Blood, Oil and the Axis: Bartle Bull book review

May 10, 2019

The Wall Street Journal
May 9, 2019 

‘Blood, Oil and the Axis’ Review: The Front That Was Left Behind
What if, at a crucial moment 78 years ago, Hitler had turned south instead of east? What if he had taken Suez, the Levant and Mesopotamia? The idea is not so far fetched.
By Bartle Bull
Spring of 1941. Less than a year after the Nazis took Paris, Western Europe belongs to Hitler. To the east, the Soviet Union is a much weaker force and still Germany’s ally. In the U.S., isolationism, with pro-German sympathy in certain quarters, keeps the free world’s greatest power out of the war. All that stands in Hitler’s way is the British part of the English-speaking world.

At the time the Royal Navy was still peerless, if too small. On land, Britain had only partly rearmed following its post-World War I disarmament. Australia, Canada and New Zealand contributed to Churchill’s stand, but it was India that allowed Britain to compete in the global conflict.

What if, at this crucial moment 78 years ago, Hitler had turned south by southeast instead of east? What if he had taken Suez, the Levant and Mesopotamia instead of invading Russia? The idea is not so far fetched. Iraq and Syria remain one of the forgotten theaters of World War II. It’s the story told, for the first time in a single book, by John Broich in “Blood, Oil and the Axis.”

When Hitler invaded Russia on June 22, 1941, he did so with 153 divisions. By contrast, German strength in North Africa numbered a total of four divisions stretched so thin that, by the time Erwin Rommel’s famous Afrika Korps lost to the Allies at El Alamein in 1942, 80% of the transports used by the Germans had been taken from the British.

Britain’s desert resources were similarly meager. So finely balanced was the war in North Africa that Archibald Wavell, commander of the British troops there, staked his job on resisting orders from Winston Churchill to redirect a few thousand troops east to help counter Germany’s moves in the Levant and Mesopotamia. A Wehrmacht division had almost 13,000 men, so even two divisions deployed to North Africa instead of the Soviet Union would have made all the difference to Rommel.
The stakes in British-dominated Iraq were significant in 1941. It was, together with an arguably German-leaning Iran, all that separated Vichy Syria from British India. Turkey’s pragmatic neutrality would almost certainly have tilted Hitler’s way had the Reich taken neighboring Iraq. Meanwhile, the oil of Kirkuk and Basra, piped overland to Haifa, fuelled the British war effort in North Africa. The previous year, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s refinery at Abadan in Iran—the world’s largest—produced eight million barrels of refined oil for the Allies.

Had Hitler decided to make a serious play for these stakes, he would have had many advantages. In addition to Vichy Syria and neutral Turkey, he could probably have counted on the support of Iran. He also had the troops for a Mesopotamian venture: well over a hundred divisions—if he hadn’t attacked Russia—while the British could muster barely a single regiment’s worth to put in Germany’s path.

In Iraq during the decades following World War I, the British-backed constitutional monarchy had made the principal mistake of relying on the country’s army as a tool of national unification. By World War II, Iraq’s Sunni officer class, with its deep roots in the German-run military academies of the Ottoman Empire, found explicit inspiration in Germany’s National Socialism, with its race-based corporatist militancy, that would ultimately produce the Baath Party.

In April 1941, a proto-Baathist Iraqi army clique, backed by the Germans and calling themselves the Golden Square, launched a successful coup in Baghdad. With support soon arriving via Vichy Syria, all that kept Iraq from falling to the Nazis was a British transportation and training airbase at Habbaniyah, near Ramadi, plus whatever troops could be prised from Palestine or Egypt.

The war that followed, as British, Indian and other troops retook Mesopotamia and then successfully invaded Syria with Free French allies, was almost absurdly colorful. Mr. Broich tells the story with enthusiasm and an impressive ability to summarize big-picture complexities. His cast of characters includes the authors Roald Dahl and Freya Stark, dashing military leaders such as Glubb Pasha and Gen. Slim, and individuals—British, German, Indian, Arab—whose stories have survived in personal accounts. In places, as spies stalk the region, the material is like “Casablanca” meets “The English Patient.” On the Allied side alone there are Bombay lancers, Assyrian Levies, Gurkhas, the Bedouin desert warriors of Glubb’s Arab Legion, Algerian spahis, Royal Scots Greys, Australian light infantry and the French Foreign Legion. Moshe Dayan loses an eye at Alexandretta, and the Vichy French officer Philibert Collet leads his Circassian cavalry into battle, saber in hand.

Mr. Broich tends to overheat somewhat when the bullets fly. Thus we hear constantly of “the men and boys” of one unit or another, while many a dramatic sentence begins with “and.” Occasionally the pirouettes approach the metaphysical, as when Dahl gnomically drives himself from Alexandria to Haifa “like John Masters flogging Ol’ Man Mose across American open spaces” while the clear waters of Kurdish rivers are mysteriously “churned by trout.” Sadly these are not isolated examples.

Also problematic is the syntax, which is often not quite incorrect enough to attract the attention of a modern-day proofreader, but easily bad enough to spoil the book for readers of any generation: “the smart chorus girls came into the showroom with a series of beaus to have them buy the young women jewelry.”

Mr. Broich’s research in original documents and archives is impressive, his telling of the story in part through personal accounts is unique and his point of view is free of tedious ideological ax-grinding. An old-fashioned editing job would have made this book a treat for general audiences.

—Mr. Bull is an author and filmmaker whose next book is a history of Iraq.