In the years after the end of the First World War the RAF became deeply involved in a series of imperial campaigns as the British sought to impose their will on the sprawling regions of the globe they now controlled or for which they were responsible. During the interwar years air forces came to be identified as an ideal and cost-effective way of maintaining order and control in the face of rebellions and insurrections, and not just by the British government. With air campaigns in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia in particular the RAF forged a role that rendered it a crucial tool in the fight to retain control of imperial possessions at relatively low cost at a time when London was desperately attempting to rein in spending. As is often the case, the received wisdom is at odds with the reality, but there is little doubt that for a period of years after the armistice of 1918 the RAF’s role in imperial policing was a vital component of its survival strategy in the face of efforts by the older services to break it up. It is also true, however, that the RAF developed other reasons to justify its existence in the 1920s and played a broader role than mere force in the maintenance of empire.
Yet, as the RAF began the process of being scaled back into a peacetime force it was far from clear exactly what role it would play and thus how it should be constituted. From its peak of 300,000 in 1918 the RAF was reduced by 1920 to some 30,000 personnel and from 180 operational squadrons down to a mere twenty, with only two based in the UK. Some 10,000 machines and 30,000 engines had been sold off by 1920 as the British endeavoured to realign both expenditure and force composition in the economically uncertain yet diplomatically stable post-war era.
Political machinations were to aid the RAF’s survival substantially during this delicate period, and the appointment of Churchill as Secretary of State for the Air, even though he simultaneously held the role of Minister for War too, proved vital. Churchill was a keen advocate of air power as well as a shrewd and combative politician. Perversely, his position was bolstered by the overly ambitious and unrealistic tone adopted by Air Vice Marshal Frederick Sykes, then the CAS. Sykes had replaced Trenchard in April 1918, but Sykes’s vision for the RAF in the post-war world was out of kilter with the tone of government, which was increasingly founded on fiscal pruning and retrenchment in a world with few perceived or plausible threats. Sykes lobbied for the creation of an imperial air force to help bind the empire together, but his estimate of 348 squadrons with 110,000 personnel was both wildly profligate and politically naïve. Churchill moved Sykes on and brought back the obdurate and more politically astute Trenchard as CAS.
Yet they clashed too, and Trenchard’s initial estimates were forced downwards by Churchill. The new CAS wanted an RAF of 124 squadrons costing some £23 million to £25 million; anything less would be useless, Trenchard argued. Churchill offered £13 million, and eventually they fixed on a sum of £15 million. Trenchard’s willingness to accept this compromise resulted in the Lloyd George government looking upon him favourably, but the Air Staff’s hope that the RAF would be recognized as the principal arm of imperial defence was dashed.
Trenchard set in motion a series of initiatives and policies that would lay the structural foundation of the post-war RAF, based on realism, a degree of opportunism, and political expediency. His famous memorandum of December 1919 set out a vision for the RAF much more in line with the prevailing economic and political climate, one based on limited initial and immediate capability but focused more heavily on training and long-term establishment. Trenchard was attempting to lay the foundations of a permanent service with deep roots, and the Air Force Cadet College at Cranwell and the RAF Staff College at Andover were established to underpin this long-term vision.
Trenchard was, however, astute enough to recognize that though he and many of his staff saw the RAF’s future as a truly independent force with a strategic role, this was neither appropriate nor marketable in the early 1920s. The only way in which this future might be realized would be if the RAF could first embed itself in the defence establishment more completely, and in 1921 this was far from certain. Indeed, if there was a period when the RAF’s future was in some doubt it was then, as the army and navy manoeuvred to partition the air force. Later squabbles over the RAF’s future were more intended to squeeze concessions and commitments out of the Air Staff and the break-up of the RAF was never likely, but in 1921 it was a distinct possibility; the Air Staff and Trenchard were too canny to allow this to happen, however, particularly compared to the War Office, and most obviously over the policy that became known as ‘Substitution’.
From 1919 onwards the British government developed a policy of substituting mechanized equipment, such as armoured vehicles or aircraft, for traditional conventional forces such as infantry and cavalry, particularly in matters of imperial policing and control. This, it was contended, would reduce costs and lead to modernization. It was the Air Staff who saw this as an opportunity, while the War Office hesitated. The Air Staff’s policy of stepping in to fulfil the role of imperial control and policing proved hugely successful for the RAF, ensuring its viability. The link between aerial policing and the RAF’s future was clear; in one RAF memo in 1920 Trenchard noted that he ultimately hoped that the RAF would become the dominant force in imperial defence, this being the first step to becoming ‘more and more the predominating factor in all types of warfare’.
Though it was the revolt in Iraq and its aftermath (1920–1) that gave the impetus to Trenchard’s vision for a formal air control policy, the RAF had already been involved in imperial control missions before then. In 1919 the RAF deployed aircraft with some success in helping to put down the rebellion known as the Third Afghan War. Initially RAF efforts were directed towards supporting friendly ground forces but this was dangerous due to the operating conditions and limited in effect due to the quality of the available aircraft. RAF officers lobbied for a more coordinated and focused bombing effort to be targeted against Afghan towns, cities, and large encampments. Beginning in May the campaign had significant effects. Afghan settlements were largely incapable of dealing with the raids and considerable damage appears to have been inflicted, both physically and on morale. By the end of May RAF bombers were dropping around a tonne of bombs per day, many on Jalalabad, but it was a symbolic raid on Kabul itself that had the most significance. Carried out by a four-engine Handley Page V/1500 heavy bomber originally designed to bomb Berlin, the raid was later considered by General Charles Monro, commander-in-chief, India, to be ‘an important factor in producing a desire for peace at the headquarters of the Afghan Government’. King Amanullah, the leader of the Afghan rebellion, pointed out the hypocrisy of the British, however, for while the bombing of London by the Germans had been condemned in the UK as barbaric and uncivilized, it appeared to be acceptable when perpetrated against non-Westerners.
This was a pattern to be repeated throughout the era. The RAF was more freely deployed around the empire against non-white peoples, but also against more remote targets; plans to use air forces in major urban centres such as Cairo or Calcutta, though set out, were never employed due to the obvious human and political costs. And of course, the most significant rebellion against British rule in the period, in Ireland, saw very little military use of the RAF at all, a policy Trenchard strongly adhered to. Though aircraft flew reconnaissance and resupply operations in Ireland, there is very little evidence of them being used in more offensive duties, even though senior British leaders and commanders hotly debated the option. By March 1921, in the closing stages of the fighting, the use of aircraft in very specific, controlled, and limited offensive operations had been authorized by the British government. Yet, even then the RAF employed offensive weapons in only 3 per cent of their flying time and in all probability caused no casualties.
Though the RAF could point to the success of the Afghan War, which concluded in August 1919, the aftermath was less satisfying. A drawn-out series of actions stretching into 1920, supported by the RAF, were conducted against recalcitrant tribes along the North-West Frontier as the British sought to restore order in the wake of the Afghan uprising. In these endeavours, the RAF was less able to shape events, and though some tribes were brought to order by air action alone, some were not, and ground forces had to be deployed in considerable numbers. Senior army and air force officers consequently disagreed about the decisive factors, and not always along service lines.
The campaign that highlighted the RAF’s role in imperial policing was that conducted in Somaliland in 1920 against Mohammed bin Abdulla Hassan—a so-called ‘Mad Mullah’—and his Dervish forces. The Mullah had increased his influence across Somaliland, further aided by the Germans during the war, and by 1918 the British were determined to act to impose their will on the area. In 1919 the War Office stood back from serious involvement, allowing Trenchard to make the RAF’s case for reinstating British rule, at minimal cost; just one squadron and no increases in ground support beyond what was already station in Somaliland. In short order the RAF spearheaded the campaign in January 1920, surprising and then scattering the Mullah’s forces, which were then mopped up by the ground forces, supported by air actions. The RAF’s involvement lasted around a month at a cost of just £70,000, with just three aeroplanes lost and no combat deaths.
Yet even in this much lauded campaign, debate ensued as to the actual level of effectiveness of the RAF’s actions. While army officers conceded that air actions had been crucial, it was argued that ground forces had still been vital elements, that the Somali Camel Corps had been weakening the Mullah by persistent action for many years, and that a combined campaign from the start would have yielded even better results. It was also true that the Mullah’s popularity was already on the wane by 1920 due to his increasing recourse to brutal methods of imposing rule, so that when calamity came, his troops melted away. The Mullah also weakened his position by abandoning his forces’ preferred guerrilla tactics for occupation methods, based on permanent bases and forts. These provided obliging and highly vulnerable targets for air attack.
Nevertheless, the tone of RAF operations in an imperial policing role had been set. Further success in Sudan underlined Trenchard’s approach. In a land of few roads to support modern ground operations and huge distances to cover with only a sprinkling of friendly troops to rely upon, the RAF was called upon in December 1919 to aid operations against the Garjak Nuer tribe, which would not toe the line and stop raiding other communities. H Unit, as the RAF contingent of just two DH9A aeroplanes and under thirty men was called, found the going tough at first with awkward operating conditions and evasive Nuer tactics. When both RAF aircraft were put out of action a third was flown in from Egypt, a distance of over 1,800 miles and an early example of the long and flexible reach of air power.
The turning point in the campaign came when the British ground forces, aided by the RAF, switched tactics to targeting the Nuer villages rather than seeking battle. The human cost was severe with children and the elderly paying the price. Cattle were targeted, and when supplies began to run out the Nuer submitted. RAF operations were highlighted by the army as being crucial to the success of the campaign, and again there were no RAF casualties. Indeed, the army’s main issue had been the small numbers of aircraft available when more might have expedited victory.
Ultimately the implementation of a formalized RAF air control policy was to come in Iraq in 1922, but it took two years to get there. Early in 1920, in his role as Secretary of State for War, Churchill was seeking cuts in expenditure for the garrisoning of Iraq, then standing at £18 million for a force that included some 14,000 British troops, backed by Indian and other local elements. Churchill wanted this to be achieved in part through substituting mechanized equipment for conventional elements, but the War Office baulked at the idea. Churchill turned to the RAF for a plan with the incentive of a £5–6 million increase in the air force estimates. Trenchard and the Air Staff took the initiative, citing early examples of the RAF’s effectiveness in the imperial role. Though it was not entirely possible at that time for the RAF to meet the requirements of Churchill’s policy for Iraq, Trenchard was ambitious enough to claim that it could, and came up with a scheme based on aircraft and supporting ground forces to plug the gap. It would require one hundred aircraft with around 4,000 British personnel and 10,000 Indian troops, all supported by a small number of local forces. Churchill’s enthusiasm was not matched by the cabinet’s support, however, and they remained unconvinced that a few aeroplanes could replace 100,000 troops.
It took the anti-British revolt in Iraq to force matters. The rising in Iraq against British rule broke out in the spring of 1920 just as the cabinet in London was still debating the rights of wrongs of Churchill’s air control scheme. The political squabbles mattered little as the Arab rebels scored a series of successes despite the presence of thirty imperial infantry battalions and five cavalry regiments, supported by artillery batteries and two squadrons of the RAF. Many in Britain were already set against British involvement in the region, for a whole variety of reasons, and the revolt stirred up yet more considerable political discontent. The RAF contingent flew increasing numbers of missions against the insurgents, though operating and living conditions were harsh.
For the RAF the initial shortage of aircraft was a major problem and in May they had only eleven functioning aeroplanes, eight of which were ageing BE-8s, though these were subsequently replaced by Bristol F.2b fighters. By August the situation was so desperate that Churchill authorized the RAF to employ chemical weapons if necessary, even though there were no useable bombs available. The army only held tear gas shells, though stocks had to be requested from Egypt, and it is unclear as to whether these weapons, or indeed any lethal chemical devices, were ever employed in Iraq by the British.
Aircraft built for European conditions struggled in Mesopotamia, with sand and dust causing problems for engines and airframes alike, while hazards such as plagues of locust and whirlwinds added further to the RAF’s problems. The aircrew despaired of the conditions, living in decaying tents, suffering extremes of temperatures, and existing off tins of rancid meat and dry biscuits. On his first ten days’ duties in Iraq one officer recorded:
We were up on eight of them before dawn, off to Diwaniyah where we had to fill up [with fuel] ourselves—no joke on a BF [Bristol Fighter]—then bombing of the Diwaniyah–Samawah area, landed at Samawah, again filled up by ourselves, bombed by ourselves, left again, bombed the same area again and landed Diwaniyah to fill up and back to Baghdad.