Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Air War Over Iraq III




Habbaniya also came under Iraqi air attack, and two Gladiator pilots were wounded by bomb splinters on the polo ground. One Gladiator intercepted a Douglas 8A and, after firing two bursts, drove it off.

Armed ground personnel and Arab auxiliaries ventured from the airfield and rounded up 408 demoralized Iraqi prisoners, including 27 officers. Counting those POWs, Rashid Ali lost more than 1,000 men that day, compared with seven British killed and 10 wounded.

The next day the British could find no trace of the enemy near Habbaniya. A lone Nisr attacked at 10:45 a.m., but a Blenheim Mk.IVF of No. 203 Squadron shot it down in flames. The British also raided the airfield at Baquba, during which Pilot Officer J. Watson, piloting a Gladiator, encountered an Iraqi Gladiator, attacked it from behind and last saw it in a steep dive. Back at Habbaniya, ground personnel eventually found and shot up a few Iraqi machine gun nests in the village of Dhibban just east of the airfield.

In the previous five blazing days, Habbaniya's makeshift air force had flown 647 recorded sorties, dropped more than 3,000 bombs of various sizes, totaling over 50 tons, and fired more than 116,000 machine gun rounds. The British lost just 13 airmen killed, 21 critically wounded and four to emotional collapse. It was a smashing victory over Rashid Ali, who now faced the British reprisal with a demoralized army and an air force that barely existed.

On the day that this motley fleet of RAF antiques was reducing the combined Iraqi forces outside Habbaniya to junk, Luftwaffe Colonel Werner Junck was in Berlin being briefed by Chief of Air Force General Staff Hans Jeschonnek. The colonel's new mission was to organize a special force called Sonderkommando Junck, to be sent to Iraq. When Jeschonnek stated, "The Führer desires a heroic gesture," Junck asked precisely what that meant. Jeschonnek replied, "An operation which would have significant effect, leading perhaps to an Arab rising, in order to start a jihad, or holy war, against the British." The Germans were unaware that their erstwhile Mideast allies had already been soundly defeated and that Habbaniya's garrison was at almost that very moment receiving a message from Churchill: "Your vigorous and splendid action has largely restored the situation. We are watching the grand fight you are making. All possible aid will be sent."

Twelve Messerschmitt Me-110Cs of the 4th Staffel (squadron) of Zerstörergeschwader (destroyer wing) 76 (4/ZG.76), two Me-110Cs of ZG.26, seven Heinkel He-111Hs of 4th Staffel, Kampfgeschwader (bomber wing) 4, and a transport contingent of 20 Junkers Ju-52/3ms and a few Ju-90s were hastily decorated in Iraqi markings. They began flying to Mosul via Greece and Syria on May 11. In an ill-fated start, one He-111 was fired on by Arab tribesmen as it approached Baghdad airport. That plane landed with Major Axel von Blomberg, the Luftwaffe liaison officer to Rashid Ali, dead.

On May 12 British reconnaissance planes discovered several German aircraft in Iraq, and on the 14th one of No. 203 Squadron's Blenheims spotted a Ju-90 at Palmyra airport in Syria, confirming Vichy French cooperation in violation of its nominal neutrality. British aircraft -- including Curtiss Tomahawks of No. 250 Squadron, in the first combat sorties ever flown by P-40s -- attacked Palmyra the same day. It was the first round of hostilities that would ultimately lead to the British invasion of Syria in June.

Habbaniya struck at the Luftwaffe first when Flying Officer E.C. Lane-Sansom, of No. 203 Squadron, strafed Mosul at 3:15 a.m on May 16. At 9:35 a.m. three He-111s bombed Habbaniya and were themselves attacked by a Gladiator. Caught in the German gunners' crossfire, Flying Officer Gerald D.F. Herrtage's fuel tank was hit, and though he bailed out before his Gladiator exploded in flames, his parachute became tangled. Herrtage's death was not in vain, however -- one Heinkel's engine was disabled, resulting in a crash-landing before it reached Mosul. The Germans launched no further bombing attacks, though that one had done more damage to Habbaniya than all the previous Iraqi airstrikes combined.

On May 17, Habbaniya was reinforced by the arrival of four more Gladiators of No. 94 Squadron and four modified, extra-long-range Hawker Hurricane IIC cannon-equipped fighters. While flying their No. 94 Squadron Gladiators over Rashid at 7:55 that morning, Sergeants William H. Dunwoodie and E.B. Smith attacked the two ZG.26 Me-110s just as they were taking off. Smith's quarry crash-landed southeast of the air base with both engines on fire, while Bill Dunwoodie's disintegrated in a fiery midair explosion.

Habforce finally reached Habbaniya on May 18. The base was no longer threatened, but Smart had suffered a nervous breakdown, and by some reports also been injured in a motor vehicle mishap. He was sedated, loaded onto a DC-2 with women and children evacuees and flown to Basra. Smart's emotional collapse was hardly surprising -- he was primarily a school administrator, not a soldier -- yet until Churchill's tardy response, every military officer above him had avoided taking any responsibility for whatever happened at Habbaniya. Air Vice Marshal John Henry D'Albiac took over command of the RAF in Iraq. Besides attacking the Germans at Mosul, 200 miles away, Habbaniya's aircraft helped British forces at Fallujah fight off a succession of Iraqi attempts to retake that town.

On May 20 Habbaniya's Gladiators and Hurricanes dueled with four ZG.76 Me-110s over Fallujah. Sergeant Smith was jumped by five Me-110s and narrowly escaped, but his Gladiator was sufficiently damaged for the Germans to credit it to future night fighter ace Lieutenant Martin Drewes, as his first of an eventual 52 victories. The fighting for Fallujah reached its peak on the 22nd, when the Iraqis, backed by light tanks, made a determined effort that resulted in heavy casualties to both sides. Habbaniya's planes flew 56 sorties in support of the British, attacking a column of 40 vehicles moving up to reinforce the Iraqis, but losing one Audax to return fire. Removing the Lewis machine gun from its rear mounting, Flying Officer L.I. Dremas -- a Greek pilot-in-exile -- and his gunner fought a running gun battle with the Iraqis until, aided by local levies, they reached British lines.

Another Gladiator was brought down by groundfire on May 23, but again the pilot evaded capture and reached friendly lines. Meanwhile the Italians, after delays and only grudging help from the Vichy French, finally flew 11 Fiat C.R.42 biplane fighters of the 155th Squadriglia (squadron) to Rhodes, reaching Kirkuk on May 26. From there they began strafing British troops, who by then were marching from Fallujah toward Baghdad. As Habbaniya-based planes were supporting the British advance on May 29, they were attacked by two Fiats, which forced an Audax to land damaged, with its pilot wounded. Wing Commander W.T.F. "Freddie" Wightman of No. 94 Squadron dived on one of the C.R.42s and shot it down, with the pilot, a 2nd Lt. Valentini, bailing out and taken prisoner.

On May 30, Habforce, now numbering 1,200 men with eight guns and a few RAF armored cars, lay just outside Baghdad, facing an Iraqi division. The RAF's now-undisputed control of the air made a great difference, however. The Iraqis refused to engage the dreaded British, and the RAF took over Baghdad's airfield. Realizing that the game was up, Rashid Ali fled the capital after embezzling his soldiers' monthly payroll of 17,000 dinars. His followers followed suit, and Iraq's pro-British royal government was restored soon thereafter.

The Italians, too, were sufficiently forewarned to depart Kirkuk for Syria on the 31st, burning two Fiats that were too damaged to fly out. Sonderkommando Junck had a more ignominious departure, the last of its surviving personnel escaping overland to Syria on June 10, leaving behind the wrecks of all 14 Me-110s, five He-111s and two transport planes. Those losses were far less damaging than the pounding their prestige had taken in the eyes of the Arabs they had hoped to convert to the Axis side. A quick, sizable German incursion in support of Rashid Ali would have likely succeeded, but Adolf Hitler was too preoccupied with the looming invasion of the Soviet Union to pay much attention to events in obscure Iraq.

The implications of the Habbaniya battle are staggering. But even the folks back in Mother England, distracted by the capture of German Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, took little notice at the time. Nonetheless, history has an obligation to give full credit to the handful of pilots of No. 4 SFTS, who in five days had secured Britain's vital oil supply, as well as denied Nazi Germany a foothold in the Middle East.

For further reading, try: Dust Clouds in the Middle East, by Christopher Shores; Hidden Victory, by Air Vice Marshal A.G. Dudgeon; and Gloster Gladiator Aces, by Andrew Thomas.

This article was written by Kelly Bell and originally published in the May 2004 issue of Aviation History.

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