Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Britain’s Terrorist-in-Chief

…the RAF bombed Iraqi and Afghani tribespeople on several occasions – and met with success in repressing uprisings in those colonies.
-        Ted Grimsrud, The Good War That Wasn’t – and Why it Matters, referring to the time between the two World Wars.

One hundred years and counting.  Remember: they hate us for our freedom.

From the World Future Fund (WFF):

Britain has the dubious distinction of being the nation that did more to perfect a system of mass murder of civilians by means of air power than any other nation on earth.

Theories on British terrorism from the air were put to the test even as early as the Great War:

Even during the First World War, [Hugh] Trenchard had outfitted his planes with crude bomb dropping devices and had sent them on raids into Germany, hitting the cities of Kaiserslautern, Frankfurt, Bonn, Wiesbaden, and Mannheim.

Marshal of the Royal Air Force Hugh Montague Trenchard, 1st Viscount Trenchard, Bt, GCB, OM, GCVO, DSO (3 February 1873 – 10 February 1956) was a British officer who was instrumental in establishing the Royal Air Force. He has been described as the Father of the Royal Air Force.

Returning to the WFF:

After the end of WW I, Trenchard found himself fighting a rear-guard action against politicians and regular army officers who wanted to destroy an independent RAF.  Trenchard (and Churchill) argued that air power was an inexpensive way to subdue rebellions in the colonies and mandates, far cheaper in fact than maintaining a large ground force.

Churchill needs no introduction.  He gets credit for quickly demobilizing the British military after World War I, with a corresponding significant reduction in fiscal outlays.  All this while maintaining control of the various colonies.  Now we understand how:

At the time Winston Churchill was Secretary for Air and War in the Lloyd George government.  Churchill sought ways to police the empire "on the cheap" by using air power to fight insurgents in place of sufficient ground troops (a fateful decision strikingly reminiscent of the strategy employed by American planners in Iraq eighty years later).  Iraq, Churchill stated, provided the opportunity to "carry out a far-sighted policy of Imperial aerial development in the future."

Churchill was at this point willing to use any means necessary to achieve his goals in Iraq, including poison gas bombing, which he actually argued was more "humane" than bombing with explosives.  Writing to Trenchard on August 29, 1920, Churchill advised "I think you should certainly proceed with the experimental work on gas bombs, especially mustard gas, which would inflict punishment on recalcitrant natives without inflicting grave injury on them."

Another important British figure gained experience during this terror campaign:

Arthur Harris, the man who would later oversee the destruction of German cities during WW II, also saw action in Iraq and participated in the bombing of civilians as a wing commander.  He wrote of this experience, "The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage.  Within forty-five minutes a full-size village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured." 

Gromsrud picks up the story from here, beginning with an admonishment from Roosevelt:

The precise day on which Germany invaded Poland and the European war began, September 1, 1939.  President Roosevelt took to the airwaves with an internationally broadcast speech that called upon the belligerents not to target civilians.  He feared that “hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings who have no responsibility for, and who are not even remotely participating in, the hostilities” would be killed.  Let the belligerents “affirm [a] determination that [their] armed forces shall in no event, and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian population or unfortified cities.”

Roosevelt would later lose this innocence.  In the meantime, his message, obviously, was aimed at the Nazis as they were the only major hostile power on the continent on that day.  In any case, the practitioners of terror bombing until this time were overwhelmingly British:

When Roosevelt gave this call to respect noncombatant immunity, the Royal Air Force (RAF) of Great Britain had been planning ever since World War I to make such “bombardments” a central part of their strategy.

Chamberlain committed to avoid such deliberate attacks on non-combatants.  His replacement, Churchill had seen the “benefits” in the Middle East and Central Asia of taking the different approach.  It mattered not that the technology of the time was almost completely unreliable and inaccurate:

Two major factors limited what the RAF was able to do.  One was the inefficacy of bombing technology at that point in the war.  The planes were simply unable to hit their targets with any accuracy.

In the summer of 1941, the British military studied the efficiency of the bombing campaign and concluded:

The bombing campaign was a massively wasteful and futile effort…Many bomber aircraft never found their targets at all; even in good weather on moonlit nights, only two-fifths of bombers found their targets, but in hazy or raining weather only one in ten did so.  On moonless nights the proportion fell to a helpless one in fifteen.  In all circumstances, of those that reached their designated target only a third of them placed their bombs within five miles of it.

Of course, if terrorizing civilians was the objective this inefficiency probably didn’t matter a whole lot.

The second problem was inherent in the philosophy of terror bombing itself.  This came at the cost of targeting strategic locations.

Until the summer of 1941, Britain’s official policy had been to not target civilians – albeit until this time most air attacks in fact hit civilians.  In any case, this official policy changed on July 9:

On that day, Britain’s War Cabinet approved a directive to Bomber Command that switched its focus from oil and naval targets to “destroying the morale of the civil population as a whole and of the industrial workers in particular.”  At this point, intentional bombing of civilians became official British policy.

State-sponsored terrorism.

In accord with this policy, Britain dropped leaflets throughout Germany in 1942, leaflets approved by Arthur Harris:

We are bombing Germany city by city, and ever more terribly in order to make it impossible for you to go on in the war.  That is our object.  We shall pursue it remorselessly.  City by city: Lubeck, Rostock, Cologne, Emden, Bremen, Wilhelmshaven, Duisberg, Hamburg – and the list will grow longer and longer.  Let the Nazis drag you down to disaster with them if you will.  That is for you to decide.  We are coming by day and night.  No part of the Reich is safe.

The lowlight, of course, was Dresden in 1945.


After the war, Churchill honored many of those who contributed to the success of the war effort.  He did not mention the RAF or Bomber Command for its efforts.  Perhaps to avoid even furthering the hypocrisy of Nürnberg.


  1. This is a big subject. Rather than bogging down in the morality of war, there are a few historical facts that bear on particularly strategic bombing.
    The practice was initiated by the Germans during WWI when they sent first Zeppelins and then Gotha bombers in terror raids, i.e. high explosive and incendiary bombing raids against England. The loss of life caused widespread panic in London and other cities. But the British naval air force developed defensive measures that caused heavy German losses, particularly in the Zeppelins. The suffering point of view may have influenced the German lack of strategic bombers during WW2 while the English and American air forces emphasized such strategies.

    The more formal concept of strategic bombing was advocated by the fascist Douhet on a theory rather like Nobel’s that terrible weapons will shorten wars. This was picked up in America by Billy Mitchell and in England by Trenchard. Of course the reality was rather different.
    Terror bombing was originally incidental, the result of the inability to hit a target within a mile or two. But it was noted that the energy in combustible materials on the ground at city targets eclipsed the energy in the bombs per se. Thus mixed bombing loads of high explosives to create flammable rubble and incendiaries to ignite the rubble became standard practice. By way of example, the firebombing of Tokyo killed more people than either of the later atomic bombs, though exact numbers are not available for either.

    1. "The practice was initiated by the Germans..." Sure, who else. Reminds me a bit of Donald Trump: "He said it first".

  2. I know you are not going to poat this, but so what.
    Except for the interpretations and innuendo, the degeneration into bombing civilians, tgetreatment of such as Dowdibg and Churchills revisionism is discussed in Hastings and Beevor, so it is already mainstream
    So your ooint is ?

    1. My point is: you really can't spell very well.

  3. "Bomber Command went to war on 11 May, 1940. It had only been fooling with war until then," wrote James Spaight, an air-power theorist, several years later. "We began to bomb objectives on the German mainland before the Germans began to bomb objectives on the British mainland."

    In the town of Monchen-Gladbach, in Westphalia, a little after midnight, four civilians--one, as it happened, an Englishwoman--were killed by English bombs. The Germans shot down three out of thirty-six planes. The next night, more random bombing by the RAF. The night after that, more still. English planes were meandering over Germany in the dark, as they'd done with bays full of leaflets. Now they carried bombs.

    Nicholson Baker, *Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization* (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008), p.178.