“Exile” – Between The Wars – 1920-1939
No 8 Squadron is Posted Overseas
|Dala Fort in the Aden Protectorate
Under attack from 8 Sqn Fairey IIIFs 7th July 1928
Policing the Middle East became 8 Sqn’s role for nearly 50 years
Squadron Tradition tells of a story of Drunken Indignation, Wounded Pride and Vindictive Revenge:
Apparently, Lord Trenchard, the “Father of the Royal Air Force” was guest of honour at an 8 Squadron “Dining in Night” (formal dinner) at the end of the Great War. He used the occasion to expound his theory that the days of the fighter and ground attack aircraft were ended and, if he had his way, the only future was with the strategic bomber. “The Bomber Will Always Get Through!”
8 Sqn had suffered serious losses as a reconnaissance/ground attack unit during the war and took great exception to this line of argument and a great deal of drunken heckling of this very distinguished senior officer took place.
The result of this unfortunate incident was that 8 Squadron was swiftly posted to the Middle East, with the instruction that it would never again serve at home.
The outcome of Trenchard’s revenge was that 8 Sqn did not serve within the United Kingdom until 1972, and even then the location was Kinloss (shortly followed by Lossiemouth) in the far north of Scotland. It was not until 1991 when 8 Squadron was finally forgiven and returned home to England and RAF Waddington, where it received the Sentry AEW.
8 Squadron In Iraq
After the Great War the allied powers wanted revenge: the Axis powers had to be punished for the suffering caused in the previous 4 years. At the Versailles Treaty in 1919, the borders of the vanquished countries were changed: arbitrary borders were re-drawn on the map – often based on a line of latitude and longitude or a convenient river – no account was taken of the ethnic origin of the people who lived in these areas.
The shifting of populations into these new countries caused massive unrest (which is still felt today). Areas of East Prussia were ceded to Poland – Danzig became a League of Nations city – the Rheinland of Germany was given to France and the Sudetenland was annexed to the Czech republic. (This shift in population was one of the causes of WWII.) Greater Serbia was taken from the now broken Austrian-Hungarian Empire and the State of Yugoslavia was formed, throwing together Slav and Muslim communities. (No 8 Sqn was until recently involved in operations to pacify this region). However, most important to 8 Sqn at the time was the break up of the Turkish Empire.
Great Britain had always considered the Middle East as important to its sphere of influence. During the Great War, British and Empire troops had organised an Arab rebellion in Syria and Mesopotamia against the Turkish overlords. Lawrence of Arabia, amongst others, had succeeded in clearing many of these areas and British armoured cars had caused havoc in the vast areas of wilderness. Now Turkey was defeated and the Allies carved up the Middle East between them. The nation of Kurdistan disappeared from the map – the Kurdish people being shared amongst Mesopotamia (Iraq), Persia (Iran) and Turkey. Britain was left to administrate this huge oil rich area and to attempt to keep the peace in this maelstrom of warring tribes.
The British administration needed a mechanism to patrol this huge wilderness area. Armoured car detachments were freely available but the difficulty of terrain and the provision of supplies along hostile routes proved difficult to achieve. What was needed was a highly mobile method of policing the desert strongholds of the belligerent tribesmen, and the answer was found by the use of air power. If a village rebelled then that village was bombed – the methodology was as simple as that.
Lord Trenchard (as tradition goes) was looking for a Squadron to be posted to Iraq to carry out this new method of aerial policing – who better than the Squadron who had recently upset him at a dining in night. So, No 8 Squadron departed for the Middle East in 1920.
|Starting a dH 9A
The aircraft chosen for 8 Sqn was the de Havilland dH9A, or “Ninak” as it was affectionately known. Rugged and reliable (for its day) the Ninak had a more powerful engine than its WWI predecessor the dH9 (which co-incidentally served at Waddington during the Great War) and carried a greater bomb load: it was ideally suited for its tasks. Visibility was good, and range and endurance was also satisfactory for its tasks.
On 18th October, No 8 Sqn reformed in Helwan in Egypt, moving to Suez on the 11th December that year. Facilities were finally in place in Iraq and the Sqn moved to Basra on 23rd February 1921. No 8 Sqn remained in Iraq for 6 years and successfully evolved its policing tactics with the trusty Ninak.
Operations In Iraq
The early inter-war years were a happy and memorable time for the Squadron: and the air control of Iraq provided many colourful episodes. Standard flying kit appears to have been khaki drill and topee helmets, the same as worn on the ground. The dH9a’s were biplanes which carried, in addition to the pilot, an air gunner just behind him in another open cockpit. Navigation at slow speed over hundreds of miles of open desert provided many problems; and of course the aircraft were by no means reliable by today’s standards. Forced landings in the desert were a very real danger, not only because of the terrain, but because touregs could find the crews before they could be rescued.
Stories of 8 Squadron from Iraq
Operations in Kirkuk.
July 1922 found the Squadron detached to Kirkuk for operations. Kirkuk is in the plain just south of the Kurdish foothills, and at that time there was nothing on the airstrip except a marquee. There was an officers’ mess in the town a mile away, but the aircrew slept under their aircraft to be ready for first light. The aim of operations was to stop the Turkish infiltration, through Mosul, south eastwards to all Kurdistan. The actual numbers of Turks was small, and a report that even five or six with a NCO were in a village was enough reason to bomb the village. The Turks had a fair measure of success, and aided by considerable incompetence on our part on the ground they were able, with the help of the Kurdish tribesmen, to turn us out of Kurdistan by the middle of September 1922.
The operations usually involved bombing villages, after which the gunner would fire on any suitable targets that presented themselves. Occasionally the Turks would reply with machine gun fire and this could be quite a hazard to these vulnerable aircraft.
On 1st September the Squadron was called out to give close support to the ground forces which had been guarding a mountain pass some forty miles from Kirkuk. They had been constantly attacked and were retreating across a wide plain to the next range of hills. As they retreated they were being harried by Kurdish horsemen and suffering badly. They had lost two guns and between twenty – thirty thousand rupees. At one time they had resorted to a bayonet charge to keep the intruders at bay. The aircraft were sent off across the plain and the Kurdish horsemen made an ideal target for the gunners.
The Evacuation of Sumiemania.
|Three 8 Sqn dH9As Over Iraq – 1924|
On 5th September, the situation had deteriorated, and the Squadron took part in what was probably the first ever air evacuation. The Turkish infiltration had, by this time, gone so far that Sumiemania, the principal town of Kurdistan, had to be evacuated. Because of the distances involved, and a shortage of troops, an overland evacuation would have been a disaster. All available dH9a’s were flown into Kirkuk and next day they flew a shuttle service into Sumiemania. Aided by two Vickers Vernons, the evacuation was complete by mid-day. Some seventy people had been up-lifted to safety by the overloaded aircraft.
An 8 Squadron DFC
In November and December 1923, most of the RAF Squadrons, including 8, went south again for operations against some marsh tribes in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It was here that Pilot Officer Vincent won the first Cranwell DFC. The way in which it was won is typical of the carefree spirit of those days. The Squadron was living in a train not more than ten minutes from the target area. Yet Vincent, with Flight Lieutenant Jones as gunner, ran out of fuel and landed within a mile of the target! Taffy Jones was a famous WWI fighter ace with the DSO, MC, DFC, and MM. He also played rugby for Wales. The desert was quite flat so a second aircraft landed along side and the pilot suggested that Vincent and Jones should climb in and return to base. This offer was declined and the second aircraft was sent for more fuel.
When they were alone again some Arabs, not unnaturally, arrived from the target area and started shooting at them. At first, Jones managed to keep them at bay by replying with his Lewis gun from the back seat. Soon the Arabs realised that the gun could not fire forwards, so they started approaching from the nose. Vincent, who was no weakling, picked up the aircraft tail by himself (normally it took two or three men to do this) and swung the aeroplane round so that Jones could continue to fire at the Arabs. This was successful for a while, but eventually they were forced into a position where Vincent had to stand in front of the nose with a revolver to keep the attackers at a distance while both flanks and the tail were covered by the Lewis gun. The situation was beginning to look black when a Sopwith Snipe arrived and drove off the attackers. The petrol arrived shortly after this and no time was wasted in refueling and taking off.