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)
Air & Space Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 2)

In the campaign to capture the faqir, one of the largest operations became known as the Bhittani Blockade. In September 1937, Holloway flew 22 Wapiti sorties against Bhittani, usually carrying four 20-pound and two 112-pound bombs and terrorizing enemy livestock with his front and rear guns. Logbook entries read: “Cattle dispersed with casualties”; “Camels and sheep dispersed.”

The faqir shifted from village to village and group to group, with each protecting him in turn; through 1939, the Brits attacked in a cat-and-mouse game. Most of the RAF strength took part: Five squadrons from Miram Shah, Arawali, Kohat, and other bases flew Wapitis, Audaxs, Harts, Bristol Fighters, and Valencia bombers. Once a local council had satisfied the British Political Agent that no more hostiles were being protected, leaflets were dropped announcing “Whereas the government are satisfied that the tribe desires peace and have dissociated themselves from their is safe for you to return to your home....” Kindly, the notices added “TAKE CARE: do not touch any unexploded bombs....” In some areas, such as the Tori Khel, the RAF bombed, on and off, for eight months, expending 1,650 flying hours, 1,600 bombs, and 68,000 machine gun rounds.

The faqir was never caught. By 1939 he was operating from across the border in Afghanistan, and increasing tensions in Europe were drawing the RAF away from Waziristan. In the 1930s, the British colonial rule in India began to fade. Already by 1932, the Indian air force had been created in anticipation of independence; indeed, many Indian units flew alongside the RAF in punitive strikes against the militant tribes. In January 1935, the parliament in London introduced the Government of India Bill, granting India self-government.

In 2010, Royal Air Force Flight Lieutenant Duncan Swainston of 39 Squadron flew MQ-1 Reapers monitoring the area of the world where the Great Game had been played. He said that the Royal Air Force is conducting missions only in Afghanistan, and that he is not flying over any part of Pakistan. The United States is. Although the Pentagon and Department of State don’t acknowledge the attacks, Pakistani security organizations as well as the Associated Press and Reuters have reported 75 missile strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas between September 1, 2010, and the end of February. Many of them targeted the same villages that protected the faqir in the 1920s: Datta Khel, for example, which was once a garrison staffed by recruits from local tribes led by British officers, and Mohammed Khel, just 20 miles west of the old RAF base at Miram Shah. The drones targeted supporters of Osama bin Laden, the new faqir who for almost 10 years escaped his hunters.

A U.S. Naval Test Pilot School graduate, Calgary-based freelance writer Graham Chandler spent eight months in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province conducting research for a Ph.D. in archaeology.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus