Credit: Ian Speller, National University of Ireland, Maynooth.
From “Contemporary British History, Vol.17, No.1 (Spring 2003), pp.39–66”
Initially, elements within the UK armed forces appeared willing to countenance great risks in order to achieve swift and decisive action to secure Abadan. On 18 May the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir John Slessor, suggested that, given the likely poor quality of Iranian troops, the direct landing by air at Abadan of a brigade-sized force might be ‘a worthwhile risk’ even in the face of armed opposition. This was particularly the case, he said, if fighter cover could be provided from airfields in Kuwait. The three service Commanders-in Chief (Cs-in-C) Middle East were thus instructed
by the Ministry of Defence to submit plans for ‘bold and quick action’ designed to seize Abadan Island by fait accompli. In accordance with Slessor’s suggestion, the first wave was to be of around brigade strength and would fly direct to Abadan airfield, covered by a fighter squadron operating from Kuwait (it was assumed that facilities in Iraq would not be available). The Cs-in-C were informed that the majority of the Parachute Brigade was not currently fit to carry out an airborne operation or to be employed in Iran. To make matters worse, the RAF transport forces in the Middle East were not operationally equipped or trained for the parachute role. However, there was a possibility of landing one or two companies by parachute to secure the airfield prior to the arrival of the main force. It is probably fortunate that the Chiefs of Staff eventually rejected such ideas. At their meeting on 21 May they agreed that a direct landing at Abadan airfield, as suggest by Slessor, was too risky. They considered that a ‘proper operation, to include an opposed sea landing at Abadan’ would probably be necessary. Field Marshal Slim, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, believed that the solution lay in landing as strong a force as early as possible. He favoured an amphibious assault, landing two brigades supported by a strong naval element and possibly accompanied by a two-company parachute drop to secure the airfield. Unfortunately, this was not possible. Further investigation revealed that the armed forces were in no position to take immediate action. Neither the troops nor shipping to conduct such an operation was available in the Gulf. It was estimated that it would take six weeks from the time that orders were given before troops could be ashore in Abadan, by which time the Iranians were liable to have been reinforced.
Both Slessor and Slim accepted that a quick operation was not viable. Slessor noted with some regret that, ‘Something of this sort had, however, been the only chance of action without our being faced with the need for full scale recapture operations’. In the light of these circumstances the Chiefs adopted a rather cautious tone, recommending the imposition of economic sanctions and the implementation of the Midget evacuation plan should the need arise. The Minister of Defence, on the other hand, remained hawkish. He declared, with remarkable prescience, that: if ‘Persia was allowed to get away with it, Egypt and other Middle East countries would be encouraged to think they could try things on: the next thing there might be an attempt to nationalise the Suez Canal. Unfortunately for Shinwell, Britain did not possess the necessary forces in the region to impose a swift and decisive military solution to the political problem.
Plan Midget, Plan X and Plan Y
By 25 May the Chiefs of Staff had decided that in view of the strength of Iranian forces on Abadan, Midget could not work as an airborne operation. Instead troops would have to be airlifted to the RAF base at Shaiba before conducting a land advance to the island. The Iraqi government reluctantly agreed that Shaiba could be used for this purpose, but only if the operation was limited to the protection of British lives. The idea of a land advance from Shaiba was later rejected in favour of moving troops from Shaiba to Abadan by ship or boat, as an advance across 40 miles of desert would ‘not result in troops arriving in good condition’. However, by the end of June the planners in the Middle East were again pressing for the plan to be changed to cater for a land advance from Shaiba for forces arriving by air and from Kuwait by those arriving by sea. This was because the available ships and craft would have difficulties conducting an assault landing due to the prevailing tides, currents and beaches around Abadan. An additional problem was that no British troops in the Middle East were trained in amphibious operations. The land approach was politically vulnerable as it required unrestricted access through Iraq and this could not be guaranteed. It also appears to have neglected the fact that any military force advancing on Abadan by land would still have to cross the Shatt al Arab, presumably in the same ships and boats that would have been used in an amphibious landing.
Military plans were not limited to protecting British lives but also included a requirement to protect property and interests. Three plans existed:
1. Plan Midget: designed to cover the evacuation of British and other friendly nationals should there seem a prospect that their lives might be in danger.
2. Plan X: to seize and hold Abadan Island in the face of Iranian opposition. 3. Plan Y: to seize and hold both Abadan Island and the oilfields inland in order to ensure the resumption of oil production and export.
All three plans assumed the active opposition of Iranian forces which were described as ‘not very formidable in quality’. Nevertheless, what they lacked in quality they made up for in numbers. There were now four infantry battalions, two marine battalions and a squadron of 13 M4 Sherman tanks in Abadan with an additional infantry division 70 miles away in the Ahwaz region.
Midget required the deployment of two infantry battalions and a force headquarters supported by air and maritime assets. The completion of certain preliminary moves, including the despatch of 15 Hastings transport aircraft to the Suez Canal Zone, meant that the plan could now be
implemented at short notice. However, the Chiefs considered that the small number of forces employed meant that Iranian opposition would present a ‘serious hazard’ to its success.
Midget had been sub-divided into three different operations, Courses A, B and C. Course A was based upon the airlift of two battalions of infantry direct into Abadan, the first troops arriving on D Day and the remainder flying in on D+1. The option was ruled out by Chiefs of Staff as too risky. Course B required the first battalion to fly to Shaiba and thence from Basra to Abadan by cruiser on D-Day. The second battalion and supporting arms would either fly direct to Abadan on D+1 or follow the Shaiba-BasraAbadan route arriving on D+2. Course C catered for the situation where Iraqi facilities were not available. The initial battalion would fly to Bahrain on D-Day and move by sea to Abadan on D+1. The second battalion and supporting arms would fly direct to Abadan on D+1 as soon as the airfield was secure. The timings in each case were dependent on 48 hours notice before D-Day in order to concentrate and position ships, troops and transport aircraft.
The military planners were concerned that activating Midget might have the opposite effect to that which was desired. There was a danger that the
overt move of troops to Shaiba prior to their arrival at Abadan would provoke disturbances on the island that would pose a serious threat to British lives before the arrival of the first troops. It was also noted that the requirement to meet the threat of a British landing might cause the Iranian security forces to neglect their obligation to protect foreign nationals. It was later agreed that a detachment of infantry should be maintained on a cruiser anchored close off Abadan. Poised offshore on the Iraqi side of the Shatt al Arab and available at a moment’s notice these troops could at least provide some form of military presence ashore prior to the arrival of the main force.
The military were also concerned about the chances of success in Plan
X. This plan could not lead in itself to the resumption of oil production as it would not ensure the supply of oil from the oilfields. Its main aim would be to ‘induce a reasonable frame of mind in the Persian Government.’ The Chiefs of Staff believed that for such a plan to succeed it would have to be capable of being carried out with limited forces, at very short notice and at great speed. Surviving records are incomplete, but Plan X appears to have been based on a plan codenamed Companion devised by the Cs-in-C Middle East at the request of the Ministry of Defence. The object of Companion
was ‘to move forces to seize and secure Abadan Island and to protect the refinery and other installations so that export of oil may be resumed as oil is received from the oilfields’. It was based upon the assumption that the very early arrival of a comparatively small force (two infantry brigades plus
supporting arms) would enable the British to seize Abadan Island and that surprise would effectively prevent successful resistance by Iranian forces. Ground forces were to fly direct to Abadan after the airfield had been captured by a small airborne operation by elements of the Parachute Brigade. As such it was an inherently risky operation. Given the build-up of Iranian troops in the area the Chiefs considered that the risk of failure was too great to make Companion/Plan X a sound military proposition without the level of forces allocated to Plan Y.
Plan Y was based on the seizure of both Abadan and the oilfields and a subsequent internal security operation to protect the refinery, oilfields and pipelines. It required a military force in the order of one infantry division, plus an additional infantry brigade, an armoured brigade and supporting units. It would also need appropriate support from air and sea. A military effort on this scale would have had serious implications for British commitments elsewhere. It would require the replacement of the entire Middle East garrison by forces from the UK. There would need to be a callup of reservists and the partial mobilisation of the army. A large number of vehicles in the UK would need to be requisitioned. The transportation of the force would require 25 personnel ships and 35 freight ships and this would require further requisitioning. Once preliminary moves and redistributions had been completed it would still take between six and eight weeks for the leading wave of any force to reach Abadan and the full force could not concentrate there in less than four months.
The COS appeared well aware of political complications. They noted that even should UK forces succeed in seizing the oilfields and refinery intact, it was by no means certain that any Iranian personnel would be willing to work in them. The military appear to have been rather less hawkish than some of their political leaders. The Chiefs concluded that: In the circumstances as they are to-day…there is in our view no certainty that this major military operation, involving a commitment of indefinite duration, would have any effect that might not equally well be achieved by political and economic measures – principally the withholding of tanker and marketing facilities.
Preparing for Action
A key constraint for the military planners was the availability of shipping to transport troops and equipment. In late March the cruiser HMS Gambia had arrived in the Gulf and joined two frigates already stationed there. Conditions onboard the cruiser, at anchor and without air conditioning, were very difficult. On 5 May Gambia was relieved by HMS Mauritius which, in
turn, was relieved by the cruiser HMS Euryalus in early July. The heavy guns of these cruisers made them very potent fire support platforms but they were not ideally suited to transporting large numbers of troops and equipment, nor were they equipped to land them in a tactical formation. For this purpose amphibious shipping would be required. Unfortunately, the provision of Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs), the navy’s primary amphibious vessel, was a cause of concern. The Amphibious Warfare Squadron created in 1951 should have been capable of providing lift for a battalion group at short notice and a brigade group after 30 days. Unfortunately, the Squadron was based at Malta and it would take some time before any of its slow ships could complete the journey through the Suez Canal to the Gulf. A further problem was that many of the LSTs required for Plan Y had not had their decks stiffened and thus could not safely carry the army’s new heavy Centurion tanks.
Prior to the crisis the Royal Navy had no amphibious ships or craft in the Gulf. The LST HMS Messina sailed from Malta for the Gulf on 16 May, arriving off Bahrain 24 days later. The ship then sailed to Basra. This ship was designed to embark around 15 tanks and 15 lorries or their equivalent and had accommodation for 150 troops. It could land the embarked force directly onto a suitable beach through bow doors. In addition to this the ship was also equipped with five small landing craft that could be lowered by davits and then sail independently to the shore. Each landing craft could carry around 30 troops. The ship was not designed to operate in the extreme temperature of the Gulf and was not equipped with air conditioning. Kept stationary at anchor yet required to maintain steam in order to be ready to sail immediately, the ship became unbearably hot. Temperatures below decks reached over 50 degrees centigrade. Reportedly, all of the cockroaches on board died and all of the flies flew away. These beneficial side effects were mitigated by the fact that the ship’s cat, Snowy, had to be put down after becoming literally like ‘a cat on hot bricks’. The scalding decks and bulwarks could also be a hazard to human health. The potential employment of HMS Messina was also rather hazardous. In the case of operations at Abadan it was to carry 150 tons of stores, ammunition, vehicles and equipment down the Shatt al Arab to Abadan. It would also embark infantry brought forward from the airfield at Shaiba. Unfortunately, the eastern bank of the river was Iranian territory and therefore the passage downstream could be opposed. In order to meet this eventuality, anti-tank guns were secured to the port side of the ship. These, in conjunction with the vessel’s own anti-aircraft guns and the light machine guns and mortars of the embarked force, were designed to suppress any opposition. The shallow draft of the LST made it a useful vessel for riverine operations. Unfortunately, these ships did not carry any heavy armament nor
did they have any armour. As such they were extremely vulnerable to enemy fire. It is remarkable that only two years after the Amethyst incident the Royal Navy was willing to consider sailing such a vulnerable vessel, packed with troops and equipment, in an opposed passage down river within sight and range of enemy forces. It was not just the vulnerability of LSTs that was a cause of concern. Their availability was also a critical factor. In late June the Joint Planning Staff reported that although 16 Royal Navy LSTs were available in the UK and the Mediterranean it would take 30 days for the first one to reinforce Messina in the Gulf. To make matters worse only two more could arrive within less than two months. The majority of LSTs held in reserve or refitting in the UK could not reach the Gulf before September and some could not be made available before November. By the end of the month the Chiefs of Staff were able to report that if preliminary action was ordered by 2 July the leading elements of a UK force could reach Abadan by about 19 August. This was not a particularly rapid response. To make matters worse, such preliminary action could not be covert. The commissioning of the necessary amphibious ships would require the immobilisation of ten destroyers and frigates and two minesweepers. Men would have to be transferred from the Reserve Fleet and reservists would have to be recalled to service. The army would require an additional 10,000 men to bring the necessary forces to full strength and this would require the recall of reservists, the retention of regular troops due to leave and an extension of overseas tours. The government would also have to charter a number of civilian aircraft. The need to overtly re-commission mothballed amphibious ships and to recall reservists meant that such preparatory moves could not be kept secret. The government was aware of the political implications of such action. Conscious of the difficulty of gaining and maintaining international support for military intervention, and constrained by the desire to wait for the results of an impending ruling by the International Court of Justice, the Cabinet decided that no preparatory action should be taken if it was likely to become known publicly. As the Cabinet minutes explained, ‘It would be unwise, in advance of this [court] decision, to take any steps which might suggest to the Court that the Government had it in mind to take the law into its own hands.’ Should the government decide to ‘take the law into its own hands’ very significant military forces would be employed. In order to seize Abadan Island and to hold it for an indefinite period 17 personnel ships and 30 transport and stores ships would be required. These would be joined by 12 LSTs carrying 36 landing craft, a maintenance ship and a headquarters ship. The navy could provide two frigates or destroyers to accompany the amphibious force in addition to the cruiser and two frigates currently in the Gulf. The army would deploy the 1st Infantry Division minus one infantry
brigade, the 16th Parachute Brigade and an armoured regiment, all of which were currently based in the Mediterranean or Middle East. If the operation was launched, these troops would have to be replaced by forces from elsewhere. The RAF contribution would include 24 Hastings long-range transport aircraft, five medium-range transport squadrons, two fighter/ground attack squadrons, a fighter/reconnaissance squadron and a light bomber squadron. This was a massive military force that would dwarf the British contribution to UN operations in Korea in every respect except that of surface warships.
In order to provide for a rapid response should Midget be implemented 15 Hastings aircraft were concentrated in the Suez Canal Zone. This, in addition to Valetta medium-range transport aircraft allocated to the Middle East, was sufficient to lift a single battalion in the first wave. The Cs-in-C requested a further 12 Hastings so as to be able to lift two battalions simultaneously. On 2 July ministers approved a Chiefs of Staff proposal for more airlift, including the use of chartered aircraft. Thirteen additional Hastings were sent to Egypt, arriving between 5 July and 7 July. In addition ten civilian York airliners belonging to BOAC and the Lancashire Aircraft Corporation were chartered along with their crew. The aircraft were to carry RAF markings and the aircrew received temporary commissions. This removed restrictions that applied to civilian but not military flights into the Canal Zone. Due to congestion in Egypt the Yorks were based in Libya at Castel Benito, where they were near to their proposed passengers, the 1st Guards Brigade. As a result it became possible to airlift three battalions forward on D-Day, two more on D+4 and a sixth unit by D+6. With the arrival in the Gulf at the end of July of War Department LSTs pre-loaded with heavy equipment, Midget could be implemented at short notice. On 25 June Slim had informed the Cabinet that it would take 36 hours to put Midget into effect. This could be reduced to 12 hours if the forces were assembled in advance. It could be reduced still further if they were flown forward to Iraq. The Cabinet approved the concentration of forces in Egypt (Canal Zone) but deferred a decision about moving troops to Iraq. This restriction did not apply to the pre-positioning of HMS Messina at Basra. Ministers later agreed to the limited pre-positioning of troops and stores at Shaiba but only on the basis that these were kept to the absolute minimum required for advance parties and the maintenance of stores and that they must in no circumstances include formed units. The problem facing the British was that in order to protect British lives it was important to get sufficient troops ashore at the first opportunity. Troops held offshore in the cruiser could land at very short notice and could be supported by the ships’ guns once ashore. However, there would not be enough of them to guarantee the safety of British nationals. Prepositioning ground and air forces at Shaiba could ensure a rapid response but had potential drawbacks. Shaiba was an unpleasant place to stay in the heat of the Arabian summer and it lacked facilities for the brigade-sized force now envisaged for Midget. The premature deployment of a military force to Iraq could not be hidden and might cause unrest amongst local Iraqi nationalists and Iranian nationalists in Abadan. Midget (and later Buccaneer) relied on a degree of surprise for success. Deployment of troops to Shaiba would remove any element of surprise and could prompt the Iranians to move their division from Ahwaz to Abadan, or possibly even to take AIOC personnel as hostages. As a result, Cs-in-C were informed that they could pre-position
Midget forces at Shaiba on or after 25 July but only ‘if the situation in the oilfields has become so critical as to make it probable that “BUCCANEER” will be ordered in the immediate future’. In the event, no infantry battalions deployed to Iraq although the RAF did deploy fighter/ground attack aircraft at Shaiba and Habbaniya.
It is noteworthy that throughout the crisis the Royal Navy did not deploy an aircraft carrier to the northern Gulf. In 1951–52 the Navy had 15 carriers, of which four were on active service. On 30 May 1951 the Chiefs of Staff requested the Admiralty to investigate the possibility of providing such a ship. An aircraft carrier would have been particularly useful as it could have provided fighter and strike aircraft to cover operations in Abadan if facilities in Shaiba were not available. The only viable alternative to Shaiba, Kuwait, was at the extreme limits of range for RAF jet fighters, and as the airfield facilities at Kuwait were very basic, the military planners were forced to conclude that the air support plan for operations larger than Midget
could not work without use of Shaiba. This was rather unfortunate as the Iraqis would only allow use of Shaiba for operations designed to protect British lives, that is, Midget but not Plan Y. An aircraft carrier would have alleviated these difficulties. However, with the requirement to maintain a carrier in support of UN operations in Korea and residual commitments around the globe the Admiralty clearly felt that the could not provide one of these vessels on call to support potential operations in Iran.
Notes & References:
39. PRO: DEFE 4/42, COS(51)82nd meeting, 18 May 1951.
40. PRO: AIR 20/8887, COS(51)81st meeting, 16 May 1951.
41. PRO: AIR 20/8887, Telegram from Ministry of Defence to GHQ MELF, 18 May 1951. 42. PRO: DEFE 4/43, COS(51)84th meeting, 21 May 1951 43. Slim had been a divisional commander during the Anglo-Soviet occupation of Persia in
44. PRO: DEFE 4/43, COS(51)85th meeting, 22 May 1951.
45. PRO: DEFE 4/43, COS(51)86th meeting, 23 May 1951.
48. PRO: DEFE 4/43, COS(51)87th meeting, 25 May 1951.
49. PRO: CAB 128/19, CM(51)46th Conclusions, 25 Jun. 1951; also PRO: DEFE 5/31, Foreign Office memo., ‘Political implications of the use of force in connection with Persia’, in COS(51)305, 22 May 1951.
50. PRO: CAB 21/1982, COS(51)89th meeting, 30 May 1951.
51. PRO: AIR 20/8888, Telegram 463/CCL, GHQ MELF to the Ministry of Defence, London,
30 June 1951.
52. PRO: FO 371/91461; PRO: AIR 20/8888, Telegram 467/CCL, GHQ MELF to Ministry of
Defence, London, 5 July 1951.
53. PRO: AIR 20/8888, Telegram COS(ME)494, Ministry of Defence, London, to GHQ MELF,
2 July 1951.
54. PRO: DEFE 5/31, COS(51)326, ‘Possible Military Action in Persia’, 31 May 1951. 55. Ibid.
56. PRO: AIR 20/8888, Telegram 440/CCL, GHQ MELF to Ministry of Defence, London, 1
57. PRO: AIR 20/8888, Telegram 440/CCL, GHQ MELF to Ministry of Defence, London, 1
58. PRO: CAB 21/1982, COS(51)89th meeting, 30 May 1951.
59. Two officers and 40 men from the 1st Battalion, The Lancashire Fusiliers were embarked on the cruiser HMS Euryalus. See Cable, Intervention at Abadan, p.81.
60. PRO: AIR 20/8887, Message from HQ MEAF to the Air Ministry, 23 May 1951.
61. PRO: AIR 20/8887, Telegram COS(ME)468, Ministry of Defence, London, to GHQ MELF,
18 May 1951. See also PRO: AIR 20/8888.
62. PRO: DEFE 5/31, COS(51)326, 31 May 1951.
63. Cable, Intervention at Abadan, p.37.
64. Wettern, Decline of British Seapower, pp.56–7.
65. Dido class cruisers such as HMS Euryalus had ten 5.25-inch guns while Fiji class ships such as Mauritius and Gambia had between nine and twelve 6-inch guns.
66. PRO: PREM 8/1501 – Part 2, Telegram from Ministry of Defence, London, to GHQ MELF, 29 June 1951.
67. Designed during the Second World War the Landing Ship, Tank (Mark 3) was originally intended to embark 15 lorries on the upper deck, 15 40-ton tanks or 27 lorries in the tank deck and 150 soldiers in addition to the ship’s crew. These figures could be increased with some improvisation and, in the case of personnel, for short voyages. Later modifications increased the infantry lift capability of some vessels and most were eventually stiffened in order to be able to embark heavier tanks such as the Centurion. See Speller, Amphibious Warfare in British Defence Policy, ch.5.
68. PRO: ADM 1/22414, Report of Proceedings for HMS Messina for Period May 26– September 11, 1951. HMS Messina was relieved by HMS Dieppe in August 1951.
69. PRO: DEFE 4/43, JP 1951)111(Final), 25 June 1951, annex to COS(51)110th meeting, 2 July 1951.
70. PRO: CAB 129/46, CP(51)172, 29 June 1951.
72. 12 operational aircraft plus 3 spares.
73. PRO: AIR 20/8888, Telegram 440/CCL, GHQ MELF to Ministry of Defence, London, 1
74. PRO: AIR 8/1776, Note by DCAS, 4 July 1951; PRO: AIR 8/1774, COS(51)524,‘Operation ‘Buccaneer’ – Air Transport Aspect’, 19 Sept. 1951; PRO:AIR 20/8888, Telegram from the Air Ministry to HQ MEAF, 4 July 1951.
75. PRO:CAB 131/10, DO(51)20th meeting, 26 July 1951.
76. CAB 21/1983, CM(51) 46th meeting, 26 June 1951.
77. PRO: CAB 21/1983, Telegram COS (ME) 488, Ministry of Defence, London, to GHQ
MELF, 25 June 1951.
78. PRO: CAB 131/10, DO(51)18th meeting, 2 Jul. 1951; PRO: AIR 20/8888, COS(51)109th
meeting, 3 July 1951.
79. PRO: CAB 21/3315, COS(51)118th meeting, 20 Jul. 1951; PRO: AIR 8/1773, Telegram #736, Foreign Office to Baghdad (Embassy), 25 July 1951.
80. Eric Grove, Vanguard to Trident: British Naval Policy Since World War Two (London: Bodley Head, 1987), pp.403–10.
81. PRO: CAB 21/1982, COS(51)89th meeting, 30 July 1951.
82. PRO: AIR 20/8888, VCOS Meeting, 29 June 1951.