The 1941 Iraq Coup and Rommel’s Afrika Korps

First, some real history…

The history books almost completely gloss over German-Arab relations during World War II. It’s fitting to give some attention to Iraq’s role in World War II as it had some influence in the eventual formation of the Ba’ath Party. Without getting deep into Iraq’s history (or the affairs/aftermath of World War 1), Iraq was placed under the authority of the United Kingdom by the League of Nations following World War I. What was initially the British Mandate of Mesopotamia became the Kingdom of Iraq in 1921 as a monarchy was established. in 1932, the Kingdom of Iraq was granted independence - but effectively remained under the protection of Great Britain.

On April 1, 1941, pro-Axis Iraqi forces staged a coup d’état - the Rashid Ali Al-Gaylani coup - overthrowing the British-backed monarchy. The coup was led by four Iraqi generals with the support of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem - Mohammed Amin al-Husayni. The Mufti represented the Arab Higher Committee and was also responsible for inciting the failed, but influential, 1936 - 1939 Arab revolt in Palestine. Mufti al-Husayni met personally with Hitler and was nominally supported by Hitler in the cause of Arab independence. He worked with both Germany and Italy on military and intelligence matters regarding the Middle East and was active in recruiting Muslims for the Waffen-SS.
After the war, he was provided refuge first by the French Government and later, Egypt.

The Iraqi coup is treated as almost less than a footnote in World War II history. British forces fought the Iraqi army to break the siege of the British Royal Air Force base at Habbaniya, forcing the Iraqis to retreat to Fallujah. It is largely owing to the decisive and deliberate British counterattack at Habbaniya that the coup failed. Germany and Italy supplied rifles, machineguns, along with a handful of aircraft to the Iraqi Army through Syria - controlled by Vichy France. Syria’s involved via the Vichy French military would lead to the heaviest fighting of World War II between English and Commonwealth Forces against their former French allies. A small number of German-crewed aircraft from the Luftwaffe also flew missions in support of the Iraqi army.

The pro-Axis Iraqi government lasted only two months before capitulating to the British. Much of this has relation to the rise of the Ba’ath Party. An alternate history might have had seen the coup delayed until May-June of 1942, with the Afrika Korps pressing on El Alamein. It also has to be considered that the coup took place prior to Operation Barbarossa and before countries like Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria were fully committed to the Axis cause. What was essentially a “nuisance” for the British had the direct potential to be something far more serious and threatening — a successful coup in Iraq could have spelled anti-colonial contagion throughout the entire Middle East. It is not as if keeping “the peace” in this region was ever easy.

And Now - Back to the Game

Jumping ahead slightly to Turn 4 (May 29, 1942) - The Battle of Gazala got off to its historical start on May 27, 1942 - when Italian forces reinforced by Lt. General Erwin Rommel’s “Afrika Korps” attacked British and Commonwealth Forces around Tobruk - a vital seaport on the Mediterranean. Tobruk, in Libya, was captured by Allied Forces in January of 1941 - all part of the see-sawing back-and-forth attacks and counterattacks between the English and Italians. Commonwealth Forces employed in North Africa included units from Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa. At various points, Free French troops, Polish, Czech, Greek units supported the English Eighth Army - which ultimately came under the command of Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery in August of 1942.

The Africa Korps as of May 29 effectively consisted of just three divisions - 15th Panzer, 21st Panzer and 90th Leichte (Light) Division. The balance of the Axis forces in the North African campaign involved the Italian Army - including some of its best units like the Ariete and Littorio armored divisions, Trieste Motorized and the Folgore Airborne Division. A large portion of Italy’s “motorized” units were concentrated in Libya. The Italian Army’s performance in World War II is not given a lot of clout by historians - leadership, training, supply and a lack of enthusiasm for the war can be blamed. In game terms, destroyed Italian units do not reform.

The Axis objective here must be the capture of Tobruk, without it - Axis supply levels will drop off fast - making it easier for the Allies to push toward Tripoli and ultimately, Tunis. The Allied capture of Tunis effectively places the entirety of southern Europe at risk to amphibious invasion. That said, Tobruk is not an easy nut to crack.

The screenshot shows the opening of the Gazala offensive and 21st Panzer’s success in breaching the first line of the Tobruk defensive perimeter.