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Axis, Allies, and Allah

We have taken this month for our Survey the topic of the Near East during the Second World War.

Western Asia was then -- much as today -- a flashpoint of world affairs fueled by equal measures of local unrest (nationalism, pan-Arabism, and Zionism), economic importance (oilfields and pipelines), and geographical position (the air route to India, the passage to the Black Sea, and the Suez Canal). Germany sought to renew in the region the same bonds and allies it enjoyed during the First World War. France and the United Kingdom -- usually at odds with each other -- attempted to maintain the mandates and privileges secured at the end of that war. Muslim nations strove to achieve or maintain independence. Jewish settlers labored to establish or regain a homeland.

Against the background of this political unrest three separate military campaigns were waged in the Near East during the course of the Second World War. In May 1941 British and Indian troops fought a campaign against the Iraqi armed forces and their supporting German and Italian air assets. In June and July Allied troops (British, Australian, Indian, and Free French) battled Vichy French defenders in Syria and Lebanon. And in August of the same year British and Indian troops from the south and Soviet divisions from the north invaded Iran.

Here are some of the most notable sources for the political, economic, and military aspects of the Near East during the war.

Buckley, Christopher. Five Ventures. London: HMSO, 1954.

ISBN 0 11 7721964
257 pages

A very concise and precise account of the three military campaigns (as well as operations in Madagascar in 1942 and the Aegean in 1943). Probably the best single volume for coverage of all the campaigns in the Near East.

Dudgeon, Air Vice-Marshal A. G. The War that Never Was. Shrewsbury: Airlife, 1991.

ISBN 1-85310-256-3
186 pages

The first move made by Iraq under Rashid Ali and the colonels of the Golden Square was to lay siege to the British airfield and training facility at Habbaniya near Baghdad. This is the story, told by an RAF officer who was on the spot, of how the besieging army was defeated by a few pilots and a handful of training aircraft. Dudgeon covers only the action at Habbaniya, which is too bad as there's as yet no proper book on the campaign in Iraq as a whole.

Hirszowicz, Lukasz. The Third Reich and the Arab East. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.

402 pages

Originally published in Poland in 1963, Hirszowicz's is a very scholarly treatment of Germany's connection to Arab affairs. Much on the dichotomy of incompatible German foreign policy directed at the mutually antagonistic Turks and Arab nationalists. The Arab Legion. The spat between the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and Rashid Ali while in exile in Germany. The translation has squeezed the text dry (or maybe it started that way) but it's an important source.

Kirk, George. The Middle East in the War. London: Oxford University Press, 1952.

511 pages

Part of the Survey of International Affairs, 1939-1946 series from the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Meaty sections on all the political and diplomatic events in the region, going as far afield as Italian East Africa, Ethiopia, and the Maghrib. Very dense, heavily footnoted, and not for the faint of heart. (Turkey, by the way, is covered in a companion volume, The War and the Neutrals.)

Mockler, Anthony. Our Enemies the French. London: Leo Cooper, 1976.

252 pages

The best -- perhaps the only -- account devoted entirely to Operation Exporter, the invasion of the Vichy-controlled Levant. The Allies (and de Gaulle) anticipated a quick knockout followed by immediate rallying of Vichy forces to the Free French. Instead of a quick victory, the Australian, Indian, British, and Free French forces (two brigades of the latter, comprised mainly of Senegalese) slugged it out with the Vichy defenders (also containing a good percentage of Sengalese troops) and suffered several serious setbacks before the ceasefire on 12 July. My only complaint is that Mockler declines to reveal his source material.

Motter, T. H. Vail. United States Army in World War II: The Middle East Theater: The Persian Corridor and Aid to Russia. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1952.

545 pages

The Yanks arrived too late for the fighting, but contributed a pair of MP battalions and enough engineering troops and equipment to terraform deserts and mountains, rebuild the transportation network, and deliver umpteen million tons of supplies to Uncle Joe Stalin.

Pal, Dharm. Campaign in Western Asia. Delhi: Combined Inter-Services Historical Section (India & Pakistan), 1957.

569 pages

Having contributed a major share of fighting troops to all three campaigns in the Near East, the Indian official history devotes an entire volume to the operations there. Very detailed accounts of the actions. Many maps and hard-to-find orders of battle for Iraq and Iran. Also much on the garrison and occupation duties of Paiforce.

Playfair, Major General I.S.O. et al. History of the Second World War: The Mediterranean and Middle East, volume II: The Germans Come to the Help of Their Ally. London: HMSO, 1956.

392 pages

As with most of the war in the Med and surrounding areas, the British official history makes an excellent starting place. Reliable account. Great maps. Well-chosen photos. Does not go into too much depth, but then these volumes have a great deal of other, more important ground to cover.

Stewart, Richard A. Sunrise at Abadan: The British and Soviet Invasion of Iran, 1941. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1988.

ISBN 0-275-92793-8
291 pages

This is a gem, a very readable and informative account that interweaves the political and diplomatic maneuvering with the brief battles. Churchill and Stalin come to an agreement over the relative importance of on the one hand respecting Teheran's independence and on the other hand preventing Iran from becoming an Axis client. The troops advance in the fashion of a Victorian frontier skirmish. An unfortunate Indian sepoy while swimming is carried off by a crocodile.

Warner, Geoffrey. Iraq and Syria, 1941. London: Davis-Poynter, 1974.

ISBN 0 7067 0139 9
180 pages

Rather than the military aspects, Warner examines the political and strategic issues surrounding the campaigns in Iraq and the Levant. Brief but informative and very readable.

War Office. Paiforce. London: HMSO, 1948.

137 pages

A somewhat dreary official publication. Short synopses of the three campaigns. More material about the later buildup of British forces in anticipation of the collapse of the Soviet Union and a panzer thrust across the Caucasus to the Near Eastern oilfields. Largely a social history of the men stationed in a dusty, forsaken land as the war receded.

Weber, Frank. The Evasive Neutral: Germany, Britain, and the Quest for a Turkish Alliance in the Second World War. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1979.

ISBN 0-8262-0262-4
244 pages

Will Ankara dance with Berlin or with London? Actually, Ankara does a lovely little solo number and manages to avoid dancing with anyone until the prom is just about over.

Zweig, Ronald W. Britain and Palestine during the Second World War. Suffolk: Boydell, 1986.

ISBN 0-86193-200-5
198 pages

History of Britain's wartime policy in Palestine with emphasis on internal politics of Foreign Office, Cabinet, and Colonial Office. Little on wider aspects of the diplomatic and military struggle between Axis and Allies in the Arab world.

Little-known and long-forgotten, the Near Eastern theater deserves to be studied by more historians and explicated by more authors. In particular there's a niche to be filled with a comprehensive volume on the campaign in Iraq, for which Stewart's Sunrise at Abadan would serve as a very nice model.

Reviewed 24 August 1997


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