Wings over Waziristan

This is a BBC interview with Group Captain Robert Lister, recorded in 1980, about his experiences as a junior officer in 20 Squadron on the North-West Frontier. He transferred there in 1935, and flew Audaxes in air control operations against Waziri tribespeople, sometimes in support of the Army, sometimes independently. He candidly notes that the 250-lb bombs were the ones which would be used against villages, but also that leaflets were invariably dropped beforehand, warning of an imminent attack.

But the clip isn't just Lister talking; it's Lister talking over his own cinefilm footage from 1935! Both from the ground and from the air, bombing and strafing Waziri villages. Also to be seen are the detonation of an improvised explosive device planted in the landing strip by the rebels, and one of the goolie chits affixed to the side of every Audax, to be used in the event of a forced landing. Fascinating stuff.

Thanks to Marc Wiggam for the lead.

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32 thoughts on “Wings over Waziristan

  1. Erik Lund

    It has come to my attention that Englishmen talk funny. That aside, amazing footage, Brett. I'm watching the Waziristan operation from the air. I'm watching the frigging Waziristan operation!
    Which I'm pretty sure wasn't called that, although the only accounts of it I've seen are in the ever-exciting _London Gazette_. (It was a corps-level operation, by the way, a very big deal.)

  2. Post author

    It's true, I've even met some Englishmen and they don't talk like Australians at all.

    There's a good article about (inter alia) the Waziristan campaign here.

    Perhaps the outstanding feature of the Waziristan operations was the close co-operation between the RAF and the Army in India at the tactical level, although independent bombing operations were also carried out. Six squadrons - equipped with Westland Wapiti, Hawker Audax and Hawker Hart aircraft - were used in the largest air operation ever undertaken in India operating under detailed restrictions imposed by the Government of India intended to prevent the death of non-combatants and attacks on friendly tribal sections. Daily reconnaissance sorties located hostile lashkars and enabled column commanders to, determine the number and location of piquets and perimeter camps in advance, and to direct long-range artillery fire. Bomber Transport Aircraft frequently dropped supplies to imperial columns, maintained isolated posts and evacuated casualties.

    Earlier it talks about Slessor developing his close air support doctrine (as Ross pointed out, he commanded the group 20 Squadron was in) and the Vickers-Bomb-Lewis method of attack shown in Lister's cinefilm.

  3. Just looking through the new edition of Air Power and Armies and Meilinger, who has written the forward to this edition, notes that Slessor updated and refined his notes while serving in Waziristan. I think we can assume that he was testing 'his' ideas in theatre.


  4. bocacassidy

    The soviets failed to establish order in Afghanistan because they were unwilling to exterminate the entire population ....Civilization is impossible in this land of deranged savages The American effort is a road to nowhere .

  5. Post author

    Well, there's a lot I could say to your implied desire for genocide, but not without being fucking rude. And I wouldn't want to do that.

    This post has received nearly 1200 hits in the last week (it got less than 60 total for the preceding four) and I'm not sure why. From the referrals it looks like it was posted on a mailing list or two. I have no idea in what context it was presented or how it is being read, but I hope bocacassidy is not representative of those who are reading it. Especially since there were a number from *.mil sites.

  6. Marine6

    I can't speak for others, but I'm a United States Marine who is facinated by the fact that Group Captain Lister and his colleagues seem to have experienced a war that is remarably similiar to the one that is going on today. As George Santyanna said, "Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it."

  7. Ian

    Brett, I don't think bocacassidy was suggesting genocide as a policy, merely that nothing had succeeded in the tribal areas. The Brits were clearly going out of their way to avoid enemy casualties.
    Anyway, a terrific piece of film. Call me cowardly if you like but that Goolie Chit would have been foremost in my mind. Never mind sticking it to the aircraft, I'd want it in my pocket.

  8. Post author


    Thanks for your comment. Absolutely, that's an excellent reason for taking an interest, and hopefully there are lessons that can be learned from this piece of history.


    Sure, bocassidy said that nothing has succeeded to date, but more than that, that nothing could succeed short of 'exterminat[ing] the entire population'. The Soviets were just too soft on those 'deranged savages'. I don't know, eliminationist rhetoric just makes me a little uncomfortable.

  9. Ric Pelvin

    I was interested to note that these operations carried on into the post war period. I read an article in, I think, Aeroplane Monthly in the mid 90s concerning Lancaster operations over Afghanistan in 1946.

  10. Black Dog.

    Everything changes, everything remains the same... As Bocacassidy rather tactlessly said, we (The West.) are just wasting our time there. It's a lawless alien place, a different culture and looming over everything is a violent, dark-age, misogynistic religion, wholly out of step with civilisation as we know it. Then again, it IS their country. I for one was dismayed to see the west getting involved in a place where we had struggled to disengage after years of knocking our collective heads against a brick wall. The best the outside world can realistically hope for is some sort of containment. They were quite happy to live as they were, with little change for thousands of years before the outside world tried to 'civilise' them. There is more than one way to skin a rat and as long as Islam remains dominant in the area, as it will for any foreseeable future, the sooner we get out the better. The place isn't worth the life of a single grenadier. There may be places where useful change can be achieved, but history seems to tell us that this certainly isn't one of them.
    The film shows the leaflet-dropping, but from that height, they would have taken ages to fall to the ground and even a slight breeze could have taken them well away from the village... Then again, perhaps even the appearance of the a/c was a good warning.
    Interesting to see the a/c struggling to take-off. Full load, 3,000' altitude and probably festeringly hot. That formation-flying was seriously any standards...!

  11. Post author


    I haven't heard of that. Does anyone have more details?

    Black Dog.:

    To be honest, I'm not very interested in discussing contemporary wars here. I'm a historian; this isn't history yet.

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  13. Khalid Butt

    Wonderful. I enjoyed every moment of the footage. I am sure that the US high command reads it and would come to the sane conclusion that it is useless to be there and that they should get ou yesterday.

  14. M.Naeemuddin. Khalid-Major(R)

    An excellent article on the tribal of Waziristan. History repeats itself if USA accept. What happened to Britishers same will be the fate of USA. Dead bodies, Medals and memories.

  15. Murat Gulkan

    "Bombing the villages was a fair and just way of dealing with the issue, because they started this unrest..."

    Priceless conceit from the occupier...

  16. If you bomb people just to hold power, how do you expect their future generations to be normal people!!

    The responsibility for problems today lay where, we now know!! Sad. Very unfortunate people.

  17. David Beale

    Hi video does not seem to be working. Had a good friend whoes father was in RAF out there at about same time. Nephew of the WW1 ace Albert Ball.

  18. Post author

    Wow, this it what happens when a post goes modestly viral!


    The video still works for me. Maybe check your Flash player?

  19. Ralph

    In response to Khalid Butt, The US "high command" isn't really interested in reading the comments or seeing the film. They need these pissant wars to check out the latest in warfighting technology and tactics in real time. Why else would they send forces into places like Grenada and Panama and who knows how many places that didn't make the evening news? They can always conjure up a rationale for doing so, vis-a-vis First Iraq war. (weapons of mass destruction...really?)

  20. Dr.Hamidzeb Khan

    i was absolutely fascinated by this cine film. My late father served in miranshah with the tochi scouts 1940 to 1946 for six years continuously, and many a battle he participated in.He was decorated on the field and mentioned in despatches. A full account is given of his many adventures in THE FRONTIER SCOUTS by Charles Chenevix Trench. The airforce gave very close support by flying 150 feet above the battle zone. Initially my father said the tribesmen broke cover and started running helter skelter picking empty cartridge shells!!the airforce had to fit a gadget to collect empties !!! Another very dangerous thing for the scouts to do was, in the thick of close combat,lay out POPHAM panels on the ground to direct the plane to the enemy. The planes were summoned by carrier pigeons released by a beseiged scouts patrol!![Tales from the Frontier. Colonel M. Sharif Khan]I am working on my fathers book. Hope to release for private circulation by 2012. I dont think anyone would be terribly interested in a long forgotten war of the early forties in a remote part of the world written by the first non british indian officer and that too an Afridi Tribesman. HZ{his, son now in my sixties}

  21. Post author

    Dr Khan:

    Thank you for that. I wouldn't be so sure that nobody would be interested in your book, given the amount of interest this post has attracted!

  22. dr Hamidzeb khan

    Thanks Dr Holman. I am motivated to put my shoulder to the task!Another little snippet from the bad old days in waziristan 1940--46.One day my dad was sitting in the Tochi Scouts officers mess in miranshah witha few pilots when some damoselle cranes were seen flying high in formation on their annual migration. P/O Arjan Singh [later C-in-C. Indian Air Force] a good friend of my father. said "Sharif would you like to go up with me and get a shot at the cranes with your shotgun?" dad got his Churchill[ 28 inch barrels] and off they flew in the Wapiti Biplane ,diving at the birds .which would scatter at the approaching plane!!they made all sorts of loops and rolls .dad managed to get in afew rounds , but never got a bird,whilst the whole garrison had a spectacular show of aerobatics.

  23. Wanderer

    Wonderful clips. Those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it and that is what is happening today in Waziristan and surroundings. People are never conquered with force; there appears to be no reward for peace except promises which are not well grounded.
    Today Wazirs and other tribes are doing same what they did more than half a century earlier. These are not current operations in that sense; its re-enactment of history, possibly with same outcome in future; A COMPROMISE.
    What to do about people who are interested in collecting fired cartridges of aircraft and other weapons because that makes a day's earning for him and it holds good even today.
    What is required is not more cartridges to give them livelihood but a social and economic reform--- hope in life.

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  25. Simon Walmsley

    It's fascinating to come across the BBC interview of Group Captain Robert Lister from 20 Squadron. My father "John Davidson Walmsley" was also there at Miran Shah and Peshawar in that period from 1936 as a young 20 year photographer and air gunner flying in the Audaxes. I have boxes of fantastic black and white photographs including the official RAF ones with the date, altimeter, time etc of reconnaissance runs, and fortunately many anecdotal scribbles on the back of the pictures to help. They could be scanned and shared for posterity should they prove useful. By the way may I add a plug (as someone from IT by profession), I hope that historians will adopt as soon as possible the latest "Linked Open Data" standard "RDF format" now being used by some musuems. Its a fantastic way to share, add and browse inter related information and avoid trawling through google to get the relevant info.

  26. Post author

    I'd encourage you to do something along those lines -- if not to donate them to a museum or archive (the RAF Museum would be the obvious place) then at least do a basic scan and put them on Flickr or somewhere. I'm still fielding inquiries from people wanting to use a similar set of photos (albeit from Iraq) from which I posted a few examples -- the collection they came from never made it into the public domain, as far as I know, so my blog post is the only record. So your father's photos definitely would be a valuable resource.
    I'm sure I used to have an RDF plugin for this site... I wonder what happened to it...

  27. Simon Walmsley

    OK let me get organised and scan these then I can upload them somewhere to share.


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