RAF Fordson Armoured Car

An RAF Fordson Armoured Car waits outside Baghdad while negotiations for an armistice take place.

(April 30, 2021) Today, 80 years ago, 6,000 — soon to grow to 9,000 — Iraqi soldiers occupied the heights surrounding Habbanayi Royal Air Force Base, which was located near Lake Habbanayi, about 60 miles outside of Baghdad.

Later, Iraqi troops occupied Fallujah, Ramadi and the bridges over the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The next day, Iraqi soldiers attacked, and captured, the small British outpost at Rutbah, about 125 miles west of Baghdad, near the Transjordanian border in western Al-Anbar Province on the Amman-Baghdad Highway. The British ordered a company of the Arab Trans-Jordan Defense Force to retake the fort, but it refused to cross the Jordanian/Iraqi border.

The origin of this situation began, as did the war itself, with World War I, which pitted the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Kingdom and Empire, the Bulgarian Kingdom and the Ottoman-Turkish Empire — known as the “Central Powers” —against, essentially, the rest of the world.

After the defeat of the Central Powers and the formation of the League of Nations, Turkey was, pursuant to the Treaty of Sévres and later the Treaty of Lausanne, stripped of its Arab possessions and they were awarded to France and Great Britain as “Mandates” to administer. One of the Mandates, which the British were tasked with administering, was Iraq. In 1932, Great Britain granted Iraq its independence —sort of.

Already, it was a source of oil, which the British sought to protect. In 1921, the British had tapped Faisal bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashemi to be King Faisal I of Iraq. It didn’t hurt that he had fought with “Lawrence of Arabia” against the Turks, had lived in England and was related to the Prophet Muhammad. A year after the British granted the Kingdom of Iraq its nominal independence, Faisal I, died, and was succeeded by his son Ghazi.

The “independence” that the British granted to Iraq in 1932 was similar to that which the United States envisioned for the country when it attacked Iraq 70 years later — military bases, guaranteed oil, British “advisors” to the Iraqi government, Iraqi assistance in any war in which Britain was involved, and the separation of Kuwait into a separate country.

When King Ghazi was killed in a car crash on April 4, 1939, he was succeeded by his four-year-old son, Faisal II. Because of his youth, his father’s cousin and brother-in-law, pro-British Prince Abd al-Ilāh was named Regent.

Although Great Britain pushed for a declaration of war against the German Reich from the Kingdom of Iraq, in accordance with the pre-independence treaty which it had imposed upon Iraq, the best that it could get from Iraq was a severing of relations with the Reich. When the Kingdom of Italy declared war on Great Britain, Iraq refused to even break relations with the Italians.

On March 31, 1940, Rashid Ali al-Galani became Prime Minister. He was a nationalist and wanted the British out of his country. He was forced to resign on Jan. 31, 1941, by the pro-British Regent. However, backed by four colonels, known as “The Golden Square,” against the background of recent Axis’ success in North Africa, he was reinstalled on April 3, 1941, and declared himself the “Chief of the National Defense Government.”

The Regent left Baghdad for British protection. He went first to the R.A.F. base at Habbinayi. The British then transported him to Basra, after Indian troops secured that city on May 2, and resided on the gunboat HMS Cockchafer. The new Iraqi prime minister named the new regent for the child-king — Sharif Sharaf — who spent his time as regent praying and tending his garden, leaving matters of state to the prime minister.

A joint Italian-German declaration of support, promising military and financial assistance to Iraq was issued April 9, 1941, and a week later, Germany issued a statement promising to “support” any action against the British. These statements were misinterpreted by the Iraqis as guaranteeing that the mighty German Wehrmacht would come to their immediate aid in any war with Britain.

The anti-British sentiment was stoked, in part, by the collapse of the Arab Revolt in Palestine, which was also a British “Mandate.” After its collapse, many of its ringleaders fled to Baghdad, including Haj Mohammed Effendi Amin el-Huseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.

When relations between the Kingdom of Iraq and the United Kingdom began to unravel, the Grand Mufti issued a fatwā calling for a holy war against the British. In return, the British sent David Raziel, commander of Irgun, Ya’akov Meridor, Raziel’s successor in Irgun, and two others to Iraq on May 17, 1941 to kill the Grand Mufti. The Irgun was a Jewish paramilitary organization operating in Palestine. It was more aggressive than the Haganah, but not as aggressive as The Stern Gang.

On May 2, 1941, the R.A.F. began launching its own “Shock and Awe” air strikes from Habbanayi against Iraqi air bases and military positions. Within a few days, Iraqi air power had been destroyed. But help was on the way.

On May 11, the first three German planes arrived in Mosul, and the Iraqis seized the oil wells there, and closed the pipeline running to Haifa, from which the Royal Navy derived its fuel for the Mediterranean Fleet. Although the Turks offered to mediate the disputes, the British declined.

Command of Commonwealth ground forces in Iraq passed from Maj. Gen. William A. K. Fraser, on May 8, 1941, to Lt. Gen. Edward Quinan. Eight days later due to Gen. Fraser’s poor health, he was replaced by Maj. Gen. William Slim as commander of the 10th Indian Infantry Division, which had captured the southern Iraqi city of Basra on April 18, 1941.

Although Palestine had been denuded of most troops for service in Greece, North and East Africa, Major-Gen. George Clark was assigned the task of scrapping together something. This “something” was labeled “Habforce,” short for “Habbanayi Force.”

Since the Habbanayi position was surrounded, time was of the essence, so Gen. Clark divided his force into two columns, one of which was labeled “Kingcol,” short for “Kingstone Column,” for its commander Brig. Gen. James Kingstone.

“Kingcol” consisted of the Fourth Cavalry Brigade, two companies of the Essex Infantry Regiment, an R.A.F. armored car company and a battery of 25-pound howitzers. The remainder of “Habforce,” commanded by Lt. Col. John S. Nichols, consisted of the balance of The Essex Regiment, the rest of the field artillery regiment, an anti-tank battery and a 400-man detachment of the Arab Legion, which retook Rutbah on May 10.

The next day, “Kingcol” departed from Haifa, on the Mediterranean coast of Palestine, bound for Habbaniya, 500 miles distant, in 130 degree heat. Accompanying “Kingcol” was Marine Capt. James Roosevelt, oldest son of the American president.

The Luftwaffe attacked “Kingcol” on May 16. Two days later, “Kingcol” arrived at Habbaniya, but by then the Iraqis had abandoned the siege.

The next objective for Commonwealth troops was Fallujah, which guarded the best bridge across the Euphrates River to Baghdad. At that time, it was a town of 10,000. Before the American invasion, it had grown to a city of 600,000. After Commonwealth forces surrounded the town, the RAF bombed it into submission and on May 19, the 300 defenders surrendered, at no cost to the invaders.

The rest of “Habforce” arrived on May 25. The following day, a fighter squadron from the Regia Aeronautica Italia arrived in Kirkuk and began attacking the British troops coming from Fallujah to Baghdad.

Within the week, Commonwealth forces, even though outnumbered by more than 15 to one, were headed to Baghdad. On May 27, planes of the Regia Aeronautica arrived at Mosul. The next day, the 21st Indian Brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Charles J. Weld, moving up from Basra, captured the ancient city of Ur, birthplace of Abraham.

Commonwealth forces reached the outskirts of Baghdad on May 30. After stealing the Iraqi soldiers’ monthly pay of 17,000 dinars, Prime Minister Rashid Ali, other members of his government, and the Grand Mufti were on their way to Persia/Iran, and then to Germany, by way of Turkey and Italy.

Upon their arrival in Germany, they were welcomed as Iraq’s government-in-exile. On May 31, an Iraqi delegation headed by the Baghdad mayor met the British at the Washash Bridge and executed an armistice. The same day, the Italians, seeing that the jig was up, escaped to Syria.

On Nov. 28, der Führer received the Grand Mufti, who told him that, “... the Arab world was firmly convinced that a German victory, by virtue not only of the large army, brave soldiers and brilliant military strategists at the German’s disposal, but also because Allah could never grant victory to an unjust cause.”

Der Führer responded by informing the Grand Mufti of his plans for the Jews. Subsequently, the Grand Mufti assisted in recruiting Bosnian Muslims for the SS Handschar (Sword) Division which was used, primarily, to fight Marshal Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia.

On June 1, the Regent, Prince Abd al-Ilāh, reentered the Iraqi capital and resumed his position, which he held until the king reached majority. As would happen 70 years later, the city was torn apart by rioting and looting, with many Jews being killed. A new Iraqi cabinet was formed, on June 4, with British assistance.

The Commonwealth forces lost 60 killed and 28 planes. The Iraqis suffered 1,750 casualties, of which 500 were fatalities. Their entire air force was destroyed. In addition, 29 German and 12 Italian, aircraft, were lost.

The Commonwealth forces in Iraq were later used in the invasions of Syria and Persia/Iran. The British continued to occupy Iraq until the end of October 1947, all of which made no friends in the Arab world for the West.

Next week: Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess Flies to Great Britain

Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: wimbrowlaw@gmail.com.

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