RAF biplanes strafe and bomb dervish settlements and sheep

A DH9A open cockpit bomber flying over the desert.
RAF photo via Wikimedia.

21 January 1920

On the morning of 21 January 1920, five open cockpit R.A.F. biplane bombers attacked the Dervish settlements of Jid Ali and Medishi in the remote interior of British Somaliland. The raid, which was to be the first of several, had been planned to punish the followers of a mystic Mullah, Mohammad Abdille Hassan, who had led a rebellion against British rule and had repeatedly defeated British military expeditions sent to crush it. London was concerned that his successful defiance, if it continued, might serve as an example to others across Africa.1

There was also another important motivation. Sir Hugh Trenchard, Chief of the Air Staff, was anxious about attempts to dismantle the R.A.F. as an independent force, and he saw an attack from the air on the Mullah, his followers armed mostly with spears and antiquated rifles, along with their camels and sheep on which they depended on for survival, as an easy way of proving the value of the service in maintaining British hegemony over vast areas at a relatively minimal cost to the Treasury. He had no difficulty in persuading Winston Churchill, then Minister of War, to back the plan.2

Due to navigational errors, only one of the DH9A bombers, piloted by E.R.C. Hobson, attacked the original target of Medishi. He dropped a 20lb bomb on to a small crowd of villagers who were standing and gazing upwards in amazement at their first ever sight of an aeroplane. It killed eleven of the unsuspecting spectators, including the Mullah’s sister, although the Mullah himself escaped unhurt. Hobson then machine gunned the fleeing survivors. Meanwhile four other aircraft attacked the Dervish settlement of Jid Ali, 12 miles to the south east, first bombing a local fort and the surrounding bush wood huts and then strafing sheep, camels and anyone they saw in the open.3

Historian Barry Renfrew comments that ‘no distinction was made between warriors and the large number of civilians, including many women and children, in the settlements.’4 The inhabitants’ homes in both settlements were attacked repeatedly over the next few days, with incendiary bombs.  The camel and sheep were also bombed and then strafed. On 22 January alone, sixty four 20 lb bombs, two 112 lb bombs and 300 incendiaries were dropped and 2,500 machine gun rounds fired.5  By 24th January the entire population had been forced to flee, and only a small flock of sheep was seen which was promptly machine gunned.6

FOOTNOTES

  1.  Barry Renfrew, Wings of Empire: The Forgotten Wars of the Royal Air Force, 1919-1939, The History Press, Stroud, 2019 pp47-57, Roy Irons, Churchill and the Mad Mullah of Somaliland: Betrayal and Redemption 1899-1921, Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley and Brigadier Andrew Roe, ‘Air Power in British Somaliland, 1920, The Arrival of Gordon’s Bird Men, Independent Operations and Unearthly Retributions’, in Air Power Review R.A.F. 100 Special Edition, Volume 21, Number 1, Spring 2018, pp74-93 accessed online at url https://www.raf.mod.uk/what-we-do/centre-for-air-and-space-power-studies/documents1/vol-21-no-1-raf100-special-edition/
  2.  Barry Renfrew, Wings of Empire: The Forgotten Wars of the Royal Air Force, 1919-1939, The History Press, Stroud, 2019 p. 50
  3. Ibid p53. See also Roy Irons, Churchill and the Mad Mullah of Somaliland: Betrayal and Redemption 1899-1921, Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley pp201-202 and Brigadier Andrew Roe, ‘Air Power in British Somaliland, 1920, The Arrival of Gordon’s Bird Men, Independent Operations and Unearthly Retributions’, in Air Power Review R.A.F. 100 Special Edition, Volume 21, Number 1, Spring 2018, p. 83
  4.  Barry Renfrew, Wings of Empire: The Forgotten Wars of the Royal Air Force, 1919-1939, The History Press, Stroud, 2019 p. 53
  5. Ibid p. 54
  6. Roy Irons, Churchill and the Mad Mullah of Somaliland: Betrayal and Redemption 1899-1921, Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley p. 203

Please feel welcome to post comments below.  If you have any questions please email alisdare@gmail.com

© 2020 Alisdare Hickson All rights reserved

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