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In the Clouds Above Baghdad

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In the Clouds Above Baghdad
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Author(s): J. E. Tennant
Date Published: 2009/07
Page Count: 236
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-743-1
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-744-8

War in the air over the Middle East

Mesopotamia, 'the land of the two rivers', is deemed the birthplace of civilisation. Now modern day Iraq, it has known warfare throughout the millennia that man has inhabited it. By the first years of the twentieth century the Ottoman Turkish Empire had claimed Mesopotamia as their own and its alliance with Germany during the Great War brought battle to it once more. For the first time conflict came to its skies in the form of the newly formed air forces of the opposing armies. This book concerns the experiences of an officer of the R. F. C fighting a war far different from his comrades on the Western Front but one which was just as deadly. This is an usual account of early war in the air from one of the great conflicts sideshow theatres.

The bridge at Shumran was completed at 4.30 p.m., and three infantry brigades were across before dark. All night the 3rd Corps poured over a stream of guns, wagons, horses, men, and mules without end. The cavalry division bivouacked close by and looked to their sabres.<br>
The excitement was intense, and all night long G.H.Q. camp buzzed with the subdued sound of work at high pressure. The task of the Supply and Transport service appeared almost insuperable. General Maude, imperturbable as ever, crouching over his maps by the light of a little electric lamp, in the pit of his 40 lb. tent, discussed the plans for next day, and gave me carte blanche. An army on the run over flat desert and the complete mastery of the air, one’s wildest dream had come true. The weary pilots got in to snatch a few hours’ sleep, while the mechanics spent the night loading machines with bombs and overhauling engines.<br>
The crossing had been a masterpiece, a clever conception brilliantly carried out. The Turk never knew where the main blow was to fall till too late. By sheer generalship the enemy was outwitted. First the hammer blow at Sannayat induced him to march his reserves in that direction from the Kut area; after marching all night the peril at Shumran became apparent. Khalil ordered them to counter-march, but too late. Maude’s tactics kept these reserves marching and counter-marching out of the battle on either front. They were only able to drag themselves clear with the general retreat.<br>
The next day, the 24th February, our troops on the Shumran Peninsula resumed the attack; the enemy fought stubbornly. By nightfall, after severe casualties, we had gained a thousand yards, and the cavalry and practically the whole 3rd Corps were on the other side. The main Turkish Army was in full retreat covered by this tenacious rearguard, who frustrated an attempt by the cavalry to break through and enabled the Sannayat troops to cross our front and get away. In the evening I could see the Horse Artillery of the cavalry division in action against the enemy rearguard, which had withdrawn north-west, and sent down a message to the Divisional H.Q., giving the dispositions.<br>
If the cavalry had only worked further to the north the rearguard would have been outflanked. It was a wonderful sight from the air, the retreat orderly and well controlled, and low-flying aeroplanes came under heavy fire. Flying home over Kut just before dark I met the Gunboat Flotilla coming up full speed from Sannayat, their decks cleared for action, and white ensigns spread out by the breeze made a proud and inspiring picture against the last glow of the Arabian sunset, the battle-line of England surging forward.<br>
Sixteen hundred prisoners, four field guns, and a large number of rifles, ammunition, and stores had been captured. The Turkish rearguard withdrew out of the Shumran Peninsula during the night of the 24th, having effectively covered the westward passage of their army. On the morning of the 25th early reconnaissances located the main body at Bghailah, their rear party with about twenty guns occupying a long nullah extending north from the river near Imam Mahdi; to us in the air it seemed inconceivable that the cavalry did not make round the enemy’s northern flank; but there they were, immobile down below, held up and being shelled by the Turks. The vanguard of the 13th Division in their stiff fight to eject the enemy from this position nearer the river were helped by the long guns of the navy.<br>
The exhausted cavalry, who had hardly been out of their saddles for forty-eight hours, rode back to water and bivouac; the Turk had given them the slip. General Maude’s instructions necessitated reporting every hour by wireless; a field wireless station takes some time to erect and dismantle; perhaps this cramped their commander’s movement, but some would have risked incurring displeasure for this chance of a thousand years. After the crossing of the river the ghost of every cavalry leader down the ages must have looked longingly beyond Shumran. For had they ridden hard to the flank they could have gained the river behind the Turks; it seemed even worth the risk of losing their horses, for what has ever been achieved without risk? And the complete obliteration of the Turkish Army was worth more than the cavalry horses. At the end of the day, instead of being behind the Turkish Army the cavalry division were five miles behind their own infantry.<br>
Ninety-four bombs were dropped that day on fleeing Turks and enemy shipping; sixty-five pounders exploding among retreating masses make a grim trail for a pursuing army. D. H. and I found a tug towing sections of the enemy’s pontoon bridge. It was a fine target, and the captain of the tug considered it advisable to part with his pontoons, which went drifting downstream while the vessel ran for shore and the crew for cover.<br>
The Turkish retreat was rapid; they threw their guns and heavy encumbrances into the river and ran for all they were worth. On the 26th they outstripped our infantry, who made a forced march across eighteen miles of waterless plain; but Captain Nunn, R.N., with his river flotilla, were racing after them. His orders also had been to report to G.H.Q. hourly by wireless, but Nunn and his men, Commanders Sherbrooke, Buxton, and Cartwright in the Tarantula, Mantis, and Moth, did the Nelson touch, and crashed on upstream through a hail of Turkish bullets from the banks. At the sharp Nahr Kellak bend they were raked on either side by Turkish batteries and machine-guns, and returned the fire with six-inch guns and Maxims at point-blank range. The quarter-master and Arab pilot of the Mantis were both shot dead, and Buxton rushed into the conning-tower just in time to save his ship from taking the bank at fifteen knots. The river here ran alongside the road where the Turkish force was retreating; the guns of the flotilla turned the retreat into a rout, it became sauve qui peut.<br>
The flotilla held on, and gradually drawing into range with the flying Turkish river boats brought their bow six-inch guns into action. The rear ship was sunk, and the Busrah, with seven hundred wounded and other Turks and Germans on board, was run ashore by a captured and badly-wounded British officer, Lieutenant Cowie, of the Black Watch. Another, the Pioneer, burning fiercely but still fighting her guns, ran aground. On went Nunn after the Firefly a British gunboat captured in the retreat from Ctesiphon. The navy were intent on getting her back; after a long fight her captain ran her ashore, and she was recaptured.<br>
It was a great day for the Senior Service; they suffered heavy casualties and were riddled by shell and machine-gun fire, but by wonderful fortune none were sunk. Three ships and a thousand prisoners had been captured; one enemy ship sunk; the army routed; and, above all, the lost Firefly, or, as the Turks had rechristened her, Sulman Pak, recaptured. All that morning General Maude walked up and down wondering what the gunboats were doing, and “why the devil they didn’t report as instructed?” That night the navy reported.