From Church & State: Spring 2007, No. 88

A Page From History:
The Anglo-Iranian War of 1941

The Anglo-Iranian War of 1941, a clear act of aggression by Britain, has been all but written out of history. In Martin Gilbert's Second World War, for example, it gets half of a short paragraph in a book of 846 pages. The brief account of it given here is from a contemporary history of Britain's Second World War published in quarterly instalments as it occurred: A Record Of The War by Sir Ronald Storrs. It appears in the volume for The Eighth Quarter, covering July to September 1941, published early in 1942. From that moment onwards it was a disappearing quantity as it was not considered quite suitable for the British mythology of the World War, in which it was only the Germans who would not allow states to be neutral and invaded them and set up puppet Governments in them.

The invasion was conducted jointly with Soviet Russia. Britain and Russia again shared out Iran between them as they had done for the 1914 War. Until a month previously, Britain had been contemplating military action against the Russian oilfields, but now it collaborated with Russia to take direct control of Iranian oil.

…British propaganda by wireless and otherwise was active. The Russians, who had already warned the Government of Iran of the activities of German agents and their plans to effect a coup d'etat should the Shah prove backward, prepared a note which was presented and also broadcast on the day of the invasion. It gave instances of the friendliness of the U.S.S.R. to Iran, disclaimed any territorial ambitions (as did the British) but informed the Iranian Government that since three warnings had proved ineffective, the U.S.S.R. must now send troops into their territory in accordance with their rights under the Treaty of 1921.

Early on August 25 the British and Indian forces entered Iranian territory. The invading force was composed of two groups. One, based upon Basra, operated from the south. Its main body was a motorized column which took off from Tanuma, on the north bank of the Shatt el-Arab, i.e. the river formed by the confluence of Tigris and Euphrates, made a detour northwards and attacked Khorramshahr, a garrisoned border town, from the rear, surprising its defenders. A bayonet charge carried the wireless station which was found intact. A subsidiary move in which the Navy co-operated was directed against the Iranian naval barracks on the east bank of the Karun River, where the Iranian fleet appears to have offered some resistance which was speedily overcome with negligible loss on our side. The sloop Babr was fired and beached. The sloop Palang (950 tons, 15 knots), two small gunboats, a depot ship and a floating dock capable of taking a ship of 6,000 tons displacement, were captured. Admiral Beyender, the Iranian naval commander here, was killed, apparently during a brief street fight with Indian troops.

Another Indian force landed under cover of the Fleet and the R.A.F. on the beach of Abadan Island. The aerodrome and the oil refinery were captured without difficulty, but there was some fighting in the streets in which two British officers were killed and a battalion commander wounded with some twenty casualties among other ranks. A Baluch battalion landed at Bandar Shapur, the terminus of the Trans-Iranian railway on the Gulf, and captured two more small gunboats. There were eight Axis ship in harbour, one of which was destroyed by her crew. The rest, three Italians and four Germans, were captured with their crews, 100 in number. All were repairable. The Abadan force pressed forward rapidly, as did the column which had taken Khorramshahr. A pincer movement gave us the high ground of Qasr Sheikh which lay on the motor road to Ahwaz. Two guns, three armoured cars and 350 prisoners were taken here. Airborne troops descended on the great oil-field at Haft Khel to protect or effect the evacuation of the families of the British employees of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. But here and at Masjid-i-Suleiman the British had been left alone by the authorities and evacuation was unnecessary.

While these operations were in progress the northern group of the Imperial forces had been in action. It started from Khanikin, about 100 miles north-east of Baghdad, with the oil-field at Qasr-i-Shirin, and the formidable Paitak Pass over the Zagros Mountains, the gate to Central Iran, as its immediate objectives. The force was divided into four columns. Aghurka battalion took the frontier post of Chosroes, while an Indian armoured brigade led by a British Hussar regiment, after cutting the communications between Qasr-i-Shirin and Kermanshah, joined hands with the Ghurkas at Qasr-i-Shirin and then marched towards the Paitak Pass. Another column which followed the Ghurkas over the border at Chosroes turned south-east towards Gilan and a fourth occupied Naft-i-Shah oil-field after brushing aside the resistance of a small Iranian force.

On August 28 a communiqué issued at Simla announced that in the south our troops had completed "mopping-up" operations at Khorramshahr, our gunboats had gone up the Karum River to Bandar Mashur, where British subjects had been threatened with arrest, and more troops had landed at Bandar Shapur. In the northern area the southern column of Hussars and Warwickshire Yeomanry, operating from Khanikin, had advanced from Gilan on August 26 through mountainous country and had driven 2,000 Iranian troops from the high ground east of Gilan after a sharp fight. Next day the column occupied Shahabad, having covered about 100 miles in under three days. It had been reinforced by an armoured brigade from Saripul which was to have attacked the Paitak Pass, and by the Household Cavalry who had arrived from Iraq. A mechanized infantry brigade took the place of the armoured brigade but after the news reached the Iranian commander at the Pass that the British were moving on Shahabad and thus threatening his rear, his troops, some 8,000 strong, did not defend Paitak but retreated after being bombed by the R.A.F. Our airmen had also bombed the aerodrome and hangar at Ahwaz and destroyed half a dozen Iranian aircraft on the ground, besides dropping leaflets over Iranian maps and towns as far north as Teheran.

The Russians had also made rapid progress. They were three divisions strong and were commanded by General Novikov. By the evening of August 26 their mechanized troops advancing from Lenkoran and Julfa were in occupation of Lissar, on the Caspian coast, Ardebil, Tabriz and Dilman, on the western shore of Lake Armia. They bombed the aerodrome at Chalus, on the Caspian, next day and continued their advance towards Pahlevi and Mianeh. They met with little opposition and it was becoming increasingly plain that the Allies would only encounter a token resistance. On the British front the attitude of the population was resigned or friendly and our troops were surprised to find that in several apparently well-cultivated districts the inhabitants were near famine and looked miserably underfed. The Shah had in fact agreed to the sale of great quantities of cereals to the Germans who were to receive them by way of Turkey and the Black Sea, and his subjects were paying for the success of his profitable deal. It was not surprising, therefore, that on August 28 envoys met the advancing Russians and British Imperial troops with the news that the Shah had ordered his troops to cease their resistance and had sent them to discuss the conditions of an armistice. By then the British were nearing Kermanshah and had taken Ahwaz, while the Russians were approaching Pahlevi and Zinjan.

Diplomatic relations between the Allies and the Iranian Government had not ceased after the entry of their troops into Iran. On August 25 Sir Reader Bullard and the Russian Minister, M. Smirnoff, saw the Shah together. On the following night it became known that Ali Mansur, the Iranian Prime Minister, had tendered his resignation to Riza Shah, who accepted it next day and appointed M. Farouki in his stead. The new Prime Minister promptly informed Parliament that the "cease fire" had been ordered and made it clear that the Government wished to come to terms with Great Britain and Russia. Their policy received the unanimous approval of the House. Negotiations immediately began and by September 6 it became known that the Iranian Government had agreed to the broad lines of a settlement whereby the Russians would remain in occupation of northern, and the British of southern Iran while the German danger persisted, and the Iranian railways were to be used for the transport of goods, naturally including war-material to Russia. Measures were also to be taken by the Iranians to expel or surrender Germans whose presence was regarded as dangerous.

There was one serious omission in the settlement. It contained no definite provision for closing the German Legation, the Headquarters of the German agents who had been active in Iraq and were a constant source of danger to Allied interests in the Middle East. This oversight provoked sharp comments in the British Press, notably in The Times, and on September 7 a new Allied note specifically demanding the closing of the Axis Legations in Iran and the surrender of the German nationals in Iran to the British and Russians, had been communicated to the Iranian Foreign Office, and its terms accepted by the Prime Minister and the Shah.

Performance, however, lagged behind promise… The British and Russians, whose troops had already made contact, resumed their advance, and the Iranian Government were warned that they would now occupy Teheran. On the night of September 15-16 Moscow broadcast a rebuke of the Iranian Government who were accused of insincerity, "unforgivable slowness" and "a desire to postpone by every means possible the realization of the measures directed against the actions of Hitlerite agents in Iran." Next morning the Teheran wireless broadcast the following statement:

"At 11 o'clock the extraordinary sitting of Parliament took place at which it was stated that H.M. Riza Shah Pahlevi abdicated on account of failing health, and according to the law of the Constitution his son, the Crown Prince Mohammed Riza Pahlevi, has been appointed the rightful King…"

[Ten years after that a democratic Government, led by Dr. Mossadeq emerged, despite the efforts of the puppet regime. When it tried to tend to Iranian national interests, it was overthrown by subversive methods by Britain, actively assisted by the USA.]

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