Glubb Pasha and the Arab Legion

6/12/2006 • Military History

Two 6-pounder cannons, which had been painfully hauled up to the ramparts of Old Jerusalem, were situated on the imposing Notre Dame Hospice. It was May 23, 1948, and at noon the Arab Legion would launch its long-anticipated attack on the handful of Jewish defenders blocking their entry into West Jerusalem. While the common soldiers and the local civilians may have hailed the endeavor, the Arab Legion’s commander vacillated. John Bagot Glubb–Glubb Pasha to his men and his liege, King Abdullah of Trans-Jordan–believed his small army was better suited for the sands of the desert than the dark passages and densely packed stone buildings of the ancient city. But Abdullah demanded a direct assault on Jerusalem, Old City and New. Ever the soldier, John Glubb knew how to obey orders.

Born in Preston, Lancashire, on April 16, 1897, Glubb was the son of an army officer and himself a graduate of the Royal Military Academy. He served in France during World War I. After the war, Glubb became an Arabist. Resigning his British army commission in 1926 to become an administrator for the Iraqi government, he lived among the Bedouins, spoke their language, understood their customs and worked for their greater good.

Glubb was a little man with a high-pitched voice, and while he was shy and reserved on most occasions, he was known to have a terrible temper. During the war, a bullet ripped off the tip of his chin, leaving it lopsided and incongruous to his plump cheeks and otherwise rounded face. That injury inspired his nickname among his Arab followers: Abu Hanaik (Father of the Jaw).

In 1930, he left Iraq to work for King Abdullah, who contracted with him to help build Trans-Jordan’s Arab Legion, the Al-Jaish Al-Arabi. The legion was originally an internal police force organized in 1921 by another Englishman, Lt. Col. Frederick Peake. In the years following World War I, Trans-Jordan was a British protectorate, and Peake’s job was to keep order among the territory’s various Arab tribes.

Stationed on the southeastern frontier near the border with Saudi Arabia, Glubb had to build his contingent from scratch. He was 120 miles away from Trans-Jordan’s capital, Amman, living in an old Buick automobile and facing the Ikhwan (brethren), religious zealots who had rebelled against King Ibn Saud of Arabia. Essentially at war with the Saudis, the Ikhwan had turned to raiding the defenseless villages of both Iraq and Trans-Jordan for supplies and sustenance.

Glubb’s orders were direct–stop the raids. To do that, he roamed the villages of the Huwaitat, trying to enlist their aid. Unfortunately, the Huwaitat, like many Arab tribespeople, had known only one government during the past 400-plus years: the Ottomans. They had learned not to trust the Turks, and that mistrust now extended to Glubb and the Arab administrators.

Helping him in this nearly thankless endeavor were four trusted men. One was a slave Glubb had acquired from Saudi Arabia. Two were Iraqis who had served at his side over the years, and one was a Shammar tribesman who had joined him when he left Iraq. The five men tried to cajole the Huwaitat into enlisting in Glubb’s small army, praising its accomplishments and warning the tribesmen that if they did not defend their villages other men would do the job–to the Arabs, that would be a loss of face.

Finally, a volunteer, Awwadh ibn Hudeiba, stepped forward and, about three days after signing up, was put in the ranks with Glubb’s four assistants. An officer from Peake’s headquarters in Amman arrived to pay the men, and in true military style, he demanded that the soldiers count off. Appalled by such intrusive regularity, the legion’s single volunteer ripped off his uniform and quit.

Luckily for Glubb, three more Huwaitat, less intimidated by army formality, soon enlisted, then 17 more. That was the modest start of the Desert Patrol: 20 men and four trucks, with four Vickers machine guns. By the spring of 1931, Glubb had 90 men wearing the legion’s uniform–a long, khaki-colored robe with long white sleeves, a red sash across the chest, a red lanyard to hold a revolver, a bandoleer of ammo, and a belt around the middle from which dangled a silver-handled dagger. Soon, the sons of the sheiks vied for admittance, and though Glubb and his lieutenants welcomed them, anyone who did not measure up to Glubb’s high standards found himself on the receiving end of that ferocious temper and booted out of the legion.

Glubb also realized that his Arab troops needed the kind of self-reliance that required more than ability with knife or gun. In addition to combatting the Ikhwan, Glubb went to war against illiteracy, launching a reading and writing campaign among the Huwaitat.

By May 1931, the number of raids over the frontier had been cut by half. The Desert Patrol represented about a fifth of the Arab Legion’s 1,200-man fighting force.

Officially under Peake in the legion’s hierarchy, Glubb found himself taking on more and more responsibility for King Abdullah’s army until, in March 1939, Peake ended his 17-year Trans-Jordan career to retire in England. Glubb was now commander of the legion’s 2,000 men. In the 1940s, the Desert Patrol discarded the last of its camels and began to travel in open-air Ford trucks with Lewis machine guns mounted on tripods on the roofs of the cabs.

At that time, a new war raged in Europe. It soon spilled over into the Middle East, and in February 1941 a pro-German political party took over Baghdad. In April, the Iraqis declared war on Britain and laid siege to a Royal Air Force cantonment at Habbaniya on the Euphrates River, about 75 miles west of Baghdad. In immediate response, the British sent a column of 750 men across the desert to relieve Habbaniya and take back Baghdad. Glubb and a small contingent of his Desert Patrol accompanied the column. His orders were to assist Iraqi elements still loyal to the pro-British Emir Abdul Illah.

After a pro-British government was restored in Baghdad, Glubb returned to Trans-Jordan. In May and June 1941, he helped the British fight Vichy French forces in Syria, then spent the balance of World War II keeping the Bedouin tribes at peace on the frontier. By 1945, the Arab Legion boasted 16,000 men, all fiercely loyal to their British leader, whom they called Glubb Pasha (general). Transformed from a small police force of a few hundred, the legion was renowned throughout the Arab world as the most effective fighting force since the days of the caliphs.

After World War II, the legion’s size began to diminish. By 1947, it was down to 4,000 men. While most officers were British, a coterie of Arab leaders was being nurtured. Glubb evidently realized what the future would bring. The British government was preparing to evacuate the Middle East.

For Glubb and his employer, King Abdullah, a new menace began to loom from west of Amman. It came from what many of the Arabs considered an intrusion: the return of the Jews to Palestine.

‘Once the Jews came to look upon themselves as a race can they be blamed for wanting a country?’ Glubb asked. From his small office on a hilltop in Amman, he strove to lead his legion and, by extension, Abdullah’s country, into a new era. The coming declaration of Israel as an independent state promised to embroil the Arabs in a difficult war.

On November 30, 1947, the Arab Legion began operations in support of supply convoys to Arab forces around Jerusalem. Glubb tried to distance his force from direct involvement in the fighting–until May 1948, when the Jews of the Etzion Bloc, a group of settlements on the road north of Hebron, attacked Arab reinforcements and supplies destined for Jerusalem. On May 4, a week before the British Palestine Mandate would expire, Arab tanks, armored cars of the Desert Patrol and riflemen drawn from the Arab locals stormed the four Jewish settlements that comprised the Etzion Bloc. At stake for Glubb, from a military perspective, was a huge British-organized arms convoy bound for Amman.

Glubb met with Sheik Mohammed Ali Jabary, the mayor of Hebron, on May 10 and laid plans for a final attack. The call went out for villagers to help in this jihad (holy war). Armed with old rifles and Sten submachine guns, and bearing sacks in which to carry away booty from their looting, the villagers answered the call.

On May 12, Glubb’s men stormed the settlements. The 400 or so defenders fought valiantly, stopping Glubb’s much-storied legionaires and giving the irregulars more than they received. Glubb turned from one Arab Legion officer to another, seeking to find a leader capable of delivering victory. After more than 24 hours of continuous fighting, on May 14 the last of the Etzion Bloc’s defenders hoisted a white flag and surrendered to the Arab irregulars, who slaughtered most of them before Glubb’s legion was able to restore order.

Meanwhile, Arab leaders conferred about how to deal with Jerusalem. While many of the leaders in Syria and Egypt were sanguine regarding their chances of throwing out the Jews, Glubb expressed doubts. Favoring the internationalization plan put forth by the fledgling United Nations, he sought to keep his desert-trained Arab Legion out of what he foresaw as house-to-house urban warfare.

The U.N.’s plan called for East Jerusalem to be an open city and for Haifa to be a Trans-Jordan town. But men such as Fawzi el-Kaoukji, commander of the Arab Liberation Army, and Abdul Rahman Azzam, the secretary general of the Arab League, called for all-out war against the Jews and their tiny sliver of a country.

Glubb apparently had few choices. His adopted countrymen demanded glory and victory, and his king, Abdullah, had a throne to protect and loyal subjects to appease.

On May 14, Israel declared its indepedence. On May 15, Glubb reluctantly marched his Arab Legion to the Old City of Jerusalem and mounted an attack on the Jewish army, the Haganah, which had taken up defensive positions in the New City and in Jerusalem’s ancient Jewish Quarter.

With a tenuous hold on the Old City, Glubb sent two regiments to Latrun, to the open country and rolling hills of Judea. There, he would keep Jerusalem for Trans-Jordan by choking off Jewish reinforcements.

The strategy worked. While the Arab armies were beaten back at Haifa, at Tel Aviv and in the desert south of Beersheba, Glubb’s Arab Legion held its own in Jerusalem and at Latrun.

On May 23, the Arab Legion attacked the Notre Dame Hospice and stormed into the Old City. As Glubb had feared, it suffered heavy losses, including several armored cars to Molotov cocktails, and he abandoned the assault at 5 p.m. on May 24. Soon, however, the Jews ran out of ammunition and other supplies, just as Glubb had intended. Evidently remembering the fate of their comrades at Etzion, the remnants of the Old City’s Jewish fighters sought out the Arab Legion to surrender on May 28. Glubb’s little army was a professional force; it did not slaughter its prisoners.

By mid-June a cease-fire was declared. The legion had little ammunition for its artillery and not much for its small arms and Lewis machine guns. Glubb pleaded with King Abdullah to accept the cease-fire as final. If the war stopped at that point, Trans-Jordan would have the Old City, the Negev Desert and an airport at Lydda.

In Cairo, the Arab leaders met to discuss the future. Tawfig Pasha represented Trans-Jordan, but he was unable to carry out Glubb’s and Abdullah’s wishes. Reporting back, he said that he could not vote for peace without being denounced as a traitor to the Arab cause.

And so the war went on–with the Israelis not merely holding their own, but going over to the offensive, retaking Ramlah and Lydda (which they called Lod) and routing an Egyptian brigade in the Faluja pocket in October.

With an end to the declared war on January 9, 1949, King Abdullah, backed by the legion (now 6,000 men strong), annexed East Jerusalem, Hebron and Nablus, and changed his country’s name to the Arab Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. He also severed his ties with Britain.

Glubb turned his attention once more to policing the frontier. Arab irregulars made nightly raids against Jewish settlements, and Glubb fought off Israeli retaliatory attacks. Then in 1953, Abdullah was assassinated, and his grandson, Hussein, came to power. Anti-British sentiment grew, and on March 1, 1956, King Hussein dismissed Glubb as commander of the Arab Legion. Glubb’s protégé and personal adjutant, Ali Abu Nawwar, succeeded him. Later that year, the legion’s elite volunteers were merged with the conscripts of the national guard, and a new Jordanian army emerged.

Glubb returned to England, was awarded a knighthood and settled down to a life of scholarship. He died in Mayfield, East Sussex, on March 17, 1986, a month before his 89th birthday–an old soldier whose legacy was something other than enduring peace.

This article was written by David M. Castlewitz and originally published in the April 1998 issue of Military History magazine.

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