The rebellion of Rashid Ali in Iraq
Iraq was created by the British in the 1920s and Prince Feisal (the son of Sherif Hussein) was crowned King of Iraq after the British were forced to transfer control of Syria to France. When World War II broke out in 1939 the pro-German sentiment among the Arab nationalists grew. Nazi anti-Semitism found attentive ears in the Arab world which hated the way the British determined how the territory of the Arab world should be divided and because of their constant support of the Zionist enterprise in Palestine. In April 1941 Following the German capture of Greece and the German Afrika Korps began its eastward advance in the Western Desert towards Egypt a coup d'etat was carried out in Iraq by pro-German officers, headed by Rashid Ali al-Kilani. The new Iraqi government did not declare war on Britain; it simply wanted to be on the right side when Germany won the war.
Britain, was aware of what was happening still enjoyed the right of passage of military forces in Iraq and also maintained several hundred soldiers there (outside the big cities, mainly for training purposes), began to move the 10th Indian division towards Basra without informing the Iraqis. The 1st Indian brigade arrived in Basra on April 18. On April 27, the Iraqi government violated its agreements with Britain and demanded that no more British troops arrive in Iraq until the brigade was removed from Basra. The British informed the Iraqis that they were ignoring their demand and from that moment, both sides knew they were in a state of war. The British took control of Basra and the airport outside the city and flew a 400-strong battalion to Habbaniya airfield outside Baghdad knowing that the Iraqis were concentrating forces to occupy it.
The British had a battalion of Assyrians (Assyrian Christians of Iraq) and another Kurdish company for the defense of Habbaniya and other forces that were flown there to support the above forces. The British Air Force base in Habbaniya was actually a flying school that included 90 bi-plane training aircraft. The pilots were experienced especially the flight instructors. The Iraqi Air Force included 60 aircraft, most of them bi-planes from three different procurement sources and with low-quality pilots.
The Iraqi army consisted four infantry divisions, a mechanized brigade (an armored battalion with 16 light tanks and 14 armored cars and two mobile infantry battalions on trucks). Many of the Iraqi officers and noncommissioned officers were veterans of the Turkish army.
On April 30, the Iraqis set up 9,000 soldiers and 50 guns to besiege Habbaniya, reinforced by thousands of militiamen and gangs. The Iraqis were sure that Habbaniya would soon fall into their hands like ripe fruit. They seized the areas that dominated the base up to a range of about 1,000 meters around it and threatened to open fire on every plane taking off. On May 2, the British planes took off despite this and attacked the Iraqi force. Over the next five days, the British planes carried out 584 sorties, dropped 45 tons of bombs and fired more than 100,000 machine-gun bullets. The Iraqi artillery caused some damage, but the Iraqi infantry and gangs that had gathered there began to disperse and run away. Already on the 6th of May and after a counter-attack by the British forces from the airfield on the 7th of the month, most of the Iraqi soldiers were in a state of retreat from the British planes.
Meanwhile, the entire 10th Indian Division arrived in Basra on May 6 and began to advance toward Baghdad. At the same time, the British organized a mobile brigade (Habbaniya Force) and another battalion from Eretz Israel, which were also sent to Baghdad. Led by several hundred Jordanian Legion scouts, the Hab Force entered Iraq on May 9 and the battalion followed on the 15th.
Now the Iraqis realized that they were in serious trouble. They still enjoyed numerical superiority of more than three to one over the British attacking force. However the British forces were better trained and had control of the air. In this situation, the Iraqis turned to the Germans for help.
The Germans who were prepared for this step (due to their intelligence involvement in the Iraqi coup from its inception) reacted quickly and sent planes from Greece through the Vichy region of France to northern Iraq. Two Heinkel bombers attacked Habbaniya on May 10. A squadron of 12 Heinkel 111 bombers arrived in Mosul, as well as a long-range Messerschmitt 110 squadron. The Italians also sent aid in the form of 12 fighter bi-planes. The British responded by increasing the force by several Hurricane fighter planes from Palestine, and on May 13 the Germans began to launch more bombing sorties from Mosul, but the German operations were limited due to a severe shortage of fuel that they were not able to fly sufficient quantities through Vichy Syria because of the bombing of air bases by planes taking off in the land of Israel.
Faced with an unreliable maintenance line, fuel shortages and British advances toward Baghdad, the Germans decided to withdraw their planes. On 17 May, the Habbaniyah Force linked up with the besieged soldiers in Habbaniya and on the 23rd, they crossed the Euphrates River together towards Baghdad. Iraqi resistance gradually weakened with the approach to the capital, and on 30 March, the Iraqis surrendered. Rashid Ali fled to Iran and from there to Germany where he remained until the end of the war, broadcasting anti-Semitic and anti-British propaganda. After the war, he escaped to Saudi Arabia where he stayed until 1958 when he was allowed to return to Iraq.
Although the British were at a disadvantage of more than three to one and for a certain period faced German air supremacy, they occupied Iraq in four weeks.