The Birth of the Jet Fighter Era

The first jet-versus-jet aerial combat did not happen during WWII, even though the world’s first jet fighter, the German Messerschmitt Me 262, and the first British jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor, began combat operations in 1944. The Me 262 was mostly used to attack Allied bombers over Germany, and the Meteor began its military career shooting down German V-1 cruise missiles over Britain.

The Allied campaign to liberate Western Europe, which began with the D-Day landings in June of 1944, eventually led to the capture of most German missile launching sites, and in January of 1945 some Meteors were stationed at a British airbase in Belgium. But they never encountered any Me 262s, although their airfield was bombed by German Arado Ar 234 jet bombers in March.

The first U.S. jet fighter, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, also began its military career during WWII. Four YP-80As, a preproduction version of the plane, were assembled in Europe in January of 1945. Two had been sent to Britain and two others to Italy. The planes sent to Britain never saw combat, but the ones sent to Italy may have been used to try and intercept Arado Ar 234 reconnaissance jets.

In 1947 the U.S. Army Air Forces became a separate branch of the U.S. military called the U.S. Air Force (USAF). The Air Force re-designated the prefix used to identify American fighter planes from P to F, and thus the P-80 became the F-80.

North Korean MiG-15

Jet fighters were among the planes the U.S. sent into combat when the Korean War began in June of 1950. Among them were the Air Force’s F-80 Shooting Stars and the Navy’s Grumman F9F Panther carrier-based fighters. American jets ruled the skies over Korean battlefields until the Communist forces surprised the U.N forces by introducing Soviet-built Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 jet fighters in November.

The performance of the MiG-15 was superior to the F-80 and F9F, but that didn’t stop American pilots from engaging the MiGs in aerial combat. The world’s first claim for a jet-versus-jet aerial kill came on November 1, when a Soviet-flown North Korean MiG-15 shot down an F-80C. (The USAF credits the loss to anti-aircraft fire.) The U.S. Air Force’s first claim for a jet-versus-jet kill came a week later, on November 8, but Soviet records show the MiG-15 survived the fight. The U.S. Navy first claimed shooting down a MiG-15 with one of its F9Fs on November 9. Soviet records confirm this loss.

The advent of MiG-15s in Korea forced the USAF to send some squadrons of its newer Republic F-84 Thunderjet and North American F-86 Sabre jet fighters there in December. The F-84s were tasked with escorting Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers, but their performance also proved to be inferior to that of the MiGs. The F-86s, however, had a swept wing design, like the MiG-15s, and the Communist pilots soon found the Sabres were formidable foes.

And so, at the start of 1951, the jet fighter era was finally fully under way.

World War II in Iraq – May 1941

Iraqi aircraft insignia
Iraqi aircraft insignia

In 1991 a U.S.-led coalition launched Operation Desert storm against Iraq, the combat phase of the Persian Gulf War, because Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait the previous year. The troops the United Kingdom contributed to the coalition were outnumbered only by those from the U.S.

This wasn’t the first time the British had attacked Iraq. Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The Ottoman Turks were one of the Central Powers, allied with Germany, and the British were one of the opposing Allies and they sent troops to Iraq to fight the Ottomans.

After the Central Powers lost WWI the Ottoman Empire collapsed and many of its territories became “mandates” of the winning Allies. Iraq became a British mandate until 1932, when Iraq was given its independence. The Iraqis weren’t truly independent, however, because the British retained the right to transport their troops across the country and to operate two Royal Air Force (RAF) airbases there.

Iraqi nationalists, as you might imagine, were unhappy with this arrangement. They were encouraged by the military successes of Hitler in the early years of WWII because German agents were promising to help kick the British out of the Middle East and to prevent the Jews from establishing a nation in Palestine. Subsequently, at the beginning of April, 1941, a military coup in Baghdad put an Iraqi nationalist named Rashid Ali in power and he appealed to the Axis for help. (One of the conspirators was Khairallah Talfah, the uncle that raised Saddam Hussein.) Ali promised the Germans and Italians unrestricted use of all airfields in Iraq for any forces they were willing to send to help fight the British.

Britain’s military was already fully engaged in Greece and Africa, but the British knew they could not afford to lose control of Iraq’s oil, or to have hostile forces gain a foothold east of Egypt. In mid-April they responded to the coup by landing troops at Iraq’s Persian Gulf port of Basra to supposedly assert their right to move troops across Iraq. Some of these troops were airlifted to reinforce the British airfield located at Habbaniya, along the Euphrates River west of Baghdad.

Ali warned the British that no additional troops could enter Iraq until the first batch had moved on. But the British ignored his threat and began landing a large contingent of Indian troops at Basra. Ali responded by sending thousands of Iraqi troops to surround Habbaniya on the night of April 29.

While Iraq had several airfields of its own, the British one at Habbaniya had modern maintenance and repair facilities and plenty of high-octane fuel. If the Iraqis captured it and turned it over to the Germans, Hitler would be firmly established in the region. This was a real possibility, as Habbaniya was isolated by hundreds of miles of desert and had insufficient troops, despite the reinforcements, to protect it from a ground attack. They had 64 operational aircraft but they could only put 39 planes in the air at a time due to a pilot shortage. And most of their aircraft were obsolete warplanes because Habbaniya was a pilot training facility, not a combat base. The surrounding Iraqi troops occupied high ground and had artillery and tanks, while the outnumbered British defenders had none. And the Iraqi air force, which numbered about 70 aircraft, included some modern warplanes.

Despite the unfavorable odds, the RAF launched a surprise air attack against the Iraqi ground forces surrounding Habbaniya on the morning of May 2. It included all of the planes the flying school could put in the air, plus a few Vickers Wellington bombers flying from the other British airfield in Iraq, located near Basra, 300 miles away. The RAF’s motley collection of planes and pilots from Habbaniya recorded 193 sorties on the first day of their bombing campaign.

The Iraqi ground forces responded with heavy anti-aircraft fire and began shelling the airfield. And the Iraqi air force responded by strafing and bombing Habbaniya and harassing the RAF flights. By the end of the day, 22 RAF planes had been destroyed or damaged beyond use. The non-stop bombing, however, had inflicted heavy losses upon the Iraqi troops and significantly reduced their volume of fire.

Subsequently, on the second day the RAF shifted the focus of its air campaign to the Iraqi airfields. They succeeded in destroying numerous Iraqi planes on the ground and effectiveness of the Iraqi air force quickly declined. On May 6 the Iraqi troops on the escarpment by Habbaniya could not take any more of the RAF’s continual bombing and they fled in disorder.

The British at Habbaniya assumed that the worst of their troubles were over, as they knew relief was on the way. But on May 16 several Messerscmitt Bf 110 fighter bombers and Heinkel He 111 bombers from Germany’s Luftwaffe, painted with Iraqi markings, successfully attacked them. The Germans had flown from occupied Greece, refueled in neighboring Vichy French Syria, and then flown to the Iraqi city of Mosul, where they made their base.

Hitler, however, was preoccupied with planning his upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union and the few warplanes he sent to Iraq were too little and too late. Despite being attacked by the German planes, a British relief force from Palestine was able to relieve Habbaniya. British troops from Habbaniya and Basra then converged on Baghdad. Mussolini sent a few Fiat C.R. 42 fighters to help, but Iraqi resistance crumbled in the face of the British advance. Rashid Ali and his supporters gave up and fled the country at the end of May and Iraq surrendered. The German and Italian air units fled Iraq by way of Vichy Syria again.

The 1941 Battle of Habbaniya Was A Turning Point in WWII

It may be that in those dark days of early 1941, when Britain stood alone against the Axis, that the RAF’s #4 Flying Training School at Habbaniya stopped the war from being lost before the United States joined the fight. If Hitler had succeeded in gaining a military foothold in Iraq, the British would probably have been driven out of the Middle East and the Mediterranean Sea would have been an Axis lake. The Germans would have gained control of the region’s oil, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. They could have joined with Muslim nationalists to drive British forces out of Africa and India. And the country of Israel would certainly not exist.

In fact, these things would probably have happened anyway if Hitler had sent most of his Wermacht, especially the Luftwaffe, into the Middle East and North Africa in 1941, instead of invading the Soviet Union. He “cast away the opportunity of taking a great prize for little cost in the Middle East,” said Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill. But Hitler was obsessed with the destruction of communism and so the Battle of Habbaniya was an important turning point of the war. We should consider it the original Operation Desert Storm.