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The RAF's role in the Third Afghan War

In 1919, Amir Amanullah Khan, having only recently become Afghan Amir and sensing an opportunity to affirm his authority and exploit British weakness after the First World War, fomented a revolt in the North-West provinces of British controlled India, and despatched Afghan troops over the border. So, began the Third Afghan War, known in Afghanistan as the War for independence. Despite being only a brief conflict— which commenced in May, saw a ceasefire agreed in June, and a peace settlement signed in August 1919 — the Third Afghan War represents an interesting point in the Royal Air Force’s history. The RAF emerged from the First World War into an environment where its newly won independence was under threat and the Third Afghan War provided the first opportunity for it to demonstrate the value it could offer as a separate service. During the war aircraft of the RAF were involved in long range bombing, close support, artillery spotting, photo surveying, reconnaissance, and communication missions. When the war was officially concluded the RAF had begun to develop the tactics it would use on the North-West Frontier for much of the inter-war period and was using the aircraft it would rely for much of this time. The blog below, and the accompanying podcast recorded with Paul Macro, explores the operations of the RAF, and the limitations they faced, during the war.

The previous two Anglo-Afghan wars had largely been fought because of Britain’s determination to prevent Russian encroachment into Afghanistan and prevent further Russian expansion in Central Asia. The Second Afghan War had established British control over Afghanistan’s foreign policy and made the country a British protectorate —effectively making Afghanistan a buffer state between the British and Russian Empires. In 1919 Britain still had slight concerns about foreign influence in Afghanistan. The First World War had, however, demonstrated the difficulty of controlling Afghan foreign affairs and during the war Habibullah Khan, then Amir of Afghanistan, met several emissaries from powers hostile to Britain. By 1919, although no firm decision had been reached it is evident that control of Afghan foreign policy was no longer considered an important issue in either India or Britain. Instead, the main British objective in Afghanistan had become the maintenance of peace along the North-West Frontier and the domestic security of Colonial India. It was on this basis that Britain became involved in what has been described by some as the most pointless war it has ever fought.

During the conflict which developed, Afghanistan drew on both its standing army, of some 50,000 men, and a further 80,000 armed tribesmen. The British forces involved were 8 Divisions, 5 independent Brigades, 3 Cavalry Brigades as well as some armoured cars. During the active fighting in the Third Afghan War only 31 Squadron and 114 Squadron were available — other squadrons arriving in India too late to take a part before the ceasefire was agreed. At the start of May, the machines of Nos. 31 and 114 Squadron were widely dispersed having been involved in the efforts by British forces to deal with the protests across India. On 3 May, intelligence began to reach RAF units in India regarding possible operations against Afghanistan, with the information received indicating that the Amir was likely to declare a Jihad. On the following day No. 31 Squadron received orders to keep two machines in readiness to participate in the suppression of any aggression by Afghanistan. Hostilities were formally declared on 6 May and, with the realisation that air power would play an important part in the war, a meeting was held between the Commander of the recently formed No. 52 Wing, RAF, and the Commander of the North-West Frontier Force to discuss points of co-operation.

The traditional invasion routes into — and out of — Afghanistan travelled through three main mountain passes — The Khyber Pass, the Kurram Valley, and Khojak Pass in Baluchistan. Each of these routes formed its own, largely self-contained, theatre. British and Indian forces were divided between these three different theatres of operation and the available RAF units were distributed to support them. The aircraft of No. 31 Squadron co-operated with forces in the Khyber and the Kurram Valley, whilst No. 114 Squadron was to have its headquarters at Lahore — where it would control detachments across India to deal with the continuing internal situation — and maintain a flight at Quetta to co-operate with forces in the Baluchistan Area.

Figure 1 — Map of East Afghanistan and North-West India.

Figure 1 — Map of East Afghanistan and North-West India.

In the Khyber Pass Afghan forces had crossed the border and cut off the water supply to Landi Kotal by occupying Bagh and Kafir Kot.[1] A British division defeated the larger Afghan forces at Bagh and pushed them back up the Khyber. The BE2c aircraft of No. 31 Squadron undertook reconnaissance during these early operations in the Khyber, however, the commencement of air operations was limited to an extent by the mountainous nature of the terrain over which the forces were operating. At this stage of operations, therefore, the direct support of British ground forces was limited.

Figure 2 — Map of the Khyber, from General Staff Branch, Army Headquarters, India, The Third Afghan War: Official Account (Calcutta: Government of India Central Publication Branch, 1926), p. 25.

Figure 2 — Map of the Khyber, from General Staff Branch, Army Headquarters, India, The Third Afghan War: Official Account (Calcutta: Government of India Central Publication Branch, 1926), p. 25.

On 9 May, however, No. 31 Squadron did achieve a notable success when they attacked Dakka, the advanced base for Afghan forces in this region. All available machines of No. 31 squadron were involved during the attacks on 9 May and these sixteen aircraft made as many sorties as possible during the day, attacking the Afghan forces at Dakka from morning until the late evening. During the attack on Dakka hits were achieved on government buildings and a number of Afghan officials were either killed or wounding. The attack at Dakka coincided with the distribution of supplies to tribesmen and, not only were Afghan supply efforts disrupted, the attacks also prompted the tribesmen to excuse themselves with large quantities of rifles and stores.[2] A total of 60 hours flying was achieved by the RAF this day, a ton and quarter of bombs were dropped and 1151 rounds fired in strafing attacks. [3] Three aircraft were brought down by rifle fire during the attacks, however, all crashed behind British lines. To place the effort achieved into perspective the hours flown and the rounds fired during the attack on Dakka were a little under a quarter of the total achieved by No. 31 Squadron during the period of 4 May to 17 May.[4]

Figure 3 — Aerial View of Mountainous Terrain on the North-West Frontier, 1929, RAF Museum Archive.

Figure 3 — Aerial View of Mountainous Terrain on the North-West Frontier, 1929, RAF Museum Archive.

The British advanced on, and took, Dakka on 13 May 1919. Dakka itself held no inherent strategic value, however, it provided a means to prevent the Pashtun tribes combining and offered a suitable site at which a large force could be concentrated. Dakka also offered terrain suitable for a landing ground for the RAF. Now operating from Dakka the aircraft of No. 31 Squadron were now able to reach the Afghan city of Jalabad. As such, they would have been able to cover the army’s planned advance on Jalabad — which was the main Afghan base in the east of the country and the only major town between the British and the Afghan capital Kabul. The British anticipated that such an advance would strike at any Afghan concentrations in the vicinity and further divide the tribes in the region as well as cutting them off from Afghan support, supplies and influence. The subsequent threat to Kabul an advance on Jalabad would have posed, would also have had the effect of compelling the Afghans to withdraw forces from the frontier in the Kurram Valley and Baluchistan theatres to provide a covering force for the capital.[5] The advance to Jalabad was delayed, however, because Afghan Army’s operations in the Kurram Valley forced the redeployment of the transports necessary for the British advance whilst subsequent Afghan Ceasefire halted any further advance in the Khyber.

Figure 4 — Aerial view of Kabul taken from Handley Page V/1500, J1936, Old Carthusian, during its bombing raid on 24 May 1919, © IWM (HU 74444).

Figure 4 — Aerial view of Kabul taken from Handley Page V/1500, J1936, Old Carthusian, during its bombing raid on 24 May 1919, © IWM (HU 74444).

Aircraft of No.31 Squadron had, however, remained active during this period and carried out bombing raids on the Jalalabad, on 17, 20 and 24 May. During these attacks No. 31 Squadron dropped, on average, over a ton of high explosives per day. Information received by the British suggested ‘the almost complete demoralisation of Afghan troops and tribesmen as a result of offensive action by aircraft.[6] Jalabad was reported as having been deserted by its populations and garrison whilst the whole town was described as having been ‘thoroughly punished’ with barracks at Fort Sale, the palace and the stables bombed.[7] The effects of the bombing of Jalabad were compounded by the bombing of Kabul, on 24 May, by a four-engined Handley Page V/1500 bomber. During this attack one 112 lb. and three 20 lb. bombs fell on buildings within the Amir’s palace with a further three 112 lb. and seven 20 lb. bombs hitting the arsenal and workshops at the fort, and the aircrew observed a large explosion from the latter.[8]

The underlying reason behind the Amir asking for a ceasefire when he still possessed extant forces in other theatres, and the Khyber itself remained far from a forced door, lay in a combination of factors. The attack on Kabul had contributed to the decision to seek a ceasefire — as had British success in the Khyber and the Afghan failure to produce large uprisings within British India. Significantly the long-range bombing of Jalabad and Kabul had convinced the Amir that the British not only has the capacity to inflict a total defeat upon his forces but that it was prepared to employ them if necessary.[9]Furthermore, the attacks encouraged disquiet and undercut the Amir’s prestige at a time when there remained factions in Afghanistan opposed to his rule.[10] The Amir himself laid great stress on the bombing of the Jalalabad and Kabul Royal Palaces when he asked for a ceasefire. General Sir Charles Monro, C-in-C (India), described these raid as ‘an important factor in producing a desire for peace at the headquarters of the Afghan Government’.[11]   The RAF bombing was therefore of great consequence in the Afghan decision to seek an early peace settlement rather than continue hostilities in the hope of embroiling British forces in a protracted campaign.

Although the Khyber was the main theatre for British offensive action against Afghanistan, both on the ground and in the air, the RAF also played an important role in the military operations in the Kurram Valley.

Figure 5 — Map of the Kurram Valley, from General Staff Branch, Army Headquarters, India, The Third Afghan War: Official Account (Calcutta: Government of India Central Publication Branch, 1926), p. 53.

Figure 5 — Map of the Kurram Valley, from General Staff Branch, Army Headquarters, India, The Third Afghan War: Official Account (Calcutta: Government of India Central Publication Branch, 1926), p. 53.

At the start of May, the Afghan regular forces in the Kurram theatre, under the command of General Nadir Khan, comprised sixteen battalions of infantry, two battalions of pioneers, four regiments of cavalry and over 50 guns. Against this sizable force the British commander, Brigadier-General Alexander Eustace, could immediately field four battalions of infantry, a regiment of cavalry, three armoured cars, a battery of mountain guns, and the local Kurram militia. Two weeks after British mobilisation a further three battalions had arrived to reinforce the forces at Kohat as had the 22nd Battery, Motor Machine Gun Service which was deployed forward to Parachinar.

The attack that Afghan forces launched through the Kurram Valley presented a significant threat to both the British position in both the province of Kurram and in the north of Waziristan. Unable to protect all the potential lines of advance the Afghan force could have taken through the Kurram Valley the British had decided to deploy close to a third of their available force forward, to Parachinar, in the Upper Kurram. Deploying forward to the Upper Kurram reduced the risk of a largescale tribal insurrection, however, it did risk this detachment being cut off from the main British forces by an Afghan advance from Khost.

At the start of May operations in the Kurram Valley consisted of a series of forward concentrations and feints by the Afghan forces. The Afghan strategy was designed to draw the British forces forward to the frontier — where too weak a force could be overwhelmed given the right tactical conditions — and then to withdraw themselves. This created an expected pattern of behaviour which lulled the British into a sense of security. The Afghan army therefore achieved almost total surprise when, on 22 May, it advanced down the route of the Kaitu river and continued onwards, reaching Spin Wam on 25 May. This route had not been considered a feasible route of advance for so large a force accompanied by artillery and the advance forced the British to evacuate positions in the west of Waziristan which in turn led to uprisings from the local tribes. The Afghan advance had, therefore, achieved considerable effect almost from the very outset. Furthermore, the Afghan force had still given no indication of their intended objective because it had taken a position from which it could continue south to Idak, south-east to Bannu, or turn northwards and threaten Thal, all of which were a march of around 20 miles from Spin Wam.

The aim of the Afghan thrust through the Kurram was finally revealed on the morning of 27 May, when Nadir Khan’s army of some 3,000 Afghan infantry, seven 7.5 cm. Krupp pack guns and two 10 cm Krupp field howitzers arrived at Thal and, supported by large tribal forces, besieged the fort.[12] The route of the Afghan advance had divided the British forces in the Upper and Lower Kurram and offered the possibility defeating the outnumbered and isolated garrison of Thal before British reinforcements could arrive. The Afghan artillery pieces outranged those of the two sections of British mountain guns and brought accurate and effective fire down on Thal from positions 3,500 yards and 5,000 yards from Thal.[13] Afghan infantry occupied Thal village whilst the irregular tribal forces accompanying the Afghan army crossed the Kurram river and took up positions on the hills overlooking Mohammedzai, 3,500 yards south of the fort, as well as the lower spurs of Khadimakh.

In response to the developing threat in the Kurram a flight of 8 machines from No. 31 Squadron had been redeployed to Kohat on 26 May.[14] The operations of these aircraft restricted the tribal support for the regular Afghan forces of Nadir Khan following his rapid march and besiegement of Thal. The climate of the North-West Frontier restricted the use of the squadrons BE2c aircraft for much of the day. The BE2c aircraft’s RAF1 air cooled V8 engine produced around 90 horsepower and this proved a significant limitation to operations on the North-West Frontier where the thinner air provided less lift for the aircraft than when operating in European conditions. To compensate for the lack of lift during take-off and initial climb the BE2c had to run its engine at full power whilst on the ground, however, when this was done the high ground temperatures of the North-West Frontier caused the BE2c engine to overheat. This became an increasing problem towards the end of May and beginning of June when the prevailing temperature across the North-West Frontier were considerably above normal.[15]  Despite this limitation three aircraft were engaged in operations in the morning and evening of 28 May, it ‘being of the utmost importance to shake the morale of the enemy’.[16] During the morning of 28 May, the two 10 cm field howitzers of the Afghan army had brought down a concentrated and accurate fire on Thal which had destroyed the petrol dump and fodder stack outside the fort, set fire to rations stored in the railway yard and hit the wireless station — putting it out of action for a time.[17] Two aircraft of No. 31 Squadron successfully bombed the Afghan gun emplacements and dispersed the crews of the Afghan artillery. The relief for the garrison was, however, only temporary and artillery fire on the fort was subsequently resumed. The attack by No. 31 Squadron on the Afghan artillery reveals one of the limitations of air support during the Third Afghan War; whilst aircraft could be effective when present, their limited loiter time — and the ability of local forces to rapidly disperse or conceal themselves and then resume their activities once the aircraft had left — meant this support often exerted only a temporary effect on the battlefield. The aircraft of No. 31 Squadron achieved a greater disruption to the Afghan forces when they identified and bombed the Afghan camps around Thal — with reconnaissance the next day reporting these camps were now abandoned. The limited influence of air support on the military situation was further demonstrated, however, when Afghan forces occupied the militia post on the north bank of the river Sangroba Nala, which controlled the water supply for Thal. Afghan artillery was also able to maintain a heavy fire Thal without meaningful interference by aircraft. Nonetheless, the RAF had contributed to the defence of Thal and No. 31 Squadron noted that ‘Wherever action was taken by aeroplanes the enemy dispersed, often abandoning guns and horses’.[18]

By the end of 31 May, a British relief column under General Reginald Dyer — infamous for his role in the Amritsar massacre in India which had occurred in April 1919 —  was in striking distance of Thal and had opened communications using the visual station at Fort Lockhart on the Samana Ridge. Arrangements were also made for aircraft to co-operate with the relief force’s final advance to Thal on 1 June which was successfully completed and followed up on 2 June with the Afghan forces compelled to make a rapid withdrawal from Thal. In these subsequent attacks No. 31 Squadron supported the right flank of the advancing British forces and four aircraft successfully co-operated with ground force by bombing and strafing a concentration of 400 tribesmen on the northern slopes of Khadimakh. The British army halted its advance to consolidate its position, however, the RAF continued operations and a reconnaissance flight discovered that the Afghan headquarters had withdrawn a short distance to the west to a location in the foothills.[19] Following these operations General Dyer sent a letter of appreciation to No. 31 Squadron which praised their effort and noted that ‘but for the excellent  information which you gave, and your accurate shooting and bombing, my task would have been infinitely harder’.[20]

After the ceasefire was agreed Afghan forces in the Upper Kurram region continued to be strengthened and hostile tribesmen remained active. The RAF flew reconnaissance missions in support of British forces and outposts during this period. These outposts overlooked potential Afghan routes of advance and helped prevent tribal forces concentrating in strength. To maintain these outposts supplies were brought up by convoys and these represented vulnerable targets which hostile tribal forces looked to attack. The RAF, now strengthened by the arrival of additional squadrons such as No. 20 Squadron, equipped with the more modern and powerful Bristol F2b aircraft, provided armed reconnaissance over these convoys.  On 30 July, during one of these armed reconnaissance’s over a convoy to the forward outposts, ground fire from tribesmen brought an aircraft of No. 20 Squadron down near Badama post.

Figure 6 — Bristol F.2b of 20 Squadron taking-off from Parachinar, 1920, RAF Museum Archive.

Figure 6 — Bristol F.2b of 20 Squadron taking-off from Parachinar, 1920, RAF Museum Archive.

Figure 7 — Silk Panel, Ornamental Squadron Badge of No. 20 Squadron, c.1920s, RAF Museum Archive

Figure 7 — Silk Panel, Ornamental Squadron Badge of No. 20 Squadron, c.1920s, RAF Museum Archive.

The loss of the BF2b of No. 20 Squadron demonstrates some of the strengths and limitations of air power in the North-West Frontier. The British had received reports that a large body of tribesmen were collecting in the Khurmana Valley to raid the Kurram, and to attack the outposts at Badama and Sadda. Reinforcements of regular troops were sent to Sadda, whilst four aeroplanes of No. 20 Squadron flew armed reconnaissance sorties along the convoy route and over the Khurmana to identify concentrations of tribesmen. Equipped with bombs and machine-guns the aircraft possessed the means to attack any tribal concentrations they observed. This mission therefore demonstrated the ability of air power to see over the hill, project power at distance, as well as providing reconnaissance for ground forces, and if necessary close support, to prevent them being ambushed. On their way back from the Khurmana Valley the last of the four aircraft was shot down by tribesmen concealed on hills adjacent to Badama. The ability of tribesmen to conceal themselves reduced air power’s ability to locate enemies which might threaten friendly forces. Aircraft frequently had to descend to lower heights to counter enemy forces, even when present in numbers, concealing themselves by simply remaining still and hiding amidst the broken terrain and patches of shade. Operating at lower heights, however, the aircraft were vulnerable to the rifle fire of the tribesmen many of whom were excellent marksmen. The loss of the aircraft at Badama post, therefore, reveals both the vulnerability of aircraft to ground fire and the limits of air observation over terrain within which tribesmen could evade detection.

 

Military operations in Baluchistan followed a distinctly different pattern to those in either the Khyber Pass or Kurram Valley theatres. Within Baluchistan, the Afghans could not supplement their forces with local tribesmen hostile to the British without a successful offensive. Furthermore, a successful Afghan invasion offered few strategic benefits, as Baluchistan was largely isolated from British India, and the number of invasion routes into the region were limited. The events which occurred within the southern theatre were largely divided between the capture of Spin Baldak — which will be described first — and operations in the Zhob territory of northern Baluchistan.

The British, having concentrated the forces they had available in the southern theatre, decided to make a disrupting attack on the Afghan forces rather than let the Afghans take the initiative. Such a forward strategy carried the hope that not only would an Afghan invasion be seriously disrupted but also that the tribes in the region — who the Afghans were seeking to incite — would be dissuaded from creating unrest in areas the British had withdrawn forces from. By utilising the rail network in India, the British were able to concentrate an attacking force at Chaman, and strike for the Afghan fort of Spin Baldak, before the garrison could be reinforced. Spin Baldak itself guarded the road an Afghan invasion of Baluchistan, through Chaman and the Khojak Pass, would have to pass and was reputed to be the second strongest fort in Afghanistan.

In the early morning of 27 May, British forces departed Chaman, advanced on Spin Baldak and, by the end of the day, captured the fort. Aerial reconnaissance helped in the build up to the attack on Spin Baldak, identifying positions for the guns to be located and reconnoitring the road from Chaman, as well as being employed to monitor Afghan distributions along the frontier.[21] During the attack itself, aircraft of No. 114 Squadron successfully co-operated with infantry and artillery. The bombardment and strafing of Spin Baldak which No. 114 Squadron conducted, however, appears to have achieved little effect.

The loss of Spin Baldak was a serious blow to Afghan prestige and they concentrated a force of considerable size at Khandar and advanced to Mel Karex, some 32 miles from the British railhead at Chaman, at the start of June despite a ceasefire having been agreed. The Afghan force, which now numbered some 12,000 men occupied positions around Spin Baldak including Murgha Chaman which gave them possession of the garrison’s water supply. Amid a fear that the Afghan’s might resume hostilities in the theatre the British positions was reinforced and by the time the peace treaty with Afghanistan was finally signed, and British troops withdrawn, the operations at Spin Baldak had diverted some 20,000 men and, as importantly, large numbers supply transports all of which the British could have employed elsewhere with greater results. Moreover, the decision to withdraw forces from the Zhob, for operations in Baluchistan, had left this region unguarded and vulnerable.

Figure 8 — Map of the Zhob Territory, from General Staff Branch, Army Headquarters, India, The Third Afghan War: Official Account (Calcutta: Government of India Central Publication Branch, 1926), p. 109.

Figure 8 — Map of the Zhob Territory, from General Staff Branch, Army Headquarters, India, The Third Afghan War: Official Account (Calcutta: Government of India Central Publication Branch, 1926), p. 109.

The Zhob territory, located to the north-east of Quetta, was a hot, arid and largely barren desert terrain interspersed with the occasional hill and where mountain ranges formed natural boundaries. The principle waterway, the eponymous Zhob River, runs west to east intersecting the territory before heading north-east, where it feeds into the Gomal River. The Gomal River in turn forms the boundary between the Zhob and Waziristan; when large scale tribal uprisings occurred in Waziristan in late May it spread into the Zhob and rapidly dissipated British control of the territory. The lack of aerial reconnaissance was acutely felt and the British lacked timely intelligence as to the movement and concentration of tribal forces. Indeed, much of the success that tribesmen operating in the Zhob achieved was a consequence of the general lack of intelligence the British possessed as to the size and location of the forces facing them.

On 27 July, the isolated garrison at Fort Sandeman in the north-east of the Zhob, which had been the focal point for much of the trouble the tribes had perpetrated during June and early July, was was besieged by large numbers of tribesmen.[22] The siege of Fort Sandeman was characterised by a lack of organisation and co-operation between the different tribal forces involved. The tribesmen did succeed in capturing 85 horses and 12 mules on the first day of the siege, however, no determined attacks were subsequently pressed home against the fort. The siege had not presented a serious threat to the garrison; however, the failure of the siege was expedited by a bombing raid on the tribal camp, on 3 August, by an aircraft of No. 114 Squadron and its return the subsequent day. Disorganised and disheartened by the effects of the air attack — and this manifest demonstration of British support for the garrison — the tribal forces dispersed.

Further west, a force of hostile tribesmen and militia deserters had threatened Hindubagh towards the end of July and had inflicted a sharp loss on the garrison when it had attempted to drive them off. An aircraft from No. 114 Squadron bombed and drove off a small tribal party which had approached within a kilometre of Hindubagh. The absence of further air support, however, encouraged the tribal forces at Hindubagh to approach again and they brought the post under fire, which continued at irregular intervals and caused some destruction within the town. It was only when reinforcements from Quetta arrived, on 28 July, that tribal forces around Hindubagh were driven off. Following the relief of Hindubagh and Fort Sandeman serious fighting in the Zhob ceased. The British faced some fighting to supress small incidents of trouble in the Zhob, however, none of the operations of the Zhob were on the scale faced in the preceding months. Trouble continued in Waziristan and it would take a separate campaign before the situation was stabilised. Trouble with tribes also continued in the Khyber until the peace treaty, the Treaty of Rawalpindi, was finally agreed and the Third Afghan War was official concluded.

For the RAF, the Third Afghan War had shown what air power could, and could not, achieve when aircraft were available. The greatest limitation the RAF had faced was the limited number of aircraft it could call on at the outset of hostilities. If the inevitable limitations this placed on the RAF’s cooperation with ground forces are recognised then it is possible to identify the Third Afghan War as an important point in the RAF’s history. The long-range bombing of Dakka, Jalabad and Kabul had helped operations on the ground and motivated the Amir to seek terms to bring the war to a close. The extent to which British aircraft had had an important impact on the Afghan morale is further demonstrated by the authorities at Kabul producing four aircraft dummies and circulating rumours of their arrival to attack British troops.[23] Bombing and strafing attacks on tribesmen in the Khyber Pass also had an effect during the period after the ceasefire was agreed and British military operations restrained to prevent hostilities resuming. As well as long range bombing and attacks on tribal concentrations air observations provided numerous reports on hostile concentrations and movements which strengthened the British understanding of the strategic situation they faced.[24] Operating in Afghanistan had, however, revealed important limitations as to what the RAF could accomplish, particularly when operating with the BE2c. Once accustomed to aircraft operations tribesmen on the North-West Frontier proved adept at concealing themselves within the broken terrain. RAF aircraft on recognisance missions were often forced to descend to low heights in their attempts to observe hostile forces. At these heights, however, they often found themselves vulnerable to ground fire.

Nevertheless, the situation which developed as a result of a lack of aerial reconnaissance in the Zhob, or during the early stages of the Kurram valley when Nadir Khan’s army made its surprise march, demonstrate the value of air observations when it was available. Elsewhere in Baluchistan, for instance, aerial reconnaissance was able to provide reports on attacks during June by small band of hostile tribesmen against places such as Musa Khel as well as monitor the progress of the infantry relief columns for such places.[25] The reconnaissance that the RAF did provide was often over British picquet positions, or ahead of advancing forces, and prevented the Afghans from launching surprise attacks. Measuring the impact that the RAF had in deterring Afghan attacks is not possible, however, it was this form of air reconnaissance that the RAF developed during the Inter War period. Basil Embry, who was Commanded No. 20 Squadron during the 1930s, recorded that to support ground forces an aircraft would be kept above the picquet during daylight to keep them under general surveillance and to provide assistance as required.[26] The Third Afghan War provided the first chance to develop these tactics whilst the BF2b, which formed the mainstay of the RAF interwar force on the North-West frontier, had also arrived by the time the Peace Treaty of Rawalpindi was signed.



[1] TNA: CAB 24/81/2 — From Viceroy to Secretary of State for India, 3 Jun. 1919.
[2] TNA: CAB 24/79/81 — From Viceroy, 18 May 1919; Brian Robson, Crisis on the Frontier: The Third Afghan War and the Campaign in Waziristan, 1919–1920, p. 48.
[3] RAFM: AC 73/23/33 — Air Staff, Royal Air Force India, Resume of Air Operations: May 1919, p. 26.
[4] The History of No. 31 Squadron Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force in the East from its Formation in 1915 to 1950 (Published Privately, n.d.), p. 23.
[5] TNA: CAB 24/80/43 — From Viceroy to Secretary of State for India, 23 May 1919.
[6] RAFM: AC 73/23/33 — Air Staff, May 1919, p. 28.
[7] RAFM: AC 73/23/33 — Air Staff, May 1919, p. 28.
[8] TNA: CAB 24/80/59 — From Viceroy to Secretary of State for India, 25 May 1919; RAFM: AC 73/23/33 — Air Staff, May 1919, p. 28.
[9] TNA: Cab 24/82/74 — From Viceroy to Secretary of State for India, 26 Jun. 1920.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Sir Charles Monro, C-in-C India, ‘An Account of the Recent Operations Against Afghanistan’, The London Gazette, Supplement II, No. 31823, 12 March 1920, p. 3277.
[12] General Staff Branch, Army Headquarters, India, The Third Afghan War: Official Account (Calcutta: Government of India Central Publication Branch, 1926), p. 55.
[13] General Staff Branch, The Third Afghan War, p. 57.
[14] RAFM: AC 73/23/33 — Air Staff, May 1919, p. 28.
[15] TNA: CAB 24/81/36 — From Viceroy to Secretary of State for India, 5 Jun. 1919.
[16] RAFM: AC 73/23/33 — Air Staff, May 1919, p. 28.
[17] General Staff Branch, The Third Afghan War, p. 57.
[18] RAFM: AC 73/23/33 — Air Staff, May 1919, p. 29.
[19] RAFM: AC 73/23/33 — Air Staff, May 1919, p. 28; General Staff Branch, The Third Afghan War, p. 57.
[20] TNA: AIR 5/1329, GOC 45th Infantry Brigade, Letter from Commander Field Force, Thal, to OC RAF Detachment, Kohat, 3 June 1919
[21] RAFM: AC 73/23/33 — Air Staff, Royal Air Force India Resume of Air Operations: 18 May – 31 May 1919, Appendix D: Daily Detail of Operations Carried Out by Machines of No. 114 Squadron Engaged in Operations Against Afghanistan, 18 May – 31 May 1919, p. 57.
[22] General Staff Branch, The Third Afghan War, p. 127.
[23] Flight, 10 Jul. 1919, p. 926.
[24] TNA: CAB 24/80/7 — from Viceroy to Secretary of State for India, 20 May 1919; TNA: CAB 24/80/42 — from Viceroy to Secretary of State for India, 23 May 1919; TNA: CAB 24/80/10 — from Viceroy to Secretary of State for India, 20 May 1919.
[25] TNA: CAB 24/81/76 — from Viceroy, foreign department, 13 Jun. 1919.
[26] Sir B. Embry, Mission Complete (London: Four Square, 1958), p. 80.

Harry Raffal, Historian
About the Author

Harry Raffal, Historian

Harry is the Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum having recently completed his PhD thesis on the RAF and Luftwaffe during Operation DYNAMO, the evacuation of the Dunkirk in 1940 (University of Hull). Harry has previously published research on the online development of the Ministry of Defence and British Armed Forces and presented papers at a number of conferences and events including the RAF Museums Trenchard lecture series

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