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Arabian Peninsula & Persian Gulf Database

Kuwait "Emergency", 1961
By Tom Cooper & Stefan Kuhn, with Brig.Gen. Ahmad Sadik (IrAF)
Sep 9, 2003, 05:48

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Kuwait and the Qassem Regime

In 1899 - long before the huge natural oil resources were discovered in Kuwait - the government of Her Majesty and the Ruler of Kuwait signed an agreement about the defence of the small country. Kuwait remained under nominal control of the Ottoman Empire until 1918, but was subsequently granted the status of an independent sheikhdom, ruled by the al-Sabah family, with the UK handling its foreign affairs. After further negotiations in June 1961 a new treaty was signed, with which the British released Kuwait into independence, but also including an agreement that British forces would assist the Emir al-Sabah, Kuwaiti ruler, if requested.

On 25 June 1961, the then Iraqi dictator Abd al-Qarim Qassem unilaterally announced that Kuwait was to be considered Iraqi territory and offered “to liberate the inhabitants of Kuwait”. On the following day some Iraqi forces began massing along the border to Kuwait. However the Iraqi military was by far nowhere near the strength it would reach in later years and most of the troops had to make a long march from Baghdad down to the southern border of the country. Therefore the Iraqi built-up was very slow. There were several reasons for this situation - most of which can be easily illustrated on the example of the Iraqi Air Force's condition at the time.

Iraqi Air Force in 1961

The Iraqi Air Force of the time was in a state of transition. After the bloody al-Rashid coup d’état undertaken on 14 July 1958, during which the young King Feisal III and Crown Prince Abdul Illah of Iraq – together with the Iraqi Minister of Defence and a former Prime Minister of Jordan – were assassinated in Baghdad by the elements of the Iraqi military, many officers of the former Royal Iraqi Air Force were imprisoned and normal peace-time training schedules, usually conducted to full RAF-standard, discontinued. For example, the Commander of RIrAF at Habbaniyah, Wg.Cdr. Abdul-Razzak, languished in prison from 1958 until 1962. Many other pilots have left the country and would never return.

The RIrAF of the 1950s was a well-trained force, operating 12 Vampire FB.Mk.52s, six Vampire T.Mk.55s, and 19 Venom FB.Mk.1s and FB.Mk.50s, as well as 15 Hunter F.Mk.6s. The Hunters were supplied with US financial help in two batches, the first of which – consisting of five aircraft – was delivered in April 1957. The second batch, consisting of ten aircraft, arrived in December 1957. Shortly before the coup in 1958 the USA also supplied five North American F-86F Sabres to Iraq; yet, while the Hunters entered service with the No.6 Sqn, based at Tahmouz/Habbaniyah AB, the Sabres were never to see service in Iraq: they were parked inside a hangar at al-Rashid AB, and left there for some time before being returned to USA.

The Iraqi Air Force was a well-trained and highly capable force in the 1950s thanks to acquisition of modern fighters from the UK. In 1953 it received the first out of 12 deHavilland Vampire FB.Mk.52s, which entered service with the No.5 Squadron, then based at Moascar al-Rashid AB, near Baghdad. (all artworks by Tom Cooper)

Abd al-Qarim Qassem was neither a Ba’athist (the Iraqi nationalist and socialist Ba’ath Party was similar in basic ideology to the Syrian Ba’ath Party, but different in too many details to be described as the “same”), but he was a staunch supporter of the pro-Soviet United Arab Republic. Consequently he was swift to immediately request military assistance from the USSR. In 1958 the first 14 MiG-17Fs as well as some other aircraft were supplied.

This MiG-17F was one of the first delivered to Iraq, in late 1958. It is seen here wearing the fin flash that was used by the IrAF only between that year and the next coup in Baghdad, in 1963. Iraq never received as many as 10 MiG-17s as usually reported: in fact, the No.5 Squadron was the only combat unit known to have ever operated the type, even if a small number of MiG-17Fs and MiG-15UTIs was also in service with the Flying Academy (based at al-Rashid AB in the early 1960s).

The arrival of the MiG-17s and re-equipment of the No.5 Sqn IrAF with them resulted in a whole “cascade” of re-equipments within the force. The No.1 Sqn was in the process of converting from Hawker Fury FB.Mk.11s to Venoms from No.5 Squadron; No.2 Squadron converted to Mil Mi-4 helicopters; No. 3 Squadron was about to convert to Antonov An-12B transports; No.4 Squadron converted back to Fury FB.Mk.11s from the No.1 Squadron; while No.6 Squadron continued flying Hunter F.Mk.6s. In turn the No.7 Squadron - which was mainly involved in fighting Kurds in the north of the country, and previously equipped with Furies - was re-equipped with MiG-17s. Similarly, the old Iraqi "Bomber Squadron", No.8, was in the process of receiving its first out of eventual 12 Ilushin Il-28 light bombers. Finally, the newly-established No.9 Squadron was waiting for its first MiG-19 interceptors to arrive. In total, as of June 1961, the IrAF was composed as follows:

- No.1 Squadron, Venom FB.Mk.1, based at Habbaniyah AB, CO Capt. A.-Mun’em Ismaeel
- No.2 Squadron, Mi-4, based at Rashid AB, CO Maj. Wahiq Ibraheem Adham
- No.3 Squadron, An-12B, based at Rashid AB, CO Capt. Taha Ahmad Mohammad Rashid
- No.4 Squadron, Fury FB.Mk.11, based at Kirkuk AB, CO Maj. A. Latif
- No.5 Squadron, MiG-17F, based at Rashid AB, CO Maj. Khalid Sarah Rashid
- No.6 Squadron, Hunter, based at Habbaniyah AB, CO Capt. Hamid Shaban
- No.7 Squadron, MiG-17F, based at Kirkuk, CO Maj. Ne’ma Abdullah Dulaimy
- No.8 Squadron, Il-28, based at Rashid AB, CO Maj. Adnan Ameen Rashid
- No.9 Squadron, MiG-19, in process of formation.

In 1954 and 1956 the then RIrAF was reinforced by acquisition of 19 deHavilland Venom FB.Mk.1s and FB.Mk.5s, which entered service with the No.6 Squadron. The unit was based at Habbaniyah AB (named "Tahmouz" by the Iraqis), and shared this facility with the RAF until 1958, by when also the No.5 Squadron was based there.

When this "emergency" erupted, the IrAF was thus in the process of re-qualifying a large number of flying- and ground-crews from British to Soviet aircraft: except for one squadron equipped with Hunters, none of its units was fully operational. Besides, Iraq had no developed air defence system and no radars at the time, and there was an uncertain situation regarding spares-supply for its British-built jets. Finally, the nearest IrAF airfield at the time was the former RAF Shaibah, near Basrah, where the Iraqi Air Academy was stationed: not a single combat aircraft was based there had to re-train no less but three main fighting and one transport unit in the period between 1958 and 1961. The IrAF was weakened within as well, with the loyalties of its pilots and officers split between the Communists (i.e. pro-government) and Arab nationalists (anti-government). The Commander of the Air Force in 1961, Brigadier Jalal Jaffar Awqati, was no career pilot, but posted in his position because of being a Communist, and for his ability to keep the air force under very tight control.

While the IrAF was definitely in no condition to participate in any kind of larger-scale operations, and none of its units was deployed to any of airfields closer to Kuwait, the Iraqi Army was in no better condition either. It was also in the process of conversion to Soviet-supplied hardware, and it lacked training in conduct of any kind of serious, especially larger-scale operations. The Iraqis could not expect to rush their army to the southern border of the country and then let it fight in Kuwait in the middle of the summer.

This Hunter F.Mk.6 (IrAF serial "403", ex-XK146) was one of 14 ex-RAF aircraft purchased by Iraq with US funding in late 1957. It is seen here already wearing the fin flash introduced after the coup in 1958.

British Intervention

On the contrary, the British reaction was very swift. Under the codename “Vantage” the British had been planning for an intervention in such a situation. This plan included the deployment of additional forces from the UK, Cyprus and Germany. Technically the UK was well prepared to come to the aid of Kuwait, the problem however, was that they could not gain overflight rights from many countries en-route, so that it was impossible to fly troops to the area on a direct way.

British troops in the region were placed on alert already on 26 June 1961, only a day after Qassem’s statement. The Centaur-class commando carrier HMS Bulwark (with the 42nd Commando Battalion embarked) and its escort of three frigates were making a port visit in Karachi, Pakistan. A unit of Royal Marines was already in Bahrain, together with some Army troops, while other units were available in Bahrain, Sharyah, Aden, Kenya and Cyprus. The RAF had two squadrons of Hawker Hunters, based in Aden and Nairobi. Heavy transports, light transports and liaison planes were in Aden. Additional reserves were based in Bahrain and Kenya. Facilities in Kuwait were very austere: although one airfield was existent, its installations were very poor and there was no radar. Equally, the port facilities could accept only smaller ships.

In total, even if at the first look the available forces were scattered over a huge area, already on 29th June the British began setting them in motion. HMS Bulwark and her escorts left Karachi and headed for the Persian Gulf at their best speed. Supply depots in Bahrain were opened and two Hunter Sqns (No.8 208 Sqn) prepared to deploy to Bahrain.

HMS Bulwark, as seen in Naval Base Singapore, few years after the Kuwait Emergency of 1961. (Fleet Air Arm Museum)

On 30th June 1961, Kuwait officially appealed for help and a squadron of Hunters was immediately deployed from Eastleigh to Khormaksar, even if Turkey and Sudan refused to grant overflight rights. Already in Bahrain were two Shackletons MR.2 from No.37 Sqn, and the first planes from No.88 Sqn deployed from RAFG Wildenrath. The staff of the 24th Infantry brigade was flown-in from Kenya using Argonaut and Comet transport planes. The No.3 Sqn Royal Rhodesian Air Force provided some airlift as well.

RAF Station Sharyah was one of the most important British assets in the Middle East during the 1950s and early 1960s. Seen here on the ramp are (from left to right): No. 30 Sqn's Beverley, No.152 Sqn's Twin Pioneer, and No.37 Sqn's Shackleton. (Photo: Born in Battle)

By 1 July, aircraft carrier HMS Bulwark was already deep in the Persian Gulf and the embarked Whirlwind helicopters of 848 NAS began deploying soldiers from 42 Commando to Kuwait. The Hunter fighter-bombers were deployed to “Kuwait New” airfield, near Farwania, while Britannia transports of No.99 and 511 Squadrons brought troops from 45 Commando Royal Marines and 11th Hussars regiment out of Aden.

In the next days additional units arrived in the area. Four Canberras from No.88 Sqn and eight planes from 213 Sqn landed at Bahrain, while RAF transports flew-in more troops. Canberras were soon in action, flying reconnaissance sorties deep over Iraq. The Iraqis observed these several times, but could do little about them: the IrAF was unable to intercept any of British bombers due to the lack of a functioning radar net.

By 4 July 1961, Comets of 216 Sqn and Britannia transports flew in elements of the 2nd Airborne Battalion, while Hastings and Beverly transports hurried to bring in the heavy equipment of the deploying forces. From Kenya the 1st Battalion of the Royal Inniskillings was also transported to the scene. Also deployed were Canberra PR.7 recce birds. When those forces arrived the first troops had already started to move into Kuwait, so that the pressure on the installations in Bahrain was reduced.

For the troops in Kuwait the situation was far from pleasant. After taking position along the Mittla ridge - in the Northwest of the country – they had to cope with temperatures of up to 50°C and sandstorms that reduced the visibility to less than 300m. A Hunter from No.208 Sqn crashed in this area under such circumstances, killing the pilot. However, most of the deployed forces were accustomed to such circumstances and eventually there were fewer problems than could be expected. Nevertheless, the British took great care the deployed troops to be constantly rotated between Kuwait and HMS Bulwark, so to get some rest. The carrier was also acting as a forward deployed station, then it carried a radar with 150km detection range and acted as a communications centre. Especially the last function was critical, as the headquarters of the operation remained in Bahrain, more than 550km away from Kuwait.

Vast distances also forced the British to improvise with radio communications: when no other solution was found for handling theatre-wide communications signals were relayed by Canberra-bombers between Aden and Bahrain, while RAF Pembrokes from A-Flight No.152 Squadron were used for liaison duties between Bahrain, Sharyah and Aden. An additional problem was that the RAF planes were using VHF-communications, while Royal Navy used UHF, so that here also some improvisation was needed in order to enable mutual communication.

Only with the arrival of the larger Illustrious-class carrier HMS Victorious improved the situation considerably. Equipped with Gannet AEW planes and Sea Vixen all-weather interceptors the British forces then gained a big improvement in situational awareness. This was also added by the 270km-range radar on board the ship, which was further increased by the Gannets.

Finally, on 18 July, the RAF was able to put up the first ground-based radar in Kuwait. The SC 787 type could not measure the height at which objects it would detect were flying, but it did help to sort out and improve air traffic control in the region.

Observation party of the 29 Field Regiment Royal Artillery seen while disembarking from an LCT in Kuwait, in 1961. (Photo: IDR via Born in Battle)

After the Iraqi national holiday, on 14 July, passed without any action, the British felt much more secure and chances of an armed conflict – if there ever were any – began to decrease. Namely, the British never observed any Iraqi troop movements south of Basrah: there was not a single Iraqi Army unit deployed along the border to Kuwait. Thus, on 20th July 42 Commando and 2 Para were withdrawn back to Bahrain, while 45 Commando was returning back home to Aden. The Hunters from No.208 Sqn also redeployed to Bahrain. Remaining British forces withdrew from Kuwait by the end of September.

By late July 1961 HMS Victorious was replaced by HMS Centaur. All transport aircraft had left the area until the beginning of August, and by October 1961 there was barely a trace of the British intervention left. The last troops left on the 19th October.

Meanwhile, troops from Arab League had been replacing the British forces to safeguard the freedom and independence of Kuwait. Namely, the Arab League rapidly countered the British intervention by deploying own forces, intended to guarantee Kuwait's independence of both - Iraq and Great Britain. This Arab League contingent withdrew from Kuwait only following the overthrow of Iraq's Qassem regime, in February 1963.

Gannet AEW.Mk.3 of NAS 849 A-Flight seen while launching from HMS Victorious. Gannets proved of immense value as early warning aircraft over the British Task Force in the Persian Gulf and the British forces in Kuwait. (Fleet Air Arm Museum)


Up until today there is no evidence that the Iraqis were ever really planning to invade Kuwait in 1961. Certainly, such threats were issued by different governments in Baghdad time and again, but the Iraqis never made any corresponding moves with their military: at the time of this “crisis”, the Iraqi military was simply in no position to launch any invasion. The situation is at best described by the fact that this “episode” was not mentioned by even a single word in official Iraqi military history publications ever – because there was nothing to report. Therefore, the usual commentary that the “swift British intervention helped stabilize the situation” means not much.

Nevertheless, the British and the USA did learn a lot about deploying forces over long distances, the associated communication problems and the pre-arrangement of supply stocks. Especially the forward based supply depots in the region proved extremely valuable for the success of the British enterprise, permitting them to deploy and support large forces over longer periods of time. The US military drew important lessons from this fact and was in shape to react rapidly almost 30 years later, when Iraq indeed invaded Kuwait, in summer of 1990.

Another important result from this crisis was the formation of the Armed forces of Kuwait. More details about this process can be found in the article about the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, in 1990.

For their part, in the aftermath of the crisis the Iraqis immediately began purchasing additional military equipment from the USSR. For example, in 1962 the first out of eventual 40 MiG-19s arrived, followed by the first 12 MiG-21F-13s. If these acquisitions indeed came in reaction to the confrontation with the UK over Kuwait, in summer 1961, then it is obvious that the Iraqis concluded that their available military power at the time was insufficient for an operation in required style. Surely, with hindsight it should be observed that Iraq was never again in a worst military or diplomatic position to take on Kuwait.

Sources and Bibliography

Except for own research, additional information for this article was kindly provided by Mr. Tom N. Following sources of reference were used as well:

- “HISTORY OF THE IRAQI ARMED FORCES; Part 17, The Establishment of the Iraqi Air Force and Its Development”, Committee of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense (Directorate of Historical Branch), 1988

- "AIR WARS AND AIRCRAFT; A Detailed Record of Air Combat, 1945 to the Present", by Victor Flintham, Arms and Armour Press, 1989 (ISBN: 0-85368-779-X)

- Born in Battle Magazine No.3, 1979

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