Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Rutbah Wells & the Iraq "Sideshow," 1941


One of the pleasures I get from being a writer of historical fiction is through researching a topic. Research always throws up surprises. On this occasion there's a definite crossover into my wargaming hobby.

I'm currently researching the Middle East, specifically Iraq, and discovered the tale of the Vickers Vernon bomber/transport aircraft that flew the first established airmail route from Cairo in Egypt to Baghdad in the newly-minted Kingdom of Iraq. That in turn led to a little-known sideshow event to World War Two - the Iraqi insurgency of 1941.

Vickers Vernons at RAF Hinaidi near Baghdad.
The Vernon was the streamlined version of the Great War vintage Vickers Vimy and entered service in 1921. With a crew of three, it could carry eleven passengers or a mix of passengers and mail. Its range was 278 nautical/320 miles at a cruising speed of 65 knots/75 mph. The capacity to carry a (for the time) large number of personnel made it the aircraft of choice for the first recorded air lift in history. In February 1923, 500 British troops were conveyed to Kirkuk in Iraq by Vernons of 45 and 70 Squadrons RAF in order to put down a Kurdish revolt.

The Vernon's range was pretty good for that day and age, but it still necessitated special measures to enable the aircraft to cross safely the wastes of what was then Transjordan and Western Iraq. Aircraft on the fortnightly mail run carried spare landing gear wheels, tents, bedding and goat-skins full of water. The establishment of landing strips with fuel dumps was required, as was a deep and straight furrow ploughed into the hard stony ground of the region for several hundred miles to aid navigation. These landing strips were located every 25 miles or so along the furrow. One was established at Rutbah Wells, in western Iraq.

Rutbah (aka Rutba, aka Ar-Rutba) was an old fort on the banks of a wadi, and it guarded the nearby oasis. It happened to be located 265 miles from Amman, Transjordan, so made a good landing spot for the Vernons after a day's flight. The route was eventually transferred from RAF control to Imperial Airways.

Rutbah aerodrome, sometime in the early 30s, showing the Furrow navigation aid and a Rolls Royce armoured car on airfield defence duty.
The region was a notorious hotspot for bandit activity. Rose Wilder, journalist daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, wrote an account of her own journey in the region which included standing guard armed with a rifle in their camp at night as protection against predatory tribesmen. In 1927 the new Iraqi government built a modern fort (shown above and below) to protect the aerodrome. Note: The top photo caption reads Syrian Desert - this was something of a contemporary catch-all term for the region. The fort had a central tower with a navigation light, a radio beacon with a limited range of anything up to 180 miles, and a detachment of Iraqi police to guard it.


Rutbah Wells, early 30s. An Imperial Airways aircraft basks in the sunlight. The white circle with dots around it is a buried fuel dump typical of those used along the airmail route.

Rutbah Wells fort gained importance when the Mosul-Haifi oil pipeline was built nearby in the early 1930s. With the Royal Navy dependent on Middle Eastern oil and the increasing mechanisation of the British army it's no wonder the region took on an increased significance for British imperial interests.

The Anglo-Iraq War broke out in 1941 when resentment of British control of the oil led to open conflict.With a pro-Nazi insurgent government trying to take control of the country Britain moved fast to protect her interests. Although the army had left by 1937 two RAF airfields remained operational and these, along with the Royal Navy, provided the means for rapid deployment into the country.

The war lasted less than a month (2–31 May 1941) but saw some interesting military vehicles and aircraft deployed by both sides. The Rolls-Royce armoured car was increasingly obsolete by Western Desert standards yet proved valuable in rapid strikes against the insurgency in Iraq. The Bristol Blenheim soldiered on in the light bomber role. Gloster Gladiators, Hawker Hart and Audax light bomber/observation aircraft flew on both sides, and the Breda 65, Me 109 & 110 and He. 111 flew for the insurgents.

Rutbah Wells fort, 1941. The town is beginning to form on the road west of the fort.
For a remote outpost Rutbah saw a lot of action. Bristol Blenheims took part in air raids on Rutbah fort, as show in a photo reconnaissance image above.

Me109 in Iraqi Airforce colours.
 Even the equipment used by the infantry harked to a bygone age.

British troops looking across the Tigris to Baghdad at the end of the insurgency, 1941.

Then...

Rolls-Royce armoured cars prepare to move out against Iraqi insurgents. Note the Lewis guns and Boyes AT rifles.

And now...

Iraqi Army forces rolling in the tracks of the Rolls-Royce ACs as they operate in the vicinity of Rutbah Wells. Not a great deal of difference.

Sad to say fighting is still ongoing in the region of Rutbah, as Iraqi army forces combat the ISIL insurgency. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...

Modern Rutbah.

Urban sprawl has claimed the old landing ground, but the fort is still there (location circled in red) and in use, although it has lost the triangular enclosure on its eastern wall. A former US Marine who served in Iraq was posted to Rutbah in 2008, and recalls seeing equipment with British markings still in use inside the fort.

So, the early days of those pioneering flights lends itself to a Back of Beyond style game, with rattly Model T Fords bearing fearless lady journalists, or an army/police attempt to reach a downed air crew before bandits get to them. It also makes for an interesting 'sideshow' to World War Two, using equipment which was outdated elsewhere in the conflict. Something for a wargamer interested in the unusual to ponder on.

For myself, I'm going to confine my activities to writing my novel.

Further reading about the early days of the Transjordan-Baghdad route:

'Flying the Furrow,' Saudi Aramco World.


4 comments:

Steve-the-Wargamer said...

Fascinating! Make for some great skirmish gaming...

A J said...

I think so too. It also extends the operational life of military hardware like the Rolls-Royce ACs etc, giving gamers a lot more use out of their models.

caveadsum1471 said...

Really interesting sideshow, not something I know enough about.
Best Iain

A J said...

I never cease to be amazed at all the 'sideshows' that military history throws up. =)

 

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