RAF Centenary: 100 years of barbarism

‘I trust that this pamphlet will help the reader to understand the fundamental economic question, that of the economic essence of imperialism, for unless this is studied, it will be impossible to understand and appraise modern war and modern politics.’ Lenin, preface to Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, 1917.

1 April 2018 marks 100 years since the creation of the Royal Air Force (RAF). 100 years of butchery. 100 years of terrorism. A legacy which reverberates throughout the world today.

While the British ruling class and its supporters are rallying the population to commemorate the role of British military air power, the Revolutionary Communist Group remembers the lives lost; the sovereignty scorned; the communists slaughtered and the national liberation struggles defeated by the most foul and depraved crime to ever have been unleashed against the working class and oppressed of the world. It was and continues to be an affront to democracy, peace, justice and freedom. The formation of the RAF on 1st April 1918 was a necessary step for British imperialism to defend its global position and further develop an imperialist colonialism in the face of increasing resistance from the oppressed.

It came into existence at a time when the world’s territories had been seized and divided between the major capitalist powers and when capitalism had entered its imperialist stage: the stage of finance capital. As Lenin stated about this epoch:

‘Even the capitalist colonial policy of previous stages of capitalism is essentially different from the colonial policy of finance capital. The principal feature of the latest stage of capitalism is the domination of monopolist associations of big employers. These monopolies are most firmly established when all the sources of raw materials are captured by one group…The more capitalism is developed, the more strongly the shortage of raw materials is felt, the more intense the competition and the hunt for sources of raw materials throughout the whole world, the more desperate the struggle for the acquisition of colonies.’

Up until the end of the Second World War, Britain remained the dominant global capitalist power. In the early 1900s, the expansion of German capital threatened British supremacy and territory. It was this rivalry that led to the first imperialist world war. Britain had to defend its empire to defend its economic dominance overseas. The war introduced air warfare on a mass scale, heralding the age of mass slaughter and naked savagery needed to fulfil the Sykes-Picot Agreement and Balfour Declaration – carving up the spoils of the Ottoman Empire and collectively punishing the people of the Middle East for a century.

As we have previously written:

‘The world had already been partitioned, there were no new outlets for profitable investment etc, so it now had to be repartitioned according to the economic power of the major capitalist states. And how else could the matter be decided except by military conflict?’

Up for grabs was (and still is) Iraq’s oil. The Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC) a forerunner of British Petroleum (BP) was a British company formed in 1912 to get concessions from the Ottoman Empire to explore oil in Iraq. Britain was given concessions to begin exploring Mosul before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The rising demand for oil during the first world war showed the imperialist powers that they needed their own source of oil. The initial Sykes-Picot agreement gave Mosul, the northern part of Iraq, to France. However, this was reversed by the British when they suspected there would be large reserves of oil in the region. Iraq was under British control 1920-1932. The TPC struck oil on 14th October 1927 just north of Kirkuk. It was the largest oil field in the world. Iraqis demanded a 20% share in the company – they got 0%. In 1929 it was renamed the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC). In 1931 the IPC got a 70-year contract on a larger area of land: 83,200km2. Two pipelines were built in 1934 each with a capacity of 2 million tons of oil per year. These huge assets ensure Britain remains entrenched in Iraq. On 23rd January 2003, British government officials called a meeting with BP to discuss the future of Iraq’s energy sector – 2 months before the 2003 war against Iraq. BP was the first major international oil company to re-commence the theft of Iraqi oil in 2009 at the end of that war. One million dead; the prize for the British government and BP was winning a contract for an oil field with 20 billion barrels of oil. BP now has a new deal with the Iraqi government to increase output in Kirkuk. It currently has an output of 150,000 barrels a day. The Iraqi oil ministry wants this to be increased to 750,000 barrels a day. Kirkuk is in Iraqi Kurdistan and was retaken by the Iraqi military in October 2017 after the failed Kurdish independence attempt. The oil deal was made on 18th January 2018, a matter of months after the Kurdistan Regional Government in North Iraq had been pushed back.

Origins of the RAF

The Corps of Royal Engineers claims 900 years of unbroken service to the Crown. In 1862 two Royal Engineers officers witnessed balloons used in the American Civil War. A unit of Royal Engineers, known as the Ballooning School was established in 1888 as a training and test centre for British army experiments with balloons and aircraft. The War Office issued instructions for it to be expanded into a battalion, and so on 1st April 1911 it became the Air Battalion of Royal Engineers. In October 1911, Italy used aircraft in combat against the Ottoman Empire in Tripoli, Libya. A committee of the British Imperial Defence Staff recommended the creation of a separate flying corps. On 13th April 1912, the Royal Flying Corps was created, the Air Battalion was incorporated as its military wing a month later. It had separate branches for the army and navy. The Royal Navy kept control over its aircraft and so formally separated its branch of the RFC, becoming the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) on 1st July 1914. This made it difficult for the RFC to carry out operations.

Jan Smuts, a former South African General and prime minister of the Union of South Africa, presented the Smuts Report on 17 August 1917, to the British War Council on the future of air power. Smuts, a racist and Zionist who had served with Winston Churchill in WW1, recommended that because of its potential for the 'devastation of enemy lands and the destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale', a new air service should be formed that would be on a level with the Army and Royal Navy, stating, 'There is absolutely no limit to the scale of its future independent war use.' As a result of the report, parliament passed the Air Force (Constitution) Act 1917, which was given Royal Assent by King George V on the 29 November 1917 and on 1 April 1918, the RFC and the RNAS were amalgamated to form a new service, the Royal Air Force. In 1914 Britain had some 2,073 air service personnel, by the start of 1919 the RAF had 4,000 combat aircraft and 114,000 personnel in 150 squadrons. The biggest, most powerful and first independent air force on the planet was brought into existence.

Smuts was instrumental in the formation of the RAF. A statue of this warmonger was unveiled in Parliament Square in London in 1956. Clement Atlee, so called socialist leader of the Labour Party 1935-55, was on the advisory committee which appointed the sculptor of the statue and he gave the work his approval. Smuts was memorialised for his ‘outstanding service to the British Commonwealth as a whole’. Atlee oversaw the RAF’s bombardments against the communists and trade unionists of Greece (1946-49 Greek Civil War), Indonesia (1945-49 Indonesian National Revolution), Vietnam (1945-46 War in Vietnam), Malaya (1948-60 Malayan Emergency) and Korea (1950-53 Korean War).

The RAF has had 339 former overseas stations, airfields and administrative headquarters in 60 countries, including 23 in the north of Ireland. That’s not including the 250 airfields the Royal Flying Corps, Royal Naval Air Service and RAF used in France during the First World War.

This huge scale and reach of the RAF was needed to defend and police Britain’s vast colonial possessions, putting down resistance on a scale never seen before in an attempt to defeat the communist and anti-colonial struggles that dogged every corner of its empire, not least in its new territories of Iraq, Kurdistan, Jordan and Palestine.

As a war diary in April 1919 plainly stated, ‘No sooner has one area been subdued than another breaks out in revolt and has to be dealt with by aeroplane…all these tribal disturbances have been dealt with from the air… thus the Army has been saved from marching many weary miles over bad country and sustaining casualties.’

The RAF was put in charge of the operation of these wars against the working class because their superiority in the air meant the British state was able to carry out more than one major offensive at a time. They form part of Britain’s hidden wars, many of which paved the way for how wars are fought today.

However, it was not just the threat from within the oppressed nations or from other capitalist powers that the RAF flew against: the Russian revolution gave birth to socialism and the biggest threat to British capital.

Allied intervention in Soviet Russia began in early 1918 during the Russian Civil War. In a matter of months after the end of the First World War, and what was to be one of its first bombing missions outside of the war, the RAF flew against the Bolsheviks. In one ambush, four Sopwith Camels of Number 47 Squadron bombed a detachment of Bolshevik cavalry. In the service of White terror, the RAF helped slaughter 1,600 Bolsheviks that day. They carried out various other bombardments, including bombing train stations and a building where the local Soviet had just convened, killing all but 2 of the 41 socialists who were there.

On 27 August 1919, the RAF began using chemical weapons against Bolshevik soldiers and villages. 50,000 M Devices (an exploding shell containing poison gas) had been shipped to Russia with the aim of destroying the first socialist country on the planet. Head of chemical warfare production Sir Keith Price stated, ‘If you got home only once with the gas you would find no more Bolshies this side of Vologda.’

In 1920 the newly established RAF took the lead in what is known as the fifth expedition of Somaliland (a British protectorate and part of Somalia). It ended 20 years of Somali resistance to British rule and at a cost of £77,000 was described as the cheapest war in history; confirming for British imperialism the way forward. The battle established the tactics of aerial bombardment followed by attacks by ground forces, and of using aircraft to provide support for ground troops during simultaneous attacks. These tactics are among the primary methods of wartime operations to this day.

1920 also saw the Great Iraqi Revolution against British rule. The RAF flew missions totalling 4,008 hours, dropped 97 tons of bombs and fired 183,861 rounds. 6-10,000 Iraqis were murdered.

The following year in March 1921 at the Cairo Conference, Winston Churchill, who was by then Colonial Secretary, decided that all British forces in Iraq would be put under control of the RAF. The intention was to apply the model of imperial air control which had worked in Somaliland to a much larger region which was also fighting back against British rule.

The first Labour Government used the RAF to bomb and gas Kurdish people in Iraq. After an attack in 1924, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, who was to become Marshall of the RAF – its highest rank, stated that, ‘The Arab and the Kurd now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage. They know that within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured.’ 

No other country has faced the same level of sustained barbarity as Iraq – its soils have been blood soaked for 100 years, bombed in wars led by the RAF in seven out of the last ten decades: 1919, 1920, 1930-32, 1941, 1990-91, 1998, 2003-2009 and 2014-present.

The 1936-39 Palestinian independence struggle against British rule and the creation of an Israeli state was met by hellfire. Harris stated that, ‘one 250 lb. or 500 lb. bomb in each village that speaks out of turn’ would end the revolt. Bombing attacks on Arab villages were carried out by the RAF, at times razing whole villages. He led more of the same against the people of Dresden in the Second World War. After the first mass air raid on Hamburg he made it clear that there is no such as a stray or accidental bomb: 

‘The aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive…should be unambiguously stated: the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers and the disruption of civilized life throughout Germany….the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle-fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of our attempts to hit factories.’

These tactics are still used today.

The RAF were also used in the 1919-21 Irish War of Independence, 1919 Third Anglo-Afghan war, 1952-64 Mau, Mau uprising, 1954-59 Jebel Akhdar War in Oman, 1956 Suez Crisis, 1963-66 Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation, 1962-76 Dhofar Rebellion – Oman, 1963-67 Aden Emergency – Yemen, 1982 Malvinas, 1991-2002 Sierra Leonne Civil War, 1998-99 Kosovo War, 2001-2014 Afghanistan, 2011 Libya and 2015-present Syria.

Leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn is no ally of the people of Iraq or Syria. On 2nd June 2017 he stated that the Labour Party, ‘will invest properly in our police service, we will invest properly in our armed services. The numbers in the armed services have gone down, the Navy are crying out for more ships, the Air Force are crying out for more surveillance aircraft. We would fund them properly to achieve all of that.’

Just like its predecessors, the terror of the RAF and British imperialism will be administered and directed by any future Labour government, not fought back.

Instead, we look to the heroic resistance of the people of the Middle East who face the bombs of imperialism. As we write, we speak out against the RAF’s bombs falling on the people of Iraq and Syria. We salute the Kurdish freedom fighters who are waging war against the proxies of Britain, the US and Russia. Every victory for them deals a blow to imperialism. Their struggle needs to be linked up with an anti-war movement in Britain. Nothing less will be needed to stop the bombs falling and win peace in the Middle East.

Turkish fighter jets have recently been bombing the Kurdish people of Afrin in northern Syria. Since August 2014 Britain has licensed £415m worth of arms sales to Turkey and it maintains political and military collaboration, refusing to condemn the attacks. As we wrote in January:

‘When the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) liberated Kobane in February 2015 from the Islamic State (IS) after 134 days of resistance we said that they had achieved a pinnacle of resistance and that new peaks would arise. We salute them. All socialists and communists around the world salute the resistance in Afrin. The Kurdish people and their allies in battle are on the front line in the fight for the future of humanity. Their victory, when it comes, will change the Middle East forever and begin to end the suffering of its people under imperialism and its accomplices.’

End Britain’s wars abroad! Solidarity with 100 years of resistance to British imperialism!

Mark Moncada


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