In the immediate aftermath of World War One Great Britain was in dire straits. The actions of the Lloyd George government, British labour movements, the international currency markets, and British industrialists had resulted in a confluence of events which would hamper the British Economy for the rest of the decade. The most significant of these were increased labour costs, stagnant productivity, mismanaged currency, and losses of international markets. A widespread antiwar sentiment flourished in all segments of society. Overseas civil unrest seemed to permeate the Empire from Somaliland to British India. If the British were to have any hope of holding the Empire they would need an inexpensive and efficient way to police their vast holdings. Such a method presented itself in the form of air power.
The airplane as a weapon of war had just come of age in the skies over Europe and seemed a serendipitous solution to the Empire’s woes. It was fast, efficient, cheap, and could, according to its proponents, subdue any local insurrections that arose. 1 For a cash-strapped empire weary of sending her soldiers to die, planes seemed exactly what was needed. These aircraft would ensure that the Empire could be held, despite the tough economic times and military drawdowns of the era.
Of all the colonial actions which relied on air power, perhaps the most debated are the operations in Mandatory Iraq. The contemporary RAF sources, and those who support their point of view, present these operations as an effective, low cost and successful campaign. Others posit that the concept of Air Control was in itself flawed, never successful in Iraq, and never addressed the sociopolitical causes of unrest. Whether a success or a failure, the doctrine of Air Control promised a cost-effective method to patrol vast swathes of the Empire and make Imperial will known, while ensuring the survival of the RAF in the interwar period.
On the eve of the First World War the United Kingdom was the economic powerhouse of the world, with more than four billion Pound Sterling invested overseas and a gross domestic product of £2.3 billion/-/-.2, 3 The Pound Sterling was on the gold standard, and was the denomination of roughly half of the world’s foreign currency reserves.4 All around the Empire business was booming. The UK’s per capita GDP rose £8/10/between 1903 and 1913, or approximately a 19% increase.5 The United Kingdom produced more than one-third of the world’s exported goods, and imported and exported upwards of half again more than the United States.6 In retrospect it is apparent that such an internationally focused economy would come to be a liability in a worldwide war.
During the First World War the British government needed to pay for its arms purchases. To do so it took out loans from US banks, which it then turned back around and used to buy arms from American companies.7 This cycle only grew as the war went on and, in addition to the lack of international investment opportunities and restricted trade brought on by fighting a worldwide total war, destroyed Britain’s economic dominance.8
The United Kingdom did not leave the gold standard during the war, and managed to curb the falling Pound/Dollar exchange rate, pegging it at a 10% discount.9 This led the British Cabinet to believe that prewar Gold-Pound, and therefore Pound-Dollar, exchange rates could be quickly and easily restored after the war’s end.10 Unfortunately this was not the case. The wartime stability had more to do with regulations imposed on currency trading than any actual inherent stability.11
During WWI the Pound had fallen around 20¢, from $4.93 to $4.76.12 In the following two years the pound fell more than a dollar, to $3.66. In addition to this the United Kingdom’s international trade was stiffly curtailed during the war, with 90% of imports in 1918 being matériel under the control of the War Office.13 The British were importing American arms, paid for by American loans, and leaving foreign markets only for American businesses to take their place. For example, US exports to South America increased more than 75% in 1916 alone.14 This was disastrous for the British balance of trade, and paved the way for the poor economic conditions that prevailed in Great Britain during the 1920s.
Though the per capita GDP had returned to prewar (1913) levels by 1920, the Lloyd George government was eager to return government spending, especially the military budget, to a peacetime footing. Internationally, the UK exported less than they had before the war as their former markets had been taken by more competitive American businesses.15 The pound wouldn’t return to its prewar exchange rate with the dollar until 1928. The return to the gold standard, in 1925 after having left it in 1921, came as part and parcel of a plan by Winston Churchill which required that the return be at the prewar exchange rate of £1/-/- : $4.86. This forced the Bank of England and HM Treasury to put in place a monetary policy that would stifle British business and consumption for the entirety of the 1920s.
In addition to the economic mismanagement of the Lloyd George governments, there was a shift in the working class in post-WWI Britain. With the onset of the war unskilled labourers started to dilute the skilled workforce as they were brought in to replace those who had enlisted.16 To compensate for this new manufacturing technologies from the United States were introduced, allowing a much less trained worker to do the same quality and quantity of work.17 After the permanent removal of roughly two million workers by death or injury during the war, British industry as a whole was faced with a dilemma.18 The unions they had allowed to flourish during the war now demanded working conditions fit for the veterans they were employing.19 The unions called for, and received, higher wages and shorter work weeks.20 This increase in labour cost per man-hour with no corresponding increase in production efficiency served as the pin that would burst the bubble that formed as companies took the money they had made during the war and turned it to expanding capacity, while they laid off workers due to rising labour costs and dropping demand. These factors kept the economy of the United Kingdom sickly for the entirety of the decade following World War One.
Following the end of hostilities the economy was not the only place where trouble was brewing. During World War One the British army deployed more than eight million troops, of which more than five million went to Western Europe.21 Among these were those troops siphoned from colonial service, notably the more remote regions of what is now Pakistan, and British Somaliland.22 Their absence meant the loss of any way to project imperial will on the locals. In the Middle East the British Empire had gained the mandates of Palestine, Iraq, and Transjordan.23 Of these Mandatory Iraq, a poor colonial backwater comprised of a mix of Kurds, Shia, and Sunnis, would prove to be the hardest to control. Throughout the Empire the British Government was faced with a catch-22: they could either deploy troops, an action they did not have the money, political will, or popular support for, or they could sit by as the Empire was lost, piece by peice. A solution was needed, and fast.
The struggle for independence was not only limited to the oppressed peoples of the Empire. Since before the RAF was founded on 1 April, 1918, the British Army and Royal Navy had been trying to keep aviation as part of their services.24 In 1919 Lloyd George himself declared “I am not going to keep it [the RAF] as a separate department.”25 Before this could happen Lloyd George left for Versailles, giving Sir Winston Churchill, the biggest proponent of the RAF in government, enough time to come up with a plan to save the it.
Churchill, as Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for the Air was promoting the “Ten Year Plan”; the Armed Forces would operate under the principle that there would be no war in the next five or ten years, and constrain their budgets and operations to reflect this.26 He reached out to Sir Frederick Sykes, then Chief of the Air Staff, who proposed a force of more than 150 squadrons, at the cost of £75,000,000/-/- per annum for overhead.27 Churchill must have been quite displeased as he sacked Sykes soon after, returning Sir Hugh Trenchard to the command of the RAF.
Trenchard proposed a much less expensive Air Force, costing only £15,000,000/-/-, of which £13,000,000/-/- would go to building the staff college, while the remaining £2,000,000/-/- would go to mustering 25.5 squadrons.28 Churchill was much more receptive to this plan. However the RAF was faced with another dilemma. The Army and Navy wished to reduce the RAF further to a training force for their own pilots.29 Trenchard was resolute, and explained that he “… wanted very few squadrons, just enough to gain experience and carry out domestic roles in our overseas territories when local emergencies rose.”30 This amounted to deployment of 19 of the RAF’s 25.5 squadrons around the Empire for colonial policing, a mission and doctrine he dubbed “Air Control”.31,32
In late 1919 Sir Hugh Trenchard was given his chance. “Mad Mullah” Mohammed Abdullah Hassan’s self proclaimed “Dervish State” had taken half of British Somaliland.33 This was unacceptable. Trenchard proposed an audacious plan. With only 12 planes and and a reinforced regiment of the Somaliland Camel Corps the Royal Air Force would succeed where the British Army, with tens of thousands of troops, had failed for the past twenty years.34 The campaign was wildly successful. In less than two months the “Mad Mullah” was vanquished and forced to flee to Ethiopia where he died soon after.35 The RAF presented this operation, which had solved a major colonial problem for only £80,000, to His Majesty’s Government, who took to the idea readily.36
This campaign seemed to have proven that the RAF could police the Empire cheaply and effectively. Air Control operations were soon expanded to trouble spots around the empire, such as Aden, the Northwest Territory Province of British India, and Iraq, with the RAF being given full operational control of all Imperial forces in Iraq.37 They were detailed to keep the peace, defend the Empire from territorial incursions, and most importantly, ensure regular tax collection. With the economy of the mother country in a bit of a jam every bit of additional revenue mattered. Even such an impoverished and isolated corner of the Empire as Iraq needed contribute revenue to HM’s coffers, or at least pay for its own governance.
In Aden and the NWTP Air Control was roughly identically employed. The incidents which incurred the wrath of the British were never particularly large in scale, and aircraft could respond much more swiftly than columns of infantry. As such, it quickly became clear that any illicit activities were not worth the risk of a bombing, and any unwanted behaviour that continued was done in secret. The RAF was, in general, successful in maintaining order in these areas, partially due to the draconian escalations of force between the offence and the British retaliation, and partially due to the relative lack of organized political entities in the area.38 Authors on both the pro- and anti- Air Control sides of the debate mention operations in these mandates as among the most successful implementations of the policy. However, success in a few select areas does not imply the overall viability of the strategy, as shall be seen in its implementation in Iraq.
The Royal Air Force took command of all Imperial forces in Iraq on 1st October, 1922.39 Iraq was to be the greatest test for Air Control, as the Army needed to withdraw its troops from the region as part of the postwar budget cuts.40 The Air Force quickly stepped up, pointing to the Somaliland campaign as an example of what air power could do. With eight squadrons of bombers and fighters the RAF was to keep Iraq peaceful. Unfortunately, no one had bothered to tell the Sunni, Shia, Kurds, or Turks this, and they immediately began fighting each other and the British.
The ensuing Air Control operations have been characterized in two separate ways. These can be broadly categorized as from either a pro- or anti- Air Control point of view. The arguments of the pro- Air Control camp, in this case David Niven, and the RAF’s official history, stem from the RAF’s defences of Air Control in the face of parliamentary and journalistic complaints, and paint a very rosy picture of the doctrine. The claim was that it killed hardly anyone, was cheap, and effective.41 On the other hand, the antiAir Control camp, here meaning Dr. James Corum, point out that Air Control operations often resulted in the bombardment of the incorrect villages, killed civilians, and alienated the general populace, while being no more cost-effective than previous methods of imperial policing.42
Two sources that wholeheartedly promote Air Control are David Niven’s Architects of Air Power, and the RAF’s official history. They make audacious claims of the doctrine. Niven describes the air operations in Iraq as inflicting light casualties, using few troops, cheap and successful.
“On report of disturbances, RAF planes first dropped summonses calling the offending tribesmen to a court of law. If a summons went unheeded, the RAF returned, warning locals with leaflets or loudspeakers that their village would be bombed on a given day and recommending evacuation. The bombing attacks were usually light but they continued day after day until displaced villagers grew weary and complied with British demands…. Cheap effective, and relatively bloodless aerial policing was soon extended throughout the Empire, and gave the RAF a new lease on life.”43
The RAF history says much the same thing, although it does mention that the airlifting of
troops was a “… hallmark of successful Air Control operations.”44
These sources are not stellar. Neither cite sources, nor do they provide any counter argument, or any hint that Air Control may not have been a sound doctrine. The RAF history comes close, explaining that, while Air Control did kill civilians, they were not specifically targeted, and fewer were killed than if a punitive column had been used.45 In Architects of Air Power , much emphasis is put on Air Control being a cost effective way to police the Empire, and of how 8 RAF squadrons controlled Iraq better than the 39 battalions stationed previously. However these claims are fundamentally flawed. They originate with several RAF officers and military journalists during the 1920s and 1930s, notably Sir Basil Liddell Hart, proponent of Air Control Military Correspondent for the Telegraph, and unofficial spokesperson for the British military, a position from which he extolled the virtues of Air Control almost as fast as they could be imagined.
The opponents of Air Control are just as vehement in their arguments as its supporters. Dr. James S. Corum, in his article “The Myth of Air Control: Reassessing the History,” published in Air and Space Power Journal , the official peer-reviewed academic journal of the U.S. Air Force, addresses all of the supposed positives brought up by proponents of Air Control, and summarily debunks them. The supposed cheap operations in Iraq were only so because British Indian troops were not paid for in the same budget as the Army. The drawdown of British forces, likewise, was actually a replacement of British forces with British Indian troops and local levies. The supposed light civilian casualties are directly refuted by James Thomas, Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs, when he complained that the high casualties resulting from Air Control could not be readily defended in the face of parliamentary inquiry.46 Niven’s Architects of Air Power, for all it makes of the supposed cost effectiveness of policing from the air, failed to mention that to crush the Iraqi Rebellion of 1920 took £40,000,000/-/- , more double the Royal Air Force’s entire budget for 1919.47 The most damaging retort, though, is that Air Control fails to solve, or even acknowledge the underlying causes of insurgency among the colonials, that being their own ethno-cultural conflicts, political aspirations, and resent of imperial domination.48 This was the case in Iraq, where sectarian violence and Kurdish independence are to this day two of the biggest issues in the country.
From these two very diametrically opposed viewpoints the conclusion can be drawn that through air power seemed the perfect solution to the problems of a cash-strapped British Empire, and was successful in some cases, air power alone proved unable to hold territory and enforce Imperial will in the face of determined resistance, most notably in Iraq during the many conflicts which arose there in the 1920s. Furthermore the narrative of success which many presented on the subject of Air Control Operations in the Empire is a flawed one stemming from an instinctive institutional sense of self preservation in the face of constrained budgets and increasing outrage at the force used against colonial subjects.49
Between the wars the United Kingdom faced a myriad of problems, from a failing economy at home, to dissent abroad. The fate of the Empire rested on whether or not the British could find a way to inexpensively and efficiently maintain order in their overseas territories. Simultaneously the Royal Air Force, seeking a permanent place in Imperial policy, offered the concept of Air Control. This seemed to be the perfect solution. Small numbers of British pilots would maintain order over large swathes of territory at a modest cost.
Unfortunately for the British the theory of Air Control did not translate into reality. Despite initial successes in Aden, Somaliland, and the NWTP Air Control failed its first major test, Iraq. The policy failed to address any of the root problems of Iraqi dissent, instead entrenching the populace against the British. Word soon came back to the politicians and journalists in the UK of villages destroyed, houses bombed, women and children killed. In order to save the Royal Air Force a mythology was created, of gallant pilots defending the empire. The official line was that Air Control was a humane and cost effective policy, which hardly killed anyone. The reality was that Air Control consistently targeted civilians, bombed indiscriminately, and failed to address the underlying causes of the conflicts, while costing a cash strapped Empire an inordinate amount of money. Though the success or failure of British Air Control operations during the decade immediately following the end of the First World War can be debated, Trenchard and Churchill’s promise to Lloyd George of a cheap, efficient, and humane method of policing the Empire ensured for the RAF a permanent role in Imperial policy during the socioeconomic unrest which prevailed during the period.
1 David Niven, ed., Architects of Air Power (Chicago, IL: Time-Life books, 1981), 33. (N.B. Not the actor)
2 Barry Eichengreen, The British Economy Between the Wars to The Economic History of Britain since 1700: Volume 1 :1700-1860, by Roderick Floud and Deirdre N. McCloskey, 3rd ed. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 6
3 Where appropriate this paper will use £/s./d., the British predecimal currency system. £1=20s 1s=12d.
4 Eichengreen, The British Economy Between the Wars to The Economic History of Britain, 6.
5 Lawrence H. Officer and Sameuel H. Williamson, “Computing ‘Real Value’ Over Time With a Conversion Between U.K. Pounds and U.S. Dollars, 1774 to Present,” Measuring Worth
6 Eichengreen, The British Economy Between the Wars to The Economic History of Britain , 6.
7 Ian V. Hogg and John Weeks, Military Small Arms of the 20th Century , 5th ed (Northfeild, Il: DBI Books, 1985), 141.
8 Eichengreen, The British Economy Between the Wars to The Economic History of Britain , 6.
9 ibid, 7
10 ibid, 14-15.
11 ibid. 8
12 Officer and Williamson, “Computing ‘Real Value’ Over,” Measuring Worth.
13 Eichengreen, The British Economy Between the Wars to The Economic History of Britain , 8.
14 ibid 6.
15 Eichengreen, the British Economy Between the Wars to The Economic History of Britain , 16
16 Hew Strachan, The First World War (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), 170.
17 ibid 170-171
18 Eichengreen, The British Economy Between the Wars to The Economic History of Britain , 9
19 ibid, 10
21 Spencer Tucker and Priscilla Mary Roberts, Encyclopedia of World War I: A Political, Social and Military History (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABCClio, 2005), 504.
22 Strachan, The First World War , 84
23 See 1922 Anglo-Iraq Treaty and the British Mandate for Palestine, as well as the Sykes-Picot agreement.
24 Royal Air Force, A Short History of the Royal Air Force (London, UK: Royal Air Force, 2014), 49-50
25 Niven, Architects of Air Power , 30.
26 Royal Air Force, A Short History of the Royal Air Force , 62.
27 Niven, Architects of Air Power , 31
28 ibid 33
29 ibid 31
30 ibid 32
31 Niven, Architects of Air Power , 32
32 James S. Corum, “The Myth of Air Control Reassessing the History,” Aerospace Power Journal 14, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 65, ( Air Control is defined by Corum as “…substituting aerial bombardment for the traditional ground-based punitive expedition.“ )
33 ibid 33
34 Royal Air Force, A Short History of the Royal Air Force , 63.
35 Corum, “The Myth of Air Control,” 63.
36 There are some discrepancies in the budget of this operation. Corum gives the figure as £80,000/-/-, while Niven gives £77,000/-/-, and the RAF history gives £100,000/-/-. All three sources, however, remark on how inexpensive the operation was.
37 ibid 62
38 Corum, “The Myth of Air Control,” 67, specifically in reference to the comments of an RAF flight commander stationed in the NWTP.
39 ibid, 64.
41 Royal Air Force, A Short History of the Royal Air Force , 67.
42 Corum, “The Myth of Air Control,” 71
43 Niven, Architects of Air Power , 35.
44 Royal Air Force, A Short History of the Royal Air Force , 68.
45 Corum, “The Myth of Air Control,” 65. “The British Empire had long relied upon punitive expeditions to bring rebellious natives back into line… the standard response called for putting together a military expedition, marching on the tribal center, burning some villages, destroying crops, and killing any tribesmen who offered resistance.”
46 Corum, “The Myth of Air Control,” 66
47 ibid 64
48 ibid 74
49 Corum, “The Myth of Air Control,” 64