The RAF air order of battle (AOB) did not change radically during the two decades between 1919 and 1939. The first units deployed to Mesopotamia were holdovers from WWI. In 1919, two units were in operation. Based at Baghdad West were Numbers 6 and 30 Squadrons flying Bristol Fighters and R.E. 8s. The following year, Numbers 84 and 55 Squadrons were added to the theater and all squadrons converted to DH9As except 6 Squadron which continued to operate the Bristol Fighter. In 1921, Number 8 Squadron was added also operating the “nine-ack”. In 1922, the start of air control implementation saw the arrival of Numbers 1, 45, and 70 Squadrons. More RAF bases of operation opened that year also.
A seldom discussed mission was that conducted by the Short Rangoons of 203 Squadron based from RAF Basrah. The Rangoon was a large three-engined flying boat that operated in Iraq between 1931 and 1935. Its mission was patrol of the Persian Gulf to detect and interdict smugglers both into and out of the British mandate.
Air control operations in Iraq can be categorized into four distinct phases during the interwar period. The first phase lasted throughout the period. It is best described as the control of malcontent nomadic Arab tribes. Sometimes air control was used to stamp out uprisings against Imperial control. Sometimes it was used to break up disputes between these tribes. “The armored car squadrons operated amongst the nomads on the ill-defined frontier with Saudi Arabia. The squadrons of aircraft distributed propaganda leaflets amongst the tribes, transported political officers who worked amongst the rural population as well as ‘punishing’ malcontents by air action.” Punitive actions varied. Aerial “demonstrations” proved effective in bringing several tribal feuds to an end. On one occasion, the bombardment and destruction of a makeshift dam was effective when a sheik attempted to deprive his neighbors of water. Another operation resulted in the bombing of a sheik and his followers who had refused to pay taxes and had been causing trouble for authorities in the region, resulting in one death and thirteen injuries.
The next phase looked not within, but outside the borders of the British mandate and was active between 1922 and 1925. A crisis in 1922 sparked the beginning of conflict between Turkey and Britain over the northern Iraqi province of Mosul. At the time, most thought that Imperial forces stationed in Iraq would be no match for a full-scale invasion from the north. The Turkish had ruled this oil-rich region previously under the Ottoman Empire and saw an opportunity to possibly take advantage of British weakness in the region. Some thought was given to abandon the Mosul Province but the “Air Ministry and the High Commissioner in Iraq argued that this would turn all of Iraq against Britain. Moreover there were no air bases between Mosul and Baghdad and so the RAF could not easily oppose a further Turkish advance from Mosul.” Luckily, further investigation surmised that a Turkish invasion force would be limited to just “two Turkish divisions” and Salmond assured his boss that “the RAF would give a good account of themselves against two Turkish divisions”. The RAF would go it alone over the next few years as negotiations between British and Turkish diplomats developed. The only actual engagements between the RAF and Turkish troops involved just a few attacks against small Turkish units found on the Iraqi side of the frontier.
The Kurdish people of Northern Iraq, Eastern Turkey, and Northern Iran had sought a separate Kurdish state for many years and were the focus of the third phase of the RAF’s air control operation in Iraq. In the inter-war years, the Kurds were led by a stubborn yet unsuccessful leader, Sheik Mahmud. The Sheik operated from the village of Sulaimaniya which was also considered the capital of the Kurdistan region. The region is dominated by the rugged peaks and valleys of the northern Zagros Mountains which make travel by ground in the area difficult and slow. The seasonal streams and rivers form impassable barriers in the spring as they flow west into the Tigris River system. This natural fortress had long been a safe haven for the Kurdish people as they harassed whichever power claimed their land as its own. The RAF’s relationship with Sheik Mahmud began in 1922 and ended in 1931 after persistent aerial operations against the Sheik and his rebel band resulted in his surrender and imprisonment. Salmond described his efforts against the Kurds in this except from a dispatch to Trenchard in September of 1923.
By attacks on livestock, which is the main form of capital and source of wealth to the less settled tribes, it can impose in effect a considerable fine or seriously interfere with the actual sources of the tribe—and in the end the tribesmen finds it is much the best to obey the Government. Occasionally, the house or fort of a rebel leader like [Sheik] Mahmud would be selected as a target of individual attack and this called for a high degree of bombing accuracy. Otherwise it was unnecessary, and indeed undesirable, to inflict serious damage. The object was really the air blockade of the recalcitrant village by means of intermittent light attacks, which were never delivered without due warning to the villagers so that they could leave their dwellings. After they had surrendered, troops or police would be flown in, with medical staff, to restore order, stop looting, treat the sick and the injured, distribute food and rehabilitate the area generally.
The fourth distinct phase of air control was defined by the patrol and defense of Southern Iraq from raiding tribes and nomads which would penetrate across the frontier with Saudi Arabia. The operation required cooperation with the armored car units and involved long and often boring sorties across the hot, dusty, and featureless southern desert. This phase was a concern for the RAF between the years of 1924 and 1930. The problem was caused by a sect of rebellious Arabs called Wahhabis. This sect cared little for governments or borders and often raided across Iraq’s southern frontier to attack Iraqi villages and nomadic tribes. Operations in this phase often long and boring, testing the limits of endurance for both man and machine. When tribes were sighted, the aircrews had a difficult time identifying which tribe was which and often the wrong band was attacked, thus defeating the purpose of the mission. This area saw the greatest use of the armored car regiments. The relationship between these mobile ground units and their airborne counterparts was both close and symbiotic. The armored car personnel knew the strengths and weaknesses of aircraft well and some were trained pilots. The aircraft would fly ahead to scout for targets and obstacles to the movement of the cars. The cars were in turn indispensable for the servicing, rescue, and recovery of the aircraft and their crews when forced down by mechanical problem or hostile fire. When major movements of troops and supplies were attempted, the aircraft would protect the column of vehicles along its route and provide reconnaissance of the area ahead. Eventually, the operation against the Wahhabis was settled by constant pressure from the RAF, the training and equipping of Iraqi tribes to help defend themselves, and pressure from the Saudi Arabian ruler, King Ibn Saud who had finally been persuaded to control these tribes operating from his country.