The Afghan air menace

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

Not a phrase I ever expected to come across, but here it is, in David Omissi's Air Power and Colonial Control, the context being the introduction of one the most successful aircraft of the interwar period, the Hawker Hart:

The Hart was soon found to be suitable for India; fifty-seven aircraft were accordingly fitted with desert equipment, large tyres and extra fuel; they flew with three Indian squadrons until 1939. Their high performance was particularly values on the Frontier as they were the only aircraft which could meet the Afghan air menace on equal terms, especially after 1937 when the Afghans began to employ the Hind, itself a high-speed derivative of the Hart. Others served in Egypt and Palestine.1

Afghanistan established an independent air force as early as 1924, though it was easy enough for the British to dismiss as the only Afghan who could fly an aeroplane was made its Chief of Air Staff! But though small in European terms, with mainly Soviet assistance and aircraft the Afghan Air Force became quite efficient within a few years, and was used in several air control operations of its own, against rebellious tribes in outlying areas. Britain eventually felt it had to edge the Soviets out in order to gain some influence over it, hence the supply of Hinds (8 in 1937, another 20 ordered in 1939).

Although Omissi's subject -- air control, the use of airpower in Imperial policing, or in other words, the British air menace -- is ostensibly quite some distance from strategic bombing, I found that reading his book illuminated aspects of my own work (and sadly, this means I've broken my New Year's resolution already). Partly this is because he has chosen less jarring terms than I have ('mitigation'? what was I thinking?) but it's more because he provides a typology of indigenous responses (in practice) to being bombed which transfers pretty well to ideas being worked out, at the same time, in Britain (in theory) about how it would or should respond to being bombing. Although Omissi doesn't describe it as such, it's almost a spectrum of responses, varying with the capacity of the society under attack to resist, which in turn is going to depend largely on the resources available, but also on other factors such geography and climate. (That doesn't quite work, though, because the responses aren't mutually exclusive.)

So, one of Omissi's categories is resistance, which Omissi defines as:

all violent retaliation intended to inflict loss, damage or injury to [enemy] air force personnel and property2

The creation of the Afghan Air Force was, in part, intended to increase Afghanistan's ability to resist British airpower, of which it had very recent experience. When Afghanistan invaded India in 1919, the RAF supported the Army on the ground to good effect. More importantly -- if you believe later claims by airpower writers, which I suspect are exaggerated -- the war ended with (probably) the first, (perhaps) the only and (almost certainly) the smallest knock-out blow in history. On 24 May, Kabul was bombed by a solitary Handley Page V/1500, a four-engined bomber which had been designed to bomb another capital city, Berlin. Several of its bombs hit the King's palace, which seems to have caused some panic, and rather less material damage, but most of all showed that the terrain and the soldiers which had caused more than one bloody defeat for the British were no longer to be relied upon. A few days later, Afghanistan sued for peace.

Therefore Afghanistan strove to acquire an air force of its own. It was a relatively centralised society, close enough to what Europeans would recognise as a state. It didn't have much in the way of industry or infrastructure, and depended on a foreign power for aircraft, spares, training and technicians, but this was enough to make it a menace to the RAF in India, with only 6 or so squadrons. However, not many societies threatened by British airpower could hope to compete with it on this level. The Imam of Yemen acquired several aircraft in the late 1920s but it seems they were not of much use. (Abyssinia, broadly comparable to Afghanistan many ways, developed a small air force also, which however was no match for the Regia Aeronautica in 1935-6.) But there were other forms of resistance: the acquisition of anti-aircraft guns (Yemen bought eight for its forts, though they lacked effective sights), ground attacks on advanced British aerodromes, rifle fire from soldiers (which could be surprisingly dangerous) or even, at the far end of capacity (or desperation) throwing rocks at low-flying aircraft.

Omissi's second category is adaptation. He defines this as:

all non-violent means of reducing the impact of aerial action, including both psychological and religious adjustment to air raids and those tactics adopted to diminish their material effects.3

Examples of adaptation include concealment (especially using the cover of darkness to carry out essential work like harvesting crops, as bombers were far less effective at night), dispersal (Omissi means in a tactical context but it could equally apply to evacuating villages of people and livestock), protection (caves, dugouts and even, effectively, air raid shelters -- towers and forts of stone in the Yemen turned out to be very resistant to the small bombs used by RAF policing aircraft), early warning (as developed on the North-West Frontier, this involved lookouts lighting bonfires when aircraft approached, allowing villages to be evacuated before they arrived), and deception (e.g., using the British system of ground signals to aircraft to give them false orders, as the Zeidi did in 1928). By psychological adjustment, Omissi basically means familiarity breeding contempt. Religious adjustment is more unusual: for example, he discusses at length the Nuer of Sudan, who built an earthen pyramid, 60 feet high, as a site for animal sacrifice intended (in part) to ward off British air attacks. As the raids would eventually cease, this process could be claimed a success; in any event, if religious beliefs helped sustain morale under air attack then this is a form of psychological adaptation.

The third and last category is the most simple and immediate: terror, generally leading to a sudden, panicked flight from the scene. This was often the first response of indigenous societies, but it did not last, because they quickly learned how to adapt and how to resist. It seems that this was a surprise to the RAF, which had to do some adapting of its own in response. In 1922, Air Vice-Marshal John Salmond had argued that after terror would come indifference, and after that would come weariness and a desire to end the fighting, at which point the tribal leaders would have to sue for peace. This is pretty much what was thought would happen when European societies were bombed too (Salmond said as much), and the same underestimation of powers of adaptation and resistance applied there also. Omissi points out that Salmond's theory of responses was quite for the RAF, because it meant that if bombing a tribe failed to produce results, all it meant was that they hadn't been bombed enough yet. As Air Marshal Hugh Trenchard suggested to the Air Conference in 1920, in reference to 'small wars':

The capacity of the Air Service to deal a swift and unexpected blow may indeed succeed in stifling an outbreak in its early stages, but it is in the power to continue offensive action day by day, and, if necessary, week by week, that the assurance of ultimate success lies.4

Almost an article of faith in Trenchard's RAF, but if this was true in air control operations (and it was, much of the time), it was misleading when it came to wars between European powers.

As I said earlier, Omissi's typology can be applied to the ideas of British airpower writers between the Wars (and to actual behaviours in wartime) about how to respond to strategic bombing, though it needs to be extended. I won't go into detail, but I'd propose something like the following, with my suggested additions in italics:

  1. Terror
  2. Adaptation
    • psychological
    • concealment
    • dispersal
    • protection
    • early warning
    • deception
  3. Resistance
    • ground fire
    • ground attack
    • anti-aircraft
    • air defence
    • counter-offensive
  4. Internationalism
    • pacifism and disarmament
    • collective security
    • international air force

The responses I've added weren't, by and large, available to colonised peoples. For example, by counter-offensive I mean bombing the enemy (aerodromes, cities, or other targets), which by definition moves this out of the realm of Imperial policing and into war between rough equals. Afghanistan almost had this ability, I suppose, though the 'Afghan air menace' Omissi talks about is more the ability to interfere with RAF operations rather than attacks on Indian cities. (I could be wrong about that, he doesn't spell out what the menace consisted of.) Under the heading of internationalism (or 'co-operation', perhaps?), collective security and an international air force similarly required the ability to project force, and, in addition, the ability to work closely with other societies in diplomatic and military operations. I suppose pacifism and disarmament were, in theory, available to all of Britain's opponents, but I doubt they were ever considered except as part of surrender to British wishes. Still, it's interesting to ponder what might have happened if Gandhian non-violent tactics had been adopted -- villagers lying down in the streets when the RAF bombers came over, say, offering their own bodies as human shields. It might have been a second Amritsar, in terms of adverse publicity back in Britain.

So, very broadly speaking, terror and adaptation are responses available to practically all societies, though the latter involves considerable organisation for its more complex forms (e.g. early warning). Resistance requires more organisation and resources than adaptation, and eventually industrialisation (for counter-offensives). Internationalism requires all of that and more -- more of what I'm not sure: it gets vague here. But then again, they were never actually successfully carried out by anybody.

A final thought that occurs to me is that while I've ordered these responses in a rough order of the resources and organisations needed to carry them out, thinking that these would generally increase over time, it also works in reverse. That is, as the more complex and sophisticated responses are negated (e.g. the RAF starts using wireless for communication with ground forces, ending the use of deception), only the more basic responses remain, until at last, terror returns. In other words, when all else fails, run like hell -- exactly the desired result from the RAF's point of view. I'm starting to think like an interwar air vice-marshal, which probably isn't a good thing!

Update: a couple of books later, I've come across the exact same phrase! John Robert Ferris, Men, Money and Diplomacy: The Evolution of British Strategic Foreign Policy, 1919-26 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 169, says that in 1925 Trenchard cynically attempted to exploit fears in India about the 'Afghan Air Menace', presumably to win more funding for the RAF, in much the same fashion as he had done a few years earlier with regards to the French air menace. Only this time he got little out of it.


  1. David E. Omissi, Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force 1919-1939 (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1990), 142; emphasis added. 

  2. Ibid., 122. 

  3. Ibid., 113. 

  4. H. M. Trenchard, "Aspects of service aviation", Army Quarterly 2 (April 1921), 21. 

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9 thoughts on “The Afghan air menace

  1. Chris Williams

    Mm, nice one. Mass-Observation did a report called: ‘The need for an offensive morale’, which might be interesting here. In the actually existing long-term blitzes of WW2, counter-offensive was specifically played up as being part of the best response to morale problems caused by bombing – “Don’t worry Mrs. Higgins/Frau Schmitt – we’re knocking their houses down too.” Hastings claims that psychology also crippled the German night-fighter strategy, since Hitler stopped (very effective) intruder missions on the basis that he wanted Allied bombers downed over Germany for morale reasons.

    And another thing – is there a British equivalent to the Nuer pyramid in national days of prayer? See The Times, Wednesday, Jan 02, 1918; pg. 3; Issue 41676; col B. ‘The Day Of National Prayer. Next Sunday’s Services’.

    KOBs: Warsaw 1939? Rome 1943?

  2. Post author

    I haven’t looked at Mass-Obs much, but that fits in with my conclusions based on other sources. National prayer days — yes, they could be something similar, though that one is not prayers for deliverance (except maybe implicitly) but prayers of thanks for ‘mercies received during the war’, including ‘the faithfulness of the chaplains’ (!)

    I’d say Warsaw and Rome weren’t KOBs as they didn’t change the course of the war, or accelerate its end significantly, as far as I know. Warsaw wasn’t bombed really heavily until more than 3 weeks in (I think) and Italy negotiated a peace because of the invasion of Sicily. One possibility that’s been mentioned is Belgrade in 1941. From Wikipedia:

    The Luftwaffe bombed the city on April 6 (Palm Sunday) without a declaration of war, continuing bombing until April 10. More than 500 bombing sorties were flown against Belgrade in three waves coming from Romania where German forces were assembled for the attack on the Soviet Union, and killing approximately 17,000 civilians. Most of the government officials fled, and the Yugoslav army began to collapse.

    Sounds pretty KOBbish, though then again Yugoslavia was doomed no matter what.

  3. Post author

    Thanks, interesting, but as you say it’s more about the fall of Mussolini, not Italy. Rome was bombed in July but it took nearly 2 months to arrange a surrender. (It didn’t help that about the first thing I read, on p. 78, was that the Rome raid was ‘the largest single bombing raid in history to date’ — what was Operation Millennium then, a slap on the wrist?) But it looks like it could well have been an important factor with regards to Mussolini and also declaring Rome an open city.

  4. I think there’s something good to be written about national days of prayer in Britain. Michael Snape and Stephen Parker have a good chapter in Bourne, Liddle and Whitehead eds, The Great World War 1914-45 II: Who Won, Who Lost? on religion, but it leaves plenty of space. That such days meant _something_, even if what that was went unspecified, is apparent in the frequency with which they’re remarked on in contemporary diaries.

  5. Post author

    Thanks, Dan. I suppose what they meant depended more on the needs and concerns of the individual prayers, than on what the ecclesiastical hierarchy said they meant.

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