Aerial Policing in 1912

Winston Churchill is popularly supposed to have instituted a policy of ‘Aerial Policing’ over Iraq in 1920, whereby air power was used to suppress insurgency rather than a more expensive ground-based solution. BBC News claims ‘It was a policy Churchill had first mused on in the House of Commons in March 1920, before the Iraqi uprising had even begun.’

The policy actually goes back eight years. On 31 March 1912 Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote a minute for his colleagues concerning the ‘Situation in Somaliland’, the British colony on the Coast of Africa:

In a few years time when aeronautics have developed the question of dealing with this fellow will become a reasonable proposition. It is purely a question of expense. He is not worth a 4,000,000l. expedition. But if 200,000l. or 300,000l. would do the work, as it may easily do in the near future, I should be quite ready to approve the expenditure. We must be certain of our tackle, however.

First Lord’s Minutes Vol. I. 1911-1913.

This ‘fellow’ is presumably a reference to the leader of the Somali Dervishes, Sayid Mohamed Abdullah Hassan, ‘the Mad Mullah’, who had already been harassing the British for over a decade. Fast forward eight years and many skirmishes later (including one where Adrian Carton de Wiart lost an eye) to 1920, and a flight of Royal Air Force Airco DH.9As is popularly supposed to have helped crush the Mullah’s revolt at the same time air power played a part in suppressing the Iraqi revolt.

Marines ‘are not school boys’

Churchill (LoC)On 10 January 1912 Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, minuted on a paper regarding the proposed installation of electric light at the Royal Marine Light Infantry’s depot at Portsmouth:

No question of electric light.

Let a hundred incandescent burners be issued and warn the men that if they break them they will be the sufferers.

Report to me upon the experiment.

It will reveal a very low standard of discipline and intelligence if the Royal Marines could not be trusted with incandescent burners. They are not school boys, and their Officers ought not to give colour to the suggestion. A decent educated self-respecting lot of men will use with care what is designed for their comfort.

Whether the Marines at Forton Barracks ever got electric light is unknown. After the First World War, with the amalgamation of the Light Infantry and Artillery the Portsmouth Division moved to the latter’s barracks at Eastney. In 1927 Forton was recommissioned as H.M.S. St. Vincent, a training establishment for boys. Ironic in light of Churchill’s 1912 reference to school boys.

Taken from First Lord’s Minutes Vol. I at the Admiralty Library.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Embed from Getty Images

In his influential book Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution Dr. Nicholas Lambert refers (p. 245) to a November 1911 ‘secret rendezvous at Plymouth Dockyard’ between retired Lord Fisher, a former First Sea Lord, and Winston Churchill, the new First Lord of the Admiralty. In my article on Fisher and Churchill’s 1911 correspondence (Harley, ‘“It’s a Case of All or None”: “Jacky” Fisher’s Advice to Winston Churchill, 1911’, The Mariner’s Mirror, 102:2, 186), I described Lambert’s choice of words as ‘a touch melodramatic’, as both were present at the launch of the battleship Centurion at Devonport Dockyard on 18 November. Arthur Marder rightly described the meetings as secret insomuch as they ‘did not appear in the newspapers’ (Marder, Fear God and Dread Nought, II, 401).

In Lambert’s defence, last year (after several unsuccessful attempts) I was able to consult the visitors’ book of H.M.S. Enchantress, the Board of Admiralty’s yacht. Fisher’s name does not appear in it for that weekend, although this is by no means proof of any kind of conspiracy to suppress knowledge of any meeting which may or may not have taken place on board.

Quite why any secret meeting would need to take place is another question. As Lambert states, and I illustrate quite clearly in my article, Fisher and Churchill were corresponding nearly every day, and had spent a weekend together only a few weeks previously. The final nail in the coffin of any notion of a ‘secret rendezvous’, however, is the above photograph of the two apparently arriving at the launch of Centurion, which I only came across last week (despite its caption, it has been lazily dated by Getty Images to 1 January 1911).  From left to right are George Lambert, Civil Lord of the Admiralty (a stalwart supporter of Fisher); Lord Fisher; Winston Churchill; Rear-Admiral Ernest Troubridge, Churchill’s Private Secretary (whose prematurely white hair earned him the name of ‘the Silver King’). If this is a secret rendezvous then I shudder to think what a non-secret one would look like.