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Comments by YACCS
Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Colonial Warfare pt. 34

Hi, we're from Inland Revenue. Pay or we'll bomb you

Gertrude Bell was the neocon of her day, imposing Brtitsh will on the Iraqi people. She praised the use of airpower against the Iraqis. I wonder if this would meet Max Boot's ruthlessness test. Would dropping bombs on farmers and shepards is firm enough for Niall Fergusson?

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.

[July 6, 1922]

In conclusion I may mention that there is a gathering cloud in the north. The Turks are assembling troops in Van and have sent fresh officers and promised reinforcements at Rawanduz [Rawandiz]. An exceedingly lively propaganda is being conducted among the Kurdish tribes and our General Staff regards the situation as grave. Meantime in Sulaimani [Sulaymaniyah, As] we have not yet caught the murderers of Capt Bond and Capt Makant who are in close touch with the Turks at Rawanduz. The RAF has done wonders bombing insurgent villages in extremely difficult country, but it takes them all their time to keep a sufficient number of machines in the air and now if we are called upon to bomb Rawanduz intensively, our resources will be strained to the utmost.

Our Kurdish policy needs revision, as you will see from the enclosed Memo (strictly confidential) which I have submitted to H.E. But we cannot hope for any permanent settlement till we have peace with the Kamalists - if ever.

Aerial control was the preferred method of keeping the Iraqis in line.

Aeroplanes and Armored Cars:
Imposing British Colonial Control on Iraq in the 1920s
By V.G Kiernan
The following text is an excerpt from Colonial Empires and Armies 1815 - 1960 (Stroud: Sutton, 1998)

After World War I, leaders in London worried that British forces were spread too thin, that the public at home was increasingly opposed to the costs of Empire and that the native peoples were organizing more substantial resistance. This brief excerpt from Kiernan's book, refers to the armored cars that patrolled Iraq and worked together with airplanes to control Iraqi rebellion. The armored cars and planes, both under the command of the Royal Air Force, were the vanguard of a new "technical" military, seen in London as a cheaper way to patrol the over-extended empire

pp. 194-197

Above all, reliance was being placed on the new military technology to magnify manpower. It had been pushed forward rapidly by the Great War, which in this way fortified imperialism as much as in other ways it weakened it. During its course electrified as well as barbed wire was made use of on a turbulent section of the north-west frontier. The armoured car showed its paces in the Afghan war, though only available in limited numbers, `It possessed great fire power and mobility’, the army reported, `while offering a small and almost invulnerable target to the enemy.’ `Motor machine-gun batteries’ were also now in service. A grander chariot of wrath was the tank, an avatar of the elephant of older Indian warfare. But the true deus ex machina was the aviator, who had made his appearance in various colonial theatres during the Great War. . . .

To empire men of [General L.C.] Dunsterville’s generation, aviation promised, as his book makes clear, to be the trump card, the perfect means of keeping colonial peoples on the strait and narrow path. In the government this view had champions in [Colonial Secretary Lord] Milner and [Secretary for War and Air Winston] Churchill. . . The aim was to turn Iraq, whose defence was being entrusted to the RAF, into a showpiece of the new philosophy

It was in new territories where colonial rule had as yet no infrastructure that air forces could be looked on most of all as a short cut to control. In Iraq the British Mandate found few welcomers, and there were complications both in the north, where oil was expected, with Kurdish rebels, and in the south with Wahhabis, Muslim zealots raiding across the nebulous border from the new neighbouring kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A variety of operations were soon being undertaken by the RAF, on its own or in conjunction with ground forces under its direction. They were breeding a new type of soldier, a technician in uniform. A good specimen was the L.A. Simmons who joined the RAF as a 'skilled driver' in 1923, and spent 'two and a half quite unforgettable years' with armoured car units in Iraq, before moving on to Egypt. He rose to flight lieutenant. The army was not concerned to notice that it had some enquiring minds now in the fold. No one told Simmons and his friends that they would be getting out of a train at Ur of the Chaldees. 'There was little or no "Briefing" in those days, eveyone was kept in the dark about what was going on.' He arranged to have newspaper cuttings sent out from home, in order to get some clue to what he was doing.

His No.4 company of armoured cars had its base at Hinaidi, close to the capital of Baghdad. Far-ranging patrols were carried out, by sections each of four cars, four Fords with Lewis guns, and a tender with radio and provisions. A car had a crew of five, all of whom had to be able to drive it and to handle any of its weapons. 'Our "armoureds" were greatly respected everywhere', he wrote. When men on the ground spotted the enemy in too much strength for them to tackle they radioed for planes to come and bonb him.

The bomber replaced the infantryman as an instrument of murder.

The Royal Air Force in Iraq
By Peter Sluglett
The following text is an excerpt from Britain in Iraq: 1914-1932 (London: Ithaca Press, 1976

Sluglett, a leading historian of modern Iraq, here discusses the British use of air power to impose colonial rule in Iraq. While officials in London sometimes expressed discomfort, military commanders and colonial officials bombed and strafed Iraqi villages to teach obedience and to force tax collection from even the poorest Iraqis.


The first aeroplanes of the Royal Flying Corps had arrived in Mesopotamia in 1916. In the first months, their use was confined to reconnaissance and guidance of artillery fire, but gradually the advantages of using aircraft in offensive operations became as apparent in the Middle East as they had become on the Western Front. The notion that aeroplanes had their uses in checking disturbances in areas considered impenetrable by ordinary troops began to gain currency. In April 1919:

‘Bombing still continues to be carried out. No sooner has one area been subdued than another breaks out into revolt and has to be dealt with by aeroplane…..all these tribal disturbances have been dealt with from the air….. thus the Army has been saed from marching many weary miles over bad country and sustaining casualties.’

The advantage of air control, its speed, its great savings in time, personnel and expense were to become increasingly obvious over the following years. Even traditional military men were brought round: General Haldane, Commander-in-Chief in Baghdad wrote to Churchill in Hune 1921:

‘Indeed, I now think that had I had sufficient aircraft last year I might have prevented the insurrection spreading from beyond the first incident at Rumaitha.’

As Secretary of State for War, Churchill instructed Trenchard to prepare a scheme for the maintenance of internal security for Mesopotamia. Churchill envisaged a series of landing grounds in the middle of defended areas, thus doing away with the long lines of communication which had bedeviled the campaign during the war. After a tour of the country, Sir Geoffrey Salmond, brother of the first Air Officer Commanding in Baghdad, concluded that the scheme was suitable in principle:

‘It must be taken as an essential part of our position in Mesopotamia that the civil administration of this country is only possible because military force exists. The task which the RAF will be called upon to undertake is to maintain the status quo without imperiling the civil administration, even though the worst situation should arise, namely a general rising throughout the country, an improbable event.’

In spite of Salmond’s predictions, the improbable did take place: the insurrection began a few months later and heavy fighting and considerable loss of life resulted. Hence the arguments for the air scheme became even stronger, in terms of the general war-weariness and the desperate need for economy now pressing in upon Whitehall. Churchill, now Colonial Secretary, strongly advocated the policy, which was finally adopted in August 1921, and scheduled to take effect after October 1922. Britain’s obligations as Mandatory power were to be carried out by employing squadrons of the RAF together with a number of armoured car companies and battalions of Levies. This garrison was under the Air Officer Commanding, who was himself responsible to the High Comminssioner and not to the Air Ministry. Apart from the saving of money involved, Trenchard considered that the air scheme was based on the principle that:

‘…..if the Arabs have nothing to fight against on the ground and no loot or rifles to be obtained, and nobody to kill, but have to deal with aeroplanes which are out of their reach they are certain to come in and there will be no risk of disasters or heavy casualties such as are always suffered by small infantry patrols in uncivilized countries.’

However, the principles of air control were the subject of protracted controversy. The opposition put up by the War Office was largely based on lines of demarcation, but even within the Colonial Office misgivings were expresses which were in fact substantially justified during the period of the Mandate. One official asked:

‘How far would it be legitimate or desirable for British Forces to help the Arab Government put down risings or to enforce obedience?....suppose the middle Euphrates area revolts against the Amir and pushes out all the Amir’s officials and sets up a Shia administration: is the Mandatory to help restore the Amir’s authority?’

Churchill informed Cox in June, 1921:

‘Aerial action is a legitimate means of quelling disturbances and of enforcing the maintenance of order but it should in no circumstances be employed in suppor of purely administrative measures such as the collection of revenue….’

an injunction which was to be largely honoured in the breach in the future.

In practical terms, the preservation of ‘internal security’ was ‘equivalent to extending the area of authority of the Iraq Government. In order to achieve this, parts of the country which were more or less anarchic and had rarely paid taxes had to be pacified. To the Kurds, and to the tribesmen of the Middle and Lower Euphrates, the policy pursued by Britain and the Iraq Government seemed in practice little different from that of the Turks. For the tribesmen, ‘Government’ meant the twin evils of taxation and conscription, both of which they had almost succeeded in keeping at arm’s length in Ottoman times. After the Occupation, it became clear that the Civil Administration was determined not only to impose taxes but also to collect them, and where the Iraq Government could afford to do so without damaging local susceptibilities, it also showed energy in this respect.

Inevitably, bombing developed into an instrument of repression. As a result of several operations in Iraq in 1923 and 1924, the Harmsworth and Beaverbrook presses, which were strongly opposed to any further British involvement in the Middle East, seized on the vigorous peacekeeping activities of the RAF as a further argument to ‘Quit Mesopotamia’, and there were a number of embarrassing Parliamentary Questions. Lansbury fulminated against ‘this Hunnish and barbarous method of warfare against unarmed people, but he was not alone in his attacks on the policy:

‘Lord Curzon has interested himself in this question. I gather that Lord Curzon was not satisfied that there is any real difference between bombing for non-payment of taxes and bombing for non-appearance when summoned to explain non-payment of taxes.’

In August 1924 the Labour Minister for Air presented to Parliament a Note on the Employment of the Air Arm in Iraq, apparently an attempt at a blanket answer to these criticisms. In described the circumstances under which RAF assistance could be requested, and the administrative procedures involved, emphasizing that aeroplanes were only to be used if all other mans had failed. The alternatives to air control were dismissed as impossibly unwieldy and expensive. The Note claimed that air defence was cheap, that it provided ‘a method of control more effective and less costly to life and suffereing’, and that it enabledbombing was about to take place, the local population was always warned in advance by leaflets being dropped to enable them to take cover, so that ‘the compulsion exercised by the air arm rests more on the damage to morale and on the interruption to the normal life of the tribe than on actual casualties.’

Both the principles and the abuses of the system in practice are best illustrated by studying a single operation. The largest offensive mounted by the RAF in Southern Iraq during the 1920’s was the action taken against the Bani Huchaim confederation in Samawa qadha in the late autumn and winter of 1923-24. In the autumn of 1923, the authorities attempted to collect taxes in the Samawa qadha for the first time for many years. There was no suggestion that there had been any serious unruliness or disorder in the area, and the fact that British Officers were able to tour freely confirms this. Glubb, who was then Special Service Officer at Hillah, discovered that the serious water shortage in the area was largely due to the diversion of the channels by Shal’lan abu Chon, the most powerful local sheikh who, like his associate ‘Abd al-Wahid Sikkar, envisited the qadha and the mustasarrif was rarely seen. The tribes themselves were:

‘……exceptionally poor…. it is a regrettable fact that Government at the moment presents itself to their minds as a kind of absentee landlord which never concerns itself with them except periodically to demand revenue.’

Glubb suggested that it would be sensible to talk to the local leaders, listen to their grievances, and make whatever adjustments were possible.

At the same time, however, (as is evident from the dates of the letters) the Administrative Inspector, Diwaniyah, was recommending that punitive action should be taken for non-payment of taxes. Units of the Iraq Army and police were moved into position well before it was suggested that the ‘rebels’ should be summoned to Samawa. The letter sent by the Ministry of Interior to the Administrative Inspector stressed that the latter should be ‘careful not to impose collection of revenue as the main condition since if it is found necessary to bomb them it must be for defiance of Government orders and not to increase the exchequer’, the distinction which Lord Curzon had found so hard to appreciate.

A week or so later Moore, the S.S.O. at Samawa, made another tour of the area, listening to complaints:

‘In each mudhif (tribal guest-house) we heard the same opinions and grievances that have been embodied in Captain Glubb’s report…….albu Jayyash in particular were loud in their praise of the old days when water was fairly distributed and a man could feel reasonably safe in his house.’

Nevertheless, late in November, the sheikhs of several subsections of the Bani Huchaim confederation were ‘peremptorily’ summoned to Samawa at 48 hours’ notice and required to give a deposit of money as surety of their tribes’ good behaviour. Two of the three sheikhs who arrived confessed that they had long lost the ability to control their tribes, an answer which although considered unsatisfactory was more than likely to be true. The necessary guarantees could not be found, and arrangements were accordingly made for the RAF to bomb the area so as to encourage obedience to Government. The casualties may appear unimpressive by today’s standards, but over a two week period 144 people were killed and an unspecified number wounded.

A few weeks after the end of the operation Glubb, perhaps the most perceptive observer of local conditions, wrote to Air Headquarters:

‘It is regrettable but it appears almost inevitable that aerial action should be associated with the payment of taxes. First, the tribesman thinks of Government merely as an institution which periodically descends upon him demanding money. If he sees Government applying coercion to any individual to any individual or tribe he naturally concludes that it is with the object of extracting money. Secondly, the average minor Government official seems to have much the same idea of his duties…. The association of punitive action with the payment of taxes cannot be avoided. It can, however, be mitigated by constantly impressing on individuals that Government has no right to tax the community unless it gives something in return. I have very rarely heard an official take credit to himself for improving agriculture in his district, or public health…..’

A further acute analysis was written by another RAF Intelligence Officer in April 1924:

‘The primary cause of the recent outbreak was the growing irritation at demands for revenue which the tribes’ poverty and fecklessness makes them unable to meet. That they in fact have little or no money is reported from all sources, both official and unofficial. Whether they would pay if they had is another question, but it seems at least possible that they would squander less recklessly what little they get if they saw a more tangible return for their repayment of revenue. At present many of them feel that they are merely supplying pay for some tomato-eating Effendis in Baghdad.’

Soon after the operation had ended, an official report was sent to London by the Air Officer Commanding in Baghdad. In a Minute on the report, the Deputy Chief of Air Staff suggested that before it was circulated to other Government departments, certain passages should be omitted, amongst which was the following:

‘Although the tribes had been continually lawless and disobedient it appeared necessary before punitive action was taken that some definite instance of insubordination should take place.’

The tone of the Minute itself is not reassuring:

‘If this report as it stands were to get into the hands of undesirable people, harm might be done not only to the Air Force but also to the Government (i.e. H.M.G.)……(the whole operation might be regarded as)….forcing an unnecessary and unprovoked quarrel on the people in order that drastic punishment might be carried out at a time when no definite claim could be fixed on these people and when the country was quiet and the main communications working normally, even to the extent that; Political Officers could go….. I think that certain paragraph should not be sent out without further consideration.’

Later operations in the same area further suggest that these operations had simply been a form of exemplary punishment. In 1925, a squadron of aircraft was used to help the police in the sheep count, undertaken to collect the koda, or animal tax. The air diary records:

Tax collection through terror bombing, a novel approach.

posted by Steve @ 1:22:00 AM

1:22:00 AM

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