Operation Demon (ii)

This was the British occupation of Abadan in southern Iran by Major General C. O. Harvey’s Indian 8th Division within ‘Countenance’ (25 August 1941).

The operation began with a dawn attack by the British sloop Shoreham on the harbour of Abadan, where the Iranian sloop Palang was quickly sunk and the other Iranian ships were destroyed or captured. The vital petroleum installations at Abadan were captured by two battalions of Brigadier R. E. Le Fleming’s Indian 24th Brigade of the Indian 8th Division, which made an amphibious crossing of the Shatt al-Arab waterway from Basra in Iraq.

In July 1941 the British government had started to consider measures to counter the menace of the perceived influx of Axis nationals into Iran, together with their growing political and economic influence, and decided with the USSR to apply diplomatic pressure, backed by force if necessary, on the Iranian government. The military undertaking to take the key parts of Iran, and thereby safeguard British strategic oil interests and the corridor along which weapons and supplies were delivered from the Persian Gulf to the USSR, was created as ‘Countenance’ for launch, if required, during the middle of August. The operation involved the occupation of Khuzestan by British and Indian forces, and a simultaneous Soviet invasion from the Caucasus region into north-western Iran.

Preliminary arrangements were made by Lieutenant-General E. P. Quinan’s ‘Iraq’ Force for the concentration of a military striking force on the Iranian frontier in the Iraqi area of Basra with the object of occupying the oilfields and refinery at Abadan, and the assembly of a naval and military force (three or four sloops and two companies of infantry) at the head of the Persian Gulf to occupy Bandar Shahpur and seize the port and shipping.

The naval aspect of the operation was the responsibility of the senior British naval officer in the Persian Gulf, Commodore C. M. Graham, who collaborated with Harvey, the commander of the Indian 8th Division, and the naval part of the undertaking involved the transport and covering of the army landing forces, the immobilisation of the Iranian navy, and the capture of the German and Italian merchant shipping at Bandar Shahpur.

A feature of the operation was that the warships employed, ranging from an armed merchant cruiser to small local craft, were obliged to operate in hostile waterways which were so restricted that they denied the British vessels any real freedom of action.

This mixed naval force included the armed merchant cruiser Kanimbla, British sloops Lilac and Shoreham, Indian sloop Lawrence, British corvette Snapdragon, British gunboat Cockchafer, British armed trawler Arthur Cavanagh, two Anglo-Iranian Oil Company tugs, one local dhow, and one RAF picket boat. The force sent against Khorramshahr included the British sloop Falmouth, Australian sloop Yarra and several small craft.

The Iranian naval force comprised two sloops and four gunboats. Simultaneous attacks were planned against Khorramshahr, the Iranian naval base situated at the junction of Karun river with the Shatt al-Arab; Abadan town and island, and the headquarters of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company; and the port of Bandar Shahpur.

‘Countenance’ was postponed several times, and finally fixed for 25 August 1941.

The Iranian navy had its base at the mouth of the Karun river just opposite Khorramshahr. The town and wireless station were situated on the western bank, while the naval barracks were situated on the eastern bank. At Khorramshahr three of the five jetties were occupied by the Persian sloop Babr, the naval school ship Ivy and two gunboats. The task was to capture the naval base at Khorramshahr and neutralise Persian forces there. The naval force employed in this operation included the sloops Falmouth and Yarra and small craft. It was believed that there were about 1,000 men at the base, which was under the command of Rear Admiral Gholamali Bayandor.

Brigadier R. G. Lochner’s Indian 18th Brigade of the Indian 8th Division advanced from Tanuma on the night of 23/24 August and, making a wide detour across the desert, arrived to the north of Khorramshahr about 1 mile (1.6 km) from the wireless station at 04.10 on 25 August.

Falmouth and Yarra departed Basra on the night of 24/25 August with a company of the 3rd Baluch Regiment embarked, and arrived at the mouth of the Karun river at 04.15 on 25 August. In the action which followed, the Iranian sloop Babr was sunk, and two gunboats were captured, and at much the same time the naval barracks were captured by the soldiers. Bayandor was killed while trying to defend the wireless station.

Abadan island lies between the Shatt al-Arab and Bahmanshir at the head of the Persian Gulf. The left bank of the Shatt al-Arab, from its mouth to the junction with the Karun river, a distance of 40 miles (65 km), is the western side of the Abadan island. Some 11 miles (17.75 km) downstream from the Karun river junction, and round a sharp bend in the river, was the refinery and town of Abadan and the adjacent Bawarda, with numerous berths for large ships, and this extended for some 3 miles (4.8 km) along the island bank of the Shatt al-Arab. Abadan was the headquarters of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, whose oil refinery was also situated there. There was also an airfield for the company’s aircraft. The port town of Abadan exported oil and imported stores and machinery for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company which, at the time, had 1,000 British and 1,500 Indian employees in the area. The Iranian population of Abadan was between 70,000 and 100,000 persons.

Brigadier R. E. Le Fleming’s Indian 24th Brigade (less one battalion) of the Indian 8th Division embarked in naval craft at Basra on the night of 24/25 August and moved down the Shatt al-Arab to reach Abadan at 04.10 on 25 August. The embarked force had one section of field artillery, and another two sections moved overland to Seeba on the waterway bank opposite Abadan. The flotilla comprised the sloop Shoreham, armed yacht Seabelle, Indian auxiliary minesweeper Lilavati, two river paddle steamers Ishan and Zenobia, five Eureka motor boats, and four dhows.

The operation went according to plan the the exception that some of the Eurekas carrying the first wave of the Indian 24th Brigade ran aground and were delayed, and as a result the second wave arrived first, but this did not affect the success of the plan. Seabelle and Lilavati reached Abadan at about this time.

The Abadan force reached its objective at 04.10, and fire was opened on the Iranian machine gun posts on the shore. Within 10 minutes the first troops were landed, and at this time most of the Iranian troops were still asleep in their barracks. Shoreham opened fire on the Iranian sloop Palang lying at one of the jetties, setting her alight, and it was the sound of the ship’s heavier fire which finally woke the Iranians, who were thus taken completely by surprise. A large number of them fled, escaping in lorries across the Bahmanshir creek, but a few remained to man posts along the wharves, and put up a stout resistance. In the ensuing street fighting it was difficult to dislodge the Iranians without blowing up the refineries. However, the refinery area had been cleared by 17.00 and the troops bivouacked for the night.

The southern half of Abadan island was mopped up on 26 August in ‘Bishop’, and undertaking conceived with the object of capturing the five German and four Italian merchant ships at Bandar Shahpur together with the port itself, whose importance lay in the fact that it was the terminal port of the Trans-Iranian Railway. This operation was simultaneous with a combined operation to capture Abadan and the southern part of Iran as far to the north as Ahwaz.

The naval and army units allocated to ‘Bishop’ were Force ‘B’ under the command of Captain W. L. G. Adams in Kanimbla, which otherwise comprised the Indian sloop Lawrence, the Indian sloop (ex-survey vessel) Investigator, the British corvette Snapdragon, the British gunboat Cockchafer, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company tugs St Athan and Delaver, the the British armed trawler Arthur Cavanagh, one dhow, one RAF picket launch, and two companies of the 3/10th Baluch Regiment.

The plan had been completed before Kanimbla’s arrival in the Persian Gulf, and it was clear that the use of a force as diverse as that now available required careful training if the object of capturing the Axis merchant ships was to be achieved. By good fortune it was possible to train boarding parties with a fair degree of secrecy in an open anchorage, 11 miles (17.75 km) from the nearest land, off the entrance to the Shatt al-Arab river. In this position weather conditions were at times bad for boats, and the the Dhow and the RAF launch also suffered damage. Among the steps taken to preserve secrecy was a ban on ships returning to the Shatt al-Arab and, in addition, efforts were made by the use of painted canvas to make Kanimbla look as much like a passenger ship as possible.

Eight boarding parties were required, three of which were provided by Snapdragon, Cockchafer and Lawrence, and the remaining five by Kanimbla. These parties were organised along similar lines, and consisted of an upper deck part and an engine room party, whose guiding principle was that men of the boarding parties must always work in pairs and work quickly. Adams informed all members of the boarding parties that they should make every endeavour to avoid firing if this was at all possible.

Lawrence embarked a detachment of 3/10th Baluch Regiment at Basra at 16.00 on 10 August: this detachment comprised A and D Companies, in all 10 officers and 256 other ranks. At 20.30 the ship left the jetty and proceeded quietly down the Shatt al-Arab and, at 11.00 on 11 August made rendezvous with Kanimbla at sea and transferred the army detachment. Between 11 and 16 August Force ‘B’ underwent a period of intensive training. During the night of 23 August orders were received that the operation would be 04.10 on 25 August.

All units rendezvoused with Kanimbla and were berthed alongside by 12.00 on 24 August, when the final instructions were issued. As the slowest vessel, Dhow 8 was the first unit to sail at 13.32, the RAF launch and Tug A left at 15.00, and the rest of the force got under way at 20.15. In addition to reconnaissance, Dhow 8 and the RAF launch were provided with a number of hurricane lanterns for attachment to any unlighted buoys in the Khor Musa channel. In the event, all the buoys and beacons were alight. Dhow 8 kept Adams fully informed by radio of all navigational matters including the characteristics of the lights, which were different from what had been anticipated.

The passage up the Khor Musa was uneventful in good visibility, Kanimbla leading with Tug A and Tug B on either bow. Astern of her were Cockchafer, Lawrence, Snapdragon and Arthur Cavanagh. Most of the buoys were passed within 5 minutes of the time laid down in the timetable, and Kanimbla reached buoy 13 at 13.15. There she fell behind in accordance with the plan. By this time the ebb was at least 2 kt, so all units were ordered to proceed at 10 kt. The RAF launch and Arthur Cavanagh were unable to make this speed and were consequently late in reaching their objectives. Lawrence now forged ahead, overhauling the two tugs and also Cockchafer, and at 04.15 proceeded alongside and boarded the Iranian gunboats Karkass and Chahbaaz. There was no resistance as complete surprise had been gained. By 04.30 and without any casualties suffered, the gunboats had been captured and the crews put under guard. An Iranian floating dock was captured intact by Cockchafer.

Meanwhile the Axis merchant ships, which had all been prepared for scuttling, received the alarm. Explosions were heard and fires were seen to break out almost simultaneously in the three Italian ships and two of the German ships. This was the sight which awaited Kanimbla as the armed merchant cruiser turned into the straight in the wake of the flotilla. Two US ships were berthed in the available space by the jetty. Kanimbla went straight to the Italian tanker Bronte, which was blazing fiercely amidships, while Lawrence, having left prize crews aboard the captured gunboats, was ordered to proceed to Caboto. Lawrence captured Caboto and put a party of officers and ratings on board to fight the fire, and then went alongside Barbara and ran hoses and a bucket chain in an effort to deal with a fierce fire under her bridge. By 07.45 both Italian ships had been saved from destruction.

With all hoses rigged, Kanimbla poured water into Bronte. The latter was filled with stacks of kerosene containers, which were bursting. The heat was intense. A foothold was obtained after the first rush of flames had been beaten back, and after about three hours the ship was saved. Kanimbla had 16 officers and 111 men away on boarding parties round the harbour, and the Bronte’s fire was tackled by the few members of the crew remaining.

The German ship Weissenfels was lost. The German preparations had been efficient, and it seems that the Weissenfels’s chief engineer had taken action to scuttle and fire his ship before the alarm came from Hohenfels.

The situation ashore at 17.00 on 25 August was calm. Afloat, Marienfels and Wildenfels were anchored but apparently were ready to be brought forward for loading; Sturmfels was at anchor, with No. 4 hold full of corn still smouldering, and there was a possibility that this corn, now saturated with firefighting water, might start to swell and this burst the bulkheads; there was also the fear that the fire might spontaneously ignite Barbara, Caboto and Bronte. Hohenfels was beached and listing 3° to starboard. Weissenfels was still burning furiously, although all the oil fires were apparently out, but it was impossible to get into the ship to shut the seacocks, and the vessel sank in deep water at 05.00 on 26 August.

The seven Axis merchant vessels captured at Bandar Shahpur were taken first to Basra and thence to India, where they arrived in September.

Having achieved the first object of ‘Bishop’, namely the capture of the Axis shipping in the harbour of Bandar Shahpur, the Allies sought to capture the port and town of Bandar Shahpur. Adams was again in command, and could now also call on the support of aircraft: these were Vickers Vincent army co-operation machines of No. 244 Squadron, Douglas DC-2 transports of No. 31 Squadron, Hawker Hurricane and Gloster Gladiator fighters of No. 26 Squadron, and Bristol Blenheim light bombers of No. 84 Squadron.

Bandar Shahpur is located some 30 miles (48 km) up the Khor Musa Channel and lies on the seaward edge of a large mud flat which extends back some 7 miles (11.25 km) before what may properly be called the mainland is reached. At high tide this mud flat is flooded to a depth of 2 or 3 ft (0.6 or 0.9 m). The port was on the deep water channel and comprised a reclaimed area about 1 mile (1.6 km) long and 400 yards (365 m) wide at its widest point and filled to a height of 5 to 8 ft (1.5 to 2.4 m) above the natural level of the mud bank. Here five German and three Italian ships had taken permanent refuge since the outbreak of war.

The Iranian naval presence was two sloops anchored in the channel, and a naval barracks which was being built with a handful of naval ratings living on shore. Apart from the sloops the only defence force was an infantry detachment of about 75 men quartered in three wooden huts. There were no defence works.

The port was the terminus of the Iranian State Railway which ran north by a single track to Ahwaz, Tehran and Bandar Shah on the Caspian Sea. On the raised area there were four main railway sidings. The main line ran along the length of the raised area and led to a jetty over a wooden viaduct some 300 yards (275 m) long. The original jetty was also a timber construction but an extension on steel piles was added giving a total length of 285 yards (260 m). The jetty carried a triple track but its capacity was limited by a single-track approach.

After Kanimbla had put out the fire on the Italian tanker Bronte, she opened fire on a train pulling out of Bandar Shahpur and believed to be carrying some German tourists. Some straddles were obtained but there was no direct hit and the train got away intact. Very soon a decision to land troops without naval support was taken as there were no signs of military activity on shore.

Major Maxwell of the 3/10th Baluch Regiment embarked with A Company and a couple of Bren light machine gun detachments for the jetty about 1 mile (1.6 km) away. D Company was to follow as the second wave on the return of the tug. A Company seized its bridgehead and proceed to the railway station and its large sheds without meeting opposition. There was then an exchange of fire.

The town of Bandar Shahpur was occupied on 25 August, and by the evening of the same day the whole area as far as the railway causeway over Khor Dorak, 2.4 miles (4 km) from the town, had been occupied. A defence post was established at the causeway and direct telephone communication from this to Kanimbla, alongside the jetty, was established. A reconnaissance over a radius of some 20 miles (32 km) was carried out on 28 August, and on the following day news arrived of the ceasefire.