Confrontation between super powers during WWII - Anglo-Iraqi War
Confrontation Active:- 2–31 May 1941 Country:- Kingdom of Iraq Type:- Air Wing Units involved:- 2 Squadrons Part of Luftwaffe Garrison/HQ:- Berlin Engagements:- Anglo-Iraqi War Commanders: Lieutenant General Hans Jeschonnek and Colonel Werner Junck
Fliegerführer Irak - Sonderkommando Junck
Flyer Command Iraq (German: Fliegerführer Irak)[note 1] was a unit of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) sent to Iraq in May 1941 as part of a German mission to support the regime of Rashid Ali during the Anglo-Iraqi War. The mission was part of a larger effort to gain support in the Middle East for the Axis Powers against the United Kingdom and its allies during World War II.
On 1 April 1941, Rashid Ali and members of the 'Golden Square' led a coup d'état in Iraq. During the time leading up to the coup, Rashid Ali's supporters had been informed that Germany was willing to recognize the independence of Iraq from the British Empire, there had also been discussions on matériel being sent to support the Iraqis and other Arab factions in fighting the British.
German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop persuaded Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler on 3 May that Dr. Fritz Grobba be secretly returned to Iraq to head up a diplomatic mission to channel support to the Rashid Ali regime. Grobba's mission was accompanied by a military force commanded by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or OKW (the High Command of the Armed Forces). The military mission had the cover name Sonderstab F (Special Staff F); it included components from the Abwehr-based Brandenburgers and from the Luftwaffe. Sonderstab F was commanded by General der Flieger Hellmuth Felmy. Fliegerführer Irak (Flyer Command Iraq) was the Luftwaffe component of Sonderstab F. While Fliegerführer Irak was part of the Sonderstab F military mission, it was also somewhat separate from it. Its personnel reported to the Luftwaffe High Command and not to the Chief of the OKW.
On 6 May, in accordance with the 'Paris Protocols', Germany concluded a deal with the Vichy French government to release war matériel, including aircraft, from sealed stockpiles in Syria and transport them to the Iraqis. The French also agreed to allow the passage of other weapons and stores as well as loaning several airbases in northern Syria, to Germany, for the transport of their aircraft to Iraq.
Also on 6 May, Luftwaffe Oberst Werner Junck received instructions in Berlin that he was to take a small force of aircraft to Iraq. The force was named Special Force Junck (Sonderkommando Junck) Junck met Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring and was named Commander of Aviation Iraq. (Fliegerführer Irak) Junck was then briefed by Generalleutnant Hans Jeschonnek, Göring's Chief of Staff. While under Junck's tactical direction, Sonderkommando Junck was to be under the overall direction of Jeschonnek. The aircraft of Sonderkommando Junck had Iraqi markings and operated from an air base in Mosul, some 240 miles north of Baghdad.
Fliegerführer Irak was to consist of a squadron of Messerschmitt Bf 110 zerstörer heavy fighters (12 aircraft) from the 4. Staffel/ZG 76, and a squadron of Heinkel He 111 bombers (12 aircraft). In addition, to assist in transporting the force to Iraq, Junck was lent 13 Junkers Ju 52/3m trimotor transports and Junkers Ju 90 four-engined transport aircraft. All but three of these transports had to be returned to Greece immediately to prepare for the invasion of Crete.[note 2].
Junck was accompanied to Iraq by Major Axel von Blomberg. It was von Blomberg's task to head a reconnaissance group that was to precede the unit and to integrate Fliegerführer Irak with Iraqi forces in operations against the British.
Dr. Grobba and his mission reached Aleppo in Syria on 9 May. They were accompanied by two Messerschmitt Bf 110s. On 11 May, they reached Baghdad.
On 13 May, the bulk of Junck's force arrived in Mosul. The flight had taken the aircraft some 36 hours and covered 1200 miles. Over the following days, Junck's aircraft became increasingly frequent visitors to Baghdad.
Junck's transport aircraft began to stage through Aleppo to Mosul on 14 May. On this date, a further three Messerschmitt Bf 110s and three Heinkel He 111s arrived in Mosul. Due to damaged rear wheels, two over-loaded Heinkel He 111s were left in Palmyra in central Syria. British fighters illegally entered Vichy French air-space and strafed the disabled Heinkels.
On 15 May, Junck arrived in Mosul with a further nine aircraft. By the end of the day, he had assembled a force comprising 12 Messerschmitt Bf 110s, 5 Heinkel He 111s, a communications flight with light aircraft, a section of anti-aircraft guns, and 3 Junkers Ju 52s.
British forces had already begun to counterattack in Iraq. By 15 May, Junck knew that 'Habforce' was on its way to RAF Habbaniya and 'Kingcol' had taken Rutba Fort. Junck sent a lone Heinkel bomber to find 'Kingcol' at Rutba. The bomber found and attacked 'Kingcol', which alerted the British to the German military assistance to the Iraqi regime.
On the same day, von Blomberg was sent by Junck to Baghdad to make arrangements for a council of war with the Iraqi government. The council was planned for 17 May. However, von Blomberg was killed by friendly fire from Iraqi positions. His Heinkel He 111 was shot at from the ground as it flew low on approach and von Blomberg was found to be dead upon landing.[note 3].
Junck visited Baghdad in place of von Blomberg on 16 May. He met Dr. Grobba, Rashid Ali, General Amin Zaki, Colonel Nur ed-Din Mahmud, and Mahmud Salman. The group agreed on a number of priorities for Fliegerführer Irak. The first was to prevent Kingcol from reaching RAF Habbaniya. The second was for Iraqi ground forces to take Habbaniya with air support provided by Fliegerführer Irak. It was also very important to the Germans to provide the Royal Iraqi Army with a 'spine straightening.' Much of the RIrA was known to be terrified of bombing by British aircraft.
On the same day, Junck arranged for a raid by Fliegerführer Irak on Habbaniya. Six Messerschmitt Bf 110s and 3 Heinkel He 111s attacked the base, which took the RAF personnel there by surprise. However, while a number of defenders were killed on the ground, the Germans lost a Heinkel in exchange for an Audax and a Gladiator.
On 17 May, three Messerschmitt Bf 110s attacked an extended column of Kingcol in the open desert. Luckily for the British, the fighters had not attacked the previous day when many vehicles were caught up to the axles in soft sand.
On the same day, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) paid Junck back with his own coin. Two cannon-firing, long-range Hawker Hurricanes which had arrived unannounced from Egypt, and six Bristol Blenheim bombers from 84 Squadron, struck the Germans at Mosul. For the loss of one Hurricane, two German aircraft were destroyed and four damaged. In addition, two Gladiator biplane fighters from Habbaniya encountered two Messerschmitt 110s attempting to take off from Rashid Airfield in Baghdad. Both Messerschmitts were destroyed.
By 18 May, Junck's force had been whittled down to 8 Messerschmitt Bf 110s, 4 Heinkel He 111s, and 2 Junkers Ju 52s. This represented a roughly 30 percent loss of his original force. With few replacements available, no spares, poor fuel and aggressive attacks by the British, this rate of attrition did not bode well for Fliegerführer Irak. By the end of May, Junck had lost 14 Messerschmitts and 5 Heinkels.
Hitler issued 'Führer Directive No. 30 on 23 May.' Among other things, it said 'The Arab Freedom Movement in the Middle East is our natural ally against England. In this connection special importance is attached to the liberation of Iraq ... I have therefore decided to move forward in the Middle East by supporting Iraq.'
On 27 May, twelve Italian Fiat CR.42 biplane fighters of the Regia Aeronautica (Royal Italian Air Force) arrived in Mosul to operate under German command. By 29 May, Italian aircraft were reported over Baghdad. According to Winston Churchill, the Italian aircraft accomplished nothing. Other reports state that they actually arrived in time to take part in the final air battle of the Iraq campaign on 29 May, scoring victories against No. 94 Squadron RAF.
Grobba sent a panicked message from Baghdad to Berlin on 28 May reporting that the British were close to the city with more than 'one hundred tanks.' By then, Junck had no serviceable Messerschmitt Bf 110s and only two Heinkel He 111s with just four bombs between them.
The German military mission to Iraq left under cover of darkness on 29 May. Dr. Grobba himself fled Iraq the next day.
Lieutenant General Hans Jeschonnek – 6 May 1941 to 29 May 1941 (in Europe)
Colonel Werner Junck – 6 May 1941 to 29 May 1941 (in Iraq)
Purnell's History of Second World War puts the operation chain as following:
4./ZG 76 with 12 Bf110Cs led by Ober-lt. Hobein
1 kette from ZG 26 with 2 Bf110s led by Lt. Wörner
4./KG 4 with 7 He 111H-6s led by Hptm. Schwanhäuser
1./K.G. zbv. 1 with 20 Ju 52s led by Major Pinagel
1 kette of 3 Junkers Ju 90B (Lufthansa)
1 Flak Battery 20mm guns
Overall commander of Sonder Stab-F was General Hellmuth Felmy. The field commander of FF-Irak was General Werner Junck. The aircrafts were painted in Iraqi colors. Pictured, a British soldier is pointing out hastily repainted tail of a downed heinkel.
British view point - Air War Over Iraq 1941
This article was written by Kelly Bell and originally published in the May 2004 issue of Aviation History Magazine.
Web Source: Air War Over Iraq: 1941 by Kelly Bell 6/12/2006 AVIATION HISTORY MAGAZINE
In May 1941, British forces were fighting to keep Iraq in Allied hands—a struggle that belatedly involved German and Italian aircraft as well.
At 2 a.m. on April 30, 1941, officials in the British Embassy in Baghdad were awakened by Iraqi military convoys rumbling out of the Rashid Barracks, across bridges and into the desert toward the Royal Air Force (RAF) training base near the Iraqi town of Habbaniya. They immediately sent wireless signals to the air base’s ranking commander, Air Vice Marshal Harry George Smart. With his base not set up or prepared for combat, Smart initially could think of little to do other than sound the general alarm — neglecting to announce the reason. The base speedily degenerated into a madhouse of scared, sleep-sodden, bewildered cadets, instructors and sundry other personnel.
In the spring of 1941, the RAF’s No. 4 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) at Habbaniya held just 39 men who knew how to fly an airplane. As May began, however, those instructors — few of whom had combat experience — and their students found they were the principal obstacle to a military operation that might well have brought Britain to its knees.
There are those who call the fight for Habbaniya airfield the second Battle of Britain. Fought half a year after the exhaustively chronicled 1940 air campaign that blunted German hopes of neutralizing or conquering England, this Mideastern shootout was at least as crucial to the outcome of World War II — yet few have heard of it.
The prize over which the campaign raged was crude oil. Although Britain had granted Iraq independence in 1927, the British empire still maintained a major presence there, since Britain’s oil jugular passed through that Arab kingdom. On April 3, 1941, militant anti-British attorney Rashid Ali el Gailani led a coup d’tat that set him up as chief of the National Defense government. This Anglophobic barrister’s dearest ambition was to expel by military force all Englishmen from the Middle East. He set about enlisting the assistance of like-minded Egyptians who vaguely promised to organize an uprising of their army in Cairo. He contacted German forces in Greece — which had just fallen to the Third Reich — to inform them of his intentions and solicit their support. He also let Maj. Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, newly arrived in Libya, know they could count on the support of pro-Axis Vichy French forces in Syria to provide easy access to Iraq. Finally, he told the Germans he would secure for them unrestricted use of all military facilities in Iraq, whether or not they were held by the British.
Until Rashid Ali’s coup, British forces in the region — falsely comforted by the 1927 treaty, by which Iraq and the United Kingdom were technically bound as allies — anticipated little trouble beyond scattered anti-British riots by civilians. Rashid Ali’s pro-Axis overtures set Prime Minister Winston Churchill at odds with his commander in the Middle East, General Sir Archibald Wavell. Wavell insisted that he had his hands full as it was, between evacuating Greece, preparing for an expected German invasion of Crete and dealing with Rommel’s recent North African offensive. Churchill recognized the threat that an Axis inroad in Iraq would pose to the empire. It could deprive Britain of crude oil from the fields in northern Iraq, sever its air link with India and encourage further anti-British uprisings throughout the Arab mandates.
As a first response, the 2nd Brigade of the 10th Indian Division landed at Basra on the night of April 29, with the rest of the division soon to follow, along with the aircraft carrier Hermes and two cruisers. On learning of that development, Rashid Ali mobilized his Iraqi army and air force supporters and dispatched them to seize Habbaniya air base.
Situated on low ground next to the Euphrates River less than 60 miles from Baghdad, Habbaniya was overlooked 1,000 yards to the south by a 150-foot-high plateau. Beyond that was Lake Habbaniya, from which British flying boats evacuated the base’s civilian personnel, including women and children, on April 30. The base’s cantonment housed 1,000 RAF personnel and the 350-man 1st Battalion of the King’s Own Royal Regiment. There were also 1,200 Iraqi and Assyrian constabulary organized in six companies, but the British could only rely on the four companies of Assyrian Christians, who devoutly hated Iraqis of different extraction. Aside from 1st Company, RAF Armoured Cars, with its 18 outdated Rolls-Royce vehicles, the principal weaponry available to the base was its aircraft, the most potent of which were nine obsolete Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters and a Bristol Blenheim Mk.I bomber. The other planes at the school comprised 26 Airspeed Oxfords, eight Fairey Gordons and 30 Hawker Audaxes. Aside from the unsuitability of its aircraft for combat, Habbaniya’s greatest vulnerability lay in its dependence on a single electric power station that powered the pumps necessary to supply its base with water.
During the chaos following the alarm, the Iraqis arrived and set up artillery along the plateau running along the far side of the base’s landing field. This was a ghastly surprise for Air Vice Marshal Smart, who sent out an Audax trainer to reconnoiter at daybreak on April 30. The crew’s initial report was that the highlands were alive with what looked like more than 1,000 soldiers with fieldpieces, aircraft and armored vehicles. At 6 a.m. an Iraqi officer appeared at the camp’s main gate and handed over a letter that read: ‘For the purpose of training we have occupied the Habbaniya Hills. Please make no flying or the going out of any force of persons from the cantonment. If any aircraft or armored car attempts to go out it will be shelled by our batteries, and we will not be responsible for it.’
Such comportment of forces on a ‘training exercise’ struck Smart as disquietingly inappropriate, so he typed out the following reply for the courier: ‘Any interference with training flights will be considered an `act of war’ and will be met by immediate counter-offensive action. We demand the withdrawal of the Iraqi forces from positions which are clearly hostile and must place my camp at their mercy.’
Smart next had his ground crews dig World War I–style trenches and machine gun pits around the base’s seven-mile perimeter, pathetic defenses against aerial attack and shelling from elevated positions. That left the cadets and pilots to arm, fuel and position their aircraft in 100-degree heat. The young men shoved their planes into the safest possible locations — behind buildings and trees, where they were still vulnerable.
Habbaniya’s RAF base commander, Group Captain W.A.B. Savile, divided his airplanes into four squadrons. The Audaxes were organized as A, C and D squadrons, under Wing Commanders G. Silyn-Roberts, C.W.M. Wing and John G. Hawtrey, respectively. B Squadron, under Squadron Leader A.G. Dudgeon, operated 26 Oxfords, eight Gordons and the Blenheim. In addition to the squadrons, Flight Lt. R.S. May led the Gladiators as a Fighter Flight from the polo ground. Although most of the planes were old, there were an impressive number of them. Of the 35 flying instructors on hand, however, only three had combat experience, and there were even fewer seasoned bombardiers and gunners. Smart selected the best of the cadets to bolster those numbers, while the ground crews installed racks and crutches for 250-pound and 20-pound bombs on the trainers.
On the evening of April 30, the British ambassador to Iraq radioed Smart that he regarded the Iraqi actions up to that point as acts of war and urged Smart to immediately launch air attacks. He also reported he had informed the Foreign Office in London of the Habbaniya situation and that His Majesty’s diplomats both in Baghdad and London were urging the Iraqis to withdraw — without response.
Habbaniya received four more wireless messages in the small hours of May 1. First, the ambassador promised to support any action Smart decided to take, although Smart would likely have preferred to have a high-ranking military figure giving him that backing. Second, the commander in chief, India (Habbaniya was still part of India Command), advised Smart to attack at once. The third dispatch was from the British commander in Basra, announcing that because of extensive flooding he could send no ground forces, but would try to provide air support. Smart finally heard from London: The Foreign Office — again, civilians — authorized him to make any tactical decisions himself, on the spot.
Meanwhile, by May 1 the Iraqi forces surrounding Habbaniya had swelled to an infantry brigade, two mechanized battalions, a mechanized artillery brigade with 12 3.7-inch howitzers, a field artillery brigade with 12 18-pounder cannons and four 4.5-inch howitzers, 12 armored cars, a mechanized machine gun company, a mechanized signal company and a mixed battery of anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns. This totaled 9,000 regular troops, along with an undetermined number of tribal irregulars, and about 50 guns.
Supporting those ground forces were elements of the Royal Iraqi air force, including 63 British, Italian and American-built warplanes equal to or newer than those at Habbaniya. Number 1 (Army Co-operation) Squadron at Mosul had 25 airworthy Hawker Nisrs, export variants of the Audax powered by Bristol Pegasus radial engines. Number 4 (Fighter) Squadron at Kirkuk possessed nine Gladiators. At Baghdad No. 5 (Fighter) Squadron had 15 Breda Ba.65 attack planes, while at Rashid No. 7 (Fighter-Bomber) Squadron could field 15 Douglas 8A-4s, as well as four Savoia S.M.79B twin-engine bombers purchased from Italy in 1937. On paper, at least, the Iraqi air force had the RAF outclassed at Habbaniya.
Smart contacted his ambassador in Baghdad to issue an ultimatum for the Iraqis to start withdrawing from Habbaniya by 8 a.m. on May 2. In that way should they refuse to heed the deadline, the whole day would be available for combat. Smart was still unsure of how far London would support him if he engaged the armed forces of a country not clearly defined as an Axis power. His maddening uncertainty was tardily banished by a May 1 telegram from Churchill: ‘If you have to strike, strike hard.’
That emboldened the harried commander to make the first move. He had learned from a radio message that 10 Vickers Wellington bombers from No. 70 Squadron had arrived at Basra. With expectations of their support, he would launch an airstrike at dawn on May 2. Although an aerial assault against well-dug-in armored forces had never succeeded before, Smart was upbeat, remarking, ‘They should be in full retreat within about three hours.’
Smart refused to withdraw the aircrewmen and least-experienced students from the trenches despite their doubtful ability, even bolstered by 400 Arab auxiliaries, to stop an armored charge. Knowing that their ground crews’ availability to service returning machines would be critical in the fight to come, Smart’s squadron commanders furtively toured the perimeter late on the night of May 1 and led the necessary personnel away from their fighting positions.
At 4:30 on the morning of May 2, 1941, the first flying machine cranked its engines on Habbaniya airfield. Thirty minutes later 35 Audaxes, Gordons and Oxfords were showering bombs on the Iraqis, joined by Wellingtons of Nos. 70 and 37 squadrons from Basra. The Iraqis were well dug-in on broken ground that provided good cover and concealment, so the British saw few potential targets at first. The Iraqis, unable to draw beads on the airplanes in the darkness, retaliated by shelling the air base, but the gun flashes gave away their positions. The Audaxes dropped explosives on the anti-aircraft gun pits while the Wellingtons’ turret gunners strafed them. The Iraqi anti-aircraft gunners used many tracers, again marking their positions for the British airmen to attack or avoid. After bombing from just 1,000 feet for maximum accuracy, the British carefully scanned the plateau for suitable future targets.
As soon as an aircraft landed, one of its two crewmen (they alternated) would hurry to the operations control room, report on the results of his raid and suggest targets for the next flight. Meanwhile, the other crew member would oversee ground personnel in making repairs, refueling and rearming the aircraft. The planes’ engines were generally kept running. As soon as the first crew member returned with a new assignment, the two would board their machine and return to the fray.
The Wellingtons performed well on the first day, but being big they attracted the eagle’s share of groundfire as well as half-hearted attacks from two Iraqi Gladiators and two Douglas 8As. One damaged ‘Wimpy’ was forced to land at Habbaniya and then set on fire by Iraqi artillery shells; nine other damaged bombers were declared unserviceable when they returned to Basra. Groundfire brought down an Oxford flown by Flying Officer D.H. Walsh, and Pilot Officer P.R. Gillespy’s Audax failed to return.
Smart’s estimate that the Iraqis would cut and run within three hours proved seriously overoptimistic. By 12:30 p.m., after 7 1/2 hours of almost-constant aerial assault, they were still shelling the base, and at 10 a.m. their air force had joined in, destroying three aircraft on the airfield. One of the Gladiator pilots, Flying Officer R.B. Cleaver, was trying to intercept an S.M.79B when his guns failed, but Flying Officer J.M. Craigie caused a Ba.65 to break off its strafing attack.
By day’s end, the British had flown 193 recorded operational sorties — six per man. The RAF had lost 22 of its 64 aircraft, and 10 pilots were dead or critically wounded, but only a crippling injury was deemed sufficient to send a man to the infirmary.
Although the Iraqis had been sorely hurt and showed no inclination to launch a ground attack, they were still firmly ensconced atop their elevation with a variety of fieldpieces trained on the smoking flying school. Furthermore, that afternoon Iraqi troops invaded the British Embassy in Baghdad and confiscated every wireless transceiver and telephone, leaving the only two significant English outposts in the region isolated from each other.
By that evening, Dudgeon and Hawtrey were the only squadron commanders not dead or hospitalized. They decided that the next day Hawtrey would command all remaining Audaxes and Gladiators from the base’s polo field, which was visually screened from the artillery by a row of trees. Dudgeon would direct all Oxfords and Gordons from the cratered landing field.
Meanwhile, the Committee of Imperial Defense had transferred command of land forces in Iraq to Middle East Command, compelling Wavell to assemble whatever elements he could spare into a relief unit, called Habforce, to march the 535 miles from Haifa to Habbaniya. Rashid Ali’s leaders also appealed for help, but the Germans were preparing for their invasions of Crete and the Soviet Union, and the Italian response was slow. Only the Vichy French in Syria agreed to send arms and German-supplied intelligence to the Iraqis. They also promised the use of Syrian airfields to any aircraft that the Germans or Italians were willing to commit to Iraq.
On May 3, Smart, noting that the Iraqi artillery had not caused as much damage as he feared it would, called for the RAF to launch some preemptive strikes against the Iraqi air bases. Three Wellingtons of No. 37 Squadron bombed Rashid, also claiming to have shot down a Nisr and damaged another. The Iraqi airmen struck back, but Cleaver attacked an S.M.79B, which he last saw diving away with its left engine smoking. One of the Gordon pilots, Flight Lt. David Evans, developed a novel and risky but effective method of dive-bombing. After the ground crewmen had affixed fuzes with a seven-second delay to the 250-pound bombs, he would remove the safety devices. That meant that if a bomb came loose from its fitting, it would probably explode seven seconds later. After takeoff, Evans would climb to about 3,000 feet and scan Iraqi positions. Then, diving at about 200 mph, he would yank back on the stick and drop a bomb from six to 10 feet over the target — too close to miss. Seven seconds later, just as Evans made it to a safe distance, the bomb would obliterate the target and rattle his teeth. This method so terrified the Iraqis that they took to their heels without bothering to fire at the plunging Gordon.
Although Rashid Ali’s troops kept shelling Habbaniya, they balked at storming the base. Their confidence was further undermined by the arrival of four Blenheim Mk.IVF fighters from No. 203 Squadron on May 3. Eight of No. 37 Squadron’s Wellingtons bombed buildings and strafed aircraft at Rashid on May 4 but lost a plane to a combination of 20mm groundfire and an Iraqi Gladiator of No. 4 Squadron. The Wellington crew was taken prisoner. Two Blenheim Mk.IVFs from Habbaniya also strafed Iraqi aircraft at Rashid and Baghdad airfields. At that same time, six Vickers Valentias and six Douglas DC-2s of No. 31 Squadron were flying troops into Iraq and ferrying out civilian evacuees. One of the DC-2s flew into Habbaniya with, among other supplies, ammunition for a couple of World War I–era fieldpieces that for years had stood as ornaments outside the officers’ mess. To the garrison’s surprise the old guns proved still operable, and when they opened up on the plateau, the Iraqis were convinced the British were being reinforced with artillery. The trainers only flew 53 sorties that day, but they also flew night missions to deprive their besiegers of sleep.
Still, the defenders were suffering much worse than their foes seemed to realize. After four days of combat, just four of the original 26 Oxfords were still battle-worthy. The Audax, Gladiator and Gordon contingents were similarly depleted. Pilots were also becoming even scarcer, as half-trained cadets died in action or suffered from cracked nerves.
On May 6, an Audax returned from a dawn reconnaissance mission with news that the Iraqis were withdrawing. That encouraged Colonel O.L. Roberts of the 1st King’s Own Royals, commander of ground forces at Habbaniya, to mount an assault, backed by the Audaxes, to drive the enemy from the plateau. The timing was perfect — the Iraqis, their morale broken at last, suddenly abandoned the heights in a disorderly withdrawal down the Baghdad road toward Fallujah. Meanwhile, six Wellingtons from No. 37 Squadron hit Rashid again.
That afternoon the British spotted a column of Iraqi reinforcements approaching from Fallujah, which soon ran into the forces retreating from Habbaniya. In complete disregard for military procedure, both groups stopped on the highway, and personnel jumped from their vehicles to confer, leaving all their trucks, tanks and armored cars parked in plain view. At that point, Savile hurled every remaining Audax, Gladiator, Gordon and Oxford he had — 40 aircraft — at the bunched-up mass of vehicles. The young airmen in their old planes knew they would not have a better — or another — chance like this, and they made the most of it with all the shells and bombs they could carry. The two airstrikes took two hours, with the British flying 139 separate sorties. One Audax was damaged by groundfire, but they left the Iraqi convoy in flames.
Habbaniya also came under Iraqi air attack, and two Gladiator pilots were wounded by bomb splinters on the polo ground. One Gladiator intercepted a Douglas 8A and, after firing two bursts, drove it off.
Armed ground personnel and Arab auxiliaries ventured from the airfield and rounded up 408 demoralized Iraqi prisoners, including 27 officers. Counting those POWs, Rashid Ali lost more than 1,000 men that day, compared with seven British killed and 10 wounded.
The next day the British could find no trace of the enemy near Habbaniya. A lone Nisr attacked at 10:45 a.m., but a Blenheim Mk.IVF of No. 203 Squadron shot it down in flames. The British also raided the airfield at Baquba, during which Pilot Officer J. Watson, piloting a Gladiator, encountered an Iraqi Gladiator, attacked it from behind and last saw it in a steep dive. Back at Habbaniya, ground personnel eventually found and shot up a few Iraqi machine gun nests in the village of Dhibban just east of the airfield.
In the previous five blazing days, Habbaniya’s makeshift air force had flown 647 recorded sorties, dropped more than 3,000 bombs of various sizes, totaling over 50 tons, and fired more than 116,000 machine gun rounds. The British lost just 13 airmen killed, 21 critically wounded and four to emotional collapse. It was a smashing victory over Rashid Ali, who now faced the British reprisal with a demoralized army and an air force that barely existed.
On the day that this motley fleet of RAF antiques was reducing the combined Iraqi forces outside Habbaniya to junk, LuftwaffeColonel Werner Junck was in Berlin being briefed by Chief of Air Force General Staff Hans Jeschonnek. The colonel’s new mission was to organize a special force called Sonderkommando Junck, to be sent to Iraq. When Jeschonnek stated, ‘The Führer desires a heroic gesture,’ Junck asked precisely what that meant. Jeschonnek replied, ‘An operation which would have significant effect, leading perhaps to an Arab rising, in order to start a jihad, or holy war, against the British.’ The Germans were unaware that their erstwhile Mideast allies had already been soundly defeated and that Habbaniya’s garrison was at almost that very moment receiving a message from Churchill: ‘Your vigorous and splendid action has largely restored the situation. We are watching the grand fight you are making. All possible aid will be sent.’
Twelve Messerschmitt Me-110Cs of the 4th Staffel (squadron) of Zerstörergeschwader (destroyer wing) 76 (4/ZG.76), two Me-110Cs of ZG.26, seven Heinkel He-111Hs of 4th Staffel, Kampfgeschwader (bomber wing) 4, and a transport contingent of 20 Junkers Ju-52/3ms and a few Ju-90s were hastily decorated in Iraqi markings. They began flying to Mosul via Greece and Syria on May 11. In an ill-fated start, one He-111 was fired on by Arab tribesmen as it approached Baghdad airport. That plane landed with Major Axel von Blomberg, the Luftwaffe liaison officer to Rashid Ali, dead.
On May 12 British reconnaissance planes discovered several German aircraft in Iraq, and on the 14th one of No. 203 Squadron’s Blenheims spotted a Ju-90 at Palmyra airport in Syria, confirming Vichy French cooperation in violation of its nominal neutrality. British aircraft — including Curtiss Tomahawks of No. 250 Squadron, in the first combat sorties ever flown by P-40s — attacked Palmyra the same day. It was the first round of hostilities that would ultimately lead to the British invasion of Syria in June.
Habbaniya struck at the Luftwaffe first when Flying Officer E.C. Lane-Sansom, of No. 203 Squadron, strafed Mosul at 3:15 a.m on May 16. At 9:35 a.m. three He-111s bombed Habbaniya and were themselves attacked by a Gladiator. Caught in the German gunners’ crossfire, Flying Officer Gerald D.F. Herrtage’s fuel tank was hit, and though he bailed out before his Gladiator exploded in flames, his parachute became tangled. Herrtage’s death was not in vain, however — one Heinkel’s engine was disabled, resulting in a crash-landing before it reached Mosul. The Germans launched no further bombing attacks, though that one had done more damage to Habbaniya than all the previous Iraqi airstrikes combined.
On May 17, Habbaniya was reinforced by the arrival of four more Gladiators of No. 94 Squadron and four modified, extra-long-range Hawker Hurricane IIC cannon-equipped fighters. While flying their No. 94 Squadron Gladiators over Rashid at 7:55 that morning, Sergeants William H. Dunwoodie and E.B. Smith attacked the two ZG.26 Me-110s just as they were taking off. Smith’s quarry crash-landed southeast of the air base with both engines on fire, while Bill Dunwoodie’s disintegrated in a fiery midair explosion.
Habforce finally reached Habbaniya on May 18. The base was no longer threatened, but Smart had suffered a nervous breakdown, and by some reports also been injured in a motor vehicle mishap. He was sedated, loaded onto a DC-2 with women and children evacuees and flown to Basra. Smart’s emotional collapse was hardly surprising — he was primarily a school administrator, not a soldier — yet until Churchill’s tardy response, every military officer above him had avoided taking any responsibility for whatever happened at Habbaniya. Air Vice Marshal John Henry D’Albiac took over command of the RAF in Iraq. Besides attacking the Germans at Mosul, 200 miles away, Habbaniya’s aircraft helped British forces at Fallujah fight off a succession of Iraqi attempts to retake that town.
On May 20 Habbaniya’s Gladiators and Hurricanes dueled with four ZG.76 Me-110s over Fallujah. Sergeant Smith was jumped by five Me-110s and narrowly escaped, but his Gladiator was sufficiently damaged for the Germans to credit it to future night fighter ace Lieutenant Martin Drewes, as his first of an eventual 52 victories. The fighting for Fallujah reached its peak on the 22nd, when the Iraqis, backed by light tanks, made a determined effort that resulted in heavy casualties to both sides. Habbaniya’s planes flew 56 sorties in support of the British, attacking a column of 40 vehicles moving up to reinforce the Iraqis, but losing one Audax to return fire. Removing the Lewis machine gun from its rear mounting, Flying Officer L.I. Dremas — a Greek pilot-in-exile — and his gunner fought a running gun battle with the Iraqis until, aided by local levies, they reached British lines.
Another Gladiator was brought down by groundfire on May 23, but again the pilot evaded capture and reached friendly lines. Meanwhile the Italians, after delays and only grudging help from the Vichy French, finally flew 11 Fiat C.R.42 biplane fighters of the 155th Squadriglia (squadron) to Rhodes, reaching Kirkuk on May 26. From there they began strafing British troops, who by then were marching from Fallujah toward Baghdad. As Habbaniya-based planes were supporting the British advance on May 29, they were attacked by two Fiats, which forced an Audax to land damaged, with its pilot wounded. Wing Commander W.T.F. ‘Freddie’ Wightman of No. 94 Squadron dived on one of the C.R.42s and shot it down, with the pilot, a 2nd Lt. Valentini, bailing out and taken prisoner.
On May 30, Habforce, now numbering 1,200 men with eight guns and a few RAF armored cars, lay just outside Baghdad, facing an Iraqi division. The RAF’s now-undisputed control of the air made a great difference, however. The Iraqis refused to engage the dreaded British, and the RAF took over Baghdad’s airfield. Realizing that the game was up, Rashid Ali fled the capital after embezzling his soldiers’ monthly payroll of 17,000 dinars. His followers followed suit, and Iraq’s pro-British royal government was restored soon thereafter.
The Italians, too, were sufficiently forewarned to depart Kirkuk for Syria on the 31st, burning two Fiats that were too damaged to fly out. Sonderkommando Junck had a more ignominious departure, the last of its surviving personnel escaping overland to Syria on June 10, leaving behind the wrecks of all 14 Me-110s, five He-111s and two transport planes. Those losses were far less damaging than the pounding their prestige had taken in the eyes of the Arabs they had hoped to convert to the Axis side. A quick, sizable German incursion in support of Rashid Ali would have likely succeeded, but Adolf Hitler was too preoccupied with the looming invasion of the Soviet Union to pay much attention to events in obscure Iraq.
The implications of the Habbaniya battle are staggering. But even the folks back in Mother England, distracted by the capture of German Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, took little notice at the time. Nonetheless, history has an obligation to give full credit to the handful of pilots of No. 4 SFTS, who in five days had secured Britain’s vital oil supply, as well as denied Nazi Germany a foothold in the Middle East.
Fliegerführer Irak Footnotes
- Some sources indicate that this unit was named "Special Force Junck" (Sonderkommando Junck)
- Playfair states this force was made up initially of 14 Messerschmitt 110s and 7 Heinkel 111s. Lyman states it was 12 Heinkel 111s and 12 Messerschmitt 110s. Mackenzie states the force consisted of 15 Heinkel 111s and 14 Messerschmitt 110s. Kurowski states the force consisted of 9 Heinkel 111s and 12 Messerschmitt 110s.
- Lyman indicates von Blomberg was shot down by Iraqi troops while Kurowski indicates that he was shot when Arab tribesmen fired into the air and was found to be dead upon landing
Fliegerführer Irak Citations
- Lyman, p. 63
- Kurowski, p. 131
- Kurowski, p. 141
- Playfair (1956), pp. 194–195
- Kurowski, p. 131
- Playfair (1956), p. 195
- Mackenzie, p. 100
- Lyman, pp. 64–65
- Lyman, p. 60
- Lyman, pp. 66–68
- Kurowski, p. 140
- Playfair (1956), pp. 196
- Wavell, p. 4095
- Churchill, Chapter 14, The Revolt in Iraq, p. 234
- Thomas 2002, p. 81
- Lyman, p. 84
Fliegerführer Irak Bibliography: +
- Churchill, Winston (1985) . 'Chapter 14: The Revolt in Iraq'. The Second World War, Volume III, The Grand Alliance. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0-395-41057-6.
- Lyman, Robert (2006). Iraq 1941: The Battles for Basra, Habbaniya, Fallujah and Baghdad. Campaign. Oxford, New York: Osprey Publishing. p. 96. ISBN 1-84176-991-6.
- Kurowski, Franz (2005). The Brandenburger Commandos: Germany's Elite Warrior Spies in World War II. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Book. ISBN 978-0-8117-3250-5.
- Mackenzie, Compton. Eastern Epic: Volume 1 September 1939 – March 1943 Defence. London: Chatto & Windus. OCLC 59637091.
- Playfair, Major-General I.S.O.; with Flynn R.N., Captain F.C.; Molony, Brigadier C.J.C. & Toomer, Air Vice-Marshal S.E. (2004) [1st. pub. HMSO 1956].
- Butler, J.R.M (ed.). The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume II The Germans come to the help of their Ally (1941). History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. Naval & Military Press. ISBN 1-84574-066-1.
- Thomas, Andrew (2002). Gloster Gladiator Aces. Botley, UK: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-84176-289-X.
- Wavell, Archibald (1946). Despatch on Operations in Iraq, East Syria and Iran from 10th April, 1941 to 12th January, 1942. London: War Office. in 'No. 37685'.
- The London Gazette (Supplement). 13 August 1946. pp. 4093–4102.
Web References: +
- Nordic Aviation in World War 2: http://www.rafandluftwaffe.info/
- Photographic Site Airliners.net: http://www.airliners.net/
- Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fliegerf%C3%BChrer_Irak
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