The Bombing of Waziristan

In this rugged hiding place, outlaws like Osama bin Laden are rarely run to ground. The British learned that lesson in 1939.

A formation of Westland Wapitis flies over the mountainous landscape of the North-West Frontier Province. In 1933, a Wapiti became the first airplane to fly over Mt. Everest. (Imperial War Museum)
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Since March 2007, Royal Air Force pilots of 39 Squadron have patrolled Afghanistan from control stations at Creech Air Force Base, near Las Vegas, Nevada. Flying MQ-1 Reaper unmanned combat airplanes, the pilots, along with their allies in the U.S. Air Force 15th Reconnaissance Squadron, have watched Afghan villages, deserts, and ancient mountains scroll across their video screens as they seek and sometimes strike the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other jihadists. The pilots see today, through the magic of a satellite link, landscapes almost identical to those their predecessors in 39 Squadron saw in the 1930s from the cockpits of Westland Wapiti biplanes and Hawker Harts.

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On March 1, 1924, RAF Chief of the Air Staff Hugh Trenchard issued a directive entitled “Employment of Aircraft on the North-West Frontier of India.” It was stamped “SECRET” and opened with a mild declaration: “The problem of controlling the tribal territory…has always needed special treatment by reason of the psychology, social organization and mode of life of the tribesmen and the nature of the country they inhabit.”

The North-West Frontier was a rough, fortress province on the edge of the British Empire, in what is now Pakistan. Since the mid-19th century, the Wazirs, Mahsuds, and other mountain tribes who lived in the area had harrassed the British by stealing cattle, looting, and kidnapping and ransoming British citizens. Stirred up by Britain’s two invasions of Afghanistan in the 1800s, tribesmen in the insular, autonomous district of Waziristan challenged British forces in the North-West Frontier, even after the 1919 armistice ending the third British-Afghan War.

The RAF squadrons sent to Miram Shah and other remote Waziristan bases were playing a part in what Rudyard Kipling immortalized in his 1900 novel Kim as “the Great Game.” Like the characters in the novel, the airmen were caught up in the struggle between Russia and Great Britain for dominance of south Asia. (Britain’s invasions of Afghanistan had been attempts to deter Russian expansion into that country.) The British and Indian soldiers patrolling the dangerous hills of Waziristan, however, and the airmen who came to assist them didn’t have time to think about grand strategies. They had their hands full defending against attacks on their convoys, forts, and patrols, some of them waged by the very militias the British had formed and armed to aid in their conquest of Afghanistan. To defend the British colonial territory, the RAF devised a new form of frontier warfare, which its strategists called “air policing.”

Read today, the 1924 directive on air policing will sound familiar to those who have watched the war in Afghanistan for the past decade. First, the 1924 strategy was punitive: If the tribesmen staged a raid or attack, the bombers would be called in. The directive recommended that action be immediate: “Hesitation or delay in dealing with uncivilized enemies are invariably interpreted as signs of weakness.” And it stated a philosophy that might have surprised the gentlemanly RAF and certainly foreshadowed modern controversies: “In warfare against savage tribes who do not conform to codes of civilized warfare[,] aerial bombardment is not necessarily limited in its methods or objectives by rules agreed upon in international law.”

Though the philosophy was radical, the practices of air policing were developed under codes that British soldiers of the time would have considered fair. Unless demands from the British government were met, the air policing protocols were set in motion. For example: Over a village where a lashkar, a hostile raiding party, was known to have originated, aircraft were sent to drop bilingual leaflets. The leaflets warned that unless demands like denying safe harbor to hostiles were met by a specified date, the village would be bombed. The leaflets strongly recommended the removal of women and children by that date, and suggested, with extraordinary obtuseness, that the villagers hand over the non-combatants to the care of those who were about to bomb their homes: “If you so desire, the government will take charge of them...and restore them to you unharmed when you make your submission.”

The warnings were often accompanied by bombing demonstrations staged nearby. The air directive recommended that on the specified date, strikes be conducted immediately, “to ensure the greatest concentration of men and animals around the village.” The bombs should therefore be “man-killing,” and machine guns were to be fired against any movement. “Incendiary bombs should be used for good effect against villages and crops.” Selection of the right bomb size was important: The document advised that 20-pound bombs “will only make a small hole in the huts of tribesmen, 112-lb bombs will be expected to blow off the roof, while 230-lb and larger bombs should destroy large houses.”

How these strategies would affect the population was predicted in the directive as well. “The enemy will as the result of such measures feel insecure at all times; men must hide in caves...cattle if not driven into caves must be grazed in small bunches at great labour...tillage of fields must cease....” Once a group submitted to the demands, pilots would drop another set of leaflets announcing “no further bombing” and that it was safe to return to village life.

It took a few years to build the air policing force. G.M. Knocker, later group captain of 28 Squadron, wrote in his diary in April 1922, “on 6th April word came...that some 2,000 Afghan and other wild men had laid siege to the fort at Wana [in South Waziristan] and that all available aircraft from 28 and other squadrons on the Frontier were to proceed to Tank [a base to the east of Wana].” This sounds like a prompt and capable response. But he continues, “Available aircraft of 28 Squadron consisted of one Bristol Fighter—my aircraft, and that was in none too good shape.” In August 1922, aircraft serviceability really was a sad state of affairs. “Out of 70 aircraft only seven were fit for operations,” writes Chaz Bowyer in The Flying Elephants: a history of No. 27 Sqn RFC-RAF 1915–69. “It was all due to funding: the RAF in India came under the Army budget.” There was considerable rivalry between the services, and the money went to the foot soldiers.

But by the late 1920s, new and more effective airplanes had arrived: The Westland Wapiti (a North American Indian word for “elk”), an open-cockpit, two-place biplane, replaced the DH.9A, and Hawker Harts and Audaxs were sent as light bombers and multi-purpose aircraft. The Wapiti was used extensively for dive bombing, which required aerobatic skill. Pilot Geoffrey Morely-Mower, later wing commander, wrote of the tactic, “The technique was to pass directly over the target, throttle back and pull the nose up sharply until the airspeed was within 20 mph of the stall. At this point full rudder is applied—it was called a stalled turn. With the nose pointing vertically upwards at low speed, the rudder wheels [rotates] the aircraft elegantly on its axis to a position heading vertically downwards. If you have judged it correctly you should be looking straight down at your target.”

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