30 November 1923
On 30 November 1923, forty aircraft from five R.A.F. squadrons began round the clock bombing sorties against two villages near the town of Samawah in southern Iraq. The air strikes continued for two days, resulting in the almost total destruction of the villages and a death toll officially estimated at 144 men, women and children. The punitive operation had been ordered after an ultimatum expired for the village Sheikhs to pay a fine and hand over a quota of weapons. The aircraft, which included three squadrons of two man DH9A bombers, one of twin engined Vickers Vernon heavy bombers and one of single seat Sopwith Snipe fighters, dropped a total of 25 tons of high explosive bombs and 8,600 incendiaries, while their machine guns discharged 15,000 rounds, targeting the inhabitants as well as their homes and their livestock.1
Gertrude Bell, an acclaimed author and influential British political officer, wrote to her father lauding the operation. ‘We are doing extremely well,’ she informed him. ‘Our last success in some operations against persistently disobedient tribes near Samawah [as] I think I told you. There was nothing political in it. They just refused to obey any orders and waited in defiance to see what would happen.’2 Prior to the attack troops had surrounded the two villages to ensure that no one could escape while the bombing was in progress. The villagers put up virtually no resistance and their surrender was accepted on 2 December. As the Sheikhs signed the surrender documents they were lectured by British officials as to what would be expected in terms of future good behaviour and of the necessity of paying any fines promptly to avoid further bombing.
The Air Ministry was delighted by the success of the operation, declaring it to be a great example of ‘how air action should be used against uncivilised tribes’ and it gave Squadron leader Arthur Harris, who later was oversaw the infamous firestorm raids on Hamburg and Dresden, the task of summarising dozens of similar recent R.A.F. operations over Iraq in a pamphlet which was handed out to members of parliament. ‘Whereas a year ago,’ he concluded, ‘we largely relied on noisy inaccuracy and moral effect… they (the Arabs and Kurds) now know that within 45 minutes a full size village… can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines.’3
- David E. Omissi, Air Power and Colonial Control; The Royal Air Force 1919-1939, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 1990, p. 152, Barry Renfrew, Wings of Empire: The Forgotten Wars of the Royal Air Force, 1919-1939, The History Press, Stroud, 2019, p. 101 and Peter Lieb, ‘Suppressing Insurgencies in Comparison: The Germans in the Ukraine, 1918 and the British in Mesopotamia, 1920,’ Matthew Hughes (editor), British Ways of Counter-Insurgency: A Historical Perspective, Routledge, London and New York, 2013, p. 62
- Gertrude Bell, Letter to her father 11 December 1923, Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University accessed online at url http://gertrudebell.ncl.ac.uk/letter_details.php?letter_id=663
- The Air Ministry and the pamphlet to MPs cited in Barry Renfrew, Wings of Empire: The Forgotten Wars of the Royal Air Force, 1919-1939, The History Press, Stroud, 2019, p101-102. One pilot recalled personally participating in 50 such raids – Ibid p. 103.
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