The Apprenticeship of Bomber Bull

The bombing of civilian populations was originated and perfected by Britain in “policing” operations on the frontier of India/Afghanistan and its new construction of Iraq in the inter-war years i.e in the interlude between the two British World Wars on Germany. Hugh Trenchard, father of the RAF, had not been able to put his strategy of devastation into practice against German cities with the unexpected Armistice in late 1918 and the British War on German society had been waged by the Royal Navy instead through a starvation blockade which killed over 1 million civilians up until its calling off in July 1919, having secured the German signature at Versailles.

The bombing of “the lesser breeds without the law” in Britain’s Imperial territories was a kind of apprenticeship for things to come. In civilian bombing Britain led the world. It taught Mussolini a thing or two and he copied the British methods in Abyssinia in the mid-1930s, his air-force supplied with oil from the British possessions in the middle-east by British companies – despite the League of Nations sanctions which the British were publicly supporting.

One of the first operations of the RAF was the bombing of the Amir of Afghanistan’s palace to make him think again about attempting to influence events in British India.

The tribesmen of the Euphrates mounted an insurgency against the British conquest in the summer of 1920. According to a recent account the first Iraq insurgency led to an innovation in Imperial government:

“Winston Churchill, as Colonial Secretary, was sensitive to the cost of policing the Empire; and was in consequence keen to exploit the potential of modern technology. This strategy had particular relevance to operations in Iraq. On 19 February, 1920, before the start of the Arab uprising, Churchill (then Secretary for War and Air) wrote to Sir Hugh Trenchard, the pioneer of air warfare. Would it be possible for Trenchard to take control of Iraq? This would entail the provision of some kind of asphyxiating bombs calculated to cause disablement of some kind but not death… for use in preliminary operations against turbulent tribes.

Churchill was in no doubt that gas could be profitably employed against the Kurds and Iraqis (as well as against other peoples in the Empire): ‘I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.’ Henry Wilson shared Churchill’s enthusiasm for gas as an instrument of colonial control but the British cabinet was reluctant to sanction the use of a weapon that had caused such misery and revulsion in the First World War. Churchill himself was keen to argue that gas, fired from ground-based guns or dropped from aircraft, would cause ‘only discomfort or illness, but not death’ to dissident tribes people; but his optimistic view of the effects of gas were mistaken. It was likely that the suggested gas would permanently damage eyesight and ‘kill children and sickly persons, more especially as the people against whom we intend to use it have no medical knowledge with which to supply antidotes.’

Churchill remained unimpressed by such considerations, arguing that the use of gas, a ‘scientific expedient,’ should not be prevented ‘by the prejudices of those who do not think clearly.’ In the event, gas was used against the Iraqi rebels with ‘excellent moral effect’ though gas shells were not dropped from aircraft because of practical difficulties.” (Geoff Simons, Iraq: From Sumer to Saddam, pp. 179-181)

Britain had introduced chemical warfare into the Middle East, in the shape of mustard gas, during the Battle of Gaza in 1917. And the effectiveness of air power in the region, where there was little cover and villages were densely populated, became apparent to the Royal Flying Corp in the battles against the Ottomans North of Jerusalem during early 1918.

Churchill asked the RAF to use mustard gas during these raids, despite the warning by one of his advisers that “it may … kill children and sickly persons, more especially as the people against whom we intend to use it have no medical knowledge with which to supply antidotes”. In the event the RAF did not use gas – for technical rather than humanitarian reasons. But even without the gas the campaign was conducted with brutality. Villages were destroyed because their inhabitants had not paid their Imperial taxes, although the authorities always maintained in public that people were not bombed for refusing to pay – merely for refusing to appear when summoned to explain non-payment.

According to David Omissi, when commanders proposed using bombs with delayed action fuses – because delayed-action bombs prevented tribesmen from tending their crops under cover of darkness – one senior officer protested that this would result in “blowing a lot of children to pieces”. Nevertheless, the RAF went ahead, without the knowledge of the civilian High Commissioner for Iraq, Sir Henry Dobbs.

Arthur ‘bomber’ Harris – of Dresden and Hamburg fame – in his book Bomber Offensive, written in 1947, recounted what happened in Iraq in 1922 when the Air Ministry took over the defence of the new client-kingdom.‘Bomber’ Harris learnt his craft in Mesopotamia and later described the process of policing by bombers, or as it was known,air control:

“When I got to Irak, or Mespot as we called it, in those days, Sir John Salmond had just taken over the air control of the country and most of the very large army forces which the British taxpayer refused any longer to support there had departed. A rebellion had broken out in 1920, because the Arabs there had been led to expect complete independence and had got instead British army occupation… The military control of a Irak was transferred to the RAF entirely in order to save money… the decision to hand control of the country to the RAF – which was of course Winston Churchill’s – was made in 1921 and took effect on 1 October, 1922…

The truculent and warlike tribes which occupied and still largely controlled after the rebellion, large parts of Irak… had to be quelled, and in this our heavy bombers played a large part. We were hundreds of miles up river near Baghdad and in the centre of thoroughly turbulent and wholly unpacified tribes on whom we were endeavouring to impose government of local Baghdad Effendis whom the tribesmen have naturally held in utter contempt for time immemorial. When a tribe started open revolt we gave warning to all its most important villages by loudspeaker from low flying aircraft, and by dropping messages that air action would be taken after 48 hours. Then, if the rebellion continued, we destroyed the villages and by air patrols kept the insurgents away from their homes for as long as necessary until they decided to give up, which they invariably did. It was, of course, a far less costly method of controlling rebellion than by military action.” (pp.21-3)

After one bombing raid on Iraq in 1924, Harris wrote: “They now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage; they now know that within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape.” (This quote is from a book by David Omissi, Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force 1919-1939, which is a very informative source of information on the origins of terror bombing.)

Britain displays great continuity in its military affairs. As its fields of conflict extended to different spheres of the world and the use of new technology Britain maintained the same principles of warfare. It applied the logic of the methods of the Boer War concentration camps and the Great War naval blockade of Germany to Iraq by destroying the women and children of the fighting men in order to defeat the combatants. British wars are slow grinding wars, not just aimed at defeating an enemy but primarily to disable its people. The spirit of the enemy needs to be thoroughly crushed and the best way of doing this is by harming its human stock. England did this long before it produced Darwin. Drake and Hawkins practiced it in Ireland in the 16th Century, Cromwell in the 17th.

In a biography of Hugh Trenchard, the father of the RAF, an operational report about a British attack on a village, sent to Churchill, is quoted:

“The eight machines (at Nasiriyah) broke formation and attacked at different points of the encampment simultaneously… The tribesmen and their families were put to confusion, many of whom ran into the lake, making good targets for our machine-guns.”

Churchill was annoyed at the candour of the writer and insisted that such enthusiasm at slaughtering civilians should not appear in official records again. ((Andrew Boyle, Trenchard, p.389)

In Iraq, in the 1920s, the RAF first employed itself against Turkish forces on the border near Mosul, to ensure the oil rich area remained under Imperial control. The RAF flew most of its missions against the Kurds – who have always resented rule from Baghdad. For ten years the RAF waged an almost continuous bombing campaign in the oil-rich, mountainous northeast region of Iraq against these people, to whom Britain had earlier promised autonomy. The Iraqi Air Force – which the British established, built up, trained and equipped – carried on this work from Baghdad after the Iraqi client state became nominally independent in 1932.

Arnold Wilson, the first British governor of Iraq, later condemned the “air control” used by his government to attack “undefended places.” In an address to the Grotius Society in 1932, explaining why it was a poor substitute for government of the traditional variety Wilson said:

“To attack such a place by dropping bombs by aeroplanes is clearly a breach of International Law… There is no subject better calculated to test the wisdom of the Army Commander and strain the conscience of civil administrators than the question of bombarding places inhabited wholly or mainly by non-combatants, even though they may have been warned (perhaps in mid-winter) to leave the place and fly to the neighbouring hills or fields. Yet in this matter His Majesty’s Government has, of recent years, set the pace, and created a new set of usages of war by using the Royal Air Force, in support of the Civil Power, to suppress disturbances which are often primarily, if not solely ‘political’ in origin. There is no doubt whatever that the bombing of towns and villages is accompanied by little danger to the airmen; that it is cheap, spectacular and temporarily effective. My own view is that it is not, in the long run, effective, and that it is contrary both to The Hague Convention, to the usages of war as laid down in The Manual of Military Law, and to the larger interests of this country and of humanity at large. The ineradicable defect of action by air is that even though warning be given, the onslaught is sudden, the damage indiscriminate; there is no locus penitential and no chance of a friendly parley under a flag of truce and timely surrender after a few shots. To allow a belligerent a belligerent to employ any measure at his own will because it is likely to abbreviate fighting is to set back the clock of International Law.” (The Laws of War In Occupied Territories, pp. 27-8)

But the use of Air Control became too attractive and cheap an alternative for the government of the Empire’s subjects. It had, as Wilson noted, detrimental effects for both the governing and governed. Previously, the intimate approach of the Indian Political Service had created functional relationships with local elites and some of the general populace, but the expedient of policing or governing from the air placed a wall of distrust between rulers and ruled:

“Perhaps the most serious long-term consequence of the ready availability of air control was that it developed into a substitute for administration. Several incidents during the Mandate period indicate that the speed and simplicity of air attack was preferred to the more time-consuming and painstaking investigation of grievances and disputes. With such powers at its disposal the Iraq Government was not encouraged to develop less violent methods of extending its control over the country.” (Peter Sluglett, Iraq Under British Occupation, pp. 268-9)

Whatever might be said about the former Imperialism it certainly confronted the Imperial subject with a more beneficial face than the new version, which confronted the ruled impersonally with bombs and machine-guns from the skies. The blueprint for the American and British bombing strategy of the late 20th/early 21st century against Iraq, Serbia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria etc. was developed by Britain as soon as she saw the possibilities of the aeroplane as a weapon of war. And as Wilson noted “His Majesty’s Government… set the pace, and created a new set of usages of war.”

The British State was unique in 1920 in having an independent air force and air ministry. In other countries air forces were arms of the navy or army and designed to support and complement military operations against enemy military forces on the sea and land. But in setting up an independent air force and air ministry Britain set out to make war against civilians (“terrorism” as Sir Samuel Hoare called it in 1939 before it began to be employed by the R.A.F. to goad Hitler into attacking London) its primary method of warfare, replacing the blockade.

David Edgerton puts it like this in his England And The Aeroplane – An Essay On A Militant And Technological Nation:

The primary context for the study of the development of aviation in English grand strategy cannot be understood in the usual schemes of political history I see the basic strategy of the English State as one of relying on technology as a substitute for manpower and using technology to attack enemy civil populations and industry, rather than armies. I label this Liberal militarism as an ideal type of warfare. (p. xv)

British Liberalism is often mistakenly thought of as anti-militarist and anti-imperialist. But it has been shown, in the catastrophic wars it has been responsible for, to have the impulse of expansionist aggressiveness much more than conservativism. Liberal militarism, according to Edgerton, was produced by combining Liberal Imperialism’s desire for cheapness in the waging of war, funded by private business, with the Liberal understanding that war was fundamentally an extension of commerce. Or in other words, war was only worth it for the purposes of extending British trade and seeing off commercial competitors.

It is no surprise then that the neo-conservatives in the U.S. administration who believed they could govern Iraq on the cheap, using air-strikes to accomplish democracy, were liberals in orientation.

During the inter-war period the British employed “police bombing” elsewhere in the Empire: in the client state of Transjordan; against the Pathan tribesmen on the northwest frontier of India; in the Aden Protectorate (now southern Yemen); and against the Nuer pastoral farmers of the southern Sudan. Schemes of aerial “policing” similar to that practiced in Iraq/Mesopotamia were set up in the Palestine Mandate in 1922 and in the Aden Protectorate in 1928. Bombers were active at various times in policing British rule in Egypt and nomads in the Somali hinterland.

These “police” operations in Britain’s Empire were too much for some air force officers. In 1924, Air Commodore, Lionel Charlton, resigned his post as a staff officer in Iraq after he visited a hospital and saw the victims of bombing recovering from their injuries. The RAF recalled him quietly to England and ended his career.

The officers, like Arthur Harris, who thrived in the terror bombing work and who served their bombing apprenticeships against the Kurdish villages in Iraq furthered their careers and went on to greater things in Palestine, and then Dresden and Hamburg. In Palestine the RAF was used in conjunction with army sweeps to repress Palestinian resistance. As the British Army encircled large areas the RAF used a system of “Air Pin” in which villagers were warned to stay in their villages or risk being killed from the air if they left before the army arrived.

Harris notes in his book Bomber Offensive how he was restrained by the ‘Ten Year Rule’ adopted by the British Government after the Great War to save money. This envisaged no World War for at least a decade and constrained the building of a bomber fleet. In 1923 when Britain, having defeated Germany, had switched to play the Balance of Power against their former ally, France and the French had occupied the Ruhr, Britain found it could not use bombers against French cities because of the relative strength of the French Air Force in relation to the RAF (p.13). It was recommended that the RAF be increased to 52 squadrons by the Salisbury Commission.

According to Omissi, the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Hugh Trenchard, had great ambitions for his bombers. In a paper written early in 1920, when some politicians feared a social revolution in Britain, he suggested that the RAF could even be used to suppress “industrial disturbances or risings” in Britain by bombing working class districts. Churchill, who had experience of suppressing industrial disputes himself with armed force, decided such a thing was impolitic to say and told Trenchard never to refer to his proposal again – at least not in writing anyway.

The Catholic Bulletin kept a vigilant eye on the activities of what it accurately described as “Bomber Bull” in the early 1930s. In its Gleanings column in the edition of August 1934, for instance, it reproduced extracts from a series of articles on the subject of air bombing published in the Times. The Times’s aeronautical correspondent at Peshawar, revealed how civilian bombing had been developed into a systematic science by the Royal Air Force in India/Afghanistan:

“When the first of last year’s troubles broke out among the Mohmands and the Bajaurs of the North-West Frontier, the R.A.F. was hampered by the inaccuracies of existing maps. The process of making a tribal directory had already been begun, and the tribal directory for the Mohmands and the Afridis practically complete. Built on a basis of R.A.F. photographs—in two sections respectively labelled ‘Where’s Where’ and ‘the Landed Gentry’—it enables any village or sub-division of a tribe to be found on the map and pictorially at the shortest notice. The card index of the first section gives at a glance the name of every village, its map reference, photograph number and all details and if a village has to he bombed, the directory supplies the relevant particulars to the pilot. The second index shows all divisions of the tribes, their habits, the districts used by them in Summer and Winter, and a list of their most important men together with their places of residence.

“One of the Mohmand lashkars took refuge in a series of big caves which might have made by nature for the purpose. They were reputed to have given shelter to 3,000 men… The determination of these tribesmen to go on fighting was broken by the bombardment of their empty villages. In other cases opposition has been worn down by continuous ­air assault. Once a settlement has been reached, the tribesman knows he must fulfil its terms or suffer the rapid renewal of air activity.”

The Times correspondent then outlined the value of aerial bombing for the post-Great War inflated Empire of over-stretched cash-strapped Bull:

“The revolution in Frontier control is not that bombs are taking the place of shells but that the punishment of wrong-doing has become so cheap, and unprovocative, and so unpleasant to the tribesman, that he hesitates to behave in ways that would incur it. There is thus room to hope for eventual administration without military occupation, as has happened in Iraq, Aden and elsewhere. There is ample room for the expansion of the little Air Force of the Frontier. If ever the whole Frontier were inflamed at the same time, help from elsewhere would certainly have to be sought.”

It was believed during the early 1930s that Britain had, of all the European powers, the most to gain from the abolition of aerial bombing. Britain had always been secure in its island fortress behind the Royal Navy – the most powerful military force in the world. But the development of the air weapon had meant that Britain had ceased to be an island and London, the centre of her power and communications, was vulnerable from the air.

During the early to mid 1930s there was a great desire in Europe to outlaw civilian bombing as a form of warfare, or at least draw up conventions about the possible uses of aeroplanes in war. But Britain, despite commentators’ predictions about having the most to gain from such a development, obstructed such agreements when all the other European powers – including Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany – were in favour of it.

Here is the editorial report of these forgotten events from the Catholic Bulletin of December 1935, headlined, The Scandal of the British Bombing Plans:

“Right in the middle of the recent British Election—the election in which Baldwin’s majority has become 250… — came out, in its full measure, the giant scandal of English International Policy concerning War and its Ways. We had long known that England was the one obstacle to the total abandonment, by all nations, of the gross abuse of Bombing of whole cities and peoples from the Air. We had also to bide our time, for it was very desirable to put Bull in the position of being shown up by his own representative personages, for the bold lying and blatant hypocrisy that have ever and always characterised him. Our opportunity has come. The London Times of November 8th, 1935, in the middle of all the reports of election speeches and of election letters, provides us quite fully with what we may call perfect material for the exposure of this most scandalous performance by Bull, a performance done on a most public stage, and in the very fullest official form. The performer-in-chief concerning Bull as International Air-Bully and as Advocate of Bombing from Aeroplanes is, we make haste to say, that champion of Ascendancy in Ireland, the Most Noble the Marquis of Londonderry. Behind him, as we shall see is placed as Advocate in Reserve, Antony Eden of Geneva and Moscow, English Emissary-at-Large over Europe and all around. A clumsy champion, this ex-Minister of the Craig Compound, the man who planned the iniquitous Belfast Education Act of 1923, the heir of the title given to Castlereagh. For Londonderry actually provides plain palpable proof, in the very words on Air Bombs, 7th November, 1935, that the elaborated pleas that he made were simply destitute of truth, devoid of common decency.”

What appears next in the Catholic Bulletin is 12 pages of evidence taken from British sources to back up the Bulletin’s view of Bomber Bull. We can only summarise it here. What appears to have happened is as follows:

In May 1933 the League of Nations disarmament conference at Geneva seemed almost agreed as to the abolition of military aircraft and agreement might have been reached had Britain abandoned her reservation of the use of military aeroplanes for “police purposes in outlying regions”. Lord Londonderry, Air Minister, stated in the Commons that amid the public outcry he had immense difficulties preserving the use of the bombing aeroplanes even on the frontiers of the Middle East and of India. The policy of total air disarmament was supported by France, Germany, Russia, Italy (with reservations), Spain, and all the other European powers and had also been accepted by the United States. Only Antony Eden and the client government of Iraq and Siam were opposed. At this point there was an outcry in Britain as a result of which the British government ultimately consented to waive their demand for the retention of aeroplanes for “police purposes in outlying regions” if it proved the only obstacle to a general agreement. But this shifty tactical withdrawal came too late. After June 1933 the international situation grew worse and the disarmament conference was suspended. Lord Londonderry immediately announced the government’s decision to expand the air force forthwith and this ended all possibility of the disarmament conference reconvening.

The Catholic Bulletin explained the motives behind Bomber Bull’s actions:

“Bull wanted to bar all military use of Bombing Planes, all, absolutely, everywhere. England has no relish at all for another sequence of what happened to the London area, 1916-1918. That was military use: it was unpleasant to London. Cut it out altogether. Hence the fine, strong, sweeping phrases against it, which Lord Londonderry made such play with in his oration at Southampton—another exposed position placed much as London is. Total abolition of Military Air Bombing is Bull’s aim, his professed aim. But always Bull wants to be the sole possessor of the Bombing Aeroplanes. How will he contrive that? By having all the Colonial and Imperial Borders abroad, Civil Bombing Machines! He will use them only for POLICE purposes, if you please! He will, with these very civilised instruments of mere internal or civil administration, be the only possessor of the Bomber in the whole world! And he will compel those hill tribes in Asia and in Africa, tribes on the Imperial and Colonial “outlying regions,” “on the frontier,” of course, —how convenient these chosen phrases are, how nicely vague! —keep the peace, keep order, and thus keep his Bombers!”

Britain stymied attempts at the abolition of aerial bombing by insisting on the inclusion of a clause allowing retention of bombers for “police purposes in certain outlying regions” in any agreement between the European powers. The other powers could not agree to this – knowing that in the event of another European war they would be all defenceless against a formidable and experienced British bomber fleet transferred from the North West frontier and Iraq. Then when British public opinion learnt of this Eden played for time until the international situation took a turn for the worse. Lord Londonderry announced re-armament and all hopes of future agreement were scuppered.

In November 1935 Lloyd George revealed that Mussolini’s aircraft bombing Abyssinia were being driven on petrol supplied by the Anglo-Iranian oil company in which the British Government had more than half the shares – although Britain was supposedly supporting League of Nations sanctions against Italy at the time.

And so the way was open for Britain to wage aerial war on the civilian populations of Europe when the time came to resume World War on Germany. Bomber Bull, the apprentice, had served his time bombing natives in “police purposes in certain outlying regions” and bomber Harris was brought back from the middle east for the new job in hand.

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