Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Iraq after Habbaniyah in 1941

Iraq was a critical link in shipping oil from the Middle East in 1941. A general from India was appointed to command Iraq to ensure the vital areas were protected. Lt-General Quinan arrived as early as 7 May 1941. There were grand plans to put three infantry divisions into Iraq and possibly an armoured division. Then, Iraq was switched from the India command to the Middle East Command under General Wavell. Wavell had no forces to speak of to put into Iraq. Instead, light forces, including a small force from the Transjordan Frontier Force and a cavalry brigade that attacked and drove Rashid Ali from power. This was a spontaneous uprising, not something planned by the Germans. At the time, Germans were assumed to be involved. By the end of May, the two remaining brigades of the 10th Indian Division arrived at Basra. The one thing that the Germans were able to do is to deploy aircraft to aid Rashid Ali, although they were insufficient for the task. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Habbiniyah goes on the offensive: early May 1941

2 May 1941 saw the British go on the offensive at Habbiniyah against the besieging Iraqi troops. The British attacked the Iraqi troops with bombs dropped from training aircraft. The Iraqis opened fire with artillery in return. The British bombed the guns, but only succeeded in knocking out half of them. The British only had two Great War-vintage 18pdr guns, but they were able to aggressively patrol against the Iraqi besiegers. The Iraqis disliked that so much that the pulled back from the perimeter. On 6 May, British troops with Iraqi levies fought and defeated the remaining Iraqi troops. The plateau was now free of enemy Iraqi troops. In the process, 400 Iraqis were captured along with their equipment, which was very useful to the defenders. The RAF flew in four Blenheim fighters to reinforce the base. Iraq started to receive more British attention in the form of a greater air and airbase presence and a new commander. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

More details about Iraq in 1941

When a brigade of the 10th Indian Division was diverted to Basra, the oil port, they had been destined for Malaya. They were boarding ship a Karachi when the diversion happened. As we have said, General Auchinleck, was the Commander-in-Chief in India. General Auchinleck had been in that position since January 1941. Since he was considered to be close to the action, he was to be the overall commander.

The Iraqi government of Rashid Ali was getting nervous about the brigade at Basra. They insisted that no more British troops should be sent to Basra until those that were there had moved out. When in late April, more troops arrived at Basra, two Iraqi brigades with artillery and armoured cars surrounded the air base at Habbiniyah. There were about 1,000 men of the RAF there as well as 1,000 British and colonial troops. A British battalion was flown in as reinforcements on 30 April 1941. At that point, the Iraqis were asked to withdraw. Then the Iraqi commander refused, the airbase commander decided to attack the Iraqis from the air with training aircraft fitted with bombs. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Another distraction about the time of the Greek collapse in April-May 1941

Especially in the Middle East, the local people were hostile to the Colonial Powers like Britain. We can imagine that the Iraqi Rashid Ali was encouraged by the British difficulties in Greece and North Africa to harass the British in Iraq. Rashid Ali was influenced by the pro-German Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. A coup d'├ętat overthrew the pro-British regent and installed Rashid Ali as Prime Minister of Iraq. Many of the same themes as in present times were present in 1941. There was the strong Arab nationalist and Islamic fervor that exists now.

The British responded to the coup by sending the 20th Indian Infantry Brigade to Basra, the oil terminal. The next move by the Iraqi government was to send troops to the RAF base at Habbiniyah on the Euphrates. The base was just 50 miles west of Baghdad. The RAF mostly had obsolete aircraft at Habbiniyah that were used for training. They were enough, however, to establish air superiority over the Iraqi air force. Once enough British and Indian Army troops had been sent to Iraq, they were able to overcome the Iraqi Army and lift the siege and capture Falluja and Baghdad. While the action to remove Iraq as a factor continued, it was at an inconvenient time, opposite the end of Greece and the Crete campaign, as well as the fighting in Libya, on the western desert in Cyrenaica. There was also the Tiger Convoy and the need to resupply Malta all happening at the same time.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Iraq became an issue in 1941

Because Britain depended on oil from Iraq, and from "Persia" (what Winston Churchill insisted on calling Iran), they could not afford an interruption to supply. Even in 1940 and 1941, anti-British Arabs were sympathetic to Fascists. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem had a secret plan to cooperate with the Germans and expel the British. Rashid Ali was the leader of the pro-German group in Iraq. The Iraqi army consisted of 50,000 troops commanded by British-trained officers. Rashid Ali became Prime Minister in April 1941. The regent, who was pro-British, Amir Abdul Illah, thought that he would be arrested by Rashid Ali. He fled Iraq by way of Basra, and then ended up in Transjordan.

The British planned to respond by putting a force into Basra, as a starting point. They decided to send a brigade group from the 10th Indian Division. The commander in India was Claude Auchinleck. He would command the Basra operation. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The situation in March to April 1941 in the Mediterranean

In early April, 1941, the German force in Libya had pushed back the defending troops. After Richard O'Connor had almost defeated the Italians in Libya, the army in eastern Libya was stripped to provide troops for Greece. O'Connor was ill, but available as a consultant. The one bright spot was east Africa, where Alan Cunningham had conducted a brilliant campaign against the Italian and African colonial army.

The commanders in the Middle East were said to have been concerned about defending against a German airborne attack on Greece, but we have a hard time finding any positive steps that were taken with that defence in mind. Dominion troops just removed from Greece were in Crete and would soon have to fight the Germans again, under even more difficult circumstances.

But it was in North Africa, in Cyrenaica (eastern Libya, that the situation had grown critical. The small German force sent to Libya was seen as a blocking force to prevent the British from capturing the rest of Libya without a fight. The wild card was General Rommel, the commander, who had been trained in infiltration tactics in the Great War, and who had experience as a commander of mechanized warfare in May 1940. He was not content with simply being a blocking force. As was his style, he made a personal reconnaissance of the area that was lightly defended and decided to see if he could panic the British and cause them to withdraw. They did panic and withdraw. In the process, Rommel very nearly took Tobruk, the former Italian fortified position and port. He managed to destabilize the British position which had been left poorly defended. This is in part based on Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

The challenges posed by Crete

The Germans saw Crete as an important target for conquest. Perhaps the primary motivation was to rob the Allies of an airbase within easy striking distance to the Rumanian oil fields. Crete was also relatively close to the new battleground in Cyrenaica. Since a purely naval assault of Crete seemed too risky, due to the concern about the Italian navy, an airborne assault seemed appealing. They had successfully used airborne troops in Holland and against Corinth in Greece. They could combine that with ferrying troops and equipment to Crete from Greece using small ships. They did not need to solely rely upon paratroops, because they had the ability to ferry troops using Ju-52 transports, if they could secure the necessary landing fields.

The British were concerned about defending Crete from an airborne attack, given the recent successful use of airborne troops by the Germans against the Corinth canal. The concern with holding North Africa against attack that was now commanded by Rommel was the primary concern. The primacy of that effort meant that insufficient forces would be available for defending Crete. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The ANZAC Corps had done well in Greece

The ANZAC Corps, consisting of Australian and New Zealand troops, had done well in Greece. They were outnumbered and were operating under air attack without protection. Still, they learned the craft of mountain troops, and performed well against experienced German mountain troops. By the time they had arrived in Greece, the ANZAC troops were well trained and experienced. While they assumed that the Germans were better equipped, in fact, they were at least comparable. The Germans were very happy to acquire discarded ANZAC and British equipment and arms. If anything, the difficult terrain aided the troops conducting a withdrawal and a series of rearguard actions. The defeat in Greece was not from any fault with the troops. Rather, it was a badly chosen operation, where there was an inadequate force deployed. They were badly commanded at the army level. From the corps and below, the command was above average. Churchill had put General Wilson and an inexperienced and inadequate staff in charge, and that only aggravated a bad situation. The British bias always dictated that a British officer should command. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

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