1920-1939 | Bombing villages | Chemical weapons | Livestock targeted | RAF crimes

The RAF investigates ‘systems of attack’ against ‘uncivilised tribes’

The RAF were enthusiastic about the use of mustard gas, despite the First World War experience of Allied soldiers. Here, a Canadian soldier (via Wikimedia) and a US soldier (via Wikimedia) suffering from mustard gas burns. c. 1917-1918.

18 December 1922

On 18 December 1922, the RAF’s Deputy Director of Operations and Intelligence, submitted a report to the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Hugh Trenchard, suggesting possible ‘systems of attack against uncivilised tribes’. Britain was facing insurgencies across the Empire, and was particularly worried about the threat to continued British rule along India’s North West Frontier and in Iraq.  The RAF, therefore, dedicated detailed research to what were termed ‘forms of frightfulness’, systems of attack which might quickly pacify a population through terror. These included

  1. long delay action bombs, so that villagers would not feel safe to return to their homes, even at night when it was more difficult for aircraft to bomb.
  2. Phosphorous bombs, which would generate a ‘rain of burning phosphorous pellets’ and consequently ‘great moral results against trans frontier valleys.’
  3. Rockets which would ‘shoot all over the place, with long detonations,’ and might be useful ‘in making tribesmen move.’
  4. Dropping tens of thousands of ‘crows-feet’, a medieval-like four pointed metal spike, which however it landed would always have at least one spike pointed upwards. These would injure cattle and villagers, and would prevent people lying down to shelter from high explosive bombs.
  5. Dropping thousands of aerial darts, ‘roughly stamped with “whistling” holes to increase the moral effect’, which ‘might be extraordinarily useful’ when used against people ‘hiding in nullahs and scrubs.’
  6. The use of exploding oil drums, which would generate a flow of ‘liquid fire’ rushing down hillsides to engulf houses and crops.
  7. The dropping of crude oil on to water supplies to render them undrinkable by people or cattle.
  8.  Mustard gas bombs, the effects from which would last for a considerable time. Any one entering a village for weeks after such an attack could expect to suffer ‘very painful’ sores and blisters on ‘any part of their body’ which came ‘into contact with any ground, hut or article which has been splashed with this substance.’

The Director of Research added a note ten days later, agreeing that it would be effective to use crude oil against water supplies, but was concerned that there could be dangers to the pilots and aircraft in carrying phosphorous bombs and that he did not consider aerial darts particularly effective. Overall, he considered high explosive and shrapnel bombs to be the most useful method of attack, except for mustard gas which he contended ‘should prove more efficient than any other known form of frightfulness.’1


  1. ‘Suggested Systems of Attack against Uncivilised Tribes,’ Report by DDOI to CAS , Air Ministry AIR 5/264 – Accessed at the National Archives.

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