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«Winchester, UK Washington, USA First published by Zero Books, 2012 Zero Books is an imprint of John Hunt Publishing Ltd., Laurel House, Station ...»

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The German press headlined CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE EAST DECIDED! A week before Hitler had boasted to a rally of the Winter Relief of winning the ‘greatest battle in the history of the world’ and that the Soviets were defeated ‘and would never rise again’.24 Chapter Seventeen The Arab Revolt Between the fall of France and the invasion of Europe, the major conflict between Britain and Germany was in North Africa. Italians, the Free and Vichy French and even the Russians all fought in the Middle East between 1940 and 1943. But despite the to-and-fro between these different actors, the more substantial conflict was that between the occupying European powers and the Muslim peoples that they ruled over. First Italy, and then, with some reluctance, Germany played on Arab grievances to undermine Britain, and attacked the British Empire where they knew it was weak. Arabs and Persians saw European powers divided, and one by one, beaten by their rivals – all of which emboldened them to challenge their European overlords. Britain, in particular, dismissed the Arab revolts as Nazi manipulation. War gave the Allies a cover to clamp down on Arab demands for selfgovernment, repressing nationalists, and tightening up control over government and resources.

Hitler’s cynical Directive No 30 claimed ‘The Arab Freedom Movement is, in the Middle East, our natural ally against England’.1 German sympathies for the Arabs were of course limited. News reports of the surrender of France in 1940 carried shots of Moroccans and other Africans, horsing around, and grinning shyly at the camera, amongst the Prisoners of War: ‘The prisoners came from every nation – so-called defenders of a great nation’, said the voice-over, adding that it was ‘a shame for the white race’ and that ‘these are the black brothers of the French race’.2 Hitler gave little material help to the Arab nationalists fighting against Britain and France, for the all-too practical reason that his Italian allies were themselves carving out an empire over the Arabs of North Africa, and did not need any talk of Arab freedom. Still, many Arab nationalists were impressed by Hitler’s lightning victory over the French and the British at Dunkirk since these were the two nations that had dominated the Arabs. There was some admiration, too, for the anti-Jewish policy, since the Arabs of Palestine were seen by many in the Middle East to be suffering under a British administration that favoured the Jewish population, boosted as it was by Zionist-inspired migration. The Allies willingness to paint any opposition to their rule over the Arabs as Naziinspired, however, is far from the truth. Arab’s willingness to fight against Britain and France sprang from their own conditions more than it did from Nazi propaganda.

The Franco-German armistice of 22 June 1940 signed at Rethondes left French colonies in the hands of the Vichy government. On 3 July 1940, Britain turned on its ally to attack the French fleet at Mers el Kebir by Oran, Algiers as well as bombing the Richlieu at Dakar. ‘For God’s sake stop firing’ Admiral Gensoul pleaded at Mers el Kebir: ‘You’re murdering us!’ More than a thousand French sailors died in the attack. Churchill announced the destruction of the French fleet in the House of Commons: ‘I leave the judgment of our action, with confidence, to Parliament.’ US Liaison Officer General Raymond Lee watched as ‘the decorum of parliament vanished’: ‘All were on their feet, shouting, cheering and waving order papers and handkerchiefs like mad’.3 By the autumn of 1940 ‘a fragile modus viviendi was established between London and Vichy’ wrote Howard Sachar, ‘both sides tacitly recognising the existing divided status of the French empire and agreed to refrain from military efforts to alter it’. ‘General Wavell, the British area commander in Cairo, feared Axis influence in the Middle East much less than disorders among the native populations’, explained Sachar. ‘As Wavell saw it, anything that challenged Vichy authority in the Levant would similarly undermine British influence in neighbouring countries’.4 The armistice did severely limit British authority in the Mediterranean as the North African coast between Gibraltar and Alexandria passed into Axis hands, under German and Italian armistice commissions, with the Italian army well-placed in Libya to threaten Wavell’s isolated Nile Army.

On 10 June 1940 Italy declared war on Britain. At that time General Wavell, G.O.C.

Middle East commanded 36,000 troops in Egypt, 28,000 in Palestine and 22,000 in Kenya, Aden, British Somaliland and Cyprus. Both the Egyptian and Iraqi native governments

resisted British demands to join the war on the allies’ side. Churchill remembered:

I wished to arms the Jews at Tel Aviv, who with proper weapons would have made a good fight against all comers. Here I encountered every kind of resistance.5 Unable to win his colonial officials and army leaders over to arming the Jews, Churchill depended on white troops to fight this war to ‘defend Egypt’ and Palestine, berating General Ismay for not calling on the ‘Union Brigade of 6,000 white South Africans’, and the New Zealanders and Australians who had already been training in Palestine for six months. ‘Let me have a return of the white settlers of military age in Kenya’, he wrote, asking ‘are we to believe they have not formed any local units for the defence of their own province?’ 6 Churchill was increasingly critical of Wavell for wasting forces in internal security duties in Egypt and Palestine.7


Egypt’s native leaders wanted to avoid being drawn into the war between Italy and Britain, and withdrew Egyptian troops from the borders when the Italians were close by, to avoid clashes. When Prime Minister Ali Mahir told the Egyptian parliament of this plan, he was cheered. With Egyptian help, the Italians kept a one-hundred strong delegation under Count Serafino Mazzolini while the war was underway. The British tried to push the Egyptians into having these Italian officers in Cairo jailed. ‘One met with interminable delays,’ moaned the British Commander of Forces in Egypt, Henry Maitland Wilson, ‘and at times faced with releases on the order of a minister without reference or consultation’.8 The former Prime Minister Ismail Sidai said the ‘Italian offensive is not an act of aggression directed at Egypt, but another belligerent on the territory of a third occupied power’.9 Under the timid leadership of General Graziani, Italy’s attack on British mandated territories ran out of steam. Wavell’s successful counter-attacks in December 1940, and Graziani’s flight sent Mussolini and Ciano into despair, coming as they did on top of a successful repulsion of the Italian invasion of Greece. ‘If we lose Africa, we lose the war’, General Ugo Cavallero had said – and that was before he was made Badoglio’s replacement as Commander in Chief of the Italian army. Still Wavell pressed on, and took Benghazi from the Italians, destroying five of Graziani’s seven divisions and taking 38 000 prisoners.

Before Wavell’s successes German generals were looking again at North Africa.

Reversals in the Battle of Britain and in the north Atlantic underscored the unlikelihood of a successful invasion of Britain. As a frontal assault on Britain looked less attractive, so an attack on Britain’s overextended Empire appealed more. Once again, Arabs would suffer Europeans fighting out their differences in Arab lands. In a Memo of 26 September 1940

Admiral Erich Raeder outlined the case for taking on Britain in the North Africa:

Gibraltar must be taken. The Suez Canal must be taken. It is doubtful whether the Italians can accomplish this alone.10 By February it was clear that the Italians would need help not just to take Suez, but help to stay in the war at all. Sending Rommel’s army to North Africa was not only a substitute for taking on Britain directly; it was also a desperate attempt to shore up the Axis.

Later, in 1942, with the Axis again at the Egyptian border (this time led by Erwin Rommel) Prime Minister Hussein Sirri to broke off relations with Vichy France when asked to by the British. In the poorer districts crowds massed shouting ‘Come on, Rommel’.11 King Farouk’s loyalists were angered and rioted against the government. The British Ambassador Sir Miles Lampson – ignoring Farouk’s hand in the riots – took him to task for not putting a more pro-British government in office, and telling him to appoint the Wafdist Mustapha Nahas Pasha. Stung, Farouk stalled for time. Lampson set a deadline of 6.00pm on 4 February for Farouk to change the government, which the king let slide. At 9.00 British troops, backed up with tanks invaded the palace, and Lampson handed Farouk a letter of abdication. ‘Will you give me another chance, Sir Miles?’ asked a shaken Farouk. ‘Of course’, replied Lampson, ‘if you send for Nahas’ – which he did.12 Henri Curiel, Jew and Communist, wanted to rally opposition to a Nazi takeover. He explained to his comrades that such was the record of British rule that ‘we won’t be believed

if we claim that Hitler’s Germany is worse than Britain’:

No one will follow us if we advocate an alliance, even a temporary one, with the British in order to rid ourselves of the Nazis. We can say the Nazis are as bad as the British, but no more. And that implies refusal of any collaboration with the British Embassy.13 The British did try to organise a Brothers of Freedom group to rally Egyptian opposition to the Nazis, though it sank without trace. Just before the battle of El Alamein, the British rounded up Egyptian nationalists, and radicals, including Henri Curiel, who was jailed alongside the supposedly Fascist Egyptians. His view was that most of them were just patriots who would have sided with the devil to ‘kick Britain out of Egypt’. Talking to his fellow prisoners Curiel thought that ‘no “diplomacy” regarding the British could possibly be accepted under any conditions by a true Egyptian patriot’.14 Curiel went on to help organise the protests in 1946 that forced the British to quit Egypt after the war.

Iraq revolt

Freed from Turkish rule at the end of the First World War, Iraq had been handed over into the quasi-colonial status of a mandated territory, under British control. The mandate system allowed that Iraq could become a sovereign state if Britain proposed it to the League of Nations. Britain’s condition was a Treaty that would set down Iraq’s ongoing ties and debts to Britain. Under the treaty, Iraq agreed to pay Britain back £588,000 for public works undertaken, to keep ‘gazetted’ officials, British advisers to senior Iraqi ministers paid by Iraq, but still ‘servants of His Britannic Majesty’, Britain kept two air bases and 47.5 per cent of the Iraqi Petroleum Company. The League of Nations agreed Iraqi ‘independence’ under these terms in 1932.15 Rashid ‘Ali al-Gaylani was made Prime Minister in March 1940 – pro-British at first, he was pushed to a more pro-German line by the ‘Golden Square’ of Army officers, Colonels Salah-al-Din al Sabbagh, Kamil Shabib, Fahmi Said and Mahmud Salman.

Rashid ‘Ali protested at British plans to site Indian troops in Basra, and made contacts with Germany. By the end of 1940 Britain had decided that ‘Ali was a threat, and told the ambassador to use all his influence on the Regent Crown Prince Abd al-Ilāh of Iraq to get rid of him – which he did in January 1941. But on 1 April Rashid ‘Ali’s military friends besieged Baghdad, and the Crown Prince fled. The army put Faysal II on the throne, and Rashid ‘Ali back in government. ‘Ali told the British that Iraq would take no more troops, but on 29 April three more troopships arrived and the new ambassador Sir Kinahan Cornwallis declared war on 1 May.

On 4 May 1941, Churchill wrote to General Wavell:

A commitment in Iraq was inevitable. We had to establish a base at Basra, and control that port to safeguard Persian oil … it is essential to do all in our power to save Habbaniya and control the pipe-line to the Mediterranean.16 The explanation for the Iraq Revolt was straight-forward as far as the British Chiefs of Staff could see: ‘Rashid ‘Ali has all along been hand-in-glove with Axis Powers’.17 Much easier to blame Iraqi disaffection on the Axis than face up to the unpopularity of British rule.

Iraqi premier Rashid ‘Ali’s hostility to the Allies was ‘a blow to our prestige throughout the Arab world’.18 To show that Rashid ‘Ali was indeed an agent of the Axis, the British forged a secret document, supposedly an agreement between the Prime Minister and the Italian Ambassador signed on 25 April 1941 in Baghdad. The imaginary deal was to stop the pipeline travelling to Haifa and reopen the one to Tripoli (closed since the Italians joined the war), as well as nation-alising the Iraqi oil fields under German and Italian control.19 In the event the Rashid ‘Ali uprising ‘aroused instant and widespread enthusiasm throughout the Arab world’ according to the historian Howard Sachar, who also wrote that ‘more serious by far than the advance of Rommel’s army in the western desert was evidence that the barely repressed native enmities of a generation now appeared to be closing in on Britain’s precarious foothold in the Arab world.’ 20 Among the Arab leaders voicing their support for the rising were King Farouk, political leaders like Hashim al-Atasi in Syria, Riad al-Sulh of Lebanon, and religious leaders like Hassan Mahmud Amin Husseini, of the Lebanese Shi’ites, and Muhammed Tewfiq Khalid, the Sunni Mufti of Lebanon. There were demonstrations in support of the rising in all major cities of the Levant and Trans-jordan, and committees were set up to collect money and medicines to help the Iraqis. Bedouin tribes attacked British camps and oil workers.

Churchill credited the defeat of the revolt to the Indian division sent to Basra, and the promise of Indian reinforcements. Also RAF squadrons and Wellington bombers sent from Sha’iba attacked Iraqi troops at Habbaniya. After the first day the War Office reported that ‘Iraqi morale was higher than expected and showed no signs of cracking’.21 Iraqi artillery destroyed 22 British planes at the Sha’iba airfield. Iraq lost 32 planes in RAF attacks on bases at Baghdad, Baquba and al-Mussayib. A column of Iraqis coming from Falluja to support their countrymen were destroyed by forty British aircraft, a scene described by one

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