Credit: Ian Speller, National University of Ireland, Maynooth.
From “Contemporary British History, Vol.17, No.1 (Spring 2003), pp.39–66”
These military difficulties were exacerbated by political factors. A clear problem for the British was the attitude of the United States towards the use of military force at Abadan. The American position was communicated to the British government in unequivocal terms. The US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson and President Truman both expressed great concern that the British might use military force against the existing Iranian administration.
The Americans were clearly opposed to military action to seize Abadan and
were less than enthusiastic about an armed response designed to protect British lives. The British ambassador in Washington was asked to clarify whether this implied a speedy withdrawal of British personnel or ‘something more – involving an armed clash with Persian troops’. He was informed that ‘the President felt most strongly that no situation should be allowed to develop into an armed conflict between a body of British troops and the Persian forces of the existing administration’. To complicate matters further, on 25 May the Attorney General informed his colleagues that in his opinion the UK had ‘no right at all’ under international law independent of a UN resolution to intervene by force either to prevent the act of nationalisation or to prevent a wrong being committed to a British national.
In July the Foreign Office completed a study of the political implications of armed intervention at Abadan. They noted that while there might be some disquiet at the use of force without sanction by the UN, public opinion in Britain would probably support military action ‘in the main’. Winston Churchill had already privately offered Attlee the support of the Conservative Party in such an eventuality. American opposition to the use of armed force was well known. The only circumstance in which the Americans would support the use of force was if it were in response to a revolutionary coup by the communist Tudeh party. The Foreign Office had considered the possibility of justifying military action on the basis that such a coup was imminent but later accepted that as such an eventuality was ‘at present not demonstrable’ this excuse was unlikely to appeal to world opinion in general and to American opinion in particular. The Foreign Office believed that within the Commonwealth the old Dominions would probably support British military action but that both India and Pakistan would be critical. Rather unkindly they concluded that Ceylon’s opinion, if expressed, ‘would hardly matter’. The Foreign Office remained concerned that the Soviet Union might exploit British military action to their own advantage, possibly even invoking the 1921 Treaty as an excuse to occupy northern Iran. However, it was surmised that although the Iranian government would appeal to the UN, they would not turn to the Soviets for help as they were ‘more scared of them than us’. It was anticipated that there would be much criticism from within the Arab world but that this would pass if the action were successful and might result in greater respect for the UK. In the view of the Foreign Office, ‘Any other attempts to “nationalise” foreign interests would be discouraged’. Attlee was very well aware of the difficulty of justifying intervention to protect British interests and property rather than merely to protect British lives. In June he explained to the Defence Committee that ‘we must at all costs avoid getting into the position where we could be represented as a capitalist power attacking a nationalist Persia’. However, he came up with an interesting solution. He suggested that ‘we should endeavour to arrange things so that our apparent position was one of supporting a legitimate Persian Government against either an invasion or a Communist civil war’. As a result it was decided that although there could be no question of conducting Plan Y against the existing government the plan should be adjusted to enable it to provide support for that government in the event of a Soviet attack or communist coup. In reality, despite the change in rationale, the plan remained largely unaffected, focusing on control of Abadan and the oil areas. Such action might create a stable enclave for forces loyal to the Shah, but the military planners were well aware that control of the oil areas might still be rather hard to represent as disinterested assistance against a communist insurgency.
As the build-up of forces continued the British military position improved. As a result, on 18 June the Minister of Fuel and Power suggested that Abadan might be taken and held indefinitely, operating with oil imported from Kuwait. He also wanted consideration to be given to holding Abadan long enough to remove the 1 million tons of oil estimated to be stored there. The idea was examined by the Chiefs of Staff and the Cs-in-C were informed that, should Midget be met by very limited Iranian opposition, they should be prepared to reinforce and maintain the Midget forces with the object of remaining in Abadan. As a result by early July there were four plans for military intervention: 1. Midget
Protection and evacuation of British and friendly nationals.
2. Midget Reinforced
To maintain Midget in order to remain in Abadan.
3. Lethal 
To seize Abadan Island and hold for an indefinite period.
To help the Iranian government to restore order against Communist insurrection.
On 10 July the Ministry of Defence was informed that Midget and Midget Reinforced had been replaced by a single plan codenamed Buccaneer, described as follows: Phase 1: Move of forces to Abadan to cover the evacuation of friendly
AIOC employees and dependants in the face of opposition by Iranian Forces.
Phase 2: To remain in Abadan to safeguard British lives and property. Later, a third phase was added, to provide for the reinforcement of Phase 1 and/or 2 should they require it. Both Disciple and Lethal required a scale of forces that the British would have struggled to provide. The Cabinet were not willing to sanction the overt military preparations that would be required to prepare for operations on this scale. As a result both plans were abandoned and in late July the Cs-in-C were informed that Buccaneer was the only plan that need be ‘kept in mind’. In common with Midget, Buccaneer Phase 1 was designed to protect and evacuate British personnel and friendly nationals from Abadan. It was based upon the assumption that facilities in Iraq would be available. The military force employed would include a brigade headquarters, three infantry battalions, a squadron of tanks and an artillery field regiment less one battery. In support of the ground force were a Royal Navy cruiser, four destroyers, a frigate and the LST HMS Messina. The air transport force included a total of 90 aircraft, and air support would be provided by an RAF Brigand squadron operating from Shaiba. A further two LSTs operated by the War Department pre-loaded with tanks and artillery were pre-positioned in the northern Gulf. These would carry the tanks and artillery for Buccaneer, embarking army personnel at Kuwait and Basra should the operation be mounted. The initial military force was to fly to Shaiba and then on to Basra by road before being transported to Abadan by HMS Messina and two destroyers. Follow-on forces would come by air (infantry) and sea (heavy equipment). It was intended that AIOC personnel would have withdrawn to Abadan from the oilfields before
Buccaneer was put into effect. Forces would concentrate in Abadan within 24 hours of the receipt of the order to move – less if pre-positioning had taken place.
Buccaneer Phase 2 was intended to reinforce and maintain forces deployed in Phase 1. The Cs-in-C also had discretion to implement Phase 2 in order to support the evacuation of AIOC personnel during Phase 1 should the need arise. The military force for Phase 2 provided an additional Guards brigade and a divisional headquarters plus engineering and administrative elements. Air support would be provided by three fighter/ground attack squadrons and one light bomber squadron. In addition to the Royal Navy ships and LSTs provided for in Phase 1, three store ships pre-loaded with 375 vehicles and 2000 tons of stores would be positioned off Bahrain ready to support intervention.105 Phase 3 was designed to build the force up to the scale of one infantry division plus an armoured regiment. It was based upon the arrival of an additional infantry brigade, two squadrons of tanks, an additional field artillery regiment plus an additional artillery battery to complete the regiment deployed under Phase 1. The main element of this force would arrive by sea and air by D+6 although the force would not be complete within 35 days of the requisite shipping leaving the Suez Canal Zone. The Chiefs of Staff considered that Phase 3 would only be undertaken if Phase 1 and 2 went seriously wrong. In view of the political and military difficulties associated with intervention the Cabinet agreed on 12 July that military action in Iran, on a larger scale than that necessary for the protection of British lives, should not be contemplated unless there was a fundamental change in the situation there. As military preparations for Buccaneer continued some civilian and military leaders continued to press for more robust action to protect property as well as lives. The Chiefs of Staff advised against withdrawing from Abadan and on 18 July urged the Ministerial Committee on Persia to agree to mount Buccaneer at the end of July with the object of seizing and holding the island. Two days later Herbert Morrison reported to the Cabinet that preparations for Buccaneer had reached the point where it was now feasible to occupy and hold Abadan against any opposition that the Iranians unaided (that is, by the Soviets) could mount. He resurrected the idea of holding on to Abadan and operating the refinery with imported crude. In a private meeting with Attlee, Morrison, Shinwell and Gaitskell in the House of Commons Churchill, accompanied by his deputy, Anthony Eden, also supported the idea of holding Abadan Island. The Chiefs of Staff abandoned their cautious stance of May. The First Sea Lord, Lord Fraser, informed his colleagues on the Chiefs of Staff Committee that he was ‘horrified’ that the idea now seemed to be that Britain should withdraw from Abadan no matter what the success of Buccaneer. He declared that withdrawal would cause a great outcry amongst the British public who were ‘tired of being pushed around by Persian pip-squeaks’. He wanted the Chiefs to press ministers to agree that if Buccaneer was put into force they should stay in Abadan and not withdraw. His colleagues agreed and the committee recommended that the object of Buccaneer should be changed to the seizure and holding of Abadan Island. On 20 July Slessor informed his equally hawkish subordinate at HQ Middle East Air Force that ‘We are doing our utmost to persuade our masters to allow us to go in to Abadan and stay in. It is an uphill job.’ However, the Cabinet deferred any decision on military action and the restrictions of 12 July stood.
The alert state of the forces held in readiness for Buccaneer varied through July, August and September in accordance with developments in
Iran. At one stage the forces moved to three hours notice to move,
although this was later reduced to 24 hours and then 72 hours as the crisis ebbed and flowed. At a meeting of the Ministerial Committee on 25 September, the Chiefs once again argued in favour of military action and, once again, ministers decided that there could be no military action in Iran for any purpose beyond that required to protect British lives. That day the Iranian government issued an ultimatum giving British AIOC personnel seven days to leave the county. In a Cabinet meeting on 27 September Morrison continued to support the military option but was overruled by his Cabinet colleagues. Attlee cited the opposition of the United States and the danger of being isolated in the UN as key political factors arguing against intervention. In addition, he noted that military action might well unite the Iranian people and government against the British and that neither the oilfields nor the refinery could operate without Iranian personnel. On 31 August the Foreign Office announced that the few remaining entitled AIOC personnel were being withdrawn from Abadan and on 1 October Britain referred the issue to the UN. By 3 October all remaining AIOC personnel had been evacuated safely and with the cooperation of the Iranian security forces and on 4 October all plans for military action in Iran were stood down.
The Abadan crisis demonstrated the extent to which Britain’s military and political position had changed since the Second World War. Dependent on the United States for economic and military assistance, Britain could not afford to alienate its most powerful ally. Nor could it afford to act without due regard to opinion within the UN and the Commonwealth. There was also a lingering fear that any unilateral action on the part of Britain might be exploited by the Soviet Union. Shorn of the Indian Army and with commitments around the globe the British lacked the ready military manpower to mount a major operation in south-west Iran without denuding other areas. The military had not yet developed the concepts and equipment that would allow them to efficiently deploy limited military forces overseas. Military weakness compounded political constraints. That is not to say that the military were useless. There was an obvious need to prepare for the evacuation of British personnel should the need arise, and the apparent ability of the British to intervene in Abadan may have been a constraint on the Iranian government and public. However, evacuation operations without the consent of the Iranians would have been seriously hampered by the inevitable time delay in bringing troops forward from Shaiba. Without some means of deploying troops directly into Abadan at very short notice the military were ultimately unable to guarantee the safety of British lives. Operations designed to secure property were even more problematic. The
need to overtly commission and requisition shipping and to mobilise troops would telegraph British intentions leading, inevitably, to political repercussions. Britain could only provide the scale of forces required to seize and hold Abadan and the oilfields at the expense of commitments elsewhere and after the mobilisation of reserves. The crisis also demonstrated Britain’s reliance on overseas bases that could be denied to them.
In any crisis where the use of military force is contemplated the ability to act quickly, before opposition forces organise and before domestic and international opinion against such action has had time to form, is likely to prove decisive. In his autobiography Herbert Morrison noted that ‘The crux of the matter was that if military action was to be politically effective it should be quick’. In this sense the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir John Slessor, was right to stress the requirement for some form of ‘bold and quick action’ to seize Abadan Island by fait accompli. Unfortunately the armed forces were in no position to provide such a response. The Parachute Brigade was not ready or available to conduct anything but the smallest airborne operation and Britain’s amphibious forces were few in number, deployed at some distance from the Gulf and poorly designed for the kind of operations that were required. In May the Chiefs of Staff were forced to accept that a swift military response to the nationalisation crisis was not realistic.
This was a little surprising given the disparity in national military strength between the UK and Iran. The Foreign Secretary was exasperated by this, stating that ‘he was very disappointed, in view of the large expenditure on the rearmament programme to learn that so little could be done to support our foreign policy with military action’. Unfortunately, although the rearmament programme initiated in 1950 by the Labour government brought additional funds to the armed forces it did not bring a basic change in overall defence policy. The main priority remained the requirement to prepare for future conflict in Europe against the Soviet Union. Relatively little emphasis was placed on expeditionary forces able to project power rapidly and effectively in a wide range of circumstances. This was illustrated by the lack of a significant airborne or amphibious assault capability ready and available to respond to unforeseen crises beyond Europe. Military forces are only useful if they can be deployed at an appropriate time and place and in an appropriate fashion. Britain’s inability to do this was evident throughout this crisis.
What Britain needed at the outbreak of the crisis in March–April 1951 was a means of bringing credible military power to bear at short notice and in a manner that was politically acceptable. This could have been provided by a fully trained and properly equipped airborne brigade, although provision of air support would have been difficult in the absence of an aircraft carrier and without use of the RAF base at Shaiba. An airborne force, lightly equipped without tanks or heavy artillery, would also have been vulnerable to Iranian counter-attack until it was reinforced by air and sea. A modern amphibious task group carrying a balanced military force and able to poise out of sight of land in the northern Gulf would have provided many useful options, either independently or in conjunction with an airborne force. It could have deployed to the crisis area without fanfare and without having to negotiate either transit rights or basing facilities. It could then have been held in a state of readiness, able to withdraw or intervene as circumstances demanded. Its embarked military force would have been able to land at Abadan at short notice, removing the dangerous pause inevitable with existing plans to fly troops through Shaiba. In many respects it was precisely such a force that spearheaded the successful British intervention in Kuwait in 1961. Unfortunately, no such capability existed in 1951, nor could it be created at short notice. From a British perspective it was unfortunate that the inability of the military to mount a rapid response to major crises overseas had to be demonstrated again, in 1956, before the armed forces developed a modern expeditionary capability.
By 20 July when Morrison announced that it was now feasible to seize and hold Abadan Island it was already too late. With the United States resolutely opposed to military action against the existing regime, and a hostile reaction inevitable in the Arab world, it would have been extremely difficult to launch a military operation to secure Abadan without some legitimate excuse. Hence the decision was taken on 12 July that military action would be limited to that required to protect British lives. The absence of a communist insurrection deprived Britain of the excuse to implement Plan Y/Disciple, and the ability of the Iranian security forces to maintain order to Abadan removed the excuse and the need to implement
Midget/Buccaneer. Unfortunately for the hawkish elements within the British political and military establishment the military only provided solutions when it was too late, by which time they were no longer solutions. With the benefit of hindsight, and in the light of the disastrous consequences of Anthony Eden’s intervention in Suez, months after the act of nationalisation, against the wishes of the United States and on the flimsiest of excuses, it is hard to believe that Attlee made the wrong decision.
Notes & References :
83. PRO: PREM 8/1501, Telegram from British Embassy Washington to Foreign Office, 12 May 1951.
84. PRO: PREM 8/1501, Telegram from British Embassy Washington to Foreign Office, 17 May 1951.
85. PRO: PREM 8/1501, Memorandum by the Attorney General, 25 May 1951.
86. PRO: PREM 8/1501 – Part 2, Record of private meeting held in the House of Commons, 27 July 1951.
87. PRO: PREM 8/1501, Telegram from British Embassy Washington to Foreign Office, 12 May 1951.
88. PRO: PREM 8/1501, Telegram from Foreign Office to British Embassy Washington, 18 May 1951; PRO: PREM 8/1501 – part 2, Foreign Office paper, ‘The Political Implications of Armed Intervention in the Persian Oil Dispute’, 11 July 1951.
89. The refusal of Ceylon to allow the British to use facilities at their (British) base at Trincomalee for operations against Egypt during the 1956 Suez crisis would seem to indicate otherwise. 90. PRO: PREM 8/1501 – part 2, Foreign Office paper, ‘The Political Implications of Armed Intervention in the Persian Oil Dispute’, 11 July 1951.
91. PRO: CAB 21/1982, DO(51)14th meeting, 4 June 1951.
92. PRO: DEFE 5/31, COS(51)362, 12 June 1951.
93. PRO: AIR 8/1772, JP(51)109(Final), 19 June 1951; PRO: AIR 20/8888.
94. PRO: AIR 20/8888, JP(51)109 (Final), VCOS meeting, 22 June 1951.
95. PRO: AIR 20/8888, letter from Sir Donald Fergusson to Lt-Gen. Sir Kenneth McLean, 18 June 1951.
96. PRO: DEFE 4/44, COS(51)100th meeting, 20 Jun. 1951; PRO: AIR 20/8888, Telegram COS(ME)490, Ministry of Defence to GHQ MELF, 29 June 51.
97. PRO: WO 216/400.
98. Requiring 3 battalions.
99. Required one infantry brigade group and a squadron of tanks.
100. PRO: AIR 8/1772. Lethal had briefly been called Dandruff before changing to the more warlike codeword.
101. Required one infantry division (minus one infantry brigade) plus the 16th Independent Parachute Brigade in an infantry role.
102. Required an infantry division, plus an infantry brigade group and an armoured brigade group. The degree to which this rationale was a cover is illustrated by Disciple’s previous aim (28 June 1951) which had been ‘An operation designed to seize and control Abadan Island and the oilfield area in South West Persia’, i.e. Plan Y as originally conceived. See PRO: AIR 20/8888.
103. PRO: DEFE 6/18, JP(51)132(S), Terms of Reference, 12 July 1951; PRO: DEFE 6/18, JP(51)122 (Final), ‘Military Operations in South-West Persia’, 31 July 1951.
104. 40 Hastings, 40 Valettas and 10 chartered Yorks.
105. The first vessel Royal William was due to arrive from the Suez Canal Zone on 2–3 August, to be followed by the Oakmore (from Tripoli) on 14–15 August and the Pundua (Suez) on 11 August.
106. PRO: WO 216/400, Loose Minute to 0162/821(MO4), ‘Plans for Action in South Persian Oilfields Area’, 24 July 1951.
107. PRO: CAB 21/3315, CM(51)51st meeting, 12 July 1951.
108. PRO: AIR 8/1774, ‘Persia: Advice Given by the Chiefs of Staff’, 31 Oct. 1951. p.7.
109. PRO: CAB 21/3315, CP(51)212, ‘Persia’, memorandum by the Foreign Secretary, 20 July 1951.
110. PRO: PREM 8/1501, Private Meeting in House of Commons, 27 July 1951.
111. PRO: CAB 21/3315, COS(51)117th meeting, 17 July 1951.
112. PRO: AIR 8/1772, Chief of the Air Staff to C-in-C HQMEAF, 20 July 1951. For the views within HQMEAF see PRO: AIR 20/8888.
113. PRO: DEFE 4/45, COS(51)120th meeting, 23 July 1951; PRO: DEFE 4/46, COS(51)128th meeting, 10 Aug. 1951; PRO: DEFE 4/46, COS(51)137th meeting, 29 Aug. 1951.
114. PRO: AIR 8/1774, ‘Persia: Advice Given by the Chiefs of Staff’, 31 Oct. 1951.
115. PRO: CAB 128/20, CM(51)60th meeting, 27 Sept. 1951; PRO: FO 371/91591 and FO 371/915494; Louis, British Empire in the Middle East, pp.686–8.
116. British AIOC personnel had withdrawn from the oilfields in July and August, and by 31 August there were only 350 British subjects left at Abadan. See Cable, Intervention at Abadan, p.92.
117. PRO: AIR 8/1774, ‘Persia: Advice Given by the Chiefs of Staff’, 31 Oct. 1951.
118. H. Morrison, Herbert Morrison: An Autobiography (London: Odhams Press, 1960), p.281. 119. PRO: CAB 21/1982, DO(51)14th meeting, 4 June 1951. See also PRO: AIR 8/1772, JP(51)109(Final), ‘Military Action in Persia’,19 June 1951.