Iraq’s unsung Jewish airforce hero

A Jew  appointed  head of Iraq’s
Air Force? Unlikely as it may sound, it almost became a reality.
  This is the extraordinary story of Nagi Dabby, son
of Messouda Sourani and Efraim
Dabby, as told by Sami Sourani,
his first cousin. (With thanks for their help to Sass, Miriam)

Growing up in the 1920s, Nagi Dabby was very
intelligent, had a fantastic memory and a charming
personality.  But his mother Messouda was very worried. When he was a young schoolboy he would come home
and sit on the swing (jelala) every day.  He never opened a
book. So she went to see
the teacher to find out what was going on. She was told that he
was the best in his class.

 Nagi Dabby had always wanted
to be a pilot. He registered at the  Royal Military College, (Al-Madrasa
Al-Askaria) at a time when  King
Faisal of Iraq was encouraging Jews and other minorities to
play their full part in contributing to Iraq’s prosperity. 

It is telling,
however, that he felt the need to change his name to Nagi
Ibrahim to conceal his ethnic background. 

 

After
graduation, the Iraqi Government sent him to England for two
years to be trained as a pilot. When he returned to Iraq, his career literally took off after Iraq acquired fighter ‘planes from Italy and the United States.

Amazing as it
might sound, Nagi Dabby was within a whisker of becoming Head
of Iraq’s Airforce. He was offered the top job after a purge
of the Iraqi military following a period of instability. On
October 29,1936, the then Iraqi Defence Minister, Baker Sidqi,
 had staged a coup. Sidqi
was assassinated a few months later and matters returned to
normal.

Nagi turned
down the job. 

He went to
England for a time, returning 
to Iraq so that he would not be called a deserter. On
his return, he  received
a personal welcome from the Iraqi Armed Forces Chief of Staff.

While living
in Iraq, he became a very close friend of King Ghazi (the son of King
Faisal I) and his personal pilot. King Ghazi liked  fast cars and enjoyed
flying at every opportunity.

After becoming an
Iraqi officer Nagi never hid the fact that he was Jewish.

The Iraqi Minister
of Interior  only flew in a plane if Nagi was the pilot.

However,  the
Iraqi army and Defence Ministry became very antisemitic and
refused him  the promotion to the rank of Major which he was due.

Nagi left  for England again just
before King Ghazi was killed in a car accident. In England Nagi did a
special training course  to
attain the rank of Captain.

When WWII
broke out, he volunteered to join  the Royal Air Force.

With the RAF, he
was initially based in Wales where he trained young pilots. He
survived the war because he was much more useful to the RAF as
an instructor than to fly on missions. ( A pilot’s life
expectancy was less than four months, or five missions at the time).

Nevertheless, he
went on at least two bombing raids in Germany.

Arabic Radio
Berlin branded him a traitor and  bad-mouthed him on
several occasions.
A few days before the
Farhud massacre in June 1941, a firebomb was thrown at his
parents’ home in Baghdad. His parents had to go and live with
relatives. On the day of the Farhud, the mob broke
into his parents’ home and looted everything, leaving the
house
stripped bare.

He had some
expertise with bombs and he was sent to North Africa to
investigate why certain bombs did not explode on impact.

From there he is
believed to have visited  Baghdad. His nephew Sass remembers
that Nagi stayed with  his family and the Regent sent a
magnificent bouquet of flowers. Nagi went to see the Regent to
“pay his respects”.

He was also sent
on  a secret mission in Spain. He went there as an Iraqi
civilian using his Iraqi passport. He never gave away any detail
of this mission to anyone. He is thought to have visited Baghdad
from there too.

 Nagi’s ID

Nagi was
highly decorated and received medals both from the Iraqi and
the British armed forces. King George VI of England awarded him a
medal and an Administration Certificate.

 Nagi was decorated by both Britain and Iraq

Certificate from King George VI admitting Nagi to the wartime RAF Volunteer reserve

Nagi retired
from the RAF with the rank of Squadron Leader. He was
working in the Ministry of Defence in London toward the end of
the war and for a short period after the war. The RAF wanted him
to stay on but he decided to quit.

On leaving the RAF
after the war, he acted as an intermediary for British companies seeking to do business in Iraq. He knew both Salih Jabr and Nuri Said (senior Iraqi politicians) .
He was a close friend of Nuri Said’s son (they may have trained
as officers at the same time). Initially this work earned him a
magnificent house in Wimbledon, London. Following the
Kassem revolution in 1958, his finances deteriorated but he still
carried on this sort of work. He maintained his contact with the
Iraqi Embassy in London and helped very many Iraqi Jews with
passport matters.

Nagi with his wife Soohad

 

 His wife,  a
child bride, was very beautiful.  They had no children and
separated in the mid 1960s. He had little to do with Israel but was very proud of its achievements.

He died in 2008 just short of his 100th birthday.  In his last
days, in a London h
ospital, the staff treated him with respect and insisted on calling him The General.

There are
plans to turn Nagi Dabby’s story into a film and  to display his
medals  at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage center in Israel.

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