With Rommel driving on Egypt and the British pushed out of Greece, a sudden pro-Nazi coup d’état in Iraq lay rich oil fields and more at Germany’s feet.
In the spring of 1941, events in the Middle East suddenly exploded in a crisis for Great Britain. On March 24, Lt. Gen. Erwin Rommel, soon to be known as the legendary “Desert Fox,” dealt the British its first defeat by his Afrika Korps at El Agheila in Libya. It was just the beginning. By April 12, Rommel would drive the hard-pressed British Tommies back to the very gates of Egypt itself, threatening the vital Suez Canal. Also in April, the German Twelfth Army would overrun Greece in a lightning three-week campaign, forcing a wholesale evacuation of British forces to the island of Crete only to be ejected once again by a German airborne invasion.
Multiple Implications of the Iraq Putsch
Just as these events were unfolding, a worse blow fell. Iraq’s pro-British government was toppled in a coup in March by the very pro-German Rashid Ali al-Gailani. Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Said, had to flee for his life. The British Ambassador, Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, was held hostage in the embassy. Rashid Ali made “threats to the Ambassador about cutting the throats of the British if any bombs were dropped on Baghdad,” recalled British officer Somerset de Chair, who would play an important role in the drama to come.
The Iraq putsch was as devastating a blow to England in the Middle East, especially coupled with the Desert Fox’s spectacular victories in North Africa, because Iraq shared an importance, second only to that of Egypt, for the survival of British power in the entire region. The reason for Iraq’s importance to England was simple. Whoever controlled Iraq sat astride the crucial overland route between Egypt and India, the most precious jewel in England’s Imperial Crown. Just as vital, whoever controlled Baghdad, the Arabian Nights capital of Rag, could sever the vital oil pipelines that flowed across the deserts to the Mediterranean and from Iran to the Iraqi Persian Gulf port of Basra, from which fat-bellied tankers carried the precious fuel that was now the very life’s blood of England and her Empire.
Rommel, whose panzer tanks depended on oil, realized the value of the vast oil reservoir of the Middle East. “In 1939,” he wrote, “Persia and Iraq together provided in all some 15 million tons of mineral oil, compared with Romania’s 6.5 million tons.” Romania was the site of the famed German-controlled oil fields of Ploesti, the target of heavy Allied bombing during the war.
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Ever since World War I overthrew the power of the Ottoman Turks, having a friendly government sitting in Baghdad had been a cornerstone of British policy. The League of Nations had given Iraq, like Palestine, to England as a mandate—almost a colony, but technically under League of Nations’ supervision. When the famed T.E. Lawrence helped Winston Churchill broker the British settlement of the Middle East, Emir Feisal, Lawrence’s leader in the famed Arab Revolt, was installed in Baghdad as king. To ensure Feisal’s rule (and protect Britain’s interest), the British patrolled the vast Iraqi desert and its Bedouin tribes by Royal Air Force (RAF) planes from above and Rolls-Royce armored cars on the desert floor.
Germany’s Plans for the Middle East
But Rashid Ali al-Gailani’s March 1941 coup, led by the secret “Golden Square” society, had toppled this careful settlement. For Rommel, the possibility of a pro-Axis ruler in oil-rich Iraq was a dream come true. With sufficient support from Hitler (which, good for the Western Allies, never materialized, owing in no small part to the Führer’s preoccupation with the coming attack on the Soviet Union), Rommel saw the Afrika Korps striking through the Middle East to seize the oil fields and then, with plenty of fuel for his panzers, be poised to strike, if needed, the underbelly of Russia.
In his crisp, soldierly prose, the Desert Fox spelled out his campaign plans in a note to himself to be used for post-war memoirs: “We could have defeated and destroyed the British Field Army, and that would have opened the road to the Suez Canal.… With the entire Mediterranean coastline in our hands, supplies could have been shipped to North Africa unmolested. It would then have been possible to thrust forward into Persia [present-day Iran] and Iraq in order to cut off the Russians from Basra [which became a main source of supply for Russia once Hitler invaded], take possession of the oil fields and create a base for an attack on southern Russia.” In short, Rommel’s conquest of the Middle East oil fields “would thus have created the conditions for victory in the Russian plains.”
But the Germans had done more than merely dream of Middle East conquest. The groundwork for the plot had been very carefully laid. German secret agents, spies for the famed Abwehr of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, had carefully infiltrated Iraq, under the very noses of the British, fomenting discontent and building support for their candidate for power, Rashid Ali. Already a base was in readiness next door in Persia, where a sizable German—and pro-Nazi—colony already existed.
Somerset de Chair has left an ominous picture of what was going on inside neighboring Persia. “We soon noticed how the stream of German armaments to Persia, by way of Turkey, had been increasing in recent months.… We examined closely the set-up of the German Fifth Column in Persia, where 4,000 Germans in commercial occupations were organized under Gauleiters [Nazi Party leaders] and could be mobilized on the telephone. At the most recent maneuvers the Persian Army had displayed ninety tanks; and we could not rule out the possibility that Germany was going to ‘borrow’ these from Persia to reinforce the Iraqis.”
Already the German Army had formed two special units trained and ready to assist the Iraqis, the 287th and 288th Brandenburg companies [the 288th was commanded by Colonel Menton, an old friend of Rommel’s from the Great War]. The danger was obvious, and growing worse. It was clear that something had to be done about Rashid Ali in Baghdad. It was in this grave hour that one of the most exciting, and least-known, campaigns of World War II was launched—the story of Kingcol and the British march on Baghdad.
The Launching of ‘Kingcol’ and the Legendary Glubb Pasha
Still facing an Afrika Korps bent on the conquest of the Land of the Pharaohs, the British daringly assembled a strike force for the advance on Baghdad. Commanded by Brig. Gen. Joe Kingstone, whom de Chair said some considered “the best fighting Brigadier in the British Army,” the British force assembling for this Arabian Nights’ adventure was called King Column, or “Kingcol” for short, taking part of its name from part of its leader’s name. A more colorful army had not been gathered together in the Middle East since Lawrence of Arabia, mounted on his fleet racing camels, had marshaled the wild Bedouin to do battle with the Turks.
Massing for the searing 750-mile trek across the desert sands from Palestine were soldiers from some of the oldest regiments in the British Army—baptized under fire with the great Duke of Marlborough—standing beside warriors of some of the most picturesque units mustered to guard the frontiers of Britain’s far-flung empire, now led by Marlborough’s descendant, Winston Churchill. De Chair described this colorful and barbaric cavalcade: “We were a motley crowd. His Majesty’s Life Guards and Royal Horse Guards jostled along in their army trucks beside the Bedouin of the Arab Legion—Glubb’s Desert Patrol, swathed in garish robes, who raced about in light trucks armed with Lewis guns,” like the commandos of David Stirling’s Long Range Desert Group fighting against Rummel farther west.
Of all the array led by the capable Kingstone, none was more exotic than the Arab Legion, nor more legendary than Sir John Bagot Glubb, Glubb Pasha [pasha is an old Turkish title loosely meaning “commander” or “leader”]. Second only to Lawrence in the dramatic history of the British Empire in the Middle East, by this time Glubb Pasha was the warrior sheikh of the Arab Legion. He had taken over command of the Legion in 1939 from F.G. Peake, who had formed the desert corps. During World War I, Peake had first been in the Egyptian Camel Corps, and then had been sent to serve under T.E. Lawrence in the Arab Revolt. After the war, Peake entered the service of Feisal’s brother Abdullah, who ruled as Emir, and later as King, of the Arab state of Transjordan, now part of the Kingdom of Jordan. The Arab Legion was formed to control the Bedouin tribes in his new domain, and to defend it from outsiders.
Under the leadership of Peake, and later Glubb, the Arab Legion soon gained such a bold reputation that Arabs from all over the region flocked to join. Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre have described Glubb Pasha in 0, Jerusalem, their account of the birth of Israel, in 1948. “Yet of all the long line of British Arabists that had followed the master [Lawrence] east, he was indisputably the greatest. No Westerner alive had mastered the intricacies of the Bedouin dialect as completely as Glubb. He could hear a Bedouin’s history in the inflections of his accent and read his character in the folds of his kafriyeh [headdress]. He knew Bedouin lore, their customs, their tribal structure, the complex web of unwritten law governing their lives.”