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  • Bombing the Savages
  • Sven Lindqvist (bio)

In Jules Verne’s Robur the Conqueror (1886), there is an illustration of an airship gliding majestically over Paris. Dazzling searchlights shine on the waters of the Seine, over the quays, bridges, and facades. People gaze up into the sky, astonished at the unusual sight, but unafraid.

In the next illustration, the airship floats majestically over Africa. But now it is not there to illuminate. With the natural authority of the civilized among savages, the ship’s weapons rain death and destruction upon a group of black criminals who scream in terror as they try to escape.

Pilot as policeman, bomb as baton—R. P. Hearne expanded on this notion in his 1910 treatise, Airships in Peace and War. Punitive ground expeditions are costly and time consuming. But punishment can be carried out quickly and cheaply from the air.

“In savage lands the moral effect of such an instrument of war is impossible to conceive,” writes Hearne. “The appearance of the airship would strike terror into the tribes.” Hence, one could avoid “the awful waste of life occasioned to white troops by expeditionary work.” The air force could simply patrol the land the way the navy patrols the sea. Bombers could mete out a “sharp, severe, and terrible punishment,” which would nevertheless be more humane than a traditional punitive expedition. The bombs would affect only the lawbreakers, leaving the innocent unharmed.

This was pure fantasy, of course. When the French sent six planes to perform “police actions” in Morocco in 1912, the pilots chose large targets—villages, markets, grazing herds. Otherwise, their bombs would miss. And when the Spaniards began bombing “their” part of Morocco the following year, they used German cartouche bombs, filled with explosives and steel balls—bombs made to kill as many living targets as possible. [End Page 48]

The First World War was fought on the ground. In 1917, the British lost 324,000 soldiers on the Western front in four months. During that same period London suffered only two air attacks, which left 216 dead. The total number of British killed by air attack during the war was 1,400—a fraction of the death toll for a single day on the Western front. When the war was over, Great Britain had the world’s only independent air force and a fleet of 3,300 planes, which had played an almost negligible role in the war. Now the entire military was to be reduced to peacetime levels. Each branch of service would have to prove its indispensability; the army and the navy both agreed that the air force ought to be disbanded. Winston Churchill was assigned the task of wielding the axe for the government. The commander-in-chief of the air force, Hugh (Montague) Trenchard, bet the future of his division on one man: Mohammed Abdille Hassan, the Mad Mullah of Somaliland.

Hassan had long been a thorn in the British lion’s paw. Countless punitive expeditions had failed to subdue him. Now the general staff was planning an offensive that would engage two divisions for twelve months. Roads, railways, and military bases would have to be built—at no small cost—to occupy the country.

Trenchard, however, proposed to take the Mad Mullah out from the air, with twelve airplanes and no more than 250 men. And so Squadron 221 was sent to Somaliland.

Hassan had never seen an airplane, much less a bomb. When he heard of Trenchard’s plans, he did what he usually did when unexpected visitors dropped by: he dressed in his finest clothes and gathered his most respected counselors in front of his house beneath the white canopy he used on ceremonial occasions. There he awaited the arrival of the foreign emissaries.

The first bomb almost put an end to the war. It killed Hassan’s counselors and singed his clothes. The next bombardment killed his sister. Then, for two days, the British bombers attacked him and his family as they fled through the desert. A few days later, Hassan was forced to surrender.

Total time required: one week. Total cost: £77,000. Churchill was delighted. He persuaded the government to retain...

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