BRITAIN DOES IT HER WAY 3
In Baghdad in February of 1923, the newly arrived staff officer Lionel Charlton visited the local hospital in Diwaniya. He had expected diarrhoea and broken bones, but was instead suddenly and surprisingly confronted with the results of a British air raid. The difference between a police baton and a bomb was brutally obvious.
Had it been a question of war or an open rebellion, he as an officer would not have had any complaint, he writes in his memoirs, but this “indiscriminate bombing of a populace...with the liability of killing women and children, was the nearest thing to wanton slaughter."
He became more and more doubtful about the methods by which "an appearance of law and order" was maintained in Iraq,"
Soon a new sheik had stirred up a rebellion and had to be punished. But from 3,000 feet it was not so easy to target him specifically. When the bombs exploded without warning in the crowded bazaar, innocent and powerless subjects would be killed along with their oppressors.
Was it right for an entire city to suffer for one man's crime? And was he even a criminal himself? Perhaps the informants who had fingered him had personal reasons to go behind his back. To bomb a city on those grounds was a form of tyranny that threatened to make the British even more hated.
Charlton’s superior made no bones in admitting that the bombs struck at the innocent. But the established political line had to be followed. If the air force was to survive as an independent branch of service, it had to prove its efficiency and could not afford sentimentality.
As expected, when the rebellious sheik was bombed, more than twenty women and children lost their lives. Charlton no longer wanted any part of it. He requested to be relieved of his post on grounds of conscience. Headquarters sent him back to England, where he was forced to retire in 1928.
Churchill consistently urged that the RAF should use mustard gas during these raids, despite the warning by one of his advisors that "it may ... kill children and sickly persons, more especially as the people against whom we intend to use it have no medical knowledge with which to supply antidotes". In the event the air force did not use gas bombs - for technical rather than humanitarian reasons.
Even without gas the campaign was brutal enough. Some Iraqi villages were destroyed merely because their inhabitants had not paid their taxes. The British authorities always maintained in public, however, that people were not bombed for refusing to pay - merely for refusing to appear when summoned to explain non-payment.
The primitive bombs sometimes did not explode, and tribal children developed a passion for playing with the duds. When the air force proposed using bombs with delayed action fuses, one senior officer protested that the result would be "blowing a lot of children to pieces". Nevertheless, the RAF went ahead - without the knowledge of the civilian High Commissioner for Iraq, Sir Henry Dobbs - because delayed action bombs prevented tribesmen from tending their crops under cover of darkness.
Churchill was sometimes troubled by the realities of the methods he had supported. During one raid in Iraq, British pilots machine-gunned women and children as they fled from their homes. "To fire wilfully on women and children taking refuge in a lake is a disgraceful act", Churchill protested to the Chief of the Air staff. "I am surprised you do not order the officers responsible for it to be tried by court martial". No action was taken, and this incident was quietly forgotten.
This "police bombing" was too much for some air force officers to stomach. Other officers seemed to enjoy the work. One who did was Arthur Harris, who would later achieve fame directing the bomber offensive against Germany in the Second World War. Known to his friends as Bomber and to his enemies as Butcher, he first practised his trade against Kurdish villages in Iraq.
"Where the Arab and Kurd had just begun to realise that if they could stand a little noise, they could stand bombing, and still argue", he reported after one raid in 1924, "they now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage; they now know 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 machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape."
The British employed "police bombing" elsewhere in the empire - in Transjordan; against the Pathan tribesmen on the north-west frontier of India; in the Aden Protectorate (now the southern part of Yemen); and against the Nuer people of the southern Sudan.
The chief of the Air Staff, Sir Hugh Trenchard, had great ambitions for his bombers. In a paper written early in 1920, when some politicians feared a revolution in Britain, he suggested that the RAF could even suppress "industrial disturbances or risings" in England itself. Churchill was horrified and demanded that Trenchard never refer to the proposal again - at least not in writing.