RAF Aerial Bombing and Policing the Colonies

1920s: This Bristol F2b aircraft is pictured returning from a raid on the Jelal Khel during ‘Pink’s War’ on the north-west frontier of India in 1925. The conflict was given its name after Wing Commander Richard Pink, who commanded the Royal Air Force’s air-to-ground bombardment and strafing campaign.

Aerial bombing, the dropping of bombs on ground targets by military aircraft, was one of the most significant military innovations of the 20th century and one that Britain used against both external enemies and internal rebellion within the empire. It can be used to directly support troops on the battlefield (tactical) or to destroy enemy industrial, military, and economic resources at great distances (strategic). Aerial bombing can be used to directly attack an actual enemy or to deter a potential enemy by raising the possibility of bringing destruction, as was the case during the Cold War.

The first instance of aerial bombing occurred in North Africa in 1911 when Italy fought the Ottoman Empire and attacked Ottoman strongholds in Libya. Three years later the onset of World War I created opportunities for aircraft to support military actions. By September 1914, Britain’s air arms, the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service, had expanded their activities from observation duties to attacking ground targets using bombs dropped from aircraft.

Bombing played an increasing part in the war effort through 1918. Tactical bombing was part of the support given to ground troops in the battles of the Somme (1916), Messines, Ypres, and Cambrai (1917), and in the final offensive beginning with the battle of Amiens (1918). In addition to tactical air support, the British worked to develop a strategic bombing program against German cities, partly as retaliation for the German zeppelin raids on London earlier in the war.

At the conclusion of the war the Royal Air Force (RAF, formed in April 1918 from the old Royal Flying Corps) justified its continued existence by developing the practice of air policing in parts of the empire. Air policing was devised as a means of keeping order in colonies and mandatory territories without deploying large ground forces. If a native tribe refused to pay its taxes or other wise defied British authority, a message would be dropped by air advising them to comply with British demands. If they did not comply, an RAF unit would fly to the area and drop bombs until they agreed to terms. Although the method was cheap and did enforce obedience, it was not effective in creating deep affection for British rule. Air policing-sometimes through bombing and sometimes merely threatening to bomb-was first employed in Mesopotamia (Iraq) after the 1920 revolt, and it was subsequently employed in Somalia, Palestine, and India. There was even a suggestion by Winston Churchill (1874-1965) that it be used against the rebels in Ireland.

Perhaps the most significant effect of the bombing component of air policing was that it shaped the thinking of what became a highly influential group of RAF officers. These men believed in the effectiveness of bombing, and their views came to dominate Britain’s defense thinking in the years between the world wars. “The bomber will always get through,” a phrase used by Britain’s prime minister, Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947), in 1932 became an accepted truth. That idea, in addition to Britain’s desire to keep defense appropriations low and to be able to hit an enemy strategically from a great distance, shaped what would become Britain’s bombing offensive in World War II.

Britain’s bombing offensive in World War II was planned and conducted by the RAF’s Bomber Command, which planned and executed the bombing campaign as well as determined its objectives. Bomber Command decided upon nighttime area raids with the goal of destroying Germany’s industrial capabilities and demoralizing the civilian population. The main targets were the industrial centers in the Ruhr Valley as well as cities such as Hamburg, Dresden, and Berlin. Bomber Command was also used in early 1944 to provide tactical support prior to the Normandy invasion. The aerial bombing campaign was a major component of Britain’s offensive in Eu rope, but it was not without controversy. Bomber Command aircrews suffered nearly 60 percent casualties (killed, wounded, and captured). At the same time, although the campaign did demonstrably hurt the German industrial effort, the extent to which it did so has never been agreed upon. Similarly, despite hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths the bombing of Germany failed to destroy civilian morale, just as the German bombing of Britain had failed to break civilian resolve earlier in the war.

Aerial bombing continued to be a British military practice after World War II, but there were some changes. The RAF, while no longer relying on fleets of bombers, maintained the ability to drop nuclear bombs in the event of a major war with the Soviet Union. That role was eventually taken from the RAF when, in 1968, Royal Navy missile submarines were designated to deliver nuclear weapons in the event of a war. However, the RAF and planes from the Royal Navy continued to use tactical bombing throughout the postwar period and into the 21st century. RAF and Royal Navy units dropped bombs in support of ground troops during the Korean War (1950-1953), the Falklands War (1982), the Persian Gulf Wars (1991 and 2003 to present), and in Afghanistan (2002-2014). Bombing was also used (though on a limited scale) to keep order in Malaya against communist rebels and against the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya.

Royal Air Force

The Royal Air Force is the air arm of the British military. Founded during World War I, it played an important role in policing colonies and suppressing in de pendence movements in the 20th- century British Empire.

Heavier- than- air flight was only 11 years old when, in 1914, World War I began. At first aircraft were used to observe enemy troops and find targets. These aircraft needed protection, so fighter planes were developed to protect them. As the war progressed bombers were introduced to strike at both military and civilian targets. At the height of the war, in 1917, a commission made recommendations about the best way to use Britain’s aerial force. As a result of those recommendations, a separate armed force, in de pen dent of both Navy and Army, was created: the Royal Naval Air Ser vice was separated from the Royal Navy and the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) from the Army to form the Royal Air Force (RAF).

With the end of World War I there was concern within the RAF that its existence could come to an end by its being drawn back into the older ser vices. At this point a new military mission was created that, along with an accompanying civil administration role, guaranteed that the RAF would survive.

Britain’s empire in 1919 included both outright possessions and League of Nations Mandates. The empire was at its greatest extent, and Britain, burdened with war debt, was seeking a cheap way to maintain order in its possessions. The RAF carved out a role for itself by offering an inexpensive regime of air policing and territorial administration- first in Mesopotamia (Iraq), now a League of Nations Mandate, and subsequently in Somalia, Afghanistan, India’s Northwest Frontier, and Palestine. There was also a proposal, ultimately discarded, to employ the same means to keep the peace in Ireland.

The RAF, in common with the other British armed forces, faced serious budget cuts in the 1920s and 1930s. But as military planners began preparing for another European war they came to see aerial bombing as not only a potentially decisive strategic weapon but also one that would be cost effective. Thus, the RAF could be a significant strategic force that would not require the huge outlay in funds required by the army or navy. Such calculations helped to secure the RAF’s existence.

Fortunately for the RAF, and for Britain, peacetime bud get constraints did not prevent the development of aircraft that would eventually have a significant impact on the war. When World War II broke out in September 1939, the RAF expanded quickly. A large part of its successful expansion was its incorporation of segments of Commonwealth air forces such as the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force. Additional pi lots and support personnel came from the nations conquered by the Germans, including members of the French, Belgian, Norwegian, Polish, and Czechoslovak air forces.

After the German conquest of France, the RAF was the only means of defense against the German aerial offensive of 1940, known as the Battle of Britain. Simultaneously, the RAF began to launch a bombing campaign that eventually grew to missions with 1,000 aircraft. In the later stages of the war the RAF pursued a campaign of area bombing at night. Although the destruction inflicted by these raids was significant, especially those on Hamburg and Dresden, the effort has been criticized since the end of the war as not having been a critical factor in damaging German war production. Elsewhere RAF units were deployed in North Africa, Italy, and Asia (principally Burma).

With the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, the RAF’s objectives changed to the Pacific. The RAF organized what was known the Tiger Force, to be based on the island of Okinawa, which would have conducted massive air raids against Japanese cities. The Japanese surrender brought an end to that plan, however.

The RAF now reduced its numbers, but it continued to have a major role in the defense of Britain and its now shrinking empire. From 1947 to 1968 the RAF had the responsibility of delivering Britain’s nuclear capability in the event of a war with the Soviet Union. After 1968 the strategic nuclear role shifted to the Royal Navy’s missile submarines, although the RAF continued its tactical nuclear capability to support NATO ground troops.

Within the empire, the RAF played a significant role in suppressing the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya from 1952 to 1960 and combating Communist guerrillas in Malaya from 1947 to 1960. Elsewhere, the RAF participated in the Korean War under the auspices of the United Nations and supported French and British ground forces during the 1956 Suez Crisis. From 1945 to 1967 the RAF maintained an air base in Aden on the Arabian Peninsula and supported British Army operations in that area. In 1982 the RAF was among the British forces that recaptured the Falkland Islands from Argentina. The RAF participated in NATO exercises in the 1950s through the 1990s and was deployed to the Persian Gulf in the first and second Gulf Wars and in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

Imperial Policing in the Interwar Era I

Imperial Policing in the Interwar Era II

Federation of Malayan Police officers question a civilian during the Malayan Emergency.

Imperial Policing

Imperial policing had little to do with policing as it is now generally understood in the Western world. The task assigned to colonial policemen was essentially to impose and maintain foreign rule over the peoples of the empire, with the aim of protecting the metropole’s interests at home and abroad. This generally involved, potentially or actually, a great deal of forcible compulsion. Colonial constables were “civil soldiers,” state agents of socioracial control who enforced Western modes of behavior and belief on imperial subjects.

Policemen were distinguished from other state servants by their authorized capacity to coerce civilians. But in England, from 1829 onward, they increasingly sought acceptance from the populace. Under this “new police” ethos- policing by consent- constables in England were supposed to protect rather than oppress the public. Focusing on suppressing behavior deemed to be antisocial, and basing their methods on intensely scrutinizing society, they sought primarily to prevent crimes, with detection of offenders as a backup. When it was necessary to detain or coerce, they were expected to use minimal force. The aim was to attain a society in which most people policed themselves, at least most of the time; state discipline would need to be applied only to recalcitrant individuals rather than to collectivities.

This desired state of affairs, consent- based state policing coupled with mass self- policing, was also an ultimate aim in colonies. But it was predicated on a high degree of acceptance of authority, which was not forthcoming. Since colonial authorities sought to exploit indigenous human and natural resources, popular resistance to them was endemic (although aspects of Western culture were welcomed by indigenes able to access them). Colonized peoples were in turn subject to suppression, repression, and often violent mass disciplining. In such circumstances, the precepts of the “new police” that had been put in place in Britain could generally only remain a distant aspiration in the colonies.

In most colonies, most of the time, the policing function was akin to military control (and indeed sometimes carried out by or with soldiers). The main exception was in colonies of settlement where English policing precepts were increasingly adopted as the frontier retreated. Even here, however, police forces retained a highly coercive capacity in case further “pacification” of indigenes or others was needed. And although public order had generally improved by the early 20th century, this was both relative and uneven between (and often within) colonies. Improvement could also turn out to be temporary. Indeed, after World War II, conflict- based policing often intensified amid escalating challenges to the state from movements demanding decolonization.

The ethos of colonial policing was, therefore, by the very nature of imperial occupation, different from the consent- based aims first developed in the London Metropolitan Police. Rather, it reflected (and was often guided by) policing in the closest “colony” to Britain, Ireland. Although all policemen had the power to compel and coerce, those of the (Royal) Irish Constabulary (RIC) were far more overtly coercive than their English counter parts, tasked as they were with controlling a people generally hostile to British occupation. Colonial practices not only reflected the Irish system, but often exceeded it in their violence- a product of the magnitude of the task of occupying territories and containing their peoples.

There were, however, many characteristics shared by the English and Irish/colonial policing models (including the ultimate aim of securing a society characterized by peace and good order), and the boundaries between them were porous. In particular, both systems were based on patrols conducting in- depth surveillance of the population and, when necessary, compelling obedience. The rank- and- file constables in both models were, moreover, of humble origin- not only cheaper and easier to train, but also steeped in knowledge of the behaviors and beliefs of those sections of society upon which the police most focused.

But there were major differences in operational principle between the models. The organization, ethos, and operations of the Irish/colonial police were paramilitary (sometimes military) in nature. By contrast, the English system increasingly adopted a “like policing like” approach, with constables operating within, and with the general support of, their communities. Although most higher-ranking colonial policemen were British, the great majority of rank- and- file policemen were indigenous, and in that sense might be said to fit the “like policing like” category. But essentially, colonial patrolmen were instead characterized by the “stranger policing stranger” principle. They were recruited from outside the communities they policed, a policy based on outsiders being generally far more prepared than insiders to exercise harsh discipline on those around them. Stranger- constables generally lived in fortified barracks, patrolled in heavily armed groups, and were highly disciplined, ready to obey orders and inflict violence without hesitation. Colonial patrols would commonly descend on tribes defying the authorities, laying waste to their villages and maiming and killing. Drawn from other communities, tribes, peoples, or colonies, they might well be unable to speak the language of those they disciplined.

Colonial policing was a blunt instrument of social and racial control, often paying little regard to the law, let alone to ” human rights.” Insofar as it was involved in crime control, this was crime as defined by colonial authorities and systems. These were generally flexible in allowing police (and judiciary) to suppress any activity deemed to be against the interests of state security and colonial order. Many of the colonial state’s disciplinary actions, in any case, were conducted with little or no reference to the formal laws, of which the (sometimes illiterate) constables knew little. They had a job to do, one which by its very nature was often performed with force and brutality; violence was endemic in colonial policing.


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