History of Camp Habbaniyah

Entrance sign, 1941

Task Force 506th assumed responsibility for Camp Habbaniyah from 1-34 AR on 7 September 2004. Habbaniyah has always been a military base, occupied first by the British and then by the Iraqi Army. It is located in a rural part of Iraq, about halfway between Fallujah and Ar Ramadi in the Al Anbar province. Habbaniyah has long played an important role in the military affairs of modern Iraqi history dating back to its construction shortly before World War II.

British Honor Guard at HabbaniyahAfter its defeat in World War I, the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist as such and the majority of the territory once under its control was placed under British mandate and jurisdiction. The country we know of as modern day Iraq was formed in 1920. It was drawn along arbitrary lines by the amalgamation of several former Ottoman provinces and colonies, namely the three provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. This assisted the British governing authorities with the administration of the country; however, it also led to a belligerent relationship between the Iraqi and British governments, as many of the former Ottoman colonies merely tolerated each other at best. Iraq was a difficult, inhospitable land populated by many different races and with many tribal factions and Sheikhdoms. But, despite their hostility towards each other, they all found a common ground in opposing the British. In 1927, Iraq was given its independence by a treaty that was drawn up between the two countries. The new Iraqi government recognized that the maintenance and protection of British communications and supply lines would be in the best interests of both parties. Therefore, sites for British troops and aircraft were granted in the south at Shaibah, near the southern port city of Basra and to the west of the Euphrates at Habbaniyah, along the main Baghdad-Haifa highway.

Comms Flight Valentia over Iraq - 1941The Habbaniyah site was chosen because there was a ready supply of water from the Euphrates, a large flat area for the airfield, and a nearby lake for flying boats and recreation. Official RAF reports from the period indicated that Habbaniyah was considered an ideal defensive position, despite the fact that the proposed site was situated on low ground, next to a possible flood plain, and over-watched one thousand yards to the south by a commanding 150-foot-high plateau. Numerous plans and designs were submitted for approval between 1932 and 1933, and the final contract was let to a Mr. Humphrey of Knightsbridge, London. Construction on the new base began in earnest in 1934 and the first thing that was done, interestingly, was to plant hundreds of eucalyptus trees, imported from Australia specifically for use on Habbaniyah. Early medicine showed that eucalyptus trees possess a sap which acts as a natural mosquito repellent; because of this, Habbaniyah has never had a problem with malaria and still doesn't to this day. One of the first things that someone notices when visiting Habbaniyah is the sheer size of the place. RAF Habbaniyah was meant to be grand from the start; the British were determined to make a statement and Habbaniyah was to be a symbol of British power in the Middle East – thus, the start of a beautiful, town-sized oasis carved out of nothing in the middle of the desert. The small army of workers needed to build such a sprawling base was housed in temporary quarters that were built on the south-east side of the main base, near what is presently known as Civil/Coolie Camp.

Miniature train used in Habbaniya construction, 1936 (courtesy Dr C.D.E. Morris, RAF Habbaniya Association)The sheer size of the project meant that innovative techniques would have to be used. A small train was used to haul construction components around before the roads were finished in 1936 and little train tracks were laid to allow the train to do its work. Bricks for the buildings were literally hand made along the banks of the Euphrates and baked in the hot Iraqi sun. For the first three years of its existence, Habbaniyah was called "RAF Dhibban" following the normal RAF practice of naming bases for the nearest large city or town. Unfortunately, this name was chosen hastily, as it was later found out that the nearby village Sinn Adh Dhibban was so named because of its persistent swarms of flies. The base's close proximity to Habbaniyah Lake and the numerous Oleander trees which had been planted along the roadsides on the base led to the more tasteful name: RAF Habbaniyah (roughly translated from the Arabic, Habbaniyah means "of the Oleander").

Dependants at HabbaniyahConstruction proceeded until the base was fully open in March 1937. The first operational use of the airfield, however, wasn't until October 1938, when 30 Squadron officially moved in. RAF Habbaniyah soon became a favorite posting among the pilots and aircrews of the RAF. The peace and tranquility of the desert made for a rewarding experience for servicemen and dependents (or "Habbites" as they called themselves). The excellent, year-round flying weather meant it would be a perfect home for the No.4 Service Flying Training School (SFTS). RAF Habbaniyah also staged the Communications Flight, whose job it was to perform liaison and re-supply missions along Iraq's oil pipelines, thus maintaining Britain's interests in the region. In order to patrol the nearly eight miles of perimeter fence, the RAF air police would resort to a method tried and true: horses. RAF Habbaniyah was unique in that it possessed the only horse mounted police in the RAF and would continue to do so until the mid-50's.

The base would be the focal point of Britain's defense of the region during World War II. It also participated in a brief but sharp battle in April-May 1941 in which a small garrison of RAF cadets crushed an overwhelmingly larger Iraqi military force and routed them all the way to Baghdad (see Battle of Habbaniyah). During the Cold War, the base would be the airfield from which numerous spy flights over Russia would be staged and hosted many aircraft from various Allied nations peeking into the USSR. The British presence in the Middle East was coming to a close when, in May 1955, control of Habbaniyah would be passed to the Iraqi government. The British from this point on would be only tenants on the base they built. The British would officially leave Habbaniyah four years later, turning it completely over to the Iraqis on May 31, 1959.

Lebanese 'Vampire' fighters at Habbaniya, mid-50'sThe Iraqis would continue to use Habbaniyah as a training base and aircraft parts depot for the next few decades. Although the Iraqis built a much larger airfield with longer runways designed for fast interceptors and fighters about one mile south of Habbaniyah, the old base would still be used for smaller Iraqi aircraft like the MIG 21 "Fishbed" and the Sukhoi SU-25 "Frogfoot". The Israeli Air Force launched raids on Habbaniyah during the 1970's and early 80's, primarily to thwart Iraqi nuclear ambitions. The Iranians even launched an unsuccessful effort to attack Habbaniyah in October 1980, but were stopped when they lost a plane to a SAM missile over Baghdad. Because of its location close to Baghdad and its excellent facilities, Habbaniyah was chosen by the Iraqis as a weapons development center and as a chemical training base for Republican Guard units, of which so much was talked about before the first Gulf War in 1991. Recently de-classified reports indicate that Iraq produced chemical components for mustard gas at Habbaniyah for use during the Iran-Iraq War, and it was probably at Habbaniyah that Saddam produced the nerve agents and mustard gas that he used on the Kurds in 1988. Numerous targets were selected at Habbaniyah for the then new F-117A Stealth Fighter during Operation Desert Storm and the target lists included:

  • Suspected Chemical & Biological Weapons Storage & Production Facilities at Habbaniyah & Latifiya
  • A possible Chemical Warfare Production Center at Habbaniyah
  • Early Warning Facility at Al Habbaniyah

Although Habbaniyah was attacked and bombed during Operations Desert Shield / Desert Storm in 1991 and again in 1999 during Operation Desert Fox, most of the original British buildings were left untouched and it is surprising how well they have held up over the years. According to a story reported by AP news, when 3rd Infantry Division troops occupied the base in June 2003:

... The troops were greeted by curious shepherds, grazing sheep and goats on the base grounds. The soldiers began cleaning the old tin-roofed barracks to use themselves. Soldiers from A Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment immediately began setting up a headquarters at Habbaniyah Air Base, built by the British in the early 1950's [sic]. Most of the buildings had been looted after Iraqi troops abandoned the base, with almost everything that could be removed — including light switches and door frames — stolen. Even the tiles on the fireplaces had been pried off by looters.

The old airbase has served the Currahees well during our stay in Iraq – and I will actually be sad to see the place go. Despite the dust and the years of neglect, the old buildings still look as stately and graceful as they did when they were brand new in 1938. The place possesses a charm that few places in the world do and the camp's beautiful tree-lined streets echo an air of authority not experienced in newer bases or Army posts. Soon, the new Iraqi army will call Habbaniyah home and the grand old base will continue its legacy of training Soldiers and Airmen and perhaps it will become the beacon of hope and freedom that it represented so many years ago.

World War II era map of Iraq
SFC John F. Kohne
Battalion Fire Support NCO