The Events and Circumstances leading up to
"The Siege of RAF Station Habbaniya."
THE GENERAL SITUATION IN IRAQ, APRIL 1941!
Following the coup-d'etat on 3rd of April 1941, by the dissident Iraqi prime minister "Rachid Ali el Ghailani", things began to hot up at Air Headquarters Iraq. It had become obvious to the British Authorities in the Middle East Command that a severe threat to British Control of Iraq existed from the new anti British Government of Iraq and its Axis Allies. The RAF Station at Habbaniya, Iraqi Oil Supplies and pipelines were all at possible risk of falling under enemy control.
Headquarters were fully aware that the prospects in April 1941 for early reinforcements to defend and protect the Station were remote, as available troops and equipment were in short supply and over 600 miles to the west in Northern Egypt. As it was, Station Habbaniya was desperately unprepared for any potential hostilities having been a tranquil peacetime transit station for the movement of troops to and from the Middle East and a convenient location for the No. 4 Flying School.
The Town sized RAF Station at Habbaniya with its nearly eight miles of perimeter fencing positioned on the southern bank of the River Euphrates some 50 odd miles West of Baghdad was a prime location for British Forces and in particular the 'Communications Flight' whose duties allowed it the opportunity to police the National Interests in Iraq with its essential Oil supplies and Pipelines. For were these to have fallen under enemy control the outcome of the War might have been very different, to say the least!
At the time of the "Rachid Ali" Rebellion in Baghdad the only Allied combat Aircraft in Iraq were 244 Squadron with "Vincent" Biplane Bombers at "RAF Shaibah" near Basrah, 300 miles south of "Habbaniya". The next nearest RAF Station was "RAF Heliopolis" near Cairo in Egypt some 600 odd miles to the west.
Meanwhile at RAF Habbaniya the Station and its personnel were hurriedly preparing for possible conflict. Trenches were dug in strategic positions and the Aircraft of the Flying School were being fitted with machine guns and bomb racks. The Polo Pitch and Golf course in the north western corner of the Station were flattened and prepared as a dispersal area for the Aircraft of the Flying School. This area was somewhat protected by a line of trees from the high ground to the south of the Station from which it was anticipated any attack might originate.
At Habbaniya were the 80 or so elderly Training Aircraft made up of 32 Audaxes, 29 Oxfords, 9 Gladiators, 8 Gordons and 1 Blenhiem of 'The No 4 Flight Training School' (No 4 F.T.S. - originally called No 4 Service F.T.S.) (Of these Aircraft most were only capable of carrying 25lb bombs and approximately a third subsequently proved unserviceable or unsuitable for combat.) Apart from these the only other available Aircraft at RAF Habbaniya capable of carrying heavy Bombloads were the 3 Vickers Valentia's of the "Communications Flight".
Although the Valentia's were primarily Transport Aircraft and constituted only a very small part of the 'AIR STRIKING FORCE' that was to defend Habbaniya in the coming Battle, the Three Aircraft were provided with Bomb racks and Lewis Machine guns. The Four available Pilots of the Flight were instructed to be available for Night Heavy Bombing sorties in the event of hostilities. These Pilot's had gained considerable experience in their routine and training duties navigating by day and night throughout the Middle East and were familiar with all the important locations in the region.
THE PREPARATIONS PRECEDING HOSTILITIES
On the 7th of April, Flight Lieutenant Skeet with the other Senior Officers at RAF Station Habbaniya, attended a conference at "Air Headquarters Iraq", following which "Iraq Command Operation Order No 1 of 1941" was issued instructing that the "HABBANIYA DEFENSE SCHEME" was to be put into operation.
This incorporated the formation and preparation of: -
The initial orders for the Communications Flight were that 2 Valentia's were to stand by to evacuate refugees from Baghdad or the Pumping Station at K.2 if required by the emergency.
Two days later on the 9th of April "Operation Order No 2" was issued by Headquarters which included instructions that Comm' Flight was to have a Valentia standing by during the hours of darkness at 2 hours readiness with 8 x 250lb.Bombs or 4 x 500lb.Bombs fused and prepared for loading on to the Aircraft.
In addition to these orders, Flt Lt Skeet, although short of Aircrew, was instructed to forward, on a daily basis, a nominal roll of his Pilots available during the subsequent 24 hours with the Aircraft types they were qualified to fly, for possible loan to other units.
Apart from preparing its Aircraft for possible hostilities and being in combat readiness, during the month of April the 'Communications Flight' carried out various urgent tasks transporting personnel, equipment and stores to and from various locations in Iraq, including the transportation of a Platoon of "Iraq Levies" to Shaibah on the 16th and 17th, and Air Commodore JOHNSON with his Bearer to Sulaimaniya on the 26th.
Meanwhile, Wellington heavy bombers of Bomber Command had arrived at RAF Shaibah in anticipation of possible hostilities and the more experienced trainee pilots with the tutors of the No 4 Flying School in conjunction with the personnel of the Aircraft Depot and others at RAF Station Habbaniya were hurriedly preparing The Station and fitting their motley collection of Training Aircraft with machine guns and bomb racks for what was to be their first experience of Combat Duty.
Then! on Wednesday the 30th at 01.30 GMT (04.30 Local Time), the General Alarm was sounded, a large force of Iraqi Troops and Heavy Armour (some five to nine thousand men with howitzers, armoured cars, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns!) had been observed massing on the raised plateau overlooking RAF Habbaniya. Following communications between the Iraqi force and the Authorities at Habbaniya it was obvious to all concerned that the Siege of Habbaniya had begun!
In anticipation of hostilities and in accordance with the Habbaniya Defence Scheme, all 3 Valentia Aircraft of the "Flight" were standing by "Bombed Up" with the assistance of S.N.C.O.s from the Aircraft Depot by 05.00 GMT (08.00 Local Time).
(In his end of month report Flight Lieutenant Skeet recorded that, due to the emergency, it had been necessary to send only one Pilot on Routine Transport Work during the month and that there was a shortage of second Pilots.)
(The records for the Month indicate that there was total of 16 non routine Aircraft movements and in excess of 124 flying hours were logged by the Flight.)
(On Thursday 1st of May the 'Communications Flight' were "Standing To" dispersed around their hangar with two Aircraft bombed up with 4 x 500lb bombs each and one with 8 x 250lb bombs. Nearby in the hanger were 8 x 500lb bombs and 8 x 250lb bombs ready fused as reserves. Then! late in the evening a brief signal was received by the Authorities at "RAF Habbaniya" from the Prime Minister in London, which read:-)
Use All Necessary Force!".
Or Here for the Operations Log for April 1941.
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