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How the Royal Air Force won its wings in the Middle East.

In the 21st century, it’s hard to imagine a time when the worth of the airplane as a tool of war was disputed. Yet, in the years following World War I, the airplane was perceived as useful, but only an adjunct to ground and naval forces. In Britain an independent Royal Air Force, which would later save the nation from Adolf Hitler’s Luftwaffe, was forged in a cauldron of military doctrinal conflicts, severe financial restraints, international political crises and old-fashioned bureaucratic backstabbing. Surprisingly, the RAF proved its worth not in Europe but in a whirlwind of 1920s colonial conflicts, first on the Horn of Africa and second in— of all places—a newly created nation called Iraq.

The year 1919 was a lean one for Great Britain. The heavy financial cost of the war, not to mention the millions of wounded and demobilized veterans, threatened the internal stability of not only the empire but Britain itself. An unemployment rate of 23 percent was crippling the economy. The Royal Navy, still the center of Imperial defense, felt pressure from the United States’ decision to begin a massive ship-construction program and from Japan’s growing might in the Pacific. The First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet David Beatty, submitted a £170 million request in 1919, stunning the government. The army’s chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Henry Hughes Wilson, had his own problems: The public’s war weariness and rapid demobilization made any proposed expansion or modernization nearly impossible. Still, Beatty and Wilson did agree on one thing—both wanted airplanes in their service’s arsenal.

Firsthand experience with airpower during the war had led the British military to recognize that a single air force would greatly enhance the effectiveness of the airplane as a means to destroy the war-making potential of an enemy while avoiding the butchery of the trenches. On April 1, 1918, the RAF was born and placed under the leadership of the first chief of the Air Staff, Maj. Gen. Sir Hugh Trenchard. But Wilson believed airpower should be subordinated to ground forces, while Beatty considered airpower a requirement for sea control. Trenchard and others who advocated for an independent RAF were hampered by the fact that World War I had ended before the force could truly prove itself, and they sought a way to prove the RAF’s value as an independent force. The Third Afghan War (1919) had suggested that the British, as long as they owned the skies, could dominate large swaths of territory at an affordable cost. And Trenchard had identified another potential test case for his fliers—the small uprising in British Somaliland.

The Horn of Africa has long been prized for its strategic location, first by ancient peoples of the Middle East, then by 19th century European imperialists and today by 21st century radical Islamists. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the need to secure the sea lanes to India and Southeast Asia drove British Imperial involvement in the region. In the Sudan in 1885, the army of the self-proclaimed mahdi (messianic Muslim leader) Muhammad Ahmad ibn as Sayyid Abd Allah overran British forces at Khartoum, killing Maj. Gen. George Charles “Chinese” Gordon and displaying his head on a pike. The British had their revenge there in 1898, when the AngloEgyptian army destroyed the Mahdists at the Battle of Omdurman. The next challenge for the British was posed by the subsequent self-proclaimed mahdi, Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, the so-called “Mad Mullah of Somaliland.”

Hassan had been an irritant for years, attacking British and Italian outposts and Ethiopians who crossed into his proclaimed territories, building his own forts, collecting taxes and generally keeping the region in turmoil. In 1920 he unintentionally provided an opportunity to see what Trenchard’s fliers could do. A single RAF squadron of 12 de Havilland D.H.9s and local forces smashed Hassan’s Dervish army and drove the Mad Mullah completely out of Somaliland—at a cost of just £100,000. Trenchard now had solid proof that airpower, backed by a small, mobile ground force, could cheaply police the empire. Yet this experiment would pale compared to what would emerge in 1920–1921, when Mesopotamia exploded in violence.

The Allied victory over the old Ottoman Empire in 1918 led to a series of postwar political crises. The Treaty of Versailles directed that the Allies assume responsibility for the remains of the German and Ottoman Empires. Other wartime agreements between the British and French partitioned the Ottoman Empire outside of Turkey. At the San Remo Conference in 1920, France gained Syria and Lebanon, while the British kept their influence in Egypt and also gained a mandate over Palestine, Transjordan and Mesopotamia.

Faisal bin Hussein, son of Hussein ibn Ali, the sharif of Mecca, and one of the leaders of the revolt against the Ottomans, was displaced by French troops from the kingship of Greater Syria and sent to live in the United Kingdom, adding to the general distrust of France and Britain in the Middle East. While Faisal would become king of Iraq in 1921, the smoldering internal dissension in that country led to a violent nationalist uprising in 1920.

Two factors led to the Great Iraqi Revolution. First were the endemic religious, tribal and cultural differences among inhabitants of the new nation of Iraq. The Sunnis, the influential and educated minority, were violently antiimperialist and believed they should rule the country. The Shiite majority were equally determined that the Sunnis would not rule them—and they detested the Kurds. The Kurds would accept neither Turkish nor Arab domination. Add to this mix the large Jewish population, Christian refugees from Turkey, and the birth of anticolonial Islamic movements in An Najaf (the Shiite League of Islamic Awakening and the Sunni-dominated Muslim National League), and all the ingredients of a violent revolt began to boil.

The second factor, ironically, was insufficient British forces on the ground. Just enough foreign troops were stationed in Iraq to present targets to the rebels, but they were not sufficient to control the nation. Colonel Arnold Talbot Wilson pleaded for additional troops in 1919 and 1920. Prime Minister David Lloyd George denied the reinforcements, citing the postwar demobilization of the army, major reductions in army funding and the belief that additional troops would only exacerbate the crisis. Gertrude Bell, an influential self-professed expert on Arab affairs, further discounted Wilson’s warnings of an imminent uprising and worked behind the scenes to ensure that additional forces were not dispatched from Britain. Then, on June 14, 1920, tribal raiders began murdering British officers from Kurdistan all the way to the border of what is now Saudi Arabia. They also attacked British outposts and ambushed and killed tax collectors from Baghdad. Bell quickly reversed herself, proclaiming the situation in Iraq a “nationalist reign of terror.”

The revolt was a watershed event for Iraq. Though they could agree on little else, the numerous Iraqi factions—religious, political and tribal— united on the idea of independence. The fateful decision at San Remo to give Britain mandate over Iraq, instead of creating an independent nation, was the spark that set the country afire. The British had added more local representatives to the mandate government, but by May 1920, the nationalists were hellbent on full independence. In July disturbances broke out among the Euphrates River tribes and quickly spread into the backcountry. The 60,000 British and Imperial troops then in-country—mostly administrative and logistics personnel—were effectively under siege. The British consolidated their forces along the lines of communication to Kuwait and Transjordan, and called in reinforcements from India.

In the end, 17,000 British and 85,000 Imperial (mostly Indian) troops were required to suppress the rebellion, at a cost of nearly 2,000 casualties and a monetary cost of some £30 million by December. That was more than Britain’s weakened postwar economy could take. Neither the British public, Lloyd George nor the War Office could support such expenditures. That said, to abandon the Iraq mandate would be to yield a strategically important country between Suez and India, and expose the mighty British Empire as a paper tiger. It seemed the British government faced an intractable problem that only a combination of new military technology, forceful diplomacy and the establishment of friendly Arab governments could solve.

At the 1921 Cairo Conference on Mideast Affairs, Trenchard formally proposed replacing the massive ground force with a substantially smaller air contingent and that the RAF spearhead all military operations in Iraq. Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary, agreed, and Trenchard and his Royal Air Force had their big opportunity.

Air policing is a relatively simple strategy. Aircraft operating out of well-defended airfields are supported by fast-moving armored car squadrons. In effect, airpower replaces artillery, while armored cars replace cavalry. When an outlying village or isolated tribe refused to pay taxes or ignored the central government, airplanes would be dispatched to strafe and bomb the offending group. Trenchard explained he could achieve results more cheaply with his RAF squadrons “…than the Army could with a battalion of British troops, sweating—with their mule trains—through inhospitable, often waterless terrain long distances from their depot.”

Initially, such policing was conducted indiscriminately, based solely upon the recommendation of the local British political adviser and the ranking area RAF officer. Brigadier General Hugh Dowding, who had clashed with Trenchard over air policy during World War I (and would later lead RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain), disagreed with the arbitrary nature of the bombings. His objections persuaded Trenchard to compromise: The RAF would drop leaflets on offending villages prior to any attack, notifying inhabitants that “bombers in due course would follow the leaflets.” By the mid-1920s, the attacks became largely unnecessary, as the appearance of leaflet-dropping airplanes often prompted the rapid surrender of rebellious tribes and villages.

As part of the overall pacification plan, the commanding air officer in Iraq, Air Vice Marshal Sir John Salmond (later marshal of the RAF), integrated the newly trained Iraqi army into ground operations. This supported the British aim of indirect political control. While Iraqi forces had served under British command since 1915, the idea of placing the ultimate responsibility for Iraqi defense on the shoulders of the indigenous peoples (versus use of Iraqi levies as mere adjuncts to the empire’s soldiery) was a new one. But just as the Iraqi army and RAF began joint operations, a new threat emerged: Turkish forces were discovered slipping across the border into the Mosul wilayah (province).

Mustapha Kemal Atatürk, leader of the Turkish independence movement and the father of modern Turkey, was in the midst of an internal and external conflict amid the remains of the Ottoman Empire. In addition to fighting a variety of enemies, Atatürk was determined to reduce British influence in the region. The 1922 Chanak Crisis, in which Turkish troops threatened a Franco-British force in the neutral zone of the Dardenelles, was the first point of conflict. Encouraged by the consequent Allied withdrawal, Atatürk then ordered troops into northern Iraq. Salmond was awaiting such an opportunity—a conventional ground force without airpower presenting itself as a target.

Salmond had by that time assembled a diverse and powerful strike force: four squadrons of Airco D.H.9A light bombers, two squadrons of new Vickers Vernon troop transport planes, one squadron of Bristol F.2B fighters and another of Sopwith Snipes. But it was not the RAF alone that savaged Turkish troops from October 1922 to January 1923. A strong force of levy detachments and tribal lashkars (militias) helped isolate the Turkish irregulars crossing into Iraq, closing the border to further incursions. So successful was that border operation that by early 1923 Salmond put his aircraft back on the job of internal policing.

While the RAF was establishing order within Iraq, the War Office continued to redeploy Imperial ground forces out of the country. Control of the air enabled the British to intimidate and strike isolated tribes and villages that resisted the newly installed pro-British government of King Faisal. The lack of modern antiaircraft weapons ensured the RAF’s position as an omniscient and indestructible force, smiting those who dared to challenge Faisal and the British. Thus the RAF appeared to offer a winning formula for British colonial policing.

The British also recognized the need for liaison officers on the ground—men knowledgeable in Arabic and tribal customs, religion and language. These liaisons would accompany armored car squadrons as they patrolled the country, identifying which villages or tribes were friendly and which were hostile. The squadrons themselves comprised small detachments of RAF personnel, fore – runners of the modern RAF regiment. Each three-man crew rode in a World War I–issue armored Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost mounted with a Vickers .303-inch medium machine gun, which could cover a large area quickly and cheaply.

In Iraq four companies of these armored cars, backed by a single brigade of British and Indian troops, supported eight RAF air squadrons. This drastic reduction of forces—from nearly 100,000 troops following the 1920 revolt (33 infantry battalions and six cavalry regiments, plus supporting troops) to a comparative handful by 1922—reduced the British footprint to a reasonable size and placed the internal-security responsibility squarely on the shoulders of indigenous Iraqi forces.

Air policing in Iraq became a blend of airpower, psychological operations and political warfare. No case better demonstrates the policy than that of Sheikh Mahmud, the anticolonial Kurdish rebel. Mahmud Barzanji had been the Turkish governor of the Sulaimaniya province, and in 1919 he led an armed uprising against the British, who removed him from his post and imprisoned him. They soon released him, believing only he was capable of running the chaotic district. Mahmud promptly returned to fighting the British, and was ordered by the new Iraqi government to report to Baghdad in February 1923. He refused, and the RAF attacked his home in Sulaimaniya. When ground troops occupied the city, Mahmud fled to Persia, but continued his fight against the British in Kurdistan.

The departure of British ground forces in the summer of 1923 provided Mahmud the opportunity to return to Iraq. He did so in the winter of 1923–24 as the new “King of Kurdistan.” The British and Iraqis, preoccupied with suppressing rebels in the more populated south, brokered an agreement with Mahmud: If the Kurds pledged to stay within their own area and obey the central Iraqi government of King Faisal, they would remain unmolested. Mah mud agreed, but then promptly violated the agreement. Once again the RAF bombed his quarters in Sulaimaniya, and again he fled the region. Tribes loyal to Mah mud continued a low-level insurgency against the Iraqis and British, and in the early summer of 1924, the British dispatched troops to Kirkuk in an attempt to quell the violence. The arrival of British soldiers in Kirkuk was the excuse Mahmud needed. He declared a jihad against both the British and ethnic Assyrian Iraqi forces, and amassed a fighting force in Sulaimaniya.

As with the Turks a year prior, the large insurgent combat force presented a perfect target for the Royal Air Force. Following an ultimatum on May 26, 42 aircraft began a punishing two-day attack on Sulai maniya. RAF bombers dropped 28 tons of bombs, damaging much of the city. Wisely, the RAF had preceded the attack with ample warning to residents, and there were consequently no civilian casualties. Mahmud, in an eerie forecast of the 2002 conflict in Afghanistan, fled to the caves of Qara Dagh. For the next several years the RAF conducted an air campaign against Mah mud loyalists in south Wazir istan, strafing and bombing at every opportunity. Mahmud’s forces never amassed the strength to do more than harass British and Iraqi forces. Finally, in May 1931, Mahmud surrendered and by 1932 had signed a peace agreement with King Faisal’s government. Mahmud’s peace with Faisal gave the British the opportunity to formally surrender the Mesopotamian mandate to the Iraqi government, and Iraq became independent on October 3, 1932—though a substantial RAF force remained in the country for the next two decades.

The air policing experience convinced the British government of the value of an independent air force. For nearly six years the RAF had patrolled Iraq, showering villages with leaflets or explosives, keeping out external invaders and dropping the annual cost of occupation from £30 million in 1920 to £3.4 million in 1925. For Trenchard and his fliers, the campaign marked the first true strategic air victory in history, where airpower was not just an adjunct to ground or naval power but an effective method of warfare all its own.

This did not mean that either the Royal Navy or the army would cease trying to reassert control over their airplanes. But the army and navy had been taught a lesson—that fliers were no longer junior partners in imperial defense but could point to several successful campaigns (northwest India, Somaliland, Iraq) to prove their worth and had powerful backers. The RAF came to be regarded as an equal arm of British military might. Just as the old saying suggests Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, a nod to the role of competitive sports, so too it could be said that the great British air victories of World War II, fought by an independent Royal Air Force, were first won in the offices of Whitehall and on the dusty plains of Iraq.


For further reading, Robert Mackey recommends: Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force, 1919–1939, by David E. Omissi; War in the Desert: An R.A.F. Frontier Campaign, by Sir John Glubb; and Trenchard: A Man of Vision, by Andrew Boyle.

Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.