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First Victory: Britain's forgotten struggle in the Middle East, 1941
Constable and Robinson, 2006
'This is a book which deserves to be widely read and should be required reading for those involved in the management and conduct of operations in the Middle East today.' Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely, MC
'I...found the account of our operations fascinating.' His Grace the Duke of Wellington, KG., LVO., OBE., MC., DL
'Excellent book...Lyman reveals the fascinating story of the forgotten desert battles of 1941 that fundamentally changed the course of WWII.' Military Illustrated
Stone and Stone review Editor’s Choice Award for 2006
Robert Lyman writes about one of the most fascinating theaters in the Second World War, encompassing three campaigns he considers simultaneously "forgotten in favour of subsequent and more dramatic events elsewhere" and "crucial for Britain's survival." His Introduction imbues the campaigns with considerable importance.
The contention of this book is that, through the loss of Iraq, and the German capture or domination of Syria and Iran, Great Britain could well have lost the war in 1941. The continuance of Britain's strategic position in the Middle East was therefore crucial to her survival in 1941. There are a number of reasons for this, of which two are pre-eminent. First, the Middle East was at the time the linchpin of British imperial interests, the Suez Canal representing both a physical and psychological conduit between Europe and Asia, the lifeline between the scattered outposts of the British diaspora.
If Egypt with its precious Canal were lost, the glue that joined together Britain's strained sinews of empire, connecting the Mediterranean with India, and thence Asia and Australasia, would have been broken. Second, the Middle East provided Great Britain with the only sources of oil, that essential lubricant of modern, mechanical warfare, under her direct control. Indeed, without oil, she could not fight. Nor, for that matter, could Germany.
The author can be forgiven a trace of hyperbole in his ensuing paragraphs as he attempts to explain why Near Eastern oil—in 1941 only 5 percent of world production against 83 percent pumped in the United States—was so critical to keeping the UK in the war and why Allied victories in Iraq, the Levant, and Iran "...guaranteed...[Britain] would eventually win the war." Given some of the disasters that would befall the Allies later in 1941 and early in 1942, minor victories in the Near East probably didn't always feel quite so war-winning, even if Lyman is in the main correct about the importance of retaining those sources of petroleum. In any event, to supporting his contention about victory or defeat hinging on British possession of the Near East and its oilfields, the author devotes almost none of his book.
This is not a volume about technical details of pumping and refining petroleum, a survey of global refineries, pipelines, and infrastructure, or an examination of oil reserves, shipping routes, and consumption during the war. Beyond the barest minimum of data about annual oil production levels, there are no statistics or tables or algorithms concerning petroleum or shipping or utilization of the Suez Canal. Whatever its underlying contention, and whatever the validity of the argument, the book is really about operations in the Near East rather than an investigation of hard facts about the political, psychological, and economic value of the region and what its loss would have meant. Fortunately, the operations themselves provide an engrossing topic for Lyman to explore.
He opens his book with the campaign in Iraq, beginning with the political and diplomatic background from the years of the First World War through the 1930s.
Although Lyman never quite brings it up, throughout those pages a number of parallels become apparent between that period and the first years of the 21st Century. The chapter spends another ten pages on the development of Iraqi politics and Iraq's relations with Germany and Britain from 1939 through early 1941. Lyman covers all the bases, introduces all the players in the Iraqi drama (including the Regent, the Grand Mufti, Rashid Ali, and the officers of the Golden Square), and perfectly nails the utter desperation and senselessness of Iraq's efforts to use the Axis powers to free the nation from British imperialism.
The developing relationship between nationalist Arabism and fascist militarism in Germany and Italy is only incongruous if it is assumed that anything other than deep, self-serving pragmatism lay at the root of pan-Arab politics at the time. Extreme Arab nationalism was willing to seek the support of any power prepared to meet its demands, even from a German regime constructed uncompromisingly on the principle of Aryan racial dominance and an Italian dictatorship intent on revisiting the bloody military expansionism of the old Roman Empire. But in treading the path of pragmatism rather than principle, Arab nationalists entirely failed to see that the Axis had no interest per se in either a pan-Arab state or an independent Palestine and that such ideas would be supported by the Axis Powers only for as long as they suited their own strategic purposes. In retrospect it was a suicidal policy, but Arab nationalism was blind to the illogicality of many of its pretensions.
There is no reason to believe that swapping French colonialism or British neo-colonialism for that of Germany would not have brought with it the enslavement and murder of millions in an ethnic levelling of the type and scale which swept the occupied countries of Europe between 1939 and 1945. Because of their hatred of the Jew, however, pro-Axis Arabs were content to accept a superficial knowledge of Nazi totalitarianism, one that in fact displayed profound ignorance of Nazism's true nature and failed to recognize Nazi contempt for their own race. Promising Arabs their independence in a context which ignored Italian militarism and German racial intolerance would have required, as Hitler himself acknowledged, 'a grandiose fraud'. Because the Arabs appeared so gullible when it came to swallowing Nazi propaganda and promises this was precisely the policy Germany pursued. It very nearly came off.
Although Lyman does not come right out and say so, it seems safe to suggest that while the Iraqi nationalists were attempting to do exactly the opposite, any country occupied by the Nazis would have gladly traded the jackboot for British neo-colonialism.
Meanwhile, General Claude Auchinleck in New Delhi and General Archibald Wavell in Cairo began formulating incompatible plans for dealing with the deteriorating situation in Iraq. Auchinleck called for a preemptive strike with Indian troops landing and establishing a base at Basra, from which they could control Iraq and the Iranian oilfields while simultaneously protecting the flanks of North Africa and India. Wavell welcomed more troops from India, but wanted them deployed to Palestine and Transjordan where they could be moved against Baghdad if it became necessary. Lyman does an excellent job of spelling out these competing views of the situation.
Although he doesn't really foreshadow the course of future events, readers who already know what actually happened will especially enjoy the differences between Auchinleck's insistent certainty (some might say stridency) from the sidelines as compared to Wavell's steady calmness (some might say blind paralysis) at the center of the maelstrom. While Cairo and New Delhi squabbled about how to hold Iraq, and if military action would be needed at all, Rashid Ali, supported by the Golden Square, came to power in a coup d'etat on 1 April 1941. Prodded for action by London, Wavell—who continued to perceive the situation as a political threat rather than a military one—replied he had no more than a single battalion available for use in Iraq and recommended an "aerial demonstration" and a diplomatic solution. Lyman writes sympathetically and at length about Wavell's difficult position in this regard (reviewing, for example, opinions of John Connell, R.J. Collins, John Kennedy, Harold Raugh, and Ronald Lewin), but in the end seems rather frustrated with the commander-in-chief's inaction.
With Wavell unable or unwilling to take control of matters from Egypt, Churchill turned to India where Auchinleck immediately set about providing troops to land by sea at Basra, plus 1st Battalion The King's Own Royal Regiment which was transported by air from Karachi. Furthermore, London overruled Wavell and ordered him to prepare a force to be dispatched from Palestine to Habbaniya RAF base outside Baghdad.
The landing of a brigade of Indian infantry at Basra on 19 April marked a major turning point. Lyman, writing mostly from an Allied perspective, makes it seem like a diligent military step with no particular legal implications or political consequences. The arrival of a large contingent of foreign troops on Iraqi soil, however, was not welcomed by the Baghdad regime. Landing of such a force 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, although Lyman allows the point to pass without a mention, 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...." From a strict legalistic interpretation, it appears the British landing, no matter how necessary from a military standpoint, was a violation of a binding treaty with a sovereign state. Lyman lauds the dispatch of troops to Basra as the key to eventually securing all of the Near East, but it might also have served to help precipitate some of the troubles that ensued.
While the British marshalled their forces and the Indian brigade secured positions at Basra in preparation for arrival of the remainder of 10th Division, Rashid Ali—as revealed by Ultra intercepts—desperately sought immediate military support from Germany and Italy against the incursion. But even before Axis assistance could be dispatched, on the morning of 30 April British troops and civilians at Habbaniya awoke to find themselves under the guns of thousands of Iraqi troops on a "training exercise" with live ammunition on the escarpment above the Royal Air Force cantonment.
Lyman emphasizes that although war had been raging for more than a year and a half, Habbaniya, like many remote outposts of the British Empire, continued to function exactly as in peacetime and that the RAF base had been laid out strictly for peacetime duties with no thought whatsoever to defense against opposing ground forces. Likewise, according to Lyman, the base commander, Air Vice-Marshal H.G. Smart, was too old and calcified for overseeing combat operations. Nevertheless, in the early morning of 2 May the base's training aircraft, reinforced by a few Wellingtons flying from Shaibah outside Basra, began to attack the Iraqi ground troops on the escarpment. On the morning of the 7th, after five days of constant air attack, the Iraqis withdrew from the plateau, ending the siege of Habbaniya.
The results of the Habbaniya battle were threefold. First, the cantonment was not overrun, and the defenders not defeated. As a consequence, Rashid Ali's aim to use the threat to the cantonment as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Great Britain was decisively thwarted. This political stratagem was the most likely reason for the Iraqi failure to attack Habbaniya on 30 April and 1 May. It seems that Rashid Ali wanted to create a political crisis and to drag out the resulting impasse through negotiation. He did not believe for one moment that in its straitened circumstances Great Britain would defend its interests in Iraq by force, and considered that the resulting period of negotiation would give Germany time to bring arms and aircraft into the country.
Another reason perhaps, was the expectation that the arrival of strong German forces would do the job for the Iraqis. In either event Rashid All's policy failed dismally. Third, the Iraqi Armed Forces received a severe and demoralizing beating. In five days of incessant aerial bombardment the Iraqi Army was dealt a devastating blow from which their morale never recovered. In the process Iraq's air force was largely destroyed. The public standing of Rashid All's government was also dealt a severe blow, caused in part by his failure to overcome the Habbaniya problem and by his inability to ensure the timely arrival of the much-vaunted German legions, about which he had boasted to his supporters for so long.
After much wangling between London and Cairo (Lyman quotes the relevant signals liberally), Habforce had been cobbled together to speed belatedly to the relief of Habbaniya. Departing Transjordan on 12 May (after the siege of the RAF cantonment had already been lifted by the garrison on its own), the story of this expedition makes one of the most stirring tales of the Second World War, partly heroic and partly comedic. Largely utilizing Somerset de Chair's stylish and biting memoir, the author follows the advance of Habforce and then the dispatch and arrival of Luftwaffe warplanes. While British operations on the ground are covered thoroughly, Lyman devotes somewhat less attention to air ops and almost leaves out the Regia Aeronautica contingent entirely. By the end of May the understrength British forces had isolated Baghdad and the Indian brigades at Basra were slowly advancing toward the capital city. The Luftwaffe force was reduced to tatters, much of the Iraqi Army melted away, and Rashid Ali, the Grand Mufti, and the other coupists decamped for Iran.
This part of First Victory, the campaign in Iraq, was recently the subject of another title from Lyman. Here the campaign covers almost 150 pages (nearly half the book), which is substantially more than in the slender Osprey volume. This also proves to be a far more detailed and nuanced version, but on the other hand there are no photos and many fewer maps and illustrations. Lyman mines firsthand accounts—particularly those by de Chair, Tony Dudgeon, John Glubb, and Freya Stark—to add considerable flavor to the proceedings. He is also one of the first to integrate the surprising amount of Ultra material—including key intercepts of German, Italian, and Japanese traffic—that kept top-level British commanders extremely well-informed about Iraqi strength and intentions, as well as Axis plans. Furthermore, Lyman is not reluctant to interject his own considered opinions about assorted participants and their decisions and actions.
Like the campaigns in the Near East, the account of operations in Iraq in April and May 1941 segues smoothly into the Allied invasion of the French Levant (Syria and Lebanon) in June and July. After almost a year of uncertainty, Vichy's willingness to permit Axis aircraft to stage through their territory to Iraq proved to the British that they must take decisive action. Lyman lays out all the salient facts about missed opportunities to deal with the Levant, and again he points a finger at Wavell for failure to resolve the problem earlier in the war. The author's style, pleasant enough in the chapters on Iraq, seems more inspired here and is further reinforced by clever and effective quotes from Sir Edward Spears in much the same way that excerpts from de Chair enlivened the story of Habforce.
During late 1940 and early 1941 de Gaulle and his lieutenants, along with Spears, lobbied Wavell repeatedly for an Allied invasion of the Levant, preferably spearheaded by the Free French, but to no avail. When German aircraft began moving through Syria, the debate heated up considerably. Again, Lyman treats the exchanges in thorough detail, quotes relevant signals, and interprets the positions of all the players. Interestingly, de Gaulle in Lyman's view seemed simultaneously insistent on pushing the British to invade and highly suspicious of the possibility of London seizing the Levant for its own. Wavell, whatever de Gaulle's insistence and suspicions, simply preferred to ignore the French as long as possible.
Although no final decision on invading the Levant had been reached, in an effort to deter Luftwaffe aircraft transferring to Iraq, the RAF began attacking Vichy airfields on 14 May. According to the author (the passage is not footnoted), "...upwards of 120 German aircraft used Vichy [Levant] airfields between mid-May and 6 June." Although he offers no explanation, apparently that number includes transport aircraft on supply missions, because—per the earlier pages on operations in Iraq—Luftwaffe fighters and bombers in the Near East never amounted to more than a couple dozen machines. Whatever the exact numbers, due to fears that appearance of Luftwaffe aircraft meant German ground troops were also en route, on 21 May Churchill—as with Iraq—overruled Wavell's reluctance and insisted on military action.
As with Iraq, Wavell scraped together forces from his slim order of battle, but—as he realized—this amounted to nothing like what was required for the task. Wavell assigned the job of planning and commanding Operation Exporter to Jumbo Wilson, and Lyman describes the plan in some detail before offering a few thoughts:
But it was an extremely poor plan. Operation Exporter's main disadvantage was that it provided no single point of main effort, endowed with all the strength that Wilson could muster. Instead, Wilson's limited strength was divided across three separate thrusts, each heading for different targets. By attacking in three fronts in the west at once, he failed to be sufficiently strong at any one place. This immediately nullified the extraordinary expectation that both Beirut and Damascus would be reached, and seized, on Day One of the operation, and seemingly ignored the nature of the terrain, which favoured the defenders in virtually every respect. The plan lacked any pretence of subtlety or intelligence.
The possibility of attracting and then holding French attention around Deraa, whilst then punching hard with the remainder of his strength for Beirut, or vice versa in a dramatic thrust for Damascus, or indeed of driving hard up the middle through the Bekaa Valley, thus splitting Beirut off from Damascus, seemed to be too difficult for Wilson and his planning team. The hapless Military Attache in Ankara found himself bombarded with incredulous queries about British strategy from Turkish officers who knew Syria better than almost anybody else. 'Why were there no mobile columns? Why were we attacking in almost equal strength on three fronts? Why, above all, had we not concentrated on breaking through in the Bekaa?' He had no answer to these questions. The strategic and tactical impoverishment of the British military mind at work in the planning of Operation Exporter provided no answers, only an embarrassing silence.
Inexplicably, Wilson also failed to exploit the forces now available in Iraq to threaten a simultaneous attack on Syria from the south-east and east. These failings prompted Spears to comment caustically that the campaign was only 'useful to the historian as providing the best possible example of how a campaign should not be conducted.' It appears that Wavell delegated responsibility for authorizing Wilson's plan to his Australian deputy, General Blamey, reporting to Churchill on 4 June that Blamey 'thinks plan is good'. The reality was far different, however. The plan was poor and could easily have been improved upon by schoolboys with toy soldiers. As de Verdilhac soon realized, the British plan was in fact childish, but was rescued from failure by the determined valour of many of the British, Australian, Free French and Indian troops engaged, and the failure of de Verdilhac's own forces fully to exploit the opportunities British weakness provided.
On 8 June 1941 Allied forces commanded by Wilson invaded the Levant. By that time, of course, the campaign in Iraq had ended, the Luftwaffe was no longer staging aircraft through Syria, and there was scarcely a German to be found. Hitler, focused on Barbarossa, seems to have been only interested in reinforcing Iraq, not gaining bases in the Levant. Nevertheless, with or without German support, Vichy forces confounded de Gaulle's prediction and offered fierce resistance to the understrength invasion. The Australians made some progress on the left, but the Allied attack soon bogged down. On 12 June the local French commander, General Dentz, asked Vichy to make arrangements to provide Luftwaffe support, but this did not materialize. Meanwhile, the Free French units were showing little stomach for a shooting war against their Vichy brethren.
At least one of the Free French senior officers refused to fight. Elsewhere it has been written that the Senegalese troops of the Free French in particular did not relish attacking the Senegalese troops of the Vichy defenders. In this situation an unanticipated Vichy counterattack threatened to open the way into undefended Palestine. Lyman goes on to describe the confused fighting as the Allies recovered and pushed toward Damascus. On 20 June Dentz begged for "shock troops" to be airlifted from Vichy in German aircraft, but Damascus fell the next day.
The next chapter of the book shifts the scene of the action to eastern Syria where, as in Iraq, small forces—miniscule in comparison to those about to clash in the Soviet Union—battled in the desert. On the same day Damascus fell, Habforce—last seen at Habbaniya and Baghdad, and with Glubb and a detachment of the Arab Legion alongside again—crossed into Syria after belatedly receiving orders to join the campaign. Lyman notes that it remains difficult to fathom why Wilson delayed the advance from the Iraqi border for so long. In any event, Vichy warplanes ruled that part of the sky, and the long columns of thin-skinned vehicles were easy targets as they moved across the flat desert. Somerset de Chair appears again briefly at this point before being twice wounded by air attack and evacuated to Palestine.
In the meantime, a brigade of William Slim's 10th Indian Division (previously seen in Basra) crossed into northeastern Syria and captured Deir-ez-Zor. Although not without considerable difficulties, including those which stemmed from the desert environment and logistical problems, the Allied columns cleared eastern Syria while on the main front the battle for Beirut continued. Vichy troops still fought valiantly, but their position was helpless, with dwindling supplies, little chance for reinforcement, and a gradual tightening of the Allied noose. After further fighting, on 14 July an armistice concluded hostilities.
Having already questioned Wilson's military prowess, Lyman proceeds to demolish the general's political skills based on what he and other observers, including Spears, view as a totally flawed agreement with Vichy authorities in the Levant.
In his haste to end hostilities, Wilson seems not to have considered the intricate and delicate political relationship between Great Britain and Free France. Instead, he concluded a treaty with the Vichy enemy without allowing Free France a meaningful role in negotiations, treating Vichy with more consideration than the cause of Free France itself, relegating it to a position of insignificance and in the process creating a rift between de Gaulle and his British allies.
For his part, Dentz was desperate not to have to suffer the humiliation of surrendering to de Gaulle. Wilson's bungling allowed him to retain his spurious honour at the expense of Britain's allies. The affair showed clearly that despite the claims of one of his biographers, Wilson was not an astute diplomat. Thus, Vichy surrendered to Great Britain, not to Free France. As news of the armistice filtered through to Cairo, the terms agreed with Dentz caused immediate consternation, recalled Spears, to 'all but the military, Jumbo Wilson's attitude seemed to some of those closest to the Minister of State [Lyttelton] (and I thought the Embassy also) to be incomprehensible.' These terms placed Free France at a significant political disadvantage apropos Great Britain: large numbers of Vichy troops were to be allowed to embark with their weapons and equipment to France, there in all probability to be deployed against Great Britain again in North Africa, which remained under Vichy control.
The local auxiliaries were handed over to Great Britain, there was no mention of the mandate and Wilson agreed a secret protocol that allowed for the repatriation of Vichy troops to France, thereby denying de Gaulle the ability to recruit freely. As it was, only 5,600 soldiers and 400 officials joined the Free French cause. Smugly content with a straightforward and seemingly amicable military settlement, Wilson—a simple and uncomplicated soldier described by one historian as a 'breezy pragmatist'—remained ignorant of the political disaster he had caused.
On Monday 21 July de Gaulle let loose in fury at the unfortunate Lyttelton, refusing to accept the armistice terms on the basis that they were made without his approval and handing him a written ultimatum stating that with effect from 24 July all Free French troops would cease to be under British command. Lyttelton refused to accept the note but a serious rift remained. Plans were even made for de Gaulle to be arrested if he took the step he threatened, but tempers diminished in the ensuing days and all parties moved back from the prospect of a dangerous and potentially catastrophic fissure between the Allies. De Gaulle saw in the debacle not Wilson's soldierly plodding but a political stitch-up by the British at the highest level, conspiring to 'replace France at Damascus and Beirut'. In this he was mistaken, his passion blinding him to the truth that it was the tyranny of distance, poor command and control, and incompetence which were the real culprits, rather than grand and devious political design. To de Gaulle's suspicious mind, however, it seemed that the dastardly British had managed to get their hands on the Levant, despite his best efforts.
Lyman spends the remainder of the chapter reviewing the pros and cons of the invasion of the Levant, including arguments put forward by Spears, Raugh, and Kennedy. In the end, he finds much to fault with Wavell and Wilson and their execution of the invasion, but holds steadfastly that it was an absolutely necessary operation. "Leaving a sore to fester [would have been] a poor strategy."
The chapters on the Levant amount to about a hundred pages. As with his chapters on Iraq, Lyman deals in considerable detail with diplomatic and military aspects of the campaign. In addition to telling the story in straightforward fashion, he integrates a range of interesting and illuminating vignettes by those who were on the scene—especially de Chair, Glubb, John Masters, and Bill Slim in northeastern Syria—and he includes his own strong views without becoming strident. On the other hand, at only a hundred pages, the chapters leave out some interesting material and compress some aspects of the campaign. For example, the activities of German emissary Rudolph Rahn are reduced to two short sentences.
The final chapter of the book, weighing in at about fifty pages, takes the reader to the third and final campaign in the Near East in 1941, the Allied invasion of Iran. This is the thinnest and least developed part of the book, lacking the same piquant turn of phrase evident in the chapters on the Levant. Lyman's opening pages—background on Iran including Allied planning for an aerial bombing campaign against Soviet oilfields in the Caucasus in 1940—have a few minor errors, such as the assertion "the whole of 5 Indian Division was sent instead to North Africa." (Actually, one brigade went to Egypt and transferred to 4th Indian Division while the other two brigades went to East Africa via Port Sudan.)
Among the multi-power intrigues in which Iran was caught up in 1940 and 1941, the author notes (crediting Richard Stewart) that although the Shah was nominally pro-German, or at least his state relied economically on Germany, the king of kings had nearly dispatched his own army to put down Rashid Ali's revolt in Iraq in April, an intervention which would not have gone over well in Berlin. The German embassy in Teheran had helped finance the coup, and, ironically, it was to Teheran that Rashid Ali, the Grand Mufti, and the defeated coupists fled when Habforce approached Baghdad.
Just as arrival of Luftwaffe aircraft on Vichy fields settled the issue in the Levant, Operation Barbarossa finally decided the murky multi-player game in Iran with the sudden prospect that German troops might descend on the Near East via the Caucasus. Once again Auchinleck (now holding Wavell's old command in Cairo) and Wavell (now holding Auchinleck's old command in New Delhi) produced conflicting theories on how best to deal with a threat to the flank of the Near East and India. In a reversal from the situation in Iraq, British diplomats here seem mostly to have favored a peaceful solution and had to be gradually convinced of the necessity of an invasion. After the usual allotment of debate and disagreement, all parties consented that London and Moscow would act in concert to eradicate German influence from Iran. This would not be the first invasion of a peaceful neutral by the Soviet Union, and—despite the Allied assertion that they fought to defend the world against naked aggression—some would say this would not be the first British undertaking of that nature. (The Dakar expedition and occupation of Iceland might be cited as precedents.) By all accounts, the situation was full of ambiguities.
On 23 August the War Office telegraphed fresh orders to Wavell, clarifying the purpose of the invasion. For the first time what had previously (and only recently) been regarded as a benefit of invasion, namely the opening up of communications to the Soviet Union from the Persian Gulf, had become part of its raison d'etre. However, the sensitivities of going to war in a neutral and relatively friendly country (Iran) in order to support an erstwhile enemy (the USSR) on behalf of a country not currently at war and publicly disowning knowledge of British intentions (the USA), rather than simply to secure Great Britain's sources of Middle Eastern oil, were simply too great to be discussed publicly...
The ulterior motives for the invasion were to be kept from public view, but it was clear that the principal purpose was to secure the oil fields and to force Iran into agreement over transit rights. The public reason for war was that Great Britain went into Iran 'to uproot German influence and forestall enemy action.' However, it is obvious that by mid-August this reason was no longer the primary motivation or imperative for invasion. It was rather, as Churchill perhaps unwittingly admitted after the war, to bring succour to the Soviet Union. By late August no one really believed that a handful of German nationals were the primary reason for invasion. No one doubted that they could be dangerous saboteurs, or fifth column catalysts for external invasion, or perhaps even agents for a pro-Nazi coup d'etat (as had occurred in Iraq in April). However, by that time these had become excuses, rather than justifications, for war.
On 25 August British troops in the south and Soviet troops in the north invaded neutral Iran. As usual, the British operation was conducted on a shoestring. One of the key units was the veteran Habforce, now redesignated 9th Armored Brigade but still entirely without armored vehicles of any kind. Lyman disagrees with Stewart's assessment that the British plan called for ground forces to out-maneuver the Iranian defenses and "persuade the Iranians that they were beaten, rather than to force them to stand and fight." In Lyman's view, the British simply attacked the obvious strategic objectives with their weak forces because they had no alternative, and the Iranians quickly collapsed not due to clever strategic design but because of their own "profound weakness." The next few pages follow the progress of the British attack with Slim and Masters once again playing notable roles and providing pithy commentary. Description of Soviet operations is limited to a couple of paragraphs.
On 16 September, with British and Soviet forces about to enter Teheran, the Shah abdicated and his son ascended the throne. (Muhammed Reza Shah would himself be forced into exile in 1979, but that's an entirely different story for an entirely different book.) The final pages of the chapter on Iran discuss the "dubious legality" of the invasion, views concerning its necessity, and Lyman's assertion that the operation "constituted a failure of diplomacy." Whether the attack was necessary or not, "...the exigencies of war had overridden the principles of international conflict in the decision to invade...." Here and in his Epilogue, Lyman nevertheless concludes that British intervention in Iran (as well as in the Levant and Iraq) was entirely justified in order to protect British security interests. That seems on the face of it reasonable enough, but Lyman neither asks nor answers further questions along that line.
What other nations deserved the same right of invading peaceful neutrals in order to protect national security interests? Only the western Allies? Was the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states in 1940 a legitimate act of protecting security interests? Invading Finland in 1939? Eastern Poland in 1939? What about Japan's southward thrust after the Americans, British, and Dutch had denied Imperial access to petroleum and other vital resources? Perhaps preventive war is justified when conducted by one's own side, even if it's very bad form indeed when carried out by the enemy. Lyman doesn't pursue his "security interests" reasoning, but once again his book about operations in the Near East in 1941 resonates with similarities to the same region in the early years of the 21st Century.
At the end of his Epilogue, the author returns to his original contention that losing the Near East in 1941 would have cost Britain the war. This time around he softens his conclusions a bit but still considers the region and its oilfields of critical importance to British survival.
Would Great Britain have been defeated had it lost control of the Middle East in 1941? The answer to this question depends entirely on what would have been the reaction to this defeat by the United States. Certainly, there were many in Great Britain who despaired of victory. The moral effect on the British public of yet another defeat at a time of otherwise almost overwhelming gloom should not be underestimated. If the British Army on the Nile had been lost, following hard after the devastation wrought at Dunkirk, what hope could have remained for those brave, elderly souls, armed with little more than pitchforks and shotguns, guarding Britain's shores? Many held no hope that the British would be able to overcome Rommel and save Egypt, as General Dill's comments to Kennedy indicated so desperately in late May.
Indeed, over a year was to elapse before that first tentative victory outside a Libyan [sic] village at El Alamein. But the answer to the question about the reaction of the United States must remain conjecture. Certainly, there were strong voices in Washington urging the full-blooded involvement of the United States in what many recognized correctly as a global struggle against tyranny, but these voices were balanced equally by those urging the virtues of isolation.
The most that can be said, perhaps, is that if Great Britain had lost the Middle East in the summer of 1941 to Hitler, with its oil, and its ligatures of empire cut, the likelihood is that she would have been immeasurably weakened, to the extent that her continued survival would have been surprising, even with the focal point of German attentions now far to the east. The immediate and unequivocal declaration of war against Germany by the United States would have acted to save her, but the certainty of American commitment did not emerge until American soil had itself been violated, at Pearl Harbour in December 1941.
But this happily remains conjecture. What is certain is that three wars and three victories in five months had secured for Great Britain mastery of the Middle East during the hot and eventful summer of 1941. From April, when the advance units of Major General Fraser's Force Sabine nosed its way up the Shatt al-Arab waterway to dock at Basra, to 30 August when a ceasefire was agreed with Iran, Great Britain had, with pluck, imagination and bluff, seized the initiative that denied to Germany the fruits of its propaganda. By preventing Iraq—the first domino of three—from falling it had ensured, by aggressive pre-emptive action in both Syria and Iran, that these countries did not themselves fall to Nazi intrigue. The result of this boldness for London was incalculable.
These actions closed the back door to the Suez Canal, destroyed decisively any hope of German military expansionism in Iraq, Syria and Iran, secured the critical sea and air communications to India, and allowed a vital conduit to open up from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea, thus connecting a lifeline between the USA and the USSR that was to pump many millions of tons of supplies into Soviet veins in the three years that followed. And it also safeguarded Great Britain's precious supplies of non-American oil, without which the war would have undoubtedly been lost. As Wavell had seen so clearly in 1940, the war would be decided by access to oil. Britain's action in 1941 ensured, to paraphrase Hilaire Belloc's observation about the Maxim gun two generations earlier, that she would eventually prosper against her foes, because 'We had the oil, and they had not.'
It's amazing how a minor puncture like mistakenly placing El Alamein in Libya can deflate a paragraph just when the author is working up a good head of steam!
When it comes to the invasion of Iran, Stewart's Sunrise at Abadan is still the fullest treatment. Similarly, Mockler's Our Enemies the French remains the best account of the invasion of the Levant. Unhappily, there is as yet no comparable full-length volume about operations in Iraq. In terms of all three of those topics combined under one cover, First Victory stands out, overall, as the best book about the Near East.
Lyman employs a winning formula throughout the book. He includes and discusses useful material from historians who have already worked this ground. He quotes firsthand accounts from those in the thick of the action as well as key communications between various headquarters. He writes his own competent prose which in some places rises to a very stylish level. And he draws his own conclusions and injects his own strong opinions in suitable doses. Given its primary contention about British victory or defeat hinging on control of the Near East, the book tends to emphasize the Allied point of view. While the author mines a fair amount of information from Iraqi, Vichy French, and Iranian perspectives, it seems like veins of firsthand "enemy" sources might remain as yet untapped.
On the other hand, Lyman has done a good job of incorporating large numbers of pertinent Allied sources. Fortunately, for readers, the campaigns in the Near East featured a fascinating cast of characters, many of whom went on to write fascinating memoirs, and Lyman isn't shy about deploying some of their best lines in support of his own paragraphs. Anglophiles in particular will be thrilled by the style and dash of British officers—at least according to their own memoirs!—in scenes charmingly reminiscent of 19th Century Victorian colonial campaigns. And that's part of the allure of First Victory. In an age of mechanized total war with massed armies colliding on boundless fronts, in the Near East a few bold individuals took the initiative, exerted themselves in small actions, and made a huge difference in the outcome of the global conflict.
Highly recommended, and probably destined to be remembered as one of the best new books of 2006.
Reviewed by William (Bill) Avery Stone, author of Axis, Allies, and Allah: The Near East in the Second World War (Santa Rosa, CA: Stone & Stone, 2004