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Duties of the most varied nature are performed by the seven overseas commands of the R.A.F.

Men of the Transjordan Frontier Force bringing a report to a waiting Air Force Patrol near Haifa

COOPERATION WITH GROUND FORCES is included in the duties of the Royal Air Force overseas. The assistance of the pilots is most valuable in the suppression of bandits in desert regions and mountainous country. This photograph shows two men of the Transjordan Frontier Force bringing a report to a waiting Air Force Patrol near Haifa, Palestine.

THE overseas organization of the Royal Air Force is composed of seven Commands. The Far East Command has its headquarters at Singapore, with stations at Seletar and Kai Tak, and administers also five squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm. Eight squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm are administered by the Mediterranean Command, which has its headquarters at Valletta, Malta.

The Royal Air Force, India, has stations at Karachi, Peshawar, Kohat, Chaklala, Risalpur and Ambala. Egypt and North Africa is the area of the Middle East Command, the headquarters of which are at Cairo. There are stations at Abu Qir, Heliopolis, Ismailia and Khartoum. The R.A.F. Station at Nairobi, capital of Kenya, is also administered by the Middle East Command.

In Palestine and Transjordan the R.A.F. Command Headquarters are at Jerusalem, and there are stations at Ramleh and Amman. British Forces in Iraq are administered from Habbaniyah, formerly Dhibban. R.A.F. Squadrons are based on Basra and Shaibah.

The ramifications of the R.A.F. station at Habbaniyah give an idea of the extent of the organization of this one Command. There are an aircraft depot and a supplies depot there, with two bomber squadrons, one bomber transport squadron and one communication flight. Also stationed there are three sections of an armoured car company. In addition, there are the R.A.F. General Hospital and a meteorological station. The base supplies and transport department are at Basra, where one general reconnaissance squadron is stationed.

One squadron, an armoured car section, an R.A.F. hospital and an equipment and supply depot are administered by the British Forces in Aden from the headquarters at Steamer Point. As long ago as 1928 the Royal Air Force units in Aden (which was then a Protectorate) were acting with outstanding success against Yemen forces and other native bands which continually encroached on the territory and caused trouble of every kind. The same year saw similar activities in the Southern Desert of Iraq and on the North-West Frontier. Since that time the R.A.F. Overseas Commands have increased immeasurably in size and in scope; the nature of their activities has widened. The period between 1928 and 1938 has been one of expansion and experiment. The work of the squadrons stationed overseas is constant, yet varied. There are regular routine and long-distance flights, there are operations against unruly tribes, there is every kind of photographic and survey work to be attended to. At any moment a flight may be sent off to locate a lost aviator, to drop food or medical supplies to some outpost, to bring relief to some village cut off from ordinary communications, or merely to convey some distinguished potentate or a political officer from one place to another. Cooperation with other armed forces is a constant part of the duties of the R.A.F. Commands overseas.

SEAPLANES PLAY A PROMINENT PART in the overseas Commands of the Royal Air Force

SEAPLANES PLAY A PROMINENT PART in the overseas Commands of the Royal Air Force. The Far East Command administers five squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm. Eight squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm are administered by the Mediterranean Command. One of the older types of R.A.F. seaplanes, a Fairey 111 D, is seen taking off from an Eastern waterway in this photograph.

Perhaps not so spectacular as these operations or the relief of distressed persons are the long-distance experimental flights which in the past ten years have been carried out by R.A.F. units. So well has the work been done that many of these flights are now regarded as normal routine duties.

In 1928 a remarkable endurance flight was achieved when a squadron of flying boats made a cruise of 27,000 miles to Singapore, round Australia to Hong Kong, French Indo-China, the Philippines and back to Singapore. The cruise lasted for a year and each machine did 355 hours’ flying, remaining in the air or afloat for the whole period except during overhauls at Karachi, Singapore and Sydney.

In the next year another squadron flew to Basra. In the Persian Gulf area great experience was gained in the use of flying boats in the climatic and other conditions which are prevalent there. At the same time annual flights were being made between Egypt and Nigeria, and from Cairo to the Cape. Manoeuvres were carried out at various places along the route.

Despite this activity some spectacular operations were carried out. The evacuation of Kabul (see the chapter “Dramas of Air Rescues”) is a historic example. Serious disturbances occurred in Palestine and the Sudan. Urgent military reinforcements were at one point required in Jerusalem and fifty men were landed there from Egypt within seven hours of the request. Forces of the Middle East and Palestine Commands were actively engaged, including aircraft from the aircraft carrier Courageous.

In the same year a rising in the Sudan was broken when aircraft enabled troops to occupy enemy positions. Near Aden traffic was being disorganized and large-scale highway robbery became prevalent. Air demonstrations were organized and warnings were dropped from aircraft. This alone induced the restoration of order. In Iraq a more serious rebellion was quelled merely by the threat of air action.

Without the R.A.F., conditions at some of these distant frontiers could be little other than chaotic; yet, while order is being preserved, experimental progress is being made in other directions. Every year while the Cape to Cairo route was being surveyed, ground staffs were being trained. In 1931 the route was flown by large twin-engined bombers, which could be used as troop carriers. Shortly afterwards Imperial Airways opened up this route to civil aircraft, the route which the Service aircraft had blazed (see the chapter “Advance of the Empire Air Mail”). The transport of troops in such arduous and mountainous or desert regions as Iraq, Transjordan and the North-West Frontier Province was a difficult task without the assistance of the Royal Air Force, and in 1932 a notable achievement in this direction was made. A complete battalion of infantry was moved from Egypt to Baghdad, a distance of nearly 1,000 miles, in six days. Twenty-five troop-carrying aeroplanes were used. When its duties were finished in Iraq the battalion was transported quickly back to Egypt in the same way.

Survey work is an important activity of overseas squadrons. The Jordan Valley was mapped in 1931, at the urgent request of the Colonial Office, and the work was completed in a comparatively short time. The nature of the ground would have entailed great difficulties for a surveying party working in the ordinary way.

RAF VICKERS VALENTIA TROOP CARRIERS flying above the citadel at Cairo

VICKERS VALENTIA TROOP CARRIERS flying above the citadel at Cairo. These aircraft are a development of the Vickers Victoria and carry twenty-two men, in addition to a crew of two. Lockers are provided for the men’s equipment and rifle racks are provided. Apart from their use for carrying troops, these aeroplanes may be used as bombers or for the evacuation of civilians from danger areas.

In the following year aircraft from Aden prepared photographs of the country on the borders of Ethiopia and British Somaliland which enabled the exact demarcation of the frontier to be made. The southern shores of Arabia were explored by flying boats from Basra with a view to establishing a route from Aden to Muscat, a distance of 1,300 miles of previously unknown country. Voyages of exploration were made by flying boats from Singapore, which visited the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, in the Indian Ocean, to see if a new alternative route could be established between Singapore and Calcutta.

With the Cape to Cairo route being regularly flown to schedule by passenger and mail-carrying aeroplanes, the Royal Air Force in 1932 carried out pioneer work in other parts of the African continent. Four aircraft made a journey of 18,000 miles, visiting Kenya, Tanganyika, Uganda and Zanzibar. On only one occasion did they fail to arrive at their destination at the scheduled time. In Kenya a great deal of survey work was done.

In 1933 the Royal Air Force broke the world’s record for a long-distance flight, when a machine flew from Cranwell, in Lincolnshire, without a stop, to Walvis Bay, South-West Africa, an overall distance of 5,340 miles.

About this time the Far East Command was pioneering on the route to Australia, opening it up in the way the Cape route had previously been opened up. The whole route between Karachi, Calcutta and Singapore, and between Singapore and Australia, was surveyed and explored.

Suitable sites for emergency landing grounds were selected in Burma, so that it would be safe to use that route during the torrential rains of the southwest monsoon, which formerly interrupted air traffic between Calcutta and Singapore. A land route for flying boats between Karachi and Calcutta was opened up: formerly they had to go round by way of Ceylon. Final links in the route from Basra to Aden were established on the unknown shores of southern Arabia.

With these links in the air routes joined up, the Commands of the Royal Air Force were able to cooperate more closely, and inter-Command manoeuvres are now a regular feature of their activities. Some of the first flights of this nature were made in 1933 when aircraft flew from Ambala, in the Indian Command, to Singapore and back, and similar flights were made from Singapore to the Indian stations and back.

Inter-Command Flights

The next year these inter-Command flights were increased in scope, Iraq joining forces with Singapore, Egypt with Malta and so forth. In 1935 a squadron, on its way back from the Cape to Egypt, was diverted to transport troops to the Copper Belt of Rhodesia, where disturbances had suddenly broken out.

Every year, while all this development was taking place, there were frontier incidents, risings and all the usual activities of the Empire outposts. In 1933 another great work of evacuation was carried out by the Iraq Command. About 800 old men, women and children were evacuated by air from Mosul to Baghdad, where they were housed in various buildings round the air station. In Aden, despite continuous unrest in the district, which was kept down by peaceable demonstrations, more than 2,000 square miles were mapped and surveyed from the air. The Aden Command was also occupied surveying and photographing in British Somaliland, where more than 1,000 hours of flying were completed in a period of fifteen months.

The little-known districts on the southern shores of Arabia, explored by Service aircraft, were visited by the Chief Commissioner of Aden, who made an air tour of the district. This was the first official visit to the vicinity by a political representative. This might have been called a busy year by any military force, yet there was no respite in the following year from the numerous activities of the R.A.F., for in January four aircraft from Aden flew to Sierra Leone and back.

THE ACTIVITIES OF THE R.A.F. OVERSEAS are mainly in Asia and Africa

THE ACTIVITIES OF THE R.A.F. OVERSEAS are mainly in Asia and Africa and in the waters in the vicinity. The headquarters of the seven overseas Commands are at Singapore, Cairo, Jerusalem, Habbaniyah, formerly Dhibban (Transjordan), Steamer Point (Aden), New Delhi and Valletta, in Malta. Valletta is the headquarters of the Mediterranean Command.

When war broke out in 1935 between Italy and Ethiopia, the Royal Air Force cooperated with the Somaliland Camel Corps in controlling the frontier. A flight was sent from Egypt to Kenya to prevent armed raids or to be ready to handle refugees.

War and rebellion are not the only catastrophes which call upon the resources of the Royal Air Force overseas. On May 31, 1935, a severe earthquake shook parts of India, and the R.A.F. station at Quetta suffered heavy losses. Squadrons from other parts of India arrived to assist in the relief of the stricken population. Doctors, nurses and medical supplies were taken by air to the areas in which they were needed most. Food and clothing were flown to the suffering inhabitants and many women and children were evacuated from Quetta by air.

Medical assistance is a frequent need in inaccessible parts, and Royal Air Force aeroplanes are continually being detailed to fly with supplies to stranded outposts or to act as air ambulances and convey sick people to distant hospitals. Flights of this nature are often as dangerous as any other flights over arduous country. Stranded aircraft and fliers are frequently helped by R.A.F. machines. In 1937 three aeroplanes dropped supplies of food to the crew of a Junkers monoplane which had made a forced landing in high elephant grass some fifty miles east of Juba. In October of that year a search was made in the Sudd for Brigadier-General and Mrs. Lewin (see the chapter “Dramas of Air Rescues”).

On May 28, 1937, five civilians left Basra in a motor car to visit relatives near Nasiriyah, Iraq. The motorists were later reported missing, and a search by police cars failed to find them. For three and a half hours aircraft searched the route the car might have been expected to take, but with no success; two days later, however, three more aeroplanes from Shaibah found the car abandoned. Eventually a ground party discovered the five bodies about twenty miles away from their car. This incident is not only an example of the work aircraft may have to carry out at a moment’s notice in such unfrequented places, but it is also an instance of the superiority of air travel in such conditions.

The methods used by the Royal Air Force in maintaining order among scattered tribes and in preventing lawlessness are models of the most effective and at the same time most reasonable use of air power. Instances are numerous, particularly those which take place in the North-West Frontier Province and in Southern Arabia.

The following is a typical example of the methods and their effect. During the rainy season of 1936 one of the three main roads between Aden and Yemen became dangerous to motor traffic through damage by floods. Repairs had to be carried out in the region of the Khureba Pass, in the territory which was under the suzerainty of the Amir of Dhala.

Effective Air Demonstrations

The Amir’s subjects, however, defied him and threatened to prevent the repairs from being made. Motor transport has become unpopular in many places, where the Amir’s subjects maintain that it is interfering with the profit they derive from camel trains. To discourage raids on the repairing parties, a bombing demonstration was arranged and the tribal leaders saw nine 230-lb. bombs dropped on a target within full view of their main village.

A week later the political officer reported that promises had been made not to interfere with repairs to the road, but in spite of that some of the natives opened fire on the Amir’s troops and attempted to occupy the local landing ground. An ultimatum was immediately issued threatening to bomb the main village on the next day. Cooperation of the Amir’s troops and R.A.F. machines secured the evacuation of the village and the Khureba Pass. The local leaders were then warned that further trouble would lead to action from the air. No casualties occurred, and so successful was the manoeuvre that the natives stopped their obstruction and volunteered to work on the


Again, two local radio operators were ambushed one night by some bandits who had previously caused disturbances. It was decided to impose fines on the local population concerned and to demand hostages. Air demonstrations were arranged to effect this object and photographs were taken of the villages to ensure their identification should further action become necessary. An intelligence officer of the Air Staff then flew to the district and obtained the demands without the necessity of using force.

DROPPING A PATROL IN THE DESERT during cooperative exercises between the R.A.F. and the Army

DROPPING A PATROL IN THE DESERT during cooperative exercises between the R.A.F. and the Army in Egypt. The pilot is giving the men their bearings. At one time a complete battalion of infantry was transported by air a distance of nearly 1,000 miles from Egypt to Baghdad in six days. Twenty-five troop - carrying aeroplanes were used.

Reconnaissance flights and patrols over wild and desert country form part of the usual routine of the Overseas Commands, and occasionally new political relations are made in places visited for the first time by air. The winged ambassadors of the Empire are sometimes the first representatives of civilization to distant communities.

Near the shores of the Red Sea lies the ancient city of Shabwa, now a mere collection of small hamlets, but once the centre of a great civilization of Biblical times. The inhabitants there had heard of the British Government, and let it be known that they would like to enter into negotiations with that Government. Four aeroplanes flew to Shabwa. Negotiations were opened and the visit from the air revealed that there were signs of a former civilization. Already archaeologists are preparing in this remote spot to unfold the mysteries of former times.

Discovering the site of an ancient city, however, is not so difficult as looking for a District Commissioner when he is on trek, yet even that feat has been achieved by an R.A.F. machine. Without reliable maps and with no exact knowledge of where he was, an aeroplane succeeded in finding a District Commissioner in the Sudan and dropping him an important message.

In Palestine the Dead Sea is a valuable source of mineral salts, such as potash. The potash is extracted from the water in factories at the side of the Dead Sea, and is then transported by road to Jerusalem. In 1937 the potash convoy was raided by armed gangs, and aeroplanes of No. 14 Squadron acted as escort to the convoys. Raids continued, however, in various parts of the country, and the military forces had great difficulty in finding the raiders and putting a stop to their activities. On one occasion a ground force suddenly came upon an armed gang some 200 strong, in Transjordan. Hopelessly outnumbered, the detachment sent an urgent request for assistance. Aeroplanes were immediately sent out, and their appearance caused the raiders to take cover. The gang then dispersed and aircraft cooperated with the ground forces in finding the bandits’ lairs in the desert and hilly country.

Reconnaissance Flight in Arabia

Tracing smugglers in the Red Sea, watching for refugees in Kenya, taking part in the anti-piracy patrol of the Mediterranean — all these formed part of the duties of the Overseas Commands in 1937. Meanwhile reconnaissance, survey and exploration were going on and many important training flights were carried out. Five Vickers Vincents and two Vickers Valentia transport aircraft flew from Khartoum to Lagos and back, by various routes, making demonstration flights and cooperating with local forces at many points on the way.

Operations against dangerous bandits are often made extremely difficult because of the lack of adequate information either about them or about the country they inhabit. This was so with the Sai’ar tribe, in that part of southern Arabia known as the Hadhramaut. It is a little known district, not fully surveyed or mapped, and great damage was being caused by the raids of the Sai’ar tribesmen. It was not known even where these raiders came from, and thus it was impossible to take effective action from the air against their raids.

It was decided therefore that a large-scale reconnaissance flight should be made. Four aeroplanes left Aden and spent a few days flying over hitherto uncharted areas. Several villages were found, each with a few huts and surrounded by signs of cultivation. This proved that the Sai’ar were not a nomadic people; their homes had been found. Before the fliers returned to Aden they had discovered an area of about twenty square miles, an oasis of fertility in the midst of the desert, in which there were clustered over fifty Sai’ar villages. Photographs were taken and rough maps made, so that in future this particular tribe can be dealt with as well as any other that attempts violence.

Serious trouble in Waziristan in 1937 called for the services of the R.A.F. and of the newly formed Indian Air Force. Between January and September 11,000 flying hours were completed in connexion with these operations, representing a total distance of more than a million miles. This was over mountainous, barren and inhospitable country, yet the number of forced landings was negligible.

Transport of men and supplies by air was carried out on a large scale: more than 260 tons of supplies and nearly 5,000 men were dealt with between April and December. On one occasion aircraft were used to escort railway trains through one of the wild mountain passes. Where motor convoys were raided, this method of transport was abandoned and supplies were carried by air.

Such are the varied duties that the R.A.F. Overseas Commands are called upon to perform.

THE EVACUATION OF WOUNDED can be accomplished with aeroplane troop carriers

THE EVACUATION OF WOUNDED can be accomplished with troop carriers, provision being made in these machines to accommodate stretchers. The stretchers are brought out of the aircraft through a small door in the nose. This photograph shows a casualty from the Waziristan operations in 1937 being taken out of an aeroplane at Rawalpindi, in the Punjab, India.

You can read more on “Dramas of Air Rescues”, “How Maps are Made” and “Training RAF Pilots” on this website.

R.A.F. Operations Overseas