‘Bomber’ Harris in 1920s Iraq

Bomber Harris

Brendan Clifford places the recent controversy over the honouring of Sir Arthur Harris in the context of British History after the First World War

Sir Arthur Harris, who pioneered the bombing of civilian areas as a military method, and indeed as a form of policing, was not honored as he ought to have been for the work of organising the great born her armadas to destroy German cities in the late stages of World War II. He had ground for resentment. Although he liked his work, he was after all only carrying out his orders. If there was reason for shame in it, Churchill was the one who ought to have been ashamed. But even the best conducted democracies find it expedient to have scapegoats.

The great Terror Bomber, however, did not lie down quietly under the silent disapproval of officialdom for his life’s work. Within this jolly good chap a spark of human spirit survived which caused him to justify himself by publishing the most honest and indiscreet of all the British war memoirs.

Harris has finally been honored.  Imperial Britain, which he served so diligently, is in danger of becoming just another European state within an evolving European federation. The sole remnant of Imperial greatness is a powerful army- the second most powerful in the world now that the Soviet army is being broken down and that China has retreated from world affairs. There is little time to spare if Imperial Britain is to survive on the basis of its army. Mrs Thatcher sees the danger, and has been the first to speak plainly about having another war against Germany, She says what many are thinking.

This is the juncture at which Royalty unveils a stature of Bomber Harris. He is placed in the pantheon of British war heroes in the same moment that we are told it might soon be necessary to put down the Germans with a strong hand again. But we have not noticed that the Bomber’s apologia has been republished for the occasion. We are therefore giving a small selection from the thoughts of the newest British role model held up for our admiration by the establishment as expressed in his book, Bomber Offensive (1947).

“In the summer of 1939 I was on my way home from Palestine, where I had been Air Officer Commanding, R.A.F Palestine and Transjordan, during one of the worst of the periodical rebellions resulting from the Anglo-Jewish-Arab controversy. I had had there a busy year teaching the British army the advantages, and the rebels the effectiveness, of air power.” (p 9).

“In 1923 there was a panic about the size of the French Air Force and the French occupation of the Ruhr. The French could safely ignore our protests, and they did, because we had no air force with which to back them. In particular, the French had, in the previous year, 128 air squadrons, while our whole front line strength amounted to 371 aircraft.” (p 13)

“My belief in the heavy bomber as the predominant weapon for the war, and my vies on the possible course that the war would take, were based on past experience.” (p 15).

“In 1919 the emir of Afghanistan launched a holy war against India, expecting that a general uprising of the moslem [sic] population would follow. This did not happen and he was quickly driven back into his own country. One 20 lb bomb in his palace grounds decided him.” (p 19)

“When I got to Iraq, or Mespot as we called it in those days, Sir John Salmond had just taken over the “air control” of the country, and most of the very large army forces which the British taxpayer refused any longer to support there, had departed.  A rebellion had broken out in 1920, because the Arabs had been led to expect complete independence and had got instead British Army occupation and a horde of Jack-in Office officials; the British Army forces occupying the country were then being heavily reduced for economy’s sake, but they were still numerous enough to get the rebellion under control after some months of hard fighting with heavy casualties on both sides. The military control of Iraq was transferred from the army to the RAF entirely in order to save money. At that time the newspapers at home were running a campaign to cut down overwhelming and world-wide expenditures and were suggesting that we should abandon such useless and expensive responsibilities as Iraq. If we had done so we should have been hard put to it for oil during Hitler’s war. The decision to hand control of the country to the RAF – which of course was Winston Churchill’s – was made in 1921 and took effect on the 1st of October, 1922. Four infantry battalions remained, and Air Vice-marshal Sir John Salmond was in command of these as well as of the RAF units in the country, which consisted of eight squadrons and four armoured car companies … Salmond gave me command of one of the first two troop carrying squadrons … We were equipped with Vickers Venon and subsequently Victoria aircraft… By sawing a sighting hole in the nose of our troop carriers and making our own bomb racks we converted them into what were nearly the first post-war long-range heavy bombers

“During our first year in Mespot the Turks made a determined attempt to regain Mosul Velayet. They began this before the RAF took over and had already roughly handled a column of  Imperial troops.  Wars were very unpopular in those days and as a result hardly anything appeared in the home newspapers about this particular war, though the Turks eventually sent large forces over the frontier to make a determined and deliberate invasion of the Mosul area. Sir John Salmond, by concentrating all the squadrons up at Mosul and sending us straight on to the Turkish column as they crossed the border, very quickly impressed upon the Turks that they were not getting the place without a fight, or without heavy casualties… or indeed at all. They withdrew and gave it up.

“The truculent and warlike tribes which occupied and still controlled, after the rebellion, large parts of Iraq, also had to be quelled, and in this our heavy bombers played a major part. We were hundreds of miles up river near Baghdad and in the centre of thoroughly turbulent and wholly unpacified tribes on whom we were endeavouring to impose government of local Baghadadi effendis whom the tribesmen have naturally held in utter contempt from time immemorial. When a tribe stated open revolt we gave warning to all its most important villages by loud speaker from low-flying aircraft and by dropping messages, that air action would be taken after 48 hours. Then, if the rebellion continued, we destroyed the villages and by air patrols kept the insurgents away from their homes for as long as necessary until they invariably did. It was, of course, a far less costly method of controlling rebellion than by military action and the casualties on both sides were infinitely less than they would have been in the pitched battles on the ground which would otherwise have been the only alternatives. At last we were able to plan our action so that the air weapon worked in complete independence of the ground, except when it was necessary to come to the rescue of the Iraqi army.” (p 21-23)

“In spite of all that happened at Hamburg, bombing proved a comparatively humane method. For one thing, it saved the flower of the youth of this country and of our allies from being mown down by the military in the field, as it was in flanders [sic] in the war of 1914-1918. But the point is often made that bombing is specially wicked because it caused casualties among civilians. This is true, but then all wars have caused casualties among civilians. For instance, after the last war the British Government issued a White Paper in which it was estimated that our blockade of Germany had caused nearly 800,000 deaths – naturally there were mainly of women and children and old people because at all costs the enemy had to keep his fighting men adequately fed … This was death-rate much in excess of the ambition of even the most ruthless exponents of air frightfulness.” (p 17 6- 7)

The idea that killing civilians is the most humane mode of warfare because it helps to end a war quickly was groundlessly attributed to the German Government by the British war propaganda of 1914, but was incorporated into the military thinking of the victorious Allies after 1918 when they formed the League of Nations.

The totally unnecessary war waged by Imperial Britain on Germany in 1914, the unprecedented slaughter entailed in winning that war, and the reckless triumphalism of the “Peace” of Versailles mutilated European civilization with consequences which are only now being overcome. The totalitarian state, scarcely imaginable before 1914, became the norm after 1918. The bungling manner in which Imperial Britain used its world supremacy in 1918/19 generated totalitarian politics. Chamberlain declared war on Germany in 1939, although he would have preferred to make war on Russia in alliance with Germany. Bomber Command was not a major factor in winning that war, if only because the British army was not a major factor in winning it. The war started by Britain was virtually lost when Germany invaded Russia. The massacres at Dresden and Hamburg were of trifling military effect compared to the great ground battles in the East. Britain survived as a by-product of the triumph of Russia. The “war for democracy” was war by the army of a totalitarian state. That state naturally held to its principles and its conquests, and the forty years of cold war ensued.

In November 1914 Britain declared war on Turkey. It had long had its eyes on the Arab part of the Ottoman Empire, both to consolidate its dominance of the oceans and to build a continuous land Empire from Egypt to India. Since the early 19th century it had been nibbling away at the edges of Arabia, and as Ottoman power decayed internally it expected the whole of Arabia to fall into its lap. But an internal resurgence of the Ottoman state began around 1900, assisted by Germany which treated it as an equal and not as a source of plunder and conquest. A railway network connecting Istanbul with Basra and Mecca was put under construction. Britain countered by secretly constituting the Sabah family in Kuwait into a potential state. But as the railway proceeded and a modern administration was established at Istanbul the prospect of a British colony of Arabia began to recede. Nothing short of outright war would get it. So Britain declared war and invaded Mesopotamia in November 1914.

The conquest of Mesopotamia, expected to take a couple of months, took four years of hard fighting. And Mosul, which the most rudimentary concern for good government would have left with Turkey, was taken from Turkey after the Armistice. There was in 1914 very little Arab nationalist discontent with the Ottoman state. An Arab nationalist group in Basra proposed an alliance with Britain on the British declaration of war against Istanbul. The proposal was rebuffed so that Britain would enjoy a clear imperial right of conquest in the region, unprejudiced by alliances with natives. But as the going proved tougher than expected, and the early British advance was pushed back, the British Government found it expedient to enlist the aid of the natives after all. The “Arab Revolt” was encouraged. The Arabs of the revolt thought Britain was helping them to establish their own state but they found in 1919 that Britain had used them to establish British and French colonies. So, having, under British incitement rebelled against the Turks, whose rule they had never really experienced as oppressing, they now rebelled against the oppression of their liberators. And the British Government, to save British democracy from heavier taxes and mental anguish, policed them with heavy bombers. Is it any wonder that last year United Nations bombing made so little impression on the people of Iraq ! We made them used to it long ago.

As for Saddam, he governs Iraq in the manner initiated by those great British democrats, Lloyd George and Churchill. And he, at least, has the excuse that he has to take Iraq as he finds it – an assembly of antagonistic peoples casually thrown together in a “nation state” – and try to govern it. They, for Imperial purposes which had nothing to do with good government, Balkanised the Arab world. Having smashed the Ottoman Empire, in which a multitude of peoples lived together more or less peacefully, they then refused to let the Arab part of it continue the traditional way of life as far as possible.

Imperialist Britain bears the chief responsibility for the mess the world is in today. And yet there are many Tories and even some Labour elements who feel very sorry about it all and think that British imperialism might have another innings. This is possible because Marxism, having subverted the honest and democratic radicalism exemplified by Keir Hardie, has itself collapsed, leaving a desert behind. □

This article appeared in July 1992, in Issue 30 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.