Imperial Policing in the Interwar Era II

Flying boats on the Nile, 1930. Down route to the empire, Supermarine Southampton flying boats at buoys, probably on the River Nile c.1930. Long-range operations to Africa and the Far East were commonplace for flying boat crews for the two decades between the wars.

The reach of empire, 1928–39. Imperial air policing was advocated by the RAF in the interwar period as a cost-effective method of maintaining the British Empire. It paved the way for airline routes.

Initially called in on fire-fighting sorties, the RAF much preferred concentrated and focused raids and argued that these had a much more significant impact. Units also employed tactics whereby villages and civilians were targeted, often on the grounds of being reprisal raids, but with the general intention of degrading the support network for the insurgents.

By the autumn the revolt had been broken, but not until further resources had been pumped into the area, including yet more RAF aircraft from Europe. As some semblance of control and order was imposed, the scale of the effort to achieve success caused many in the UK to blanch. By December the British still had 17,000 of their own troops and 85,000 Indian soldiers based in Mesopotamia, at an estimated annual cost of some £30 million. General Haldane, commanding the imperial forces in Iraq, argued that he would in future need thirty-three infantry battalions and six cavalry regiments to maintain British rule; a wholly unrealistic figure both economically and politically in late 1920. The War Office suggested that a future commitment of one division would be able to hold Basra and the oil fields, but little else.

Trenchard’s views were already known on how Iraq could be policed and controlled principally through the efforts of the RAF, and his position was bolstered by the comments of Arnold Wilson, the chief British representative in Baghdad, who argued that aircraft had saved the day in the campaign in Iraq.

At a conference in Cairo in 1921 to resolve matters of administration and control of Britain’s overblown commitments across the Middle East, Churchill, by then the Colonial Secretary, started to push through the air control plan, backed by a range of other new measures.

Trenchard was well pleased with the outcome, but the War Office attempted to derail the plan, pushing for the break-up of the RAF; they argued that aeroplanes were auxiliary to troops and Air Staff policy was now working against this. The War Office’s initiative was swept aside by Lord Balfour and the Committee for Imperial Defence and Trenchard’s fully fledged air control scheme was given the green light by the autumn of 1921.

The adopted plan was for eight RAF squadrons, two British and two Indian infantry battalions, three companies of armoured cars, and other minor supporting forces to take on the task of delivering security and policing for Iraq. However, it was one thing for Trenchard and the Air Staff to offer up the new scheme; it was quite another to deliver it. Indeed, when the RAF, under the command of Air Vice Marshal John Salmond, took responsibility for security in Iraq in October 1922 the political situation was still in a state of flux. A bombing campaign in the north against insurgents under the leadership of Sheikh Mahmud, supported by Turkish supplies and troops, yielded great success and included the first examples of the air evacuation and air insertion of troops, in both cases helping to swing the fighting in Britain’s favour. In the latter case Mahmud’s forces were threatening Kirkuk, secure in the knowledge that the roads from the south were impassable due to flooding. But 45 Squadron, under the command of one Arthur Harris, airlifted in 480 troops to secure the position and the threat evaporated.

A more coordinated effort in Kurdistan in 1923 again proved highly effective and the validity of the RAF’s policy for Iraq appeared to be vindicated. The success brought political benefit back in London too as it provided Trenchard with extra ammunition when facing the Salisbury Committee’s investigations into armed service relations, a battle the Air Ministry won relatively easily. Trenchard wrote to Salmond: ‘I cannot emphasize too much the value your successful command in Iraq has been to us.’

In 1922 the highly influential Royal United Services Institute published C. J. Mackay’s prize-winning essay, ‘The Influence in the Future of Aircraft Upon the Problems of Imperial Defence’, indicating the growing importance of the idea of air control and policing, while Wing Commander C. H. K. Edmonds, in a lecture to the Royal United Services Institute in 1923, stated: ‘First, we are all of us imperialists, and we wish to see the empire defended as securely as possible. Second, we are all taxpayers, so we want the defence to be as economical as possible.’

By 1925 the success of air control was clear; costs for the security of Iraq had been reduced from £20 million in 1921–2 to under £3.5 million three years later, and the north and Mosul in particular had been secured against the Turks. Leo Amery, the then Colonial Secretary, and Sam Hoare, Secretary of State for Air, both toured the region in 1925 and noted the impact of the RAF. Amery stated that ‘the Air Force has transformed the whole situation in Iraq. It is due to its ceaseless vigilance that the work of political reconstruction has gone so smoothly’, while Hoare commented that ‘I cannot imagine a more striking testimony to the efficacy and economy of the air as the key for exercising control in suitable areas of the Middle East.’ It was of course fundamental to the success of British efforts that suitable political initiatives were undertaken, notably the incorporation of a collaborative Sunni elite into the administration of Iraq, though this of course was to store up problems for the future.

Unsurprisingly the RAF’s policy of air control was viewed as a cost-cutting model for other parts of the empire and British mandates and protectorates, though not always with success. In Palestine, the RAF had assumed responsibility for the control and security of the region in 1922, and over the ensuing years costs had been reduced and ground forces pared back. Much of the RAF’s responsibility centred on policing Bedouin incursions into Palestine. In 1929 the RAF’s scant forces were found wanting when Arab resentment over an upturn in Jewish immigration raised the idea of a Jewish National Home and precipitated an outbreak of attacks on Jewish settlements in which some 200 people were killed. Despite playing a part in bringing the troubles to an end it was clear that air control had not been sufficient and extra ground forces were deployed in the aftermath, though the RAF remained in command. When a more serious outbreak of trouble erupted in 1936, the commander, Air Vice Marshal Richard Peirse, wanted to employ harsh measures to regain control, but opposition to his ideas of bombing, martial law, and forced labour caused London to intervene. Peirse was replaced with Lieutenant General Jack Dill and more ground troops were despatched to quell the rebellion. It is doubtful whether the army’s measures were any less destructive, but the shift in policy brought RAF air control to an end in Palestine, though the RAF continued to play a key role in the region through to 1948.

In Arabia, however, the RAF enjoyed greater success in helping to resist the efforts of the Imam of Yemen extending his zone of control further south towards the British-controlled port of Aden. In 1921 the RAF deployed aircraft to Aden to support friendly forces in the region, and in the following year Trenchard recommended scaling down ground forces in favour of RAF assets; two battalions were subsequently withdrawn or disbanded. In 1926 the Imam’s forces had further encroached upon British interests, but the costs of despatching a significant ground force to deal with the matter were rejected as prohibitively costly. Trenchard stepped in with a scheme based on the RAF squadron in Aden supported by three armoured cars and some local levies. This came into force in 1928, and within two years the regular infantry had gone. The scheme worked effectively, the Imam’s power was curtailed, and he was forced, under aerial duress, to restrain his ambitions. Maurice Hankey, the secretary of the Committee for Imperial Defence, wrote to Trenchard in 1928 extolling the virtues of air control policy: ‘This example [Aden] is a triumphant vindication of your theories.’

Elsewhere across Africa, the air control policy had less traction, despite the success in Somaliland in 1920. In Egypt the RAF played an important role in supporting British interests, but ground forces remained the main weapon in a densely populated nation, while in Somaliland, once order had been restored, the costs of developing a permanent air presence were considered too great compared to those of maintaining existing troops. In the Sudan in 1927–8, RAF aeroplanes had helped to put down a rebellion in the south of the country, though some grumbled that the air attacks had dispersed the rebels before they could be properly dealt with by ground forces. Nevertheless, the Air Staff continued to advance the idea of a full-blown air control scheme for East Africa, and it gained support from the local white settlers who were largely happy to see the disbandment of the East Africa Rifles. In 1934 a scheme was proposed in a joint army–air force report (authored in part by Air Vice Marshal Cyril Newall, a future CAS) to replace some ground forces with an RAF squadron and move to an air control model. The scheme foundered, however, when the Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and the previously stable situation was replaced by uncertainty.

In India, despite frontier successes, any broader RAF plans for a higher-profile role butted up against the peculiarities of the defence structures already in place and the position of the Indian Army. The value of air power was enhanced by the part played by the RAF in dealing with still-lingering troubles among Waziristan tribes in 1925, but as was often the case the air force and the army then differed on the real value of the air actions. A subsequent plan to expand RAF influence in the North-West Frontier came to nothing.

The RAF later played a role in the defence of Kabul in 1928–9, air-lifting civilians to safety, but a scheme in 1929 to expand air policing and control for the frontier failed because of the political consequences of putting Indian Army officers out of work. The great majority of available resources continued to be pumped into the Indian Army throughout the 1930s, leading to the stagnation of the air force, a matter largely unaddressed by the outbreak of the war in the Asia-Pacific theatre.

The RAF was also involved in more political and diplomatic imperial control and maintenance efforts in the interwar era. Long-distance flights from Cairo to the Cape were carried out by RAF aircraft, pioneering routes later developed by Imperial Airways. In addition, flying boats were to prove critically important in this wider global role in an age when few airstrips around the empire were capable of supporting large long-range land-based aircraft, or where other facilities were in short supply. Flying boats, which could utilize inland waters as bases, could patrol or reach regions more easily and help build or maintain the links the empire needed. If a support ship could be employed as well, the possibilities were significant. As early as 1919, long-range flying boat cruises were being trialled and by the mid-1920s flying boat expeditions were reaching out to Egypt and Malaya/Sarawak. In 1928–9 Supermarine Southampton flying boats conducted a fourteen-month world tour reaching Australia. RAF evaluations indicated the political elements of such tours, and that the cost was considerably less than that of sending a Royal Navy cruiser force. By the 1930s, the RAF’s view of specialized maritime air power had been largely focused on flying boats and seaplanes and this was to shape rearmament policy in the 1930s, and not entirely in a positive manner.

The issue of the RAF switching its maritime air power efforts towards flying boat development mirrored later debates about the impact air control and imperial policing had on the development of the RAF in Europe, particularly in terms of aircraft technology and notions of bombing. In the early 1920s the RAF had largely employed aircraft such as the Bristol Fighter and the DH9A in policing duties, but these aircraft had limitations and were phased out in favour of the Westland Wapiti and the Fairey IIIF. These aircraft were selected for their ruggedness rather than high performance.

There is little direct evidence, however, that the imperial policing role significantly shaped metropolitan RAF policies, procurement, and thinking in the 1930s. The tasks of air control were usually fulfilled by aircraft considered obsolescent by European standards, and governed by particular tactics and doctrine, developed specifically for each theatre. When air expansion was adopted in Britain in the 1930s, as a reaction to the emergence of German and Japanese threats, it was largely governed by its own inherent rationale.

Trenchard, in his final days as CAS in 1929, had offered a yet grander vision for air control in a paper entitled ‘The Fuller Employment of Air Power in Imperial Defence’, yet in truth the high point of the policy had already been reached, with political constraints and geographical limits hindering further expansion. As the 1930s progressed, the deteriorating political situation in Europe and then the Far East brought other issues to the forefront and the RAF was to be drawn into a different strategic environment.

Yet, there is little doubt that air control and policing had, despite its limitations, played a significant role both in ensuring the survival of the RAF and more widely in British imperial policy in the interwar era. It was best suited to relatively light-touch environments in open terrain with dispersed populations; there was little stomach for the bombing of more significant urban centres. Restraint in the use of air control was pragmatic on both political and military levels, issues that would be exposed and shaped later in the extreme emergency of the Second World War.


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