Iraq

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krimsonglass51
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Iraq

Post by krimsonglass51 » 20 Jun 2006 17:39

Could anyone explain why Britain's actions in Iraq in 1941 be considered a seperate conflict?
(There are people who do say this.) I see it in the same light as other the other campaigns in Syria, Iran, etc.

Jon G.
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Post by Jon G. » 20 Jun 2006 18:21

I don't want to split hairs - but I would describe the British action in Iraq in the spring of 1941 as a reaction to Rashid Ali's siege of the RAF base at Habbaniyah and the following escalation of events, including the deployment of a small German expeditionary force via the Vichy-held Levant.

Operation Exporter a few months later in turn can be seen a reaction to Vichy's involvement in the Iraqi affair, as well as to ensure that the Axis would not be able to support future coups in Iraq via Lebanon and Syria. Therefore I think it is fair enough to distinguish the Iraqi affair as a seperate campaign.

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Michael Emrys
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Post by Michael Emrys » 21 Jun 2006 05:07

Jon G. wrote:Operation Exporter a few months later...
Indeed very few. In fact, only one.

:wink:

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Post by Jon G. » 21 Jun 2006 11:39

Well, if you give the Iraqi insurgency April 30th 1941 as its starting date, then it barely qualifies as being 'a few months' prior to Operation Exporter - on the other hand, you could also give the April 1st military coup as the starting date of the Iraq affair, or alternatively the unopposed April 18th landing of the Indian 10th Division at Basra. Here's a quick chronological overview of the 1941 Iraq affair. And here's a quick summary of Operation Exporter.

Wavell did not seem to be all that eager to enter Iraq. Confusingly, Iraq appears to have been outside of the sphere of GHQ Middle East until May 5th 1941 according to the regiments.org link above. Wavell may have been wrong in considering Iraq insignificant, but then he certainly had far more pressing problems on his hands in April 1941. His misgivings about entering Iraq seem well-founded also today :)

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Michael Emrys
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Post by Michael Emrys » 21 Jun 2006 19:15

Jon G. wrote:Wavell did not seem to be all that eager to enter Iraq.
He felt, with considerable justice, that it was the business of the Indian Army. At the time, India had more in the way of spare troops, and it was to India that most of the Middle East oil flowed. But I think there was a problem of logistical support from India (I admit to being kind of foggy on that point).
Confusingly, Iraq appears to have been outside of the sphere of GHQ Middle East until May 5th 1941 according to the regiments.org link above.
Just so. I believe it had been considered part of India's responsibility. That, in addition to being mostly autonomous.
Wavell may have been wrong in considering Iraq insignificant, but then he certainly had far more pressing problems on his hands in April 1941.
I don't think he considered it insignificant, but you are right about more pressing matters (Rommel, Greece, Ethiopia, etc.). His resources were already stretched beyond reasonable limits.
His misgivings about entering Iraq seem well-founded also today :)
Actually, Iraq was pretty quiet for the rest of the war. Garrisoning it was of course a drain the British would have preferred to do without, but it was not huge in the grand scheme of things.

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Post by Jon G. » 22 Jun 2006 03:11

I admit that I haven't been able to find the exact quote - but from memory I recall Wavell confessing to paper that as far as Iraq was concerned he '...disliked the people, disliked the land and disliked the military commitment...' Military coups were endemic in Iraq, and that may have shaped Wavell's judgement. It was only once the Iraqis put siege to Habbaniyah that the British went actively against Rashid Ali who had also been in power briefly in 1940.

At any rate the transfer of Iraq to GHQ Middle East also transferred the problem to Wavell at a time when he had many other things to worry about.

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Post by Jon G. » 23 Jun 2006 02:48

Further to my comments about Wavell's unwillingness to use force against Rashid Ali's coup in Iraq, google brought this interesting page up:

This site gives an in-depth description of Rashid Ali's coup and Britain's reasons and motivations for intervening. Parts of the page are worth repeating here:
... Meanwhile, on 2 May, while the defenders of Habbaniya were fighting for their lives, the Chiefs of Staff in London were in the process of gathering a relief column for the besieged base. Any thought of considering the Basra enclave was precluded by the fact that “any northward advance from Basra was impeded both by the Iraqi sabotage of communications and by the annual floods on the Two Rivers . . .” Therefore, London found itself in a position to solicit the services of General Wavell:

In view of situation in Iraq which is not that which we visualized when India took responsibility it seems operational command should now pass temporarily to Mideast whence alone immediate assistance can be given. This will take place forthwith unless you see strong objections.

London quickly discovered that Wavell voiced much more than “strong objections” to its request. There appear to be two primary factors which influenced Wavell’s reticence. First, Wavell, “like most British officers [was] strongly pro-British*.”86 This is how Churchill described Wavell. But, it is unlikely that Wavell was an actual proponent of all that being pro-Arab entailed, i.e., pan-Arab Union, British withdrawal, etc. Rather it is safe to say that Wavell’s pro-Arab sympathies went no further than advocating any policy which might placate the Arab world and, as a result, maintain British preponderance in the Middle East. Therefore, also “like most British military officers” the general realized how vital the Middle East was to the home island. Wavell’s greatest fear rested in what he saw as the potency of Arab nationalism and the phenomenon’s threat to British interests in the region. And, of course, this phobia found fertile ground in Wavell’s participation as Middle Eastern Commander-in-Chief during the twilight of the Palestinian Revolt. Not only was the general highly sensitive to the threat of Arab nationalism, but he also realized the effect which British aggression might have in fomenting the movement into region-wide revolution. A second concern of Wavell’s was simply that, in addition to the surfacing of the Iraqi problem, his position in Palestine was in the process of being invested from all directions but south.
* 'Pro-British is almost certainly a typo for pro-Arab, which should be evident from context.

Wavell's answer to the cable from London was worded thusly:
I have consistently warned you that no assistance could be given to Iraq from Palestine in present circumstances and have always advised that a commitment in Iraq should be avoided. My forces are stretched to limit everywhere and I simply cannot afford to risk part of forces on what cannot produce any effect. I can only advise negotiation with Iraqis on basis of liquidation of regrettable incident by mutual agreement with alternative of war with British Empire, complete blockade and ruthless air action.
Whitehall's next cable to Wavell showed some understanding for the endangered position of the British in the Middle East, but still demanded action in Iraq:
We much deplore the extra burden thrown upon you at this critical time by events in Iraq. A commitment in Iraq was however inevitable. We had to establish a base at Basra, and control that port to safeguard Persian oil in case of need. The line of communication to Turkey through Iraq has also assumed greater importance owing to German air superiority in the Aegean Sea . . . Had we sent no forces to Basra the present situation at Habbaniya might still have arisen under Axis direction, and we should have also have had to face an opposed landing at Basra later on instead of being able to face to secure a bridgehead there without opposition . . . There can be no question of accepting Turkish offer of mediation. We can make no concessions. The security of Egypt remains paramount. But it is essential to do all in our power to save Habbaniya and to control the pipeline to the Mediterranean.
...to which Wavell bluntly replied:
Your [message] takes little account of realities. You must face facts...I feel it my duty to warn you in the gravest possible terms that I consider that the prolongation of fighting in Iraq will seriously endanger the defense of Palestine and Egypt. The political repercussions will be incalculable, and may result in what I have spent the last two years trying to avoid, namely, serious internal trouble in our bases.”95 Wavell closed his message by admonishing London to accept a negotiated settlement via Turkish good offices.
As it turned out, Auchinleck in india was far more willing to use force in Iraq than Wavell in Cairo was. You can speculate if Auchinleck already had an eye on getting Wavell's prestigious job for himself. The early despatch of the Indian Army units to Basra undermined Wavell's position. HABFORCE was all that Wavell could spare at the time. Wavell emphasised that this formation would also be needed to safeguard the border to Vichy Syria. A May 6th cable to Wavell read:
Settlement by negotiation cannot be entertained . . . Realities are that Rashid Ali has all along been hand-in-glove with Axis Powers, and was merely waiting until they could support him before exposing his hand. Our arrival at Basra forced him to go off half-cock before the Axis was ready. Thus there is an excellent chance of restoring the situation by bold action, if it is not delayed. Chiefs of Staff have, therefore, advised Defense Committee that they are prepared to accept responsibility for dispatch of the force specified in your telegram at the earliest possible moment.
...to which Wavell defiantly replied:
Wavell stated that he feared that the known handicaps of HABFORCE might bring about its quick defeat, and two, that Great Britain should avoid “a heavy military commitment in a non-vital area.” To prevent either or both outcomes, Wavell again admonished Whitehall to negotiate.
...but Churchill had things his way:
...Our information is that Rashid Ali and his partisans are in desperate straits. However this may be, you are to fight hard against them. The mobile column being prepared in Palestine should advance as you propose, or earlier if possible, and actively engage the enemy, whether at Rutba or Habbaniya. Having joined the Habbaniya forces, you should exploit the situation to the utmost, not hesitating to try to break into Baghdad even quite small forces, and running the same kind of risks the Germans are accustomed to run and profit by. There can be no question of negotiation with Rashid Ali . . . Such negotiation would only lead to delay, during which the German air force will arrive...You do not need to bother much about the long future in Iraq. Your immediate task is to get a friendly Government set up in Baghdad, and to beat down Rashid Ali’s forces with the utmost vigor.”100 On 13 May, Wavell responded favorably to Churchill’s orders in stating that he would “try to liquidate [the] tiresome Iraqi business quickly.
The conflict between a firebrand politician and a careful, deliberate general with a clearer view of the problem's complexity is familiar enough down through history. Here, we probably have a major reason why Wavell was sacked as CinC Middle East in June 1941.

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Michael Emrys
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Post by Michael Emrys » 23 Jun 2006 05:33

Good post, Jon. Too bad Wavell didn't feel inspired to make a similarly strong objection to the Greek adventure. Admittedly, the situation was entirely different there...

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Post by Jon G. » 23 Jun 2006 23:09

Thanks, Michael.

I think it is fair enough to say that the Greek misadventure was not to Wavell's liking either, although the commitment there was more gradual and the full consequences weren't felt until Rommel and the DAK set foot in Libya. Greece was of course an unmitigated disaster. Crete was in the making at the same time as the Iraq affair unfolded, which both Wavell and Churchill knew thanks to Ultra intelligence, but considering the German losses at Crete you could perhaps call that a qualified defeat.

Other than Greece/Crete Wavell IMO has a very good record, though. He won his campaigns. The excerpts quoted above go to demonstrate just how many problems he had to deal with, and how limited his resources were.

Harking back to krimsonglass51's original question there can be little doubt that Wavell certainly saw Iraq and the Vichy-controlled Levant as essentially two sides of the same problem. I think it is fair to say that if there had been no military action in Iraq, the conquest of Syria likely would not have happened either.

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Post by Michael Emrys » 24 Jun 2006 05:55

Jon G. wrote:I think it is fair enough to say that the Greek misadventure was not to Wavell's liking either...
That may be true, but he doesn't seem to have objected to it too strenuously. His statements to London seem to have been along the line of "Militarily not optimistic but none of that matters for political reasons." My thought is that he should have left the politics of the situation to London and concentrated on his role as military adviser. Somewhat more along the line of "This is likely to only end in disaster, but if you feel it is worth possible heavy sacrifice, I will of course do as directed." That might at least have made them aware of the huge risks they were accepting. As it is, I get the feeling that Churchill at least was thinking that it was risky, but he just might pull it off somehow.
Other than Greece/Crete Wavell IMO has a very good record, though. He won his campaigns.
I agree entirely. I think Wavell was far and away one of the most talented of the British Generals—and the best were very good indeed. I think he should have been left to run the Middle East pretty much as he saw fit for at least another year. As it was, he was one of the most squandered resources the British had. Too bad he didn't make a more determined effort to get along with Churchill. This seems to go back to the way Churchill handled some business with the Army in Ireland quite a few years earlier, and left him with very bitter feelings. Not to have pulled that one together was possibly the biggest mistake of his career, IMO.

Michael

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