Middle East campaign

Middle East campaign

The Middle East Campaign was a part of the Middle East Theatre of World War II.


This campaign included:
* The British police actions in Palestine.
* The British invasion and occupation of Iraq.
* The short but bitter conflict between Allied and Vichy French forces in Lebanon and Syria.
* The British and Soviet invasion and occupation of Persia.

In March 1942 the Indian 10th Infantry Division was in Iraq. It had fought Iraq, and in the invasions of Syria, Lebanon and Persia. As its soon to be promoted commander Major-General William Slim wrote: "We could move we could fight and we had begun to build up that most vauable of all assets a tradition of success. ... it was stimulating to be at what we all felt was a critical spot, waiting for the threatened German invasion of Turkey." ref|DintoV

Although Southwest Asia was destined to remain a strategic backwater for the duration of World War II, in late 1941 and early 1942 the Allies were not certain that it would remain so. Before the turning points of the Battle of Stalingrad (June 1942 to February, 1943) and the Second Battle of El Alamein (October to November 1942), the fear was that the Germans might attack the area either through Turkey, or via Cyprus into Lebanon; or through defeating of the British 8th Army in Egypt. If the anticipated attack came through Turkey or Lebanon, then not only could the Axis Powers threaten British controlled Egypt and the strategically important Suez Canal via an advance through Palestine and the Sinai Peninsula, it would also allow the Germans an alternative route to attack the Soviet Union from Southwest Asia north through the USSR's southern frontiers. In the slightly longer term the British feared independent regimes in the region as well as the possibility that the German might follow in Alexander the Great's footsteps and attack British controlled India from Persia in the west as Japan simultaneously attacked India from the east through Burma.

Command structure

Commonwealth forces in the region were for the most part under the Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East Command based in Cairo. The exception was Persia which for some of the time came under the command of the Commander-in-Chief in India.


As in most of the Arab world, there was no unanimity amongst the Palestinian Arabs as to their position regarding the combatants in WWII. Many signed up for the British army, but others saw an Axis victory as their best hope of gaining independence for Palestine. Some of the leadership went further, especially the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini (by then expelled from Palestine), who on November 25, 1941, formally declared "jihad" against the Allied Powers.

During the war, the British forbade entry into Palestine of European Jews escaping Nazi persecution, placing them in detention camps or deporting them to other places such as Mauritius. The Jewish Irgun gang were implicated in the assassination in Cairo on 6 November 1944 of Lord Moyne, the British Minister of State. Fighting Jewish terrorists on one hand and the Germans in North Africa on the other did not endear the British to the Jews in Palestine at this critical stage of the war.

The British considered it more important to get Arab backing, due to their important interests in Egypt and other Arab lands. The influx of Jewish settlers had already caused severe problems in Palestine, and the British did not wish to further exacerbate the situation. The British authorities were also concerned about the possibility of German agents entering Palestine on a refugee boat. Irgun opposed both British colonial rule and self-determination of the majority population. They saw any restrictions on further Jewish immigration from Europe as provocation.


Iraq had been officially granted independence by the United Kingdom in 1932, under a number of conditions, including the retention of British military bases. This caused resentment within Iraq and a pro-Axis prime minister, Rashid Ali, assumed control. In early 1941, Ali ordered British forces to withdraw.

The Middle East Command hastily assembled a formation known as Iraqforce — which included the Indian 10th Infantry Division and the Arab Legion — and it arrived on April 18.

There were two main British military bases in Iraq, at Basra and at Habbaniya, north east of Baghdad. On April 30 the Iraqi Army surrounded and besieged the isolated and poorly-defended Royal Air Force base at Habbaniya. Although the base had no offensive aircraft, RAF personnel converted training aircraft to carry weapons, and attacked the Iraqi forces.

Habbaniya was soon relieved by Iraqforce, which defeated the larger but poorly-trained Iraqi Army in a series of battles, even though the Iraqis received direct aid from the "Luftwaffe". Iraqforce pressed on from Habbaniya to Baghdad and then to Mosul. Ali and his supporters fled the country and an armistice was signed.

yria and Lebanon

A Luftwaffe aircraft was shot down over Iraq during the advance on Baghdad. Since the nearest Axis bases were on Rhodes, the Allies realised that the plane had refueled in Vichy French controlled Syria or Lebanon. This confirmed suspicions among the Allies regarding the "armed neutrality" of Vichy territories.

Australian, Free French, British and Indian units invaded Syria and Lebanon from Palestine in the south on 8 June 1941. Vigorous resistance was put up by the Vichy. However, the Allies' better training and equipment, as well as the weight of numbers eventually told against the Axis. Further attacks were launched at the end of June and early July from Iraq into northern and central Syria by troops from Iraqforce. By 8 July the whole of north east Syria had been captured and elements of Iraqforce advancing up the river Euphrates were threatening Aleppo and as a consequence the rear of the Vichy forces defending Beirut from the advance from the south. Negotiations for an armistice were started on 11 July and surrender terms signed on 14 July.


The final major military operation in the war in the Middle East campaign took place shortly thereafter. The Soviet Union desperately needed supplies for its war against Germany. Supplies were being sent round the North Cape convoy route to Murmansk and Archangel, but the capacity of that route was limited and subject to enemy action. Supplies were also sent from American to Vladivostok in Soviet-flagged ships. However, yet more capacity was needed, the obvious answer was to go through Iran. The Shah of Iran was deemed as pro-German; he would not allow this free access. Consequently British and Soviet forces invaded and occupied Iran. The Shah was deposed and his son put on the throne.

ee also

* Iraqforce
* Polish II Corps


# "Defeat Into Victory" by Field Marshal William Slim, Page 3.

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