Advance Of The Arab Legion
Wavell’s doubts about uniting Arab opposition were made real almost immediately on his being ordered to send a relief force into Iraq. The first troop movement order of Major-General George Clark, who as the commander of the 1st Cavalry Division in Palestine was given the responsibility of leading the advance, was to D Company (Mechanised), of the Transjordan Frontier Force. Stationed at the H4 pumping station inside Transjordan they were tasked with advancing into Iraq to recapture Fort Rutbah and the pumping station at H3. Although an Imperial Service regiment whose members had agreed to serve in operations outside the borders of the Mandate, as a unit they refused. The unit was disarmed and arrested.
Dramatic though the mutiny of the TJFF unit was, the Transjordanian domestic security militia of the Arab Legion stood up where the official soldiers had not. As an advance reconnaissance party the Arab Legion raced into Iraq for Fort Rutbah while the actual relief force for RAF Habbaniya was still being organised. Having recently been mechanised, the Arab Legion force consisted of trucks and Wagner armoured cars manufactured in Jaffa, but as a light mobile force their heaviest weapons were the machine guns of the armoured cars.
On the 7th August the Legion reached Rutbah, and surrounded the Fort. After their enthusiastic drive into Iraq, their arrival at Fort Rutbah was an absolute anticlimax. The Iraqi defenders had closed the fort gates and remained silently inside, while the Legionnaires had no weapons capable of inflicting any damage to the high stone walls of the Fort. With absolutely no response from the Fort, the Legion pulled back and radioed back to Transjordan for RAF air support to breach the fort. In response a flight of Blenheim’s from 203 Squadron out of H4 were dispatched to “soften up” the Iraqis.
The Fort was to be captured and not destroyed, so the attack by the Blenheims was more of a display of force, rather than an aerial assault. After a desultory bombing effort what was thought to be a raised white flag was spotted by the aircraft, and a written message to that effect was dropped by a low-flying Blenheim over the Legion vehicles, before the aircraft returned to their base. Capitulation was not on the minds of the Iraqis however, and a party sent to the Fort’s gate to take their surrender was met by a burst of wild machinegun fire, and so withdrew to the Legion lines.
The Legionnaires again called for air support, but this time waited for 2 hours before a single Blenheim returned, then hours later for a second. The next day passed at Rutbah in a similar fashion, with a meagre bombing effort from the RAF and intermittent rifle fire from both sides, as each just needed to show that they were still in position. However, the Iraqis had also been in contact with their headquarters, and that night a relief column of 40 trucks entered the fort from the darkened desert before the Legionnaires could mount an effective response.
Faced now by an enemy of twice their numbers, with no support for 300 miles, the Legionnaires chose to pull back to the nearby pumping station at H3 and wait for the Habbaniya relief column to arrive in force.