Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Iraq’s First Battle of Fallujah 1941


Today the Iraqi forces are attempting to take the city of Fallujah back from the Islamic State. The first time the town was fought over however was in 1941 during World War II. During that time the British were attempting to take Baghdad and overthrow the government of Premier Rashid Ali Gaylani that was allied with the Germans and Italians.

When World War II broke out in Europe a group of Iraqi politicians and military officers sided with the Axis. This was due to three major factors. First, the Germans swept through Europe, and were threatening Egypt by 1941 leading many in the Iraqi elite to believe that the British would eventually lose. Second, politicians, members of the military, and the general public were all resentful of England’s domination of the country, which had created the nation after World War I as a mandate, imposed the monarchy, and ran the country’s oil industry. At the same time, Berlin and Rome were actively courting Baghdad, and those two countries were seen as possible role models for the development of Iraq. Together that led to the April 1941 coup led by four officers known as the Golden Square that put Rashid Ali Gaylani into power and forced Abdullah Regent of Iraq to flee the country. The new government was widely popular because of its anti-British stance. Germany and Italy immediately released a joint statement saying they supported the coup and offered military support as well. The prime minister and the Golden Square officers wanted to push the British out of Iraq, but did not want to use force. They believed that England would let Iraq slide out of its control as it was defeated in the war. That did not play out as planned as the country became a battlefield in the conflict

Immediately after the coup, Prime Minister Winston Churchill began making plans to remove Gaylani from power to make sure that Iraq stayed under Britain’s influence. In April Churchill ordered forces from India, Transjordan, and Egypt to be sent to Iraq. By the middle of the month, the first troops had arrived at an airbase in Shaibah, Basra, the port of Basra, and the Habaniya airbase in Anbar. PM Gaylani responded by sending the army to surround the Habaniya where they gave an ultimatum to the British to stop their operations there. That was rejected, and the Battle of Habaniya ensued with an Iraqi defeat. The British then started a march on Baghdad, which led to the Battle of Fallujah.

Fallujah was considered the best crossing point of the Euphrates River in Anbar on the road to Baghdad. The Iraqis had flooded most of central Anbar by releasing water from the river. Ramadi had a large Iraqi army contingent and was also isolated by the flooding so that was not considered a good target. Fallujah was considered much easier, and had a bridge across the Euphrates.

The British commander Colonel Ouvry Roberts planned a multi-pronged approach to taking the town. First, there would be heavy bombing of Fallujah to undermine morale. Then leaflets would be dropped demanding that the Iraqis surrender. A four pronged attack on the town would then be launched hoping to seize the bridge before it could be blown up. The main task of seizing the structure would fall on 100 Iraqi levies that had been trained by the British to originally protect the Habaniya base. Another attack would be made by more levies and Indian Ghurkas supported by armored cars and howitzers from the north to cut off reinforcements that might be sent from Ramadi. A thrust from the south would be made using boats to maneuver the flooded Eurphrates. Another contingent of troops would be flown into the east to cut the Fallujah-Baghdad road and block any Iraqi forces being sent from the capital.

On May 19, 1941 the Battle of Fallujah began. At 5 am 57 British planes bombed the town for an hour. The leaflets were then dropped calling for the Iraqis to give up. At dawn, the troops were landed in the west by plane to cut the Fallujah-Baghdad road. Another bombing run was made on the town, and then the Iraqi levies made a charge on the bridge backed by some armored cars. The bridge was seized and the town taken by the end of the day. Ten tons of bombs had been dropped on the city, 300 Iraqis were captured, and the levies didn’t take a single casualty as they rushed the Fallujah Bridge. Most of the Iraqi troops in the town did not put up a fight and stripped off their uniforms and either tried to blend in with the population or fled.

The Iraqis were not so easily defeated however, and tried to take back the town on May 22. A unit from the Iraqi 6th Infantry Brigade launched a counter attack to try to expel the British. They were discovered at night as they were approaching, but could not be turned back by a small reconnaissance force. At 3 am they reached the outskirts of town on the northeast and started firing mortars on the British positions leading to their withdrawal inside Fallujah proper. Two Iraqi tanks then entered the town, but were destroyed. The British then launched their own attack, which pushed the Iraqis out of Fallujah just as the sun rose. The Iraqis then switched to the southeast with an infantry and tank assault. Nine hours of fighting later and they were turned back. By then reinforcements arrived from Habaniya and cleared the town by 6 pm after some very heavy fighting. A few days later German planes, which had been sent to aid Gaylani’s government strafed the town while Iraqi artillery shelled it. By then it was firmly under British control. Their next move was to take the Iraqi capital, which eventually happened leading Gaylani to flee to Iran.

The Battle of Fallujah played a major role in defeating the pro-German and pro-Italian government in Baghdad and ensure that Iraq would stay in the Allied camp during World War 2. London was worried that if Iraq fell to the Axis it would cut off an important source of oil and threaten its petroleum interests in Iran as well. Iraq also operated as part of the trade route to India. Winston Churchill therefore saw Iraq as a strategic asset to maintain the British empire. Some of the tactics used then are also being employed now such as attacking the city from all sides, heavy bombardments to loosen the defenses, and the dropping of flyers. In 1941 the Iraqis were defeated, but in 2016 they will come out victorious.

Timeline Of Anglo-Iraq War During World War 2
Jan 28 Regent Abdullah made moves against PM Gaylani for his pro-German views
leading to plot against Regent
Jan 31 PM Gaylani forced form office by British pressure
Apr 1 Golden Square officers back coup leading to Gaylani to return to power and
            Regent Abdullah fleeing country to Palestine under British protection
Apr 3 Germany sent letter saying it supported coup and offered military aid
Apr 8 PM Churchill orders forces to be put together in India to be sent to Iraq
Apr 9 Germany and Italy make joint statement supporting PM Gaylani and promising
            military and financial support
Apr 10 Hitler decided to give military aid to Iraq
- PM Gaylani said he would honor 1930 Anglo-Iraq Treaty because didn’t want
            confrontation with London
Apr 12 British forces leave India heading for Basra
Apr 16 British tell Iraq that troops will be landing in Basra under Anglo-Iraq Treaty
            Gaylani agrees but says they most leave for other destinations immediately
- German letter arrives in Baghdad saying it would support Iraq revolt against British
Apr 17 Gaylani asked Germany for military assistance
- British battalion from Indian starts arriving at Shaibah airbase in Basra
Apr 18 British troops from India land at Port of Basra
Apr 29 Gaylani sends forces to surround England’s Habaniya airbase in Anbar
Apr 30 Iraq issued ultimatum to British to cease operations at Habaniya base
May 1 Iraqi police opened fire on British workers in Fort Rutba, Anbar
- British bombers sent from Egypt to Habaniya base
May 2 British planes bomb Iraqi forces outside Habaniya starting Anglo-Iraq War
- Grand Mufti in Baghdad declared jihad against England
- Iraqi forces take British fort at Rutba
May 3 British planes bomb Iraqi forces outside Habaniya and Iraqi airbase at Rasheed,
            Anbar
- Churchill orders British troops from Palestine to Iraq
May 4 British expand bombing to Iraqi bases in Rasheed Mosul and Baghdad
May 6 British break siege at Habaniya
- Germany makes deal with Vichy France to send military equipment from Syria to Iraq
- Germany sends air unit to Syria bound for Iraq
May 8 British Arab Legion leaves Palestine for Iraq heading to take back Fort Rutba
            Are attacked by German planes during march
- British take Ashar, Basra
- British air strikes destroy most of Iraqi air force
May 9 German and Italian planes leave Syria to land in Mosul
- British planes bomb Fort Rutba
May 13 German military aid begins arriving from Syria to Mosul
- British forces take Fort Rutba and find it abandoned by Iraqis
- German planes based out of Mosul begin attacking Habaniya base
May 14 German commander arrives to take control of German-Italian forces in Iraq
- German planes bomb British forces in Anbar heading for Habaniya base from Palestine
            and Fort Rutba
May 16 British and German planes bomb opposing forces in Anbar
May 18 British bomb Fallujah
May 19 British forces take Fallujah
May 22 Iraqi counterattack to retake Fallujah repulsed
May 23 German planes attack Fallujah while Iraqis shell town
May 26 Italian planes land in Kirkuk from Syria and start attacking British forces in
Anbar
May 27 Operation Regulta starts with British marching from Fallujah and Basra on
Baghdad
May 28 British forces stopped by Iraqis at Abu Ghraib
- British intelligence officer spread rumors amongst Iraqi military that 100 tanks heading
            for Baghdad
May 29 British forces defeated by Iraqis at Kadhimiya while English break through Iraqi
            defense at Abu Ghraib
- PM Gaylani leaves office and flees to Iran
May 30 British take Baghdad
Jun 1 Regent Abdullah returns to Iraq

SOURCES

Farouk-Sluglett, Marion and Sluglett, Peter, Iraq Since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship, London, New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2003

Lyman, Robert, Iraq 1941, The battles for Basra, Habbaniya, Fallujah and Baghdad, Oxford, Long Island: Osprey Publishing, 2006

3 comments:

davidbfpo said...

It is worth reading this Wiki entry, on the 'levies' referred to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraq_Levies

Note their loyalty to the British, not Iraq and their inter-communal nature (non-Arab dominated) is replicated today in Iraq by other armed elements.

Brian Ulrich said...

I'm pretty sure Fallujah was also a key battle site in the 1920 uprising.

Joel Wing said...

Thanks Brian. I'll have to look that up. I know about the 1920 uprising in general, but not the specifics.