Of all the competing top priorities President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill grappled with, the most vexing was that of keeping the Soviet Union in the war. When the North Atlantic sea lane to the Soviet ports of Murmansk and Archangelsk was closed in July 1942 following the debacle of Convoy PQ-17, Churchill in a letter to Roosevelt confessed, “My persistent anxiety is Russia. . . .” Though the Soviet Union and Japan were not foes, large-scale transport of cargo from American West Coast ports to Vladivostok presented so many diplomatic and distance obstacles as to make it impractical. The only alternative remaining was the Southern Route, transiting halfway around the world and terminating in Iran with what was called the Persian Corridor.
“If our shipping losses continue at their present excessive rate along the Northern Russian route, it may become necessary to use the Persian Gulf route entirely.”
—Sept. 22, 1942 Combined Planning Staff report
The political situation in Iran was complex and tense. Britain and Russia had been longtime imperial rivals in the region. Even with a regime and name change to the Soviet Union, that rivalry continued. Iran’s strategic location, known oil reserves, and Axis-leaning government led by ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi made it only a matter of time before Britain and the Soviet Union would act to protect their interests. In the summer of 1941, when the shah refused their request to expel German nationals and permit Allied use of the Trans-Iranian Railway to ship supplies to Russia, the two Allies had the excuse they needed. On Aug. 25, 1941, they invaded Iran (Operation Countenance), basically divided the country in half, deposed the shah, and installed his son Mohammad as the new, and effectively puppet, ruler. A treaty was signed literally papering over what historian T.H. Vail Motter called “the occupation-which-was-officially-not-an-occupation” making Iran a passive, powerless, and resentful partner of the Allies.
The Americans began arriving in force into this political minefield and primitive land during the fall of 1942, at the behest of the British. Overextended by the exigencies of war and preservation of its empire, most recently an India in turmoil, Britain needed help. As the Soviet Union was already fighting for its very existence on the Eastern Front, the only ally capable of filling the void was the United States. After a series of high level meetings between the Combined Chiefs of Staff and other senior officers and officials over a period of several weeks, an agreement of sorts was hammered out in which the Americans would take over British control and responsibility of the Trans-Iranian Railway and truck transport of Lend-Lease supplies to Russia. In return, as historian Robert W. Coakley wrote, “The British were to exercise strategic responsibility for the defense of the area against enemy attack and for security against internal disorders.”
The handover of responsibility occurred in November 1942, and Maj. Gen. Donald H. Connolly was put in charge of what would become Persian Gulf Command. Eventually totaling 30,000 troops, Persian Gulf Command faced monumental challenges that were absolutely vital to the war effort but were at the same time absolutely mundane. Located in a remote, exotic land known for its carpets and the Rubiayat and far from any combat theater, Persian Gulf Command’s job was simply to offload weapons and supplies from Iranian ports, assemble what needed to be assembled, and then either fly or transport by truck or railroad everything north to the Soviet Union.
Working under appalling conditions, where in the summer temperatures would soar above 110 degrees Fahrenheit and immobilizing sandstorms lasted for days, Persian Gulf Command transformed Iran’s primitive road and rail networks, and expanded and modernized its harbors. It assembled and transported everything from aircraft to food and ultimately delivered more than five million tons of weapons and supplies to Soviet Russia. And, it did so without arousing, for the most part, additional resentment from the Iranians.
Historians estimate that Persian Gulf Command’s success helped reduce the war on the Eastern front by at least a year. Connolly eventually received the Army Distinguished Service Medal “for exceptionally meritorious and distinguished services to the government of the United States, in a duty of great responsibility, as Commanding General Persian Gulf Command, during the period from 20 October 1942 to 24 December 1944.”
YouTube features some videos of Iran in World War II. One is a clip of Operation Countenance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6fgWd4UNvvM&feature=related. Another is a slideshow documentary containing color slides taken by Capt. Walter C. Peach, who served in Persian Gulf Command: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INNiO8Iz6RU.