Key Point: The Iraqi revolt proved a major headache for the British.
A dangerous outlaw regime sits in power in Baghdad; the leader of one of the world’s superpowers decides it has to be removed at all costs; an army marches across the desert to topple it. The situation may sound familiar. The events of 2003 were in some ways similar to that of 1941. Sometimes history does seem to repeat itself.
Great Britain’s World War II march on Baghdad effectively began with its march on the city during World War I in 1917. After the war Britain was assigned responsibility by the League of Nations for what was then called Mesopotamia. Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill wrote, “We accepted before all the world a mandate for the country and undertook to introduce much better methods of government in place of those we had overthrown.”
Ever the realist, though, Churchill added: “The fact that we shall be calling into being an Arab administration in Baghdad makes it indispensable that we should treat the Arab question as a whole so far as it concerns British interests.”
The one solution to both problems was found in T.E. Lawrence’s old ally in Arabia, Prince Faisal. Churchill pressured British officials “to get Faisal on the throne as quickly as possible.” Although he was completely unknown in Mesopotamia, the British announced he had received 96 percent of the vote in a plebiscite. Then, in a dawn ceremony on August 23, 1922, with hardly a native in sight, the British installed him as king of a renamed Iraq (meaning well-rooted country).
“Much has been written,” comments Christopher Catherwood in Churchill’s Folly: How Winston Churchill Created Modern Iraq, “with what is probably a great deal of accuracy about the highly questionable way in which the referendum was conducted. Many chiefs simply gave the British the answer they wanted, and since ordinary people had next to no say in the process, we cannot say through a democratic process Faisal was the overwhelming and genuine choice of the Iraqi people.”
Nuri as-Said, who fought with Lawrence and Faisal in Arabia, was the country’s dominant political figure as minister of defense (1923-1930), prime minister (1930-1932), foreign minister (1933-1936), then again briefly prime minister (February-April 1940). But support for the British in Iraq extended nowhere beyond him and the monarchy. Nationalists were particularly incensed by the 1930 Anglo-Iraqi Treaty London forced on Baghdad as a precondition for ending the League Mandate. Under it, the British had effective control of Iraqi oil production and foreign policy, military bases for 25 years, and the right to transit troops from India during wartime. British power in Iraq was built on a foundation of desert sand, and when it suddenly shifted in 1941 a British army was again marching on Baghdad, including a politician and a new Lawrence to write about it.
“No Deadlier Foe of Islam Than Britain”
As the fateful year began, the monarchy was led by Emir Abdul Illah, regent since April 1939 for his six-year-old nephew, the namesake grandson of King Faisal. His father had died crashing his car after a late night of partying and drinking. The prime minister since April 1940 was Rashid ‘Ali al-Gaylani, a hard-line nationalist who had opposed the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty. Even more dangerous for the British was the group behind him, a quartet of powerful colonels known as the Golden Square. Their leader, Colonel Salah ad-Dinn as-Sabbagh, made plain their sentiments: “There is no more murderous wolf for the Arab and no deadlier foe of Islam than Britain….The Arabs have no future unless the British Empire comes to an end.”
Rashid ‘Ali refused to break diplomatic relations with Fascist Italy when it went to war with Britain as Nuri as-Said had done against Nazi Germany during his second brief term as prime minister. He held meetings with the Italian Minister, Luigi Gabbrielli, keeping out Nuri, who was foreign minister again. Colonel Salah ad-Dinn had his own meetings with Gabbrielli to request arms.
The regent finally reacted to such intrigues by dismissing the government on January 31, 1941. The Golden Square struck back two months later, seizing Baghdad in a bloodless coup, reinstating Rashid ‘Ali, and sending soldiers to kill Emir Abdul. They were too late. He had already fled, disguised as a woman, to a relative’s house. From there he phoned the American legation and the next morning was being driven west out of town under a rug in the American minister’s car. He reached the British air base at Habbaniya, 55 miles from Baghdad, and was flown to the British base at Basra, 300 miles to the south. From there, he reached final sanctuary with his own uncle, King Abdullah of Transjordan.
To the British ambassador, Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, Rashid ‘Ali reaffirmed the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty. Secretly, he asked Gabbrielli about possible air support and arms from the Italians and Germans. Cornwallis had not believed Rashid ‘Ali and, at his appeal, London reinforced Habbaniya with 400 men of the King’s Own Royal Regiment, and Basra with 3,000 Indian troops. Rashid ‘Ali let the challenge pass, not yet ready for a confrontation until assured of Axis support. Pressure from the Golden Square forced him to change his mind, though, and he warned Cornwallis no further troops would be allowed in Iraq until the newest arrivals had passed through.
The British response was to send 2,000 more Indian soldiers to Basra. Rashid ‘Ali’s protests to Cornwallis were such that the ambassador ordered the evacuation of British subjects in Baghdad to Habbaniya; only 230 got through before the main road was closed for military traffic, trapping Cornwallis and 500 others on the grounds of the British and American legations. At dawn on April 30, 1941, Iraqi forces began placing artillery and antiaircraft guns on the 200-foot plateau just a half-mile south of the Habbaniya base. By noon 9,000 troops had taken up positions, and armored cars had rolled to within 500 yards of the gates.
Blocked by the plateau and backed into a loop of the Euphrates River, Habbaniya was “the worst defensive position in the world,” according to the official history of the Iraq campaign published by the British government after the war. The British, though, were responsible for the base’s situation as much as its geography. “It is notorious,” wrote John Glubb, a former British officer commanding the Transjordan Arab Legion, “that when the Germans occupy a new station, their first task is to build defenses around it, whereas the British in similar circumstances lay out cricket and football fields … Playing fields, cinema and garrison church were there—but no defenses.”
The base had become a training facility for the Royal Air Force rather than an operational field, and its military resources were minimal. Of its 1,000 personnel just 35 were pilots, older instructors who would have to rely on students for aircrew. Of its 80 aircraft the most modern were only a single Bristol Blenheim bomber and nine Gloster Gladiator fighters; the remainder were obsolete Audax and Oxford trainers, Gordon bombers, and Valencia transports with hastily attached makeshift bomb racks for 20-pound bombs.
The ground forces available were 1,550 infantry, 1,200 Iraqi and Assyrian Levies, and 18 armored cars. There were 9,000 dependents and enough food for just a month. Every bathtub, bottle, cup, and bowl was kept filled to the brim in case the base’s water tower was hit. The nearest help was in Basra, 600 miles east in Britain’s Mandate. “There was no possible avenue of escape,” wrote Glubb, “and resistance or surrender were the only courses open.”
From London, Prime Minister Churchill left no doubt about his choice: “If you have to strike, strike hard. Use all necessary force.”
The base commander, Air Vice Marshal H.G. Smart, sent up a flight of aircraft to test the Iraqis, who did not fire on the planes. Smart put his men to work digging trenches, manning machine guns, and pushing or towing aircraft as far as possible from Iraqi artillery range.
After a second day’s standoff, Smart decided on a predawn air strike and ordered a squadron of Vickers Wellington bombers to fly from Basra to join in. The result was an aerial traffic jam in the darkness above Habbaniya.
“As the daylight got stronger we could see that the air above the plateau was like the front of a wasp’s nest on a sunny morning,” wrote Wing Commander Peter Dudgeon. “The 10 Wellingtons were there from Basra making a total of 49 aircraft of five different types and speeds, clustering and jockeying over an area not much bigger than a minor golf course. It was a hairy experience. In my Oxford I would peer down into the dusk, trying to distinguish a juicy target like a gun emplacement—and an Audax would sail past at some crazy angle. Or a Wellington would sail majestically across my bow, giving me heart failure and leaving my machine bucketing about in its slipstream. Luckily, no one hit anybody else, but there were some very close shaves indeed.”