1973 Yom Kippur War

The Sinai t 1400 hours on 6 October 1973 the Arabs launched a surprise two-front assault on the Israelis under the codename of Operation Badr. Egyptian and Syrian armour swept all before them and the state of Israel teetered on the very brink of collapse. It was Yom Kippur, the Jewish fast day, when Israel was least prepared for war. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), suffering staggering losses, struggled desperately to stem the tide, and then a miracle happened – the Arab Biltzkrieg was killed in its tracks.

The Egyptians had around 1,650 T-54/55 tanks plus about 100 of the more modern T- 62s; the Syrians had about 1,100 T54/55s and an unknown number of T-62s; between them they also had about 300 Second World War-vintage T-34s. As the battle progressed Iraq committed up to 250 T-54/55s and Jordan fielded about 100 Centurions. During the fighting the Soviet Union shipped in another 1,200 tanks to Egypt and Syria as battlefield replacements.

Following the 1967 Six Day War Israel had been left in control of the Egyptian Sinai desert, the Palestinian Gaza Strip, the Syrian Golan Heights and the Jordanian West Bank and East Jerusalem. The upshot was that for the first time Israel had some good natural defensive barriers to protect its borders. Six years later Egypt and Syria and their neighbours were determined to recapture this lost territory. By 1973 the Arab armies were armed to the teeth thanks to the Soviet Union, which had equipped them with T-54/62 tanks, MiG fighter jets, missiles and artillery. Holding the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian frontiers was the `Zahal’, or IDF, consisting of just 75,000 regulars and reservists.

The Israeli triumph during the Six Day War and the key role played by their armoured corps ensured its central role in post-war planning. After 1967 Israel upgraded its M48s to produce the Magach 3 and 5, followed by the M60 upgrade known as the Magach 6 and 7. Another M60 upgrade in the 1990s produced the Sabra. The Israelis captured several hundred repairable T-54s and T-55s and these were modified and reissued for Israeli use as the Ti-67 or Tiran. Similarly, captured T-62s were reissued as the T-62I.

The French-supplied AMX-13 proved to be wholly inadequate when they came up against the Egyptian T-54s and were relegated to a reconnaissance role. Likewise the Israeli M3 half-tracks, which had been in service since 1948, were now too vulnerable and were replaced by the American M113 tracked armoured personnel carrier – which the Israelis call the Zelda.

Israel’s 252nd Armoured Division, with around 280 tanks in three brigades, was deployed along the Suez Canal supported by three reserve armoured divisions. Across the canal, massing for the attack were ten Egyptian divisions supported by 1,600 tanks, all organised into two armies. The key Egyptian armoured formations were the 4th and 21st armoured divisions and the 3rd, 6th and 23rd mechanised divisions. They were supported by various foreign allied contingents, which included Algerian and Libyan armoured brigades.

General Gonen was in charge of Israel’s Southern Command, which included the 143rd, 162nd, and 252nd armoured divisions – in all, these mustered some nine armoured brigades. Once the Syrian front had been stabilised these forces were later reinforced by elements of the 146th and 440th composite divisions.

The Egyptian offensive was to take them over the canal between Kantara and Ismailia and to the south of Great Bitter and Little Bitter lakes in the Suez City area. These two separate crossings, by the Egyptian 2nd and 3rd armies respectively, divided by the two lakes immediately betrayed a fatal flaw that the Israelis would later capitalise on.

The armoured forces supporting the Egyptian 2nd Army comprised the 21st Armoured (with two tank brigades and one mechanised brigade) and the 23rd Mechanised (two mechanised brigades and one tank brigade) divisions. The armoured spearhead of the 3rd Army was the 4th Armoured and 6th Mechanised divisions, while the Egyptian GHQ had the 3rd Mechanised Division plus an independent tank brigade held in reserve.

The Egyptian assault opened with 2,000 guns firing a deluge of 100,500 shells at the Israeli defences known as the Bar-Lev Line. Then 150 MiG fighters attacked Israel’s air bases, command posts and communications centres. When the Israeli Air Force tried to intervene it was met by a barrage of Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). The Israeli Air Force lost a huge number of planes, though only fifteen were actually downed in air-to-air combat.

During the early 1970s the Egyptians and Syrians, with Soviet assistance, constructed SAM networks even more formidable than those used by North Vietnam. The Arabs also deployed the SA-6 for the first time and it was this that posed the greatest threat to the Israeli Air Force. Being fully mobile, with unknown target-acquisition radar frequencies, the Israelis were reduced to the expedient of dropping Second World War-style `chaff’ to blind it. Crucially the Israelis greatly benefited from America’s experiences in the Vietnam War. The SA-2 and SA-3, also used by the Egyptians, were relatively immobile and most of their codes had been broken. Nor did the SA-6 threat last long either.

The Egyptians’ phased attack was designed first to cross the canal, neutralise the Israeli defences on the eastern bank, establish divisional bridgeheads to meet the inevitable Israeli counter-attacks and then link up the bridgeheads. Using high-pressure hosepipes the Egyptians breached the Israeli sand berm protecting the eastern bank and threw a series of pontoon bridges over the Suez Canal. Getting across the canal was a considerable feat and there were three reasons why it was achieved: firstly, choosing Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) which was one of the holiest days for the Jews; secondly, meticulous planning; and thirdly, the Egyptians had a much more sophisticated air defence system than in 1967, which for a while at least kept the Israeli Air Force at bay.

The crossing of the Suez Canal was the first time that the Soviets got to operationally test their PMP Floating Bridge, which had been developed to tackle Europe’s wide rivers. This consisted of box-shaped pontoons carried on tracked vehicles – hydraulic arms deployed the first pontoon, a vehicle would then drive onto the pontoon and deliver a second section and so on. The PMP was able to lay the pontoons at a rate of about fifteen feet a minute, so the Egyptian engineers were able to get over the canal in just under half an hour. Using old-style Second World War pontoon bridging would have taken the Egyptians at least two hours. The net result was that Egypt’s tanks were soon rumbling over the canal at a faster rate than anticipated by Israeli intelligence. Within ten hours the Egyptians successfully deployed 500 tanks and their protective air defence system on the eastern bank. This was to be the high point of Egyptian military achievements.

The Egyptian 2nd and 3rd armies successfully swarmed across and fought off twenty-three desperate Israeli counter-attacks over the next two days. During Operation Badr the Egyptians got about 1,000 tanks over the Suez Canal; they left 330 tanks as an operational reserve behind on the west bank, while there was also a strategic reserve of another 250 tanks – though 120 of the latter were from the Presidential Guard and would only be released in the direst of emergencies.

The Egyptian `tank-hunter’ squads came over the Suez Canal lugging their RPGs and Sagger anti-tank missiles – these proved deadly to the Israeli armour. One Egyptian unit knocked out eight Israeli M60s defending the Bar-Lev line within the space of just ten minutes. Sergeant Ibrahim Abdel Monein el Masri was the most successful tank killer, accounting for twenty-six Israeli tanks, which gained him the Star of Sinai, Egypt’s highest bravery award.

To protect the `tank-hunter’ teams from air attack, the Egyptians were equipped with the man-portable SAM launcher known as the SA-7 Grail. This five-foot-long (148cm) shoulder-fired weapon provided low-altitude air defence. The Israelis, though, were already familiar with the SA-7, as the Egyptians had employed it extensively against Israeli jets during the War of Attrition following the Six Day War. Israeli countermeasures greatly hampered its already poor kill ratio. Nonetheless, combined with the Egyptian Army’s other air defence missiles, the SA-7 for a while helped stop the Israeli Air Force pressing home its attacks on the advancing Egyptian armoured columns.

The first Israeli counter-attacks by General Mendler’s 252nd Armoured Ugda or division (consisting of the 14th, 401st Reserve and 460th Reserve Armoured brigades) were easily beaten off with heavy losses, thanks to the roaming Egyptian `tank-hunter’ squads. This was also in part due to a lack of mechanised infantry support that left the Israeli armour vulnerable. By the afternoon of 7 October 1973 the 252nd had lost some 200 of its 300 tanks. Counter-attacks on 8 October were also repulsed, with further heavy losses suffered by the 167th Armoured Division near Kantara, the Chinese Farm and Fridan. The division’s three brigades were left with just 120 tanks by that night. General Sharon’s 143rd Armoured Division then suffered smaller losses attacking the Chinese Farm defences on the 9th.

The Israelis moved a reserve armoured division into Sinai on 8 October, tasking the 190th Brigade to counter-attack toward the Egyptian pontoon bridges over the canal. They ran into determined Egyptian resistance using the latest anti-tank guided weapons including the Sagger and the RPG-7. The brigade was cut to pieces. In the meantime the Israelis had defeated the Syrians by 9 October and easily fended off the supporting Iraqi and Jordanian tanks. This left the IDF free to re-deploy their tanks against the Egyptians.

By 10 October the Egyptians had 75,000 men supported by 800 tanks deployed in the Sinai. In light of the Syrian defeat on the Golan Heights both sides now prepared for the offensive. The Israelis decided to allow the Egyptians to move forward first and beyond the cover of their SAMs. The Egyptians struck on 14 October, but this was tank warfare that the Israelis excelled at: their gunners pinned down the Egyptian attackers while other forces struck the Egyptians in the flanks. By the end of the day the Egyptians had lost up to 300 tanks and the survivors were soon in full retreat. The following day the Israelis counter-attacked, crossing the canal in the Deversoir area of Great Bitter Lake and then drove back the Egyptian 2nd Army along the eastern bank.

On 15 October General Sharon, commanding three armoured and two parachute brigades, located a gap between the Egyptian 2nd and 3rd armies to the east of the Great Bitter Lake. He launched an armoured brigade in a diversionary attack against the Egyptian 2nd Army in front of Ismailia. He sent a second one in a southward loop to outflank them, with the aim of crossing the canal just north of Great Bitter Lake. This was achieved, though initially Sharon could only get forces across by pontoon ferry until bridges had been built the following day.

Disastrously for the Egyptians they had no contingency plan for the Israelis crossing the canal. They had expected the IDF to try and clear the east bank with encircling operations, not cross the canal itself. It took the Egyptians twenty-four hours to launch both the 2nd and 3rd corps into a counter-attack against the neck of the Israeli penetration just northeast of the Great Bitter Lake, in what became known as the `Battle of Chinese Farm’. The fighting raged throughout the night of 16/17 October with heavy losses on both sides. By the middle of the 17th Israeli armour was pouring over the canal, sealing the fate of those Egyptian forces on the eastern bank.

By the time of the first ceasefire the IDF had secured a foothold on the far bank of Great Bitter and Little Bitter lakes, i. e. west of the Suez Canal. At the same time the Egyptian 2nd Army held a swathe of territory east of the Suez Canal between Port Said to the north and Ismailia to the south. South of the Lower Bitter Lake and beyond Suez City the Egyptian 3rd Army held another strip. Despite the ceasefire both sides sought to improve their positions. Crucially the IDF not only enlarged their bridgehead west of the lakes but also drove south to Suez City and beyond to Adabiya on the Gulf of Suez. Despite Egyptian counter-attacks this move trapped 20,000 men of the Egyptian 3rd Army, cutting them off from drinking water, food and ammunition supplies. In the area west of the canal the Egyptians had dug in many of their elderly T-34 tanks hull-down in the sand – in the space of half a mile eighteen were destroyed in their pits by the Israeli Air Force.

Having trapped the Egyptian 3rd Army, Israel finally agreed to a ceasefire on 24 October. This left the Israelis occupying 600 square miles of Egyptian soil west of the canal, encircling the 3rd Army and holding 9,000 prisoners. The ferocity of the Yom Kippur War is reflected in the casualties. Egyptian and Syrian forces suffered 19,000 killed and 51,000 wounded. The Israelis lost 606 officers and 6,900 men. Although Yom Kippur ended in a resounding Israeli victory, the `Great Crossing’, as the Egyptians dubbed it, was a major psychological victory for the Arabs. It had shown them that they could take on the hitherto-invincible IDF and win.

The Golan Heights

Israeli defence minister Moshe Dayan was not blind to the Arabs’ military buildup, both in the Sinai and on the Golan Heights, during the early 1970s. He inspected the IDF forces on the Golan on 26 September 1973 and warned them, `Stationed along the Syrian border are hundreds of Syrian tanks and cannon within effective range, as well as an antiaircraft system of a density similar to that of the Egyptians’ along the Suez Canal.’ While Dayan put a brave face on things he also put the army on alert and quietly reinforced the single, under-strength armoured brigade on the Golan, by redeploying the normal garrison unit, the 7th Armoured Brigade, which had been drawn back to armoured HQ at Beersheba.

It has been estimated that the first wave of the Syrian assault involved up to 700 tanks: with 300 striking toward Kuneitra in the middle of the Golan and the other 400 striking up the road from Sheikh Miskin to Rafid to the south of Kuneitra; they were supported by three infantry divisions. The intention was that the northern attack would cut the IDF’s Golan defences in half by thrusting down the main Kuneitra-Naffak road. The southern attack would then link up at Naffak as well as pushing south to El Al. In principal it was a very sound plan.

The Golan was the fulcrum on which Israel’s fate rested – if the IDF could not achieve victory there then they would not have the resources to redeploy for a counter-attack against the Egyptians in the Sinai. While the latter offered strategic depth of 125 miles, in which the IDF could conduct a fighting withdrawal, the IDF faced defeat if ousted from the Golan. From the frontline of the IDF’s forward defensive positions facing east to the cliffs overlooking northern Israel the Heights are just seventeen miles deep. The IDF had no option but to stand and fight where they stood. The only advantage the IDF had on the Golan was they were masters of tank warfare and expert gunners. The question was whether the Israelis would be able to knock out the Syrian tanks fast enough to stop their positions being overrun.

Sitting on the Golan were two Israeli tank brigades, one of them only at three-quarters strength. To the north, defending the narrowest sector, was the 7th Armoured Brigade with about 100 tanks. The central and southern sectors from Kuneitra to the Benot Jacov Bridge was held by the Shoam Brigade with around seventy-five tanks. The brigade faced odds of five-to-one and in some places even as high as twelve-to-one.

After the 1967 war Israel had occupied and improved the Syrians’ existing triple defence lines that it had overrun; behind these lay sixteen fortified Jewish settlements. It would take at least thirty hours to mobilise reserves and get then up the road from Rosh Pina south-west of the Benot Jacov Bridge over the river Jordan and up the ascent to the Golan. It is not good tank country as visibility is poor. Mount Hermon is the only place that gives a clear view of the Golan and all the way to Damascus. From there the Israelis were able to watch the Syrian tanks marshalling on the plain below. Mount Hermon would soon fall to a Syrian helicopter commando assault. In the meantime the Syrian tanks were dug in to convince the IDF that they were adopting a purely defensive posture.

West of the Golan Heights Israel’s Northern Command under General Hofi was made up of the 146th armoured (9th, 19th, 20th and 70th armoured brigades) and 240th armoured (79th and 17th armoured brigades) divisions plus the 36th Mechanised Division (7th and 188th armoured brigades).

Syrian and allied armoured forces facing the Golan Heights in October 1973, on paper at least, were quite formidable looking. They consisted of the Syrian 1st and 3rd armoured divisions, each comprising two tank brigades and a mechanised brigade. In addition the 68th, 47th and 46th tank brigades supported the three Syrian infantry divisions allocated to the attack.

Arab allied units consisted of the Iraqi 3rd Armoured Division with the 6th and 12th tank brigades and the 8th Mechanised Brigade, along with the Jordanian 3rd Armoured Division; the latter fielded the 40th Armoured Brigade with the 2nd and 4th armoured regiments, the 1st Mechanised Battalion and the 7th Self-propelled Artillery Regiment, and the 92nd Armoured Brigade with the 12th and 13th armoured regiments, 3rd Mechanised Battalion and the 17th Self-propelled Artillery Regiment. Morocco also provided a mechanised brigade and Saudi Arabia a mechanised regiment.

At 1400 hours on 6 October 1973 Syria threw its armoured and infantry divisions, equipped with 1,200 tanks, into an operation that was expected to drive the Israelis from the Golan Heights in the space of just two days. To fend them off were the two Israeli brigades with 180 tanks. These units brought precious time while Israeli reinforcements were rushed to the front. What followed was a brutal slogging match as the two sides caught each other head on. Remarkably two damaged Israeli Centurions held off about 150 Syrian T-55/T-62 tanks and during a thirty-hour tank engagement knocked out over sixty tanks.

During the fighting in the `Valley of Tears’ the destruction was terrible. The Syrian 7th Division and the Assad Republican Guard lost 260 tanks, along with well over 200 BMP armoured personnel carriers, BRDM light armoured cars and bridge-layers. Of the Israelis’ 105 runners from the 7th Armoured Brigade they had just seven operational tanks. Although the Syrians broke through they lost 867 tanks to superior Israeli tactics and the timely arrival of reinforcements.

By 9 October the Israelis had triumphed against the Syrians. The Iraqi and Jordanian armour did not intervene until the second week of fighting; the Israelis broke up a counterattack by the Iraqi 3rd Armoured Division on 13 October; the latter performed fairly poorly, losing 140 tanks to the Israelis.

Three days later the 40th Armoured Brigade from the Jordanian 3rd Armoured Division ran into the Israelis and after losing twenty tanks in two days of fighting took no further part in the battle. When the fighting on the Golan finally came to the end it had cost the Syrians and their allies a total of 1,200 tanks.

The Israeli Air Force learned the hard way in 1973 that before all else they must neutralise enemy radar and SAM sites. In eighteen days of fighting the Israeli Air Force suffered, by its usual standards, appalling casualties – losing over 25 per cent of its combat aircraft, mainly to radar-guided anti-aircraft artillery rather than missiles (the Arabs accounted for 114 Israeli aircraft, of which the bulk were as a result of ground fire). For any other air force in the region this would have been crippling.

Just as importantly Egypt’s Soviet-supplied wired-guided anti-tank missiles had shown how vulnerable tanks could be to tank-hunter groups. The men of the Israeli armoured corps paid a heavy price for their victory: 1,450 tank crew were killed in the Sinai campaign with another 3,143 wounded in action. The Israelis lost some 400 tanks, though many were later repaired. This led the Israelis to develop the Blazer reactive armour system (explosive blocks fitted to the outside of their tanks) and composite armour to protect against the Arabs new anti-tank weapons.

The Israeli armoured corps lost almost 40 per cent of its southern armoured groups in the first two days of the war, which highlighted the need for vital infantry support and ultimately led to the Merkava main battle tank being fitted with a rear troop bay. One of the most glaring deficiencies of the Israeli armour was their lack of night-vision equipment (the Egyptian and Syrian tanks had infra-red, including the British made Xenon infra-red projector, giving them a serious advantage over the Israelis during the many night encounters) and after 1973 they began acquiring image-intensification and thermal imaging night-vision systems.

On the eve of the Yom Kippur war the Israelis fielded 540 M48A3 (with the upgraded 105mm gun) and M60A1 tanks. By the end of the fighting they only had around 200 still operational. This was because of severe vulnerability caused by the hydraulic fluid at the front of the turret, which proved to be a major problem while fighting the Egyptians in the Sinai. The rapid turret traverse system, if hit, tended to spray the flammable hydraulic fluid into the tank. The losses were replaced with the Magach 5 (M48A5) and Magach 6 (M60) upgraded during the 1970s.

Under the codename Operation Nickle Grass America airlifted vital military supplies to the Israelis during the bitter and desperate fighting. Key amongst these was artillery rounds and TOW and Maverick anti-tank missiles. According to the US Defence Intelligence Agency, the latter accounted for most of the Israeli tank kills. Fighter replacements, after the heavy losses to the Egyptian air defences, totalling 76 aircraft were welcome. It was this re-supply that emboldened the IDF to break through Egyptian defences on the west side of the canal. In contrast, American tank replacements were not in sufficient numbers to have any real bearing on the fighting. The airlift delivered just twenty-nine tanks, but only four arrived before the ceasefire on 22 October 1973. Another twenty-five were delivered but this was after hostilities had stopped.

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BRITAIN DEFENDS IN IRAQ

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.

With the German push eastward during Operation Barbarossa, Britain believed that Hitler’s aim, in addition to destroying the Stalin regime, was to take control of the agricultural land of the Ukraine, the oil fields located in Romania, and the Caspian (Baku, Azerbaijan) and once ensconced in the Caucasus, move south to control Iraqi and Iranian petroleum reserves. In the summer of 1941, while the Axis threat to Iraq and Syria had been significantly reduced, Rommel’s forces in North Africa continued to threaten Alexandria, Cairo, and the Suez Canal. As the Third Reich attacked with massive force in Barbarossa and drove toward the Caucasus, London believed German forces had planned on utilizing the Turkish rail network to advance from both the Balkans as well as the Caucasus.

It soon became apparent that German forces under Generalfeldmarshal Eward Kleist on the Russian front, driving toward the Caucasus, desired to link up with German forces under Rommel, should he be successful in overrunning the British in Egypt and marching into the broader Middle East. The overall strategic hope was to then move toward India and link up with a Japanese empire that was pressing westward across Asia. In the summer of 1941, after the fall of France and after Britain took a savage aerial pounding by the Luftwaffe, the attack against the Soviets brought back memories of the Russians being knocked out of World War I and the full might of the Kaiser being turned westward on Britain and France.

During the Second World War, London began referring to the “Northern Front,” which referred to a line of defense that Allied forces would take given a Soviet defeat at the hands of Germany. Such a defeat would lead to an expected surge of German troops descending into the Caucasus and threatening neutral Turkey and Iran. German leaders once again viewed the use of railways as an opportunity in circumventing British and Allied sea supremacy and allowing Berlin to rapidly project military power inland.

Thus, it became critical that the Soviet Union should be supplied sufficiently to avoid a repeat of the collapse of the Russian Empire, similar to what took place during World War I, which then allowed the Kaiser to turn his resources and attention toward the western front, in general, and toward Britain and France, in particular. In that campaign and following the Russian collapse, Germany was slowly making headway against Allied forces. The collapse of Russia immediately mobilized the United States. The presence of 1.5 million U.S. soldiers coupled with the massive influx of supplies countered the ability of Germany to place its entire focus and resources in the West. If the Soviet Union was knocked out in the current campaign, Britain feared that Germany’s ability to project force across the Eurasian continent via rail would neutralize its traditional sea advantage. The acquisition of Middle East oil and cutting Britain’s lifeline to India would be possible if the Soviets were unable to stand against the Wehrmacht. Accordingly, the Allied strategic imperative became: provide the Soviet army with sufficient resources for it to stand against Nazi Germany and open a second front in the West as soon as possible.

Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Britain and the USSR became formal allies. These developments led to a joint British-Soviet strategy toward the Caucasus and toward developing lines of supplies from the Middle East to Soviet-held territory in and around the city of Stalingrad. As a result, Iran became a focus for both of these policy imperatives. Reza Shah, ruler of Persia, changed the name to the Imperial State of Iran in 1935, in part to emphasize the Aryan heritage of the country. He did so with the undisguised desire to align Iran closer with Hitler’s Germany and its own predilection for Aryan supremacy. Iran, significantly underdeveloped as the country entered the modern era, made major strides under Reza Shah who sought to improve and modernize infrastructure and transportation networks as well as establish modern schools and colleges. In these efforts, he needed Western assistance to access technology and the learning model that made such technology possible.

However, tensions had been strained with Britain since 1931 when the Shah cancelled a key oil concession (D’Arcy), which provided the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company exclusive rights to sell Iranian oil. Understandably, since it was British capital, technology, and oil expertise that extracted and marketed the oil, Britain believed it deserved the majority share of the profits. However, the 90 percent of the profits that London kept after petroleum sales and after the transactions moved through the British banking system served as an irritant between Tehran and London. By mid-1935, the Shah was increasingly leaning toward Germany for technology and modernization.

As World War II broke out, the Shah declared neutrality but practiced intrigue with the Axis powers. On July 19, 1941, and again on August 17, London sent diplomatic notes ordering the Iranian government to expel German nationals then in Iran, numbering about 700. Unable to convince the Shah through diplomacy to distance himself from the Third Reich, British and Soviet Forces invaded the Imperial State of Iran beginning on August 25, 1941. Final diplomatic notes declaring the commencement of military operations were delivered to the Shah’s government on the night of the invasion by British and Soviet ambassadors. Those military operations (Operation Countenance) would continue until the fall of the Shah on September 1941.

On the night of the invasion, the Shah summoned both of the ambassadors from Britain and the Soviet Union and asked that if he sent the Germans home would the invasion be called off. Neither ambassador gave the Shah the clear-cut answer he sought. Frustrated and concerned, he wrote a letter to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt:

… on the basis of the declarations which Your Excellency had made several times regarding the necessity of defending principles of international justice and the right of peoples to liberty, I beg your Excellency to take efficacious and urgent humanitarian steps to put an end to these acts of aggression. This incident brings into war a neutral and pacific country which has had no other care than the safeguarding of tranquility and the reform of the country.

Roosevelt responded in a note diplomatically alluding to the dangers posed by Hitler’s ambition to all regions of the globe, including North America, and the United States being actively involved in supporting those people and nations then resisting Hitler’s military conquests.

As Germany invaded the Soviet Union in late June 1941, the apparent drive toward the oil fields in the Caucasus (Baku, Azerbaijan, in particular) and the Caspian Sea became a significant concern. Moreover, the Shah’s Imperial State of Iran completed an 800-mile railway from the Persian Gulf port of Bandar-e Shapur (now Bandar Khomeini) to the Caspian Sea port of Bandar-e Shah in 1938, toward which the Germans had provided significant assistance in terms of engineering and rolling stock. For the Allies, these harkened back memories of the drive to create a Berlin-to-Baghdad railway aimed at offsetting traditional British sea power supremacy and the creation of interior lines for the projection of land power into the Middle East.

During the joint Allied action taken against the Shah beginning on August 25, 1941, 40,000 Soviet troops descended into Iran from the North and marched on Tehran. On the same day, 19,000 British Commonwealth troops, mostly Indian brigades, and as part of Operation Countenance, entered Iran from various directions, with half moving straight for the oil fields in the vicinity of Ahwaz and airborne units moving into Abadan to protect the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s refinery, then the largest in the world. A subsidiary goal of the combined action was to open a supply line utilizing the Trans-Iranian Railway in which to resupply the Soviet army, as it defended against Operation Barbarossa.

Within four days, and as Soviet and British troops backed by airpower rolled up Iranian defenses, the Shah issued an order to his armed forces to stand down and cease military operations against the invaders. On September 17, 1941, the Shah abdicated and was eventually transported to South Africa where he passed away in Johannesburg in 1944. The Shah’s son, the Crown Prince Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, took the oath after the abdication and became the new Shah of Iran. Under a separate agreement, the Soviet Union controlled northern Iran, Caspian ports, and the Iranian-Turkish border, while Britain’s control included southern Iran, Persian Gulf ports, and the oilfields.

The United States began moving supplies to Stalin’s army under the Lend-Lease Act of 1941. In 1942, Roosevelt proposed to Churchill that the U.S. Army become involved in the supervision of the 800-mile Trans-Iranian Railway. On August 22, 1942, Churchill responded in a cable to Roosevelt:

I would recommend that the railway should be taken over, developed and operated by the United States Army; with the railroad should be included the ports of Khorramshahr and Bandar Shahpur. Your people will thus undertake the great task of opening up the Persian Gulf Corridor, which will carry primarily your supplies to Russia … We should be unable to find the resources without your help and our burden in the Middle East would be eased by the release for use elsewhere of the British units now operating the railway. The railway and ports would be managed entirely by your people.

In the fall of 1941, the Trans-Iranian Railway was only capable of transporting about 6,000 tons per month. By the fall of 1943, U.S. Army engineers and contractors had expanded the railway’s capacity to more than 175,000 tons of cargo per month. Under the direction of the U.S. Army, Iranian camel paths were expanded into highways for trucks, and the railway, which had more than 200 tunnels, was reinforced and expanded in order to haul tanks and other heavy equipment over the mountains.

Between 1942 and 1945, more than 5 million tons of desperately needed supplies, including 192,000 trucks, and thousands of aircraft, combat vehicles, tanks, weapons, ammunition, and petroleum products were delivered to the Soviet army through the Persian Corridor.

What war with Iran could look like

President Hassan Rouhani and other dignitaries attend the inauguration of Fateh, “Conqueror” in Persian, Iranian made semi-heavy submarine in the southern port of Bandar Abbas, Iran, in February. The Fateh has subsurface-to-surface missiles with a range of about 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles), capable of reaching Israel and U.S. military bases in the region. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Iran has developed a wide range of missiles, from the Shahab 1 ballistic missile, with a range of 300 kilometers, to the Soumar cruise missile with a reported range of 2,500 kilometersthat could strike targets anywhere in the Gulf, Israel, Egypt, Afghanistan, parts of southern and eastern Europe and elsewhere.

Late at night somewhere not far from the coast of Iran, U.S. sailors sleep on board ship when suddenly a dull thud reverberates through the hull and shocks them awake.

An Iranian mini-submarine or possibly a drone has wound its way through layers of defenses, struck the side of the warship and water is flooding in.

In the hours following the incident, Iranian leaders say it wasn’t an intentional attack. Some of their naval personnel went rogue.

U.S. strikes on key missile defense positions along the Iranian coast are already underway. Those strikes signal salvos for some a country away, armed and ready to hit U.S. troops in short notice.

Near dawn at a dusty outpost along the Syria-Iraq border a handful of U.S. Marines, soldiers and special operations forces are awakened to a barrage of rockets and mortar fire like they’ve never seen on this or any other recent deployment.

So far, a full-scale conflict between the U.S. and its allies and Iran and its proxies remains in the realm of wargaming at the moment. But with tensions rising between the U.S. and Iran, and as the U.S. moves more troops and military assets into the region, Pentagon planners and top U.S. intelligence officials have begun taking a closer look at what such a conflict might entail.

Iranian coastal defenses would likely render the entire Persian Gulf off limits to U.S. Navy warships. Iran’s advanced surface-to-air missile defenses would be a significant threat to U.S. pilots. And Iran’s arsenal of ballistic missiles and cruise missiles put U.S military installations across the U.S. Central Command region at risk. The cost in U.S. casualties could be high.

Beyond that, it’s unclear what victory might look like. Nobody is advocating a large-scale occupation like the one that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. And many experts caution against hoping or assuming that a massive U.S.-led military invasion will prompt Iranians to overthrow their Islamic regime and transform Iran into an American ally.

Iran’s military forces total roughly 545,000 active personnel and 350,000 reserve personnel, including about 125,000 men within the IRGC, according to the Strauss Center at the University of Texas, Austin. But while its total force strength is quite large, the quality is limited by an inability to purchase Western technology and severe economic sanctions.

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The End of Military Operations in the Gulf War 1991

Abandoned cars and trucks clog the Basra–Kuwait highway out of Kuwait City after the retreat of Iraqi forces during Operation Desert Storm. In the foreground is an Iraqi DShKM 12.7 mm anti-aircraft gun mounted on a tank turret.

The Highway of Death

Once the ground war commenced, Iraqi troops quickly decided to abandon Kuwait and retreat behind the Republican Guard screen. The US Marines’ feints had convinced them that they also faced an amphibious assault from the Gulf that would turn their flank. The Iraqis’ flight from Kuwait City began on the night of 25 February 1991, and the roads north to Basra soon became choked with massive numbers of fleeing vehicles. The next day about a thousand Iraqi vehicles on Highway 80 were destroyed by air strikes after the Muttla Pass was blocked.

The SAAF and Kuwaiti forces were almost in Kuwait City by 26 February, heralding the beginning of the end for the remains of the Iraqi Army in the KTO. The US Marines were on the outskirts, whilst XVIII Corps was in the Euphrates Valley and VII Corps was making progress against the Republican Guard. Nonetheless, units of an Iraqi armoured division decided to stand and fight in Kuwait City, perhaps with the express intention of buying time for their retreating comrades.

Liberation of the city followed a large-scale tank battle at the international airport. During the fighting the Iraqi 3rd Armoured Division (a veteran not only of the Iran–Iraq War but also the 1973 Arab–Israeli Yom Kippur War) lost over a hundred tanks. The US 1st Marine Division destroyed 310 Iraqi tanks in total across Kuwait. Iraqi defences had now all but collapsed, as it became every man for himself. The coalition victory was soon tainted by allegations that the fleeing Iraqis were needlessly massacred. Despite the media’s lurid claims of a ‘turkey shoot’, most of the vehicles on Highway 80 – the ‘highway of death’ – were abandoned. Brigadier Patrick Cordingley recalled, ‘There were not thousands of bodies, as the media claimed, but certainly hundreds; it was a reminder to all of us of the horror of war.’

Photographs of Highway 80 and the Muttla Pass showed that the bulk of the vehicles caught on the road were in fact stolen civilian cars, minibuses, pick-up trucks and tanker lorries; there was even a fire engine. The few military vehicles on the highway included several Brazilian Engesa EE-9 Cascavel armoured cars (Iraq had obtained 250 Cascavels during the 1980s, but it is not known how many were committed to the fighting in 1990–91), some army lorries and fuel trucks, and a tank transporter carrying an unidentified armoured vehicle. The most vivid and publicly damaging image was Kenneth Jarecke’s photo of the completely charred head and shoulders of an Iraqi soldier leaning through the windscreen of his burnt-out vehicle. In the public’s mind it had been a shameful massacre, rather than a defeated army receiving its just desserts.

Although the media had a field day with the horrific images from Highway 80, very few photos emerged of knocked-out Iraqi armour, and most of those examples that were depicted were old Iraqi T-55s. For example, at the end of February 1991 a T-55 was found on fire after being hit by a US 82nd Airborne Division anti-tank missile. Likewise, in early March an entrenched T-55 was shown burning behind its sand berm as a coalition lorry sped past.

British Centurion AVREs (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) of the 1st Armoured Division were sent to help clear the charred debris from the Kuwait–Basra road, and two were photographed brushing aside a lorry and a car. About two dozen of these fifty-year-old veterans were used to deal with Saddam’s anti-tank berms as Britain had nothing newer. Two were destroyed in a fire and one has since found its way into the safekeeping of the UK’s Cobbaton Combat Collection (coincidentally the collection also has a GS 1 tonne 4×4 Rover, which is believed to have seen service with an artillery unit during Desert Storm, and a Ferret Mk2/3 4×4 scout car in Gulf War markings).

In truth, there was no ‘Mother of Battles’, as Saddam had threatened. Coalition forces only fought about 35 per cent of those Iraqi troops assessed to be in-theatre. The front echelon conscripts of Saddam’s army were evidently expendable, whilst his loyal Republican Guard units largely managed to slink away with their bruised tails between their legs, to wreak more havoc in the months following the cease-fire.

What happened to Iraq’s half a million troops in the KTO? Having spent six weeks pinned down by Desert Storm’s relentless air attacks, Iraqi morale was at rock bottom and desertion rife. The western media played its part. Images of the ‘Basra Pocket’, Highway 80 and the Muttla Pass were seared into the western psyche, giving the impression that the battle for Kuwait City had all but crushed the Iraqi Army, making an honourable cease-fire an imperative. But were Saddam’s regular army and Republican Guard really as soundly defeated as the West believed, or had the Coalition been chasing shell-shocked stragglers whilst the bulk of the Iraqi forces fled north in terror?

Rather than the 540,000 men initially assessed to be in the KTO, it is now believed they actually numbered about 250,000 (about 150,000 of them inside Kuwait). It has been estimated that there were probably only 100,000–200,000 men in theatre when the ground war started. These discrepancies in the figures were due to Saddam deploying a large number of under-strength divisions to give the impression that his forces were stronger than they really were. Washington claimed there were forty-three Iraqi divisions in the KTO, though western media sources only ever identified thirty-five.

Casualties for the Coalition were remarkably light. For example, America lost 148 killed in action and some 340 wounded; in addition, there were also almost 100 non-combat fatalities. The British lost thirty-six dead (seventeen of them in combat), and forty-three wounded. Friendly fire was a major contributor to the combat losses, with as many as thirty-five US personnel killed and seventy-two wounded by their own side. Likewise, nine British personnel were killed and thirteen wounded in unfortunate friendly fire incidents.

The Basra Pocket

While the Coalition fought to free Kuwait City, up to 800 American tanks from the US VII Corps’ 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions and the 2nd Armoured Cavalry Regiment launched attacks on a Republican Guard division inside Iraq, which lost 200 tanks. They then moved forwards and engaged a second division. American Apache attack helicopters and A-10 Thunderbolt tank-busters also played a significant role. One Apache alone destroyed eight T-72s, and on 25 February two USAF A-10s destroyed twenty-three Iraqi tanks, including some T-72s, in three close air support missions.

In the envelopment the US M1A1 tanks easily outgunned the Iraqi T-72s, and in a night engagement on 25/26 February the Guards’ Tawakalna Armoured Division was largely destroyed without the loss of a single US tank. The Republican Guard, unable to stem the American armoured tide, tried to retreat, and the next morning a brigade of the Medina Division, supported by a battalion from the 14th Mechanized Division, attempted to protect the withdrawal. The Medina troops found themselves under attack from the US 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions, while the remnants of the Tawakalna were finished off by air attacks.

Caught as they were being loaded onto their tank transporters, the Medina Division’s armoured vehicles were bombed by USAF A-10s and F-16 fighters. Apache attack helicopters caught another eighty T-72 tanks still on their transporters along Route 8. Although not all the roads out of Basra were closed, the Coalition was determined that Iraqi tanks and artillery should not escape. The US VII Corps’ armour also fought the Hammurabi Republican Guard Division 80km to the west of Basra.

The US 24th Mechanized Division, having made a dramatic 150-mile drive northwards to join the US 101st Airborne Division on the Euphrates, now swung to the right to block the Iraqi escape route. The six remaining Republican Guard divisions had been trapped overnight in a swiftly diminishing area of northern Kuwait and southern Iraq, with their northward line of escape largely severed.

On 27 February the US 24th Mechanized Division attacked the Guard’s Hammurabi Armoured Division, the al-Faw and Adnan Infantry Divisions and the remnants of the Nebuchadnezzar Infantry Division. They fled, with the Nebuchadnezzar Division possibly escaping over the Hawr al-Hammar Lake causeway. The 24th Mechanized Division also captured fifty Republican Guard T-72 tanks as they were fleeing north along a main road near the Euphrates. It was all but over for the Guards.

Six disparate brigades with fewer than 30,000 troops and a few tanks were now struggling back to Basra. The Iraqis agreed to a cease-fire the following day, whilst the British 7th Armoured Brigade moved to cut the road to Basra just north of Kuwait City. However, some troops continued to escape across the Hawr al-Hammar and north from Basra along the Shatt al-Arab Waterway. Brigadier Cordingley, Commander of the 7th Armoured Brigade, noted, ‘By 28 February it was clear that General Schwarzkopf’s plan to annihilate the Republican Guard with a left hook through Iraq had failed … The majority of the Iraqi soldiers were already on their way back to Baghdad.’

Firmly in control of Iraq’s state media, Saddam had no need to acknowledge this terrible defeat, and instead victory was given as the reason for abiding by the ceasefire. Baghdad Radio announced, ‘The Mother of battles was a clear victory for Iraq … We are happy with the cessation of combat operations as this would preserve our sons’ blood and people’s safety after God made them triumphant with faith against their evil enemies.’

Only a residual Iraqi threat remained by 30 February. Two Iraqi tank brigades were south-west of Basra, another brigade with forty armoured vehicles was to the south and an infantry brigade was on either side of the Hawr al-Hammar Lake. In total, about eight armoured battalions, the remnants of those Iraqi forces deployed in and around Kuwait, were now trapped in the ‘Basra Pocket’. Basra itself lay in ruins, and marshes and wetlands to the west and east made passage impossible.

Despite the cease-fire, the US 24th Division fought elements of the Hammurabi Division again on 2 March after reports that a battalion of T-72 tanks was moving northwards towards it in an effort to escape. The Iraqi armoured column foolishly opened fire and suffered the consequences. The Americans retaliated with Apache attack helicopters and two task forces, destroying 187 armoured vehicles, 34 artillery pieces and 400 trucks. The survivors were forced back into the ‘Basra Pocket’. By this stage Iraq only had about 700 of its 4,500 tanks and 1,000 of its 2,800 APCs left in the KTO and, with organized resistance over, the Iraqis signed the cease-fire on 3 March 1991.

In the wake of Desert Sabre, only the Iraqi Army Air Corps and the Republican Guard Corps secured favour with Saddam Hussein, by swiftly crushing the revolt in the south against his regime and containing the resurgent Kurds in the north. In contrast the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Air Force had fled Desert Storm and remained under a cloud. Subsequently the IrAF found itself grounded by the Coalition’s ceasefire terms, while the army was left face to face with the barrels of the Republican Guard Corps’ remaining tanks. After a brief stand-off, the Iraqi Army opted for the status quo, but its loyalty and competence remained tarnished by its collapse and by the actions of thousands of deserters.

In 1991 the Coalition accounted for just six Iraqi helicopters (one Mi-8, one BO-105 and four unidentified) in the air and another five on the ground. General Schwarzkopf had cause to regret that they did not destroy more. During the ceasefire talks on 3 March 1991 the Iraqis requested that, in light of the damage done to their infrastructure, they be allowed to move government officials around by helicopter. Without fully realizing the consequences, Schwarzkopf agreed not to shoot down ‘any’ helicopters flying over Iraqi territory. Thus, by using his helicopter gunships Saddam was able to crush the rebellion in Iraq’s cities and the southern marshes and Kurdish advances in the north with impunity, despite his defeat in Kuwait.

In hindsight, Schwarzkopf felt that grounding Iraqi helicopters would have made little difference. In his view the Iraqi armour and artillery of the twenty-four remaining divisions, which had never entered the war zone, had a far more devastating impact on the rebels. This was a little disingenuous, for while tanks and artillery were instrumental in crushing the revolts in the predominantly Shia cities of Basra, Karbala and Najaf (the scene of Shi’ite unrest in 1977, resulting in 2,000 Shia arrests and another 200,000 being expelled to Iran), in the southern marshes the Republican Guard’s T-72 tanks could not operate off the causeways and artillery was only effective against pre-spotted targets. In fact the Iraqi Army Air Corps played a pivotal role over Iraq’s rebellious cities, the southern marches and the Kurdish mountains.

Over the cities helicopter gunships were used indiscriminately to machine gun and rocket the civilian population in order to break their morale. Although there was no evidence of the use of chemical weapons (Saddam did not want to provoke further coalition intervention so stayed his hand), on at least one occasion residential areas were reportedly sprayed with sulphuric acid. This was corroborated by French military units still in southern Iraq, who treated Iraqi refugees with severe acid burns.

Although the rebellion was mainly a spontaneous outburst by defeated and disaffected troops returning home, its religious Shia basis meant that it was ultimately doomed. America stood by, as a Shia victory would only serve radical Shia Iran, and as a result the rebels did not even receive airdrops of manportable anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles with which to fend off Saddam’s helicopters and tanks. The Iraqi military, dominated by the Sunni minority, went about their business unhindered.

After authority had been brutally reasserted in the cities, thousands fled into Iraq’s southern marshes seeking sanctuary. Here the IAAC was even more instrumental in the destruction of those forlorn forces that the West had vaguely hoped would unseat Saddam. IAAC pilots knew what lay in store for them if they failed, as General Ali Hassan al-Majid, who was commanding the operation, warned at least pilot not to return unless he had wiped out some insurgents obstructing a bridge.

The whole operation in the marshes was largely a repeat of March 1984, when Iraqi helicopter gunships mercilessly hunted Iranian troops round the two important Majnoon Island oil facilities. This time they refrained from using mustard gas or any other chemical agents, but once again the unburied dead were left to become carrion for the jackals, and those foolish enough to surrender were shot at point-blank range. The IAAC contributed to the deaths of an estimated 30,000 rebels. Additionally 3,000 Shia clerics were driven from Najaf and fled to the Iranian town of Qom.

In the north the fear of another Halabja was sufficient to scatter the Kurdish population at the first sight of an aircraft. The IrAF and IAAC once more refrained from deploying chemical weapons, but callously contented themselves with dropping flour on the refugees, who instantly panicked. Once more the Iraqi military made use of their helicopters and artillery to eject the lightly armed Kurdish guerrillas from their recent conquests.

Whilst the IAAC had continued to fly after 1991, in defiance of the cease-fire terms the IrAF resumed operational and training flights with its fixed-wing aircraft in April 1992. The IrAF claimed it was responding to the provocation of an Iranian Air Force attack on an Iranian opposition force’s base east of Baghdad. In response to these violations, and the repressive military operations, the UN imposed two separate no-fly zones in the north and south of the country.

Due to UN sanctions and financial restrictions, the Iraqi Air Force could only manage about a hundred sorties per day, down from 800 in the heyday of the Iran–Iraq War. Residual IrAF capabilities remained in the Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk areas, protecting Saddam from dissidents and the Kurds. Throughout most of the 1990s the IrAF spent much of its time dodging the northern and southern no-fly zones, though at least two fighters (a MiG-23 and a MiG-25) were lost for violating these zones.

WWII in the African Continent

Haile Selassie, Emperor of Abyssinia, with Brigadier Daniel Arthur Sandford (left) and Colonel Wingate (right) in Dambacha Fort, after it had been captured, 15 April 1941.

As in the 1914-18 conflict, the Second World War saw African colonies drawn into what was primarily a European conflict, and once again throughout the war the continent was a crucial source of men and materials for the colonial powers involved – chiefly Britain, France, and Italy. The British depended on their African territories particularly heavily, recruiting men from both west and east Africa, and coming to rely on the various colonies’ agricultural produce and industrial sectors. At the same time, Egypt was of vital importance to the success of British geopolitical strategy, owing once more to the artery that was the Suez Canal; Egyptian nationalism, accordingly, was a constant source of anxiety in London, and even while German tanks rumbled into the Western Desert along the coast road in 1942, British armored vehicles surrounded government buildings in Cairo – not to protect them, but to keep an eye on the movements within. Egyptian nationalists were resentful of the renewed British military presence, and their loyalty was wholly contingent upon events. Elsewhere, Britain could generally rely on the loyalty – or at least grudging acquiescence – of its African subjects. South Africa was the partial exception: here, according to the Statute of Westminster of 1931, there was no constitutional obligation to become involved in the war with Germany, and indeed a significant minority within the Afrikaner political establishment lobbied for neutrality, or at least non-belligerence. There was even some tacit sympathy for the tenets of Nazism. But there was in the Union enough of a sense of imperial loyalty and of the moral and cultural obligations of Dominion status to carry the day, and the government, under Smuts, secured support for a declaration of war in parliament – just. As he had during the Great War, Smuts became an important member of the Allied command, as well as a valued confidante of Churchill himself, and spent much of the war outside South Africa.

France was in a rather different position. The armistice with Germany in June 1940 placed the French African Empire in an ambiguous and dangerous position; they appeared to be at the mercy of the Germans, while Churchill himself was perfectly willing to contemplate an attack on Francophone territory if necessary. Initially, territorial governors had little choice but to offer their loyalty to Vichy; but the colonies at length declared for de Gaulle’s Free French movement, beginning with the “peripheral” territories which were followed (albeit somewhat more reluctantly) by Senegal and Algeria. In so doing they provided vital strategic and material support for the war effort, particularly in the context of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern theaters of operation. As for Italy, the only Axis power with territory in Africa, it made extensive use – as it always had – of troops recruited in Eritrea, from which it had invaded Ethiopia in 1935; from his new “East African empire,” comprising Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Italian Somaliland, Mussolini eyed Sudan and Kenya, and from Libya Italian forces invaded Egypt, an adventure which handed the British their first morale-boosting victories in late 1940. Italian aggression in east and north Africa, indeed, was short-lived: much to Hitler’s disgust, Italian armies were defeated relatively swiftly in northeast Africa, for example, in 1941-2.

For Africans, indeed – and also for African-Americans in North America and the Caribbean – the Second World War had in many ways begun in 1935 with the Italian invasion of Ethiopia from colonial Eritrea, neither the first nor the last time that that particular frontier zone would be the cause of regional instability. With the partial exception of Liberia – partial, as Liberia was in many respects an American vassal state – Ethiopia was the only African state which could in any sense be described as genuinely “independent” north or south of the Sahara; but it was now the target of Mussolini’s expansionist ambitions. It had long been one of the core aims of the Fascist state to build a “new Roman empire,” and it would spring in part from Eritrea, driven by the quest for revenge for the defeat of the Italians in the hills around Adwa by Menelik in 1896. This was a stain on Italy’s honor which it was Mussolini’s destiny to eradicate; and accordingly, through the early 1930s, he was simply looking for an excuse to unleash vengeance on the Ethiopians. Notably, he sought international support prior to 1935 by arguing that Ethiopia was an anachronism, a savage and unstable state whose sovereignty was an affront to the civilized world; it practiced slavery, and was no more worthy of international recognition than any other African people – thus its destiny must lie in Italian hands, as an Italian protectorate. Some, in London and Paris and elsewhere, were privately loath to disagree; yet Mussolini’s public language made the British and French governments uncomfortable, redolent as it was of the aggressive imperialism of an earlier era. Il Duce’s speeches seemed to belong to the 1880s, not the 1930s, and ironically it was Italian imperialism, rather more than the empire of Haile Selassie, which seemed curiously anachronistic. And, after all, Ethiopia – like it or not, and many had their doubts – was now a full sovereign member of the League of Nations.

Nonetheless, in an era when even small European states might be sacrificed for the sake of wider security, Ethiopia could expect little support from the League of Nations, and in any case Britain and France had secretly, and somewhat ignominiously, already accepted the Italian subjugation of Ethiopia. Claiming an unprovoked attack by the Ethiopians at some watering holes close to the Somali border, Italy invaded in October 1935. This would be no repeat of 1896: the disparity between Italian and Ethiopian military technology and organization was now vast, and Italian armored columns, backed by aircraft and the occasional (and illegal) use of poison gas, swept all before them. Haile Selassie’s army was much depleted, equipped with much the same weaponry as Menelik’s had been forty years earlier, and was no match for a modern European army, despite some desperate heroism. By early 1936, the Ethiopian army was all but smashed, and Mussolini’s forces entered Addis Ababa. Haile Selassie had already fled into exile, his hopes of British and French assistance dashed; besides some half-hearted sanctions, London and Paris were not prepared to alienate Italy over this relatively minor “crisis.” The emperor spoke to the General Assembly of the League in Geneva, warning that it might be Ethiopia today, but it would be Europe tomorrow; and from thence he went to England, where he would remain until much larger events over which he had no control restored him to his throne. In fact, the Italians could never really claim to be in control of Ethiopia in its entirety; guerrilla activity on the part of the “Patriots” continued for the duration of the Fascist occupation, and swathes of the country remained beyond Italian jurisdiction.

Abroad, Ethiopia became a cause celebre – liberal opinion in Britain was outraged, for example, and a dedicated group of intellectual Ethiophiles gathered around the displaced emperor in his hour of need – while within the African-American community and inside Africa itself, Ethiopia became the focus of “pan-African” protest and nascent nationalism respectively. Ethiopia, the embodiment of free and ancient “black” civilization, had long been a source of inspiration to early African nationalists and African-American political activists alike. Among the latter, it had inspired the Rastafarian movement in the Caribbean, named after Ras (“prince”) Tafari, as Haile Selassie was known prior to his accession to the imperial throne. Passionate Afro-romanticists, the Rastafarians perceived Haile Selassie as the “Lion of Judah,” of biblical genealogy – the emperor belonged to the so-called Solomonic line, claiming descent from King Solomon himself – and wove wonderful myths around this great, ancient, and “true” African civilization. Menelik’s defense (indeed affirmation) of Ethiopia’s independence during the European partition only served to underpin its status as Africa’s only “great power.” Now, the Italian invasion was regarded as an outrageous violation, a holy sacrilege, and a generation of African-Americans and African nationalists looked increasingly to Ethiopia as the symbol of their struggle against colonialism and racism, and as the ultimate source of “black pride,” or négritude.

They did not have to wait long for Ethiopia’s “liberation,” such as it was. In early 1941, Allied forces – the British using troops from west and central Africa, reinforced by French and Belgian colonial units from central and equatorial Africa – advanced into both Italian Eritrea and Ethiopia, and the Italians generally put up scant resistance, the bloody battle of Keren, northwest of Asmara in Eritrea, being a notable exception. By May 1941, Ethiopia and Eritrea had both been “liberated,” and Haile Selassie restored to power, although this was compromised somewhat by the presence of British military and political “advisors.” In Eritrea itself, the British, resource-starved and short of men, set up a tenuous administration – the British Military Administration – which relied heavily on Italian personnel to carry out the day-to-day running of the colony, now nonetheless classified as “occupied enemy territory.” In the early 1940s, indeed, it was the continued prominence of former members of the Fascist administration which so aroused Eritrean indignation, and prompted at least some Eritreans to look south to Ethiopia as the champion of their final “liberation” from foreign domination. Haile Selassie and the Amhara political establishment, as we shall see, were only too happy to fulfill the role, and within months of the Italian defeat the Ethiopians were beginning to lobby for the supposed “return” of Eritrea to the “motherland.” Other Eritreans, however, eschewed any suggestion of union with Ethiopia, and their own lobby would intensify in the years to come. The political battle would be bitter, and would soon become a violent one.

The only other theater of actual combat on the continent was along a coastal strip a few miles wide facing the Mediterranean. The Italians had invaded Egypt from Libya in the late summer of 1940, but had soon been pushed onto the defensive by a comparatively small British force which proceeded to advance into Libya itself. The situation was only transformed with the arrival of the German Afrika Korps, which – notwithstanding some further ebbing and flowing of the front line – was soon driving into Egypt, toward the Suez Canal, apparently unstoppably. Egyptian nationalists grew restless, and anti-British sentiment heightened; Cairo was tense. However when the British halted the Germans at El Alamein in October 1942, the tide turned, and Suez was safe for the British Empire – for now. In fact the threat from Egyptian nationalism was to prove rather more durable than that offered by Field Marshal Rommel. As British and Australian forces now drove the Germans back into Libya and toward Tunisia, at the other end of the Mediterranean a US army landed in Morocco and Algeria to end the uneasy political ambiguity there brought about by the Vichy arrangement. Allied forces, closing in from west and east, met in Tunisia and expelled the last Axis troops from Africa in May 1943.

African soldiers also served beyond the continent itself. Troops from the Francophone and Anglophone zones served in Italy between 1943 and 1945; and the British made extensive use of African regiments in Burma, the “forgotten war.” By the end of the war, there were over 370,000 Africans serving in the British armed forces. Many had become politically acute through their wartime experience, and had developed heightened awareness of the colonial system and the world in which it functioned. Some, professional soldiers proud of the regimental colors and “traditions,” would be demobilized and retire peacefully back into their communities; but others would have a major influence over those communities, where they might be drawn to – or even become the agents of – radical politics, and the instigators of political protest, in the postwar period. Returning war veterans had a much broader view of the world and a more informed view of Europe. As in the 1914-18 conflict, only on a much larger scale, Africans had served alongside Europeans of various classes, though their interaction with working-class whites must have been a particularly novel experience; they had killed Europeans, and seen European weakness and failure at close quarters. The myth of European supremacy – moral or otherwise – was finally exploded, and it was this shift in African perceptions of their colonial masters which was to prove of enormous and lasting significance.

Alternative WWI: Kitchener in the Middle East I

Basra: rail protection duty for India’s First World War soldiers.

Turkish Soldiers.

His calendar in the War Office in Whitehall showed that it was Friday 18 December 1914. Sifting through the papers on his desk, Horatio, Lord Kitchener, His Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State for War, noted with a grunt that today a formal British protectorate over Egypt had come into force. So, Egypt was no longer part of the Ottoman Empire, that great rotting relic of past Turkish glories still ruled from Constantinople. It was an empire that included not just Turkey itself but the whole great swathe of Arabia, stretching eastwards from the Suez Canal through Palestine and Syria, then southwards taking in the whole of Mesopotamia and the desert vastness of the Arabian peninsula, all the way to the Indian Ocean. For Kitchener, Arabia would be the next great battlefield.

The Ottoman Empire had entered the Great War because of a secret treaty signed with Germany on 2 August 1914. ‘So much for secrecy in the Levant!’ thought Kitchener. What his network of spies and contacts throughout Arabia could not find out could easily be bought for money or favours in Constantinople, or in Baghdad.2 The Ottomans had entered the war when, after a series of provocative incidents, on 28 October their navy had bombarded the Black Sea ports of Odessa, Sebastopol, and Feodosia, belonging to their old enemy Russia. The declaration of war by Russia, France, and Great Britain that had followed on 4 November had been just a formality. The Ottoman response of declaring a jihad, or holy war, against the Allies had produced singularly little reaction among their own peoples, or among the Muslim troops and peoples of the British and French empires. Instead, the British had landed the 6th (Poona) Division from India unopposed at Basra, as the start of a painfully slow advance up the river Tigris into Mesopotamia. Kitchener estimated that Major General Sir John Maxwell’s 10th and 11th Indian divisions, now fully formed in Egypt, should be enough to hold against a Turkish attack on the Suez Canal. The much greater problem was that the Ottoman entry into the war had severed the main line of supply and communications through the Black Sea between the Russian Empire and its French and British allies. The British government should have appointed him ambassador to Constantinople back in 1910 when they had the chance, Kitchener thought. He would have put an end to all this nonsense with the Germans! Now, if the Black Sea route to Russia could be reopened, he could put that right. He might even just save little Serbia, hard-pressed though it was.

The formality of the British protectorate over Egypt was of little matter to Kitchener. In reality, the British had controlled Egypt since 1882, including officering the Egyptian Army. Kitchener himself spoke Arabic, and he had passed as an Egyptian when in disguise. In 1898 he had commanded the combined British and Egyptian army that had smashed the Sudanese at Omdurman and recaptured Khartoum. His active military service went back to 1870 and the Franco-Prussian War, when he had volunteered as an ambulance corpsman with the French. He had gone on to serve in most of the Levant, including Cyprus, which he had mapped early in his career. After Omdurman, he had faced down a French attempt at Fashoda to interfere in British rule over Sudan, risking a war with France to do so. Sent to South Africa in 1899 alongside Field Marshal Lord Roberts – little ‘Bobs’ who had died of old age and pneumonia only last month visiting his beloved Indian troops in France – he had rescued the disastrous British campaign against the Boers, ending the South African War of 1899–1902 by annexing the two Boer republics to the Crown.

Kitchener was now sixty-four years old. Having achieved his last great ambition of commanding the Indian Army, in 1914 he was ending a lifetime of imperial service with the post of consul general (effectively governor) for Egypt. In Cairo, he had shared a palatial house with the commander of the Egyptian Army, Major General the Honourable Julian Byng, an aristocratic, tough, and experienced cavalryman known to all as ‘Bungo’. He was Field Marshal Earl Kitchener of Khartoum and Broome; ‘K of K’ – and to the British ‘K’ never meant anyone else, just as a century before ‘the Duke’ had only ever meant Wellington. The double ‘K’ monogram adorned the stately home that he had bought at Broome Park near Canterbury. Music hall songs were sung about him, and china plates and mugs were sold with his face on them. No British public figure was more popular, or more of an imperial legend.

Kitchener reached for the latest report from Maxwell’s headquarters in Egypt, assessing the Ottoman threat to the Suez Canal. ‘The only place from which a fleet can operate against Egypt is Alexandretta. It is a splendid natural naval base.’ The report’s author was one Lieutenant T. E. Lawrence. Always on the lookout for promising officers, Kitchener made a note of the name. Alexandretta, that was the key. The small and almost unnoticed Turkish port in the eastern Mediterranean was barely a hundred miles from Cyprus (which the British had also just annexed from the Ottoman Empire, having governed it in practice since 1878). Kitchener knew better than most just how ramshackle Ottoman rule over Arabia had become. ‘A great deal depends on the attitude of the Arab tribesmen,’ he had told Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary, on 5 December, but Baghdad, five hundred miles from Basra along the Tigris, was ‘an open city of 150,000 inhabitants – the garrison consists of a weak division of probably bad troops’. Kitchener also knew all about the men now ruling the Ottoman Empire, the ‘Young Turks’ of the 1908 palace revolution who hoped to modernise their country. They cared far more about Turkey than about Arabia, and increasingly they had come to accept that the vast expanses of desert and palm trees might not be worth keeping in the future, even if they could.

Kitchener hated politics and politicians even more than he hated the cold of the London winter. Meetings of Prime Minister H. H. Asquith’s new War Council were meant to decide strategy, but they were achieving nothing because no one could agree on a plan. Despite the high political office which he now held, Kitchener had insisted on keeping his job as consul general for Egypt, and because he was a serving field marshal he was still eligible for a military command. In July 1914 he had been in London only to receive his earldom from King George V, and had been about to take ship for Egypt again. But with war breaking out in Europe, Asquith had appealed to him to take the War Office position, which had been vacant since April after a political fiasco over Ireland which had nearly brought down the government, causing the fall of Colonel J. E. B. ‘Galloper Jack’ Seeley as Secretary of State for War, and nearly that of Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty. Asquith should have given the War Office back to Lord Haldane, the brilliant political lawyer who had created the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), the Territorial Force of part-time peacetime volunteers, and much more besides. However, in the atmosphere of August 1914, Haldane’s known admiration for – of all things – German philosophy had ruled him out. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff (the army’s professional head), Field Marshal Sir John French, had done the decent thing in also resigning. But at least on the war’s outbreak French had been given a proper job as commander of the BEF, which had been sent to the continent. Kitchener grunted again, with approval: Johnny French was a difficult man to work with, but he knew how to do his duty.

To Kitchener, Asquith’s appeal to take the War Office had been direct and simple: in their hour of trial his country and its people once more needed a hero, and he would never let them down. The problem was that, despite the all-powerful Royal Navy, the British Empire had gone to war against Germany without having an army to speak of. By continental European standards the BEF was tiny. It had been badly knocked about before playing its magnificent part in stemming the tide of the German invasion of France, and it was crying out for reinforcements. The first troops of the Territorial Force, who would ordinarily have needed months of training, were already in action alongside the BEF regulars.

Kitchener had agreed with his new Cabinet colleagues that the war would be long and hard, lasting perhaps three years. He had called for a volunteer New Army, and both Britain and its empire had answered his call. By the end of August one hundred thousand men had volunteered, and it would be half a million by the start of the New Year. The recruiting posters were everywhere, including Kitchener’s pointing finger telling the men that he ‘Wants You!’ The first of the New Army divisions – the ‘K-1’ divisions, they were calling them – would be ready to be sent overseas by spring 1915. Volunteers from Canada were arriving in Britain, and more from Australia and New Zealand were training in Egypt, under the odd name of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps or ANZAC. It was a worldwide phenomenon unprecedented in military history. Half a million men were volunteering to go to war, because K of K had summoned them to do their duty.

In October, the hard-pressed BEF had also been reinforced by four Indian Army divisions: an Indian Corps consisting of 3rd (Lahore) Division and 7th (Meerut) Division, and an Indian Cavalry Corps consisting of 1st and 2nd Indian cavalry divisions. That had been mostly because of the work before the war of General Sir Douglas Haig, now one of French’s subordinate commanders with the BEF, from back when Haig had been Chief of Staff in India a few years earlier. But putting Indian troops into a European war had been a stop-gap, and the sooner they were out of France the better. Already, over seven thousand Indian soldiers had been killed or wounded, in what one of them described ominously as ‘this cold hell across the black water to which our British Sahibs have sent us’. In Kitchener’s view, the complex balancing act that was the British Empire did not include breaking faith with its Indian soldiers by getting them killed by the Germans. Nor did it include those Indian soldiers, many of whom revered their British officers, getting too close a look at the darker realities of British society.

Although Kitchener did not admit to mistakes, he also knew that appointing General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien as Johnny French’s other subordinate commander had been an error: the two men just did not trust each other. The problem was that Sir John French was in the wrong job. His replacement as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Charles Douglas, had died from overwork in October while trying to make the New Armies a reality. Kitchener had chosen a pliable nonentity, Lieutenant General James Wolff Murray, for his successor. At least Kitchener had an old and trusted subordinate, General Sir Ian ‘Johnnie’ Hamilton, helping with recruiting at the War Office. Hamilton was also the British Army’s expert on amphibious landings, having pioneered the techniques and training before the war.

Kitchener re-read the draft of a letter he was writing to Johnny French at BEF headquarters: ‘the German lines in France may be looked on as a fortress that cannot be carried by assault and also cannot be completely invested, with the result that the lines may be held by an investing force whilst operations proceed elsewhere.’ Kitchener had seen too often what happened when under-trained and badly equipped troops were thrust into action. It would be at least two years before his New Army divisions were ready to beat the Germans on the Western Front. So before then, what was the best use of them, and of any other troops that he could find?

There was the last of the good divisions that Kitchener had formed by bringing home the regular battalions from all over the empire, the 29th Division. Winston Churchill had contributed a Royal Naval Division made up of sailors and marines, and the irrepressible Churchill would be bound to get involved in the fighting somehow. In October he had led the Royal Naval Division on a brief and unsuccessful excursion to preserve Antwerp from the Germans, and had even tried to resign from the Cabinet if only Asquith would give him command of the troops there! With a Cavalry Corps of three divisions already serving with the BEF – with old Bungo in command of the new 3rd Cavalry Division, Kitchener noted – an Indian Cavalry Corps of two divisions was not going to be of much use. The Western Front would be dominated by artillery and combat engineering for the foreseeable future. So, where would cavalry be most useful?

Kitchener thought about his days as commander-in-chief in India, when Haig as his inspector general of cavalry had introduced the new tactics and methods that he and Johnny French had pioneered in Britain. Unlike any other cavalry in the world – except for the Japanese and the Americans, and they didn’t matter – the cavalry of the British Empire were equipped with the same rifles as the infantry, and were trained to charge rapidly to capture a position and then hold it dismounted. Even more importantly, years of hard experience campaigning in the desert and the veldt meant that British Empire troopers knew how to keep the horses alive and fit for battle in the most unpromising terrain.

Generals, soldiers, sailors, plans – it was all starting to fit together. Britain did not even have one proper army, but now by a conjuring trick Kitchener would create two. What if he took command of the Indian Corps and Indian Cavalry Corps taken from the Western Front, plus the Indian and ANZAC infantry in Egypt, the Royal Naval Division, and the crack 29th Division? Against the weak Ottoman Turkish divisions spread thinly throughout Arabia that was the beginnings of a powerful force. For the time being, Kitchener’s job in Whitehall was done. The best service he could give his country now was to resign, go back to Egypt and beat the Turks, opening up the Black Sea route to Russia. Then he could return in a year or so, in triumph as so often before, to take command in the field of his New Army divisions, which by then would be well enough trained to take on the Germans, and so win the war. But it all hinged on the amphibious landings, on the cavalry, and on Alexandretta.

Alexandretta

On the very day that Kitchener was deliberating, 18 December 1914, at Alexandretta itself events were taking place that would convince Prime Minister Asquith and the War Council of the wisdom of his plan. Frightened officials in Alexandria were informed that a British warship had been sighted out to sea just to the north of the port, and had landed an armed party of sailors. The British had torn up the rail track, isolating Alexandretta from Constantinople, and derailed an arriving train. The officials, with their small military garrison and no warships, had hardly expected the Great European War to reach as far as them. The artillery pieces from Alexandretta’s obsolete fortress had been dismounted at the war’s start and sent elsewhere. The strongest Ottoman forces, the fourteen divisions of the 1st and 2nd armies, were on the European side of the Bosphorus in Thrace. They were waiting for an expected attack by Bulgaria, which had been the main enemy in the First Balkan War of 1912–13. Bulgaria had then been attacked by its own allies, Serbia and Greece, in the Second Balkan War of 1913, enabling the Ottomans to seize back Adrianople, but the threat was still there. The best quality Ottoman formation, the 5th Army, of six divisions, was guarding the southern approaches to Constantinople including the Gallipoli peninsula, in case the British or French attempted to break through the Dardanelles by sea. Constantinople’s attention was fixed on the Russian Caucasus, where the 3rd Army of eleven divisions and two cavalry divisions was launching its great offensive at Sarikamis against the Russians. This was an ambitious encirclement planned along impeccable German General Staff lines, and modelled on the recent German triumph at Tannenberg in August.

By far the weakest and least well-equipped Ottoman formation was the 4th Army under Djemel Pasha (with the German Colonel Werner von Frankenberg as his Chief of Staff). This had only XII Corps of two divisions in Mesopotamia, and VIII Corps of five divisions in Palestine and Syria, mostly facing the Sinai desert. That left only 27th Division at Damascus and 23rd Division at Aleppo. The damning postwar assessment by Paul von Hindenburg (in 1914 commander of German forces in Eastern Europe) was that ‘The protection of the Gulf of Alexandretta was entrusted to a Turkish Army which contained scarcely a single unit fit to fight.’

Kitchener’s eyes were drawn to Alexandretta because, along with its importance as a harbour, Alexandretta was also the hinge of Ottoman strategic communications by land between Turkey and Arabia, including Mesopotamia and the Levant. Alexandretta was the southern terminus of a minor branch of the incomplete main rail line from Constantinople. In 1914 the main line ran with some breaks through to Muslimie Junction, only a few miles north of Aleppo. At this critical junction the line divided, with one branch going south through Damascus and Amman, with a further branch through Jerusalem, and the other going east to the railhead at Ras-el-Ayn, the gateway to Mesopotamia, where far to the south the line joining Samarra and Baghdad had only just opened that year.

North of Alexandretta there were two critical gaps in the main rail line, totalling about twenty-five miles, through the Taurus and Amanus mountains, where the route was impassable to wheeled transport. Rather than negotiate the Amanus gap with pack animals, it was actually faster for travellers and supplies to be routed down the Alexandretta branch line. They would then strike out eastwards across the lower slopes of the Amanus range to the open plain, covering the sixty or so miles inland to Muslimie Junction across country. With all the gaps and problems of the line, and the bureaucracy of a diverse and dissolute empire, military reinforcements and supplies from Constantinople could take two months to reach Baghdad or Jerusalem. Enver Pasha, the Ottoman minister of war, confided to his German allies that ‘My only hope is that the enemy has not discovered our weakness at this critical spot.’

Enver’s hope was in vain. British war plans going back to 1906 included an attack from Egypt supported by amphibious landings at Haifa or Alexandretta, accompanied by possible support from the Arab tribes. But the British understood that the greatest Ottoman fear, other than a renewed attack from the west by Bulgaria or the other Balkan states, was that the British could use their formidable command of the sea to attack Constantinople through the Dardanelles narrows. British plans before the war had considered a landing on the Gallipoli peninsula to force a passage through the Dardanelles narrows and on to Constantinople, but only as part of a much larger campaign involving several fronts. Even at worst for the British, a landing at Gallipoli would provoke a strong Ottoman response, tying down more of their best troops.

The first British warship to appear off the coast at Alexandretta – the appearance on 18 December that so panicked the town’s officials – was the light cruiser HMS Doris, one of a small naval flotilla with seaplanes based in Egypt and sent out from Alexandria to gather intelligence on the Ottoman dispositions. Next day, the Doris landed another shore party which drove in a Turkish patrol, blew up a railway bridge, wrecked a railway station, and cut the telegraph wires. The ship’s captain also sent an ultimatum, backed by the threat of a naval bombardment from the Doris’s 6-in guns against which Alexandretta had no defence, that its officials should surrender all warlike stores and engines.

War Plans and Strategies 1914: The Alexandretta Scenario Part I: Strategic Origins of the Idea

Alternative WWI: Kitchener in the Middle East II

Kitchener with General Birdwood at Anzac, November 1915

The Ottoman officials’ surprising response was to offer to destroy the two locomotives lying within the port’s radius, if the British would oblige them with the explosives and demolition experts to do so. On disembarkation of the British shore party with its gun-cotton, the torpedo-lieutenant in charge found himself faced with prevarication. ‘While they were delighted to comply, their honour and that of the Ottoman Empire meant that they could not be seen to collaborate with the enemy,’ the lieutenant told his shipmate E. V. Kinross. So, the officials argued, the lieutenant must not place the charges himself, and since no one else was trained or competent to do so, the thing could not be done. ‘I began to feel’, the lieutenant complained, ‘that they might not be entirely sincere.’ After several hours’ negotiation, the solution was found: for that one day the lieutenant must be formally transferred to the Ottoman Navy. This accomplished, Turkish cavalry rounded up the locomotives and brought them into Alexandretta, where the British party duly destroyed them, after which the Doris sailed away.

In London, this almost incredible story was repeated as proof that the Ottoman Empire was on the verge of collapse. As the New Year began, the War Council discussed many plans for the future, and Alexandretta kept appearing as an option, particularly favoured by Churchill. On 2 January there came an appeal from the Russian government for the British to make a military demonstration of some kind against the Turks. This was the last element for Kitchener to make his plan a reality. He spoke first to the king, as was his right as a field marshal, then went to BEF headquarters and talked the matter through with French and his subordinates. Only then did he speak to Asquith, followed by Churchill.

On Wednesday 13 January, Kitchener presented his plan to the War Council. Any public concerns over his giving up the War Office would be met by returning French to his old post of Chief of the Imperial General Staff; Colonel Seeley, who had been acting as a staff officer at BEF headquarters, could also return to be Secretary of State for War. Haldane would be the real power, with Seeley as the figurehead, something to which Seeley loyally agreed as long as he could take the outward credit. Douglas Haig would take over command of the BEF, which Kitchener knew he badly wanted, and in return Kitchener wanted Smith-Dorrien and Byng together with Hamilton for Egypt. Kitchener also wanted the Indian Corps and Indian Cavalry Corps, along with the 29th Division, the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division which had already been marked for Egypt, and the Royal Naval Division. They could all reach Alexandria or Cyprus in under two months’ time if the government requisitioned as troopships four big ocean liners waiting idle in British ports for want of passengers because of the risks of an Atlantic crossing in wartime: the RMS Olympic and the sister ships RMS Mauritania, RMS Aquitania, and RMS Lusitania. Supported by a substantial Royal Navy presence, led by the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth, the pre-dreadnoughts HMS Agamemnon and HMS Lord Nelson, and the battlecruiser HMS Inflexible, with these troops Kitchener would make his first landing at Gallipoli, followed by a second landing at Alexandretta. This would leave the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow weakened against the potential threat of the German High Seas Fleet. But Churchill was not only confident that the Royal Navy could cope, but volunteered himself to go out to Egypt as the senior government representative and Kitchener’s political adviser.

There was one remaining major obstacle for Kitchener to overcome: the French. In 1912, as part of the Entente Cordiale agreements, Britain had accepted that Alexandretta and the whole of Syria were a French sphere of influence. The French were utterly opposed to any British military action that might jeopardise this agreement. On 22 January a high-ranking diplomat, François Georges-Picot, a former consul in Beirut and ardent champion of Syrian independence under French tutelage, came to London to insist that Alexandretta would be French, not British. With him was Alexandre Millerand, the French minister for war, with a further demand that all British troops should be sent to France and nowhere else. The attitude of the French commander-in-chief General Joseph Joffre was that of course British soldiers were useless when compared to his own magnificent troops, but nevertheless France demanded from the British government as many of them as possible, and quickly. As with the Royal Navy facing the High Seas Fleet, there was a real chance that weakening the BEF on the Western Front could present the Germans with the opportunity for a successful attack. But Kitchener, with both Asquith and Churchill behind him, was not to be stopped. Millerand and Joffre huffed and puffed, but at last accepted the situation. Georges-Picot’s deep suspicions were partly allayed by the undertaking that, when captured, Alexandretta would be placed under French control. To protect their own interests, and to keep an eye on the British so that there should be no misunderstanding between allies, the French agreed to provide for the venture a corps of two infantry divisions, the Corps Expéditionnaire d’Orient or CEO, together with a substantial fleet of transports and warships, including some pre-dreadnoughts.

From Gallipoli to Aleppo

The timing of the War Council’s agreement on Kitchener’s plan on 13 January could not have been better. Within days, news had reached London that the ambitious Ottoman 3rd Army envelopment of the Russians at Sarakamis had fallen apart in the winter snows and been heavily defeated. On 4 February an attack by the Ottoman VIII Corps on the Suez Canal line was also crushingly defeated by 10th and 11th Indian divisions and fell back through the Sinai to Gaza. This episode convinced Kitchener that the Suez Canal was safe, and that he could use his troops gathering in Egypt for the planned landings, starting with Gallipoli. On 18 February the combined British and French fleet began a bombardment of the Turkish forts on the Gallipoli peninsula, in the expectation that this would reinforce the Ottoman perception that the Allies planned to force their way through the Dardanelles.

While Kitchener with Churchill’s help gathered his forces at Alexandria, Sir John French in Whitehall made sure that all ran smoothly, with Haldane’s help behind the scenes. Asquith’s government confidently rejected in March a Russian demand that Constantinople should be handed over to them when it was captured. Asquith also had confidence in Haig as the new BEF commander. Lacking the Indian Corps, Haig cancelled a proposed attack by the BEF at Neuve Chapelle in support of a French attack on Vimy Ridge. Well known for his stubbornness, Haig was adamant that no British attack would take place against the Germans until his arriving Territorial Force and New Army divisions were quite ready, probably in the early autumn.

Joffre was furious once more, although slightly mollified when on 22 April the expected German counterattack came at Ypres, including the first large-scale use of poison gas on the Western Front. A much stronger and better-prepared BEF helped the French inflict a severe defeat on the Germans, driving them back as far as the otherwise unimportant village of Passchendaele. On the same day, Russian forces captured the key town of Przemysl from the Austro-Hungarians on the Eastern Front, and began a major offensive in the Caucasus. In Mesopotamia, in the ‘miracle of Shaiba’, the 6th (Poona) Division, now under the newly arrived Lieutenant General Sir John Nixon, shattered a counterattack by the Turkish 35th Division aimed at driving them back into the sea. Everything seemed to be swinging the Allies’ way.

Meanwhile, on the docks and in the harbour of Alexandria, all was chaos as Kitchener and his staffs worked to prepare their landing forces. With the naval bombardment of the Gallipoli forts already in progress, Hamilton was alarmed to find crates and boxes stencilled ‘Constantinople Expeditionary Force’. Kitchener let the blunder stand; knowing that he could not keep the presence of his forces secret, he chose the other option by intentionally letting the Turks and the whole world know where he would attack and why. Across the southern Mediterranean and the Levant, and as far away as India and South Africa, the call went out that K of K needed ships and craft of all descriptions to come to Alexandria, to sail under the protection of the Royal Navy, and to be paid in gold. ‘Kitchener from the Mediterranean and Egypt,’ Haig commented with rueful admiration, ‘Wherever he is, by his masterful action he will give that sphere of operations undue prominence in the strategical picture.’

On Sunday 25 April, with both Kitchener and Hamilton watching from warships, Smith-Dorrien led the landing boats of the Constantinople Expeditionary Force ashore at Gallipoli into a lethal hail of well-prepared Turkish fire. The 29th Division landed at the southern tip of the Gallipoli peninsula on designated beaches that were barely more than cliff-faces, the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers famously winning ‘six VCs before breakfast’ in the face of murderous fire. ‘The trenches on the right raked us and those above us raked our right,’ recalled one officer of the battalion, ‘while trenches and machine guns fired straight down the valley. The noise was ghastly and the sights horrible.’

Meanwhile, the Royal Naval Division made a brief diversionary landing to the north before re-embarking and joining in the real landings. Between this and the 29th Division beaches, the ANZAC divisions landed at what later became equally legendary as ‘Anzac Cove’. The French 1st Division of the CEO landed on the mainland to the east of the Dardanelles narrows. In a matter of hours, in the gullies and crags of the peninsula, the entire landing force had been pinned down only a few miles inland by a brave and resolute Turkish defence. It was grim war, but the continuing threat to Constantinople was enough for Kitchener for now, holding the Ottoman 5th Army in its place; the British had never intended this to be anything more than part of a larger strategy. There had been hopes that Gallipoli by itself would be enough to prompt intervention by other countries, but as Hamilton – who had exhorted the Australians to ‘Dig, dig, dig until you are safe!’ – noted with disgust in his diary, ‘The landing has been made but the Balkans fold their arms, the Italians show no interest, the Russians do not move an inch to get across the Black Sea.’

Leaving Smith-Dorrien to manage the fight at Gallipoli, Kitchener and Hamilton returned to Egypt to ready the first wave of the Alexandretta Expeditionary Force (AEF). This now consisted of the two divisions of the Indian Corps, the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division, and the 2nd Division of the CEO, plus the 2nd Mounted Division from the Territorial Force, renamed the Yeomanry Division on its arrival in Cyprus. For the Allies, the strategic timing was now critical, including the few weeks remaining before the onset of the blistering heat of the full Arabian summer.

To emphasise the fragility of the brief Allied advantage, at the start of May a great German offensive at Gorlice-Tarnow drove the Russians back on the Eastern Front. But against the Ottoman Empire the story was different. The Russians scored a further success in the Caucasus, while Nixon resumed his advance up the Tigris, forcing the two weak Turkish divisions back. On 19 May a substantial Ottoman counterattack at Gallipoli, meant to sweep Smith-Dorrien’s troops off the peninsula, was heavily defeated. Italy, more impressed than Hamilton realised, had signed a secret treaty to enter the war on the Allied side at the end of the month.

On Friday 14 May the War Council met and gave formal approval to the second phase of Kitchener’s strategy, including the dispatch by the ocean liner fleet of six further infantry divisions, three of the Territorial Force and three of the New Army. In fact sending these divisions was a bluff: they were still very raw, badly under-equipped, and would be unfit for combat for some months. But what leaked to the Turks was the dispatch of a powerful British strategic reserve assembling at Alexandria, threatening to reinforce either Maxwell or Smith-Dorrien. The result was to pin both 5th Army at Gallipoli and VIII Corps facing the Sinai in place. By now, rumours of Kitchener’s intentions were flying around London. The chief military correspondent of The Times noted privately, ‘I hear of mad schemes for him joining Nixon via Damascus and plunging into the centre of Asia Minor.’

The Times’s information was almost correct. On Sunday 23 May, the very day that Italy entered the war on the Allied side, troops of the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division rowed ashore to start an unopposed landing just north of Alexandretta. A delighted Churchill pointed out to all he could that it was also the anniversary of his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough’s victory at the Battle of Ramilies. The local authorities promptly surrendered to the British, who equally promptly handed the town except for its port facilities over to the French under Georges-Picot.

Three days later Maxwell’s 10th and 11th Indian divisions arrived to threaten Gaza unexpectedly from across the Sinai, and started to shell the Turkish positions. In Mesopotamia the Turkish XII Corps was already retreating before the 6th (Poona) Division, which reached Amara on 3 June. With their 3rd Army barely holding the Russians in the Caucasus, their 5th Army defending Gallipoli, and their 1st and 2nd armies facing an increasingly hostile and confident Bulgaria and Greece, there was no military response that the Ottomans could make. The 27th Division at Damascus was rushed north by rail to help the 23rd Division defend Aleppo. But it was more than two weeks after the first British landings that both divisions started a tentative advance towards Alexandretta. They found a well-prepared defence by the Indian Corps and 2nd Division of the CEO, dug in along the lower ridges of the Amanus mountain range that protected Alexandretta to the east, their fire augmented by artillery and offshore naval gunfire, including the 15-in guns of HMS Queen Elizabeth. The Battle of Alexandretta, fought on Friday 18 June (the anniversary of Waterloo, as Churchill politely explained to Georges-Picot in his terrible French) was a one-sided massacre.

The Ottoman defeat acted as a signal to the Arab leaders, with whom Kitchener had kept in close contact. Across the peninsula a major revolt began, with Bedouin horsemen raiding out of the desert, hitting supply routes and the rail lines from Aqaba to Amman, and from Samarra to Baghdad. Meanwhile, at Alexandretta harbour and across the nearby beaches, the frantic unloading of the second wave of the AEF continued, using anything that could float and carry horses and men.

None too soon, by 28 June, what was now named the Desert Mounted Corps under Major General Julian Byng was ready to begin its advance: the 1st and 2nd Indian cavalry divisions, the ANZAC Mounted Division, the Yeomanry Division, and the composite 1st Spahi Regiment as a token French contribution. Byng had forty thousand horsemen with just over sixty miles to cover, against the few reserves that the Ottoman VIII Corps could assemble, between them and Aleppo. ‘A remarkable sight,’ enthused one British regimental commander, ‘ninety-four squadrons, all hurrying forward relentlessly on a decisive mission – a mission of which all cavalry soldiers have dreamed.’

It was a wild ride, in which the cavalry’s horses far outdistanced their artillery and supply vehicles. The Australians were particularly impressed by the Indian lancers’ method of ‘harpooning’ enemy infantry with a single thrust as they rode past. Although some Ottoman battalions or batteries put up a brief resistance, most broke and ran. On 1 July, the first Indian troopers clattered through the streets of Aleppo, and within two days Byng’s soldiers were holding the town and its environs in a solid dismounted perimeter, with the Australians and New Zealanders sitting on Muslimie Junction. A week later, to the astonishment of the tiny local garrison, the Yeomanry Division, who had followed the rail line eastwards, arrived at Ras-el-Ayn. When next morning, Friday 9 July, Kitchener entered Aleppo in triumph, Arabia was lost to the Ottoman Empire forever.

Hamilton’s already great admiration for Kitchener overflowed at this astonishing feat of arms. ‘He is the idol of England, and take him all in all, the biggest figure in the world,’ he wrote. Hindenburg added his own praise for Kitchener’s identification of ‘this critical weakness at the Gulf of Alexandretta’, adding that, ‘If ever there was a prospect of a brilliant strategic feat, it was here,’ in a campaign that ‘made an enormous impression on the whole world, and unquestionably [had] a far-reaching effect on our Turkish Ally’.

Kitchener’s victory certainly helped the Allied cause with Bulgaria, Greece, and other neutral Balkan countries that were wavering in their choice of sides, and did much to hearten hard-pressed Serbia. But in truth, with the fall of Aleppo, Kitchener’s campaign had shot its bolt. The same mountains and ramshackle rail system that prevented the Turks reinforcing Arabia also posed massive difficulties for any proposed Allied offensive northwards, while neither the British nor the French had any interest in dismembering Turkey itself. The Anglo-French landing at Gallipoli could achieve nothing without other countries joining in, and was a strategic dead end.

The critical issue now was whether the Turkish government, facing the strong possibility of an imminent attack by Bulgaria and Greece as well as Russia, would decide to cut its losses while it still could. Any peace with the Allies would mean the Ottoman Empire accepting the loss of Arabia, and the opening of the Black Sea route to Russia, allowing the British and French to concentrate their forces within Europe, against Germany and Austria- Hungary. The world now well knows the decisions taken in Constantinople in June 1915, and their consequences down to the present day.

The Reality

This account follows the informal rules and conventions of accurate counterfactual history as developed since just after the First World War, and which I have helped codify. The modern name for Alexandretta is Iskenderun, lying in Turkey close to the Syrian border.

Quotations from real people are all genuine, including the views of Kitchener, T. E. Lawrence (‘of Arabia’), Haig, and Hamilton, although in some cases the dates and the context have been changed. The assessments of the vulnerability of Alexandretta from Enver Pasha and Hindenburg appear in Hindenburg’s postwar memoirs. François Georges-Picot was the leading French opponent of British involvement in Alexandretta and Syria, although he did not accompany Millerand to London on 22 January; he was later one of the authors of the Sykes-Picot Agreement on the future of Arabia. Of others mentioned in passing or in the end-notes, Francis Aylmer (‘Frank’) Maxwell, nicknamed ‘The Brat’, was a prominent ADC to Kitchener earlier in his career, but by the First World War he had moved on and held various field commands, being killed in action as a brigadier general in 1917. Colonel J. E. B. ‘Galloper Jack’ Seeley, Secretary of State for War 1912–14, was a highly controversial figure, but it is likely that he would have agreed to serve again as a figurehead for Haldane. In reality, after serving at BEF headquarters he commanded the Canadian cavalry brigade on the Western Front 1915–18. Sidney Reilly (not his real name) was a legendary British spy of the period, but had no direct connection to Kitchener or to the Ottoman Empire. Captain E. V. Kinross and HMS Torrin are famously fictional.

A British landing at Alexandretta was debated and rejected in London over the winter of 1914–15 because of strong French political opposition, the risks to the Western Front and the Grand Fleet as described, and the shortage of available trained troops. The idea remained a British strategic option up to the end of the war. Real events up to early 1915 took place as described, including the comic-opera raid on Alexandretta by HMS Doris. But Kitchener gave up his position as consul general in Egypt in January 1915, and the various command changes described, which would have greatly improved the British management of the war, are fiction.

The War Council of 13 January 1915 approved a purely naval bombardment of the Dardanelles forts, so starting the real and disastrous Dardanelles campaign. The naval bombardment began on 18 February and the Gallipoli landings, commanded by Ian Hamilton, began on 25 April. The Lusitania was sunk on 7 May while making a commercial passenger crossing of the Atlantic, but the other liners mentioned were all used as troopships to help transport the raw British reinforcement divisions to Gallipoli between June and August. The British made a number of premature and unsuccessful attacks on the Western Front in 1915, starting with Neuve Chapelle on 10 March. Kitchener died when the armoured cruiser HMS Hampshire, on which he was travelling to Russia, sank in the North Atlantic on 5 June 1916.

What was briefly known as the Constantinople Expeditionary Force was rapidly renamed the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, or MEF, otherwise its forces for the historical landing at Gallipoli are given correctly. The forces potentially available to create the Alexandretta Expeditionary Force are also historically accurate. The Indian Corps remained on the Western Front until late 1915, and the Indian Cavalry Corps remained there until early 1918, when its troops were sent to Egypt to join the real Desert Mounted Corps. The composite French 1st Spahi Regiment was also attached to the Desert Mounted Corps in 1918, for political reasons.

What actual decision the government in Constantinople would have taken in June 1915, faced with this fictional scenario, is anyone’s to guess.

Why the Bolsheviks’ Enemies Lost

Soldiers of the Don Army in 1919; a White infantry division in March 1920; soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Army; Leon Trotsky in 1918; hanging of workers in Yekaterinoslav (Dnipro) by the Austro-Hungarian Army, April 1918.

The Bolsheviks’ victory in the Russian Civil War, was also made possible by the weakness of their enemies. The parties of the Right had never commanded many followers, and the centre-right Kadet party was hardly in a better state. The educated minority who opposed the revolution became more and more aware of their isolation as time went by. Gorn, an official active in the Baltic, was probably typical:

It would be a mistake to think that Bolshevism was an alien element in Russia. Multi-million illiterate Russia nurtured it, she bore it and belched it forth from inside herself. The Russian intelligentsia was the thinnest film on the surface of the Russian muzhik [peasant] ocean.

G. K. Gins wrote something similar after the disaster of the Siberian Whites:

Our culture was a frail boat in the midst of a raging sea but we, the representatives of the intelligentsia, argued among ourselves on the boat and did not notice the elemental force coming at us. The ocean swallowed the boat, and us with it.

Paradoxically, the moderate agrarian socialists who tried to swim in the ‘muzhik ocean’ also drowned. This was partly a failure of will and organization, but it also came from a kind of peasant passivity, a passivity that was a key to the outcome of the Civil War. The secret Soviet Tambov report is useful here too. Even the kulaks, it noted,

the most cultured, the most politically developed stratum . . . do not, in general, show any capacity for raising their sights to thinking in terms of the state as a whole; their economic [mental outlook] has not carried them . . . very far beyond the outskirts of their villages or rural districts . . . without the guidance of the parties of the industrial bourgeoisie this movement can lead only to anarchical rioting and to bandit destruction.

The SRs were never able to mobilize peasant support, to defend the Constituent Assembly, to oppose the ‘commissarocracy,’ or to counter the pressure of the White generals.

Given the weakness of the anti-Bolshevik civilians, it is not surprising that the soldiers took over. They alone had effective force. ‘Kto palku vzial, tot i kapral,’ ‘He who has the stick is the corporal,’ summed up the power relationships in anti-Bolshevik Russia.

The Whites are sometimes said to have lost because petty rivalries blocked a common military strategy. It is true that their attacks were not coordinated, but this could not have been avoided. The difficulties of communication were immense. The four White fronts – south Russia, western Siberia, north Russia, the Baltic – were all far distant from one another; the two main fronts, Denikin’s and Kolchak’s, were separated by a 10,500-mile voyage around the Middle East and Asia, and then a 4000-mile rail trip across Siberia. The fate of General Grishin-Almazov, captured and executed while trying to take the ‘short’ route to Omsk across the Caspian Sea, showed the danger. Denikin and Kolchak never met one another and could not have done so during the Civil War. The various White armies simply launched their attacks as soon as they were ready. There were sound reasons for this. With each month the Red army became larger. The Allies would only give support if there were successful White advances. Civil War armies did better on the offensive. The one serious mistake of grand strategy was the failure of the Siberian and South Russian armies to link up – either in the summer of 1918 or the summer of 1919, and at the time there seemed good reasons for advancing in other directions. The failure of the Poles to march in 1919 was also critical, although this was outside White control.

The anti-Bolshevik democrats had a popular programme but few military resources. The White generals and colonels had better armies but made few promises to the population of their base territories and of the large captured regions. This was partly because the Whites’ social foundation was the property-owning minority (the tsenzovoe society). But it also came from their very dislike of politics. The White leaders were narrow conservative nationalists. Sakharov, one of Kolchak’s generals, summed up the White outlook in his 1919 appeal to the Urals population: ‘Our party is Holy Russia, our class is the whole Russian people.’ The Whites ignored parties and classes; they thought, moreover, in terms not of revolution or even of civil war, but of the likholet’e or smuta (time of troubles); the great smuta dated from the early 1600s. Denikin entitled his massive memoirs Sketches of the Russian Time of Troubles. One anti-Bolshevik Cossack politican, defending demands for autonomy against the disapproval of the White generals, had to insist, ‘This is not a smuta but a popular movement.’ But the Whites were even afraid of a popular movement.

The Whites feared the people; paradoxically, they counted on some vague popular upsurge to bring them victory. Sakharov again, talking about the late autumn of 1919, was typical. If the rear would give his poorly equipped army some support he would pursue the Reds back beyond the Urals.

And then the road to Moscow would be clear, then the whole people would come over to us and stand openly under the Admiral’s banner. The Bolsheviks and the other socialist filth would be destroyed – from the roots up – by the burning rage of the popular masses.

But the Whites, unlike the Reds, made little effort to mobilize the population in a political way, and their social and political programme was not one that bred spontaneous popular support. Sakharov proudly wrote that ‘the White movement was in essence the first manifestation of fascism’ (he was writing in Munich, nine months after Mussolini’s March on Rome). But this was distorted hindsight; the Whites lacked the mobilization skills and relatively wide social base of the Italian or German radical Right.

Linked to narrow political horizons was another vital drawback of White rule: arbitrary conduct by White authorities and a general lack of order. The source of this was the crude nature of White ‘politics’ and the lack of vital resources; civilian administrators, an enthusiastic population, and time. The Whites also failed properly to organize their armies. This may seem odd, given that the movement was dominated by military officers. But they actually lacked properly trained military specialists, especially in Siberia. The Cossacks gave them a major advantage in south Russia, but the Cossacks were jealous of their own autonomy and fought best within their ‘host territories.’ The Whites had only a small base of manpower and material compared to Sovdepia. And, as was the case with general administration, they had less time than the Reds to organize their forces.

The Whites, as Great Russian nationalists, were also opposed to any concessions to the minorities. They had no tolerance for ‘the sweet poisonous dreams of complete independence’ (Denikin’s words) of people such as the Ukrainians, the Belorussians, the Baltic and Transcaucasian minorities. Denikin was right when he said that his officers, Russian nationalists, would not have fought for the ‘Federated Republic.’ Although the Whites were prepared to accept some form of independence for Poland and possibility for Finland, they could not agree to all the territorial claims of the Warsaw and Helsinki governments. Polish action on the western border in 1919 might have made possible the capture of Moscow, while Finnish support would certainly have made Red Petrograd indefensible.

The Whites had little chance of winning. Certainly by 1920 Vrangel could only have won if there had been a catastrophic internal collapse on the Soviet side. But even Kolchak and Denikin faced, from the winter of 1918–1919, a struggle against great odds. The Bolsheviks had had a year to consolidate their position, they controlled most of the military resources of old Russia, they had more popular support, and their forces outnumbered those of the Whites by ten to one.

The ‘Russian’ Civil War was a three-cornered struggle. Russian revolutionaries fought Russian counterrevolutionaries, but the national minorities resisted both. The Civil War was about what would become of all the peoples of the Empire. (And it was an internal affair; the only fighting outside the old Empire was the 1920 Lvov campaign – in what had been Austrian Galicia – and the 1921 Mongolian expedition.) Those regions that broke away were among the ‘winners’ of the Civil War. They succeeded for various reasons. Finland and Poland won their own independence. Bessarabia, five Belorussian–Ukrainian provinces, and Kars Province had the pull of neighbouring states (Rumania, Poland, and Turkey). Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were helped by German and Allied forces. All benefited from the Red Army’s preoccupation with other fronts. But more than 80 per cent of the former subjects of the Tsar became citizens of the Soviet federation. Half of these people were not Great Russians. The multinational Russian Empire, the famous ‘prison of peoples,’ did not break up, a remarkable development in an age of nationalism.

Demographic, geographical, and cultural factors were involved. The Great Russians outnumbered each individual minority by fifteen to one or more (except in the case of the Ukrainians). Alliances that might have countered this – the Transcaucasian Federation, the cossacks and their southeastern allies, the Poles with the Ukrainians and Belorussians, Pan-Turkism – remained only theoretical projects. The central provinces, the Sovdepia heartland, were Russian-dominated. Even in the minority areas Russians often controlled the towns and transport. The trained military leaders were Russian, and the nature of Tsarism predetermined the minorities’ weakness, just as it predetermined the weakness of Russian political parties. The Petersburg-centreed Romanov autocracy had allowed little political or national activity. Even in areas where the minorities came to see themselves as distinct nations – and 1917 was a great awakener – they lacked the experience and the time to create an effective administration.

Bolshevik Moscow’s social revolution attracted the intelligentsia, workers, and peasants of the outlying regions. Bolshevik national policy, too, seemed better than the ‘Russia, One and Indivisible’ of the Whites, for whom cooperation with the ‘separatists’ was ruled out from the start. It is hard to understand Richard Pipes’s view that the Bolsheviks were ‘the least qualified of all the Russian parties (save for those of the extreme right) to solve the national problem.’ The Cossack politician who spoke of ‘Trotsky’s dreams of a Sovdepia, one, great, and indivisible’ was making a crude oversimplification. Bolshevik policy rejected Russian chauvinism, and the most enthusiastic ‘internationalists’ were reined in; the Bolsheviks granted self-government, however imperfect, to a number of peoples, and to the Ukraine, Belorussia, and other regions they even granted a form of independence. Moscow allowed wide cultural autonomy and encouraged a national awakening that would cause problems for itself in the 1920s. And it combined this with the maintenance of centralized institutions such as the party and the army and with the unifying idea of social revolution. This was just the right – possibly the only – formula for holding multinational ‘Russia’ together.

It was important that the Russian Bolsheviks had strong motives for holding the Empire together. Their leaders saw the nationalists as just a form of bourgeois rule. Their spetsy military commanders had simpler nationalist motives. For both, the defeat of ‘Russian’ counterrevolutionaries and Allied intervention demanded an advance into the borderlands. And there were broad continuities. Denikin put it as follows:

The state link of Russia with her borderlands was preordained by history, economics, markets, the railway system, the need for defendable frontiers, the psychology of Russian society, and the whole totality of the cultural-economic development of both sides and of mutual interests. The link would be restored, sooner or later, voluntarily – by treaty – or through compulsion – economic (tariff) war or an army offensive. And that would have been done by any Russia – ‘Red,’ ‘Pink,’ ‘White,’ or ‘Black’ – which did not want to suffocate inside the limits of those artificial boundaries which the World War and internal chaos had confined her to.

The link was something that the newly conscious, newly organized minorities could not tear apart.

Defeated with the Whites was foreign intervention. Bolshevik Civil War propaganda stressed Allied intervention, and later Soviet historians, following Stalin, reduced the Civil War to three ‘Entente Campaigns.’ An imperialist conspiracy fitted in with the Bolshevik world outlook; a foreign threat mobilized nationalist feeling; and the ‘Entente cannibals’ (Stalin’s phrase) gave a reason why the Civil War lasted so long. But Lenin had predicted on the eve of October 1917 that the Allies would not be a serious problem: ‘a combination of English, Japanese, and American imperialism against us is extremely difficult to realize, and is not at all dangerous to us, if only because of Russia’s geographical position’; there is much to be said for this analysis.

Contrary to what is often thought, the most important ‘intervention’ was not by the Allies but by the Central Powers. Up until November 1918 they held much of western and southern Russia. The ‘fourteen-power’ anti-Bolshevik Allied alliance that was featured in Soviet propaganda was a myth. The Americans were cool about intervention; the Japanese stayed on the Pacific coast. The French gave up an active role after the spring of 1919 Odessa shambles and concentrated on a cordon sanitaire of the border states. (Even then, neither the French nor the British did much to help the border state of Poland in 1920.) Few Allied troops were sent; none fought in the main battles. The western Allies neither created the Czechoslovak Corps nor planned its uprising. The Czechoslovaks did clear a rallying area, but they were few in number and fought only for six months. Their success was a symptom not of Allied manipulation but of Soviet impotence and unpopularity. It is true that Allied munitions and supplies made possible the furthest White advance, but this material only arrived in quantity in the summer of 1919; Kolchak’s spring offensive and Denikin’s conquest of a south Russian base area came earlier. Even the Allied blockade had little effect. Bolshevik Russia’s foreign trade possibilities were limited anyway (especially after the renunciation of foreign debts), and for most of 1919 Whites or nationalists held the major ports (Petrograd was the exception, but it had already become an economic wasteland).

Intervention was not a disaster for the Allies, if only because they committed so few resources to it. True, it did not defeat the Central Powers, save the anti-Bolsheviks, or deflect a Soviet onslaught on Central Europe (something the Red Army was hardly up to). The Reds were distracted from some of the border regions. Some White leaders resented the intrusions of the ‘dress-circle internatsional’, but Allied support was a major part of White propaganda. There is little evidence that intervention helped the Bolsheviks by making their cause a nationalist one. And if intervention lengthened the Russian crisis it did not create dictatorship and terror; they had deep enough roots in the soil of Imperial Russia.

The outcome of the Civil War has much to do with Russian history. Tsarist Russia contained elements of both backwardness and modernity. Russia’s peculiar state-sponsored modernization meant that there was a considerable working class (although small in per capita terms) and only a small middle class. The victory of extreme radicals during the Civil War had much to do with the very strength of the autocracy before 1917. Until less than ten years before the start of the World War there had been no legal political parties. The Tsarist state had never tolerated rival forces in the form of political parties or the national minorities, or even in the form of the army or the church. As a result there were no strong forces on hand to take over the country when the autocracy disappeared in February 1917.

The Bolsheviks were able to take over, in the October 1917 Revolution and the ‘Triumphal March of Soviet Power,’ because they followed the popular movement. The workers and Tsarist soldiers, with their particular discontents, helped carry the Bolsheviks to power – and then economic collapse and demobilization largely ended their political role. The Right was still shattered by the impact of the World War, the fall of the autocracy, and the impact of social revolution. After that there was no one to challenge the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ The reason the country did not just slide into anarchy with the October Revolution was, ironically, because of the state tradition that had been created under the autocracy. Modernization had progressed far enough to give a railway network that enabled the centre to regain control of the periphery, and meanwhile the Bolsheviks were able and willing to make use of much of the apolitical debris of the Tsarist state, including the army officer-corps and the civil service.