100 years of RAF bombing

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The RAF: celebrating a century of civilian deaths. Pic: George Green

This year the establishment has been celebrating the centenary of the founding of the Royal Air Force. All very well if you enjoy celebrating colonialism made cheaper and more deadly.

In 1921 eight RAF planes carried out a bombing raid against a village in Iraq. The villagers were terrified and men, women and children fled their homes, taking shelter in the shallows of a nearby lake. This, as the official report noted, made them “good targets for the machineguns”.

Their crime was non-payment of taxes. For some reason the massacre of rebellious “natives” from the air for non-payment of taxes has not really figured in this year’s celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the RAF.

There were some objections to this policy and subsequently villages were supposed to be given 24 hours warning about forthcoming attacks, giving the inhabitants an opportunity to flee for their lives, but this instruction was often ignored. In 1923 raids over non-payment of taxes were reported as killing 144 Iraqis in the Samawah district alone, but this was almost certainly an underestimate.

One RAF draft document actually boasted that “within 45 minutes a full-sized village…can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five planes”.

Why was air power employed in this way? The reason was simple: cost. The traditional method of policing the empire — dispatching troops to teach the “natives” a lesson — was considered too costly. Destroying their homes and crops by bombing, machine-gunning their livestock and killing as many of them as possible from the air, was much less expensive.

Churchill boasted that the cost of policing Iraq was drastically reduced once the task was handed over to the RAF, from £32 million in 1920-21 to £6.6 million in 1923. The policy of air control was extended throughout the Empire.

Churchill advocated that similar methods be employed in Ireland against the IRA, dispersing rebel forces “by machine gun fire or bombs”, but the IRA never obliged by concentrating in sufficient numbers.

Incredibly, when fear of revolution was at its height in Britain in 1919, prime minister Lloyd George actually asked the head of the RAF, Hugh Trenchard, how many aircraft were available to “use machine guns and drop bombs” in the event of a working class revolt at home. He was told there were “only 100 machines” available.

At the second Hendon Air Display in 1921 the climax of the event was the simulated bombing of an African village. The effect of the phosphorus bombs was apparently spectacular.

When the first Labour government took office in 1924 the colonial secretary, J H Thomas, gave a classic demonstration of British reformism in action by reaffirming the instruction that warning had to be given before defenceless villages were bombed and machine-gunned!

So vital was the use of airpower for maintaining order in the colonies that at the Geneva Disarmament Conference that began in 1932, the British government opposed restrictions on bombing “natives”. As Lloyd George observed at the time, the British government “insisted on the right to bomb niggers”.

During the great Palestinian revolt against the British occupation and Zionist takeover that lasted from 1936 until 1939, the RAF bombed Palestinian villages. One senior RAF commander, Arthur Harris, a Rhodesian settler who had joined up in 1914, recommended that the best way to crush the revolt was to drop “one 250 pound or 500 pound bomb in each village that speaks out of turn… The only thing the Arab understands is the heavy hand”.

The centrepiece of the official celebrations of the RAF centenary is the Battle of Britain, when a handful of brave public schoolboys defended Britain against the Nazi hordes. There is not so much attention devoted to the bombing campaign against Germany, that deliberately targeted the German working class. This was without any doubt a war crime, and one that, according to the most recent authoritative account, killed 353,000 civilians, many of them burned alive.

One important point worth making here is that the aircrew involved in this campaign have to be counted among the victims rather than among the guilty. Bomb raids over Germany were in fact ferocious battles in which the RAF suffered some 47,000 fatalities, a rate of loss of 41 percent, much higher than the British suffered in any other campaign.

Once the Second World War was over, the RAF returned to its policing role, bombing insurgents and their sympathisers. There is only space here to mention one such campaign, the bombing of the Jebel Akhdar in 1958. Venom jets and four-engined Shackleton bombers carried out a relentless bombardment of rebel-held territory, day and night, to help sustain the wholly corrupt, slave-owning Sultan of Oman in power.

More recently, of course, we have seen RAF participation in the disastrous bombing of Libya and continued participation in the bombing of Syria and Iraq. One thing is clear: this is no longer cheap. In 2018, it was revealed that the bombing of Syria and Iraq had, since 2014, cost £1.75 billion. The government has claimed that there is no evidence that the thousands of bombs and missiles used (12,192 in Syria and 12,095 in Iraq in 2016) have killed any civilians. No one who knows anything about war believes these claims.