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Comments by YACCS
Monday, November 28, 2005

The old is new again

Aerial Control-1920

Discussion of Iraq being controlled from air is nothing new.

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)


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 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.

I can't wait to see the 2006 parallel comment to this:

Excerpts from the Letters of Gertrude Bell
By Gertrude Bell
Gertrude Bell Project

[July 2, 1924]

Darling Father. Here is the first letter to go to you in Ceylon [Sri Lanka] via Mother. But I shall try to catch you next week on the Moldavia at Port Said which will be a very intelligent thing to do. You should arrive there about the 17th I reckon.


The most interesting thing which happened during this week was a performance by the R.A.F., a bombing demonstration. It was even more remarkable than the one we saw last year at the Air Force Show because it was much more real. They had made an imaginary village about a quarter of a mile from where we sat on the Diyala [(Sirwan)] dyke and the two first bombs, dropped from 3000 ft, went straight into the middle of it and set it alight. It was wonderful and horrible. They then dropped bombs all round it, as if to catch the fugitives and finally firebombs which even in the bright sunlight, made flares of bright flame in the desert. They burn through metal, and water won't extinguish them. At the end the armoured cars went out to round up the fugitives with machine guns. "And now" said the AVM wearily, "they'll insist on getting out and letting of [sic] trench mortars. They are really no good, but the men do love it so that I can't persuade them not to." Sure enough they did.

I was tremendously impressed. It's an amazingly relentless and terrible thing, war from the air.

What needs to be said is that the US government letting various factions controlling AC-130's is asking for a truly horrible result. Expect whole villages to be obliterated.

Of course, the fewer US troops, the more AAA weapons hauled from storage and used against American planes. But Bush isn't thinking about that, in his fantasies.

posted by Steve @ 7:09:00 PM

7:09:00 PM

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