1920-1939 | Bombing villages | Burning villages | Collective punishments | Kurdistan | Livestock targeted | Punitive operations | RAF crimes

Kurdish valley of villages set on fire ‘from end to end’

An RAF biplane on the ground in northern Iraq.
© IWM (HU 89404)

12 September 1921

On Monday 12 September 1921, at 0530 hours the first pair of RAF biplane bombers, of Number 55 Squadron, took off from Mosul to take part in a surprise day long assault by mounted troops and aircraft on four Kurdish villages in the Harir Valley, some thirty miles north east of Erbil in northern Iraq. The operation had been approved by Sir Percy Cox, the high commissioner, and its clear objective was ‘to destroy the villages of Batas, Harir, Karwatan and Bawiyan.’1

The villagers’ crime, according to the British political officer at Kirkuk, was to show ‘hospitality to the wandering bands of Turks who were at large in the district.’2  He also suspected that they might some day support a general Kurdish rising against British rule and felt that the assault would ‘give the final coup-de-grace to the demoralised villages,’ which had already been subjected to two days of intensive bombing.3  His plan was greeted enthusiastically by Vivian Gaskell-Blackburn, DFC, commanding 55 squadron, although he expressed some concern about the safety of his pilots flying over ‘the most terrible terrain’ inhabited by ‘a cruel and uncivilised race.’4

At dawn the aerial assault began on Batas, and shortly afterwards mounted Assyrian levies,  under the command of Captain C.S. Littledale, MC, rode in and in the words of a memo sent by Cox to Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for the Colonies, ‘Batas was then fired and completely destroyed; all property whether movable or immovable was burnt and the cattle (70 animals) were shot.’5  The next target was Harir, where the advancing troops were exposed to the first significant opposition, but it soon met the same fate as Batas. Littledale noted that ‘it was destroyed by fire with all the personal property of the inhabitants’ and that 33 villagers were killed, 18 men as well as 15 women and children.6

Shortly afterwards a nearby mill was blown up and the troops then moved on to Karwatan which was likewise destroyed by fire, and the livestock including 20 cows, 10 goats and 4 donkeys, shot. However, as it was already late in the day, Littledale decided not to press ahead with a ground assault on Bawiyan. At about this time, Gaskell-Blackburn, joined him, and reported that ‘the valley with the exception of one village was burning from end to end.’7 Littledale was soon reporting to Cox in Baghdad on the success of the operation, commenting cheerfully that ‘both men and officers showed great keenness in fulfilling their duties.’8


  1. Captain C.S. Littledale, Report on the punitive expedition against the Surchi by a combined force of the levies and police on 12 September 1921, p. 1, AIR 1253, accessed at the National Archives.
  2. Major Marshal, political officer Kirkuk, cited by Vivian Gaskell-Blackburn, Squadron Leader No 55 Squadron in report to Commanding Officer, Mesopotamiam Group Royal Air Force, p. 2, AIR 1253 accessed at the National Archives.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., p. 8.
  5. Sir Percy Cox to Winston Churchill, 6 October 1921, AIR 1253 accessed at the National Archives.
  6. Captain C.S. Littledale, Report on the punitive expedition, op. cit., p. 4.
  7. Vivian Gaskell-Blackburn, report to Commanding Officer, Mesopotamiam Group Royal Air Force, op. cit., p. 7.
  8. Captain C.S. Littledale, Report on the punitive expedition, op. cit., p. 4.

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