South African Military 
History Society


Newsletter no. 415
September 2010

Contact: Ken Gillings 031 702 4828
Bill Brady 031-561-5542

Unfortunately the scheduled main talk for the evening was called off at the last minute due to the speaker Jesse Wesseloo being taken ill.

However, the very able Captain Brian Hoffman was able to enlarge on his subject to make the evening most enjoyable.

His talk was entitled: "Allied Operations in Syria, Persia, Iraq from May to September 1941."

Little is known of the campaigns in Iraq, Syria & Persia and surprisingly even ignored by some historians but had tremendous strategic value to both Allied & Axis powers. By the beginning of May 1941in Abyssinia, Somaliland, Eritrea, Sudan & Kenya, the Italian Forces were on the defensive and on the verge of surrender. Tobruk was surrounded and Rommel was on the Egyptian border.

In March 1941 Iraq was controlled by pro German rebel forces under Rashid Ali who became Prime Minister after forcing the abdication of the pro - British Regent Emir Abdul - Ilah. Churchill wanted bold & decisive action to overthrow Rashid Ali, expel Axis representatives, restore the pro-British Regent and secure the oil supplies & facilities at Basra. Allied reinforcements, destined for Singapore, arrived from India. As a result, Rashid Ali commenced hostilities against the Air Force Base at Habbaniya. Expecting assistance from German Air Force and Airborne troops, he assembled 9000 men& 50 guns, against the base which had a fighting force of 2 200 men and some 80 ancient aircraft. 22 allied aircraft were destroyed but minimal casualties sustained. Despite taking off under ground fire Allied aircraft were successful in reducing artillery fire and preventing a ground attack. Although numerically weak and facing superior Iraqi forces, Rashid Ali capitulated and fled to Persia.

The next campaign was very different. The French Army in Syria was loyal to the Vichy Government and Axis agents were active in Syria stoking anti - British feelings. On 8th June Allied forces crossed into southern Syria, initially there was little resistance but Vichy forces reacted vigorously when they realized the weakness of the Allied forces. There were several hard fought battles, notable for the award of the VC to Private JH Gordon 2/31st Battalion who neutralized an enemy position with rifle & bayonet while under machine gun fire. A second VC was awarded to Lt. Arthur Roden Cutler for his dashing leadership and direction of artillery fire. After the war he became a diplomat finishing up as Sir Arthur Roden, the Governor of NSW. The Allied Commander pressed on towards Damascus forcing the enemy to withdraw. On 21st June (the day Germany invaded Russia) the Allies captured Damascus after 3 days of fierce fighting. The French position in Syria had become untenable and they sought an armistice. A cease fire came into effect thus effectively ending the campaign.

The UK & USSR were now Allies, however the Shah of Persia was friendly towards Axis Powers and posed a threat and the possibility of Persian Oil Fields falling into German hands and the loss of strategic oil supplies. British forces advanced into Persia from the east and Soviets from the north. After a brief stand by the enemy the defenders withdrew and called for a truce to negotiate surrender. British & Soviet Forces met up at Senna & Kazvin. Tehran was jointly occupied by British and Soviet Forces until Axis diplomatic missions closed down &and all Germans arrested. The Shah abdicated in favour of his son and was sent into exile in South Africa where he died in July 1944. By war end 5,000,000 tons of supplies were sent to Russia by Allies on Persian railways. The outcome of Syrian campaign was to close the door to any further Axis penetration eastwards from the Med. It shifted defence of Suez Canal northwards by 250 miles, relieved Turkey of anxiety about her southern frontier, and ended any German advance towards the Persian Gulf and India.

If Hitler had launched his airborne forces into Iraq and Syria instead of wasting them in Crete things would have been very different in the ME. The Allies would have been defeated in the Levant with the Axis powers opening a second front in Palestine. Anti-British sentiments in Egypt would have resulted in civil unrest and a probable uprising. A coordinated attack on both fronts would almost certainly have defeated the Allies in Egypt. Suez would have been lost. Malta, Crete & Cyprus would have to capitulate. Turkey would have been forced into the Axis camp. Axis forces would have had access to the Persian Gulf oil fields and threaten India. The Axis would have had total mastery of the air and sea in the Eastern and Central Mediterranean. The Russian southern flank through the Caucasus would be exposed and Italian forces in East Africa would have regained their foothold.

Instead Hitler chose to expend his primary air organism in Crete which cost him almost certain victory in the Middle East. It just goes to show how the vision of one man (Churchill) can change the fortunes of war against all odds.

Fellow member Dr. John Cooke presented a vote of thanks to the speaker for his outstanding talk and the improvisation due to last minute cancellation.

Thursday 9 September 2010 - 19h00 for 19h30. Venue: Murray Theatre, Dept of Civil Engineering, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban. The Darrell Hall (DDH) Memorial Lecture will be presented by former chairman Ken Gillings. Entitled "The Art of War - Lt. Col. JN Crealock's watercolours - then and now", Ken has managed to locate most of the sites painted by Crealock during the Anglo-Zulu War and these will be compared with the actual paintings.

The Main Talk will be presented by Ganes Pillay whose talk is entitled: "The Role of Indian Troops during the Anglo-Boer War".

FUTURE SOCIETY DATES: October - December 2010.
14th OCTOBER 2010:

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: 'Lt Col Paddy Mayne - an SAS Legend' by Bill Brady
Main Talk: 'The U-Boat War in WW2 - sinking statistics' by Steve Watt.

11th NOVEMBER 2010:
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: 'The Conquest of the Incas' by Dr. John Cooke.
Mail Talk: Subject to be confirmed.

9th December
DDH - "USS Cassin Young DD793, a Fletcher Class Destroyer" by Roy Bowman.
Main Talk - "The salvaging of the German High Seas Fleet" by Ian Sutherland.

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