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Comm's Flight in Combat - RAF in Iraq 1941

by Michael Skeet

Contributed by 
Michael Skeet
People in story: 
Sqn Ldr M. Roy Skeet
Location of story: 
RAF Station Habbaniya, Iraq, 1941
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A2008108
Contributed on: 
10 November 2003

This story was revealed to me during my in-depth research into my father's RAF career. It describes the role-played by the COMMUNICATIONS FLIGHT, IRAQ, in the Battle for RAF STATION, HABBANIYA, IRAQ, in MAY 1941. The Communications Flight was at the time under the command of my father Flight Lieutenant MAURICE 'ROY' SKEET, who was later promoted to Squadron Leader shortly before his tragic death in 1942.

**********

Late in the evening of 1st of May 1941 at RAF STATION HABBANIYA a signal was received from the Prime Ministers Office in LONDON.

The signal read: -
"IF YOU HAVE TO STRIKE. STRIKE HARD. USE ALL NECESSARY FORCE!".

RAF HABBANIYA was under siege from an army assembled by the dissident Iraqi Prime Minister 'Rachid Ali el Ghailani' who'd seized power in Iraq in a coup de-tat on the 3rd of April 1941. He was an Axis sympathiser and his well-trained army consisted of some 9000 troops equipped with howitzers, armoured cars, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns.

The Town sized Station at Habbaniya with its nearly eight miles of perimeter fencing was positioned on the southern bank of the River Euphrates some 50 odd miles from Baghdad. It was desperately unprepared for any potential hostilities having been a transit station for the movement of troops to and from the Middle East and a location for the No. 4 Flying Training School and the Communications Flight.

The prospects for early reinforcements to defend and protect the Station were remote, as available troops and equipment were in short supply and over 600 miles to the west in Northern Egypt and the only Allied combat Aircraft in Iraq were 244 Squadron with "Vincent" Biplane Bombers at "RAF Shaibah" near Basra, 300 miles south of "Habbaniya".

In view of the impending emergency hurried preparations had taken place during the month of April. On the 7th along with other Senior Officers Flight Lieutenant Skeet attended Air Headquarters following which 'Iraq Command Operation Order No 1 of 1941 was issued incorporating the formation and preparation of 'THE HABBANIYA AIR STRIKING FORCE' under the overall command of Group Captain W.A.B.Saville.

This force was made up of the hastily modified Aircraft, and the most experienced Pilots, Tutors and Pupils of the No.4 Flying Training School together with the Aircraft and Crews of Comm's Flight.

At the time Comm's Flight were equipped with three Valentia's, primarily intended for transporting freight and personnel. These aircraft were large lumbering obsolete biplanes, modified versions of the earlier Vickers Victoria Bomber fitted with more powerful Bristol Pegasus Radial Engines and a tail wheel. In preparation for possible combat they'd been fitted with bomb racks, a dorsal scarfe ring mounted Lewis Machine Gun and a side doorframe for a Lewis Gun.

Initially 2 Valentia's of the Flight were ordered to stand by to evacuate refugees if required by the emergency.

On the 9th of April Comm's Flight were instructed to have a Valentia standing by during the hours of darkness at 2 hours readiness with 8 x 250lb.Bombs or 4 x 500lb.Bombs fused and prepared for loading on to the Aircraft.

On Wednesday the 30th April at 01.30 GMT (04.30 Local Time), the General Alarm was sounded, the Iraqi Troops had been observed massing on the raised plateau overlooking RAF Habbaniya. Following demands by the Iraqi force that all flying by the British should cease it was obvious to all concerned that the Siege of Habbaniya had begun!

By 05.00 GMT (08.00 Local Time) all 3 Valentia Aircraft of the "Flight" were standing by 'Bombed Up'.

The next day, Thursday 1st of May the Flight was Stood To dispersed around their hangar with two Aircraft of the Flight bombed up with 4 x 500lb bombs each and one with 8 x 250lb bombs. Nearby in the hanger were 8 x 500lb bombs and 8 x 250lb bombs ready fused as reserves.

In the first light of dawn on the 2nd the No. 4 Flying School, forming the main section of the 'HABBANIYA AIR STRIKING FORCE' had taken off in a surprise attack to bomb and strafe the Iraqi Army encamped on the raised plateau. Meanwhile, Wellington Heavy Bombers of No.70 and 37 Squadrons had arrived overhead from Shaibah and were making their attacks on the Iraqi Forces.

As these first attacks pressed home the Station with its buildings, hangars, main airfield and the hastily prepared Polo pitch and flattened Golf Course as its most protected second aircraft dispersal area came under heavy shell fire from the Iraqi forces. Unfortunately, the 3 Valentia's of Comm's Flight with their full loads of bombs were positioned in the hangar area in full view of the attacking Iraqi guns.

In view of the risks to his Aircraft Flt Lt Skeet made an urgent request for his Aircraft to be moved to the safer area of the Polo Pitch dispersal ground, however, this request was refused. Consequently by 08.00 GMT (11.00 Local Time) all the Flight's Aircraft were unserviceable from shrapnel damage.

Meanwhile, due to the lack of adequate heavy defensive armament at Habbaniya the crews of the Flight with the 2,000 or so other Service personnel at the Station were doing their best to defend the Station with Rifles, Lewis Guns mounted on tripods and the few Trench Mortars available.

In order to minimise the risk to personnel, Aircraft and Buildings the bombs on two of the Valentia Aircraft were defused and returned to the magazine by 15.30 GMT (18.30 local) on Saturday 3rd May.

Attempts to repair the Valentia's during the first two days of conflict proved impossible due to heavy shelling and sniper fire of the besieging Iraqi Forces with aerial bombing by the Iraqi Air force supported by German and Italian Aircraft.

On Sunday the 4th, two of the four pilots of the Flight were in liaison with the No.4 Flight Training School and their hectic activities in the Battle. By 02.00 GMT repair work had commenced on two Valentia's. By late that afternoon the reserve Aircraft had been made serviceable by the over burdened ground crews, whose primary duties were keeping the No.4 Flying School Aircraft in flying condition for their continual attack sorties in daylight.

On Monday 5th May, Valentia K.2808 had been repaired and was bombed up with 4 x 500lb bombs. At 14.00 GMT (17.00 Local) in the fading daylight this Aircraft launched a low level attack (200ft) on the Takiya bunds (flood barriers on the banks of the River Euphrates) at FALLUJAH, during this sortie the Valentia's Lewis Guns fired 400 rounds of ammunition in defence of the Aircraft. However, the attempt to breach the Bunds and flood the area in order to impede the progress of the Iraqi Troops proved unsuccessful due to the bombs exploding between the Bunds.

By this time the Iraqi forces had begun a major retreat towards "FALLUJAH" having been successfully routed from their positions overlooking Habbaniya by the relentless attacks of the Air Striking Force with the assistance of Wellingtons of No 37 and No 70 Squadrons who had flown the round trip of 600 miles from RAF Shaibah.

Late in the afternoon of Tuesday 6th May, Valentia K.2808, with an escort of one Blenhiem Fighter, transported 300 gallons of petrol to 3 Valentia's of No 31 Squadron who'd force landed from lack of fuel in the desert near the Iraqi town of 'HIT' on the banks of the Euphrates approximately 60 miles to the west of Habbaniya. During this sortie the Valentia's Guns fired 300 rounds of ammunition.

On Wednesday the 7th an attempt was made to fit 520lb G.P. Bombs on the Bomb racks of the Valentia's but this proved unsuccessful. According to the suggestion of Flt Lt Skeet urgent modifications to the racks were put in progress.

Further maintenance was carried out on Valentia KR.2792 on Thursday the 8th May and then on Saturday the 10th May this Aircraft was air tested and carried out a 30 minute local reconnaissance flight

The modifications to the Valentia's Bomb Crutches to enable them to carry 520lb G.P. Bombs were begun on Sunday the 11th and were completed by midday on Monday the 12th.

On the 12th May at 17.00 GMT, K.2808 set out to attack the Iraqi Airforce base at "AL RACHID" Airfield near Baghdad with 2 x 520s, 2 x 250s, 2 x 20s, and 2 x 25s incendiaries, returning at 19.10 GMT,
At 21.00 GMT, KR.2792 took off to attack "AL RACHID" Airfield with 2 x520s, 3 x 250s, 2 x 20s and 10 x 25s incendiaries, returning at 23.15 GMT. These attacks resulted in one direct hit on the hangar area and several near misses.

On Tuesday 13th of May Flt Lt Skeet received orders to carry out night attacks before moonrise on the hangars, workshops and fuel stores at "MOSUL" Airfield 200 miles north of Habbaniya and to carry out as much aerial reconnaissance as possible.

At 16.05 GMT (19.05 local) K.2808 set out carrying 2 x 520s, 2 x 250s and 10 x 25s incendiaries. KR.2792 took off at 16.15 GMT with 2 x 520's, 4 x 250's, and 10 x 25's incendiaries. Despite adverse wind on the outward journey and very poor visibility over the target area all bombs were reported as having been dropped in the hangar and buildings areas. The severe weather conditions curtailed their time over the target and only one fire was reported as started in the hangar area. During the reconnaissance phase of these missions no sign of enemy aircraft, fuel or ammunition dumps was observed. K.2808 returned to Habbaniya at 21.25 GMT and KR.2792 at 22.00 GMT.

In the night of the 14/15th May at 23.00 GMT, KR.2792 set out to bomb the hangar areas at 'AL RACHID' Aerodrome with 2 x 520s, 4 x 250s and 10 x 25s incendiaries. Five minutes later K.2808 took off to attack the same targets with 2 x 520s, 2 x 250s and 10 x 25s incendiaries. K2808 returned at 00.55 GMT and KR.2792 returned at 01.05 GMT.

On the night of the 17th at 17.10 and 17.20 GMT respectively K.2808 and KR.2792 took off to bomb the 'AL RACHID' hangars with a total of 4 x 520's, 6 x 250's, and 30 x 25's incendiaries, on this mission both Aircraft dropped reconnaissance flares over "BAGHDAD".

Following the arival of reinforcements from Egypt, on Monday the 19th Comm's Flight were instructed to liase with the No 31 Sqn for transport duty. At 01.20 GMT, K.2808 and KR.2792 of the Flight in conjunction with 31 Squadron Aircraft were detailed to transport a Company of the "Kings Own Royal Regiment" to a point 2 miles North-east of "FALLUJAH" behind the enemy lines.

Later that day at 15.50 GMT, K.2808 transported water and medical supplies to the troops of the Regiment on the Fallujah plain.

At around 14.30 GMT on Tuesday the 20th, The Airfield and Station at Habbaniya was strafed by 4 Messerschmitt Bf 110's, during this raid Valentia K.2808 was further damaged and again rendered unserviceable.

Wireless operator J. Howarth was taken off flying duties on Wednesday the 22nd May for medical reasons and detached for ground signals duties.

At 00.01 GMT on Saturday the 25th May at 00.01 GMT KR.2792 transported 15 Assyrian refugees to the pumping station outpost at H.4. Its return journey transporting passengers and mail was delayed by a sandstorm until the next day Sunday the 26th.

By this stage all 3 Valentia's were suffering from extreme wear and tear, minor damage and a chronic lack of maintenance due to the heavy demands placed on the limited number of Ground Crews available. Valentia KR.2792 attempted to carry out a pamphlet raid on Monday the 27th but was forced to return without completing its full mission due to instrument and controls failure.

On Tuesday the 28th of May at 19.20 GMT, after further repairs, Valentia K.2808 carried out its concluding combat related mission in the emergency with a pamphlet raid on the Towns of (Ramadi-Rahiliya-Karbala-Hilla-Al Musaiyib-Al Aziziya-Al Mahumydiya-Baghdad-Al Kadimain-Ba'Quba) during this mission the Aircraft encountered slight Anti Aircraft fire at the Iraqi towns of Karbala and Hilla.

By the end of the month 'RACHID ALI'S IRAQI ARMY' had been overwhelmed and although a few pockets of resistance remained British Forces had regained effective control of Iraq with its precious Oil Supplies, Pipelines and Strategic Importance in the region.

AUTHORS NOTES: -
The story above has been compiled from the records I obtained from the Public Records Office during my detailed research into the various Units and Squadrons my father had served with.

It is my understanding that the Valentia Aircraft of the Flight required a crew of five for combat missions, Pilot, Co-pilot, Wireless Operator, Upper Gunner, Side Gunner.

Unfortunately the records presently available to me do not specificaly identify the crew members related to individual sorties.

It is known that the Pilots of the Communications Flight during this period of combat were: -
Flight Lieutenant Maurice 'ROY' Skeet, (39800)(Officer Commanding)
Flight Sergeant W. (Wally) Thornley, (565030)
Sergeant C.L.Clements, (565489)
(Possibly) Sergeant ? Harvey, (Service No. unknown)

These would have been the individuals responsible for piloting the Valentia Aircraft for the sorties detailed above, no records have been uncovered to name the other Aircrew members and Groundcrews of the Flight other than those mentioned above.

Despite the gallant efforts and heroic success of the ill equipped "Habbaniya Air Striking Force", facing superior Iraqi and Axis forces in the critical early days of this conflict in May 1941. This motley assemblage of men and antique machines had, almost unaided, defended the Station at Habbaniya and played a vital role in the protection of Middle East Oil supplies for future use of Allied Forces during the rest of the War. It is a sad reflection on history that the individuals involved were denied any formal recognition and that this small part of the History of World War 2 has been sadly neglected.
******
(N.B.) The Prime Minister Mr Winston Churchill is known to have briefly commented in one of his later memoirs: -
"The spirited defence of Habbaniya by the Training School was a prime factor in our success. The Germans had at their disposal an Airborne Force which would have given them Syria, Iraq and Persia, with their precious Oil fields!"

******
Mike Skeet,
Submission and story revised 10th November 2003.
Minor revisions 11th January 2004.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Skeet story

Posted on: 11 November 2003 by Trasksdad

The link you e-mailed me worked fine Mike.

Message 1 - A2008108 - Comm's Flight in Combat - RAF in Iraq 1941

Posted on: 12 January 2004 by Ben

Dear Mike Skeet

Sending you a note to let you know that your story has gone live. I spotted the message in your pigeon hole, have taken a look, and it appears to have published now.

Best wishes,

Ben
WW2 Team

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