Eighty years ago the RAF enjoys the last hurrah of "air control"


The British position in its protectorate Iraq had been under threat since the beginning of April when a military coup led by the four colonels of the “Golden Square” overthrew the pro-British regent and placed the nationalist and overtly pro-Fascist Rashid Ali in power. Relations between the new regime and the British deteriorated swiftly and deeply. The Iraqi army took positions on the escarpment that dominated the British air base at Habbaniya outside Baghdad and issued an ultimatum that training operations were to cease. The British commander launched pre-emptive bombing attacks on the Iraqis and open war ensued. The British garrison at Habbaniyah consisted mainly of 2,000 odd local Christian Assyrian Levies which were outmatched by the opposing Iraqi forces, but remorseless air attacks by the RAF planes including Wellington bombers from a distant base, kept the Iraqis in check. After a few days they abandoned the escarpment, which marked the end of serious military operations. By some measure, this was the greatest and last triumph of the RAF’s practice of “air control” – suppressing colonial revolts by air action alone – which had been one of the foundations of the fledging service in its early days.

The British had another consolation prize for their drubbing in Greece, when their campaign against Italy in East Africa came to a successful close. Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia was returned to power after being expelled by Mussolini’s army in 1936, making a triumphal entry to his capital at Addis Ababa and making a pilgrimage to the holy mountain Entotto, where he ceremoniously kissed the ground in the inner sanctuary of the church of the Virgin Mary.

Lord Beaverbrook stepped down as Minister of Aircraft Production. It had been a high profile and prestigious post in May 1940 when he had taken it as part of Churchill’s incoming government, but politically it was a wasting asset. Beaverbrook had earned largely spurious kudos from the entirely false belief that the MAP had contributed to victory in the Battle of Britain. In reality, reforms undertaken more than two years before that had been boosting aircraft production even before war broke out. The “scandal” of inefficiency at the Air Ministry that Churchill castigated was largely imaginary. Beaverbrook had no interest in, or talent for, what had become a task of detailed administration. His confrontational approach might have served to dispel relics of pre-war complacency, but now made for no more than an unpleasant working environment. He was replaced by the far more emollient figure of MP and aviation pioneer Colonel Moore-Brabazon, the first English man to fly from British soil in 1909 on the Isle of Sheppey who had demonstrated that pigs could fly by taking a piglet aloft with him in the early days of powered flight. Beaverbrook remained a member of the war Cabinet, where he continued to intrigue.

Wartime disruption of normal life took another turn with the introduction of Double Summer Time. It was announced that until the middle of August clocks would be put two hours forward from Greenwich Mean Time. In practice the true point of the exercise was to keep clocks an hour ahead of GMT in the winter which would benefit productivity. Farmers and agricultural workers were formally exempted from the change unless they agreed specifically.

Hitler made a well reported speech at the Kroll Opera House, home of the Reichstag. It was part a gloating triumph for Germany’s victories – over the British above all – in the Balkans, and part an aggressive declaration of German military superiority over any other army as a warning to any other country tempted to try conclusions with the Nazi state. This was widely taken to refer to the US, but Germany’s military leadership who had been briefed on the impending attack on the USSR, would have recognised that Hitler was expressing supreme confidence in the pending defeat of the Red Army. Rumours were starting to circulate publicly of a German move eastwards, but the Soviet dictator Stalin refused to accept that such a move was coming. The man who trusted no-one was trusting Hitler to hold true to his word. Stalin discounted warnings from British intelligence services, which had clear evidence of German intentions; Stalin inevitably saw these as conspiratorial attempts to manipulate him into hostility towards Hitler.