First Victory – Robert Lyman

Back in the early eighties I read R Ghisshman’s Iran, it was a history based on archeology and written sources of the various Persian civilisations prior to the Islamic conquest, a very interesting book in its own right. One of the older fellows I was working with at the time asked me what it was about and in the discussion that followed I discovered during World War II he had been part of the British Expeditionary force that had invaded Iran to topple the pro-Nazi regime that was threatening the UK’s oil supply and communications with our ally the Soviet Union.

Having grown up in the 1960s and 70s I was fairly familiar with tales of the war against Germany and Japan, but this was an are of that conflict that I had been unaware of and I decided that I really should find out more about it. Like a lot of things decided upon in the 1980s it found itself on the back-burner to family and career commitments, but then I discovered Robert Lyman’s First Victory in a remaindered book catalogue and thought ‘that’s the book for me’.

I found Lyman’s take on this largely neglected aspect of World war II quite fascinating. It filled in quite a few holes in my knowledge of the conflict while reminding me of how wars are not just won by brilliant generals; bad leadership, luck, dithering, incompetence and a brazen disregard for orders all have a role to play .

Lyman’s history commences in Iraq, a country that had been mandated to the British after World War One, along with what are now Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan. Granted independence in 1932, the pro-British Iraqi government was ousted by a pro-Nazi regime in April 1941 threatening the UK’s oil supplies, communications with India and the lone RAF base within Iraq at Lake Habbaniya. Lyman details how the RAF at Habbaniya, equipped with a bunch of obsolete biplanes, half a dozen World War One vintage Rolls Royce armoured cars and native levies recruited from the feuding Iraqi factions routed the numerically superior and better equiped Iraqi conscript army. He then takes us through the conquest of Baghdad, how the British nearly came unstuck supporting De Gaulle’s Free French forces in Vichy occupied Syria and Lebanon and the combined Soviet British campaign in Iran.

The book is populated with characters like the dithering British General Wavell, the gung-ho General Auchinlek, explorer and spy Freya Stark holed up in the British embassy in Baghdad and the wonderful Glubb Pasha, a gone native World War I British officer (Major John Bagott Glubb) who brings his own private Arab army to the aid of the British. In Vichy occupied Lebanon a Jewish commando loses an eye and turns out to be Moshe Dayan. Bad luck (well from a German perspective) is illustrated by the story of the Luftwaffe liaison officer to the Iraqi Airforce. As his squadron approaches Mosul airport an Iraqi guard lets loose a single round at the approaching Heinkel, the bullet rips through the plane’s fuselage and kills him stone dead.

Some of the situations that Lymon brings up  reminded me of Dad’s Army. When RAF officers at Habbaniya are horrified that their CO refuses their request to modify the training aircraft to carry bombs, in case it upsets the Iraqis, they do it while he is in bed. Habbaniya’s supposedly decommissioned World War I ‘gate guardian’ artillery pieces aren’t and are turned on the Iraqis. A relief column is equipped with more World War I armoured cars and horsed cavalry. Captured Iraqi weapons and ammunition turn out not only to have been made in Britain, but more modern than that available to the British forces. Modern Luftwaffe bombers seconded to the Iraqis break down in the desert conditions while the older, obsolete but easier to maintain RAF aircraft keep flying. RAF pilots cut Iraqi communication lines by parking their aircraft and chopping down telegraph poles with an axe.

It’s a fascinating and well written history of a little known conflict that could have had very serious consequences for the UK had it gone the other way, a highly recommended read for anyone with an interest in the Middle East and World war II.

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