Counter-revolution from above

In the middle of the First World War, the Australian government found itself preoccupied with the possibility of civil unrest, perhaps even rebellion. In December 1916 the Hughes government passed the Unlawful Associations Act, which proscribed the Australian branch of the Industrial Workers of the World. The Wobblies had campaigned strongly against conscription in the October referendum, and proscription was Hughes's revenge for the No vote. But more than that, he believed that every IWW member was armed, and that many were of German extraction and thus potentially treasonous. Determined to be prepared for any eventuality, by the start of February 1917, the government had assembled 900 armed men, chosen for their political reliability, in each state's capital city, backed up with a machine gun. Melbourne, as the national capital, was the best defended. It had an AIF infantry battalion, a reserve company, the District Guard, two 18-pounder guns, two machine-gun sections, and 50 light-horsemen.

It also had two aeroplanes at its disposal, for 'their great moral effect':

(a) To overawe rioters by their presence in the air.
(b) To cooperate with the Artillery.
(c) To assist in dispersing the rioters by the use of machine guns and revolvers and by dropping bombs or hand grenades.1

What was that last part again?

To assist in dispersing the rioters by the use of machine guns and revolvers and by dropping bombs or hand grenades.

I find this quite extraordinary, that an Australian government was preparing to strafe and bomb its own citizens for the crime of rioting. That's the sort of thing that dictators do.2 But should I be surprised? Let's look at some similar cases from around the same time.

Australia was certainly not the only democracy to make plans to use military force to suppress civil dissent during the war, though it may have done so earlier than others. From March 1918, France held four cavalry divisions behind the front for use against strikers and pacifists (and apparently did use them). Brock Millman has shown that after the Russian revolution in 1917, Britain too was worried about internal dissent possibly spilling over into outright revolt. Emergency Scheme L was drawn up in May 1918; Millman describes it as a 'doomsday scenario':

Scheme L, basically, was a plan for the formation of composite infantry and artillery brigades, and other units, from forces held in the UK but not dedicated to home defence. This would be followed by a levée en masse by battalions of volunteers, and the effective cessation of civilian authority in the British Isles.3

A total of 19 infantry brigades would be formed in this way, along with supporting artillery and cyclist units. One group would cover Red Clydeside; another Tyneside, also the scene of labour unrest; and a third would assemble in East Anglia, near London. It's clear that this plan was not for defence against a German invasion (as were most other home defence plans), because the deployment to these areas was automatic and not contingent on where the enemy landed. But as an uprising could quickly spread from one flashpoint to the rest of the country, it makes sense that the Army would keep its options as open as possible while keep watch on the main danger areas. And with as large a force as possible, the better to overawe rioting workers.4

Now, Millman focuses on the military aspects of Scheme L. But he also says that the RAF's VI Brigade would assist. This makes sense. VI Brigade formed the backbone of Britain's air defences, and so was the largest combat-ready air force in the country (even if ground support wasn't its forte). Unfortunately Millman doesn't give any details of how it was intended to be used against civil unrest (it might not even have been specified in the plans) but it probably would have been similar to the Australian plans the year before. We'll probably never know because there was no uprising in Britain in 1918 and Scheme L was never invoked.

Then again. Less than two years later Britain was facing a truly revolutionary situation, albeit across the water in Ireland. As of the summer of 1920 two RAF squadrons were deployed there; overcoming low serviceability rates they did useful work in reconnaissance, communications and logistics. Despite the repeated please of British commanders, for most of the war their aircraft were unarmed, apparently for fear of hitting noncombatants. But in March 1921, near the end of the fighting, the Cabinet did in fact authorise arming them for use only over rural areas and only when rebels were actually attacking British forces (or just about to or had just finished, which seems to admit of some uncertainty). According to David Omissi, the RAF flew only a small fraction of total flying hours armed, and 'probably' didn't cause any casualties.5

So that's a lot more discretion than it sounds like the Australians were planning to use. Let's turn to a case where there were no rules of engagement at all: the Tulsa race riot of 1921. This was a very different context to the ones discussed above: the riots were more in the vein of a massive lynch mob than a military operation. And the aircraft were not used to put down the riots, but (so it is claimed) to support them. On the morning of 1 June, following an attempted lynching the day before, white mobs surrounded, attacked and set fire to the black district of Greenwood. Thirty-nine people were killed, twenty-six of them black. African-American eyewitnesses claimed that aeroplanes took part, by dropping incendiary bombs or liquids, perhaps petrol (alright, 'gasoline' then). There were also reports of rifle-fire from the aircraft against people on the ground.6 Here, unlike in Australia, Britain and Ireland, the aircraft in question were civilian, not military; at most they may have private aeroplanes used by the Tulsa police department. It's anyway unclear whether the air attacks did take place; unsurprisingly there was no official investigation. An analysis by Richard S. Warner concludes that:

It is within reason that there was some shooting from planes and even the dropping of incendiaries, but the evidence would seem to indicate that it was of a minor nature and had no real effect in the riot.

Technically, the attacks were in support of civil unrest -- that is, caused by white Tulsans -- not suppressing it, though it's possible that the perpetrators thought they were acting to prevent an uprising.

Then, of course, there's the practice of air control in British, French and Spanish colonies and mandates. Britain, for example, had been doing this in a big way since 1919, in Egypt, Somaliland, and the North-West Frontier, though it had first experimented with it in the Sudan in 1916. From 1922 it was used to pacify an Iraq-wide rebellion which had been boiling over since 1920. Spain and France bombed insurgents in the Rif War (and may have even used gas, though Britain did not [Update: Spain did use gas in Morocco: see Sebastian Balfour's Deadly Embrace: Morocco and the Road to the Spanish Civil War]); France bombed Damascus in 1926. It's hard to get a clear idea of the civilian casualties caused by these attacks -- the RAF in effect maintained that its operations were a kind of game which frightened but did not harm -- but Priya Satia argues that for the threat to work it had to be carried out from time to time.7 Air control is where the definition of civil unrest stretches almost to breaking point, but in a revealing way: the Europeans were not bombing their own people or even other Europeans, but Arabs and Kurds and Somalis. They were held to be almost incomprehensibly different to Europeans. As the British high commissioner in Iraq warned in 1931,

the term 'civilian population' has a very different meaning in Iraq from what it has in Europe [...] the whole of its male population are potential fighters as the tribes are heavily armed.8

That is, they were othered. And so the aeroplane could be turned against them with few moral qualms.

To draw these strands together, it suggests that a government could not in fact turn its aircraft against its own people -- it had to exclude them from the national community first. The Australian government in 1916-7 viewed the Wobblies as traitors, and this presumably would have been the case for the British government dealing with insurrection in 1918; white Tulsan rioters in 1921 certainly did not see their black fellow-citizens as part of their community; colonial regimes in the 1920s and 1930s by definition saw themselves as utterly separate from those they ruled. Ireland in 1921 represents an interesting edge case: the restraint exercised by the British suggests that they themselves believed that their rule was illegitimate, that it was not 'their' country any longer.

The counter-revolutionary value of airpower was predicted in 1909 by L. Cecil Jane, the medievalist brother of Fred T. Jane. In an article entitled 'The political aspect of aviation', Jane argued that aircraft would be invaluable in suppressing revolutions, because by flying high above the rioting crowds their crews would have no opportunity for fraternisation. Anyway, they would tend to be owned by the better sort of people, not the sort to sympathise with rebellions.

But if it be true that aviation has thus given a new strength to the existing order, so far as resistance to forcible changes is concerned; if it be true that masses of people will no longer possess an inevitable supremacy, then we have indeed reached an epoch in the history of political development. The establishment in almost every country of representative institutions, of popular government in some shape or form, may fairly be attributed to the invincibility of the 'the Many.' [...] Popular government, like all other forms of government, rests ultimately upon the unanswerable argument of superior force. If that argument no long support [sic] it, it may be asked whether the institution will itself endure. Visions of a despotism may appear to be no longer mere wild imaginings, of a depotism [sic] of aviators, who will have the one final argument on their side.9

He was right about the counter-revolutionary uses of aviation; but fortunately (for believers in democracy, at least) wrong about its 'unanswerable argument'.

And fortunately for Australia, there were no worker riots in 1917, and so our government didn't have to carry out its plans to bomb us.

  1. Quoted in Neville Meaney, A History of Australian Defence and Foreign Policy, 1901-23, Volume 2: Australia and World Crisis, 1914-1923 (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2009), 199. [Update: Meaney likes to combine references for several paragraphs in the one footnote so it's not always clear to me which citation goes with which quote, but I think these are from: letter, Acting Commandant, 3rd Military District, Melbourne to Secretary for Defence, 2 February 1917, NAA B197 1887/1/52.] Two aeroplanes doesn't sound like very much, but it was probably all they had

  2. Though, to be fair to the late Colonel Gaddafi, reports that in February 2011 he ordered his air force to bomb protestors in Tripoli don't seem to ever have been confirmed. 

  3. Brock Millman, 'British home defence planning and civil dissent, 1917-1918', War in History 5 (1998), 204-32, at 216-7. 

  4. Perhaps Scheme L was the spiritual ancestor of the suggestion, made in 1931 by the CID's Evacuation Sub-committee, that London needed to be cordoned off by police after a knock-out blow from the air, to prevent mass panic and exodus: Barry D. Powers, Strategy Without Slide-Rule (London: Croom Helm, 1976), 124. 

  5. David E. Omissi, Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force 1919-1939 (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1990), 43. 

  6. Jill D. Snider, '"Great shadow in the sky": the airplane in the Tulsa race riot of 1921 and the development of African American visions of aviation, 1921-1926', in Dominick A. Pisano, ed., The Airplane in American Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003), 105-46, at 108-9. Snider shows how the Tulsa incident led some African American leaders, particularly Marcus Garvey, to start thinking about the need to acquire aircraft for the projected liberation and defence of Africa: ibid, 119-21. She doesn't mention the Nation of Islam's Mother Plane, but I wonder if this also was partly a legacy of Tulsa. The Mother Plane is supposedly a giant spacecraft built in Japan in 1929, which will come and destroy the United States and the white race. It is said that the Nation of Islam's founder, Fard Muhammad, passed this doctrine on to Elijah Muhammad in the early 1930s, though I can't find a definitive citation for it before the 1950s. However, before 1941 Elijah Muhammad was predicting that 'the time will soon come when from the clouds hundreds of Japanese planes with the most poisonous gas will let their bombs fall on the United States and nothing will be left of it': quoted in Gerald Horne, Race War! White Supremacy and the Japanese Attack on the British Empire (New York and London: New York University Press, 2004), 48. Perhaps there is a link through Tulsa to Japan to the Mother Plane. 

  7. Priya Satia, 'The defense of inhumanity: air control and the British idea of Arabia', American Historical Review 111 (2006), 16-51, at 34-5. 

  8. Quoted in ibid., 38. 

  9. L. Cecil Jane, 'The political aspect of aviation', in Fred T. Jane, ed., All the World's Air-ships (Flying Annual) (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., 1909), 326-30, at 330. 

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15 thoughts on “Counter-revolution from above

  1. Post author

    Kipling and Jane were definitely on the same page here (and literally on the same page in my PhD thesis!) but 'As easy as ABC' wasn't published until 1912. If not for that I suspect Jane would have done so, as he did refer (albeit rather dismissively) to H. G. Wells, George Griffith and Jules Verne. Particularly since, as I read him, he is actually hopeful that aviation will end, or at least curb, democracy.

  2. Chris Williams

    Blimey - I had it down as coming far closer on the heels of the 'Night Mail', round about the time of 'War in the Air'. Interesting, then - it's as if Kipling wanted an angle on the whole 'future race war / death from above' scenario and realised that he could easily base his story on the old one.

  3. Post author

    I assume that Kipling scholars have delved into his motivations, but I haven't checked out the literature. I did find this just now: Christopher Harvie, '"The Sons of Martha": technology, transport, and Rudyard Kipling', Victorian Studies 20 (1977), 269-82. He suggests that in writing 'As easy as A.B.C.' Kipling was motivated by increasing labour militancy in transport industries -- very Strange Death of Liberal England:

    By that time he had come to fear the growing confrontation between labour and management, especially in transport industries like the railways and the docks, in response to which state control, either by regulation or outright nationalisation, was being canvassed. Transport, with "the inevitability of gradualness," seemed to be coming under collectivist control, a first stage in the Fabian road to socialism. (278)

  4. Brett,

    William Sheehan is currently doing work on the RAF in Ireland. He gave a paper at Birmingham and the BCMH Summer Conference at Cranwell on this subject. Some interesting material.

  5. Fascinating historical oddity. On a practical level, I'm curious as to what 'two' aircraft the planners were thinking of. Given the reference to Melbourne, the only aircraft in Victoria were at the Central Flying School at Point Cook*, and they were a motley lot of (by 1916) mostly obsolete training and observation types. There was one Bristol Scout, which looked like a fighter, but like all the others was both unarmed and not fitted with an interrupter gear to enable a forward firing machine gun to be fitted - even if they had a gun suitable for aerial use. Australia's first domestic combat type, a gifted F.E.2b was flying by mid 1917, but they were still waiting for the gun and bombs for it even then...

    Bombs and machine guns were not, therefore, actually available, unless the latter, jury rigged. Pistols and hand grenades would recreate the early days of air warfare on the western front from the distant past of ~um~ two years earlier, in even the same type, perhaps, the CFS' B.E.2s being the most likely machines.

    Artillery spotting? If they were necessary, or even of use, you'd have quite an extreme situation having been allowed to develop.

    How much rioters would be overawed by a B.E.2 is of course guesswork, but I suspect, given the dynamics of any situation, not very likely, while on the other hand early flying machines in war were famous for their potential to startle the horses - presumably riot control police and militia horses have the same feelings about flying machines as cavalry ones. Or perhaps more accurately, their rider's views would be the same.

    I think we have a very unrealistic aerial component to a militia sandbox wargame dream...

    *The only other working aircraft in Australia at the time were probably the training aircraft at Richmond in NSW.

  6. Post author

    Thanks, JDK, I was hoping you might have something to say on this topic! I assume they did have two specific, actual aeroplanes at their disposal, as this appears to be from a status report from the commander of the Victorian military district. He might even have reported the types in question; Meaney doesn't say and I've repeated all his quotes above.

    On the morale effect, well, the assumption that it would be significant is of a piece with the basic tenets of the knock-out blow, and air control for that matter. To that end they probably figured that any dropping of grenades or firing of pistols over the side of the cockpit would be good enough to achieve the desired effect, no matter how embarrassing it would have been over the Western Front...

  7. Chris Williams

    I'll be seeing Barry Sheehan next month or earlier. Then, I will ask him what he can add to Omissi.

  8. Certainly there would be more than a couple of army aircraft at Point Cook. However I remain skeptical of the planners having any understanding of the reality of what they were trying to achieve.

    Grenades (I'm assuming Mills bombs) could indeed do some damage, but would be highly inaccurate; they made a bang and injury from shrapnel and local blast, but would be less effective than smoke bombs or less murderous civil defence tools in anything other than momentary shock - they have no flash, or smoke or incendiary effect.

    The thing about firing pistols over the side of (say) a B.E.2 is that it's utterly pointless; you won't hit anything, and your target just won't notice the shots over the sound of the engine. In both cases these mildly offensive activities will put the aircrew at risk of damaging their own vehicle...

    Obviously it's all moot as it never happened, but we do know from the other lessons of such activities and the air tools actually available that they would've basically been relying or rioters stampeding when buzzed by aircraft. Would that have worked? We don't know.

  9. Post author


    Thanks. One thing it would be interesting to know more about is the thinking behind the restrictions -- whether it was legal, pragmatic, humanitarian or what.


    Obviously it's all moot as it never happened, but we do know from the other lessons of such activities and the air tools actually available that they would've basically been relying or rioters stampeding when buzzed by aircraft. Would that have worked? We don't know.

    I think that's exactly what they were relying on. Not only did the document quoted by Meaney list overawing the rioters as the first of the aeroplanes' objectives, but it separately refers to 'their great moral effect'. They clearly set great store by this, and it might not even have mattered to the planners whether the aeroplanes would have been militarily effective in any sense. It's similar to (though earlier than!) Trenchard saying that the moral effect of bombing is twenty times the physical effect. A little bit of violence goes a long way in that case.

  10. Hmmm. The other unknown in any equation evaluating the efficacy of aircraft as frighteners is we really don't know what temper or level of cohesion and morale any rioters' group may have had; just as there wasn't anyone armed to revolt: macho military guesswork of rioters morale could also well be off. But thankfully we don't have an Australian Peterloo Massacre to provide data, either way, which is A Good Thing. History as it Dint Appen - I like it.

  11. dabond

    There is a much more serious case of air warfare against Americans- The Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921. Not only did private airplanes dropped bombs on rebelling coal miners, but federal planes were used for reconnaissance in support of the mine owners.

  12. Post author


    Thanks for that! Very interesting. This article seems to be a good source. As you say, the mining company hired aeroplanes to drop home made nail bombs on the miners (though without causing casualties), and the US Army sent a squadron of de Havilland DH.4Bs for reconnaissance as well as Martin 'bombers' (presumably either MB-1s or MB-2s). Billy Mitchell boasted that his aircraft could easily end the revolt by dropping tear gas!

    So it fits in with the other examples: there was a period up to a few years after the war when it was acceptable for democracies to think about turning bombers upon their own people, or to at least look the other way. I wonder if this happened later? Were there plans for the use of airpower during the 1926 General Strike, for example?

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