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The Arab Legion

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The Arab Legion

In 1921, the Amir Abdullah, second son of King Hussein and late General of the Arab Army during the operations in the Hejaz, was persuaded to accept the sovereignty of the land east of the Jordan River, known as Trans-Jordan.

Order Today! The Arab Legion: 1923-57

Order Today! The Arab Legion (Men-at-arms)

The territory was unwanted by either the British or the French and the Amir had to create a functioning government from scratch. High among the priorities was the creation of the armed forces to maintain law and order and to ensure the independent tribes maintained allegiance to the new government.

In August/September 1920, Captain FG Peake, late of the Egyptian Camel Corps that had fought with Lawrence and the Arabs was sent by the British to report on the local police, gendarmerie and the public security situation.  The small police force was found to be insufficient and in October 1920, the British High Commissioner in Jerusalem authorised Peake to form two small forces.  These were:

100 men the "Mobile Force", to guard the Amman-Palestine road
50 men   to help the British official posted to Kerak in the south.


The "Mobile Force" may actually have been formed in Amman by a Captain Brunton (later succeeded by Peake) and had 75 cavalrymen with others (25 men?) forming two Maxim MG sections.

When Amir Abdullah arrived in Amman on 2 March 1921 he brought with him a "battalion" (katiba) of about 200 infantry.  In 1921, Abdullah may have been able to call on the following security forces:

1. The localised, stationary gendarmerie or darak about 400 men centred on Ajlun, Balqa and Kerak
2. A "battalion" of Reserve Gendarmes mainly cavalry, probably based on the "Mobile Force" company formed by Brunton
3. An infantry "battalion" around 200 men, probably the katiba which had accompanied Abdullah to Amman
4. A camel troop 100 men forming the Amir's private guard in the early days

Peake was appointed Inspector-general of the darak but did not have direct military command or control over this force.  Following tribal unrest in 1921, which demonstrated the shortcomings of the darak, Abdullah agreed to the setting up of a reorganised Reserve Mobile Force commanded by Peake.  In return the Amir was to receive additional British assistance.

By Autumn 1921, Peak had organised the new Reserve Mobile Force, recruiting mostly Arabs who had served in the Ottoman army, mostly from Syria and Palestine.  The original 100 men became 1,000, organised into:

2 infantry companies commanded by an Arab captain
3 squadrons of cavalry commanded by an Arab captain
1 mountain battery of artillery commanded by an Iraqi captain
1 MG company  
1 signals section  

In April 1923, the British formally recognised Abdullah's autonomy over Trans-Jordan.  On 22 October 1923, the civil police were merged with the Reserve Mobile Force, under the command of Peake who was now an employee of the Amirate. The new force was named Al Jeish al Arabi or The Arab Army  but was always known officially in English as The Arab Legion.

Between 1923 and 1926, Peake dismissed some Arab officers unsympathetic to Abdullah's rule.  Elsewhere, recruiting continued and at this time most recruits were village peasants and some townsmen.  The Bedouin remained aloof from the Legion, for they were against the idea of a central ruler.   By 1926 there were 1,500 officers and men.

In 1920, Britain had recognised Trans-Jordan as a new country preparing for independence and undertook to provide for the country’s defence. An RAF squadron and No 2 Armoured Car Company, RAF were stationed in the country to fulfil this obligation. In 1924 they joined with the Arab Legion to beat back an invasion from what was to become Saudi Arabia.


Tribal unrest flared up again in 1926 and the newly formed Trans-Jordan Frontier Force was given the task of protecting the country’s borders. The Legion was made responsible for internal security. The Frontier Force, formed from cadres provided by the Arab Legion, were officially British Imperial Troops, under the command of the British High Command for Palestine. The Arab Legion was reduced to 900 men as a result and its artillery and signals disbanded.   Its responsibilities were reduced to that of an internal security force.

With its effectiveness reduced by the creation of the Frontier Force, the Arab Legion was unable to cope with raids by tribal groups in the vast desert regions of Trans-Jordan during the late 1920s and early 1930s. The disorder threatened both the Amir’s Government and peace with neighbouring Saudi Arabia. A British Captain, John Bagot Glubb, was transferred to the Legion in November 1930 as second in command to Peake. Glubb, later Lieutenant General Sir John Bagot Glubb or Glubb Pasha, had experienced similar problems while serving in Iraqi. He understood the Bedouins and knew how to fight them.

In February 1931, the Desert Patrol was formed by Glubb to secure the desert region of the country, effectively everything east of the cultivated area that formed Trans-Jordan’s western border with Palestine.  He persuaded the Trans-Jordan Frontier Force to withdraw from the desert, leaving this troubled area to the new force.  Initially the Patrol had 20 men in four trucks with Lewis and Vickers machine guns. Additional men were located in small forts throughout the region and relied on camels for mobility. Glubb successfully recruited mainly Bedouins for the Patrol and helped establish strong links between the Bedouin and the monarchy that survive today. The remaining four-fifths of the Arab Legion at this time were police and gendarmerie serving in the cultivated area.  Over the next five to ten years, Glubb successfully pacified the tribes.

By 1936 the Arab Legion had grown to around 1,200 men, organised into:

The Desert Patrol – motorised in trucks


town police

Between 1936 and 1939, additional forces were raised in response to threats posed by the Arab Revolt in Palestine and civil disturbances in Syria. These were:

a "Reserve Combat Force in the Arab Legion" 2 squadrons of cavalry
The Desert Mechanised Force 350 Bedouin soldiers in trucks, organised into two companies

On 21 March 1939, Colonel Peake or ‘Peake Pasha’ as he had become known, retired and was replaced by Glubb who was to command the Legion throughout the coming Second World War. Later that year, in August, the Desert Mechanised Force took delivery of six ‘home made’ armoured cars manufactured by Wagner’s, a German firm based in Jaffa, Palestine.  The Arab Legion had a combat strength of 800 men out of roughly 1,600.

In the summer of 1940, soon after the Fall of France, General Wavell visited Trans-Jordan and was sufficiently impressed to encourage the doubling in size of the Mechanised Force. The Force was redesignated The Mechanised Regiment of the Arab Legion (of battalion strength).

Following the outbreak of fighting in the Western Desert in June 1940, a company of 200 men was made available to the British in Palestine to guard Aqir aerodrome. This was known as the 1st Infantry Company of the Arab Legion.

In April 1941, the pro-Nazi Rashid Ali seized power in Iraq and the Iraqi Army besieged British forces at the RAF base at Habbaniya. The British prepared a small force, ‘Habforce’ to relieve Habbaniya and to restore a favourable government. In April 1941, the Arab Legion Mechanised Regiment was assigned to the force and assembled in the desert at the Iraq Petroleum Company’s oil pipeline pumping station known as H4 (the pipeline ran from the oil fields in Iraq, through Trans-Jordan to the port of Haifa in Palestine).

Despite redesignation and recruitment, there were insufficient vehicles and weapons to enable the Mechanised Regiment to participate at full strength and it was effectively the original 350-man Desert Mechanised Force which accompanied ‘Habforce’. The 300 new recruits were left behind. The Regiment was equipped with 8 cwt Ford trucks, bought directly from America, and fitted with Lewis guns. They were known to the Legion as ‘scout cars’ and also carried Vickers machine guns. Each truck had a driver and co-driver, a Lewis gunner and his second and six or more riflemen. There were no artillery or mortars but four of the original home made armoured cars were taken. As far as the British were concerned, the Arab Legion was an unknown quantity and treated with some suspicion.

On 5 May, 1941, the Mechanised Regiment advanced on the Iraqi frontier fort of Rutbah, by way of pumping station H3. The plan was for the Legion to capture the fort, with RAF help, but the fort was too strongly held and by 10 May the Regiment had withdrawn to H3. There they met armoured cars of No. 2 Company, RAF, which soon proceeded to drive off an Iraqi relief column. The garrison at Rutbah were disheartened by this and abandoned the fort during the night of 10-11 May. The Arab Legion occupied the fort on the morning of 11 May and the main British column arrived on the evening of 12 May.

‘Habforce’ had been formed in Palestine from 4th Cavalry Brigade of the British 1st Cavalry Division, with additional units.

Habforce - May 1941

The Household Cavalry Regiment
The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry
The Warwickshire Yeomanry
1st Battalion of The Essex Regiment
237th Battery, Royal Artillery (60th Field Regiment) - 25-pounders
A troop of Royal Artillery 2-pounder anti-tank guns

The two yeomanry regiments had been left behind, providing protection for the long line of communications with Palestine from the potential threat of interdiction by Vichy French forces in Syria. The Arab Legion Mechanised Regiment left patrols and garrisons at H4 and Rutbah and the 250 remaining men joined a flying column, ‘Kingcol’, which was to go on ahead of the main force to relieve the RAF garrison at Habbaniya.

Kingcol - 15 May 1941

The Household Cavalry Regiment
2 companies of The Essex Regiment
237th Battery, Royal Artillery (60th Field Regiment)
1 troop of 2 pounder anti-tank guns
250 men of the Arab Legion Mechanised Regiment
200 3-ton supply trucks of the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC)

The column was faced by an Iraqi Army of four divisions.


On the morning of 15 May, 1941, ‘Kingcol’ left Rutbah for Habbaniya, with the Arab Legion in the lead. The Legion suffered its first casualties when a scout car was knocked out in an air attack, with one man killed and the driver wounded. On 15 May, the British advance foundered in soft sand but a reconnaissance column led by a detachment of the Arab Legion reached Habbaniya on May 17. A second advance by the main force on 18 May was successful, due mainly to the guides provided by the Arab Legion, and Habbaniya was relieved later that day. The Household Cavalry provided the rearguard for the force during the advance and was attacked by German Messerschmitt fighters. An accompanying Arab Legion scout car returned fire with its outdated Lewis gun until the gunner was killed and his second badly wounded.

Once Iraq was reached, the planned role for Glubb and the Arab Legion was that of raising a counter-revolution in favour of the exiled, pro-British Iraqi Regent and against Rashid Ali. The area of Jezirah, north of Baghdad, was selected as the best area. The first raiding party left Habbaniya and crossed the Euphrates on 23 May 1941, and was made up of eight Arab Legion trucks, two Arab Legion home made armoured cars, two RAF armoured cars and a Royal Engineers officer. The party cut the Mosul-Baghdad railway and captured two Iraqi Army trucks, one officer and six men, before returning to Habbaniya. A second patrol left on 25 May and chased off an Iraqi patrol, inflicting several casualties.

Finally, the British decided to advance on Baghdad and routes were reconnoitred by the Arab Legion. The main advance was made by two columns:

1 squadron Household Cavalry Regiment, 2 companies of The Essex regiment, 3 RAF armoured cars and 1 troop of 25 pounders – along the Baghdad road

the remainder of the Household Cavalry Regiment, 1 troop of 25 pounders, 3 RAF armoured cars and the Arab Legion Mechanised Regiment – to Baghdad via the Jezirah.

The second column, with the Arab Legion, crossed the Euphrates on the evening of 27 May and set off for Baghdad the next morning. Baghdad was reached as an armistice was declared and the Arab Legion began the return journey to Trans-Jordan on 1 June, 1941. During the short campaign the Arab Legion suffered less than twelve casualties and in a letter to the Amir, Major General Clark, commander of ‘‘Habforce’, recorded his appreciation of the contribution made by the Arab soldiers.

Arab Legion Operations - 1941

However service with ‘Habforce’ was not over, for the British then launched an invasion of Syria to forestall occupation of that country by the Germans. As the main force advanced north from Palestine, ‘Habforce’ was to advance on the right flank, capture the oasis at Palmyra and cut the Vichy French communications near Homs.

‘Habforce’ had for the most part remained in the Habbaniya area since the Iraqi Armistice. The Arab Legion Mechanised Regiment – 350 men organised into a headquarters and nine troops of motorised infantry, with one troop of three home made armoured cars – assembled at Mafraq in June. Here they were reviewed by the Amir before setting off down the Haifa-Baghdad road to rendezvous with ‘Habforce’ at the H3 pumping station inside Iraq. Here the Household Cavalry Regiment transferred its outdated Hotchkiss machine guns to the Arab Legion.

For the attack against Syria, ‘Habforce’ was:

Habforce - Syria, June 1941

4th Cavalry Brigade – The Household Cavalry Regiment, The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, The Warwickshire Yeomanry
1st Battalion, The Essex Regiment
237th Battery, Royal Artillery (60th Field Regiment) of 25-pounders
an Australian battery of 2 pounder anti-tank guns
169th Light Antiaircraft Battery
the Arab Legion Mechanised Regiment

The force divided into three columns for the advance on Palmyra. The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry led off and were due to pass Palmyra to the south and west. The remainder of 4th Cavalry Brigade were to pass the oasis to the east and each of these columns were guided by a detachment of the Arab Legion. The third column (‘Habforce’ HQ, 1st Essex, artillery, engineers and five troops of the Arab Legion) moved off on the morning of 21 June, 1941. The force was delayed briefly at the T3 cantonment of the Iraqi Petroleum Company (on the Iraq to Tripoli, Syria pipeline), by concrete pillboxes and the Vichy French airforce. It was decided to bypass these positions but the opportunity to take Palmyra by coup de main had been lost.

The oasis was now effectively besieged by ‘Habforce’ and as stalemate set in the Arab Legion boosted morale by capturing a French patrol of two officers and 30 men. The original plan called for the Arab Legion to leave Palmyra and Homs to ‘Habforce’ and patrol to the north, east and south-west, covering the right flank and the line of communications. The Legion now withdrew to Juffa to carry out this mission and was attacked by bombers and fighters there on the evening of 25 June.

The next day, it was decided to remove the growing threat to the ‘Habforce’ line of communications by first capturing the French fort at Seba’ Biyar (‘seven wells’) and then occupying Sukhna, to the south west of Palmyra. These tasks were given to the Arab Legion, who left Juffa on the afternoon of 27 June. As they drew up to the French fort at Seba’ Biyar the next morning, the small garrison surrendered without a shot. The Legion then returned to their base at Juffa before setting off for Sukhna at dawn on 29 June. Sukhna was occupied later that day, no French forces being encountered.

On the morning of 1 July, a large French column arrived and launched an attack on Sukhna, where the Arab Legion had been reinforced by a squadron of the Household Cavalry Regiment. The French were held at bay before retreating in the face of an enthusiastic if undisciplined charge by Arab Legion troopers. The fleeing French were chased at high speed before being trapped in box valley. The Arab Legion captured six armoured cars, four trucks, twelve machine guns and 80 prisoners of war. The French also suffered 11 killed for the loss of one Arab Legion solider killed and one wounded. The French column was found to be the 2nd Light Desert Company, the 3rd Company being locked up in Palmyra.Arab Legion badge

The garrison at Palmyra now lost heart and surrendered on the night of 2-3 July, 1941. Meanwhile the Arab Legion had left to establish contact with 10th Indian Division which was advancing up the Euphrates from Iraq. 4th Cavalry Brigade moved on to secure Homs and from there threatened the line of communications of the French army south of there. The armistice in Syria was signed on 14 July. As a result of the British invasion of Syria, there was some breakdown in law and order amongst the tribes and the Arab Legion moved for a time to Deir-az-Zar on the Euphrates to restore peace.

The British were so impressed by the performance of the Arab Legion that they now encouraged its further expansion. The Mechanised Regiment was completed and redesignated 1st Mechanised Regiment. The 2nd Regiment was raised in September and the 3rd Regiment was formed in November 1941.  All three units were brigaded with the addition of a brigade HQ. The British provided money and uniforms but vehicles were purchased directly from Ford of America. The Arab Legion also built 100 armoured cars to its own, improved design. A training camp was set up at Azraq, the desert oasis 60 miles east of Amman from where Lawrence had made his last raid in World War I.

A British plan to deploy the Arab Legion Mechanised Brigade to defend the Syrian desert was vetoed by the Free French, who now governed Syria. However throughout the spring and summer of 1942, reconnaissances were undertaken there and in the Jezirah between the Tigris and the Euphrates in preparation for deployment in the event of a German advance southwards. Although this threat had all but disappeared by the end of the year, Rommel’s advance into Egypt in July 1942, did cause the Mechanised Brigade to be deployed to the Sinai for a short time, until the battle of El Alamein.

For the remainder of the war the Arab Legion was frustrated in every attempt it made to more actively support the British war effort. The Anglo-Russian invasion of Persia also resulted in tribal unrest and the 1st Mechanised Regiment was earmarked to help deal with this. The plans were cancelled when the Persian Government objected, before the regiment could cross the frontier. 1st Mechanised Regiment later served under 30th Indian Brigade in Iraq, from January to October 1943.  Following the invasion of Normandy, in June 1944, there was an idea to employ the Mechanised Brigade in the Balkans, should the Allies land there. The Brigade retrained and re-equipped for the prospect of action in terrain very different to the familiar open desert. Unit compositions were changed, the number of armoured cars were reduced and the infantry increased. The American 75mm guns were replaced with 3.7 inch mountain guns, carried into action by mules.

The Brigade was ordered to concentrate in Palestine and was further reinforced by the British with artillery, signals and additional equipment. By now, however, the Germans were withdrawing from Greece and the Arab Legion was stood down. Subsequent attempts to take part in the Italian campaign also came to nought for it was decided that the Arab Legion was needed to protect strategic resources and communications in the Middle East. The Mechanised Brigade joined Arab Legion infantry companies in garrison and security duties. The 1st Infantry Company had been raised in 1940 to guard Aqir aerodrome in Palestine and additional companies were raised and undertook security duties in Persia, Syria, Haifa, Rafah and Aqaba. The equivalent of several battalions served in Iraq for over three years. They provided train guards on the railways from Palestine to Damascus and Cairo.

At the end of World War II, the Legion was around 8,000 men strong, consisting of:

a Mechanised Brigade 3,000 men in three regiments (battalion strength)
15 Garrison Companies 2,000men
Engineers and other ancillary services  
The Desert Patrol Force around 500 men
Men in training around 2,000 recruits

On May 25, 1946, Trans-Jordan became a truly independent country and the Amirate became a Kingdom, with King Abdullah the First on the throne. Later that day, the King took the salute from the Arab Legion as they marched past in procession. On 8 June 1946, a detachment of the Arab Legion took part in the Victory Day parade in London.   Strength had been reduced after the war to around 6,000 of whom about 4,500 were combat effective.

By this time, South African-built Marmon Herrington Mk IV armoured cars, with a 2-pounder anti-tank gun, and Canadian Otter scout cars were in use by the Legion. Troop strength grew to 8,000 in 1947 and to more than 10,000 by early 1948. These were organised into three mechanised brigade groups, four armoured car battalions and the independent infantry companies. Artillery support for the brigade groups was provided either by 25-pounders or 3.7 inch mountain guns. Thirty seven British officers were serving with the Legion, including Glubb.

The Legion acquitted itself well during the First Arab-Israeli War of 1947-1949, being the best Arab troops and able to fight on even terms with the Israelis (see The Arab Legion and the Defence of Jerusalem by the Embassy of Jordan to the US). This was not entirely due to British leadership, training and practices - the Legion fought as well under its own officers as under the British. Between 1953 and 1956, the Legion was organised thus:

a Divisional HQ  
three Infantry Brigades - numbered 1 -3 each with three infantry regiments (and additional battalion was under command 3 Brigade)
two armoured car regiments  
one tank regiment  
three field artillery regiments 25 pounders
one light anti-aircraft artillery regiment  
one engineer regiment  

Following this war, Glubb’s position increasingly aroused the hostility of many Arabs and in 1956, King Hussein was forced to dismiss Glubb and other British officers from service. By now the Arab Legion had been transformed into the Jordanian Army but the Army retained much of its British heritage. The traditions of the Arab Legion are maintained to this day by a ceremonial Arab Legion mounted troop.

Pennant of the Commander of the Arab Legion

Pennant of the Commander of the Arab Legion



The Arab Legion (includes photos and text) by the Simon Weisenthal Center Multimedia Learning Center Online


Farndale, Sir Martin, History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, The Years of Defeat, 1939-41, Brassey’s (1996)

Dupuy, Trevor N, Elusive Victory, The Arab-Israeli Wars, 1947-1974, Hero (1984)

Glubb, John Bagot, The Arab Legion, Hodder & Stoughton, London (1948)

Pal, Dharm, Official History of the Indian Armed in the Second World War, 1939-45 - Campaign in Western Asia, Orient Longmans (1957)

Roubicek, Marcel, Echo of the Bugle, extinct military and constabulary forces in Palestine and Trans-Jordan 1915,1967, Franciscan (Jerusalem 1974)

Vatikiotis, PJ, Politics & the Military in Jordan, a study of the Arab Legion 1921-1957, Frank Cass (1967)

Jordan – A Country Study, US Library of Congress

Flag and pennant from Flags of the World

Thanks to David A Ryan, Todd Mills and Pat Brennan.


The Arab Legion, 1923 - 1957 by James Lunt

Order Today! The Arab Legion: 1923-57


Contact Steve Rothwell with comments and additional information