[
Home][Herodotus]

Introduction European Powers to 1939 The Coup British Operations Overview of the British Campaign German Operations Overview of German Operations Conclusion Bibliography

By the end of May 1941, two flash points of hostility had ended: first, the situation in Iraq had been diffused with splendid execution, and second, the stand-off between the Wavell and Auchinleck camps had ceased. In addition to the problem at hand, namely the coup, the Iraqi campaign was highlighted by the clash between the aggressiveness of Churchill and the calculation and trepidation of Wavell. Having surveyed the facts of the campaign, one may now look at British policy in Iraq with a critical eye.

Without much doubt, the key to Great Britain’s victory in Iraq, and its eventual stabilization of the Arab East, rested upon the aggressive attitude of Churchill. The Prime Minister’s stance was most aptly characterized in the following statement: “What matters is action; namely, the swift advance of the mobile column to establish effective contact between Baghdad and Palestine. Everyday counts, for the Germans many not be long.”104 The War Cabinet’s John Kennedy states that “Churchill thirsted for action . . . He fretted at the delays which are inseparable from the preparation of modern fighting forces, and he pressed us incessantly to ‘grapple with the enemy.’”105 Complementing Churchill’s aggressive nature, was his tendency to welcome ‘the gamble’--at a time when the British military was ill-equipped to fight on par with the Germans. Churchill believed that Great Britain “. . . must not shrink from running . . . small-scale military risks, nor from facing the possible aggravation of political dangers from failure.”106 And finally, the Prime Minister immersed himself in the challenge at hand; he became a student of the problem, a scholar, and would find interest “in the minutest details of everything the Chiefs of Staff did,” pouring “out floods of memoranda upon all problems, great and small.”107 The Prime Minister’s dabbling, at times, however, could bring him to reverse the decisions of military authority, as with Wavell, or in Churchill’s later operation TIGER. All of these Churchillian characteristics--action, audacity, leadership, and an indefatigable zest to be ‘in the know’--drove the British Iraqi campaign to victory.

The ready and willing hand of Auchinleck was vital to the Prime Minister’s efforts in Iraq. In view of Wavell’s reticence, it would have been difficult for Churchill to secure Basra without the timely assistance of Auchinleck. Auchinleck’s will to help should not, however, be looked upon as being totally selfless. A secure Iraq was important to India. According to Auchinleck, “. . . it [was] impossible for India dissociate herself from the formation of policy in that area. Not only [was] success or failure in Iraq vital to the safety of India but most of the forces and material employed in that theater must come from India.”108

Clearly, both Churchill and Auchinleck had their reasons for wanting a quick, forceful end to the revolt. Churchill most clearly expressed his anxiety over the Middle Eastern dilemma in a 28 April directive to the British War Cabinet which stated: “The loss of Egypt and the Middle East would be a disaster of the first magnitude for Great Britain, second only to successful invasion and final conquest. It is to be impressed upon all ranks that the life and honour of Great Britain depends on the successful defense of Egypt.”109 The Prime Minister obviously considered Egypt vital to the defense of the Middle East and the British Empire. The country served as the linchpin which, by aid of the Suez Canal, maintained the easy flow of communications between the eastern and western parts of the Empire. The Canal served as the primary portal “by which reinforcements would reach the Mediterranean Fleet; it would be an essential waterway of the Middle East Base; and it would be the means of exit if the Mediterranean Fleet had to go to the Far East.”110 The Canal’s usefulness was perhaps most aptly reflected in the speedy transfer of East Indian troops from Bombay to the crucial “Crusader” (November 1941) and El Alamein (Fall 1942) campaigns.111 The value of the Suez Canal lay in the fact that these forces needed to travel only 950 miles as compared to the 4,200 miles which would have been needed by way of the Cape of Good Hope. The Canal also simplified the transit of oil from fields in Persia and Mesopotamia to Allied operations in North Africa and Europe. Quite simply, at a time when the Empire was under the greatest strain, the Canal afforded Great Britain the flexibility and ease that it needed for the flow of troops and raw materials.

In addition to the Canal, Egypt “possessed the essential attributes of a large overseas base.”112 After 1937, the country took on the characteristics of an advanced operational fortress which the ability to support naval, ground, and air forces. The Mediterranean Fleet had bases at Suez, Port Sa’id, and Alexandria, the latter being the most significant. In addition to the possession of coal, oil, and petrol stocks, Alexandria served as the repair base for the Royal Fleet’s heavy ships. It also acted as the chief supply depot for the British island fortress at Malta, a vital installation in the Allied effort to foil the shipment of Axis material through the Mediterranean to Tripoli. Likewise, Egypt was an essential link in the air route between Europe and India and all points beyond. Finally, Great Britain relied on the area to billet and support an army of roughly one-quarter of a million men.

The Egyptian base and the forces there were quite impressive, but despite the Middle Eastern Command’s size, Great Britain had reasons to be skeptical. The Chiefs of Staff were afraid of what German air power might do to British naval installations in the area: Alexandria, not being enclosed, and with its oil refineries too close to the port itself, was seen as a highly desirable air target; there was also much anxiety expressed over the vulnerability of oil refineries, and storage installations at Suez and Port Sa’id113

Very real threats to Crete, Libya, and, of course, Iraq, simply exacerbated Great Britain’s challenge to defend Egypt. An Axis occupied Iraq would jeopardize the safety of the eastern Egyptian frontier and might prove itself an ideal base for German and Italian air missions into northern Egypt. Just as the Prime Minister submitted the 28 April directive, Egypt’s approaches were under intense pressure, from Erwin Rommel who was in the process of besieging Tobruk (350 miles west of Alexandria), and German forces in the Balkans which were about to seize Athens. The German prospect of ‘envelopment’ was indeed a looming fear in Great Britain. In fact, Major-General Sir John Kennedy, Deputy Director of Military Operations, stated during the spring of 1941 that, “Whether we can hold onto the Middle East depends on one thing and one thing alone--whether the Germans concentrate seriously against us there. If they do, they will be able to develop attacks in considerable strength from the west through Libya, from the north through Turkey, and possibly from the northeast through the Caucasus and Persia.”114 In short, the fall of Iraq into Axis hands would have made the German effort to ‘envelope’ Egypt and the Suez Canal a much easier one.

An additional reason for British action relates to Iraq’s possession of the overland route between Basra and Palestine.115 With the Suez Canal under Axis pressure from the west, the Basra to Palestine ‘bridge’ took on greater importance since, in the event of a German victory in Egypt it would serve as the prime conduit by which men and material from India, and the Far East could travel to the Eastern Mediterranean. This British concern was heightened by the additional point of British rights under the 1930 Anglo-Iraqi Treaty. The defense of this agreement formed the essence of Great Britain’s action in Iraq. And although, at the time of the coup, the defense of British rights of transit seemed to be more of a convenient excuse than anything else, the stabilization of the Basra to Palestine road was a serious and legitimate matter for Great Britain. Robert Leckie states in his work, Delivered from Evil that “The oil fields of the Persian Gulf nations contained those supplies that nourished not only British war-making capacity but its population and industry as well . . .”116 Oil had long been a commodity of prime importance to Great Britain. With the advent of war, oil became the lifeblood which enabled Britain and her allies to wage was against the Axis. British firms possessed crucial oil fields in Persia and northern Iraq at Kirkuk and Mosul. Because of these concessions, it was clearly to Great Britain’s strategic advantage that Iraq and Persia stable. Great Britain had to pay particularly close attention to the pipeline which ran from Kirkuk and Mosul fields to Haifa. What made the Haifa refineries so crucial was their role as the principal oil source for the Mediterranean Fleet.117 Obviously, if Axis forces were able to get to the British pipeline, the mobility and effectiveness of His Majesty’s ships in the Mediterranean would be severely crippled. One cannot help but wonder what might have happened if supply lines to Rommel’s Afrika Korps had been able to operate unhindered.

A disaster worse than Great Britain being isolated from the bulk of her oil supplies, would have been reserves falling into Axis hands. Wavell, in May 1940, knew that Britain and its allies had “access to practically all the world’s supplies of oil.” He also believed that “Germany [was] very short of oil and [had] access to very limited quantities.” Because of this, Wavell felt that the Allies were “bound to win the war.”118 But, with the Afrika Korps pressing hard in the Western Desert, and the Axis building strength in the Aegean, it was not inconceivable that tables could have been turned in the favor of Germany. Great Britain knew that the safety of her oil reserves was jeopardized by the Iraqi Putsch.

After 31 March, British Military Intelligence and Whitehall concluded that Germany was on its way to invading the Soviet Union on or near 10 June.119 Earlier, Military Intelligence for various reasons, believed that the Wehrmacht was poised to make war on the Middle East. For some time, Whitehall and its intelligence services were convinced, despite the presence of information that should have belied such conviction, that the Germans were intent on destroying the British Empire through a move on the Arab East.120 In fact, in late April, the Department of Military Intelligence conceded, in a brief to C.I.G.S., that “If Germany can beat us, Russia is in the bag. Russia does not represent an obstacle to Germany in her battle with Great Britain. A pincer movement (on Suez) is the most likely course.”121 Such sentiment pervaded British strategic concerns until 31 May, when Military Intelligence, through information extracted from Enigma intelligence, concluded that a German invasion of the Soviet Union was a virtual certainty: “It becomes harder than ever to doubt that the object of these movements of the German army and air force is Russia. From rail movements towards Moldavia in the south to ship movements towards the Varanger Fjord in the far north there is everywhere the same steady eastward trend. Either the purpose is blackmail or it is war.”122

It is important to mention that on the same day of the Enigma report hostilities in Iraq subsided with the signing of an armistice in Baghdad. Therefore, prior to the 31st, the British government had considered a possible German move into Russia as speculative. From Whitehall’s point-of-view, rather than expecting an impending attack on Russia, it appeared as if all German roads led to the Middle East. With Libya, Greece, and Crete occupied, or on their way to being occupied, a German move into Syria and Iraq appeared to be part of a logical progression. Furthermore, in view of communications and oil, Great Britain’s fear of a German “pincer move” was perhaps all the more justified. After all, the Middle East did belong to Great Britain--she relied on the region to fuel her war-making capabilities. Without these benefits Whitehall knew that its ability to compete with the Axis powers would be significantly curtailed.

Under these circumstances then, it would have been foolish for Whitehall to think that Hitler would not make a committed move into the Middle East through Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. It would have been equally careless for Great Britain to have neglected the Iraqi situation, even if Whitehall had known in April and May that the Germans were bent on moving into Russia. Most British experts believed that the Soviet Union could not hold-out for more than a month.123 They also felt that the Middle East would have been Hitler’s next move.124 A deep penetration into southern Russia would have given the needed resources and geographical position for the Germans to move into the Arab East. It was essential for Great Britain to do all that it could to stabilize and fortify its Middle Eastern bastion. An integral part of this effort was speedy pacification of the Iraqi situation.

From the British point-of-view, the first line of defense, in a German descent from the Aegean, would be Turkey. As John Kennedy believed, “Turkey would be [Great Britain’s] front line and [its] bastion.”125 This made a pro-British or, at least, neutral Turkey essential. Whitehall considered the Turkish army formidable, and that the Ankara government would “fight back” if she were attacked.126 Plus, C.I.G.S., Sir Edmund Ironside, believed that “If Turkey comes in against the Germans there is no possibility of Turkey being overrun such as there is in a country like Roumania whose army is not of high quality.”127 However, Great Britain viewed the issue of Turkish allegiance with anxiety. In fact, a few individuals within British ruling circles felt that a feeble British performance in Iraq might alienate the Turks, an, in turn, send them into Axis arms. Auchinleck stated that “. . . the fall of Iraq to the Axis would mean the loss of oil fields, and the possibility of Turkey swinging towards the Axis.”128 In a 16 February brief, Kennedy captured the General Staff’s mood on the issue, by stating, that the “Support of Turkey is . . . important since Turkey is the bastion of our position in the Middle East. If Turkey sees our reserves thrown away in Greece it may tip the balance against her resistance to the Germans.”129 One might infer that just as Ankara was eying the goings-on in Greece it was paying an equal amount of attention to the British campaign in Iraq. A solid British performance was imperative as it perhaps meant the difference between a friendly Turkey and an antagonistic one.

Not only might resolute action in Iraq by Great Britain reassure the Turks, it could also admonish other states to stay neutral or pro-British, lest they suffer the same fate as the Baghdad conspirators. Iraq was not the only state which was entertaining Axis intrigues--Egypt’s ‘Aziz al-Misri and King Farouk, Iran’s Riza Shah, India’s Subhas Bose, and Afghanistan’s Abdul Majid Khan, certainly fell into this category.130 It was imperative that Whitehall be resolute in its Iraq policy. Great Britain’s conduct in Mesopotamia could either prove itself a deterrent to opportunism or, as Auchinleck stated, “Britain’s weaknesses would be revealed and other interests in the area might be encouraged to support the Axis.”131

Churchill’s policy attitude was contradicted by that of Wavell’s. As the reader has seen, Wavell’s actions were encumbered by the conviction that his resources were too few and his problems in relation to the Arab nationalist question too many. We have spoken about the tremendous stress which Wavell’s Cairo command operated under from the west and north during the spring and summer of 1941. This, coupled with the pan-Arab threat, understandably engendered a state-of-mind in Wavell which would not favor taking-on further operations. Wavell wrote: “I always disliked Iraq--the country, the people and the military commitment . . . it blew up at the worst possible time for me, when I had the Western Desert, Crete, East Africa and Syria on my hands, and no troops.”132

In all fairness to Wavell, the revolt brought to the fore poignant memories which had accumulated during his command in Palestine during the Arab revolt of the late 1930’s. The uprising, which Wavell called “a very unsatisfactory and intangible business” made the General highly sensitive to the potency of Arab nationalism. And, in a way, this hypersensitivity blinded him from the more pressing issue at hand, namely, if it appeared that the Germans were heading south. Action was imperative,and, again, as Churchill stated earlier, Great Britain could not be daunted by “possible aggravation of political dangers from failure.”133 Moreover, Churchill truly led by example. Perhaps his most notable ‘gamble’ was the launch of operation TIGER, whose beneficiary proved to be, ironically enough, Wavell. TIGER was the Prime Minister’s effort to meet the needs of Wavell through the dispatch of a convoy carrying 307 tanks through the Mediterranean to Egypt.134 Churchill’s move was ‘risky for two reasons. First, and as the Prime Minister states, “The chances of getting the M.T. ships through the Central Mediterranean unscathed were not rated very high.”135 This was primarily because German dive-bombers operating from southern Europe dominated the area, and British shore-based planes were out of range.136 Second, the home island was dreadfully weak in the area of tanks. Of course, there was great fear that a loss of tanks, if TIGER were to fail, would bring demands “for their replacement, and consequently a further diversion of tanks from the home forces.”137 As things turned out, four out of five ships arrived at Alexandria on 7 May and the P.M. labeled the operation a “brilliant success.”138

In view of TIGER, it cannot be said that Churchill ever hesitated to meet Wavell’s needs. In addition to shouldering responsibility for an act which essentially took protection away from the British people and sent it onto a perilous journey, Churchill had to deal with the ‘heat’ from many of those within Whitehall, including Dill, Eden, and Kennedy.139 It is important to add that Whitehall was wary of a possible German channel crossing. Churchill was without much doubt taking a great chance with TIGER. For all that the P.M. was doing to better Wavell’s situation, the least that the General could have done was reciprocate with meeting Churchill’s needs. Furthermore, as Kedourie asks, “Was the strain on the Prime Minister in the spring of 1941. . . any less?”140 In fact, Kennedy recounts that Churchill’s two most difficult decisions made during the war “were, first, to keep the fighter aircraft out of France, and, second, to send the tanks and other reinforcements to Egypt at a time when invasion seemed likely.”141 Granted, Wavell was ill-prepared for making war in 1941. But, unpreparedness was a universal predicament, i.e. the Habbaniya cantonment. Fortunately for Great Britain and the entire Allied war effort, Churchill refused to view this as a excuse for inaction.

Did Wavell have any foundation to believe that the conduct of HABFORCE would foment pan-Arab elements into action? An immediate question to be counter posed might ask to what extent Iraq could be looked upon as a legitimate nation-state? In the same light, one might wonder how effectively the concept of nationalism could be applied to Iraq and other Middle Eastern states? The following words of King Faysal, spoken in 1933, may give some indication of Iraq’s heterogeneous nature:

In Iraq there is still . . . no Iraqi people, but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic ideal, imbued with religious traditions, and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatsoever.142

So, this polyglot, multi-ethnic, multi-religious land was what Rashid Ali had to turn to in his appeal to revolt. An additional barrier to the conspirators in their nationalistic call was the tribal nature of much of Iraq’s rural population. In this tribal framework, allegiances went no further than the local shaykh. Baghdad’s efforts to assert some sort of centralized mode of rule over the tribes were made manifest in taxing, and conscription, two vital factors in the legitimization of any government seeking centralized rule.143 But, seeing their role in the traditional tribal feudal order threatened, shaykh, on several occasions, raised revolt against Baghdad.144 And as government reactions to the uprisings were often violent, it is easy to see how the already high degree of alienation between the two camps was only exacerbated. It is also important to emphasize that the doctrines of Arab nationalism could hardly ‘trickle-down’ below the class posture of Iraq’s urban-centered educated elite. There was really no way by which the government could communicate with the great mass of Iraqi tribesmen--in a socioeconomic sense, they lived worlds apart. Making matters worse, the rural population was plagued by a high rate of illiteracy. Sir Arnold Wilson offers corroboration: “These people are utterly unvocal, like all uneducated masses, and it is impossible to find out all what they think about government. We deal with them largely in mass, through their shaykhs, and the shaykh’s view of government is an objectionable means of extracting money . . .”145 Quite clearly, Baghdad was embroiled in a struggle between nationalism and localism, and until it could assert the former’s primacy, any call to revolt would be hollow.

Looking beyond Iraqi borders, Rashid Ali had little more luck gaining aid than he did looking within. For example, upon hearing of the Baghdad revolt, ‘Aziz al-Misri was blunt in telling Egyptian army officers, who were optimistic that they might “make Egypt a second Iraq,” that they did “not know Iraqi politicians as well as [he] did.”146 Rashid Ali found similar disinterest coming from Saudi Arabia’s King Abd al-Aziz. The King told the Iraqi premier that he had “blundered and make a big mistake in fighting Great Britain at such a critical time, and that any difference of opinion between themselves and Great Britain should have been solved by peaceful means.”147

These reactions appear to indicate the simple fact that the Arab nationalist movement, at this time, appeared to be nothing more than a shapeless, ununified, counter position to British imperialism. It had very little popular and international appeal. Nationalism, being a European import to the Arab East via Berlin and elsewhere, was, for the most part, incompatible with a highly stratified Iraqi society.

Upon beginning this work, I found myself drawn to the idea that festering at the heart of Great Britain’s Iraqi policy was a concern for the volatility of Arab nationalism. It took little time, however, to discover that this thesis was false--rather than halting the spread of Arab national fervor, Great Britain’s policy was driven, as we have seen, by its fear of an impending German pincer movement. on Egypt and the Suez Canal, and the loss of its crucial oil reserves in Mesopotamia and Persia.

This is not to say that the Rashid Ali coup d’’etat was not based on the fundamentals and frustrations of Arab nationalism. Although Arab nationalism might have given birth to the Baghdad revolt, it was not, however, in the eyes of British leadership, save Wavell, going to spread like wildfire throughout Great Britain’s Middle Eastern positions. Rather it was a bevy of military considerations which drove Whitehall’s Iraqi policy. Concerns for Arab nationalism were limited to the futile pleas of Wavell. Those who mattered, those who were dictating policy (Churchill, Dill, Eden, Auchinleck), simply could not afford to look beyond pressing military developments. British policy in the area generated itself--the region’s strategic importance meant that the German ring which was quickly closing in on Suez took precedence. Iraq was not regarded as the flash point of a mass Arab movement, instead it was viewed as a possible German bridgehead in the Arab East. In fact, German efforts to exploit the Iraqi coup d’’etat were not as energetic as they could have been. In light of this, Kedourie broaches an excellent point. German designs in North Africa were to be mostly small-scale and defensive, but because of the energetic initiative of Rommel, this primarily ‘defensive’ operation turned into a very offensively-minded foray which became a grave threat to British positions in Egypt and Palestine. As Kedourie states, “How can the possibility of another Rommel be ruled out in the case of Iraq?”148 Also, could Wavell have afforded to isolate himself from India? We have already explored the possibilities relating to an Axis-occupied Iraq and the impact on the flow of men and materials through the Suez Canal or the Basra to Palestine land bridge. As can be seen, inaction and negotiation, on the part of Wavell could have presented a number of pitfalls, as well as “far-reaching or lasting injury” to the Allied war effort.149 Overrating the question of Arab nationalism detracted from the issue at hand which was to plug the ever-widening breach in Great Britain’s Middle Eastern front.

Four factors constituted the cornerstones of the British campaign, all having a direct relation to its active nature. One need only look to the 18 April landing of Anglo-Indian troops at Basra to find they first key British move. This decision, as Churchill put it, “set [the Iraqis] off at half-cock.”150 In essence, Whitehall’s move fomented an overconfident, but under equipped and undertrained Iraqi military into action. By doing this, Great Britain was able to confront the Iraqis without the benefit of Axis aid. The second vital move was the ‘spirited’ preemptive strike by the R.A.F. at Habbaniya. As mentioned earlier, Smart’s action robbed the Iraqi command of its strategic advantage which it held through its possession of the heights overlooking Habbaniya. Third, we can assume that the strength of Whitehall’s policy in Iraq, perhaps admonished other pro-Axis cells throughout the British Empire from catching inspiration from Rashid Ali and his followers. Interestingly enough, in a 25 May message from the Iranian government to the German Foreign Ministry, the Iranians expressed its reservations about the proposed delivery of oil to pro-Axis forces in Iraq as it was fearful of British reprisals.151 Obviously, with British forces on the way to Baghdad, the Iranian government probably sensed that Churchill was not intent upon stopping at the Tigris, but rather continuing into Persia. In fact, two months later, the pro-Axis Bandar Shah government folded merely two days after the bold joint Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran was launched on 25 August. Finally, the most vital decision taken by Whitehall was one which shifted the command of HABFORCE from Wavell to the Chiefs of Staff. As Churchill recounted, the Chiefs of Staff “overruled from Whitehall the judgment of the man on the spot. They took the issue out of his hands and assumed the responsibility themselves for ordering the relief of Habbaniya and for rejecting all ideas of negotiation with Rashid Ali of accepting Turkish mediation, which at one time was mentioned.”152

Quite clearly, the difference between British victory and disastrous defeat in Iraq dwelled in Whitehall’s decision to opt for active or inactive policies. Fortunately for Great Britain and the larger Allied war effort, London chose action. This is not to say that it was incorrect for Wavell to consider the repercussions of a British defeat in Iraq; British prestige in the region would have hit rock-bottom and results could have been irreparable. Yet with inaction there was a solid chance that the same might have unfolded. Therefore, the only route to take, was one of preemptive action. And through what Churchill christened a “brilliant success,” Axis and Iraqi hopes were smothered, and British prestige in the Middle East became a bit stronger.

Top of Page


[Home][Herodotus]


Last updated August 9, 2001. Please send comments, questions, and reports of problems to jcscott@saclink.csus.edu. Composed by: James C. Scott, CSUS Reference Librarian. Copyright ©: 2001.