Habbaniyah – Raising the Siege

Even as Iraqi troops were assembling on the Heights above Habbaniyah, Wavell had been instructed by Churchill to ready a relief force. This was the only time in the entire war that he completely overruled one of his commanders.

A gunner, prepares a brew in front of his armoured car
A gunner, prepares a brew in front of his armoured car.

Kingcol, the relief column for the troops at Habbaniyah, was readied and launched from the Western Desert, spearheaded by Habforce, a light mobile column, which included, as its vanguard, 2 ACC fresh from an extended spell in the Desert acting as D Squadron 11 Hussars, and commanded by one of its most charismatic leaders, Sqn Ldr Mike Casano.

On being notified of its requirement the squadron drove over 1000 miles in 4 days to join the column and proceeded eastwards towards Ramadi and Habbaniyah. This was known to be thick with enemy troops and the first obstacle was the fort at Rutbah which had been recce’d by the Arab Legion and cordoned. However, they were forced to retreat because of a relief Iraqi column from Ramadi. At H3, Glub Pasha was pleased to see 2 ACC who had been sent up in support, pending the arrival of the main column. Casano went forward to reconnoitre and conducted a brisk action with Iraqi vehicles at Rutbah but was unable to cross a defense ditch. The Company then retreated to H3 for the night of the 10th May. The same night, Blenheims from Palestine bombed the fort. The success of Casano on the relief column at Rutbah had forced them to retreat leaving the garrison to their fate. Adopting a “discretion being better than valour” approach, the garrison took the opportunity that darkness provided and slipped away, leaving the great main door of the fort ajar to be noticed by Casano the following morning. With a brigade of Iraqi Army holding Ramadi, the object for 2 ACC was to bypass the town and proceed to the southern tip of Lake Habbaniyah at Mujarra where it would turn and pivot northwards for the base. Despite being attacked by British Blenheims, the Fordsons of 2ACC pressed on and by nightfall on the 14th May were firm 35 miles from Ramadi. On the following day a section of Armoured Cars from the Company was camped 5 miles from the town while the rest of the column reached the bridge at Mujarra that evening linking up with a Company of the Kings Own and a section of Rolls Royces from their sister Company No 1.

“They were all rogues, God Bless them, for whom the War had come as an eleventh hour reprieve. They were the sort of men to whom legend clung like the cloak of Mephistopholes”

Intelligence Officer, Habforce

The following day the main column of Kingcol was trapped in a belt of soft sand short of Mujarra when the Luftwaffe made its first interventions in the relief by bombing and strafing with Me 110’s. Casualties were incurred in the column but not by the ACC vehicles. The progress hampered, Kingcol then retired. The following day, using an easier path discovered by the Arab Legion and despite more Luftwaffe air attacks, Kingcol reached Mujarra. They then turned northwards and reached Habbaniyah on the 18th lifting the siege. 1 ACC had escorted army vehicles with equipment for strengthening the bridge at Mujarra and discovered an abandoned Me 110 there. With some little work it was salvaged and flown back to Habbainyah, where it was discovered that it had only left the Messerschmitt works in Augsburg three weeks earlier. The arrival of Kingcol also coincided with the arrival of a detachment of Ghurka Rifles flown in from Shaibah. The planning staff at Habbainyah had not been idle and has already planned the next move in the war – the seizing of the Euphrates crossings at Fallujah and opening the road to Bagdhad.