British Air Power and Colonial Control in Iraq: 1920-1925


By David E. Omissi


The following text is an excerpt from Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force, 1919–1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990). Omissi often refers to "Mesopotamia," the older name for the territory that would soon be called Iraq.
Omissi is Senior Lecturer in the Department of History, University of Hull (UK)

(pp. 19-20)

Whatever shape the future administration of Iraq might assume, there were many within the British government who could justify, in various ways, a continued British presence in the country, although their reasoning was often challenged by those sections of the press and public who deplored a lengthy occupation. Mesopotamia had only been wrested from the Turks with the sacrifice of many lives and much money, and some clear advantage had to be derived if the imperial victories, and defeats, were to seem worthwhile. A secure route to India across the Middle East offered a useful alternative to the main links by mandatory relationship and the repeated denials of British occupation. As the Royal Navy gradually converted from coal-burning to oil-burning ships, it became more and more difficult to obtain supplies of high quality fuel. Dependence upon the production of the United States and Mexico was a strategic embarrassment which might best be averted by the development of Mesopotamian reserves. The motive power of these hopes for British policy in the early 1920s is not diminished by the fact that they were never entirely fulfilled.

(pp. 20-21)

The cost of the large Mesopotamian garrison was thought excessive by almost all British politicians, but it was much less clear how to limit the occupying forces without loosening the imperial hold over at least part of the country. In August 1919 [Minister of War and Air Winston] Churchill had warned that the garrison of 25,000 British and 80,000 Indian troops would have to be drastically cut, and in November 1919 he suggested that British power could be more cheaply maintained if mechanized forces replaced some units of foot. He advised that the infantry garrison be reduced to a small force in a fortified camp near Baghdad, with blockhouses at other important points, while mechanized units-on land, on river and in the air-patrolled the rest of the country. This was the first of several similar schemes proposed by Churchill over the next two years. […]

But Churchill persisted in his attempts to find cheaper method of holding Mesopotamia. By early 1920 the garrison still included 14, 000 British troops, besides Indians, and expenditure was then running at about £18 million a year. Driven by this financial imperative, Churchill now began to think along more radical military lines. In mid-February he asked [Chief of the Air Staff Hugh] Trenchard whether he would be "prepared to take Mesopotamia on": the bat an increase of five or six million pounds in the air force estimates and appointment of an Air Officer as Commander-in-Chief. Churchill believed that the country could be cheaply policed by aircraft armed with gas bombs, supported by as few as 4,000 British and 10,000 Indian troops; and he invited Trenchard to submit a scheme along those lines. Trenchard obliged, as he wanted to find an independent peacetime role to secure the future of his obliged, as he wanted to find an independent peacetime role to secure the future of his fledging service. The Air Staff drew up a plan by which Mesopotamia would be garrisoned by ten air force squadrons, mainly concentrated at Baghdad. Regular troops would be used only to guard air bases and perhaps for some limited co-operation with the bombers. As Trenchard pointed out, aircraft could strike swiftly into areas barely accessible to ground forces, could distribute propaganda and could obtain early intelligence of hostile masses. Churchill outlined his scheme to the House of Commons on 22 March.

(pp. 22-23)

[President Woodrow] Wilson's skepticism about air control might have been discounted as his usual scaremongering were it not for the outbreak of a full-scale uprising in Mesopotamia in the summer of 1920. It is impossible to accept the assertion of [professor Elie] Kedourie that the rising was the product of "encouragement from outside" and was important only in so far as external agitation "succeeded in magnifying its extent and significance". On the contrary, the revolt shook the very foundations of British rule in Mesopotamia, and brought about major changes in political and military policy. The rising, mainly a response to British tax policy, began in Rumaitha in early July and insurrection was general along the lower Euphrates by the middle of the month. After a column composed mainly of the 2 Manchesters was almost entirely destroyed by a rebel ambush, a division of Indian reinforcements was hastily summoned to Basra, but the first of these reserves did not arrive until 7 August. The situation was at its most serious during the last week of August when the rebellion spread to the upper Euphrates and to the countryside around Baghdad: there were also the first signs of unrest in Kurdistan. At the height of their effort the tribesmen fielded about 131,000 men, of whom perhaps half were armed with modern rifles. Their leaders were drawn mainly from those groups whose power had waned under British rule: Shia mujahids, former Ottoman civil servants and ex-officers of the Turkish armies. The leading Arab patriots in Baghdad and the wealthy merchants of Basra, men with more to lose, stood aloof and awaited the event. For the British the crisis had passed by mid-September but heavy fighting went on until the end of the following month.

Before the rebellion the squadrons of the Royal Air Force had already been active in the policing of Iraq. Lieutenant-General Aylmer Haldane praised the "admirable work of the Raf under extremely arduous conditions" after bombers had been used to suppress unrest in Kurdistan in the winter of 1919-20 and again the following spring. Aircraft also patrolled the British line of communications between Baghdad and Mosul and took punitive action against the Sufran tribe in the Diwaniyah area. But the 1920 rebellion convinced several observers that aircraft could not replace ground troops as the main imperial police force in Iraq. Haldane acknowledged that aeroplanes had proved proved of great value during the revolt for reconnaissance, close support, pursuit, rapid communication and demonstration; but he denied that aircraft alone could force the submission of tribes who were committed to rebellion. [Civil Commissiner] Arnold Wilson believed that the main cause of the revolt was the perceived military weakness of the imperial forces after the reduction of the garrison: "to kick a man when he is down is the most popular pastime in the East, sanctioned by centuries of precept and practice". He also suggested however, that the "use of aeroplanes against recalcitrants" had created deep currents of resentment which had surfaced in rebellion. In August 1920 the Times ran a leading article which claimed that the revolt had tested the methods of air control and found them wanting; and this before they had even been tried.

Both Churchill and Trenchard tried to vast the most flattering light upon actions of the Royal Air Force. During the first week of July there were fierce fighting around Samawa and Rumaitha on the Euphrates but, Churchill told the Cabinet on 7 July, "our attack was successful...The enemy were bombed and machine-gunned with effect by aeroplanes which cooperated with the troops.'"During the blockade of Rumaitha, aircraft attacked rebel positions and dropped ammunition and food to the beleaguered imperial garrison.

(pp. 39)

The policing role of most political moment carried out by the Royal Air Force during the 1920s was to maintain the power of the Arab kingdoms in Transjordan and Iraq; but aeroplanes also helped to dominate other populations under British sway. Schemes of air control similar to that practiced in Mesopotamia were set up in the Palestine Mandate in 1922 and in the Aden Protectorate six yeats later. Bombers were active at various times against rioters in Egypt, tribesmen on the Frontier, pastoralists in the Southern Sudan and nomads in the Somali hinterland. The air force intervened against organized workers in the British class struggle and against the rebels fighting for Irish independence. As the Treasury imposed strict limits upon military spending, each of the three services fought hard against the others for a larger share of a smaller whole, so the Air Ministry tried to extend the geographical limits of air policing to gain prestige, influence and funds.



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