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 been 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.
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. ↩
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. ↩
Brock Millman, 'British home defence planning and civil dissent, 1917-1918', War in History 5 (1998), 204-32, at 216-7. ↩
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. ↩
David E. Omissi, Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force 1919-1939 (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1990), 43. ↩
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. ↩
Priya Satia, 'The defense of inhumanity: air control and the British idea of Arabia', American Historical Review 111 (2006), 16-51, at 34-5. ↩
Quoted in ibid., 38. ↩
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. ↩