British troops at Habbaniya Air Base, Anbar which was surrounded by the Iraqis during the start of the 1941 Anglo-Iraq War (Imperial War Museim)
In 1941, the British overthrew the government of Prime Minister Rashid Al-Gailani in Iraq and invaded Syria. Baghdad had reached out to the Germans and Italians, Syria was run by Vichy France, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill believed that the Axis was making a play to take over the Middle East. These two conflicts are barely mentioned in World War II histories today, but at the time it was a major event for all those involved. John Broich, an Associated Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University recently published a book on this subject Blood, Oil and the Axis: The Allied Resistance Against A Fascist State In Iraq and the Levant, 1941. This is an interview with Prof. Broich about the war in Iraq and Syria.
1. The Anglo-Iraq War and subsequent invasion of Syria in 1941 are almost completely forgotten in the history of World War II, and yet at the time Prime Minister Winston Churchill believed this was an existential threat to the British empire. What was the overall situation in the war at the time for London and what specifically was going on in Iraq and Syria that led to these two events?
Yes, it’s really something that this crisis is largely forgotten, though Churchill certainly was deeply concerned.
Of course, it was a crisis-a-minute stretch of the war and the worst – against the odds – did not happen. The overall situation was that, while the Commonwealth/Empire/and British soldiers in North and Northeast Africa were pushing back the Italians in often brutal peak-to-peak fighting, the Allies had few other bright spots to which to point. The Royal Air Force (RAF) was holding its own over London and other targets, at least. Greece was falling, despite Allied aid; Crete was next.
In Iraq, the emergency starting in March 1941 had a deep history in nationalism that I’ll get to in a moment. But the precipitating cause of the armed clash between Iraqis and Allies (spilling over into Syria) was a military coup of four powerful colonels who chased off the Hashemite Regent in Iraq, replaced him with a pliable cousin, and installed a handpicked Prime Minister.
2. The Iraqi government of Prime Minister Rashid Ali Al-Gailani and the Arab nationalist Golden Square officers who put him in power after a coup reached out to the Axis, which eventually led to the war. What was Iraq’s relationship with England and why did they turn to Berlin and Rome?
Iraq was nominally freed of British colonial (technically, League of Nations “Mandate”) rule in 1932, but this was a kind of paper freedom. In fact, the British placed many government “advisors” in all Iraqi ministries. The British also dominated the Iraqi oil and weapons sales sectors. Practically speaking, the British granted Iraq relative freedom to determine their domestic affairs as long as there was relative stability, but jealously guarded Iraq as their own sphere of influence, even keeping two airbases there.
This is why Freya Stark is an important figure in my book. She did believe that close relations between the Iraqis and the British would benefit both parties, she was no true anti-imperialist, but she thought British policies often amounted to a stifling kind of meddling that blocked liberalization in favor of an old conservative Sunni guard and in favor of military power.
Well, that rather came back to bite the British when the Golden Square colonels sought out the aid of Germany (via Italian consular channels) for hep in finally throwing off British meddling. There’s no basis for characterizing the colonels as Nazis, but there’s evidence for calling them authoritarian or fascists. They were for Sunni, Baghdadi, army dominance in what was actually a very diverse country and some had fought campaigns to crush Assyrian and Shiites.
3. In your book, you made a strong comparison between the war in Iraq versus the one in Syria. Baghdad had a British trained and equipped military, overwhelming numbers when it surrounded the English air base in Habbaniya in Anbar, and yet the Iraqis seemed to lack aggressiveness. What happened with the Iraqis during the conflict?
Yes, the Iraqis besieged the big RAF base at Habbaniya in late April 1941 with many times as many troops as defenders. The reason why the Iraqis didn’t overrun the relatively defenseless base rests on a mix of contributing factors. For one, the RAF pilots – many of them flight instructors and students – kept up a round-the-lock counter-siege from the air, even though their planes were somewhat antiquated, some were even trainers with improvised light bomb racks. the Iraqis, too, appear to have been a bit divided. Many of the besieging Iraqi troops, and some in the Iraqi air force, for example, were not told what was going on as if their leaders weren’t confident in their loyalty. (It’s not clear that up-country brigades, distant from Baghdad, had bought in to the coup. They might have been watching and awaiting outcomes.)
The next big blow to Iraqi confidence was a rumor of a British armored column about to enter the fray from Transjordan. Multiple sources, both at Habbaniya, and in Baghdad confirm the power of this rumor. Further, and this is one of my favorite stories in the book, a mere Palestinian translator for the British helped spread this rumor via a captured Iraqi telephone switchboard.
4. The Germans, Italians and Vichy France aided Iraq during the war. What did they provide and how effective was it?
Yes, and this aid was part of what so scared Churchill; it meant that any fiction of Vichy neutrality in the war evaporated and the Allies were looking at the captured French Empire becoming a major asset to the Axis.
Naturally, what the Iraqis had to offer the Germans in exchange for Axis help in their war with the British was oil. And the amount of oil Iraq could pump to a port and refinery in Tripoli, Lebanon was so abundant that it could have changed the entire history of the war.
In return, the Germans sent a team of diplomats, officers, and Luftwaffe ground crews to Vichy Lebanon and Syria. These organized a large shipment of rifles, guns, trucks, and so on over rail to Iraq. Some of the artillery, we know, went immediately into the fight.
Probably more important, the Luftwaffe ferried around two dozen fighter-bombers and bombers from occupied Greece, through Vichy Syria, to Iraq in May 1941 and straight into the fight. That might not sound like a lot, but the entire Allied fighting force of British, Indian, Assyrian Iraqi and other troops never amounted to more than 6000 soldiers. There were never more than a very small handful of modern RAF planes in the country, and those on loan from Palestine and Egypt. In the final days of the conflict, with Allied forces of just 2500 men on the outskirts of Baghdad, the Italian air force contributed a small number of planes, too.
The Axis aid was potentially quite effective. But their coordination with Iraqi forces was not good. And the Germans had to fly in a miniature refinery to make aviation fuel.
It seems the Germans might have been able to be more decisive in their contribution, but time ran out. The Golden Square fled the country in late May 1941 when that force of 2500 got close to Baghdad and, as important, rumors of approaching British tanks shook their nerve.
5. The fighting in Syria was completely different from Iraq to the point that the British actually had to re-think its invasion plan. What happened there that made it so difficult?
Yes, this is where another Greece – another desperate retreat – might have happened. Like I said, the Vichy authorities, acting on instructions from France, had aided the Germans in their effort to support the Golden Square. Churchill was very troubled at the idea of 30,000 French troops, with light tanks and a decent air force, becoming a tool of the Axis right next to British Palestine and the Suez Canal. Sadly, even though most of the French there had little love for the Germans who were holding their country hostage, they had to be dealt with.
The Vichy troops in Syria and Lebanon were an even match for the Allied force that invaded in early June. The French had as many as 90 light tanks, too, and modern warplanes; while the Allies had few if any light tanks and laughably few planes that could be spared from all the other trouble spots.
The Allies, including many Australians, who’d recently escaped Greece, made a three-prong attack up three very obvious invasion routes. The Vichy forces tended to evaporate ahead of these, then reappear in force and win.
Meanwhile, there were a thousand or so Free French troops in the invasion. Their commanders told them that if they approached under white flag to tell their brothers on the other side that they were here to liberate them, they would be embraced. Instead, they were routinely shot at by Vichy-loyal forces as mutineers which, in a manner of speaking, they were.
The whole invasion ground to a halt, while the Germans offered Luftwaffe aid to attack the supporting Royal Navy and fly bombing missions against British Palestine. This could very easily have turned into another Greece or Crete. But someone got through to the Allied commanders and go them to send more Allied troops, especially the Indian Army, in from Iraq. These new arrivals, entering from the east where it was not so simple to hold them up, turned the tide. By mid-July, Aleppo and Homs and Damascus fell. By terms of Armistice, Vichy troops were free to sail back to France.
6. As stated before, World War II in Iraq and Syria is hardly remembered. Why do you think these two conflicts are important?
As I said, they’re important for the utter disaster that didn’t happen – a windfall of oil going to the Axis and Vichy and Iraqi armies that could have met Rommel in Cairo.
But I think the story is important for the insights it provides into several things. It reveals the poisoned fruits of British and French colonialism in the region, made evident by the World War crisis. It reveals, too, the grim power of nationalism which lies near the root of that war. Some of the Golden Square had trained with German instructors as Ottoman officers decades before. They had learned well the lessons of Spartan Prussian militarism and nationalism. They made it their own – Sunni militant nationalism. The bleak campaign in Syria-Lebanon also involved nationalism: it was devotion to a nation, even one under the heal of the fascists, that caused Vichy soldiers to fire at their neighbors in the Free French forces who approached them to parley under a white flag. And, of course, one of smoldering problems at the heart of the region was the matter of the two rival nationalisms in Palestine. The fact that the British were lending their aid to the creation of a Jewish/Zionist nation there, but not a Palestinian one, made British claims to be defending democracy and freedom from tyranny a very hard sell in the cafes of Baghdad and Damascus.