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.