RAF Hinaidi (and cemetery) - A Brief History
In April 1922, the 'powers that be’ in the Army and British Government (Trenchard and Winston Churchill) decided to take the pressure off the British Army in Iraq (which was having great difficulty in finding and expelling invading Arab/Kurdish rebels) by establishing a number of Armoured Car Companies to work closely with the RAF bomber/reconnaissance squadrons in driving the rebels back across the border. Wing Commander William Harold Primrose was tasked with the job of setting up the Armoured Car Companies in Iraq, requiring close to 1,000 RAF personnel (called ‘The Armoured Car Details’) to be trained in England at Manston under Primrose’s command before being transported by ship to Iraq. The troopship the Braemar Castle, left England on the 14th September 1922 and arrived at Basra a month later. Upon arrival at the port of Basra in southern Iraq in the first week of November 1922, the men and equipment disembarked, the officers (including Wg Cdr Primrose) travelling the 330 miles from Basra to Baghdad by night sleeper, a train providing all the creature comforts and food. The NCOs and 'other ranks' entrained at Shaibah Junction, 10 miles south-west of Basra, on very primitive rolling stock, with each car labelled, “4 horses or 16 men”! Not only was it uncomfortable, the men had to arrange for their own provisions for the long and slow journey. After further training at RAF Hinaidi, the men were allocated to an Armoured Car Squadron or the Armoured Car HQ.
In October 1922, the Royal Air Force took over command and control from the British Army of all British Forces in Iraq. This decision was made on the grounds that it would be far cheaper to patrol the region from the air, by increasing the number of Royal Air Force squadrons and Armoured Car Companies now under its direct control instead of relying purely on ground troops to maintain peace in the region. Such a radical change in the Royal Air Force’s organisation meant that the new infrastructure required would far exceed the capabilities of the RAF base at Baghdad West. To allow for growth into the future, all operationms were moved to RAF Hinaidi, an area of flat land seven miles east of Baghdad West, on the east bank of the River Tigris. RAF Hinaidi had already been set up as a new base for the RAF in late 1921. To protect the low-lying land from flooding, a bund was constructed around the perimeter of the cantonment, eight and a quarter miles in length and encompassing an area of approximately 2,500 acres. Though construction would take several years to complete, No 1 Squadron, the first of many, moved into its new home in April 1921. In late 1922 the Armoured Car Companies and their HQ moved to an area on the western side of the cantonment, close to the RAF General Hospital. Over the sixteen year operational life of RAF Hinaidi, a total of seven RAF Squadrons were based there at one time or another, as were the Armoured Car Companies, the Iraqi Levies, RAF contractors and civilian employees. At its peak, the population of RAF Hinaidi reached 9,000 and the facilities provided for those who worked and lived there came to include three clubs (two for officers), playing fields, a swimming pool, tennis courts, squash courts, a golf course, a ‘point to point’ course, a large stadium, three churches, a college with library and a post office. The final piece of the jigsaw in bringing every organisational Unit into RAF Hinaidi was in December 1928 when the Air Headquarters and all its staff was moved from the old British Residency in the centre of Baghdad into one block of the RAF General Hospital, which had been built along the western perimeter of the cantonment on the bank of the River Tigris.
The role of the squadrons based at Hinaidi was varied, encompassing all aspects of reconnaissance, bombing, ground attack in cooperation with Armoured Car Companies and transportation (e.g. people, equipment, mail). Actions, to name a few, included the repelling of Turkish forces from Kurdistan, restoring local order against Sheikh Mahmond of Sulaimania and Ahmad of Barzan and the evacuation of Karbul. Flying in a desert region came at great risk to the pilots and gunners, with sand causing frequent engine failure and extreme heat buckling wings and causing fabric glue to fail. As many men died as a result of accidental crashes as would in battle.
Between December 1921 and December 1937, three hundred servicemen and RAF contractors lost their lives and were buried in the Hinaidi RAF Peace Cemetery (later renamed the Ma’Asker Al Raschid RAF Cemetery but now known simply as the Al-Rasheed Cemetery). Their deaths were caused by a variety of events – in action, by accident, through illness and in a few instances, as a result of suicide or murder. Serving in the unfamiliar, harsh and unrelenting climate of Iraq was not easy, especially in the early nineteen-twenties when facilities provided at Hinaidi were very basic. By the time ownership of the RAF Hinaidi cantonment and most of its infrastructure was handed over to the Iraqi Government in February 1938, the RAF’s centre of operations in Iraq had already been moved to a new site at Habbaniya, fifty miles to the west of Baghdad. However, it was stipulated in the handover document that the cemetery grounds would remain the property of the British Ministry of Defence and maintained in perpetuity by the Imperial War Graves Commission.
Many of the graves at Hinaidi are for decorated WW1 veterans from the Royal Air Force and the British Army as well as for diplomats and political officers, the most prominent diplomat being Brigadier-General Sir Gilbert Clayton, British High Commissioner to Iraq at the time of his death in September 1929. Sir Gilbert was instrumental in Iraq being accepted into the League of Nations, though he did not live to see the results of his achievements. Of the forty-three Royal Air Force pilots buried at Hinaidi, twenty-three were WW1 veterans, sharing between them twenty-six medals and citations. Four of the decorated veterans had achieved ‘ace’ status during their WW1 service prior to re-joining the peacetime Royal Air Force, often at a significantly lower rank. Two had once commanded their own squadrons. Among the senior officers buried at Hinaidi were two commanding officers (Squadron Leaders) of the No 6 Armoured Car Company as well as a Station Commander and a Wing Commander from the RAF HQ.
During the construction of the perimeter wall at the Ma'Asker al Raschid Cemetery, photographs were taken of every headstone found on the cemetery grounds. A few headstones were in perfect condition and more or less in their original setting, whilst others, though complete, had been knocked over and moved to other parts of the cemetery. There were also a large number of damaged and incomplete headstones, with some fragments too small to be able to match the grave to which they belonged. Nevertheless, sixty-nine of the original two hundred and ninety-nine headstones were able to be confirmed. It is possible that this number may increase, as there are many more headstone fragments buried under the rubble, especially as the south-east corner of the cemetery has in recent years been used as a makeshift access road to the nearby Al-Rasheed Air Base.
The recent erection of the cemetery wall and security gate, coupled with Commonwealth War Graves signage, has hopefully halted the appalling deterioration of the cemetery. This project represents a huge step towards ensuring the ongoing security of the bodies of the men and women buried at Ma'Asker. However, in order to afford the men and women who gave their lives for their Country the honour and respect they deserve, more needs to be done. With details now available as to the name, service unit and grave location of every man, woman (and an eight-month-old baby girl) buried at Al-Rasheed, it is feasible to have all three hundred headstones re-made by the CWGC in Europe and erected at Al-Rasheed as time, resources and political climate allowing. All it requires is funding and a little bit of co-operation.