At 02.00 GMT (05.00 Local Time) Friday 2nd of May 1941,
hostilities commenced between the British forces and the besieging Iraqi forces.
'The Battle for RAF Habbaniya had begun!'
(N.B.) The description that follows concentrates on the activities of 'THE COMMUNICATIONS FLIGHT' during the period 2nd to 31st of May 1941. More detailed accounts regarding the Battle and the magnificent contribution by the men and machines of 'THE NO.4 FLYING SCHOOL' can be found by clicking on the history links situated at the foot of this page.
In the first light of dawn the Aircrews and Aircraft of the No. 4 Flying School, now comprising the main section of the newly formed and renamed 'HABBANIYA AIR STRIKING FORCE' manned with its most experienced pupils, their tutors and other supporting pilots had taken off in their hastily prepared Aircraft in a surprise attack to bomb and strafe the gun emplacements, troops and armoured cars of the besieging Iraqi Army encamped on the raised plateau overlooking 'RAF Station Habbaniya'. Meanwhile, Wellington Heavy Bombers of No.70 and 37 Squadrons had arrived overhead from Shaibah and were making their attacks on the Iraqi Forces.
As these first attacks pressed home the Station with its buildings, hangars, main airfield and the hastily prepared Polo pitch and flattened Golf Course as its most protected second aircraft dispersal area came under heavy shell fire from the Iraqi forces. Unfortunately, the 3 Vickers Valentia's of the Communications Flight with their full loads of bombs were positioned at the closest end of hangar area to the Iraqi Forces in full view of the attacking guns awaiting nightfall to undertake their planned Bombing sorties.
In view of the risks to his Aircraft Flight Lieutenant Skeet as Officer Commanding the Flight had made an urgent request to higher authority for his Aircraft to be moved to the safer area of the Polo Pitch dispersal ground, however, for unexplained reasons this request was refused, consequently by 08.00 GMT (11.00 Local Time) all the Flight's Aircraft had become unserviceable from shrapnel damage.
Meanwhile, due to the lack of adequate heavy defensive armament at Habbaniya the crews of the Flight with the 2,000 or so other Service personnel at the Station were doing their best to defend the Station with Rifles, Lewis Guns mounted on tripods and the few Trench Mortars available.
In order to minimize the risk to personnel, Aircraft and Buildings the bombs on two of the Valentia Aircraft were defused and returned to the magazine by 15.30 GMT (18.30 local) on Saturday 3rd May.
Attempts to repair the Valentia's during the first two days of conflict proved impossible due to heavy shelling and sniper fire of the besieging Iraqi Forces with aerial bombing by the Iraqi Air force supported by German and Italian Aircraft.
On Sunday the 4th, two of the four pilots of the "Flight" were recorded as having been engaged in liaison with the No.4 Flight Training School and their hectic activities in the Battle. By 02.00 GMT repair work had commenced on Valentia's KR.2792 and K.2808. By late that afternoon the reserve Aircraft Valentia KR.2792 had been made serviceable by the over burdened ground crews, whose primary duties had been to keep the No.4 Flying School Aircraft of the "Habbaniya Air Striking Force" in flying condition for their continual attack sorties in daylight.
On Monday 5th May, Valentia K.2808 had been repaired and was bombed up with 4 x 500lb bombs, then at 14.00 GMT (17.00 Local) in the fading daylight this Aircraft launched a low level attack (200ft) on the Takiya bunds (flood barriers on the banks of the River Euphrates) at "FALLUJAH", during this sortie the Valentia's Lewis Gunners fired 400 rounds of ammunition in defense of the Aircraft. However, the attempt to breach the Bunds and flood the area in order to impede the progress of the Iraqi Troops proved unsuccessful due to the bombs exploding between the Bunds.
By this time the Iraqi forces had begun a major retreat towards "FALLUJAH" having been successfully routed from their positions overlooking Habbaniya by the relentless attacks of the Aircraft of "The Air Striking Force" with the assistance of the Wellingtons of No 37 and No 70 Squadrons who had flown the round trip of 600 miles from RAF Shaibah.
Late in the afternoon of Tuesday 6th May, Valentia K.2808, with an escort of one Blenhiem Fighter, transported 300 gallons of petrol to 3 Valentia's of No 31 Squadron who had force landed from lack of fuel in the desert near the Iraqi town of "HIT" on the banks of the Euphrates approximately 60 miles to the west of Habbaniya. During this sortie the Valentia's Lewis Guns fired 300 rounds of ammunition.
On Wednesday the 7th an attempt was made to fit 520lb G.P. Bombs on the Bomb-racks of the Valentia's of the "Flight" but this proved unsuccessful. According to the suggestion of Flight Lieutenant Skeet urgent modifications to the racks were put in progress.
Further maintenance was carried out on Valentia KR.2792 on Thursday the 8th May and then on Saturday the 10th May this Aircraft was air tested and carried out a 30 minute local reconnaissance flight
The modifications to the Valentia's Bomb Crutches to enable them to carry 520lb G.P. Bombs were begun on Sunday the 11th and were completed by midday on Monday the 12th.
On the 12th May at 17.00 GMT, K.2808 set out to attack the Iraqi Air force base at "AL RACHID" Airfield near Baghdad with 2 x 520s, 2 x 250s, 2 x 20s, and 2 x 25s incendiaries, returning at 19.10 GMT,
At 21.00 GMT, KR.2792 took off to attack "AL RACHID" Airfield with 2 x520s, 3 x 250s, 2 x 20s and 10 x 25s incendiaries, returning at 23.15 GMT. These attacks resulted in one direct hit on the hangar area and several near misses.
On Tuesday 13th of May Flight Lieutenant Skeet received orders under "Iraq Command Operation Order No. 4/1941" to carry out night attacks before moonrise on the hangars, workshops and fuel stores at "MOSUL" Airfield 200 miles north of Habbaniya dropping flares over the target area and to carry out as much aerial reconnaissance as possible during the mission.
At 16.05 GMT (19.05 local) K.2808 set out carrying 2 x 520s, 2 x 250s and 10 x 25s incendiaries. KR.2792 took off at 16.15 GMT with 2 x 520's, 4 x 250's, and 10 x 25's incendiaries. Despite adverse wind on the outward journey and very poor visibility over the target area all bombs were reported as having been dropped in the hangar and buildings areas with one fire observed to have been started. The severe weather conditions curtailed their time over the target and only one fire was reported as started in the hangar area, during the reconnaissance phase of these missions no sign of enemy aircraft, fuel or ammunition dumps was observed. K.2808 returned to Habbaniya at 21.25 GMT and KR.2792 at 22.00 GMT.
In the night of the 14/15th May at 23.00 GMT KR.2792 set out to bomb the hangar areas at 'AL RACHID' Aerodrome with 2 x 520s, 4 x 250s and 10 x 25s incendiaries. Five minutes later K.2808 took off to attack the same targets with 2 x 520s, 2 x 250s and 10 x 25s incendiaries. K2808 returned at 00.55 GMT and KR.2792 returned at 01.05 GMT.
On the night of the 17th at 17.10 and 17.20 GMT respectively K.2808 and KR.2792 took off to bomb the 'AL RACHID' hangars with a total of 4 x 520's, 6 x 250's, and 30 x 25's incendiaries, on this mission both Aircraft dropped reconnaissance flares over "BAGHDAD".
On Monday the 19th in accordance with "Iraq Command" Operations Order's 9 and 10 of May 1941, the "Communications Flight" were instructed to liaise with the Officer Commanding No 31 Sqn for transport duty. At 01.20 GMT K.2808 and KR.2792 of the Flight in conjunction with 31 Squadrons Aircraft were detailed to transport a Company of the "Kings Own Royal Regiment" to a point 2 miles North-east of "FALLUJAH" behind the enemy lines. Later that day at 15.50 GMT K.2808 transported water and medical supplies to the troops of the Regiment on the Fallujah plain.
At around 14.30 GMT on Tuesday the 20th, The Airfield and Station at Habbaniya was strafed by 4 Messerschmitt Bf 110's, during this raid Valentia K.2808 was further damaged and again rendered unserviceable.
Wireless operator J. Howarth was taken off flying duties on Wednesday the 22nd May for medical reasons and detached for ground signals duties.
At 00.01 GMT on Saturday the 25th May at 00.01 GMT KR.2792 transported 15 Assyrian refugees to the pumping station outpost at H.4. Its return journey transporting passengers and mail was delayed by a sandstorm until the next day Sunday the 26th.
By this stage all 3 Valentia's were suffering from extreme wear and tear, minor damage and a chronic lack of maintenance due to the heavy demands placed on the limited number of Ground Crews available. Valentia KR.2792 attempted to carry out a pamphlet raid on Monday the 27th but was forced to return without completing its full mission due to instrument and controls failure.
On Tuesday the 28th of May at 19.20 GMT, after further repairs, Valentia K.2808 carried out its concluding combat related mission in the emergency with a pamphlet raid on the Towns of (Ramadi-Rahiliya-Karbala-Hilla-Al Musaiyib-Al Aziziya-Al Mahumydiya-Baghdad-Al Kadimain- Ba'Quba) during this mission the Aircraft encountered slight Anti Aircraft fire at the Iraqi towns of Karbala and Hilla.
By the end of the month "RACHID ALI'S IRAQI ARMY" had been overwhelmed and although a few pockets of resistance remained British Forces had regained effective control of Iraq with its precious Oil Supplies, Pipelines and Strategic Importance in the region.
NOTES: - In May 1941 the No. 4 Flying School took the main brunt of repulsing the enemy forces besieging RAF Habbaniya in the first few days of the conflict.
Nevertheless, during the month the Aircraft of 'The Communications Flight' flew 8 Night Heavy Bombing Sorties, and 1 in daylight, 11 other missions, 8 at night and 7 during daylight.
During hostilities the 'Flight' dropped 18,400lbs of Bombs: - 16 x 520 pounders, 4 x 500 pounders, 23 x 250 pounders, 4 x 20 pounders and 90 x 25's of incendiaries. The air and ground crews fired 1,468 rounds of ammunition, 700 in flight and 768 in ground actions.
The Number of personnel of the Flight on the 2nd of May 1941 is recorded as: - 2 Officer Pilots, 2 Airmen Pilots, 9 Crew, 4 Non Flying with one attached. During this period the Flight was approximately 22 personnel short of its recommended War Establishment Strength.
It is of note that the Valentia Aircraft required a crew of five for combat missions, Pilot, Co-pilot, Wireless Operator, Upper Gunner and side door Gunner.
The following are recorded as having captained Aircraft of the Flight during April, Flt Lt M. R. Skeet, Sgt C. L. Clements, Sgt W. Thornley and Sgt Harvey. Since there is no indication of any change to personnel it is obvious that these were the individuals who piloted the Valentia's. However no records have been available to identify personnel other than those mentioned. Unfortunately no records have been found to identify the Pilots loaned to the 'No.4 Flying School' and its activities or the missions they carried out.
COMMENT: - Despite the gallant efforts and heroic success of the ill equipped 'Habbaniya Air Striking Force', faced with the superior Iraqi and Axis forces in the critical early days of the hostilities. This motley assemblage of partly trained Pilots and antique Aircraft, had almost unaided, defended the Station at Habbaniya and played a vital role in preserving Middle East Oil supplies for the future use of Allied Forces during the rest of the War.
It is a sad reflection on history that these Valiant individuals and their Units were denied any formal recognition for their efforts. And that this small but important episode in the History of World War 2 has been so unjustly understated.
[The spirited defense of Habbaniya by the Training School was a prime factor in our success. The Germans had at their disposal an Airborne Force which would have given them Syria, Iraq and Persia, with their precious Oil fields!]
The Official "RAF Habbaniya Association" Website
This Website also includes an extensive account of the history of 'RAF Station Habbaniya'.
Click Here to Read the Activities of The Flight From June 1941.