After viewing the military character of the British campaign in Iraq, one will almost always concede that it was one of exceptional quality--under great strain, the British government quickly turned impending disaster into satisfying victory. However, beneath its exterior of thwarted sieges and called bluffs, one will also find that the British expedition was plagued and, it would be safe to say, driven by the geopolitical fears and biases of the many high-level officials which were involved in the quickly developing art of Middle Eastern ‘trouble shooting.’63 In essence, the British expedition could easily be characterized as one which held a certain duality--in no way did the formulation of the British policy match the flawless nature of the campaign itself. And although those involved were able to win the day, the process which eventually yielded a British victory was, by no means, one reflecting unanimity. The strategic and tactical control of the Iraqi operation fell under the influence of three primary command centers: London, Cairo, and Delhi. From the outset of the crisis, it became evident that each camp was going to advocate the policy which most accommodated its own regional agenda. By virtue of this, two schools of thought quickly developed. Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and East Indian Commander in Chief, Sir Claude Auchinleck, favored armed intervention, while others like Middle Eastern Commander-in-Chief, Archibald Wavell, and the British Ambassador to Iraq, Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, both well attuned to the potentialities of Arab nationalism, saw armed intervention as risky and provocative. They believed that diplomacy and conciliation were the soundest roads to take. In addition to considering the campaign’s divisive nature, this chapter will strive to do two things. First, it will recount the events good and bad, which comprised the British phase of the Iraqi dilemma. And second, it will endeavor to elucidate London’s rationale for an ‘active Iraqi policy.
The Iraqi coup could not have come at a more inopportune time for Great Britain--The Afrika Korp’s counter-Blitz in North Africa, the German drive into Yugoslavia and Greece, the impending Nazi assault on Crete, and the Baghdad Putsch were all unfolding with uncanny synchronicity. The British Empire was in the process of experiencing one of its darkest hours in the spring of 1941. Certainly the last thing that the British needed in the Eastern Mediterranean was an additional throng of problems added to those which already existed. Churchill found himself compelled to, as he put it, “make sure” of Iraq.64
Churchill’s first move was to secure the Iraqi port city of Basra by armed intervention. Basra served as a vital link in the passage of communications through the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. Although Churchill intended to give the Baghdad government the impression that the troops were in transit to Palestine, he was clearly intent on the simple goal of securing Basra. In an effort to do so, Churchill, on 8 April, 1941, sent the following dispatch to the Secretary of State for India, L.S. Amery:
Some time ago you suggested that you might be able to spare another division taken from the frontier troops for the Middle East. The situation in Iraq has turned sour. We must make sure of Basra, as the Americans are increasingly keen on a great air assembling base being formed there to which they could deliver direct. This plan seems of high importance in view of the undoubted Eastern trend of the war. I am telling the Chiefs of Staff that you will look into these possibilities. General Auchinleck also had ideas that an additional force could be spared.65
Upon receiving the Churchill missive, Amery conveyed it on to the Indian Commander-in-chief, General Claude Auchinleck, who promptly offered to divert, to Basra, an infantry brigade and regiment of artillery, originally intended for Malaya.66 Auchinleck also saw fit to secure the transfer of 400 infantrymen from India to the British enclave at Shaiba.67 However, on 10 April, Rashid Ali stated that his coup d’’etat was merely a matter of internal politics, nothing that should preclude Great Britain from exercising her rights of passage under the Treaty of Alliance. Ambassador Cornwallis found the Iraqi government’s conciliatory stance encouraging, and expressed, in a 11 April telegram, that a landing at Basra might be viewed by Baghdad as a blatant act of provocation.68 Lord Linlithgow, Viceroy of India, spoke in defense of the landings by rightly stating the following:
But we are moving into a position that affects our general standing in the Middle East, that has the most important potential repercussions on India and Iran, that affects our oil supplies (so vital to the admiralty) in Iran and Bahrein (and to a lesser extent Kuwait); and I have no doubt that we must be prepared to take a strong line now.69
The India Command’s sound advice was heeded and, on 18 April, the brigade group was able to disembark at Basra without opposition. Churchill then, after receiving word of the mission’s safe arrival requested the diversion of two or more brigades, also headed for Malaya.70 The factors that inspired the Rashid Ali camp to maintain its calm can be conjectured. Although it is difficult to provide definite reasons for his stance, one can assume that Rashid Ali viewed strong cooperation with treaty demands as an open door to possible British recognition of the outlaw government, and, it is perhaps more probable, that the premier was expecting Axis aid.71
As it became deadly clear that London was deadly serious about its treaty rights and that Axis aid, for the meantime, would be on hold, the coup government’s attitude quickly changed. Upon learning the 30 April landing date of the Indian troops, Rashid Ali said that he, “could not give permission for any fresh landings until troops already at Basra had passed through the port.”72 His specific demands were as follows: first, the troops proceed as rapidly as possible to Rutba; second, that the British government announce well in advance any intention to ship more detachments; and three, the total number of British troops should not exceed, at any one time, the strength of one mixed brigade.73 The Iraqi government further stated that the British government, by its effort to establish a base at Basra, was in violation of an amendment to the treaty, made unilaterally by Baghdad on 16 July, 1940, which stated, “that bases should not be established or troops stationed in Iraq.”74 The Iraqis, in turn, believed that they alone were responsible for the defense of lines of communication. However, on 28 April, Cornwallis, although with reticence, replied that the treaty did not contain the limitations which the Iraqi government had suggested. So, in accord with the Prime Minister’s aggressive stance, the landings went forward and pressed into action the ill-prepared Iraqis.
The conspirators placed the bulk of their military strength around the Royal Air Force base at Habbaniya. Habbaniya is about fifty miles west of Baghdad and is connected to it by a desert highway which crosses the Euphrates near the town of Falluja.75 The Iraqis had the great fortune of occupying a series of strategically advantageous uplands overlooking the British base. The Iraqi siege force was comprised of two infantry brigades, along with artillery and armor. Not intended to be anything more than an air force training base, the cantonment, commanded by Air Vice Marshal Smart, held just over 2,200 military personnel, and no fewer than 9,000 civilians.76 The air strength of the base was quite limited. Thanks to the arrival of a few Gladiator fighters from Egypt, plus the base’s own assortment of eighty-two training aircraft, Smart was able to patch-together a functional force of four squadrons.77 Early on the morning of 30 April, an Iraqi officer presented a message from his commander demanding that all flights cease and that no one should leave the base.78 Making matters worse was the report from reconnaissance craft that the Iraqi force was being bolstered by a steady flow of reinforcements.79 It soon became clear to Smart that time was of the essence. His sole material advantage rested in air power which would only be effective during daylight hours.80 Furthermore, the Iraqi occupation of vital bridges over the Tigris and Euphrates meant that the base was cut off by all access but the air.81 And finally, it could have occurred to Smart that, with time, the Iraqi forces would only get stronger and equally as confident. Smart clearly had several reasons for wanting to fire the first shot.
The Air Officer Commanding “. . . decided that it was essential to attack these troops without further warning. Accordingly, in the early morning of 2 May an improvised air force . . . attacked the Iraqi forces.”82 Taking part in the raid were air elements from both Habbaniya and Shaiba. In total, the R.A.F. was able to make 193 sorties, and it soon became evident that Iraqi guns were much less daunting than originally thought.83 As Smart believed that a unified attack on the camp was unlikely, he saw fit to initiate further air missions against the Iraqi Air Force as well as the line of communications between Habbaniya and Baghdad. Over the next three days, the R.A.F. enjoyed comfortable air superiority throughout Iraq, and was even able to run a sortie towards Iraqi military installations at Mosul. During the night of 5 May, patrols of the King’s Own Royal Regiment raided Iraqi positions on the Habbaniya plateau. At dawn on 6 May it was found that the Iraqis had abandoned their positions. With this, the siege was raised. Smart, for his efforts, received a note of appreciation and congratulation from the Prime Minister: “Your vigorous and splendid action has largely restored the situation.”84
Meanwhile, on 2 May, while the defenders of Habbaniya were fighting for their lives, the Chiefs of Staff in London were in the process of gathering a relief column for the besieged base. Any thought of considering the Basra enclave was precluded by the fact that “any northward advance from Basra was impeded both by the Iraqi sabotage of communications and by the annual floods on the Two Rivers . . .” Therefore, London found itself in a position to solicit the services of General Wavell:
In view of situation in Iraq which is not that which we visualized when India took responsibility it seems operational command should now pass temporarily to Mideast whence alone immediate assistance can be given. This will take place forthwith unless you see strong objections.85
London quickly discovered that Wavell voiced much more than “strong objections” to its request. There appear to be two primary factors which influenced Wavell’s reticence. First, Wavell, “like most British officers [was] strongly pro-British.”86 This is how Churchill described Wavell. But, it is unlikely that Wavell was an actual proponent of all that being pro-Arab entailed, i.e., pan-Arab Union, British withdrawal, etc. Rather it is safe to say that Wavell’s pro-Arab sympathies went no further than advocating any policy which might placate the Arab world and, as a result, maintain British preponderance in the Middle East. Therefore, also “like most British military officers” the general realized how vital the Middle East was to the home island. Wavell’s greatest fear rested in what he saw as the potency of Arab nationalism and the phenomenon’s threat to British interests in the region. And, of course, this phobia found fertile ground in Wavell’s participation as Middle Eastern Commander-in-Chief during the twilight of the Palestinian Revolt. Not only was the general highly sensitive to the threat of Arab nationalism, but he also realized the effect which British aggression might have in fomenting the movement into region-wide revolution. A second concern of Wavell’s was simply that, in addition to the surfacing of the Iraqi problem, his position in Palestine was in the process of being invested from all directions but south. It seemed to Wavell that the Middle East would stand as the Germans’ main point of concentration.87 In the general’s eyes, the advent of the Iraqi crisis made an already impossible situation even more so. Part and parcel of Wavell’s fear of envelopment was his great concern over the lack of resources at his disposal. Obviously, with men and material tied-up in the Western Desert, running and swimming their way off the Greek mainland, and preparing for the imminent Nazi invasion of Crete, Wavell felt alone and under equipped. These two factors, therefore, were at the crux of Wavell’s apprehension of any attempt at forceful intervention in Iraq. Wavell wanted nothing to do with Iraq, and even if he did, according to his appraisal he simply would not have the resources to make any difference.88
Thus, London transferred control of an extremely crucial operation from Auchinleck, who had both the force and will to be effective, to Wavell who was more than reluctant to assume the operation’s logistical and political demands. Just before receiving London’s dispatch, Wavell was in Cyrenaica addressing Rommel’s assault on Tobruk. The General’s 3 May response to the London dispatch reads as follows:
I have consistently warned you that no assistance could be given to Iraq from Palestine in present circumstances and have always advised that a commitment in Iraq should be avoided. My forces are stretched to limit everywhere and I simply cannot afford to risk part of forces on what cannot produce any effect. I can only advise negotiation with Iraqis on basis of liquidation of regrettable incident by mutual agreement with alternative of war with British Empire, complete blockade and ruthless air action.89
Despite the General’s obvious displeasure, he nevertheless attempted to “create the impression that a large force was being prepared for action from Palestine.”90 The force (code name HABFORCE), consisted of one mechanized brigade, one field regiment, one lorry-borne infantry battalion and three mechanized squadrons of the Transjordan Frontier Force, a fighting group made up of Arabs.91 Although formidable in size, the force had no armored cars or tanks and very few anti-aircraft or anti-tank weapons.92 According to Wavell, HABFORCE was too weak and too late. Furthermore, the general believed that the expedition deprived him of his only response force to Vichy controlled Syria which Wavell believed, correctly, was under the influence of Axis intriguing.93
London’s attitude towards Wavell’s posture reflected both concern and disbelief. Its reply though apologetic, was direct and conveyed the urgency with which London was viewing the whole crisis.
We much deplore the extra burden thrown upon you at this critical time by events in Iraq. A commitment in Iraq was however inevitable. We had to establish a base at Basra, and control that port to safeguard Persian oil in case of need. The line of communication to Turkey through Iraq has also assumed greater importance owing to German air superiority in the Aegean Sea . . . Had we sent no forces to Basra the present situation at Habbaniya might still have arisen under Axis direction, and we should have also have had to face an opposed landing at Basra later on instead of being able to face to secure a bridgehead there without opposition . . . There can be no question of accepting Turkish offer of mediation. We can make no concessions. The security of Egypt remains paramount. But it is essential to do all in our power to save Habbaniya and to control the pipeline to the Mediterranean.94
Tensions between London and Cairo were great, and Wavell’s 5 May reply did nothing to mollify Whitehall’s growing anxiety: “Your [message] takes little account of realities. You must face facts.” The general believed that such a force, weak as it was, would have, at best, a marginal effect on Habbaniya. Furthermore, he questioned the ability of the R.A.F. cantonment to withstand the Iraqis. Wavell went on: “I feel it my duty to warn you in the gravest possible terms that I consider that the prolongation of fighting in Iraq will seriously endanger the defense of Palestine and Egypt. The political repercussions will be incalculable, and may result in what I have spent the last two years trying to avoid, namely, serious internal trouble in our bases.”95 Wavell closed his message by admonishing London to accept a negotiated settlement via Turkish good offices.
Wavell’s reply to reached Whitehall at nearly the same time that General Auchinleck offered to dispatch five more infantry brigades from India. Not surprisingly, John Connell writes that, “Churchill was ‘not content’ with Wavell’s but ‘gratified’ by Auchenlick’s.”96 Therefore, after consulting with the Chiefs of Staff, whose support he had, Churchill sent the following 6 May message to Wavell:
Settlement by negotiation cannot be entertained . . . Realities are that Rashid Ali has all along been hand-in-glove with Axis Powers, and was merely waiting until they could support him before exposing his hand. Our arrival at Basra forced him to go off half-cock before the Axis was ready. Thus there is an excellent chance of restoring the situation by bold action, if it is not delayed. Chiefs of Staff have, therefore, advised Defense Committee that they are prepared to accept responsibility for dispatch of the force specified in your telegram at the earliest possible moment.93
In response to the Prime Minister’s message, on 8 May, Wavell stated that he feared that the known handicaps of HABFORCE might bring about its quick defeat, and two, that Great Britain should avoid “a heavy military commitment in a non-vital area.”97 To prevent either or both outcomes, Wavell again admonished Whitehall to negotiate.98
Realizing his general’s “cares and devotions,” Churchill, on the next day, succinctly expressed Whitehall’s attitude on the vital nature of the upcoming campaign: Our information is that Rashid Ali and his partisans are in desperate straits. However this may be, you are to fight hard against them. The mobile column being prepared in Palestine should advance as you propose, or earlier if possible, and actively engage the enemy, whether at Rutba or Habbaniya. Having joined the Habbaniya forces, you should exploit the situation to the utmost, not hesitating to try to break into Baghdad even quite small forces, and running the same kind of risks the Germans are accustomed to run and profit by. There can be no question of negotiation with Rashid Ali . . . Such negotiation would only lead to delay, during which the German air force will arrive.99
Churchill further enunciated the campaign’s objective while, at the same time, allayed Wavell’s fears of being “bogged-down” in Iraq by adding the following: You do not need to bother much about the long future in Iraq. Your immediate task is to get a friendly Government set up in Baghdad, and to beat down Rashid Ali’s forces with the utmost vigor.”100 On 13 May, Wavell responded favorably to Churchill’s orders in stating that he would “try to liquidate [the] tiresome Iraqi business quickly.”101
The HABFORCE column arrived at Habbaniya on 18 May. Despite the fact that the garrison had been secured, Iraqi forces had persisted in holding the strategic bridge across the Euphrates and Falluja. On 19 May elements of HABFORCE and from the air base set off to break the Iraqi force which was essentially the only wall of resistance between Habbaniya and Baghdad, HABFORCE’S destination. After three days of contact, and not a single British casualty, HABFORCE had given itself a clear road to Baghdad. During this same time, the R.A.F. was able to take on and summarily crush German and Italian air resistance on the “northern air fields of Iraq.”102
With its rear secure, HABFORCE set off for Baghdad on the evening of 27
May. The British contingent reached the outskirts of the capital city on 30
May. Despite the scant numbers of HABFORCE, its presence was able to send
Rashid Ali and his party fleeing for Persia.103 The next day, an armistice was
signed and a new government under the leadership of Nuri Sa’id was established.
With this, the Rashid Ali coup d’’etat was ended, and Great Britain, in the
midst of further developments in the Western Desert and Eastern Mediterranean
could now look upon its Mesopotamian flank with relief.