On 20 September 1920, twenty years before he became Britain’s legendary prime minister, Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for Air, urged the Chiefs of Staff to seriously consider the use of fighter aircraft against gatherings suspected of protesting or plotting against British rule. In his view, strafing attacks would be “a great deterrent to illegal drilling and rebel gatherings.”(1)

General Sir Nevil Macready, commanding British troops in Ireland, was in complete agreement, noting that there were “undoubtedly cases where fire from aeroplanes would materially assist the forces on the ground” adding that there was no risk of anti-aircraft fire.  He urged the War Office to look at the proposal favourably, arguing that “a few rounds fired from the air would have a great moral effect.”(2)

However, the Chief of Air Staff, Sir Hugh Trenchard, was more sceptical; not because he thought the plan was wrong in principle but because it would be “ineffective and highly dangerous” to the pilots themselves. “Friendly” crowds might be targeted by mistake and that was a problem because it would incite “a great popular outcry against the unfortunate pilots.”  He didn’t however see any reason why similar tactics could not be deployed to strafe gatherings suspected of being potentially hostile to British rule in the Middle East.(3)


24 September 2002 – At 8 am, some thirty minutes prior to the deadline for the headline in the Evening Standard‘s first edition, Charles Reiss, the paper’s political editor, was allowed to read through the government’s intelligence dossier on Iraq’s supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).

After reading about Iraq’s “strategic missile systems” and its supposed ability to deploy chemical weapons within 45 minutes, he assumed that this meant a strike on British troops in Cyprus could occur at any moment. Accordingly, the newspaper’s headline was “45 Minutes to Attack” above a map showing how the rockets range stretched across the Gulf states, Jordan, Israel and as far as Cyprus. (4)

The dossier was a flagrant attempt to mislead the public. John Scarlett, head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, omitted to mention that he himself had declared the evidence for WMD to be “sporadic and patchy” and instead maintained that Saddam “continued to produce chemical and biological weapons.”(5) He also asserted that Iraq possessed chemical weapons that could be “deployed within 45 minutes of a decision to do so,” based on uncorroborated information from a single Iraqi informant.(6)  Readers were left to assume that Iraq could use such warheads on their strategic al-Hussein rocket, but the information was based purely on what an Iraqi brigadier claimed to have overheard regarding a short-range artillery shell.

The government made no approach to the newspaper to correct the obvious misunderstanding nor did Tony Blair do anything to correct it, when later that day he informed parliament that Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction programme is active, detailed and growing. The policy of containment is not working,” adding that “documents show that some of Iraq’s WMD could be ready for use within forty-five minutes.”(7) Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, also knew that the media had seriously misrepresented a short-range artillery shell as a long-range rocket, but he also said nothing. (8)

When American and British troops invaded Iraq in March 2003 they found absolutely no evidence of WMD but it wasn’t until 29 May that a report on the BBC Today Programme by Andrew Gilligan finally revealed that Downing Street had ordered that the dossier “be sex up” one week prior to publication and that the government knew the central assertion that Iraq could deploy chemical weapons within 45 minutes was “questionable”. (9)



1.  Charles Townsend (2014), “The Republic: The Fight For Irish Independence,” Penguin Books, London, p153-4.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Tony Bower (2016), “Broken Vows: Tony Blair: The Tragedy of Power,” Faber and Faber, London p292.

5. Ibid p286.

6. Ibid p287

7. Ibid p292

8. Ibid p293

9. Ibid p377-8

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