Appendix 6: The Persia and Iraq Command (PAIC)1
See Map 40
When British and Russian troops withdrew from Teheran in October 1941 it was arranged that the Russians should retain a zone in north Persia. The southern boundary of this zone ran from the west of Lake Urmia through Zenjan and Kazvin and thence eastwards. This arrangement was still in force when General Wilson took up the new Persia and Iraq Command. Two broad tasks were given to him. The first was to secure at all costs from land and air attack the oilfields and oil installations in Persia and Iraq. The second was to send to Russia from the Persian Gulf ports as many supplies and stores as possible without prejudicing the first task.
General Wilson opened his Headquarters in Baghdad on 15th September, leaving a liaison section to represent him at GHQ Middle East. He took over the existing organization to control the base and lines of communication in Persia and Iraq, and placed its Commander at Basra, the focal point. General Wilson had in Persia and Iraq the 31st Indian Armoured Division (one in name only), the incomplete 6th and 8th Indian Divisions, and half a dozen unallotted Indian infantry battalions. There was also a Corps Headquarters-21st Indian Corps (Lieut.-General A. G. O. M. Mayne)—but the artillery, engineer, signal and administrative units necessary to form a balanced field army were short or absent. It was however the want of vehicles rather than of troops which handicapped General Wilson’s planning.
At this time the Royal Air Force in Iraq, commanded by Air Vice-Marshal H. V. Champion de Crespigny, had only one squadron—a tactical reconnaissance unit—suitable for army/air support. This squadron was stationed near Mosul in Iraq, with one flight at Kermanshah in Persia. By the turn of the year, however, there were in Iraq two squadrons of light bombers and in Persia two of short-range fighters, one of tactical reconnaissance aircraft and a strategical reconnaissance flight. The units in Persia were under the control of Air Headquarters ‘Deeforce’, commanded by Air Commodore R. M. Foster. This was a nucleus headquarters formed to control any squadrons which might be required to assist the Russians in the Caucasus or, alternatively, to support operations in north Persia.
It was clearly desirable to keep the enemy out of the area between the river Araxes and Hamadan, particularly because here were the best sites in north Persia for airfields. Yet as things stood General Wilson saw little chance of holding it if the enemy attacked in strength. Nevertheless he intended to send forward to the Araxes whatever mobile forces he could
maintain, and delay the enemy as long as possible. The situation improved as time passed and the Russians continued to resist the Germans. Reinforcements for PAIC were arriving, but as the danger of attack receded it became unnecessary to send a force northwards. This was doubly fortunate. First, because the Russians were not at all helpful, and friction was avoided. Secondly, because General Wilson was able to limit his force in Persia to one division and one motor brigade at Qum and Andimishk (in the British zone) and to station the rest in training areas in Iraq, where the winter climate was much better than in north Persia. By November the German lack of decisive success before the start of the Russian winter, the British victory in the Western Desert, and the launching of TORCH further improved the prospect. There was now little fear of the war spreading to Persia before April 1943, and General Wilson’s force had grown to a respectable size by reinforcements from England, India and the Middle East. There had been added 3rd Corps Headquarters, 5th and 56th Divisions, 5th Indian Division, 7th Armoured Brigade, and 10th Indian Motor Brigade. A considerable Polish force, too, was assembling in Iraq although it was not yet ready for operations. PAIC was not destined, however, to become an active Command. By February 1943 the war had swung away from it and a big reduction in its troops was beginning.
Although no important operations had taken place in Iraq or Persia since Rashid Ali’s revolt in 1941, the troops in those countries accomplished a huge administrative task. This had been set by the decisions, made in 1941, to create in Iraq a base for ten divisions and thirty squadrons of aircraft; and to develop to the greatest possible extent a supply route to Russia through Persia. These decisions were to some extent conflicting, and were very difficult to carry out, because everything had to be done from scratch at a time when British resources, especially in technicians, were being used to the limit.
There were in Iraq and Persia no industries of importance except oil. Communications were therefore undeveloped, and the men and things which in industrialized countries can be turned to military uses—skilled workers, power-plant, workshops, machine-tools and so on—were wanting or scarce. The Persian Gulf ports were primitive, except for the oil port at Abadan, and Maqil—the modern port of Basra. The river transport was crude and unorganized. The railways in Iraq were efficient, but were of two different gauges and had much less capacity than was needed. The Trans-Persian railway had been opened in 1938, but an extension from Teheran to Tabriz was still under construction in 1942; it reached Mianeh by the end of the year. The Trans-Persian line was an astonishing feat of engineering and crossed country of every kind from desert to mountain. But these physical conditions made it a very difficult railway to operate: to give only two examples, water for the locomotives seldom existed in the right places, and rolling-stock needed specially strong couplings to stand the strain of very steep gradients. The railway could handle no more than about 200 tons a day. The roads of Iraq were mostly fair-weather tracks; in Persia the main north-south roads had been made for motors but had not been designed for heavy convoys and were in bad
repair. Motor transport in both countries worked on the familiar hit-or-miss Eastern system and was limited in quantity. Distances were great: from Basra to Mosul is some 550 crow-flight miles and to the Caspian sea is nearly as far. Finally there was the climate, for in summer both countries are amongst the hottest in the world and in most of Persia the winter is extremely severe.
General responsibility for the work was shared by the Middle East and India, and local responsibility fell upon the forces in Iraq and Persia. A great deal of help was given by the United Kingdom Commercial Corporation and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.2 There was no time to allow of a carefully phased programme of developments, and in a sense everything had to be done at once. Ships had to be unloaded in ports which were being improved, and supplies carried forward over roads and railways which were being reshaped to suit installations which were themselves being laid out. Work in Iraq at first had had priority, and had made considerable progress by the time that PAIC was formed. Base depots had been established in the Basra-Shaibah area and an advanced base at Mussayib was nearly ready. Railway and roads had been much improved and a fleet for inland water transport on the Tigris—to improve the river’s navigability was an undertaking in itself—had been collected. In Persia not so much, but yet much, had been done; the army had concentrated its efforts on ports, railway and roads, and the UKCC on organizing road convoys and local transport and erecting vehicles received from overseas. When operations in north Persia became more likely than operations in north Iraq the administrative problem became more difficult because it was quite impossible to develop the Persian L. of C., and at the same time to send along it the supplies to stock operational depots in advance of need as well as a quota of ‘aid to Russia’. General Wilson therefore took the risky decision that he would rely, for a start, upon the establishments in Iraq to sustain operations in north Persia. Work went ceaselessly on and General Wilson’s luck held. The threat from the Caucasus receded, and in November 1942 he was able to take over from the UKCC the organization of road transport in Persia. Moreover American help was now at hand. Almost from the first it had been realized that British resources could never be sufficient to carry out the planned scale of development, and in August 1942 it was decided that the United States Army should take over the working of the ports and railway in Persia. The first elements of the US Persian Gulf Service Command (Major-General Donald H. Connolly) arrived in October 1942 and the main units began to arrive in December. Welcome as was this relief, the British and Indian forces in Iraq and Persia could justly feel that they had already done much of the heavy work of preparation and had done it well.