Back to series index
Back to article index


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 (1) 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.”

(1) The Catholic Bulletin was a journal produced in Ireland from 1911-1939. Dr Walsh has published a selection of articles from the Bulletin under the title 'The Catholic Bulletin on peace, war and neutrality, 1937-1939', A Belfast Magazine, no 24, November 2004.

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.”