What were these ‘interesting things about Iraqi Politics’ that my father referred to on February 22nd? To understand what was going on at the time it is useful to trace, briefly, the history of Britain’s involvement in Iraq, which stretched back to the end of World War One.
After the break-up of the Ottoman Empire Britain was given a ‘Mandate’ to govern Iraq for 12 years at a gathering called the Conference of San Remo in 1920. Driving this was the necessity to ensure stability while the new gold – oil – was extracted by the Anglo-Iraq Petroleum Company, which had recently set up in the country, and to build and guard the pipelines constructed to ship it back to the shores of the Mediterranean. However, the Iraqis themselves were not fooled. In an era where empires were crumbling and ‘self-determination’ was the buzz phrase, they saw this arrangement as ’empire by other means’, and the granting of the Mandate was almost immediately followed by a violent Iraqi revolt. Within a matter of months this had cost the lives of 500 British and Indian troops, and the British exchequer £40m, and showed no sign of abating.
It was not the only uprising in British controlled dominions that year. There was another disturbance in Somaliland, led by someone dubbed the ‘Mad Mullah’. Whitehall prepared to send an expedition to quell the revolt, but were told by the Chief of the Imperial Staff that it would require two divisions. Britain was extremely hard up in 1920, exhausted and bankrupt after World War One, and, mindful of the problems in Iraq, the Government was in no mood to get involved in a costly new conflict. However, the Air Chief Marshal, Lord Trenchard, suggested that he could do the job far more cheaply with two RAF squadrons – a new arm of the armed services that had only been in existence for a few years.
Instead of large and expensive ground forces, Trenchard argued that small contingents of the RAF with the new fighters and light bombers could be used to ‘fly the flag’ and as a last resort bomb the tribes into submission. He was allowed to test his theory, and so it proved, so the strategy was immediately extended to Iraq, where the six month revolt was brought to a swift conclusion by the controversial use of phosphorous bombs. A cost effective model for controlling large areas of territory had been born.
Soon after the Iraq revolt had been quelled in this way, Britain sponsored the ‘election’ of King Faisal to be ruler of Iraq following a rigged plebiscite in 1921. This allowed the Foreign Office to have a ‘hands off’ approach, with power in the hands of a friendly ruler. And instead of garrisoning ground forces to support him, Britain gave the RAF overall control of the region. This was ‘softly softly’ policing 1920s style, with the threat of terror bombing from the air. Since tribesmen had rarely seen an aeroplane in those days, it is not surprising that it was so successful.
Fast forward to 1930. The Mandate was about to expire, but Britain was not quite ready to give up its influence in Iraq, because more and more oil was flowing our way. The answer was the Anglo-Iraq Treaty. In return for smoothing the path to independence, and handing over the role on internal policing, the Iraqis would permit Britain to station troops and aircraft in Iraq at two bases, and in return the RAF was to be used in a support role to help the Iraqis keep the tribes under control. As part of this Treaty, a new base was to be constructed 60 miles to the west of Baghdad beside Lake Habbaniya, in a bend of the River Euphrates, to house the main base and command centre of the RAF.
The new airfield complex took five years to build. When it became operational in 1935 it was ‘state of the art’ for comfort and efficiency. There were miles of tarmaced road bordered with oleanda and eucalyptus; luxurious married officers quarters with all the mod-cons; manicured lawns, parks and a country club; and 500 acres of well appointed accommodation for locally enlisted staff and militia, the ‘Assyrian Levies’, whose job it was to guard the base. The Assyrians were Iraqis but a minority from the north of the country, and they were thought to be more loyal that ordinary Iraqis, with a relationship to the British Army akin to the Gurkhas – cost effective and locally based.
There was also a polo field and a golf course, and a comfortable Imperial Airways rest house on the banks of the lake where flying boats on their way to and from India and Egypt could land, refuel and overnight. Finally, there were fields for rugby and hockey and a sailing club.
But two crucial factors made this base different from many others the military had constructed elsewhere in the empire. Being supposedly a friendly country, where a Treaty had just been signed, and for reasons of cost, it was considered unnecessary to duplicate essential facilities like the modern water filtration plant, its water tower, and the small power station for generating electricity. Second, the airfield itself was left outside the main perimeter fence of the camp. It was laid out on the bare desert, with no bomb-proof shelters, no dispersal areas and no defensive arrangements of any kind. It could be seen for miles around, and was overlooked from the escarpment of the Falluja Plateau.
In the late 30s life had become so quiet in Iraq that there was barely any operational flying undertaken at RAF Habbaniya at all. It became the home of the 4th Intermediate Flying Training School (IFTS), a comfortable and sleepy backwater where trainee pilots could be taught in ideal surroundings. Since 1938 the base had been under the command of a semi-retired Air Force Officer, Acting Air Chief Marshal Reginald Smart. He was a stickler for rules and routine, the perfect C/O of a flying school. His team of instructors were a mix of civilian flying club instructors in uniform, with no military training, and various ex-operational RAF pilots no longer required in the front line.
This was the happy, relaxed place, far from the front line, that my father and his fellow ‘Musketeers’ arrived at in February 1941. How ideal, and how comfortable, they were soon to find out.