Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.
-Winston Churchill, August 20, 1940
63 years ago at this time, the British Royal Air Force was engaged in a life and death struggle against Nazi Germany's air force, the Luftwaffe. Hitler had taken all of continental Europe in the lightning war campaign, known as the “Blitzkrieg”. The Royal Air Force was badly outnumbered by a factor of 3 to 1, and the US and the USSR would not enter the war until a year later. The Nazis saw it as essential and very manageable to defeat the Royal Air Force in order to capture the last remaining country in Europe.
The fate of Britain and the non-Nazi world lie in the hands of the pilots and groundcrew of the RAF Fighter Command. These airmen proved the Nazi war planners wrong, and in the period of July to September of 1940, fought bravely and successfully against the Luftwaffe, resulting in Hitler's decision to abandon the invasion of Britain, and his first defeat.
“The Few”, as they became known, consisted of 2927 pilots, almost half of whom lost their lives. To this day, the Battle of Britain is commemorated every year very solemnly by the British people, and is considered one of the major events of British and world history.
Forty years later, Saddam's Iraq invaded Iran, which was in the midst of revolutionary turmoil and a hostage crisis. I remember the day that the Iraqi Air Force bombed and terrorized most of the major cities in Iran, and Saddam's army crossed the border virtually unopposed and captured dozens of cities thousands of square kilometers of Iran's territory. The atrocities and looting committed by his troops have yet to be punished or even apologized for.
While many brave Iranians resisted fierecely on the ground, there was virtually no army or heavy weapons at that time standing in Saddam's way as his tanks rolled in and tried to annex Khuzestan and rename it “Arabistan”. Like Hitler, Saddam needed a defeat of his enemy's air force to secure victory. Like Hitler, Saddam vastly underestimated his enemy. The air battle that followed was highly significant, and vastly underreported. This air battle is what halted the Iraqi invasion in its tracks, and spelled the beginning of defeat for Saddam's schemes.
The true and amazing story of this battle as well as the rest of the air war is described in a new book by Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop: , published by Schiffer Books. This book is the result of 15 years of research and many interviews with participants of this battle on both sides.
We have heard very little about the Iranian Air Force and its role in the defence of our country, and for good reason. The Iranian government always wanted to downplay the role of this “American” and “Imperial” and “Taghooti” infested force. The US never wanted to admit the notion that a “thrid world terrorist” country (or the “ayatollah's air force”) could so effectively operate its most sophisticated weaponry at the time despite lack of US support.
The French and Russians never wanted to admit that an “inoperable” and “kaputt” air arm could shoot down so many of their most sophisticated aircraft, it would just be bad marketing. Most of the history written about this aspect of the war claims that most of Iran's air force was grounded due to the lack of spare parts, desertion and execution of pilots and other personnel, and departure of US technicians.
The truth however, was quite different. While clearly, Iran sufferred from a lack of a constant supply of spare parts and ammunition, as well as purging and politicizing of the armed forces, the Persian Air Force put politics aside and fought bravely for its country.
There were cases of imprisoned pilots begging to be let out to fly missions, and after flying 2 or 3 extremely dangerous missions, would be shot down and killed. This was one of the greatest and most dedicated team efforts in our history, where the aircrews and groundcrews and other Air Force personnel worked and fought day and night and went far beyond their call of duty to save our country.
While both sides lost many aircraft, most of Iran's losses were due to flying extremely dangerous (virtually suicidal) precision strike missions over heavily defended sites deep inside Iraq and above the front lines at extremely low altitude to avoid detection by Iraq's increasing radar coverage provided by the Europeans and Russians, as well as US and Saudi AWACS support. This was necessary to slow and ultimately stop the advance of the Iraqi army, and allow precious time for Iran to regroup and reform its own ground forces with new command structure to more directly confront the invaders.
The use of expensive fighter jets against tanks and other army equipment is not a good use of military resources, but there was no choice at the time. Meanwhile Iraq's missions were primarily low precision cowardly attacks against population centers to intimidate Iran into accepting defeat.
A few more interesting highlights about this part of the war:
– In air to air engagements, Iran's kill ratio was roughly 5:1, which is only surpassed by the Israelis against Syria in 1982 and the US in the Gulf war in 1991. Very often, air engagements consisted of 1-2 Iranian fighters engaging 4, or even 8 Iraqi fighters and winning. It got to the point where Iraq ordered its pilots to avoid air to air engagements (especially with the F-14), and actually had to import mercenary pilots from Egypt, and even places like Belgium, South Africa, and East Germany to fly the critical missions!
– In 1982, Iran launched a brilliantly planned and daring airstrike on the H-3 airfield near the Jordanian border where the Iraqis thought their aircraft were safe. They would find that they were wrong when 8 F-4s destroyed 48 Iraqi aircraft on the ground with complete surprise, and all returned safely to Iran.
This mission was the largest destruction of enemy aircraft on the ground after the 1967 Arab Israeli 6 day war, was one of the most brilliant air assaults in history, and involved aerial refueling at an altitude of less than 100 meters, violating about every safety rule there is.
The flight from Iran to H-3 was longer and more risky than the flight from Israel to Baghdad's Osirak reactor in 1981. 2 of the 8 pilots in this raid were subsequently executed in a purge a few years later by the Iranian government. Some of the remaining pilots eventually left the country.
– Col Abbas Doran personally flew hundreds of missions over Iraq, and was so dreaded that Saddam issued a bounty specifically for his head! When he was finally shot down over a heavily defended Baghdad in 1982, he stayed with his F-4 all the way down rather than become captured.
– The most accomplished F-14 aces in the world are Iranian, some of which have 9 kills to their name, most of which were the most advanced Soviet and French aircraft.
And unlike the RAF “Few”, our “Few” had to do all this in the face of a mistrusting government who could (and did) execute them and/or their comrades, and in the face of shortages and embargoes, while Iraq was fully supported and resupplied with the latest and greatest (sometimes so new that it was yet to be tested) weaponry. Sadly, their sacrifice has been mostly untold and unrecognized except by the few who know the stories. That is why the original title of this book was “Forgotten Warriors”.
This was a painful chapter in our history, and since then, many of us Iranians have moved on in our lives in a million different directions. While I have described a small piece of the air war here, this shouldn't detract in the least from the great sacrifices made on the ground and at sea. I just thought that this story has been less told. I feel that the Iran-Iraq War should be renamed the Arab-Iranian War, since that is what it really was.
I also feel the air war should be called the “Battle of Persia”. When I read Churchill's quote, I cannot help but think of the Persian Air Force. I don't know what your political leanings or your social opinions or your visions of the future are, it doesn't matter. But I think a nation is judged by many things, one of the most important of which is how it honors its fallen and its great men and women throughout its history.
I hope you will join me today in taking a moment to honor the often forgotten Persian “Few”, too many of whom never came home so that we could. In my heart and in my mind, they are the modern day Ferdosi, who saved us from a second Qadesiyeh.
The book can be found at:
Some of the stories of the war can be found at: