Sunday, March 23, 2003

Kurdish "levy" soldiers guard a British Blenheim bomber at Habbaniya.

British fought
the good fight
once before in Iraq

Student pilots and Kurdish
mercenaries beat back Iraqi
rebels and Hitler's Luftwaffe

By Burl Burlingame

In the last few days, American and British forces have fought running battles in Iraq, in places with unfamiliar names like Shaibah, Basra and airfields H2 and H3. In the spring of 1941, however, these out-of-the-way desert locations suddenly became crucial to the Allied war effort. If not for an overwhelmed handful of Royal Air Force student pilots and Kurdish mercenaries, World War II might have been over before the United States ever entered the fighting.

Iraq, which had been a colony of the Turkish empire, was artificially created at the close of World War I. Under the administration of Great Britain, the new nation was granted independence in 1927 and admitted to the League of Nations in 1932. The price for this independence was a standing treaty with Britain that guaranteed Iraqi assistance in times of war and allowed British troops to pass through the country. In addition, two RAF training bases were established, one at Shaibah -- near the port of Basra -- and a smaller base on the shores of Lake Habbaniya, on the Euphrates River as it snaked out near Baghdad. Both bases were protected by "levies," mercenary troops, primarily of Kurdish and Arab origin.

This is the force of 18 Rolls-Royce armored cars that aggressively advanced on Baghdad in the spring of 1941, routing the much larger rebel Iraqi army.

The lake was an important stopover for British flying boats traveling to India. The only other route was around South Africa. At the start of World War II, Iraqi nationalists, aware of their strategic position, managed to avoid living up to the terms of the 1927 treaty and did not declare war on the Axis powers or sever diplomatic relations with Italy. Britain, preoccupied with its retreat from France and dealing with Italian adventurism in North and East Africa, was able to do little about their balky Iraqi allies other than conspire to place a placid pan-Arabist, Gen. Taha el Hashimi, in charge of Iraq.

In the fall of 1940, Italy launched a surprise invasion of Greece, joined reluctantly by Germany. Soon, British forces were reeling out of the Balkans for Crete and Egypt, while German Gen. Erwin Rommel's ruthless panzers pressed on toward the heart of Egypt. The squeeze was on for control of the Middle East's vital oil fields. If Iraq fell, virtually all access to the region would be severed and the Allies' engines would run dry.

A nationalist group of four Sunni colonels, each a corner of the so-called "Golden Square," engineered a coup in Iraq on March 31, 1941. As "Chief of the National Defense Government," they appointed Rashid Ali al-Gaylania, a pan-Arabist, anti-colonialist ex-prime minister. The new regime immediately began courting Nazi Germany.

Britain could do little other than airlift a handful of troops from India to reinforce the garrisons at Shaibah and Habbaniya. Ali demanded that these troops leave Iraq, and when the British ignored this threat, Ali mobilized an army of more than 10,000 soldiers and marched on Habbaniya. On the night of April 29, the Iraqi army surrounded Habbaniya airfield, emplacing heavy weapons and tanks on a plateau overlooking the marshy airfield. They were soon reinforced by thousands of tribal militia.

The RAF had 64 operational aircraft at Habbaniya, of which 39 were flight worthy, and mustered fewer than 1,000 troops. Almost all the aircraft were biplane trainers, and most of the personnel were either students or instructors -- and their wives and families. The British had neither artillery or tanks, nor did the open station have walled defenses. So when an Iraqi general showed up at the base gate and demanded that the garrison surrender immediately, Rashid and the Golden Square believed the station was theirs.

Instead, the British commander, Air Vice-Marshall H.G. Smart, had RAF crews jury-rig bomb-release mechanisms on the trainers and carried the fight to the Iraqis on the morning of May 2. In a stunning display of precision bombing -- using 20-pound bombs -- a handful of biplanes wiped out the Iraqi headquarters and hit several artillery pieces. The remaining Iraqi guns began raining fire down upon Habbaniya from less than a half-mile away, tearing up the runway and forcing the British to use the base polo and cricket fields as airfields. Iraqi planes strafed the base as well, destroying more than a third of the British trainers. Even so, the RAF flew 193 sorties on that first day alone. The local levy troops also proved resourceful and brave in combat.

By the next day, a handful of more modern Wellington and Blenheim bombers reinforced Habbaniya, and the outnumbered RAF aggressively took the fight to Iraqi airfields. British and levy troops also organized raiding parties. By May 6, unable to absorb the spirited attacks by the British, the far larger Iraqi force atop the plateau over Habbaniya fled in panic.

Relief columns of British troops -- a mobile brigade dubbed "HabForce" and a battalion called "KingCol" -- pressed up from Palestine, and the Habbaniya garrison assumed the worst was over. On May 16, however, Nazi fighters and bombers attacked out of nowhere, causing heavy damage. Hitler had loaned elite Luftwaffe units to the Golden Square and the aircraft flew in from Greece, illegally refueling in neutral, Vichy-held Syria. German crews hastily painted Iraqi markings on their aircraft, attempting to fool observers, and the French covertly began giving most of their Syrian war supplies to the Iraqis.

After a fortnight of give-and-take air combat, HabForce "rescued" the Habbaniya garrison and joined up with troops from Basra. The still-small force, using armored cars that dated back to Lawrence of Arabia's day, then pressed on toward Baghdad in the face of a much larger Iraqi army. The Iraqis organized their defenses along the network of canals and even created floods along the Euphrates to slow the British down. Despite bitter defensive fighting, Rashid and the Golden Square crumbled in disorder, surrendering on May 30. Rashid fled to Germany, where he was a guest of Hitler's until the end of the war, making radio broadcasts of anti-Semitic and anti-British propaganda to Middle East Arabs.

The Luftwaffe units stranded in Iraq retreated back to Syria. By then, however, aware that the Vichy French were secretly aiding the Germans, British bombers began striking at fuel depots in Syria. Allied forces -- including the HabForce and KingCol units -- invaded Syria in June, fighting a short, sharp conflict there before the French surrendered in mid-July 1941. A month later, British and Soviet forces invaded Persia (Iran) and installed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on the throne.

Outnumbered at least three to one, using outmoded equipment and facing the best of Nazi Germany's air power, the British still managed to conquer Iraq in less than four weeks. It was the first time the Luftwaffe had been beaten in World War II.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill noted in his memoirs that "the spirited defence of Habbaniya by the Training School was a prime factor in our success. The Germans had at their disposal an Airborne Force which would have given them Syria, Iraq and Persia, with their precious oil fields!"

But even Churchill didn't know Allied troops would be back in Iraq more than 60 years later, fighting for the same property.

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