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In fact Churchill knew that Stalin was overstretched, fighting the German invasion in the west, and hoped to grab Persia from his ally: ‘If you wish to withdraw the five or six Russian divisions for use on the battle front we will take over the whole responsibility of keeping order’ 50 – it was a pious hope: Stalin hung onto the northern provinces he occupied till 1946, trying to peel off a separated Azerbaijani state.
Rezā Shāh had built up the country’s communications, with 10,000 miles of road repaired and built under his rule, along with the Trans-Iranian railway, but his critics complained that ‘these developments had been built along purely national lines: the chief network of communications centred about Teheran and was hardly linked with Russia, while by deliberate act the communications were neglected’. Under Anglo-Soviet rule these shortcomings were mended ‘the Russian and Persian systems were linked by a railway between Tabriz and Kazvin’ as also there was an ‘extension of the Indian railway from Quetta across Baluchistan to Duzdab. 51 Rezā Shāh’s son was put on the throne in his place.
Under the Tripartite Treaty Alliance of 29 January 1942 the Russians and British swore to respect the national territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Iran’ – as long as they had use of Iranian labour and the Iranian roads and rail. But they trampled over Iran’s sovereignty, too, throwing one sovereign out of office, as well as freely censoring the press.52 Churchill wrote bullishly ‘we hope it will not be necessary in the present phase at any rate to have an Anglo-Russian occupation of Tehran, but the Persian government will have to give us loyal and faithful help and show all proper alacrity if they want to avoid it’.53 Ambassador Reader Bullard made few efforts to hide ‘the low opinion that I have formed of the Iranians’. Even Churchill was moved to complain that ‘Sir Reader Bullard has a contempt which however natural is detrimental to his efficiency and our interests’.54 As all of Iran’s trains and roads were given over to stocking Russia with Allied aid, the trade of rice and beans from India was stopped. The economy was ‘weakened by Russian and British requisitioners who took what they wanted and paid little attention to our needs’, wrote Reza Shah’s son.55 ‘Allied expenditure in Persia put money in circulation which increased the competition for scarce goods’, and at the same time ‘Allied requisitioning of lorries and railway goods wagons prevented the transport of food and other items, thus forcing up prices’. On top of that, the ‘wheat and rice from the northern provinces had normally helped feed the rest of the country’ but ‘now the Russians refused to allow them to be shipped south, diverting them instead to their own uses’. Famine, and inflation, swept the country and ‘increased the cost of living nearly 400 per cent’.56 On 8 December, 1942, students parading in Tehran drew large crowds, and then again the following day, leading a march on the parliament building. They were fired upon with machine guns, and a strike closed city shops the next day. All told 20 were killed, 700 wounded, 150 arrested, and 150 stores sacked and burned.57 The police action was overseen by one H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the New Jersey State Police superintendent sent over to organise the gendarmerie (his son, of the same name, was Commander of Coalition Forces in the invasion of Iraq, Desert Storm, in 1991).
Ambassador Reader Bullard wrote about a capital city whose streets were forbidden to the natives, while foreigners walked freely: ‘The whole population except favoured persons such as foreign diplomats, is shut up indoors to be registered for the issue of ration coupons for bread.’ The ration coupons were ‘allocated by the allies’.58 Bullard outlined the harsh cut in bread planned: ‘it is hoped to reduce the daily consumption of wheat in Tehran from about 250 tons to 200 tons’. Luckily, there was special provision for the English: ‘the Ministry of Foreign Affairs set aside one bakery for the diplomatic corps’.59 The rioting in Tehran led Bullard to wonder whether there was any point to letting the Iranians have any say in the running of their country: ‘I admit that the problem of the press and the Parliament in a country like this, where the people are irresponsible and almost to a man corrupt, is beyond me, and I do not see how the country can escape the choice between anarchy and despotism’.60 The new Shah remembered that after the riots ‘the British brought their troops back into the city ostensibly to quell the disturbances’ but in fact they ‘intimidated Parliament into meeting their demands’ to inflate the currency.61
The Desert War
In Western Europe, neither Britain nor Germany were willing to cross the channel – bombing each other’s cities, and attacking ships; the Axis and the Allies’ respective armies did not meet on their own soil, but in North Africa. Italy’s bid for African Empire ended in ruins. Germany’s overtures to Arab nationalists added to the Empire’s troubles. Once the British Army had regained control over the Middle East, they could face the threat of Rommel’s Desert Army. Europeans would vent their hatreds in other people’s countries.
Britain had assembled an army of 630 000 British and colonial troops under Auchinleck, outnumbering Rommel’s men by three to two. Auchinleck had 900 tanks to Rommel’s 560 but were still being out-foxed. Pressed to take on the German, Auchinleck in February of 1942 threw the War Cabinet into despair when he said he needed four months to get ready.
In the end he was told to strike before 15 July or be relieved of command, which he did. But still Rommel fought back, taking Tobruk after intense fighting on 20 June. The next day, wrote Ribbentrop’s press officer, Rommel entered the city of Tobruk at the head of his combat group. He found a pile of ruins. Hardly a house remained intact. … the harbour installations and the streets had been transformed into a maze of rubble.62 Thirty three thousand prisoners were taken, among whom were fully one third of all of South Africa’s armed forces.63 Once Italy entered the war in 1940, trade in the Mediterranean was called to a halt by attacks on shipping, which undermined Middle Eastern economies. A Middle East Supply Council under E.M.H. Lloyd struggled with shortages of tea, coffee, spices, sugar and grain.
In June 1941 Lebanon’s rich cereal harvest was broken up by the Allied invasion of Syria, so that by the winter the Middle East was without grain and close to famine. There were riots in Damascus. Allied authorities ordered all grain be sold to a control board for distribution, closing – in some cases burning – local mills. The Allies taxed the Middle East heavily and put a freeze on wages and salaries, just as prices were rocketing.
Operation Torch and the restoration of Allied Authority in North Africa In October and November of 1942 the British Eighth Army – now under the command of General Bernard Montgomery – and Rommel’s Afrika Korps fought their decisive battle at El Alamein. At the same time American and British forces landed to the west, catching the Axis forces in a pincer movement. The Axis surrendered on 14 May 1943, with 275,000 taken prisoner. For nearly three years the Axis and the Allies had been avoiding a direct confrontation over their own territory, by hitting at each other in North Africa, but the surrender brought that phase of the war to an end. In September 1945 Sir Edward Grigg,
Minister Resident in the Middle East summed up the British position:
the Middle East is no less vital to Britain than Central and South America to the United States, or than the eastern and western glacis of the Russian land mass to the Soviet Union … It was not for nothing that we sent to Egypt in 1940, when this island was in imminent jeopardy of invasion, the only armoured division of which we stood possessed. It was no mere accident that the whole face of the war began to change after our victory, two years later, at Alamein.64 In North Africa the restoration of allied authority turned out to be something rather less than liberation.
In Tunisia the nationalist Neo-Destour party’s leader Habib Bourguiba had been imprisoned by the French after disturbances in 1938. From prison, though, he had the foresight to counsel the younger Destour party activists against the overtures from the Italian (and later German) authorities that took over. André Gide who was in Tunis condemned the high altitude bombing of the country by the Allies, which rarely damaged German positions but killed thousands of civilians: ‘What sense to these idiotic destructions make?’ 65 Released from prison by the Germans, Bourguiba would not back their rule. When the Allied forces’ ‘reconquest of Tunisia’ began on 7 May 1943, the Destour gave them a cool reception. When Bourguiba, ‘called on the Tunisians to join up with the fighting French, the latter rather had it in mind to liquidate the Neo-Destour’. The French ‘Resident General’ Mast arrested around 10,000 Tunisians accusing them of collaborating with the Germans, or having betrayed and mistreated the French Colonists. The Comité Français de Libération Nationale made successive rulings claiming ever-greater French authority over Tunisia.66 Libya was divided when Britain established a Military Administration in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, while the Free French made its own Military Administration in Fazzan ‘after the country’s final conquest by the allies in 1943’.67 The United States took over the airbase at Mellaha east of Tripoli, that they renamed Wheelus Field after an American officer killed in Iran, and spent $100 million developing – the beginning of a network of Mediterranean bases that served the US throughout the Cold War. Libyan exiles in Egypt led by Sayyid Idris had rallied to the allied cause in the hope that they would get their independence, though the British authorities wanted instead to give them self-government under British advisers, as the commander of the Eighth Army, General Bernard Montgomery made clear in his statement of 11 November 1942.68 Five infantry battalions of volunteers drawn from the 14,000 exiles in Egypt joined the Allies, though they were used only as ‘base troops’, not in action, and as a local gendarmerie. Later Britain played off the Sennusi supporters of Sayyid Idris of Cyrenaica against the Tripolitanians to frustrate calls for a free and undivided Libya.
The Libyan cities of Tobruk, Benghazi and Tripoli, over which Italy, Germany and Britain fought throughout the desert war were thoroughly destroyed and the country was left with a deadly legacy of mines that took thousands of lives in the decades after the war had ended.69
Restoring France’s North African Empire
On 8 November 1942 Anglo-American forces commanded by General Eisenhower landed at Casablanca, Oran and Algiers. On 14 November 1942, Admiral Darlan, on leave in Algiers, defected from the Vichy regime, made himself French High Commissioner of North and West Africa with American support.
De Gaulle made Algiers the capital of his Comité Français de Libération Nationale – but soon clashed with the Americans. However, the Americans’ strategy of peeling off Vichy loyalists like Darlan as allies was frustrated when Bonnier de la Chapelle assassinated the Admiral in the St George Hotel on the outskirts of Algiers. Charged with murder, de la Chappelle was sure that ‘they will not shoot me – I have saved France’; but he was shot the following morning.70 Roosevelt’s choice as Darlan’s replacement was another Pétain supporter, General Giraud, who wanted to hang on to the Vichy era anti-Jewish laws.71 Roosevelt’s distrust of the Free French was unabated, and even in spite of Churchill’s pleas, the American government gave only limited credence to de Gaulle’s committee in a statement of 24 August 1943 which does not constitute the recognition of a government of France or of the French Empire by the Government of the United States. It does constitute the recognition of the French Committee of National Liberation as functioning within specific limitations during the war.72 The Comité was committed to France’s liberation, but its views on the French colonies were in marked contrast.
Some 47,000 Moroccans had served in the French Army in 1939 and 1940, and on 10 December 1943 Moroccans started their own Independence party Hizb al-Istiqlal. Gabriel Puaux, France’s Resident General in Morocco, having switched sides from Vichy to de Gaulle, accused Istiqlal of fomenting a ‘pro-German’ insurrection. Puaux demanded the exclusion of two Istiqlal sympathising ministers from the government and had four of the party’s leaders, including Ahmad Balfrej and Muhammad al-Yazidi arrested. ‘Bloody riots broke out in Rabat, Salé and, particularly, in Fez’.73 1800 arrests were made, and more than a thousand convictions followed. Civil servants and Viziers whose loyalty to France was in doubt were dismissed and schools and universities were closed. Puaux did start a series of Reform Commissions, but Istiqlal organised a successful boycott. The Resident General had the advantage that the Moroccan Communist Party had denounced the riots as ‘untimely’, but in the end this only isolated them from popular support, and later they fell in behind Istiqlal’s agitation. Early in 1945 great crowds mobbed the Sultan in Marrakech shouting ‘Long live the King! Long live the country! Long live independence!’ Still, the French faced down the demand for independence for years to come.
Under the Vichy regime militants of the Algerian People’s Party had been jailed in March 1941. On 12 February 1943 Ferhat Abbas published the ‘Manifesto of the Algerian People’, which called for self-government within the French Empire. General Catroux ordered Abbas arrested. The French released the PPA leader Messali in April, and on 12 December 1943 de Gaulle announced reforms that would have given only 63,000 Algerians voting rights alongside the French colonists – an offer which left the Algerian nationalists cold. When Frenchmen celebrated Victory in Europe on 8 May 1945 Algerians also took to the streets. In Sétif they carried the Tricoleur alongside the Algerian flag – and the French police opened fire. Troops were brought in and the demonstration turned into a massacre. In
nearby Kherrata a Foreign Legion began an ‘Arab hunt’: