1920-1939 | Bombing towns & cities | Kurdistan | RAF crimes

Crowded tea shop obliterated as RAF target rebel Kurdish chief

RAF aircraft in Iraq: © IWM (HU 89404)

16 August 1923

On 16 August 1923, the RAF conducted a surprise bombing attack on the home of the Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji in the Kurdish town of Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq. He was becoming dangerously popular among a population who felt the British were cheating them of their independence and was suspected of conspiring against British rule.  Flight Lieutenant Routh, leading the raid at dawn by four aircraft of Number 30 squadron, had been informed that intelligence believed the sheikh was living in ‘the house with a pointed roof’ in the north east area of the town, with its location indicated on a aerial photograph.1

The RAF knew that collateral damage was likely as the attacking open cockpit biplanes, carrying high explosive 230 lb bombs, were instructed to fly at an altitude of not less than 3000 feet. Routh recorded how ‘each bomb threw up a large mass of masonry, smoke and dust in bursting. I should say three to four times the size of a 112 lb bomb burst.’2 The pilots managed to drop all their bombs in the north east section of the town, but narrowly missing Mahmud’s house and taking out a crowded tea shop, the town’s prison and at least four nearby houses.

Mahmud, who was outside Sulaymaniyah when the assault occurred, claimed that 21 women and children had been killed while even an official British report admitted an estimated total of 21 casualties. The bombing was nevertheless judged a success as it had ‘shaken Mahmud’s prestige considerably.’3 Despite such sanguineness, the RAF still deemed it necessary to bomb the town’s inhabitants even more heavily the following year, subjecting them to 29 air raids over 48 hours from dawn on 27 May.


  1. Letter from Flight Lieutenant Routh to Air HQ Baghdad, 17.3.1923, AIR 5/1254 accessed at the National Archives.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Letter no 3. from Shaikh Mahmud to Adviser, Kirkuk, Dated 16th August, received 18th afternoon AIR 5/1254 and Copy of Secret Memo No k 484, dated 22-8-23, from the Administrative Inspector, Kirkuk to this Secretariat. AIR 5/1254 – both documents accessed at the National Archives.

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