Ello, ello, ello, what’s all this then?

It's Lord Baden-Powell, Chief Scout, who at one stage in the 1930s seems to have had a regular spot in the Daily Mail's "Boys & Girls" section, teaching the future imperial overlords all about their wonderful Empire. In the 18 March 1938 issue, he contributed a piece called "Policeman aeroplanes", along with the following rather cute drawing:

(I apologise for the blurriness, I don't have access to a scanner at the moment and so a photo of a printout is the best I can do.) B-P explains how aeroplanes can keep restless natives in line:

The other day, in passing through Aden, we heard that two of the tribes of Arabs in the district had broken out into war against each other. Before they could get very far with it, the Royal Air Force had an aeroplane hovering over them like a policeman. The aeroplane dropped notices to tell them that they were to stop fighting at once, and make peace and go home.

So although aeroplanes have done so much in speeding up transport, so that people can travel and mails can go in a few days where it used to take several weeks, aeroplanes also have their uses in many other directions, and will go on becoming more and more useful when you fellows grow up to pilot them.1

So RAF air control policies -- the use of airpower in internal security roles -- are, according to Baden-Powell, much like a firm but kindly neighbourhood bobby breaking up scuffling schoolboys. Nobody even gets hurt, isn't that nice!

Well, maybe. According to a Times article about (what must be) the incident he describes, the policeman aeroplanes did in fact have to stick the boot in:

The second area of unrest [in Aden] involved the Sei'ar tribe, living in inaccessible country north of the Wadi Hadhramaut, whose raiding proclivities had been a constant source of trouble. Political negotiations having produced no satisfactory result, air action was ordered, and one bombing raid by three aircraft on January 20 [1938] produced the desired result. The dar of the chief offender was completely demolished in a spectacular fashion in full view of a number of Sei'aris, who were duly impressed and gave a guarantee to the Government of future good behaviour. Following their submission, the fort at Husn Al Abr, 100 miles north-west of Seiyun and an important point at the junction of a number of routes into the Hadhramaut, was occupied by Q'aiti local forces. At the time the fort was in the hands of Sei'ari raiders, who had with them a number of looted camels. Messages were dropped informing them that air action would be taken if opposition were offered to the occupation of the fort by Q'aiti troops. Having heard that similar action had been taken earlier by other Sei'aris, the raiders submitted quietly and handed over the looted camels.2

Since there were eyewitnesses to the bombing of the dar (which I think is Arabic for "house", presumably a leader's), there must be a chance that there were casualties -- but we are not informed either way. The point, as far as the Times was concerned, was that the raid had the desired result without having to send British troops into harm's way.

Getting back to Baden-Powell, even if this particular action did not result in casualties, it seems to me that he sugar-coated the realities of air control here, which could be quite brutal. OK, so admittedly his audience was young, but surely the Scouting movement was all about toughening up the youth of Britain in preparation for their later duties out in the Empire?

ObAirminded: B-P's younger brother, Baden Baden-Powell (no, really) was an aviation pioneer, specialising in balloons and man-lifting kites, and who was an active president of the Royal Aeronautical Society in the crucial years 1902-9. There's an excellent page on B B-P and Scout airmindedness at Scouting Milestones.

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  1. Daily Mail, 18 March 1938, p. 21. []
  2. The Times, 5 April 1938, p. 27. Emphasis added. []

6 thoughts on “Ello, ello, ello, what’s all this then?

  1. W.F. Hogarth

    On the contrary, the probability was that there were no casualties in the bombing of the dar.

    The critical factor in the policing of the Aden Protectorate was always the recognition that there was no shame for an Arab to submit if he was obviously submitting to a superior force he was incapable of fighting. Accordingly, incidents such as this were treated as "firepower demonstrations", which meant that on the previous day there would be a leaflet drop to announce that the District Officer would be coming to supervise the destruction of, in this case, the dar by the indestructible aeroplanes. The event would become a local holiday and Arabs from surrounding villages would ride in to join the celebrations. On schedule the aircraft would make a noisy low pass and then climb to release its bombs. No one got hurt and the message was understood.

    We were still using this technique in the nineteen-sixties, and I dropped bombs on such demonstrations as late as 1962.

  2. Post author

    Thanks for this, you're probably right. I can see that air control could have eventually evolved into kind of a game or ritual where nobody got hurt and the honour of both sides was satisfied. That definitely wasn't the case very early on in the piece -- in the post, I linked to another post which had this quote from Bomber Harris in 1924:

    Where the Arab and Kurd had just begun to realise that if they could stand a little noise, they could stand bombing …, they now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage; they now know that within forty-five minutes a full-sized village (vide attached photos of Kushan-Al-Ajaza) 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.

    But that doesn't mean that this sort of thing was still going on in 1938, particularly since it was by then standard procedure to issue warnings. Since writing this post, I've finally gotten around to reading David Omissi's excellent Air Power and Colonial Control (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1992). He does seem to suggest that 'brutality' was very rarely used over urban areas, though it was more common in rural areas. On p. 159, he mentions the Aden Protectorate specifically:

    Air power seems to have been employed with particular restraint against the tribesmen of the Aden hinterland. This was partly because Aden was only under full-scale air control from 1928, after the most violent early phase of air policing was over. It was also a question of personality, for the men such as McClaughry and Portal who commanded at Aden in the 1930s, appear to have been less brutal than other senior air officers like Arthur Harris or Philip Game.

    So, perhaps Aden is not quite reflective of the broader practice of air control, but at any rate the actions described by Baden-Powell and the Times most likely did not result in casualties. (Still -- neither account shows any concern for the possibility of this happening ...)

    While I'm here, I should point out that a dar is more like a fort than a mere house, at least if I recall Omissi correctly.

  3. Interesting ... particularly the context of an earlier "brutal" phase involving inter alia Arthur Harris. I haven't read a biography of the man but is it fair to speculate that he learnt a few lessons here about the effectiveness of hitting hard? Whirlwinds and so on.

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