It’s difficult to read this fascinating account of the Allies’ 1941 campaign in Iraq without being reminded of a remark made by Donald Rumsfeld in late 2004, nearly two years after the U.S.-led invasion of that country. “You go to war with the army you have…not the army you might want or wish to have,” the defense secretary said in response to a question about inadequately armored vehicles.
In the spring of 1941, the British invaded Iraq with a mashup of forces pulled from all corners of its empire: Sikhs, Punjabis, Gurkhas, and Arabs from Palestine. They rode to combat in buses and Chevrolet trucks; most were equipped with aging weaponry. It was a coalition of the available.
How those British-led forces prevailed in Iraq—and also in Syria and Lebanon at about the same time—is the subject of historian John Broich’s smartly written and deeply-researched book, Blood, Oil and the Axis: The Allied Resistance Against a Fascist State in Iraq and the Levant, 1941.
The campaigns have largely been forgotten by historians, overshadowed by what came next in the global war. Broich, however, has assembled a remarkable story of courage, initiative, and bold small-unit leadership.
The British were caught flat-footed in early 1941 when a cabal of pro-German Iraqi officers overthrew the country’s British-backed monarchy, threatening Britain’s oil supply—a lifeline for the country’s navy—and giving the Axis an important foothold in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Vichy French were allowing German forces into Syria and Lebanon.
The crisis couldn’t have come at a worse time. British forces were being pummeled in Libya by German general Erwin Rommel; Yugoslavia and Greece had been lost; and Malta, a key Allied sea base, was under threat.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill pushed for intervention despite the reservations of General Archibald Wavell, who worried that his forces in the Middle East were spread too thin. The British landed forces at Basra, Iraq’s southern port city, and then struggled to reinforce Habbaniyah, a sleepy British training and refueling base west of Baghdad.
On May 1, the Iraqis laid siege to the base with vastly superior forces before the British could fully reinforce the desert outpost. The defenders refused to give up. They converted the base’s polo field and golf course to expand runways and scrounged ammunition for a couple of decommissioned World War I-era field guns that had been gracing the grounds outside the officers’ mess.
Instructor pilots and students “took off in a constant stream, landing only to reload, never turning off their engines,” Broich writes. On the first day of the siege Allied pilots flew 193 sorties.
Almost as suddenly as they appeared, the Iraqi forces besieging the base disappeared. But the battle in Iraq wasn’t over. A pitifully small British-led force—not quite 1,500—then headed toward Baghdad. They faced about 20,000 Iraqi forces positioned to defend the capital city. As the Allied troops arrived at Baghdad’s outskirts, Iraq’s pro-German government collapsed and, on May 29, its leaders fled the country. The whole campaign had taken about one month.
In Syria and Lebanon the Allies faced Vichy French forces, including an exotic mixture of colonial troops. Broich describes a battle at the Syrian town of Kuneitra where a French soldier on horseback with his saber drawn led a charge of Circassian cavalry.
Broich writes that “nationalism—be it French, Iraqi, Jewish, or Syrian—was always close to the heart of this war.” Yet, if the book has a drawback it’s that readers don’t get enough insight into the aspirations of the Iraqis, whose coup set off the bloody campaign.
The one constant from the Middle East is that the region’s instability continuously sucks in world powers. Local aspirations, politics, and leaders invariably become secondary to the global rivalries played out within its borders. Today, Russia, Iran, and the United States are backing surrogate forces in Syria, where battles have ranged over the same towns and villages that were contested in 1941.
As the pro-German government in Iraq was collapsing, Fritz Grobba, the German liaison to Baghdad, made an urgent plea to his government not to abandon the country, writing that if its air force withdraws, “German prestige will suffer for a long time.”
If there is a lesson here it is that few foreign powers emerge from the region with their prestige intact. ✯