The R.A.F. strafe and bomb a school and crowds at Gujranwala
14 April 1919
On 14 April 1919, Michael O’Dwyer, Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, gave orders that RAF aircraft should be sent to terminate anti-British protests in the town of Gujranwala. That morning large crowds, angered by the reports of the massacre by British troops of over 300 protesters at Amritsar the day before, set fire to the town’s railways station, the adjacent goods yard and the post and telegraph office. However, before the biplanes arrived, there had been no fatalities and not one European had been assaulted.1
The town’s acting Deputy Commissioner, Khan Sultan Ahmed, was reluctant to use lethal force because, as he later testified to a committee of inquiry, ‘forty per cent of the mob at the railway station was composed of boys and in view of this fact his conscience did not allow him to order fire to be opened.’2 The inquiry reprimanded him for this ‘error’ of indecisiveness, while approving the necessity of subsequent police shootings later that day, after Lieutenant Colonel A.J. O’Brien took charge, which resulted in at least three fatalities.3
The carnage commenced a few minutes after 3 pm, when a BE2c biplane, piloted by the highly decorated First World War fighter ace, Captain D.H.M. Carberry, commanding the 31st Squadron, was the first of three to be seen flying low over the rooftops of the town. He dropped a total of eight twenty pound bombs, five on two neighbouring villages and three on the town itself, one exploding in the courtyard of a high school, and two detonating near a railway crossing. He and the other pilots who followed him also used their Lewis machine guns to strafe any groups of people they saw on open ground.4
A year later the colonial authorities issued a report of the committee of inquiry which stated that nine people, including at least one woman and one child, were killed by the bombing, although even O’Dwyer, who ordered the raid, admitted that there were ‘some twelve or sixteen’ killed, ‘including unfortunately a few boys who had no business to be there.’5 Despite these deaths, the inquiry lauded the R.A.F.’s lethal use of air power, declaring that it was ‘not only justified but, in their view, invaluable’ in restoring order, and regretting only that ‘the instructions issued to the airmen who visited Gujranwala on this occasion left much to be desired in precision.’6
- Michael O’Dwyer, India as I knew It, Mittal Publications, New Delhi, 2015, pp. 69-71.
- Khan Sultan Ahmed cited in ‘Beneficial Bombing,’ The Dublin Evening Telegraph, 20 January 1920 p. 1.
- Nick Lloyd, The Untold Story of One Fateful Day, The Amritsar Massacre, I.B. Tauris, London and New York, 2011, p. 114 and ‘India Riots,’ The Leicester Daily Post, 31 January 1920, p. 1.
- Barry Renfrew, Wings of Empire: The Forgotten Wars of the Royal Air Force, 1919-1939, The History Press, Stroud, 2018, p. 43, ‘Indian Riots’, The Leicester Daily Post, 31 January 1920 p. 1, and Nick Lloyd, The Untold Story of One Fateful Day, The Amritsar Massacre, I.B. Tauris, London and New York, 2011, pp. 114-115.
- Michael O’Dwyer, op. cit., p. 71.
- References to the Inquiry’s conclusions inBarry Renfrew, Wings of Empire: The Forgotten Wars of the Royal Air Force, 1919-1939, The History Press, Stroud, 2018, p. 44 and ‘The Bombing of Mobs,’ The Nottingham Journal and Express, 27 May 1920 p. 1.
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