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Iraq 1941

Iraq 1941: The Battles for Basra, Habbaniya, Fallujah and Baghdad
Osprey Publishing, 2006

This book examines the strategy and tactics of the Iraq campaign, the role of the Indian Army and the Arab Legion, the nature of expeditionary warfare and the complementary roles of air and land power.


This review covers Robert Lyman's Iraq 1941, but first it's necessary—at the risk of offending the perfectly kind and earnest folks at Osprey (and their many fans)—to look at the context in which the book appears.

While close examination will disprove the theory, it's nevertheless easy to lump all of Osprey's titles together. Sure, they have their "Campaign" series and their "New Vanguard" series and their "Elite" series and their "Battle Orders" series and a slew of others, but all those series and all those books tend to blur into one repetitive cookie-cutter package after another, assembled in the same fashion by the same team of writers and illustrators, scheduled for publication on tight deadlines, and leaving little room for originality or depth.

Consequently, it's a pretty sure bet that a 96-page paperback from Osprey would add very little to the literature on Normandy or Stalingrad or Guadalcanal, but not every Osprey title tackles such shopworn topics. For example, Steve Zaloga has done some notable work for the Botley team dealing with armored fighting vehicles within the framework of the usual terse, heavy-on-the-white-space format. And that's the key to Osprey titles. It might be possible to dismiss some of them as nothing more than same-old same-old, no matter how well intentioned. Others are little jewels perfectly sized and styled to cover unexamined topics—such as brief, obscure campaigns—at an appropriate level of detail.

And that brings us right back to Lyman's book. The 1941 events in Iraq comprise a classic story more closely resembling a Victorian colonial campaign than mechanized total war, but they've remained relatively unknown. It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to suggest that for every book written about the campaign in Iraq, practically a thousand have been published about Normandy. So the author has chosen his topic wisely, picking a brief, interesting, obscure subject to match the short, standardized Osprey format. In this case, how well does the intersection of topic and format succeed?

In keeping with the format, Lyman begins with chapters on "Origins of the Campaign," a chronology, opposing commanders, and opposing forces, all accompanied by maps and photos. The photos are well-chosen and very evocative, and the maps—as usual for Osprey—are very clean and professional. That fourth chapter includes complete OBs for Allied forces and Iraqi forces, in both cases covering ground, air, and naval assets. It's especially a pleasure to see so much information on Iraqi troops in a readily accessible volume. (Most of Lyman's Iraqi OB information seems to come from Appendix 4 and Appendix 5 of Campaign in Western Asia from the Indian official history series, but that tome is nearly impossible to obtain.)

The next chapters cover the three main phases of the war in Iraq: securing Basra, Shaibah, and surrounding region; the siege of Habbaniya and arrival of the belated relief force; and the battles for Fallujah and Baghdad.

Lyman points out that, at least subsequent to Rashid Ali's coup d'etat on 1 April 1941, British signals intelligence was reading Italian communications between Baghdad and Rome, including Iraqi requests for Axis military assistance. (See also British Intelligence in the Second World War, volume 1 for further information about decrypts involving Axis support for Iraq.) Although General Wavell, commanding the Middle East theater, insisted he had no troops to spare for operations in Iraq, Winston Churchill ordered reinforcements dispatched from Palestine and India. The first arrival on 17 April comprised a few hundred men of 1st King's Own Royal Regiment who were air transported from Karachi in a four-day journey via Trucial Oman and Bahrein. The second wave, Indian 20th Infantry Brigade, originally destined to reinforce Malaya, was instead diverted to Iraq, with advance elements departing Karachi by sea on 12 April and landing unopposed at Basra on 19 April.

Landing of these troops was, at least under some interpretations, permitted under the Anglo-Iraqi treaty of 1930 which guaranteed Britain the right of maintaining lines of communication through the country. Rashid Ali's government, however, insisted that no further British forces would be accepted until those already in Basra had moved out of Iraq. Indeed, while Lyman doesn't delve deeply into the diplomatic aspects of the campaign, Sir Llewellyn Woodward in volume one of British Foreign Policy in the Second World War notes "The Foreign Office also asked what argument Sir K. Cornwallis [British ambassador in Baghdad] proposed to use in justification of our right to introduce the troops, since the matter was not fully covered by our treaty rights. We had the right to use lines of communication through Iraq, and to send reinforcements to Basra aerodrome in an emergency, but only after consultation with the Iraqi government...."

In any event, under pressure from the four Iraqi colonels of the "Golden Square" whose backing was required by any government in Baghdad, and expecting prompt armed support from Italy and Germany, Rashid Ali chose a military option to resolve the situation. On the morning of 29 April Iraqi brigades began moving "on maneuvers" from Baghdad to the escarpment overlooking the RAF base at Habbaniya.

The Iraqi action placed Smart in a quandary. Despite the rapid decline in formal relations between Great Britain and Iraq over the previous month, Smart was not expecting any form of military threat to develop against Habbaniya. The 364 soldiers of the King's Own had arrived by air from Shaibah on 29 April but, even with the six companies of the Iraq Levies, the total ground forces available to him amounted to a mere 1550, strengthened by 18 thin-skinned Rolls Royce armoured cars of No. 1 Company RAF. These vehicles were amongst the last of a consignment of ex-Royal Navy cars that had been serving in the Middle East since 1915. Nevertheless it was plain to Smart that an aggressive defence of Habbaniya was required, and that to do nothing would leave the initiative with the Iraqis.

During that day, one of intense but dry heat with the mercury well over 110 degrees Fahrenheit, frantic preparations for battle took place across the cantonment. Two Imperial Airways flying boats managed to lake off from Lake Habbaniya in the morning, leaving six airline employees behind. They were taken prisoner by the Iraqis in the afternoon. Trenches were dug to ensure that if shelling did begin some shelter could be had in the otherwise entirely defenceless station. Whilst troops and aircrew were pressed into this task, the pilots manoeuvred the aircraft out of sight of the Iraqi guns and a battle roster was organized. The aircraft of the 'Air Striking Force' were split into two groups. The 21 Audax 'bombers' were placed under command of Wing Commander C.W.M. 'Larry' Ling and were to operate from the polo field out of sight of the Iraqis on the plateau whilst the remaining 43 aircraft under Squadron Leader Tony Dudgeon were to operate from the main runway in full view of the enemy.

Dudgeon's group comprised a flight of 27 Oxfords, a second flight of nine Gladiators (flying from the polo field) and a third flight of seven Gordons. The lack of suitably trained pilots, however, was acute. Eventually, only 39 were found, some of whom had not flown for a considerable period of time and many of whom had never flown in battle before, 18 to fly the Audaxes and 19 for the remainder. Some, members of the Royal Hellenic Air Force on a flying training course, could not even speak English. Within 14 hours of the start of battle a quarter of these pilots had been lost.

The likely opposition in the air was formidable. The RIAF had a substantial and modern air force with many British-trained pilots. They boasted seven squadrons with over 70 operational aircraft, including Italian Savoia 79 tri-engine bombers and Italian Breda 65 fighters, American Northrop fighters and Audaxes with more powerful engines than the British version (named the Hawker Nisr).

During the first day of the siege, Smart waited for clear instructions from Cornwallis at the Embassy in Baghdad, and from Cairo. In the morning he told Cornwallis by telegraph that Iraqi artillery pieces were being aimed directly at the base and that enemy troop numbers were increasing. Then, at 11.30 a.m. the Iraqi military envoy returned to the front gate. He now stated that training flights had to cease, citing Britain's blatant disregard for the Angle-Iraq Treaty for this new demand, undoubtedly referring to the second Basra landing on 29 April. This put Smart in a very difficult position. He knew that he was extremely vulnerable to ground attack, and that if he were to retain the initiative he would have to launch his own pre-emptive attack before the Iraqis felt that they were in a position of complete dominance. On the other side of the coin, a pre-emptive air strike could not guarantee that the Iraqi forces would not retaliate against the vulnerable cantonment.

At least 250 women and children, shipped hastily out of Baghdad in RAF trucks the day before, were still on the base, as well as the large civilian population, many of whom were Iraqis, whose reactions to firm military action by Smart were difficult to gauge. The only certainty was that Habbaniya was vulnerable and likely to become more so if he did nothing about it.

Lyman suggests that Rashid Ali never actually intended to attack Habbaniya. Rather, he intended to use the threat against the RAF base to force the British into protracted negotiations and buy time for strong Axis military assistance to arrive in Iraq. Meanwhile, as the beleaguered base defended itself by mounting air attacks against the besieging Iraqi forces, troops gathered in Palestine to relieve Habbaniya. Habforce was a mixed lot of small units assembled from far and wide, most with inadequate equipment and training. These British troops were supported by small contingents of the rather more colorful Arab Legion and Transjordan Frontier Force.

The task required of Habforce was daunting. It had to travel some 460 miles further east from the railhead at Mafraq in Transjordan to Baghdad. One hundred and twenty-two miles along this journey lay H4, the Iraq Petroleum Company's pumping station, 30 miles from the Iraqi border. The tarmac ended 45 miles after H4. Sixty miles further on from the frontier was Rutba Fort. Between H4 and Rutba lay H3, ten miles over the Iraqi border. Rutba had significant value as a source of water and an airfield. From Rutba the traveller faced another 220 miles of desolation on an ill-defined track across the desert to Ramadi and thence to Habbaniya. For the first 300 miles of the journey from Mafraq the ground remained at a height of some 1,640 feet above sea level, the first third of which comprised a rough lava-belt plain, after which the ground reverted to undulating stone and sand. At the end of the plateau the ground fell for a final 100 miles into the Euphrates valley. Only a march on a compass bearing could guarantee that a traveller unused to the vagaries of direction-finding in the desert would be able to make sense of the mass of tracks, ancient and modern, animal and man-made, that criss-crossed the desert floor, providing danger for the unwary.

In a remarkably short time Habforce was gathered together for war, preparations being made at a furious pace. Whilst the troops had enough vehicles to transport themselves, those required to carry supplies had to be requisitioned in Palestine, most of which also retained their civilian drivers. Every kind of vehicle could be found in the column, from flatbed trucks to buses taken from the streets of Haifa and Jerusalem. Habforce collected itself at Beit Eid on 9 May, familiarizing itself with its new equipment and sorting out orders of march, moving and settling supplies into the various vehicles, and preparing the thousand and one things needed to get the operation on its way.

This task was made immeasurably more difficult by reason of the poor state of most of the vehicles inherited or acquired by Habforce, and huge efforts were expended over the coming weeks to keep the show on the road. Water was a particular problem. One gallon per man per day and one gallon per vehicle per day was carried on the trucks, as were seven days' rations on the supply trucks together with a further three days' rations in each fighting vehicle. Strict water discipline was applied: water was only to be drunk at halts, by order of an officer. That said, the quality of the water defied drinking. Some of it was brought from Egypt, and varied in consistency from black to purple, and it required settling for ten minutes before the top part could be drunk.

 Members of the Iraqi Desert Police, a force with whom Glubb had himself worked in the past, had recently seized Rutba Fort and reportedly had been joined by the Arab guerrilla leader Fawzi el-Qawujki, long a thorn in the side of governments of Palestine and Transjordan. These elements had in fact fired the opening shots in the war when they attacked a British road survey party on 1 May. The European staff at the pumping stations had fled and local Bedouin had looted the buildings. Instructed by Clark to seize the fort, the mechanized squadron of the TJFF, based at H4, refused, and were promptly marched back to H3 and disarmed. They had been persuaded that their terms of engagement did not extend to operations outside Transjordan, especially those against their brothers in Iraq.

At this inauspicious start Clark decided to divide Habforce into two parts, despatching a flying column ('Kingcol') under Brig Kingstone and ordering it to make best haste to H4 to make contact with Glubb's Arab Legion, before proceeding to capture Rutba. Kingcol comprised the Headquarters 4 Cavalry Brigade, the Household Cavalry Regiment and Cassano's eight Fordson armoured cars. To these forces were added the battery of 25pdr field guns, A and D Companies and two bren gun carriers of the Essex Regiment under the command of Maj K.F. May, which drove all the way from Haifa in Palestine to Mafraq on 11 May, an independent anti-tank troop with 2pdr guns and the section of 166 Field Ambulance.

With some 2,000 men and 500 vehicles, Kingcol took with it four days' worth of water and five of fuel. On 11 May the move from Beit Lid began, Kingcol leading Habforce across the wide, open clay-covered plain of Esdraelon into the Jordan valley, and thence over the Jordan river and onto the rugged and inhospitable country of the Transjordan plateau. The column stretched for seven miles. That first night was spent at Mafraq, each unit positioning itself in all-round defence and digging into the stony ground as a precaution against air attack. A large square was formed in the desert, in the centre of which were the ambulances and field hospital, as well as the column headquarters and Royal Signals troop. The Field Artillery positioned themselves facing outwards on the perimeter whilst the RAF armoured cars placed themselves at various points of the compass a mile or two outside the perimeter to warn of attack.

On 9 May RAF Blenheim IVF long-range fighters from 203 Squadron, flying from H4, attacked Rutba Wells Fort. The Arab Legion, armed only with 1915-vintage Lewis and Hotchkiss guns and unable themselves to force the surrender of the fort, waited expectantly in the desert for the fort's surrender. They were disappointed to see the defenders spiritedly attempting to drive off the aircraft with their rifles, and succeeding in shooting down a Blenheim in the process and killing the crew. Glubb was forced to withdraw to H3 on 9 May whilst Baghdad triumphantly announced that he had been killed. Rather prematurely, his obituary was published in London. On the night of 10 May, however, following the arrival of Cassano's armoured cars, the fort was found abandoned and the way to Habbaniya open.

Kingcol left Mafraq in Transjordan early on the morning of 12 May, arriving at H4, eight hours later. The force bivouacked in the desert some miles further on from the pumping station as a precaution against air attack. Later the following day the march was resumed, the objective being Rutba Fort, which was reached by the early hours of 14 May. Kingstone had gone on ahead of the main force to meet up with Glubb Pasha, whose Arab Legionnaires had occupied the fort after the Iraqi police had hurriedly vacated it. Now that Rutba had been taken, Kingcol's task was to race across the desert to reach Habbaniya at the quickest speed. Leaving the fort on 15 May, Kingcol's first objective was Kilo 25, a point on the Baghdad road some 14 miles west of Ramadi, on the Euphrates, to where a brigade of Iraqi troops had been deployed. It was expected that the 220 miles to Habbaniya would be crossed in two days of driving. On the advice of Col Roberts in Habbaniya, the column was to turn south-east at Kilo 25, thus avoiding a confrontation with the Iraqi brigade at Ramadi, so as to skirt underneath Lake Habbaniya and advance on the cantonment across the bridge at Mujara village. The village had been occupied on 10 May and work begun on a temporary bridge over the water regulator, work that was completed on 16 May.

With Kingcol leading the way, the relief force had not actually begun moving toward Iraq until the Habbaniya garrison had already driven the Iraqis off the escarpment and back toward Baghdad. Nevertheless, Kingcol and Habforce advanced to the rescue, only to be attacked by newly arrived Luftwaffe aircraft. Although both Italy and Germany appear to have been surprised by the timing of Rashid Ali's move against the British, they responded by staging aircraft through the Vichy French Levant to operate from Iraqi airfields. Lyman notes that once again these plans were intercepted by British sigint. The author goes on to describe the ensuing air battles, the rather exciting odyssey of Kingcol, and the eventual arrival of the relief column at Habbaniya on 18 May.

Kingcol, the small Habbaniya garrison, and the troops who had been airlifted into the base as reinforcements were promptly formed into a makeshift brigade to capture Fallujah and threaten Baghdad. Miniscule British forces, including a company of infantry airlanded in open desert to isolate the defenders, drove Rashid Ali's forces out of Fallujah (many apparently discarding uniforms and blending into the civilian population), and the city's vital bridge over the Euphrates fell into British hands. On 22 May the Iraqi 6th Infantry Brigade, supported by light tanks, launched a serious counterattack against the small British force remaining in Fallujah, but the attacks were eventually beaten off. Nevertheless, with only around 1500 Allied troops opposing almost 20,000 Iraqi troops in the Baghdad area, the situation remained precarious.

Within the next few days the remainder of Habforce arrived from Palestine while Indian 10th Infantry Division dispatched two brigades northward from the Basra area, one advancing by road and one moving by boat up the Tigris. The author goes on to explain the audacious exploits of the tiny British forces around Baghdad, with Northern Column and Southern Column threatening the city. Meanwhile, the reinforced RAF based at Habbaniya whittled away the Luftwaffe squadrons, rumors swirled through Baghdad about the approach of a British force of a hundred tanks, and the Iraqi regime lost its nerve. On the night of 29 May, Rashid Ali, the colonels of the Golden Square, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and a few dozen others fled the capital for Iran. Although the Iraqi Army continued to defend Baghdad, by the next day the city was effectively surrounded, and on the last day of May its mayor quickly negotiated an end to hostilities. This essentially ended operations in Iraq, although Lyman goes on to briefly describe the occupation of Mosul and Kirkuk.

If any battle during World War II could withstand the adjectives "splendid" and "charming," the British campaign in Iraq would be the one, and the book does a good job of explaining the military operations. The author goes a bit overboard, however, in his "Conclusion" when he identifies the campaign as Britain's "first victory in the Second World War," which might come as a surprise to veterans of the Battle of Britain, O'Connor's offensive in the desert, the Battle of Keren, the cornering of the Graf Spee, and so on.

In any event, limitations of length and the somewhat paint-by-number format of the Osprey "Campaign" series seem not to have unduly constrained Lyman. Iraq 1941 ranks as the best book about overall military aspects of the campaign in Iraq since seminal volumes like the Indian official history volume and Five Ventures by Christopher Buckley (both of which are around fifty years old). Nevertheless, whether because of the Osprey format or his own preferences, the author has excluded a fair amount of material about the war, especially air operations, notably from the German and Italian perspective. He also seems to intentionally leave out much of the political and diplomatic background. (For greater detail about some specific parts of the war in Iraq, see, for example, Shores, Dudgeon, de Chair, Hamdi, Khadduri, and the relevant regimental histories; some of those titles have been partly mined here and some not at all.) Consequently, while a great many favorable words can be said about it, this work doesn't quite rise to the level of some stronger (and larger) books about other small, obscure campaigns in the Near East, such as Our Enemies the French by Anthony Mockler and—even better—Sunrise at Abadan by Richard Stewart. Given a larger canvas, however, it's a fair bet Lyman could create something simultaneously broader in scope and more detailed, and he should have exactly that opportunity with his next book on the Near East during the war years, due from Constable and Robinson in May 2006.

Returning to our opening paragraphs, what does Lyman's effort say about Osprey books as a whole? It seems like Iraq 1941 proves the point. The value of each of the multitude of Osprey titles varies considerably, and in large measure the value is inversely proportional to the magnitude and renown of the topic. That is, the smaller and more obscure the topic, the better the book. While that's not always an absolutely reliable algorithm, it stands up in general and it seems accurate here. Which means Osprey might do well to look at commissioning books on some of the less explored corners of the war. For example, the invasion of Madagascar might be a great topic. Likewise, has anyone yet written a book in English on the war between Thailand and Vichy French Indochina in 1940-1941? What about the Italian invasion of British Somaliland and the subsequent British landing at Berbera?

In the meantime, Robert Lyman's slender volume proves a worthwhile title and should be welcomed by anyone with any interest whatsoever in the splendid and charming little Iraqi campaign of 1941.

Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Osprey.

Reviewed 2 April 2006
© 2006 by Bill Stone

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