Middle Eastern Campaign of World War II
Allied forces invade Syria, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon for much needed oil resources
2 May - 17 September 1941
author Paul Boșcu, September 2018
During World War II in Iraq a pro-Axis coup was defeated by British troops. In Syria and Lebanon the Allies managed to topple the Vichy France administration and install a pro-Allied occupation regime. British and Soviet troops invaded Iran and deposed the Shah. Though that country was officially neutral the Allies considered the Shah to be pro-Axis.

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The Middle Eastern Front refers to the campaigns fought in World War II in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, between the Axis forces and the Allies. In Iraq, a pro-Axis coup was defeated by the British, while in Syria and Lebanon the Allies successfully managed to wrest control from Vichy France, Germany’s puppet occupation government. Although Iran was officially neutral, the Allies considered the Shah to be friendly to the Axis powers. The British, in cooperation with the Soviet Union, invaded Iran and deposed the Shah. During these campaigns the Allies secured vital oil reserves for the war effort.

The British acted decisively in three important areas to protect and guarantee her all-important oil supplies for what turned out to be the rest of the war. Although the (still neutral) United States produced 83 percent of the world’s oil in 1941, and the Middle East only 5 percent, American oil had to be shipped over the submarine-infested Atlantic and had to be paid for in Britain’s rapidly diminishing hard currency. The 8.6 million tons of Iranian oil and 4.3 million tons of Iraqi oil that fuelled Britain’s ships and tanks each year did not.

The German priority for plans in the campaign against the Soviet Union was especially obvious in the weeks immediately following the completion of the campaign on the Greek mainland and Erwin Rommel's reconquest of Cyrenaica. What looked for a moment like an opportunity for Germany to strike into the Middle East was in fact a process of closing down operations in that area so that German attention and resources could be assigned elsewhere.

A military coup in Iraq brought the Anglophobic General Rashid Ali to power, whose government declared independence and besieged the British garrison in the Habbaniya air base on the Euphrates. The commander of the flying school there, Air Vice-Marshal Harry Smart, fought off the attack after three days, and a column from Transjordan captured Baghdad at the end of the month. Rashid Ali escaped to Iran and was replaced by a pro-British regent.

The pro-Axis elements in Iraq staged a coup which brought to power Rashid Ali al-Gaylani who hated the British and, like the IRA in Ireland and Bose in India, hoped that a German victory over Britain would solve the world's and especially his country's problems. For months Rashid Ali's supporters in and out of the Iraqi government had been in touch with the Axis powers, expecting their victory; now looked like an ideal time to move.

The British, who faced Rommel's first offensive in Libya and were trying to move forces to Greece, had no troops to spare in the Middle East. They began moving soldiers from India against the possibility of the new Iraqi government siding openly with the Axis. Indian troops landed at the base at Basra which was critical for the whole Middle East supply situation, and other soldiers began to reinforce the airfield at Habbaniya, some 55 miles west of Baghdad. The government of Rashid Ali protested, sought help from Germany and Italy, and surrounded the airfield.

Inspired by desperation, the British moved quickly. In a few days, their soldiers cleared the immediate area around Habbaniya airfield, received reinforcements trucked as well as flown in from Palestine, and began an advance on Baghdad. Defeating the disintegrating Iraqi army along the way, they reached the outskirts of Baghdad. Key Iraqi leaders fled to Iran, and those left behind surrendered.

Rashid Ali himself went to Germany, where he would spend the rest of the war hoping to return to Baghdad with German assistance. That assistance had been rather scanty during the time when it might have been most effective. Given the internal dissension within the Iraqi military and the incompetence of its leadership, even greater help might not have made much difference, but there was in reality little that the Germans could do quickly. The same factor which made it so difficult for the British to send substantial forces — and which may have encouraged the Iraqi plotters to strike — also restrained the Germans.

From Berlin's perspective, Rashid Ali had moved a month too soon, and throughout April the Germans urged caution even as they tried to figure out ways to help. There were other problems, and these quickly surfaced as the German victories in the Balkan campaign enabled them to take some steps to give effect to their desire to help their new ally. The Germans did what they could under the circumstances, and by mid-May the first planes were participating in the fighting over Iraq; but the minimal forces and supplies which were sent made little difference in the outcome.

There were also elements in Afghanistan, and among Afghan exiles in Europe, who thought that the triumph of Hitler would aid their cause. However, anti-British policy in Afghanistan, together with the collapse of the pro-Axis regime in Baghdad, under circumstances which showed that for the moment Germany was not in a position to support an analogous coup, operated to restrain these. Like Rashid Ali, they too would have to await the moment when German forces could come effectively into the Near East.

Once the revolt of 1941 had been suppressed by British troops, Iraq was ruled by a regime which collaborated with the Allies. However, the urge to throw off all outside influence, and especially that of the British, remained, and would reassert itself not long after the war.

In the planning of German strategy, Iraq (like Egypt) came after, not before, the campaign in the East. It was assumed that a pro-Axis government under Rashid Ali would return to Baghdad in the wake of German tanks in the late fall of 1941. Whatever efforts Germany might make were further complicated by the position and ambitions of Italy. The Germans at least nominally recognized Italy's political hegemony in the Arab world.

The Italian diplomatic presence reflected Italy's imperial ambitions in the Middle East, ambitions to which Germany at least in theory deferred—but about which many Iraqis had their doubts. They may not have understood the nature of National Socialist Germany and that country's attitude toward the independence of people it considered ‘inferior’, but they did have a clear idea that Mussolini saw himself as an empire-builder in the Mediterranean and Near East. Under these circumstances, it was probably easier for Rashid Ali to devise great plans for a German protectorate over Iraq in the capital of the Third Reich.

Most of the communications between the regime of Rashid Ali and Berlin had to go first through the Italian legation in Baghdad because Italy, not Germany, had full diplomatic relations with Iraq. Since the British could read the Italian diplomatic code, they knew of Rashid Ali's appeals to Germany and Italy from his first days in power.

Next it was Vichy-controlled Syria’s turn, which had agreed to supply Rashid Ali with German arms during the uprising. Together with the Free French, British forces attacked, and by an armistice agreed only weeks later established the right to occupy Syria for the rest of the war.

There had been a few Free French supporters in Syria, but the elements who stuck with Vichy were in full control under Commissioner Henri Dentz. The enormous danger which this situation posed for Great Britain was dramatically exposed by Vichy support for the pro-Axis elements in Iraq: the same Frenchmen who could not fight the Germans had found weapons to deliver to Rashid Ali, while permission had been granted to German warplanes to land on Syrian airfields.

The new figure in control of French politics under Philippe Pétain’s Vichy regime was Admiral François Darlan. He hoped to be allowed to join Germany as an ally in the war against Britain, exchanging support for Germany in North Africa and the Middle East for concessions from Berlin. He would be rebuffed by the Germans, but the British did not know this at the time. What they did know at least in part was that this Vichy leader hated them more than any other, was willing to support Rommel from Tunisia and was also prepared to provide the Germans a strong foothold in the Middle East from which to bomb critical oil refineries.

The British decided that, come what may, it was necessary to shift Syria from Vichy French to Free French control. The forces available were inadequate, but a hastily put together combination of Australian, British, Free French and Indian troops struck into the Syrian and Lebanese mandates from the south. The Free French and the British both publicly announced their support for independent status for the mandates while the British commander also drew on forces released by the surrender of Rashid Ali to strike into Syria from the southeast as well as the east.

The Vichy French forces fought bitterly but in vain. The Germans were now so fixated on the coming invasion of the Soviet Union that almost the only help they provided was to allow the French to move troops and supplies from North Africa to Syria and by train from France to Salonika. There they were stopped by the British blockade.

A stalemate over Damascus was avoided when the failure of Operation Battleaxe, Archibald Wavell's offensive in the western desert, released further British forces. The Syrian capital fell.

After the fall of Damascus, Dentz concentrated his remaining strength on the defense of Beirut. In bitter battles, the British approached the city and took it. On the following day, Dentz asked for an armistice. The hard-fought campaign was over. With Turkey refusing to allow train transit of troops and supplies, British control of the sea held down reinforcements to Dentz at a time when Germany was no longer willing to risk substantial numbers of planes after the losses on Crete and just before the attack on Russia.

The armistice was signed, perhaps appropriately, on the French National Day. Charles De Gaulle took over in Syria. Thereafter he could and would quarrel endlessly with Great Britain as well as Syrian nationalists over the policies to be followed in the mandates, but the Axis hopes were shut out. If they could not defeat the Soviet Union, where they were already locked in bloody battle, by the time the fighting in Syria ended, there would be no base for Germany at the center of the Near East.

The turning of Syria over to the Free French did relieve the Germans of having to be concerned about French susceptibilities in promising pieces of Syria to Turkey if that should prove desirable, and in proclaiming their support of Arab nationalist demands. This was a subject about which they had agonized a good deal, and continued to debate among themselves and with the Italians for some time yet.

The Germans at times hoped that with the help of Haj Amin al-Husayni, the former Mufti of Jerusalem, they could get uprisings going against the British. However, while al-Husayni was all in favor of defeating Great Britain and thrilled by German persecution and subsequent killing of the Jews, there was never anything practical he could do to help install the Axis in the Near and Middle East; and until after the anticipated victory over Russia, there was little the Germans could do to install al-Husayni in Jerusalem.

Years later al-Husayni recruited some Muslims in occupied Yugoslavia to participate in anti-partisan warfare and the massacre of civilians, but how this activity furthered the aims of Arab nationalism was never very clear. He and Hitler could exchange compliments but little else.

The balance of power in the region had shifted dramatically when Hitler invaded Russia, and Churchill automatically declared Britain to be in alliance with the USSR. After the Iranian Government had refused an Anglo-Soviet demand to expel German agents from the country, the two powers invaded, after which nationalist resistance collapsed. The Shah was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, and British and Russian troops occupied Tehran. The ports, railways, and truck routes across the country came to carry a small portion of British aid and eventually almost a quarter of American aid for the Soviet war effort.

The British forces attacked from the Persian Gulf, while the Red Army attacked from the North. The Iranians had little time to organize their defenses as the Soviets bombed targets in Tabriz, Ardabil and Rasht, and the RAF attacked targets in Qazvin and Tehran. With no outside help, the Iranian army was quickly overwhelmed.

Iran had been inclined toward Germany before the war and during its initial years. Trade ties and worry about British and Russian imperial expansion had contributed to this orientation. From the summer of 1941 on, the country was occupied by British and Russian forces, but there was an increasing American presence with the building up of the supply route across Iran to the Soviet Union by American transportation corps units.

The American presence in Iran had two short-term advantages for the Iranians. In the first place, the country inherited the improved harbor, railway and highway facilities constructed by the Americans. Secondly, it enabled them to play off the Americans against the Russian and British occupying powers. This would be especially important when, at the end of the war, the Russians were inclined to keep their troops in the country rather than withdraw them as promised.

In Iran as elsewhere in the Middle East, American and British influence was also resented, especially as it focused increasingly on obtaining a foothold in the exploitation of the region's petroleum resources. Here was a source both of wealth and of foreign interest which enhanced the region's income during the war and thereafter but also brought further threats to the independence of its people.

On the Arabian Peninsula, the war's most significant impact was in the further strengthening it provided for the role of Ibn Saud and his family in the consolidation of their hold on what was increasingly referred to as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. For now, the area deferred to British interest in the war, but the post-war years would be different.

Large scale development of Saudi Arabia’s oil fields began in 1941, with the American company ARAMCO (Arabian-American Oil Company) spearheading the efforts. In the decades after the war the US and Saudi Arabia would develop close relations that persist to this day.

During World War II, as before and after, most governments in the Middle East had, or pretended to have, a great interest in the developing situation in Palestine. The British had partitioned their mandate along the Jordan river in 1922, calling the east bank ‘Trans-Jordan’ for the obvious reason that it was on the other side of the Jordan river from the perspective of London. The other portion of the mandate was now called Palestine. Originally held by Britain as a protector for the northern flank of her position astride the Suez Canal, the Palestine mandate performed this function in World War II but only because the British were able to keep the Axis away from the canal by action elsewhere.

The client state of Trans-Jordan under King Abdullah was loyal to Great Britain during the war and provided important facilities and transit routes for its military forces. There was, however, no occasion for the massive construction of facilities which took place in Iran and Egypt.

The British base in Palestine was an essential prerequisite for their successful campaign against Rommel at El Alamein and afterwards, but otherwise the area was a military backwater, and remained that way after 1942. In the political sense, however, it was a center of attention because of the efforts of ever larger numbers of Jews seeking refuge from persecution elsewhere by joining those who had been living in the area for millennia.

Although Iraq, Syria and Iran stayed firmly in the Allied camp for the rest of the war, with all that implied for British oil supplies, there is no doubt that had Egypt fallen to Rommel there was very little that Britain could have done to protect her gains there.

The British campaign in Syria, which closed a major path for the Axis into the Middle East, was assisted by the transfer of forces after the ‘Battleaxe’ operation in North Africa as well as the fighting in East Africa. In turn, the conclusion of the fighting in Syria freed units for a return to Egypt and their concentration there for a renewed offensive against Rommel.