultra had revealed that an alternative had been chosen. From Luftwaffe cyphers it was learned that an airfield near Athens had been set aside for special operations and that bombers and fighters, stripped of their Luftwaffe markings, were being ferried through Syria to Iraq. The War Cabinet’s weekly resumé reported that:

French authorities are known to have sent two train loads of ammunition eastwards but deny this destined for Iraq on German demands . . . Enemy agents are believed to be entering Iraq from Turkey and Iran, presumably assisted by Fifth Column already organized there to prepare for reception German airborne troops . . . By advancing through Turkey into Syria and at the same time renewing their offensive in North Africa they could develop once again the pincer movement which they have used so consistently in all their recent campaigns.

It was on this day, 9 May, that the Foreign Office in Berlin announced Germany’s military aid package to Iraq. Major Axel von Blomberg was on his way to conduct a reconnaissance of Iraqi airfields for Luftwaffe use, the first twenty aircraft were due to arrive soon and supplies were moving through Syria. Though in the end it did not transpire, the original plan was also to deploy a reinforced battalion containing at its core elements of the Brandenberg Regiment, a specialist unit controlled by the Abwehr and used on intelligence and sabotage operations. General Hellmuth Felmy was in overall command. He had retired as an air force general in January 1940, but had been recalled in May 1941 and appointed head of Sonderstab Felmy, the German military mission to Iraq. It would perform the role of a ‘central agency for all Arab questions applying to the Wehrmacht’. Luftwaffe colonel Werner Junck was the officer tasked with taking Fliegerführer Irak to Mosul, from where its aircraft would operate bearing Iraqi air force markings. The force initially comprised a squadron of twelve Messerschmitt Bf 110s, a squadron of twelve Heinkel He 111s and thirteen Junker transport aircraft. A squadron of Italian Fiat CR.42s also arrived from Rhodes. German forces made their presence felt as soon as they arrived in theatre. On 12 May a Heinkel bombed men of the 1st Battalion the Essex Regiment, part of Habforce, as they began their journey towards Habbaniya, and the following day a Blenheim was attacked by a Messerschmitt over Mosul. On 14 May six Messerschmitts were seen at Erbil and three Heinkels were also reported. By this time, the bulk of Junck’s force had arrived in theatre. The deployment of German forces was intended to provide ‘what the Germans tellingly described as “spine straightening” for the Iraqi army, much of which had become terrified of bombing by British aircraft’.

Crucial to the outcome of the campaign would be how well German forces could be integrated with their Iraqi allies, and the extent to which these unlikely bedfellows could agree upon and execute an effective joint plan of action. Major von Blomberg was charged with the task of supervising this integration, and travelled to Baghdad on 15 May to arrange a council of war with the Iraqi leadership. Unfortunately for both him and the nascent German–Iraqi alliance, an Iraqi soldier ‘guarding a bridge in Baghdad, not recognizing the shape and silhouette of the He 111, and believing it to be British, placed a few well-aimed rounds into the fuselage as it cruised low overhead’. Von Blomberg was discovered to be dead on arrival, a bullet through his neck. Following this inauspicious start, Junck himself flew to Baghdad the following day to confer with Rashid Ali, Chief of the General Staff Major-General Amin Zaki, Colonel Nur ed-Din Mahmud and Colonel Mahmud Salman (of the Golden Square). It was agreed that the German priority should be to prevent Habforce arriving at Habbaniya, followed by the capture of the RAF base. Only a few days later, however, Habforce arrived at its destination unmolested, the Germans having arrived too late.

While in Baghdad, Junck conferred with Fritz Grobba, reinstalled as Berlin’s representative after a ‘triumphal return’. His party had flown in from Rhodes via Aleppo and Mosul in Heinkels accompanied by Messerschmitt fighters. His mission was to prepare for a new German–Iraqi alliance after the British had been ejected. As part of this initiative, the Germans were quick to get a team to Baghdad to examine the Iraqi oil industry with a view to its transfer to Nazi use. The German Petroleum Mission, a group of ‘reputable scientists’, came well prepared with equipment and supplies, and were led by a very able petroleum technologist, surmised by the British to be one Colonel Geissman: he informed staff at the Baghdad Chemical Laboratory ‘that he had been in charge of the immediate utilization of seized petrol supplies in most of the major German campaigns’ to date. Geissman’s immediate object was the production of the maximum quantity of aviation spirit of at least 87 octane rating. The German scientists ‘succeeded in blending all spirits in Baghdad derived from Abadan up to about 92 octane rating’.

The Germans were also sending weapons. An agreement with the Vichy authorities allowed the Syrian government in Damascus to recover a quarter of the weaponry impounded under the terms of the French armistice in return for turning over the remainder to the Iraqis. The agreement had also permitted Axis forces to use Syrian airfields and facilities, and provided for the establishment of a Luftwaffe base at Aleppo. The first trainload of ex-Syrian weapons had arrived in Mosul on 13 May via Turkey, and included 15,500 rifles, 200 machine-guns and four 75-millimetre field guns, all with ammunition and shells.

Junck attacked Habbaniya on 16 and 17 May using six Messerschmitts and three Heinkels operating from Mosul. The problem for the Germans was that the British had forces up and running inside Iraq and were imbued with an offensive spirit, determined not to allow the Germans the chance to get a grip on the situation. Air Vice-Marshal D’Albiac, now directing British air operations, was quick to take the attack to the Germans, sending aircraft against their Mosul stronghold. Attempts were also made to disorganize the German movement of supplies by bombing Mosul railway station and the railway lines and sidings surrounding it. On 17 May British reinforcements arrived in the shape of four Gladiators from 94 Squadron and six Blenheims from 84 Squadron.

Although the nine remaining Wellingtons in Basra had been withdrawn to Egypt on 12 May to assist in operations against Rommel in the Western Desert, two new long-range cannon-firing Hurricanes had also arrived from Aboukir in Egypt. Together with the Blenheims, they made a daring, long-range sortie to hit back at the Luftwaffe at Mosul on 17 May, destroying two and damaging four aircraft for the loss of a Hurricane. On the same day, two Gladiators from Habbaniya, loitering around Rashid Airfield at Baghdad, encountered two Bf.110Cs attempting to take off, and destroyed them both.

All in all, this represented a disturbing rate of attrition for the newly arrived Germans.

Nevertheless, the Foreign Office in London urged a quick solution. Eden wrote to Churchill, again raising the fear that if Germany was successful in Iraq and Syria, Turkey would ‘be effectively surrounded and it would indeed be difficult then to count upon her enduring loyalty’. In connection with this, the Foreign Secretary noted that ‘the mobile brigade [Habforce] had evidently had difficulties in its approach to Habbaniya’. He had not, he continued, ‘appreciated when the Defence Committee recommended this move that its development would take so long. The delay has enabled German arrivals to hearten the Iraqis.’19 Meanwhile, in Baghdad and several Iraqi outposts incarcerated American and British subjects also wondered at the delay, none more so than those crammed into the diplomatic compounds.


The British Embassy stood on the west bank of the Tigris, its gardens set about with buddleia, hibiscus and pomegranate. ‘Passing through the gates in the high wall,’ wrote John Masters, ‘I entered Arnold’s Rugby, with rooks cawing in immemorial elms and chestnut trees spreading their gaunt branches across gravelled paths; and there was a big grey English country house, and the smell of tea and crumpets in the Counsellor’s study.’ Freya Stark’s memoir offers a vivid account of the month-long incarceration of the ‘small Lucknow of imprisoned British’; 350 men, women and children, as well as the ambassador and his staff, crammed into the embassy compound living in dormitory-style makeshift accommodation. Overflowing with European refugees, the embassy’s ballroom was ‘like pictures of the first emigrant ships’. Each defending his or her own privacy, she wrote, we ‘vainly try to make small barricades of our boxes and belongings’. Anticipating ‘Ash Wednesday’, the famous occasion on which secret documents were burnt by the British Embassy and Middle East Command headquarters as Rommel closed on Cairo, official papers were destroyed.

Defences were improvised around the perimeter, including sandbags in case the compound was shelled or bombed. There were loopholes in the sandbag wall at the front entrance, and barbed wire connected the cypress trees to form an inner defensive ring. To create more obstacles, cars were parked on the lawn. Improvised bombs were stockpiled at various locations throughout the compound. Known as the ‘general’s bombs’, the arsenal included petrol tins of sand and beer cans filled with paraffin with cotton-wool fuses. Iraqi policemen ensured no one left the compound, and a drum-beating, war-chanting ‘mob’ sometimes gathered outside. Its efforts appear to have been rather desultory, however, the result of official encouragement and the passion of a small group of enthusiastic nationalists, rather than a reflection of a seething anti-British population. Though most of the British people affected indifference and good cheer, it was a worrying time. Stark described the ‘pathetic look of dog-like trust of Indians; gloomy look of Iraqis; imperturbable, hot, but not uncheerful looks of the British’. Attempts were made to fashion a receiving set, and activities were planned to sustain morale, such as a concert, during which the audience was ‘not allowed to applaud, fearing that the sound of it across the river might be thought of as rejoicing over the air raid’.

The inmates were cheered by RAF activity overhead. A large V was marked out on the lawn in white sheets ‘to tell the air that we are lost to news’, and Union Jacks were spread out on the roof to prevent British aircraft attacking their own embassy. With increasing regularity the throttle of ‘British bombers, black in the blue sky’, was heard. On one occasion Stark observed the ‘very beautiful sight’ of a Wellington bomber ‘slowly sailing along at about 1,000 feet, up the river from south to north, very dark against the green sky and the sleeping houses’. An aspect of the British campaign that Stark found less impressive was the propaganda material dropped by the RAF, a ‘dead sort of animation of Arabic leaflets’. Ambassador Cornwallis agreed that their tone was ‘insulting’. They had a threatening tenor that Britain’s precarious position hardly justified. Stark wrote scathingly of the ‘monstrous leaflet drop by the British Government to say they will bomb Government buildings in Iraq, so condemn all here to destruction – and of course it can’t be carried out. Why spread empty threats? HE [His Excellency] telegraphs urgently to stop violent leaflets written by ourselves.’

To replenish the embassy larder, the Iraqi guards would escort a lorry to the shops. During and after RAF raids this was impossible as the shops were shut, their owners ‘terrified by our bombing’. As stocks dwindled, rationing was introduced. Portions were ‘quite sufficient though one could easily eat every meal twice over’. A typical day’s rations might comprise, for breakfast, ‘cocoa, one sardine on bread, one bread-slice and jam. Lunch: rice, corned beef, half tomato, two small bread bibi; two prunes and half slice pineapple. Evening: fish, curry and stewed fruit: very little of each.’

A mantle of depression settled on the embassy as the realization set in that the siege might last a long time. We ‘must admit that in the map of the whole Middle East we are not so very important, but console ourselves by reflecting that our neighbourhood to Oil will prevent us from being forgotten’. Furthermore, it was not just the RAF that was active in the skies above Baghdad; on 15 May, German aircraft were spotted for the first time. The Iraqi police outside the embassy became less amiable and ‘call the inside Iraqis Ingliz and promise massacre’, inspired by the Grand Mufti’s speeches. One of the policemen guarding the compound told Stark that if she became a Muslim he would keep her himself: ‘I am sorry that their minds dwell on loot and rapine – evidently the result of the Mufti’s preaching of a holy war last night’. She worried about the embassy’s Iraqi and other non-British servants and attendants, for a death sentence had been placed upon them. There were also threats directed specifically at the women, a policeman telling Stark that he could not imagine what use ‘the harim’ about to be murdered had for so many items of cosmetics. ‘I mean to be killed, if it comes to that, with my face in proper order.’ Things were little better at the American legation nearby, to the anger of Paul Knabenshue. His mission, he wrote, had to deal with ‘a hostile gangster fifth column illegal government under the direction of Grobba, the former German Minister to Iraq’. The Iraqi police guard deployed around the American compound ‘for our protection’ had, in fact, ‘made us prisoners’.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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