Category Archives: middle east

Saladin – Hero of Islam by Geoffrey Hindley

Saladin

Saladin has a vaunted place in Medieval history, normally tagged along with ‘Crusades’ and ‘Richard the Lionheart’. Its a common feature of history that folklore will find two adversaries and link them together irretrevably. But does this ‘versus’ school of history take anything away from the individuals concerned?

One of the problems about our understanding of Saladin, is that his place in history normally begins when Richard the Lionheart landed in the Holy Land. When in fact, he had a long career much predating the Third Crusade. While western readers may not be particularly interested in anything that happened pre-Lionheart, it is vital to understand how Saladin’s early life led to his development into one of the first – and indeed very few – leaders who managed to achieve pan-islamic unity in a common cause.

I must admit to having trouble following the early chapters, with the numerous caliphs, emirs, vizirs and sultans that existed throughout the Middle East in the 12th Century. As I’m not exactly a Medieval Historian, it is very hard to get to grips with the political situation that affected the Crusades. But what I can substantiate from Hindley’s account, is that Middle East politics were incredibly complex, even 850 years ago. It was an incredible achievement by Saladin to unite such disparate groups.

What does the story of Saladin tell us about the modern era, particularly regarding past troubles in Palestine? Firstly, that viewing the issue of the Middle East in terms of religion versus religion is not adequate – in 1189 islamic unity was extremely fragile to say the least. Also, that there was a significant amount of chivalry between the two sides. Attempts to paint one side or the other as infidels were largely a construction. Saladin much admired the dedication of the crusaders in fighting for their cause, whereas many crusaders keenly absorbed eastern culture.

It would be all to easy to express revulsion at the frequent massacres and atrocites that were committed during the Crusades. But is this right? We are guilty of looking through modern eyes at events that took place long ago, in an era of completely different social codes – the war crime is a twentieth century phenomenon. Yet in the same context, codes of chivalry were prevalent among Christian and Muslim alike.

Perhaps these are events that modern day inhabitants of the Middle East might like to reflect on? Far too often in history old misdemeanours and unpleasant events are dragged up and misused as justification for yet more bloodshed. While past events should not be forgotten, they should be learnt from. When Richard the Lionheart’s Crusade faltered just before Jerusalem, Saladin promised that Christian pilgrims would be allowed ino Jerusalem unhindered. An example of magnanitude that encaspsulates an extraordinary man.

Saladin – Hero of Islam is published by Pen and Sword

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Portsmouth an the Anglo-Iraqi War 1941

Prior to the Second World War Iraq as governed by Britain under a League of Nations Mandate. Despite this there were few British forces in Iraq, and those that were in the main belonged to the RAF. The biggest base at RAF Habbaniya, 55 miles west of Baghdad, supported a number of aircraft, RAF ground forces, and also acted as a training base.

On 1 April 1941 a group of Iraqi nationalists embarked on a coup against the Regent of Iraq. The immediate plans of the group, led by Rashid Ali, were to expel the British and allies themelves with the Axis powers. The British forces at Habbaniya were seriously outnumbered, having only 84 obsolete planes wth only 39 pilots, 1000 other personnel, and a few ancient armoured cars.

Habbaniya was the scene of heavy fighting for several weeks, being under seige until reinforcements came by land from Egypt and by sea via Basra. The Iraqi rebels finally surrendered at Baghdad on 31 May 1941. The war resulted in the occupation of Iraq by British forces, preventing Germany from formenting further trouble or using it as a base. The Iraqi oil fields were also secured. Wavell wrote that the “gallant defence” of Habbaniya was crucial, and Churchill that the “spirited defence” of Habbaniya was a “prime factor” in British success.

Flight Sergeant Albert Couch, 33 and from Buckland, and Flight Sergeant Philip Osborn, 41 and from Southsea, both died during the uprising – Couch on 6 May, Osborn on 16 May. It is unclear whether they were aircrew or ground crew. Their service numbers indicate that both were pre-war regular members of the RAF. They are buried in Habbaniya War Cemetery, Iraq.

For many years Commonwealth War Graves in Iraq have been un-maintained due to the political situation in that county. Hopefully some day soon the graves of allied servicemen in Iraq will be restored to the condition that they deserve.

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The Syria-Lebanon Campaign of 1941

The roots of the Syria-Lebanon Campaign were sown in the aftermath of the First World War. Britain was given a League of Nations mandate to govern Palestine and Jordan; France, meanwhile, was given one to occupy Lebanon and Syria.

With the fall of France in 1940, there were fears that the Vichy French authorities, nominally neutral but sympathetic to Germany, would allow German forces to use these French territories as a springboard to attack Palestine, Egypt and the Middle East. In May 1941 Admiral Darlan signed an agreement allowing German forces access to French bases in Syria. Against the backdrop of a pro-German coup in Iraq, it was essential for British forces to prevent the Germans gaining a foothold.

Under General Henry Maitland Wilson a plan was drawn up. Four lines of attack were envisaged – on Damascus and Beirut from Palestine, on northern Syria from Iraq, and central Syria, also from Iraq. What followed was a cucial campaign, which has been virtually overlooked in the history of the Second World War.

The campaign began on 9 June 1941 at the battle of the Litani river, the natural border between Palestine and Lebanon. By 15 June British forces were at Kissoue, on the outskirts of Damascus. In the fighting there Private James Hurst, from Southsea and of the Hampshire Regiment, was killed. On 22 June Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh Greatwood, Commanding Officer of the 6th Raputana Rifles, an Indian Army unit, was killed Merdjayoun. On 11 July 1941 Private Frederick Swift, of the 2nd Battalion of the Queens Regiment, was killed during the advance on Beirut. He was 27 and from Stamshaw. On the same day Private William Kingswell, of the 2nd Battalion, Kings Own Royal Regiment, was also killed. He was 29 and from Southsea. All of these men are buried in Damascus War Cemetery, Syria.

A ceasfire was finally called on 12 July 1941, with British and Commonwealth forces in control of Syria and Lebanon. Many figures who would later go on to win fame took part in the campaign, including a certain Major-General William Slim, and a certain Lieutenant Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne, who fought with 11 Commando at the Litani River. Mayne would later go on to command the SAS and win 4 Distinguished Service Orders.

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Hitler’s Gulf War: The Fight for Iraq 1941

Hitler's Gulf War

Hitler's Gulf War

Contrary to popular opinion, Iraq did not suddenly appear in 1991. Nor during the Iran-Iraq War. The country played a not insignificant part in the Second World War, as this new book by Barrie G James argues.

Britain had received a League of Nations mandate to administer Iraq after the First World War. Severely cash-strapped after 4 years of war, the new RAF proposed to control and police the new territory by air. This left the legacy of an RAF Base at Habbaniya, and Army bases in the south in Basra.

In 1941 an alliance between pan-Arab leader the Mufti of Jerusalem and Iraqi nationalist Army officers, with tacit promises of support from Germany and Italy, launched an uprising to push the British out of Iraq. The British in the country were heavily outnumbered, and reinforcements were a long way off – the British were hard pressed in the North African desert, where the Germans had just pushed them out of Greece and were about to assault Crete.

But somehow, a tiny force of RAF pilots in obsolete aircraft, supported by a few companies of infantry and some local volunteers, held off the Iraqi Army at Habbaniya. The British Embassy in Baghdad was beseiged. A scratch force of reinforcements was sent from Palestine, and an Indian Army Division landed in Basra.

Against all the odds, the RAF and the Army managed to put down the coup and secure Iraq. The loss of Iraq might have been catastrophic. It would have exposed the rear of the British Forces in Egypt, and lost vital oilfields. It might also have led to threats to India.

Why the coup did not succeed is a mystery. Or, rather, why the Axis powers did not give the coup more support. The Germand and Italians had offered support, but in the event only a handful of aircraft arrived, as well as several advisors who seem to have spent more time fighting each other than advising. The Germans were certainly pre-occupied with launching their assault on Crete, which although dominating a part of the Mediterranean, had nowhere near the strategic importance of Iraq. If even a fraction of the airborne forces that were employed in Crete had been used instead in Iraq, the course of the war may have been different. In the event, Germany had to secure the Balkans after Mussolini’s disastrous invasion of Greece. This in turn delayed the attack on Russia. All evidence, if any is needed, that the Axis powers’ strategy seriously let them down at this point in the war.

I have something of a personal interest in this story, as my great-uncle, Thomas Daly, was onboard HMS Enterprise when she was giving Naval gunfire support off Basra during the attempt to put down the coup. Later in 1942 my Grandad, Henry Miller, landed in Basra with the 10th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, and spent some months in Kirkuk guarding against the threat of a German thrust down the Caucasus.

This is a very important book, as is any that fills a gap and flags up an overlooked subject. Some maps might be useful, as plenty of places are referred to, and it would be easier to picture the lie of the land and the situation on the ground. Some illustrations might also add to the overall feel of the book too. But in its favour, Barrie James has used a readable, Cornelius Ryan style of writing, which might lack references but is more approachable to the non-academic.

Hitlers Gulf War: The Fight for Iraq 1941 is published by Pen & Sword Aviation

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Centurion vs. T55: Yom Kippur War 1973

Centurion vs. T-55: Yom Kippur War 1973

Centurion vs. T-55: Yom Kippur War 1973

Both the British Centurion and Soviet T55 tanks trace their roots back to the second world war. With the Centurion, the woeful British tanks of the second world war inspired designers to make sure that the Army never went to war with such sub-standard armoured vehicles again. Not only that, but it proved very succesful as an export. Meanwhile the T55 owed much of its design to the legendary T34.

Although both were designed to combat the German Panthers and Tigers, increasingly as the Cold War developed they faced each other in North Europe, on either side of the Iron Curtain. They never faced each other in action, but they did however equip many of the second and third world states, particularly in the middle east. This book by Simon Dunstan compares the performance of the machines and the men who operated them, using the Yom Kippur War of 1973, between Israel and Syria and Egypt, as a case study.

Comnparison in history is crucial. Particularly in military history. It is one thing to say that a tank is impressive, but how does it fare against its contemporaries? That is the real acid test of any military hardware. Can it defeat its opponent? If not, then its occupants are in trouble. Therefore, the duel series is onto a winner in my opinion.

But comparing the machines alone is not enough. Without the men to operate them they would stand idle. In the case of the Yom Kippur War, the Israeli Centurions and Arab T55′s were finely matched technologically, but the Israeli’s training, leadership and motivation proved decisive. After being caught off guard and then holding back a strong attack at the beginning of the war, the Israelis held their ground and launched a decisive counter-attack. And this very much mirrored the British and NATO policy. They could never hope to build more tanks than the Russians, so chose to concentrate on quality, and training. And when opposing forces are matched in terms of a balance between quanitity and quality in equipment, training usually proves decisive, backed up by morale and leadership.

Simon Dunstan has written widely on both the Middle East and Armour, and this breadth of knowledge pays dividends in this book. Different factors are considered, without being disparate, and the broader context of the Cold War and the Second World War provide a sound basis. This book informs greatly our knowledge of armoured warfare. Not only that, but it makes me want to go to Bovington to look at some tanks!

Centurion vs. T55 is published by Osprey

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