At 2:00 on the morning of 30 April 1941, employees of the British Embassy in Baghdad were awakened by large military convoys rumbling from al-Rashid barracks, across bridges and out into the desert in the direction of the town of Habbaniya, Iraq, where the Royal Air Force (RAF) maintained its largest flight school in the region. The embassy officials immediately sent wireless warnings to the school’s ranking commander, Air Vice-Marshal H. G. Smart. With his base not set up nor prepared for combat, Smart initially could think of little to do other than to sound the general alarm, but in his state of surprise and confusion, he forgot to announce the reason the alarm was blaring. The facility quickly became a bedlam of scared, sleep-sodden, bewildered cadets, instructors, and sundry personnel.
Instructors and Cadets to the Rescue
In the spring of 1941, the RAF No. 4 Flying Training School at Habbaniya included just 39 men who knew how to fly an airplane, yet by the end of May, their battle was over and won. The Iraqis and their German allies were soundly trounced by what had recently been classified as “unqualified personnel.” These instructors (few of whom had combat experience) and their cadets aborted an operation that might well have brought Britain to her knees.
There are those who call the fight for Habbaniya’s airfield the Second Battle of Britain. Fought months after the exhaustively chronicled air campaign over the British Isles and English Channel, which blunted German hopes of neutralizing the United Kingdom, this Mideast aerial shootout was at least as crucial as the 1940 Battle of Britain to the outcome of the Second World War, yet today it is entombed in obscurity. It was fought and won against daunting odds by the teachers and students of an RAF flight-training school.
The prize over which this campaign raged was crude oil. With its powerful transatlantic American partner still not involved in the war, England’s oil jugular lay through Iraq. Following his successful coup in early April 1941, militantly anti-British attorney Rashid Ali al-Gaylani set himself up as “Chief of the National Defense Government.” This Anglophobic barrister’s dearest ambition was to expel via military force
all Englishmen from the whole of the Middle East. He set about enlisting the assistance of like-minded Egyptians who made vague promises of organizing an uprising of their army in Cairo. He contacted German forces in Greece (which had just fallen to the Third Reich) to let them know he would be delighted to receive their support. He also let the newly arrived German Afrika Korps know that 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 that he would secure for them unrestricted use of all military facilities in Iraq whether or not they were held by the British.
His Majesty’s forces in the region were falsely reassured by the fact that, technically, Iraq still sided with the Allies. A 1927 treaty politically bound the United Kingdom and Iraq. Because of this, the Brits figured Gaylani’s uprising would result in little more than the possibility of scattered anti-England demonstrations by civilians. This dangerous misconception persisted until the pivotal Habbaniya Airfield came under attack by powerful elements of the regular Iraqi military.
Read the article from the December 2015 issue of Flight Journal, click here.