“This stroke would be more deadly to the British Empire than the capture of London!”
—Grand Adm. Erich Raeder to Adolf Hitler, advocating military support for Iraq
The news from Iraq that reached British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on April 1, 1941, was anything but an April Fool’s joke gone bad. The previous day a pro-Nazi coup d’état led by former Iraqi Prime Minister Rashid Ali and four colonels from the nationalist group called the Golden Square had thrown out the pro-British government led by Regent Adb al-Ilah. Ali, reinstalled as prime minister, proclaimed a “National Defense Government” and ordered the arrest of pro-British Iraqi officials. With British troops presently being routed in Greece and Libya, Churchill had more immediate and close to home crises to deal with, writing, “Libya counts first, withdrawal of troops from Greece second. Tobruk shipping, unless indispensable to victory, must be fitted in as convenient. Iraq can be ignored and Crete worked up later.” His attitude would soon change.
The Kingdom of Iraq, or Mesopotamia, had been governed by the British under a League of Nations mandate following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Britain granted Iraq what amounted to partial independence in 1932. Before doing so, the British had the Iraqi government sign the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930 designed to give Britain ongoing control of Iraq’s petroleum resources. The conditions imposed by Britain included permission to establish military bases in Iraq near the oil fields and unrestricted troop movement throughout the country. When Britain suffered military reverses in Greece and North Africa, the Iraqi anti-British factions seized the opportunity to act.
In 1941, Britain had only a token force in Iraq, stationed in two RAF bases, one a pilot training camp in Habbaniya about fifty miles west of Baghdad, and the other an air base at Shaibah near Basra. They were equipped with obsolete weapons and aircraft and were under the command of Air Vice-Marshal Harry George Smart. Within a week of the coup, Smart requested reinforcements. Though Smart’s immediate superior nixed the request, the British Chiefs of Staff and Gen. Claude Auchinleck, the top military commander in India, stepped up pressure for a military response.
The only immediately available force was the 20th Indian Brigade, then in the process of being shipped from India to Malaya. Prime Minister Ali was notified on April 16 that the British government was invoking Article 5 of the treaty, which dealt with British troop movements. The brigade would arrive at the Iraqi port of Basra on April 18, ostensibly bound for Palestine.
The Iraqi army contained about 60,000 men organized into four divisions. Within days after seizing power, Prime Minister Ali made contact with the German government through the Nazis’ ambassador to Turkey, Franz von Papen, requesting military assistance including advisors, arms, and aircraft. Adm. Erich Raeder of the German Navy seized on the news, seeing it as an opportunity to cripple the British military presence in the Middle East. Hitler, though focused on final preparations for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union scheduled for June, agreed to send military aid to Iraq in three train shipments through Turkey and Vichy-ruled Syria. But the men and materiél would prove to be too little, too late for Ali and his government.
When Ali and the Golden Square discovered that the recently arrived British troops were staying, with more due to arrive shortly, they acted swiftly to try and force the British into a diplomatic settlement. Iraqi troops surrounded the RAF base at Habbaniya at the end of April and began a siege.
Instead of capitulating, British forces responded with vigor. The siege of Habbaniya was lifted within a week. And William Slim, then the commanding general of the 10th Indian Division, which soon arrived in Iraq, later wrote that despite British troops suffering “dust storms, equipment shortages, obsolete armament and an overdose of digging strongpoints,” defeated Iraqi troops in battle after battle. By the end of May, Ali’s government had collapsed. He and others escaped to Persia, with Ali eventually reaching Germany. The new Iraqi government soon signed an armistice and Great Britain essentially ruled the country until 1947.