The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem with Muslim members of the Handschar SS Div. in Yugoslavia 1944.
Arab Brigade May-July 1941
The Pro-British regime in Iraq was overthrown in a revolution April – May 1941. The revolutionaries under the leadership of Raschid Ali el-Gailani and other members of the secret "Golden Square Group" took over Bagdad. This new government was recognized by the German Reich.
The British response was to form columns to retake Iraq using Indian, Australian and South African troops. The first British units landed at Basra. The Germans meanwhile, put together a Military Mission under Major Blomberg ( the son of Field Marshal Blomberg), which was sent to Bagdad in a transport aircraft. The Military Mission was made up of junior Wehrmacht officers with Arab languages and Arabs who had lived in Germany a number of years.
The Military Mission had the same status in Iraq, as the Legion Kondor had in Spain 1936-39.
The officers were to take over the thousands of Arabs from nearby countries who wanted to fight the British Empire, and free the Arab lands. They had no real supply of weapons and almost no leaders, the Military Mission was to supply this.
As the aircraft landed at Bagdad airport carrying the Germans, it was discovered that Major Blomberg was dead in his seat. He had looked out of the window as the aircraft had come under fire from Beduin Arabs, who may have thought the aircraft to be British. Hauptmann Berger now took command, he had found a good helper on the aircraft called Ali, a law student who had lived in Berlin.
Raschid Ali el-Gailani and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem met with Berger in Bagdad. It was explained that the British were about 800 kilometres away, moving overland from Basra. A supply convoy of about 50 ships were coming up river along the Tigris. The British moved only in daylight hours they relied on air cover. At night the British would go in all round defence and wait for air cover the following morning.
Berger ordered all aircraft at Bagdad airport to be pressed into German service, including an American Pan-Am Airways passenger aircraft! (the USA were not yet in the war). These aircraft were to ferry over the volunteers and weapons from Beirut, giving birth to a German "Arabische Brigade" which at its height would number between 20 to 30 thousand men.
The Arab Brigade was split into two groups, one of which was ordered overland under the command of Leutnant Brecht and Leutnant Dressen to take and hold Kut. Hauptmann Berger and Ali took command of the other column which was to intercept the supply ships on the river Tigris.
11th May 1941 – Berger captures the British supplies
The Britsih had moored their ships on the river banks for the night. 25 supply ships were moored on each river bank. Both river banks were guarded by a detachment of British Empire troops, they had set out a barbed wire perimeter for the night. Two gunboats were positioned in the middle of the river Tigris, to guard the flotilla, with a watch of four men on each gunboat.
Berger split his forces into three groups, one large group on each river bank to deal with the perimeter troops and a small group under Bergerm who would float down to the gunboats on rafts made of river weeds. The boarding party soon took over the gunboats and they were allowed to drift down the river in the darkness with Arab crews. Berger made it to the river bank and the sugnal was given for the aatck to start. Within a short time the Birtish Empire troops were prisoners or dead, no on escaped. Indian prisoners of war were recruited into the Arab forces. The fleet was now in the hands of the "Arabische Brigade".
Next morning the Royal Air Force found the flotilla heading onwards to Kut, unaware that the ships were "under new management", the air cover carried on as before. Berger ordered all Arabs with light skin to don British uniform items and wave to the aircraft. Just before night fall the aircraft started to act strange, what was wrong? Ali realised that radio signals had not gone out from the gunboats, the British forces knew that the ships had fallen into enemy hands. The aircraft broke away, but would be back in the morning for sure!
Berger ordered the ships to the river bank and all the crates of ammunition and weapons were unloaded and carried to the railway line five miles away. Berger got on the radio to Leutnant Brecht. A train would be put together and sent down to Kut from Bagdad, with all the trucks that they could find loaded onto flatbed wagons. Volunteers who had made their way to Bagdad would also join the train, and off it steamed through the night.
The train reached the position and the Arab volunteers were trained the moment that they dismounted. New British weapons and ammunition lay all around. Five British bombers flew low over the river Tigris and went into the attack, sinking the supply ships (which had been unloaded). One gunboat was sunk by a bomb and the other one sunk when a shot down RAF bomber crashed into it. Some of the ammo boxes were on fire, a group of Arabs attempted to carry a crate away when it exploded killing five men. Another train arrived under the command of the Egyptian Major Abdul, with a message that a British column under the command of Glubb-Pascha was forming up on the Transjordan border. Berger radioed Leutnant Krumbein and three German soldiers, to delay them with support of the Bediun forces available.
13th May 1941- RAF Habbaniya under attack
RAF Habbaniya had been under attack for several days by units of the Iraqi regular army and although surrounded, had managed to hold out because of the outdated biplanes and converted trainers, that somehow was able to stay in the sky. The Iraqi army was held at bay. The real test came when the Luftwaffe detachment arrived in Mosel and went straight into the attack, upon arriving! Nevertheless, Habbaniya held out. The Luftwaffe detachment numbered 14 Me110 fighter-bombers, 7 He 111 bombers and various support aircraft. British pilots said they faced Me 109 fighters, but infact none had been sent. Later, the Italians sent a dozen CR 42 fighters which arrived in Kirkuk about the 26th May 1941, but they were only used to attack the British in Fallujah, and did not see action at Habbaniya.
15th May 1941- Grand Mufti arrives in Uruk
At 11 a.m. a column of cars from Kut arrived and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem stepped out onto a podium made of captured ammunition boxes. Luftwaffe engineers had set-up a microphone and the Grand Mufti spoke of a holy war against the British Empire, a Luftwaffe Staffel flew overhead and 500 Arabs marched past the podium.
Soon after the Grand Mufti had left, Hauptmann Berger was informed that a force of two thousand British troops were camped only a few kilometers away! The British did not know how close they were to the Arab Brigade, so they camped out without digging any trenches, sleeping out on the open ground. Berger ordered Ali and Abdul to form-up the troops for an attack. They went in and the British were crushed in the suprise, although they ffought on, they could not win. The RAF flew low overhead but could not attack for fear of hitting their own men. Berger ordered Feldwebel Schwäbig (Luftwaffe Meldestelle) to redirect the Luftwaffe to their positions. Within minutes the Luftwaffe Me 110 fighter-bombers were overhead. Within seconds the first RAF bomber was shot down, ten minutes later the Luftwaffe were in total command of the sky.
Berger´s Germans wanted to capture as many British as possible, but they could not be everywhere and the Arabs cut the throats of the unlucky ones who fell into their hands alive.
No one escaped the slaughter from the Allied camp.
May 1941- British Secret Service in Bagdad
The german officers found time to spend two days in Bagdad and Leutnant Brecht and Leutnant Dressen had been given a calling card for a night club in the area. The two went to the club and drunk a few beers at the bar, they were promised that if they waited long enough, they would see dancers. Things did not go as promised, and Brecht was kiddnapped and placed into a backroom. Dressen fought his way out with his service revolver and alarmed the police.
Everyone in the club was arrested and Brecht was soon freed. It turned out that the "Club Mok´dor" was the centre of a British Secret Service spy-ring. They had wanted to capture Haupmann Berger, but he had stayed in his hotel that evening.
The next day Berger was informed that Glubb-Pascha and his Arab Legion had crossed the Trans-jordanian border and Iraqi army units surrendered without a fight. Only the Bediun Arabs were fighting back and poisoning the water wells etc. They could not hold up Glubb´s column for ever, so Berger ordered the Arab brigade to Ramadi as a blocking force.
Two of Berger´s Arab advisors explained that the Arab Legion would be difficult to beat as they had the respect of all Iraqis. Berger would not give up now, he ordered the brigade to march two days into the desert and go into alround defence at Salah Oase.
Berger waited for Glubb to fall into his trap, but it was not to be, Glubb halted ten kilometers short of the Oase and waited for orders. Berger could only wait, while Glubb had saved his column, by doing nothing!
30th May 1941- The Arab Brigade goes into retreat
News came of another British column that had entered Bagdad from another direction. RAF bombers bombed Iraqi towns from bases in Habbaniya and Basra. The government of Rashid Ali fled to Iran, leaving the Arab brigade as the only fighting force against the might of the British Empire in Iraq.
The German Military Mission in Bagdad gave the order that no German personnel were to fall into British hands. Although the Arab brigade was still many thousands strong, they started to think of their own safety and many fled. Only one thousand voted to stay with Berger, including Major Abdul and Ali (the law student from Berlin).
The now smaller unit, moved a hundred kilometers north to the river Euphrates and then on into syria. The remains of the brigade crossed the Syrian border on 9th June 1941, and continued to fight on until 3rd July 1941. The German Military Mission, and Axis loyal Arab insurgents made their way back to Berlin over various routes.
Raschid Ali el-Gailani
Raschid Ali el-Gailani fled to Iran and was sentenced to death in absence by the british government. In August he left Iran and travelled to Istanbul, flying to Berlin on the 21st November 1941. Rashid Ali had hoped to form an Arab force to advance from the Caucasus, in Russia, to Iraq and retake Bagdad. The German defeat at Stalingrad made that impossible.
Rashid Ali then moved to Athens and broadcast to the Arab peoples until October 1944. After the war he fled to Damascus in exile. In the late 1950´s he returned for a short while to Bagdad, where he served a short prison sentence. He died in Beirut on 28th August 1965.
Grand Mufti of Jerusalem
Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (el-Husseini) fled to Iran and later escaped to Italy with help from Mussolini. He spent the rest of the war raising Moslem units to fight on the Axis side. He played a key role in raising Moslem Waffen-SS formations in Yugoslavia. After the war he fled to Bern and Paris, and in 1946 reached Cairo using forged papers. he spent thirty years in exile in Lebanon and Egypt. In March 1967 he visited Jerusalem for the last time, he died in Beirut on 4th July 1974.
Free Arab Legion in North Africa 1942-1943
Sonderverband 288 was formed from Germans and foreign language specialists from the Brandenburg Division. The unit served in North Africa and worked closely with Arab volunteers, they had ties to the "Deutsche-Arabische Lehr Abteilung", which was raised on 7th April 1942.
A group of French Arabs were formed into the "Phalange Africaine" from the french colonies of Algeria and Tunisia. Just before the fall of Tunis, a battalion of Sonderverband 287 arrived in North Africa.
Free Arab Legion- 1943-1945
Sonderverband 287 was raised from Arabs living in Europe, and was based in Athens, Greece. They fought in the Caucasus in Russia and later in Yugoslavia in anti-partisan operations.
Other Arab formations were formed from Muslims living in southern France.
By 1943 all Arab volunteers should have been issued with the "Freies Arabien" armshield.
"Die Kollaboration 1939-1945" by Franz W. Siedler
Osprey "Men-at-arms" series number 147
Landser Heft "Arabisches Brigade"
Various Luftwaffe files
and of course many late nights online.
Wehrmacht in Iraq 1941- my personal comments
1. Where the mission failed.
The mission failed in it´s main aim, a total uprising in the Arab world against the British Empire. This was because of two things, the failure to capture the RAF base at Habbaniya and the poor showing of the Iraqi army. No matter how dedicated the "Arab Brigade" was, without the full support of the Iraqi army, they could not win in the long-term.
2. Where the mission won.
With a handful of German officers and NCOs they raised an Arab Brigade within a matter of a few days and set the middle-east on fire! They captured fifty supply boats loaded with arms and ammunition and wiped out three to four thousand Empire troops. tying down many thousands more including Glubb-Paschas Arab Legion, all formations that were needed in North Africa when Rommel was at his most dangerous!
3. Propaganda victory
The nerve of it all. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem steps onto a podium and reviews an Arab marchpast and holds a speech. At the same time a Luftwaffe detachments perform a flypast! All of this takes place hundreds of miles behind the British lines!
Although it did not really effect the war in any big way, I strongly believed that this story needed to be told.
The use of the term Wehrmacht:
The Military Mission members stopped being Wehrmacht from the moment they landed in Bagdad, they took on the same status as the Legion Kondor in Spain some years before. But I like the term Wehrmacht, so have used it in the title.
Raschid Ali with the Führer in Berlin 19th July 1942.