On the 16th May 1941 the RAF base at Habbaniya in Iraq had been subjected to a surprise attack by German Me 110 and Heinkel III bombers. It was a particular surprise because the Luftwaffe had not yet been seen in Iraq, where the RAF had been largely successful in beating off the Iraqi airforce. However the base had just received two long range Hurricane IIc’s, armed with cannon. They were now capable of providing a fighter escort to a bomber attack by Blenheims, on the German planes based at Mosul. Tony Dudgeon was then a Squadron Leader at the RAF training school in Habbaniya and was very familiar with how such attacks were conducted:
It was 200 miles each way, and they made the trip at very low level, doing the simplest kind of navigation — following the road. To be accurate, not really a road, but a number of tracks across the desert, first to Haditha and then bearing right for Mosul.
It was simple, but by no means stupid. First, flying on your own with no radio surveillance over 200 miles of featureless desert it is dead easy to get lost. Second, being right down on the ground, there were less chances of being seen from above, and no one below on those meandering tracks would be able to pass on the word ahead.
In any case, a really low cross-country flight is a wonderful experience. It is the only time one can get the feeling of an aeroplane’s terrific speed. The ground streaks past under the wings unbelievably fast. Different coloured patches of sand flow by; it’s like running your hand across a patchwork quilt. You lift your machine gently upwards to clear hummocks, and then ease her down again the other side to stay low, low, low. As one approaches the target, the adrenalin starts to pump, giving a tingling sensation between the shoulder-blades, and maybe some sweat trickles down.
Final checks. Bombs — ‘fused’. Guns — safety-catches ‘off. All set. The landmarks signifying the target appear ahead; in this case dusty-green trees near the airfield, and some houses, sticking up out of the yellow sand. Will the enemy react?
Then the attack — utterly absorbing — total concentration — not an atom of space in your conscious mind for fear. You are not relaxed enough, or with time enough, to think about yourself.
Next, if you have not been badly hit, more concentration on the task of getting away and back home, safely. Bomber-boys used to say that up to the instant of bomb-release, you were working for your King and Country; when you heard the words ‘Bombs Gone!’ you began to work for your wife and family.
When they returned, our force reported that they had burned one Heinkel, blown up a Messerschmitt and damaged four other aircraft, including a Ju.52 transport. One Hurricane did not return because, it was believed, he had flown into the fragments of his exploding Me.110.
The pilot of that missing Hurricane was Flight Lieutenant Sir Roderic MacRobert of 94 Squadron. He was the third and last of three brothers to lose his life flying; two in the war and one in a 1938 accident. Their mother, Lady MacRobert, presented three Hurricanes to the RAF for use in the Middle East, each bearing the family crest and the name of one of her sons. Later she also presented a Stirling bomber to the Air Force, named ‘MacRobert’s Reply’.
Dudgeon later rose to become Air Vice Marshall. His account of the brief Iraqi campaign is in:
A. G. Dudgeon: The War That Never Was.
THE NAME OF MACROBERT LIVES ON
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