One of the few moments of comic drama in this dense account of events in a neglected corner of the Second World War is when the regent of Iraq, Prince Abdulillah, fleeing in April 1941 from an army coup, throws women’s clothes over his pyjamas and dressing gown and, crouching in the well of a car, is driven to safety by his British patrons. Nothing quite so clearly demonstrates the extent to which the British pulled the strings in the Middle East during the war. British and imperial forces put down the coup with ruthless efficiency and Abdulillah lived to reign another day.
Ashley Jackson is no stranger to the history of Britain’s global war effort, having written the definitive account of the British Empire at war. Here he hopes to rescue what he regards as a neglected site of British imperial warfare, well away from the spotlight of more dangerous campaigns. He deplores the habit historians have of chasing after the dramatic elements of the war at the expense of theatres that, in their own ways, played a vital part in the Allied campaign. This is all very well, but the truth is that Iran and Iraq were a wartime backwater, vital to the British because of their oil, and later to the Americans as a quick route to send reinforcements to the Soviet Union, but otherwise short of action. Not for nothing did American troops jokingly refer to themselves as the FBI, the ‘Forgotten Bastards of Iran’, and the Persian Gulf Command (the US name for the mission in the Gulf) as ‘People Going Crazy’.
The principal player throughout the region at the start of the war was Britain (though France, which gets little treatment here, was not to be ignored). For the first years of the war the area was part of Middle East Command, directed from Cairo, and then of Persia