REVIEWS ...charts the events in 1941 during the Iraqi uprising and the sterling defense put up by a small RAF base in Habbaniya ...a fascinating story...well worth investing in..." Model Airplane International UK, 06/2010
In May 1941, British forces were fighting to keep Iraq in Allied hands -- a struggle that belatedly involved German and Italian aircraft as well.
At 2 a.m. on April 30, 1941, officials in the British Embassy in Baghdad were awakened by Iraqi military convoys rumbling out of the Rashid Barracks, across bridges and into the desert toward the Royal Air Force (RAF) training base near the Iraqi town of Habbaniya. They immediately sent wireless signals to the air base's ranking commander, Air Vice Marshal Harry George Smart. With his base not set up or prepared for combat, Smart initially could think of little to do other than sound the general alarm -- neglecting to announce the reason. The base speedily degenerated into a madhouse of scared, sleep-sodden, bewildered cadets, instructors and sundry other personnel.
In the spring of 1941, the RAF's No. 4 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) at Habbaniya held just 39 men who knew how to fly an airplane. As May began, however, those instructors -- few of whom had combat experience -- and their students found they were the principal obstacle to a military operation that might well have brought Britain to its knees.
There are those who call the fight for Habbaniya airfield the second Battle of Britain. Fought half a year after the exhaustively chronicled 1940 air campaign that blunted German hopes of neutralizing or conquering England, this Mideastern shootout was at least as crucial to the outcome of World War II -- yet few have heard of it.
The prize over which the campaign raged was crude oil. Although Britain had granted Iraq independence in 1927, the British empire still maintained a major presence there, since Britain's oil jugular passed through that Arab kingdom. On April 3, 1941, militant anti-British attorney Rashid Ali el Gailani led a coup d'tat that set him up as chief of the National Defense government. This Anglophobic barrister's dearest ambition was to expel by military force all Englishmen from the Middle East. He set about enlisting the assistance of like-minded Egyptians who vaguely promised to organize an uprising of their army in Cairo. He contacted German forces in Greece -- which had just fallen to the Third Reich -- to inform them of his intentions and solicit their support. He also let Maj. Gen. Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps, newly arrived in Libya, know they could count on the support of pro-Axis Vichy French forces in Syria to provide easy access to Iraq. Finally, he told the Germans he would secure for them unrestricted use of all military facilities in Iraq, whether or not they were held by the British.
Until Rashid Ali's coup, British forces in the region -- falsely comforted by the 1927 treaty, by which Iraq and the United Kingdom were technically bound as allies -- anticipated little trouble beyond scattered anti-British riots by civilians. Rashid Ali's pro-Axis overtures set Prime Minister Winston Churchill at odds with his commander in the Middle East, General Sir Archibald Wavell. Wavell insisted that he had his hands full as it was, between evacuating Greece, preparing for an expected German invasion of Crete and dealing with Rommel's recent North African offensive. Churchill recognized the threat that an Axis inroad in Iraq would pose to the empire. It could deprive Britain of crude oil from the fields in northern Iraq, sever its air link with India and encourage further anti-British uprisings throughout the Arab mandates.
As a first response, the 2nd Brigade of the 10th Indian Division landed at Basra on the night of April 29, with the rest of the division soon to follow, along with the aircraft carrier Hermes and two cruisers. On learning of that development, Rashid Ali mobilized his Iraqi army and air force supporters and dispatched them to seize Habbaniya air base.
Situated on low ground next to the Euphrates River less than 60 miles from Baghdad, Habbaniya was overlooked 1,000 yards to the south by a 150-foot-high plateau. Beyond that was Lake Habbaniya, from which British flying boats evacuated the base's civilian personnel, including women and children, on April 30. The base's cantonment housed 1,000 RAF personnel and the 350-man 1st Battalion of the King's Own Royal Regiment. There were also 1,200 Iraqi and Assyrian constabulary organized in six companies, but the British could only rely on the four companies of Assyrian Christians, who devoutly hated Iraqis of different extraction. Aside from 1st Company, RAF Armoured Cars, with its 18 outdated Rolls-Royce vehicles, the principal weaponry available to the base was its aircraft, the most potent of which were nine obsolete Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters and a Bristol Blenheim Mk.I bomber. The other planes at the school comprised 26 Airspeed Oxfords, eight Fairey Gordons and 30 Hawker Audaxes. Aside from the unsuitability of its aircraft for combat, Habbaniya's greatest vulnerability lay in its dependence on a single electric power station that powered the pumps necessary to supply its base with water.
During the chaos following the alarm, the Iraqis arrived and set up artillery along the plateau running along the far side of the base's landing field. This was a ghastly surprise for Air Vice Marshal Smart, who sent out an Audax trainer to reconnoiter at daybreak on April 30. The crew's initial report was that the highlands were alive with what looked like more than 1,000 soldiers with fieldpieces, aircraft and armored vehicles. At 6 a.m. an Iraqi officer appeared at the camp's main gate and handed over a letter that read: "For the purpose of training we have occupied the Habbaniya Hills. Please make no flying or the going out of any force of persons from the cantonment. If any aircraft or armored car attempts to go out it will be shelled by our batteries, and we will not be responsible for it."
Such comportment of forces on a "training exercise" struck Smart as disquietingly inappropriate, so he typed out the following reply for the courier: "Any interference with training flights will be considered an ‘act of war' and will be met by immediate counter-offensive action. We demand the withdrawal of the Iraqi forces from positions which are clearly hostile and must place my camp at their mercy."
Smart next had his ground crews dig World War I–style trenches and machine gun pits around the base's seven-mile perimeter, pathetic defenses against aerial attack and shelling from elevated positions. That left the cadets and pilots to arm, fuel and position their aircraft in 100-degree heat. The young men shoved their planes into the safest possible locations -- behind buildings and trees, where they were still vulnerable.
Habbaniya's RAF base commander, Group Captain W.A.B. Savile, divided his airplanes into four squadrons. The Audaxes were organized as A, C and D squadrons, under Wing Commanders G. Silyn-Roberts, C.W.M. Wing and John G. Hawtrey, respectively. B Squadron, under Squadron Leader A.G. Dudgeon, operated 26 Oxfords, eight Gordons and the Blenheim. In addition to the squadrons, Flight Lt. R.S. May led the Gladiators as a Fighter Flight from the polo ground. Although most of the planes were old, there were an impressive number of them. Of the 35 flying instructors on hand, however, only three had combat experience, and there were even fewer seasoned bombardiers and gunners. Smart selected the best of the cadets to bolster those numbers, while the ground crews installed racks and crutches for 250-pound and 20-pound bombs on the trainers.
On the evening of April 30, the British ambassador to Iraq radioed Smart that he regarded the Iraqi actions up to that point as acts of war and urged Smart to immediately launch air attacks. He also reported he had informed the Foreign Office in London of the Habbaniya situation and that His Majesty's diplomats both in Baghdad and London were urging the Iraqis to withdraw -- without response.
Habbaniya received four more wireless messages in the small hours of May 1. First, the ambassador promised to support any action Smart decided to take, although Smart would likely have preferred to have a high-ranking military figure giving him that backing. Second, the commander in chief, India (Habbaniya was still part of India Command), advised Smart to attack at once. The third dispatch was from the British commander in Basra, announcing that because of extensive flooding he could send no ground forces, but would try to provide air support. Smart finally heard from London: The Foreign Office -- again, civilians -- authorized him to make any tactical decisions himself, on the spot.
Meanwhile, by May 1 the Iraqi forces surrounding Habbaniya had swelled to an infantry brigade, two mechanized battalions, a mechanized artillery brigade with 12 3.7-inch howitzers, a field artillery brigade with 12 18-pounder cannons and four 4.5-inch howitzers, 12 armored cars, a mechanized machine gun company, a mechanized signal company and a mixed battery of anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns. This totaled 9,000 regular troops, along with an undetermined number of tribal irregulars, and about 50 guns.