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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But not having brakes, the aircraft were a challenge to taxi. “The only way to change direction was to put on full rudder and blip the throttle,” wrote the RAF pilot, meaning to toggle it quickly fore and aft. “If this was not judged perfectly, inertia would exaggerate the turn. Opposite rudder and more engine power had to be applied to retrieve the situation. This led to a buildup of speed.” If the pilot instinctively throttled back, the Wapiti would ground loop.

The tribal combatants had no aircraft to counter British bombers, of course, but just as the Taliban today manage to pilfer 7.62-mm ammunition intended for Afghan government forces, tribesmen in the interwar years captured .303 rifles and cartridges. So unless an aviator was on a dive bombing or strafing run, the rule was to stay above 3,000 feet, out of the range of the enemy’s rifle fire. “The tribesman is a good natural shot, and is fully alive to the necessity for deflection when shooting at fast moving aircraft,” warns the pocket-size 1939 manual Frontier Warfare—India (Army and Royal Air Force). However, if detailed reconnaissance required pilots to fly lower, they should “make full use of their speed, fly an irregular course, [and] use their weapons to keep down hostile fire....”

If a pilot were forced down over hostile territory, he was advised to “first remove the bolt from the Lewis gun and throw [the bolt] overboard.” On reaching the ground, every effort was to be made to burn the airplane “by firing a bullet or [flare] into the petrol tank.” And, if escape was out of the question, some advice was given, with typical British understatement: “It will be wisest to surrender with good grace and a bold demeanour, preferably to the older and more important-looking men among the crowd; the younger element is liable to be hot-headed and unpleasant.”

The British offered a reward of 9,000 rupees for return of a downed airman, and the promise generally resulted in fair treatment in captivity. Crash-landing in “black clouds and heavy rain” over western Waziristan in the summer of 1924, A.J. (Jack) Capel—later Air Vice Marshal—“tried to set alight the machine, but before we got it to burn we were surrounded on all sides by tribesmen, who quickly got hold of us,” he wrote to his sister. He reported that because of the reward offered, the Wazirs and Mahsuds fought over him. The Wazirs won, and a several days later, “I got sent up from the camp a good box of tinned food, a bottle of whisky and some beer and some clothes....” After three days, the ransom was paid, and he was released with a 1,000-rupee note from his abductors, which they included, he said, for his “inconvenience.”

Such hospitality couldn’t always be expected, so the RAF invented what they nicknamed “goli chits”—safe conduct letters for air crew. Goli is the Pashto word for ball. Rumor had it that tribesmen often castrated their captives. The chits promised a reward if the bearer were returned with all parts intact. A beer-drinking song in the mess summed up the ghastly prospect: “No balls at all. No balls at all. When your engine cuts out, you’ll have no balls at all.”

Although histories of the period recount ambushes and massacres of Indian and British Army ground troops, the surviving diaries and letters of pilots in the RAF squadrons indicate that the airmen managed to enjoy the gentleman’s life, even amid the mayhem of the frontier. G.M. Knocker, who spent 1918 to 1922 in India, recounted in his diary a jolly life with darts, dances (“only eight girls” at one), a bearer—personal servant—to attend his daily baths and press his uniforms, soccer and rugby games, and lots of “afternoon snoozes.” Wing Commander D.L. Allen, who flew DH.9A light day bombers and Bristol Fighters out of Risalpur from 1927 to 1929, wrote of Sunday afternoon tennis parties, “good hockey and football grounds, tennis and squash courts, polo, picnics and dances for all ranks.” Being stationed at a larger base, he had a better chance than Knocker did at female companionship: “there were usually some 70 eligible young women staying with relatives and friends, termed irreverently, the Fishing Fleet,” he wrote. “They were always in demand for dances and parties.”

By the mid-1930s, the RAF’s air policing campaign was in full swing and integrated with British Army ground action. In November 1936, the conflict intensified. Mirza Ali Khan, a rebel fighter from the village of Ipi, led an ambush against two British marching columns in Waziristan’s long-peaceful Khaisora Valley, trapping the units and killing 14 soldiers. RAF air drops of ammunition and supplies saved the day, but the incident launched a multi-year campaign to capture Ali Khan, a Sufi mystic who became known as the faqir of Ipi.

Up to this point, Sergeant Albert Edward Holloway of 60 Squadron, who had arrived at Kohat at the end of 1934, had seen little offensive action. His logbook records reconnaissance and cross-country trips, drogue attack practice, and photo missions in Westland Wapitis. On New Year’s Eve 1936, however, he finally got a taste of air policing. “Active operations—bombing Arsal Kot,” reads his entry that day. Arsal Kot was the fortified hideout of the faqir, and Holloway didn’t do much reveling that night. Next morning, New Year’s Day, he “re-armed at Miram Shah” with 230-pound, high-explosive bombs and flew two more missions in his Wapiti, blasting the faqir’s headquarters.

The faqir escaped, and called for a jihad against the British. Emboldened by his intransigence, other tribes and groups, notably the Bhittanis of Waziristan, joined his effort. Thousands of tribesmen were soon conducting raids all over the frontier. The British stepped up their efforts to get the faqir by conducting what they called “blockades”: keeping the tribes suspected of sympathy with the faqir from their livelihoods. Bombing operations prevented the watering of livestock and thwarted the plowing or harvesting of crops, according to Waging War in Waziristan: The British Struggle in the Land of Bin Laden, 1849–1947, a book recently published by Andrew M. Roe. For the first 10 days of March 1937, Pilot Officer A.M.A. Birch, also flying Westland Wapitis, flew several missions of “convoy escort,” or “road recce to Jandola,” often from 8,000 feet, all the while fully loaded with bombs. Later he pasted a photo in his logbook captioned “20-pound bombs bursting among cattle in Razmak area.”

The Karesti area, southeast of Miram Shah, was one of the first to be blockaded. Again Holloway joined the fray. Fresh from a three-month leave in England and loaded up with four 112-pound bombs, he hit the village while spraying 216 rounds from his Lewis gun. As he wheeled around his rear gunner shot off 384 rounds. Pulling away, he wrote later, he noticed he had been “shot through strut, spark plug blown out.” He flew low along the Tochi River Valley to the base at Miram Shah for repairs.

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