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‘A Swift Agent of Government’: Air Power in British Colonial Africa, 1916–1939*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 January 2009

David Killingray
Goldsmiths' College, University of London


In the inter-war years one major role for the Royal Air Force was imperial defence. The Air Staff further argued that air power, used in substitution for the Army, would provide a more economical and effective means of policing and subjugating unrest in the remoter and more inaccessible areas of the colonial empire in Asia and Africa. The first successful major operation by the R.A.F. in Somaliland in 1920 encouraged the extension of air policing to the troublesome Middle East. The R.A.F. saw the Sudan as an integral part of its Middle East operations and throughout the late 1920s and 1930s military aircraft stationed in Khartoum were used to deal with revolt in the Southern Sudan. Continued Army opposition to substitution led the R.A.F. to seek a role in the sub-Saharan colonies. The need for defence economies as a result of the Depression, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and unrest on the Copperbelt persuaded the authorities in both London and the colonies of the need for an Air Force presence in East and Central Africa.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1984

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2 Neissel, General, ‘Le rôle militaire de l'aviation au Maroc’, Revue de Paris, XXXIII (Feb. 1926).Google Scholar There is a splendid photograph of a reconnaissance aircraft flying over a line of French cavalry in Porch, Douglas, The French Conquest of Morocco (New York, 1983).Google Scholar

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5 The British had three aircraft in Egypt in Nov. 1914 when the Ottoman Empire entered the war. In 1916 this had increased to 36: AIR 18/1. The Germans had sent two aircraft in crates to West Africa in 1914, while another two were in South-West Africa in 1915.

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12 The peace strength of aircraft in French Morocco was reported as 80 aircraft. By June 1925 this was reported to have risen to 112 aircraft, with 160 heavy bombers also available. ‘The air aspect of the situation in Morocco. Note by Air Staff, 15 July 1925, AIR 9/41/5. In 1925 the Spanish had 88 land-based aircraft and 12 seaplanes in Morocco. In the final battle against the Rifians the five French and Spanish columns were supported by eight squadrons of Spanish and ten squadrons of French planes. Woolman, David S., Rebels in the Rif. Abd el Krim and the Rif Rebellion (Stanford, 1968), 190205.Google Scholar

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22 Smith, Malcolm, ‘The Royal Air Force 1932–37’, Journal of Contemporary History, XII (1977), 156.Google Scholar

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24 ‘Aviation in Nigeria. Notes on the establishment and cost of a suggested flying unit attached to the W.A.F.F. in Nigeria' by Capt. Hellard, W. B., R.A.F., 1 Dec. 1917Google Scholar, CO 583/81/1273.

25 ‘Aeroplanes in West Africa’. Lt.-Col Rees to HQ W.A.F.F. Colonial Office, 17 Feb. 1919, and minute by Col. Beattie, 26 Feb. 1919, CO 554/44/10767.

26 Clifford to Milner, 3 April 1920, encl. ‘Report on “Aviation in Nigeria” by Sqd. Ldr. J. C. P. Wood, R.A.F’, CO 583/85/20183, also Guggisberg to Churchill, 18 May 1921, encl. ‘Report by Insp. Gen. W.A.F.F. on Gold Coast Regt., March 1921’, CO 445/55/29035. Amery, as under-secretary for Colonies, in 1919 offered Clifford, then governor of the Gold Coast, a number of surplus Air Ministry planes. He wrote: ‘You could have them both for military and for civil purposes. The Darfur campaign and the present Afghan campaign show how effective they are for the former.' Clifford Papers, Woking; Amery to Clifford, 31 May 1919.

27 ‘Report on Operations, South East Sudan, 1921’, AIR 20/680; and ‘Air Staff notes on the employment of aircraft in the Sudan’, 1 Jan. 1925, AIR 9/49/1.

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32 Archer to Milner, 15 May 1920, and Group-Capt. R. Gordon to Wing Comm. Steel, Air Ministry, London, 9 Feb. 1920, AIR 1/23/15/1/116.

33 In a Cabinet Memorandum, 1 May 1920; See also CAB 5/4, C.I.D. paper by Trenchard, , 135–6, March 1921.Google Scholar

34 Quoted in Jeffrey, Keith, ‘Sir Henry Wilson and the defence of the British Empire, 1918–22Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth Hist, V, 111 (May 1977), 286.Google Scholar

35 Howard, Maj. C. A. L., ‘Operations in British Somaliland, 1920’, J.R.U.S.I., LIII (Jan. 1923), 201218Google Scholar, followed by a retort from Group Capt. Chanier, J. A., ‘Operations in British SomalilandGoogle Scholaribid. LIV (Jan. 1924), 103–9, and Howard's reply, ibid. LV (Jan. 1925), 128–36.

36 Jardine, Douglas, The Mad Mullah of Somaliland (London, 1923), 280.Google Scholar The argument continued to the 1960s: see letters to the Daily Telegraph by Ismay, Lord, 13 April 1962Google Scholar, and Collie Knox, 27 April 1962. See Waldie, , ‘Relations’, 37 ff.Google Scholar

37 ‘Substitution: Somaliland: Extracts from Governor of Somaliland despatches on efficiency of air operations, 1920–30, AIR 5/1422 and AIR 5/428. See also ‘Somaliland-Substitution draft scheme’ by C.A.S., March 1930.Google Scholar

38 See the first few chapters of Waldie, ‘Relations’.

39 ‘Note on the Army in small wars’, by Group-Capt. Chanier, a Nov. 1921Google Scholar, AIR 8/45.

40 ‘The part of the Air Force of the future in Imperial Defence’ conf. Feb. 1921Google Scholar, AIR 9/15/3.

41 AIR 9/18/20/10/1–3, 1929–32.

42 ‘Mahdism in the Sudan’, Air Staff draft memorandum, Nov. 1926.Google Scholar AIR 9/49/5. See also CAP 2/4. C.I.D., 215th meeting, 22 July 1926.

43 Discussion of C.I.D., 220th meeting, 5 Feb. 1927, AIR 9/49/6.

44 See Collins, Robert O., Shadows in the Grass. Britain in the Southern Sudan, 1918–1956 (New Haven, 1983), 128144Google Scholar; also ‘Operation reports on S8 and S9 Patrols’, AIR 20/681, 1927–8, and AIR 9/49/13, ‘Air Operations in Sudan, Dec. 1927’.

45 Air Vice-Marshal T. Twidible Bowen, A.O.C. R.A.F. Middle East, to Sir Hugh Trenchard, C.A.S., 3 March 1928, FO 141/519/19215. The ‘normal sequence of action’ by the authorities in the Sudan was laid down as follows: ‘(a) Issue of ultimatum and warnings by Political Officer; (b) Bombing of inanimate objects as moral demonstration; (c) Destruction of cattle or other animals; (d) Action against hostile personnel.’ FO 141/519/19215, ‘Warning to Lau Nuer before air action’, Civil Sec., Khartoum, secret, 9 Jan. 1928, by Col. F. P. Nosworthy, Chief Staff Officer for Raid, Sudan Defence Force.

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47 ‘Memorandum on the use of the Air Force’, by Maffey, Sir John, 20 June 1928Google Scholar, FO 141/519/19215. The comment of the Air Staff on Maffey's memorandum was that the R.A.F. activity in the Sudan ‘has proved its value to the extent of converting the Governor-General from incredulous opposition to almost complete agreement with the claims of the Air Staff’, AIR 9/49/11. ‘The Garrison of the Sudan’, secret, June 1929Google Scholar, paper to the 243rd meeting of the C.I.D.

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51 ‘Note on air action in Upper Nile Province’, confidential by Wilson, B. T.Google Scholar for Kaid el'Amn, dated Khartoum 11 May 1932, encl. in AIR 20/687, ‘Air Operations - Annuak, 1931’.

52 Occupation of Boma Plateau, 1936’, AIR 20/693. For air operations against Ethiopian cattle raiders in 1930s, see ‘Operations at Gaderef’, AIR 20/688.

53 ‘Note on the status of the R.A.F. in the Sudan’, draft by Dep. Dir. Operations, May 1936, AIR 9/49/18. For air policy in 1937 see ‘Operations – Annuak-Beir (Murle), May 1937’, AIR 20/694.

54 Gwynn, Sir Charles W., Imperial Policing (London, 1934), 352353.Google Scholar

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57 See House of Lords Debates, vol. 77, cols. 23–9, 9 April 1930. for Trenchard's views on substitution. File AIR 9/62 contains letters to newspapers following the speech. For an earlier lecture by Trenchard, when he was C.A.S., see ‘The employment of air power in overseas defence’, addressed to Secretary of State for Air, 3 Jan. 1925, AIR 9/15/20.

58 E.g. Brig.-Gen. Groves, P. R. C., Behind the Smoke Screen (London, 1934), 281292Google Scholar; Hart, B. Liddell, The British Way in Warfare (London, 1932)Google Scholar; Amery, L. S., The Forward View (London, 1935), 59Google Scholar; Saundby, Sir Robert, Air Bombardment. The Story of its Development (London, 1961).Google Scholar By 1937 Air-Comm. C. F. A. Portal wrote that the controversy over the Air Force role ‘is now dead’ although certain misunderstandings remained: ‘Air Force co-operation in Policing the Empire: A Lecture’, 17 Feb. 1937Google Scholar, J.R.U.S.I. LXXXII (May 1937), 347348.Google Scholar

59 House of Commons Debates, vol. 280, col. 341 (5 July 1933). See also letter by Harris, Sir John to Manchester Guardian, (12 June 1933).Google Scholar An epithet used by the Morning Post was ‘bombing for taxes’.

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61 House of Commons Debates, vol. 280, cols. 353–4, 5 July 1933. See ‘H. W.’ (Wing Commander E. L. H. Williams), ‘Air bombing - in humanity's name’, African Observer (Bulawayo), IV, iv (Feb. 1936), 2030Google Scholar; and Sqd.-Ldr. Kinston-McCloughry, E. J., Winged Warfare. Air Problems of Peace and War (London, 1937), 209 ff.Google Scholar For the background to the debate on aerial bombing see Royse, M. W., Aerial Bombardment and the International Regulation of Warfare (New York, 1928)Google Scholar, and Lester, H Bruce, ‘An effort to regulate aerial bombing. The Hague Commission of Jurists, 1922–23’, Aerospace Historian, XXIX 111 (1982) 183185.Google Scholar

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63 Air Staff Note: ‘Substitution in East Africa, 1929,’ AIR 9/18/20/11/1; and ‘Substitution in West African colonies, August 1929, AIR 9/18/20/12/1; ‘Priorities in consideration of substitution schemes’, Air Staff, 30 Dec. 1929, AIR 9/18/1.

64 Cabinet Paper 332 (29), ‘The fuller employment of air power in Imperial defence,’ memorandum by C.A.S., Nov. 1929, AIR 8/45.

65 See the various papers in ‘Defence of colonies and protectorates - air questions, 1932–35’, AIR 9/44.

66 Gp.-Capt. Arthur Harris to C.A.S. dated Nairobi, 4 Feb. 1932, AIR 9/18/20/2/6.

67 Extract from letter of Gp.-Capt. Arthur Harris to C.A.S., 1932, AIR 9/18/20/2/9.

68 Gp.-Capt. Arthur Harris to C.A.S., dated Tabora, 7 March 1932, AIR 9/18/20/2/7.

69 ‘East Africa and Substitution’, memorandum by Gp.-Capt. Arthur Harris to C.A.S., secret, 20 July 1933, AIR 9/59. Wilkinson, O.C. K.A.R., in an attempt to exclude the R.A.F., proposed a Volunteer Air Unit for Kenya.

70 ‘Report on organization of defence in East and Central Africa’ by Brig. C. C. Norman and Air Vice-Marshal C. L. N. Newall, 7 March 1934, AIR 9/66, and also AIR 9/18/20/16. See also Moyse-Bartlett, H., The King's African Rifles. A study in the Military History of East and Central Africa (Aldershot, 1956), 466.Google Scholar

71 See Kaniki, M. H. Y., ‘Labour and the economy of colonial violence’, African Research Review xxxi (June 1981), 12.Google Scholar In the previous year Newall's proposal for an air and machine gun unit for Northern Rhodesia had been rejected by Brig. Norman largely on questions of cost. In a ‘Review of the tribal situation’, prepared by the secretariat in Lusaka, , 6 Feb. 1934Google Scholar, one experienced provincial commissioner was quoted as saying: ‘Give me a few extra civil police and an aeroplane and I will cope with any trouble likely to arise in my Province in the next ten years’, encl. in AIR 9/66, appendix A.

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77 Haywood, A. and Clarke, F. A. S., The History of the Royal West African Frontier Force (Aldershot, 1964), 476480Google Scholar, which details the use of transport aircraft during the troubles on the Cameroon and Togo borders and unrest at Kano and Kumasi.

78 Foran, W. R., The Kenya Police 1887–1960 (London, 1962), ch. 32.Google Scholar

79 Reeves, Ambrose, Shooting at Sharpeville (London, 1960), 34, 58.Google Scholar