If, for the British, the Iraqi campaign represented a stance of resolution and action, German policy in the region indicated much the opposite. In fact, the Reich’s Iraqi policy, in the spring of 1941, could be best characterized as one of general inaction. Although some leading Germans did advocate the exploitation of British anxieties in Iraq, Churchill himself was to express, in retrospect, that “That Hitler cast away the opportunity of taking a great prize for little cost in the Middle East.”153
A look at Germany’s Iraqi campaign, or ‘non-campaign’, does provide some indication of what was unfolding in Berlin, as far as strategic and ideological priorities were concerned. Of note, the coup, functioning as a ‘prism of history,’ will enable the reader to view the divergence of attitudes within the German government in regards to the nature of future Nazi policy towards Great Britain and the Soviet Union. It could be argued that Iraq proved to be an ‘eleventh hour’ opportunity by a certain cadre of high-level German officials, led by Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, to sway their superior, Adolf Hitler, from an impending invasion of the Soviet Union.154 The stance advocated by Ribbentrop and his associates was essentially one of war with Great Britain and, correspondingly, continued conciliation towards Moscow. So, by viewing Berlin’s Iraq policy, one will not be limited to surveying the meager military effort put forth by Germany and her allies, but rather will find that Iraq represented a point of convergence where two philosophical positions, differing both ideologically and militarily, vied for primacy in the realm of Nazi foreign policy. Iraq truly brought to the fore the simple but weighty questions of whether Germany would head east, as laid down in Mein Kampf, or west, by way of Realpolitik?
Iraq should not be viewed as mere ‘sideshow’ of a much greater world conflict. Although obscure, it was a ‘point of no return’ for Germany--Hitler’s ability to squelch any concerted Nazi effort in Iraq basically buried the last viable alternative to a Russian campaign. In addition to elucidating the ebb and flow of Berlin’s response to the Iraqi coup, this chapter will attempt to discuss the rationale taken by both the group around Ribbentrop and Hitler in formulating a stance on the Baghdad revolt.
Interestingly enough, it was not the Germans who initially sought the establishment of ties between the Berlin and Baghdad governments. Rather, in June 1940, it was the Iraqis who had planted the seeds for diplomatic contact between themselves and Germany. The most notable of the early ‘secret’ meetings took place on 3 July, in Ankara, Turkey, between the Iraqi Minister of Justice, Naji Shawkat, and the German ambassador to Turkey, Franz von Papen.155 Shawkat apologized for Iraq’s breaking-off of diplomatic relations with Germany and also stressed the current policy of the Rashid Ali government in maintaining normal relations with Italy, and the growing nationalist trend of the Iraqi cabinet. Perhaps most important, Shawkat intimated that Germany would receive the support of the Iraqi army “when the time came.”156
Such contact did not end with the Shawkat trip. In the fall of 1940 the Mufti’s private secretary, Osman Kemal Haddad, held close meetings with Nazi officials in Berlin.157 Haddad’s trip sought the establishment of a joint German-Italian declaration on the future of Arab-Axis relations. The declaration was to be comprised of the following five points: first, recognition of the full independence of the Arab countries; second, recognition of the Arab countries’ right to unite; third, recognition of the right of Arab countries to solve the problem of the Jews living in Palestine or other Arab countries; fourth, a statement to the effect that Germany and Italy had no imperialistic designs in respect to Egypt and the Sudan; and fifth, an expression of sympathy for the Arab countries and of a desire for economic cooperation with them.158
In return for a declaration of this sort, Haddad guaranteed the renewal of diplomatic relations with Germany, the availing of Iraq’s natural resources to Axis interests, and his willingness to act as mediator between the Axis and other Arab states in reaching similar agreements159 Haddad also promised the dismissal of the pro-British Nuri from the government. What was the German response to the proposal? Despite taking a “positive stand” on the matter, Ernst von Weizsacker did say that the Reich Government would “be prepared to help with captured arms and money,” but that it could “proceed only in agreement with Italy.”160
As for the Italian, they viewed the declaration with a certain degree of skepticism. Italian Foreign Minister, Galeazzano Ciano, felt that such a statement would not yield much--Italy had furnished aid for the Mufti in the past only to see it squandered.161 And second, a public declaration would not mesh with Italian imperialistic interests. The Middle East had been designated as its area of influence in the “Three Powers Pact” of September 1940.162
In time, however, Germany was able to persuade Rome to consent to some sort of official statement. Made public on 23 October, 1940, it read as follows:
Germany [Italy], which has always been animated by sentiments of friendship for the Arabs and cherishes the wish that they may prosper and be happy and assume a place among peoples of the earth in accordance with their historic and natural importance, has always watched with interest the struggle of the Arab countries to achieve that independence. In their efforts to attain this goal Arab countries can count upon Germany’s [Italy’s] full sympathy also in the future. In making this statement, Germany [Italy] finds herself in full accord with her Italian [German] ally.163
From the Iraqi point-of-view there was disappointment Shawkat lamented that he had expected more “. . . namely a German declaration of Arab independence.”164 The Minister of Justice had enough forethought to suspect Italo-German collaboration, which was, to a certain degree, valid, as Berlin, at this time, persisted to respect the territorial designs of Italy in the Arab East.165
The 23 October declaration, despite Arab jibing, should have been considered a diplomatic victory for the Axis. Without tipping their hand too much, Italy and Germany had effectively appeased pro-Axis elements enough to avoid alienating their prospective allies. For roughly the next six months, the Axis powers, especially the Germans, felt comfortable enough to keep their strategic focus on questions more relevant to the Occident--would Berlin, for example, let its Wehrmacht loose on London or Moscow?166
Perhaps the most intriguing of German ventures over the six months preceding the Iraqi coup was the development of an anti-British coalition. The brainchild of Ribbentrop, the “Continental Coalition,” as it grew to be known, was to consist of a most bizarre marriage of the following states: Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union, France, and Spain.167 Despite an exhaustive effort by the Foreign Minister to build the coalition, Spanish, French, and Soviet obstinacy quickly made hope for the alliance impossible. Nevertheless, since the “Continental Coalition” holds much relevance to the stance assumed by Ribbentrop during the Baghdad revolt, it will be discussed in greater detail later on.
An additional operation Hitler considered at this time was an amphibious invasion of Great Britain (code name SEA LION). As the R.A.F., however, had defeated the Luftwaffe in mid-September during the Battle of Britain, SEA LION had to be put off until spring of the coming year.168 With both ‘British-oriented’ exercises stalled, Hitler now entertained the thought of moving on the Soviet Union, the planning of which had begun as early as December of 1940. His intentions were made known in the famous Directive No. 21: “The German Armed Forces must be prepared to crush Soviet Russia in a quick campaign (Operation BARBAROSSA) before the end of the war against England . . . Preparations are to be completed by 15 May 1941.”169
Hitler, from this time on, was without much doubt fixated on BARBAROSSA. Bit there were those within the German government, both civilian and non-civilian, who were intrigued by events in Iraq and the Eastern Mediterranean in general. The chief figure in the this pro-Iraqi camp was none other than Ribbentrop. The foreign minister was made privy to the potential of the revolt in a 9 April, 1941, meeting with Ernst Woermann, head of the Political Department of the Foreign Ministry. He explained that “. . . there was now . . . a cabinet which was to be considered the most nationalist and pro-Axis thus far, and that according to the available reports this cabinet had the full support of the Iraqi army . . .”170 Woermann further states that the coup government “was putting up stiff resistance to the English wishes for the stationing of English troops in Iraq and a more or less unrestricted right of passage.”171
Woermann’s presentation obviously excited the Foreign Minister, as it was his conviction “that in case no decision against England was obtained this year, the questions of the Middle East might become of decisive importance.” Ribbentrop accordingly instructed the Abwehr to “organize an intelligence service in the Middle East, which would have to be confined to purely military matters,” in addition to developing “sabotage” and “insurrections” in Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq.172 Ribbentrop further demanded the “immediate” organization of the Foreign Ministry’s own intelligence service in “north Africa and the Middle East,” independent of “the Abwehr and the SD service.”173 He then went on to sat that “. . . all of [their] work in the area mentioned be immediately and rapidly activated.”174
The next day, Ribbentrop, as requested by Woermann, acquired Hitler’s approval for the dispatch of arms to the Iraqi rebels. But, in a 21 April message from Ribbentrop to Hitler, it was made clear that, “. . . the possibilities of giving assistance [had] been studied,” and that “. . . speedy assistance [was] possible only by air.”175 The Foreign Minister included that, “. . . direct intervention by Luftwaffe units in Iraq [was] out of the question, since that exceeded the range of the Luftwaffe.”176 It was thought, however, that arms could be flown to Iraq through individual aircraft, provided they were given the benefit of stopping-over in Syria. This notion unofficially signaled the introduction of the Vichy government as a participant in the German venture.
Meanwhile, with British resolve strengthening, it became apparent that the Iraqi’s were increasingly frustrated by the lack of Axis action. Accordingly, on 24 April, Italian officials, in Baghdad, reported that “. . . the Iraqi government was quite annoyed because it had yet received no reply to its request for Axis support by Axis aviation,” as “. . . the situation was becoming downright critical.”177
After hearing this news, Ribbentrop again took the matter to Hitler. Skillfully playing upon Hitler’s desire to have a friendly Turkey at the time of BARBAROSSA, the Foreign Minister reminded his Fuehrer that a British victory in Iraq would put the English in a position to influence Syria, which could, in turn, effect the actions of the Ankara government.178 His ability to recognize Hitler’s interest in BARBAROSSA enables Ribbentrop to keep the leader’s attention.
As far as the utilization of Vichy forces in Syria were concerned, Ribbentrop was hopeful of possibly obtaining French arms in Syria, which could then be flown the short distance to Iraq. The Foreign Minister did, however, believe that the confirmation of such a plan was highly contingent upon the strengthening of relations between Vichy and German governments.179
The most glaring problem with the German stipulation was simply that it would take time to fulfill, a commodity which Rashid Ali and the Axis were short of, especially after the 2 May British repulse at Habbaniya. The coup government’s urgency found reflection in the following 5 May message from Iraqi officials in Ankara to the German embassy:
The Iraqi government requests immediate military aid. In particular a considerable number of airplanes in order to prevent further English landings and to drive the English from the airfields. The Iraqi minister asked for an answer tomorrow if in any way possible.180
If the Germans were going to pursue action in Iraq, they had to do so immediately. Ribbentrop, sensing opportunity passing, attempted to apply greater importance to the Iraqi question in the following 3 May message to Hitler:
If the available reports are correct regarding the relatively small forces the English have landed in so far, there would seem to be a great opportunity for establishing a base for warfare against England through an armed Iraq. A constantly expanding insurrection of the Arab world would be of the greatest help in the preparation of our decisive advance toward Egypt.181
Finally, after a close appraisal of Ribbentrop’s statement, Hitler consented “that everything possible be done with regard to military support.”182 With Hitler’s approval secured, Ribbentrop immediately turned to the idea of utilizing Syria, not just for her airfields and refueling facilities, but also for its plentiful stock of weapons, ideal for bolstering the fire-power of the Iraqi military.183
It took very little time for Berlin to acquire the Vichy government’s permission to utilize Syria for the proposed plan. The Vichy French, who seemed quite optimistic that the Germans would succeed in Iraq, on 8 May confirmed the following concessions:
(a) The stocks of French arms under Italian control in Syria to be made available for arms transports to Iraq;
(b) Assistance in the forwarding of arms shipments of other origin that arrive in Syria by land or by sea for Iraq;
(c) Permission for German planes, destined for Iraq, to make intermediate landings and to take on gasoline in Syria;
(d) Cession to Iraq of reconnaissance, pursuit and bombing planes, as well as bombs, from the air force permitted for Syria under the armistice treaty;
(e) An airfield in Syria to be made available especially for the intermediate landing of German planes;
(f) Until such an airfield has been made available, an order to be issued to all airfields in Syria to assist German planes making intermediate landings.184
What did Vichy get in return for assisting Germany? As William Langer states, the Germans “were to permit the rearmament of six French destroyers and seven torpedo boats, to relax the stringent travel and traffic regulations between the zones of France, and to arrange for a substantial reduction of the costs of occupation.”185
The first signs of German aid came through on 10 May with the arrival of the Reich’s newly appointed representative to Iraq, Dr. Fritz Grobba. Accompanying the Nazi official were two Heinkel He 111 bombers. Further additions to the Iraqi arsenal included a squadron each of He 111’s and Messerschmidt fighter-bombers.186 Meanwhile, a few days later, Rudolph Rahn, a special foreign ministry envoy, arrived in Syria to organize the proposed flow of munitions to Iraq. Rahn’s efforts produced the first arrival of supplies into Mosul on 13 May.
Despite the obvious Axis presence in Mesopotamia, the Iraqi effort was quickly losing momentum. Hitler’s indifference, the overzealousness of the “Golden Square,” the relatively meager flow of Axis aid, and the speed and the effectiveness of HABFORCE all contributed to the rebellion’s eventual failure. It was not until 23 May that Hitler finally issued Directive No. 30. Coming at roughly the same time that Iraqi resistance was crumbling, the directive read as follows:
The Arab liberation movement in the Middle East is our natural ally against Great Britain. In this connection, the rising in Iraq has special importance. It strengthens beyond the boundary of Iraq forces hostile to England in the Middle East, disturbs English communications and ties down English troops and shipping space at the expense of other theaters of war. I have therefore decided to advance developments in the Middle East by giving assistance to Iraq.187
The directive clearly came too late. In fact, day after its dispatch, many of those involved in the coup, including the Mufti, could sense impending failure. The pan-Arab leader believed that despite a pan-Arab uprising’s great promise, all would soon become moot “if the current uprising in Iraq, which . . . is the key to the situation should fail.”188 The Mufti sealed a plea for more German aid by stating the following: “if Iraq should fall during these upcoming days, the anti-English movement throughout the whole Middle East would step-by-step succumb to British gold and intrigues.”189 And upon hearing the false word of inflated British troop numbers, the Mufti, and Rashid Ali were forced to flee to Iran, and Grobba Mosul.
Despite the exit of their leader, local commanders promised to continue the fight, provided the Germans assured “effective military aid.”190 And Ribbentrop did state that more aircraft were in flight to Iraq. But, as the planes were unable to land due to the lack of sufficient fueling facilities, the German promise rang hollow. With word of the Anglo-Iraqi armistice in Baghdad, and the false mention of the Mosul airfield’s capture, Grobba left for Syria on 31 May.191 Later that same day, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, head of the OKW (High Command of the German armed forces) sent the following message to General Felmy: “All forces are to gather at Alep. Their complete reverse is to be exercised until further intentions have been clarified with the French government in Vichy. Remove Iraqi insignia. Further orders will follow.”192
The Keitel dispatch effectively set the German pull-out from Iraq into
motion. And with this, the hopes of many within the German government were
dashed just ten days before the launching of the most devastating military
campaign of the twentieth century, BARBAROSSA. So, now that the reader has been
supplied with an overview of the events which made up the German campaign in
Iraq, it is possible to discuss the ‘split’ rationale characterizing Berlin’s
actions in the spring of 1941.