By Faramarz Davar
December 4, 2020
The modern Iranian navy is the product of the early part of Reza Shah Pahlavi’s tenure as Shah of Iran from 1925 to 1941. The Iranian government requested the assent of parliament to dedicate a then-sizeable 200,000 tomans from the 1928 budget to repair the existing naval fleet and purchase new, armed ships from Italy to protect the shores of the Caspian Sea. On March 20, 1928, parliament approved the request and further passed a resolution allowing the then-Ministry of War to employ a naval officer and a mechanical engineer from the Italian government for three years.
Iran’s ship procurement from Italy and the training of Iranian officers in Italy began soon after, and a plan to establish a formal Imperial Iranian Navy was prepared. The navy’s first headquarters was in Khoramshahr in Khuzestan province, on the bank of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, while the newly-purchased vessels were stationed at Iranian naval bases to the south. The Babr (Tiger) artillery ship stationed at Khoramshahr and the sloop Palang (Leopard) from Abadan were both responsible for patrolling the waters of the Persian Gulf. Another naval base was positioned in the port of Bandar-e Anzali in northern Iran, on the shores of the Caspian Sea.
More vessels were ordered from Italy, and the structure and capabilities of the Iranian navy were evolving fast. But after the Second World War broke out in 1939, everything changed. Mahmoud Jam, Iran’s then-prime minister, issued a statement that declared: “The imperial government of Iran is announcing its decision to maintain neutrality in the war. But the German attack on the Soviet Union also involved Iran, and Britain has asked Iran to expel the German troops working in Iran.”
Simultaneously with the German invasion of Poland, five German ships in the Persian Gulf had taken refuge to Iran in the port of Shahpur (now Bandar Imam Khomeini), fearing of a British reaction. Under wartime international law, civilian ships could seek refuge in a neutral country to avoid damage. Sometime later, several Italian ships had also taken refuge in Iranian ports, which the Allies read as an increase in Axis powers’ presence in Iran. Assured that that these ships would not take any action in the port of Shahpur that might constitute a violation of Iran’s neutrality, the Iranian navy had commissioned its Simorgh and Shahbaz warships to the German and Italian vessels.
The British began to accuse Iran, a country of strategic importance to the UK because of its oil refineries, of supporting Nazism and of being pro-German. In 1941 a British naval ship entered Iranian waters at the Khosrowabad port in Abadan, and proceeded to anchor without heeding the warnings of the Iranian navy. The ship’s commander claimed the territory belonged to Iraq and was under British control. Not only this, but British vessels had been positioned along the Shatt al-Arab and Soviet troops were approaching from the north. Iran was on the verge of an invasion.
The Leopard, which had been anchored at one of the docks to protect the Abadan Refinery, sprang into action. Captain Hassan Milanian, commander of the Leopard, went to see the British ship’s commander in accordance with maritime protocol. But a return visit from the British captain was postponed until the next day. During that time, British and Russian ambassadors had written a letter to the Iranian prime minister, informing him that in their view, Iran had violated its neutrality by refusing to expel Germans from the territory.
In the early hours of August 25, the British HMS Shoreham opened fire on the Iranian Leopard, sinking it in a single salvo and killing Captain Milanian, who had met and welcomed the British ship’s commander the day before, along with the other officers on board. British warships supplemented by an Australian armed merchant cruiser opened fire on Iranian positions in the port, destroying other patrol boats before landing forces seized control of Abadan city and the refinery.
Even after Iranian troops were ordered to stop resisting the Soviet and British forces, the navy continued to resist. Admiral Gholam Ali Bayandor, commander of the Imperial Iranian Navy in the south, made for the headquarters in Khoramshahr to make a final decision but was killed in the way. His brother, Captain Yadollah Bayandor, acting commander of the Iranian Navy in the Caspian Sea, was also killed during a Soviet air and naval attack on the port of Anzali.
In the south, Britain also set fire to the naval headquarters in Khoramshahr and sank the ship Tiger. Indian troops serving in the British Army were also involved in the attacks. During the conflict, which lasted for a total of six days, three important centers of the Iranian navy were laid waste to and occupied: the port of Shahpour, where the German and Italian “refugee” ships had docked, Abadan, the location of Iran’s most important oil facilities, and the naval headquarters in Khoramshahr.
The navy suffered heavy losses on the eve of the Allied occupation of Iran and the subsequent ousting of Reza Shah. Documents state that around 600 Iranian naval personnel were killed, while Iranian naval ships and equipment sent to Italy for repairs could not be sent back due to Italy’s position in the war. It became financially and logistically impossible to repair the damage done.
In January 1942, the new Shah signed a Tripartite Treaty Alliance with Britain and the Soviet Union, agreeing to help the Allies’ war effort in a “non-military” manner. At the Tehran Conference that year, US president Franklin Roosevelt, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and British prime minister Winston Churchill reaffirmed their “commitment” to Iranian territorial sovereignty and two ships were given to Iran as compensation for sunken Tiger and Leopard ships.
Almost seventy years later, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the then-president of Iran, would write a letter to his deputy ordering the formation of a committee to look into the issue of compensation for Iran for the occupation during World War II. But the order remained on paper alone, and the reparations never became a reality.