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BRITISH IMPERIALISM AND BOMBING CIVILIANS

MASS MURDER FROM THE AIR

IRAQ IN THE 1920'S: A GRIM PORTENT OF FUTURE EVENTS

Britain has the dubious distinction of being the nation that did more to perfect a system of mass murder of civilians by means of air power than any other nation on earth.   How did this happen?

After the end of the First World War British imperialism expanded on a truly massive scale in the Middle East, seizing control of modern day Iraq, Jordan and Israel.  Policing the new territories was expensive,  and the British government sought ways to reduce its financial expenditures in the colonies and mandates.  The solution, hit upon by Winston Churchill, the Secretary for War and Air, and Hugh Trenchard, the Chief of the newly created Royal Air Force Air Staff, was to use the most savage and brutal aspects of air power as a means to impose British power by means of a campaign of mass murder from the air.

Trenchard, the father of the Royal Air Force, was the single-most important British officer in developing the policy of area bombing, claiming "an aeroplane is an offensive and not a defensive weapon."[1]  Even during the First World War, Trenchard had outfitted his planes with crude bomb dropping devices and had sent them on raids into Germany, hitting the cities of Kaiserslautern, Frankfurt, Bonn, Wiesbaden, and Mannheim.  Of the raid on Frankfurt, which had killed 120 civilians attending a performance in an opera house, Trenchard stated to the British press:

"The damage to moral (sic) is out of all proportion to the number of bombs dropped ... Every big German town hit at once screams for assistance.  In this way hundreds of guns, searchlights, planes, and thousands of men have been drawn away from the front to meet the occasional attacks of a comparatively small number of assailants.  It would be no exaggeration to say that every unit of the Independent [Air] Force immobilizes at least 50 times its fighting value from the ranks of the enemy."[2]

Trenchard's words would echo often during the Second World War, when tens of thousands of civilians would be incinerated in massive British bombing raids.

After the end of WW I, Trenchard found himself fighting a rear-guard action against politicians and regular army officers who wanted to destroy an independent RAF.  Trenchard (and Churchill) argued that air power was an inexpensive way to subdue rebellions in the colonies and mandates, far cheaper in fact than maintaining a large ground force.  Trenchard referred to this policy as Air Control. 

These predictions appeared to be vindicated in British Somalia when an RAF squadron was successful in bombing Sayyid Muhammad Ibn Hassan, derisively called the "Mad Mullah", into giving up his revolt against British rule in 1920.

Imperialism "on the cheap": The Mass Murder of Civilians by Air Power in Iraq

Events in British Mesopotamia (current day Iraq) in 1920 provided an even greater opportunity for Trenchard to prove the worth of his air control bombing doctrine.  Many people in Iraq resented the British conquest of their land and rose up in a major revolt against British occupying troops.

At the time Winston Churchill was Secretary for Air and War in the Lloyd George government.  Churchill sought ways to police the empire "on the cheap" by using air power to fight insurgents in place of sufficient ground troops (a fateful decision strikingly reminiscent of the strategy employed by American planners in Iraq eighty years later).  Iraq, Churchill stated, provided the opportunity to "carry out a far-sighted policy of Imperial aerial development in the future."[3]  He therefore asked Trenchard if he thought the RAF could help matters in Mesopotamia.  The British had 14,000 regular army troops and upwards of 80,000 Indian soldiers stationed in Iraq at a cost of between £14 million and £18 million per year.  This cost had to be cut and Churchill wanted to use air power for financial savings, particularly after the defeat of Ibn Hassan in Somalia.  Trenchard said he was confident his planes could help police the territory and suppress the rebellious tribesmen, although it would take some time to get his squadrons up and running in distant Mesopotamia.

Poison Gas against Civilians: Churchill Says Yes

Churchill was at this point willing to use any means necessary to achieve his goals in Iraq, including poison gas bombing, which he actually argued was more "humane" than bombing with explosives.  Writing to Trenchard on August 29, 1920, Churchill advised "I think you should certainly proceed with the experimental work on gas bombs, especially mustard gas, which would inflict punishment on recalcitrant natives without inflicting grave injury on them."[4]  In his enthusiasm for utilizing the new technology of gas bombing, Churchill was unwilling to admit that even gas irritants could prove deadly to children, the elderly, and the infirm: "I am ready to authorise the construction of such [gas] bombs at once; the question of their use to be decided when the occasion arises."[5]  Experience proved that many gas "irritants" caused blindness and other physical problems which could not be cured due to a lack of antidotes among the native population, but this was irrelevant to Churchill.

Once deployed in Iraq the RAF proceeded to bomb civilians and tribal insurgents alike.  A Kurdish survivor of these attacks later recalled, "They were bombing here in the Kaniya Khoran ... Sometimes they raided three times a day."[6]  Wing Commander Lewis, of the 30th RAF Squadron remembered: "one would get a signal that a certain Kurdish village had to be bombed."  

Arthur Harris, the man who would later oversee the destruction of German cities during WW II, also saw action in Iraq and participated in the bombing of civilians as a wing commander.  He wrote of this experience, "The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage.  Within forty-five minutes a full-size village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured."[7]  Similarly, J.A. Chamier, another British wing commander, wrote, "The attack with bombs and machine guns must be relentless and unremitting and carried on continuously by day and night, on houses, inhabitants, crops and cattle."[8By March 1922 the Air Ministry had proven its tactics so effective that it was given control over security in Mesopotamia.  For the next decade RAF planes would bomb numerous tribes that continued to defy British rule.

Britain Wrecks International Arms Control Negotiations to Ban Bombing of Civilians
Due to Its Desire to Use Bombing against Its Imperial Subjects

Serous efforts were made in international arms control negotiations to ban the bombing of cities and civilians.   However, Great Britain rebuffed any attempt to restrict its use of bombers against civilians in territories under its control.  For example, during disarmament talks in March 1933, Great Britain had submitted the so-called MacDonald Plan, Article 34 of which agreed in principle to a limitation on aerial bombardment "with the exception of police actions in certain distant locations."  Two years later, in May 1935, Lord Londonderry then defended Britain's refusal to agree to a prohibition on using aerial bombardment against civilians that had been proposed at the Geneva Disarmament Conference:

"I hammered home to my colleagues and also to the entire nation the vital position that the Royal Air Force occupies in our defensive plans.  At this time of general outcry for disarmament I had the greatest difficulty even maintaining the need for bombers on the frontiers of the Middle East and in India, where it was only thanks to the air force that we were able to keep these areas in check."

Trenchard's concept of "Air Control" had thus become entrenched as formal government policy and Britain would never give up its right to use aerial bombardment against peoples within its empire.

LINKS

David Omissi, "British Air Power and Colonial Control in Iraq: 1920-1925"

James S. Corum, "The Myth of Air Control: Reassessing the History"

British Colonialism and Repression in Iraq

The British in Mesopotamia

David Parsons, "British Air Control"

Biography of Hugh Trenchard

Buy Churchill's Folly at Amazon.com


NOTES

1. T.D. Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 27.

2. Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality, p. 46.

3. Christopher Catherwood, Churchill's Folly: How Winston Churchill Created Modern Iraq (NY: Carroll& Graf, 2004), p. 137.

4. Catherwood, Churchill's Folly, p. 85.

5. Catherwood, Churchill's Folly, p. 186.

6. Geoff Simons, Iraq: From Sumer to Saddam (NY: Macmillan, 1996), p. 214.

7. Simons, Iraq: From Sumer to Saddam, p. 214.

8. David Omissi, Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force 1919-1939 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990).