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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 governments 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 all be 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.