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H - 185 : "Zu Befehl, Herr Oberst" - the Wehrmach in Cyprus?

Updated: Jan 29

Map of Cyprus from 1942. Cyprus was a British since 1878

The idea of German officers barking orders in Cyprus sounds outlandish. But in 1941 the German Army considered plans to occupy the island. The context? Hitler had a problem of strategic dimension. He fought a war of mobility with modern planes and tanks but had no oil. With not enough diesel and kerosene, German conquests and global dominance would just remain dreams. Germany’s large coal reserves powered its industrial revolution in the 19th century. But were of limited use in the 20th century.

German'a oil production could never keep pace with the war industry - consequently German Forces were always short of fuel and often forced into static fighting


There were only three places in Germany’s vicinity with exploitable oil fields at the time. Ploesti in Romania, the Kirkuk fields in northern Iraq and Baku on the Caspian Sea. Baku was part of the Soviet Union. Iraq controlled by the British. Through deft diplomacy, Romania came under German influence. The Ploesti oil fields were small though and covered only 1/3 of German needs. The rest was supplied by the Soviet Union – Stalin and Hitler were allied until summer 1941.


American B-24s bombing the Ploesti Oil Fields on 1 August 1943

Not totally unexpected, the German victories in Europe stirred up the Middle East. Many Arabs publicly wondered whether this was not the moment to get rid of British hegemony. Whilst Luftwaffe’s Blitz had failed and the Wehrmacht’s invasion of England was postponed, the British Empire was at its weakest point in history. Some Arab leaders and officers believed their time had come. If they succeeded, vital interests of the British Empire were at risk. The Empire would lose its oil supply and the Royal Navy the Mediterranean. I knew very little about any of this until I read John Broich’s book “Blood Oil and the Axis”, published 2019. A true eye opener.

Military Situation in Europe in April 1941


In March 1941, Rashid-Ali, the nationalist and anti-British Iraqi politician, seized power in a coup in Baghdad. He and his followers wanted to curb British influence. The Royal Air Force still kept two bases, one near Baghdad, the other in Basra. Formally, Iraq had gained independence in 1932. Britain’s oil interest however dominated all politics. Predictably, Anglo-Iraqi negotiations to address the issue failed. Early April 1941, the Rashid-Ali government asked Germany for military assistance. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy duly complied. 15’000 rifles, 200 machine guns, a dozen artillery pieces, and ammunition were shipped to Iraq via Syria (Vichy France collaborated with Germany after France’s defeat in June 1940.

Nationalist Iraqi Prime Minister Rashid Ali al-Gaylani


The pace of events accelerated when on 6 April 1941 the Wehrmacht attacked Greece. Its Army surrendered within two weeks on 23 April. German Panzers reached Athens on 27th April. The 52’000 men strong British Expeditionary Corps could barely escape. The island of Crete held out a month longer. Attacked by German Paratroopers on 20 May, the island fell on 1 June 1941. The casualties for the German Paras were dreadful. 25% of its effectives or 6’000 men were killed or wounded. The division could not be used for further combat missions and had to refresh and regroup.

British Press Speculation about Germany's Middle East Strategy. Everybody understood the importance of oil for the war


That April, the mood in the Imperial British Headquarter in London grew darker by the day. With Germany pushing into the Aegean, the loss of Iraq became a possibility. It would mean unlimited oil supply for Germany, its dominance of the Middle East and control of the Mediterranean including closure of the Suez Canal. Neutral Turkey and Persia would probably join the German camp. Urgent action was needed. But the British Empire had almost no uncommitted resources anymore. Had it not been for the Indian troops which were shipped in a hurry from Bombay to Iraq, the Empire would have lost control of Iraq and its oil. Within weeks, an Indian division disembarked in Basra in southern Iraq.


Members of the British Arab Legion protect obsolete Gloster Gladiators in Iraq

The Anglo-Iraqi war started on 2 May and lasted for a month. Indian and British troops reconquered Baghdad and Mosul. The nationalist government surrendered and went into exile. Supply of oil for the British Empire was secured. It was a close call though. Had Hitler grabbed the opportunity and attacked lightly defended Cyprus at the same time as Crete, he could have won. There were 40’000 British soldiers in Crete but only 4’000 in Cyprus. The Dodecanese Island with their large Italian naval base would have been a suitable departing point and within range of the Ju-52, the workhorse of German Paratroopers. Syria and Lebanon were friendly Vichy French colonies and would have collaborated. The Arab population was mostly anti-British.

A German Ju-52 shot down over Suda Bay in Crete during the German Invasion in May 1941


But Hitler was preoccupied with the preparations of his attack on the Soviet Union on 20 June 1941. He had no appetite for a complex sea and airborne operation that would take a division or two from his main effort. Anyway, his beloved para division was not large enough for two simultaneous missions. The German General Staff drew up some preliminary plans nonetheless. Eventually, the tiny air group with 20 planes was despatched to Mosul. The effort was too small and too late. It came to naught. Hitler was convinced that he would control Ukraine’s wheat fields, the industrial centres of Leningrad and Moscow and the oilfields of Baku by winter 1941. So why bother? Who needed Iraqi oil anyway?

German Me-109 Fighters did not have the Range to cover an Airborne Invasion of Cyprus but the transporter JU-52 could have reached it

Am not a fan of alternative history. It is mostly speculative. But Cyprus is an interesting case. The weakened British Empire could not have repulsed a determined attack. Germany would have gained a protected sea route from the Dodecanese to Syria beyond the range of British Bombers. German and Italian tankers could have bunkered oil in Tripoli or Haifa and shipped it unharassed to Europe. Beating the Axis Powers would have become far more difficult. It took the USA 3 1/2 years to defeat Germany. Imagine how much more time and effort it would have taken had Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe being able to run an agile and flexible defence. The first nuclear bombs would certainly have been dropped on Germany. It is probably good that Cyprus was not invaded in 1941.







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