WWI Air War: Balkans and Mesopotamia I

SMS Königsberg Reccon. Brian Withams; (c) Brian Withams, GAVA; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Pilots and observers have consistently maintained the ever-changing fortunes of the day and in the war zone our dead have been always beyond the enemy’s lines or far out at sea. Our far-flung squadrons have flown over home waters and foreign seas, the Western and Italian battle line, Rhineland, the Mountains of Macedonia, Gallipoli, Palestine, the Plains of Arabia, Sinai and Darfur…

King George V to all RAF squadrons after the Armistice

‘Our far-flung squadrons… battle-line…’ Kipling’s ‘Recessional’ was evidently echoing in the unconscious of whoever drafted the King’s message. The poet’s anxious prayer to the ‘Lord of our far-flung battle-line’ embodied the worry that without His blessing Britain’s global empire represented vainglorious overstretch. ‘Far-called, our navies melt away…’ It was inevitable that the war in Europe should have had tentacles reaching overseas into the Balkans, Middle East and Africa since the major combatants – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Italy – all had empires or spheres of interest and influence far beyond the main European fronts. As usually happens in wars, well before the end men in suits were cooking up post-bellum deals, scheming how various frontiers might be redrawn and what colour the new maps should be. Among the more notorious of these deals was the secret Sykes–Picot agreement in which one Briton and one Frenchman decided how the entire Middle East should be carved up. The fallout from those arbitrary lines drawn across a map in crayon on a May day in 1916 has now persisted for a century and may yet become literal.

The political geography of the Middle East was considerably determined by the twin fading dynasties of Ottoman Turkey and Qajar Persia. The protracted struggle for the Ottoman Empire’s former possessions had already been a background factor of the Crimean War in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1914 Turkey sided with Germany and the Central Powers, which left the Entente – chiefly Britain, France and Russia – with regional wars on its hands, Britain fighting the Turco-German forces from the Balkans to Sinai and Palestine and on through Mesopotamia. It was above all vital for Britain to maintain its lifeline with the Empire via the sea route that included the Suez Canal and Aden, an important coaling station. But in view of the Royal Navy’s gradual switch from coal to oil at this time (the new Queen Elizabeth-class battleships were oil burners), it was equally vital to secure the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s oilfields in Mesopotamia, and especially its huge refinery at Abadan in what is now Iran. In order to drive the Turks out of Palestine and elsewhere, Britain entered into an alliance with Sherif Hussein bin Ali of Mecca, who was leading an Arab nationalist movement that also wanted the Turks out of the Middle East. The British army officer under General Allenby’s command working with Sherif Hussein to free the Hejaz (the western coast of Arabia) was T. E. Lawrence, who gave this assessment of the Arabs’ campaign:

Of religious fanaticism there was little trace. The Sherif refused in round terms to give a religious twist to his rebellion. His fighting creed was nationality. The tribes knew that the Turks were Moslems who thought that the Germans were probably true friends of Islam. They knew that the British were Christians, and that the British were their allies. In the circumstances, their religion would not have been of much help to them, and they had put it aside. ‘Christian fights Christian, so why should not Mohammedan do the same? What we want is a Government which speaks our own language of Arabic and will let us live in peace. Also, we hate those Turks.’

The armies involved in the Middle East conflict were naturally accompanied by air support which, especially in desert landscapes with little cover, was useful for observing troop movements and bombing supply lines. As far as maintaining an air presence went, the British had an advantage over the Germans for purely logistical reasons. The merchant fleet, escorted by the Royal Navy, could reliably supply Britain’s protectorate, Egypt, via Alexandria and Port Said, whereas the Germans had to bring their aircraft, spares and equipment overland from Germany on the long and difficult haul down through the Balkans and Turkey.

Some RFC and RNAS squadrons were even further-flung than King George’s message-drafter knew, for they were also present in a minor way in East Africa and India. In India a few squadrons were based almost exclusively on the North-West Frontier in what today is Pakistan, dealing with the ‘troublesome tribesmen’ in Waziristan who were part of Britain’s continuing imperial headache, albeit one that was independent of the Great War. In Africa, though, the Kaiser’s colonial presence was fought with varying success in both German South-West Africa (Namibia) and German East Africa (today’s Tanzania).

Probably the most famous air action in the latter was the destruction of the German light cruiser Königsberg in 1915 after it had hidden some ten miles inland in the complex delta of the Rufiji river, temporarily immobilised by engine failure. The Königsberg had long been a menace to British shipping in the Indian Ocean and the Admiralty viewed her elimination as a priority. Royal Navy warships arrived off the Rufiji delta but failed to find the German vessel because its crew had camouflaged the ship with foliage cut from the surrounding forest. It was a clear case for aerial reconnaissance. A local pilot was hired, together with his privately owned Curtiss F. seaplane, but this did not survive many missions. Two G.III Caudrons and two Henri Farman F.27s were sent down from Dar-es-Salaam (the F.27 was essentially a ‘Rumpty’ with a bigger engine and without its ‘horns’: the curved skids on the undercarriage) but nor were these up to the task. The Navy then deployed two RNAS Sopwith ‘Folders’: Type 807 biplanes with folding wings for shipboard storage. However, their Gnome Monosoupape (single valve) rotary engines proved too weak in the hot climate even as their airframes came unglued in the tropical damp. Three of Short’s ‘Folders’ were then deployed that, while also suffering in the heat and unable to climb above 600 feet, did manage some useful photo-reconnaissance work and finally pinpointed the Königsberg’s position. Two shallow-draught monitors were sent whose guns fatally crippled the German ship, thereby removing a major threat to Allied traffic in the Indian Ocean.

However, the Königsberg’s menace did not end there because most of its crew went to join an extraordinary guerrilla force led by a true genius in the art of bush warfare. This was General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck who was the officer in charge of all military forces in German East Africa. Between 1914 and 1918, living off the land and with a mere 14,000 men – German and local African – he managed to tie down and harry 300,000 Allied troops, remaining uncaptured at the time of the Armistice. It is pleasant to record that ‘The Lion of Africa’ survived until 1964. He was the only German commander ever to invade British imperial territory in the First World War, and his four years of improvised bush tactics mark him as probably the greatest-ever exponent of this form of warfare.

It was against Lettow-Vorbeck and in support of General Smuts that 26 Squadron flew reconnaissance missions in their B.E.2cs and ‘Rumptys’ (by that time the sort of antiquated aircraft most easily spared from the Western Front). But theirs was a tiny contingent and the task proved hopeless since little could be observed in thick bush from the air. Apart from that the African climate proved too much for fragile wooden aircraft designed for northern Europe, susceptible to wood-boring pests and warping as well as to weakened adhesives. No airman is much comforted by the thought of termites in his airframe and still less by the possibility that at any moment it might come unglued in the air. Thirty years later in the Second World War this same problem had to be addressed when the wood-framed de Havilland Mosquito was deployed in the Far East. By then new formaldehyde-based adhesives had been devised that seemed mostly to work; occasional airframe failures were attributed to sloppy assembly in de Havilland’s factories at Hatfield and Leavesden.

King George’s reference to Darfur in his message was significant for the way in which it related to the wider picture of the British campaign in the Middle East. Since the turn of the century the Sudanese sultanate of Darfur (the land of the Fur people) had effectively been independent under its ruler, Ali Dinar. From its geographical position of sharing frontiers with Italian-administered Libya and the French-administered district of Chad (then part of French West Africa), Dinar felt himself drawn into the wider conflict, being already estranged from Sudan’s British administration ever since Kitchener had ordered the mass killing of wounded Mahdists after the Battle of Omdurman in 1899. Instinctively, the Sultan sided with Libya’s politico-religious Senussi tribe, who were waging their own anticolonial war against the Italian occupation. He believed Turkish and German propaganda that promised the creation of an Islamic state in North Africa after the war was over and the Italians, the French and the British had all been driven out.

Ali Dinar’s rebelliousness led to British intervention in 1916, motivated half by needing to keep the peace in Sudan and half by macro-political considerations. Four B.E.2cs flew observation and reconnaissance missions over remote Darfur territory as well as dropping propaganda leaflets on the town of Al Fashir, Dinar’s stronghold. After fierce ground battles between the British Army and Dinar’s men Lieutenant John Slessor in his B.E.2c bombed the Fur troops retreating to Al Fashir, during which he was hit in the thigh by a bullet. Shortly afterwards all four aircraft and Lieutenant Slessor himself were withdrawn to Egypt for repair and the Darfur campaign ended with Ali Dinar’s death in November 1916. Many years later John Slessor was to become Air Marshal Sir John and finally a hawkish Cold War Chief of the Air Staff in the early 1950s.

It is shaming to see how quickly Europeans betrayed their promises to the Middle-Eastern allies they had so assiduously cultivated during the First World War. The Libyans’ faith in Turco-German visions of an Islamic state in North Africa was shattered when the Italians not only stayed on after 1918 but began importing Sicilians en masse to displace local Arabs and turn the country’s sole fertile coastal strip into ‘the garden of Italy’. The Arabs’ faith in British promises of a pan-Arab state from Aleppo to Aden was likewise destroyed once it was clear the Sykes–Picot agreement had secretly broken the promises even before they were made. The hopes of young nationalistic Egyptians were similarly dashed when the British stayed on in their protectorate after the war with a military occupation of the Canal Zone that included a considerable RAF presence. And the Ottomans’ faith in the Germans likewise came to naught. To this day the malign ghost of these and other betrayals haunts Middle East peace talks as an unbidden but ever-present delegate.


On the other side of the Mediterranean fighting had become general ever since the abortive British and French Gallipoli campaign that began in April 1915 at the western end of the Dardanelles – the narrow strait separating Europe from Asia. It was across this bottleneck that German lines of supply to the Middle East had to run. They came south-eastwards through the Austro-Hungarian Empire, through Bulgaria (which had finally sided with the Central Powers in September 1915) and thence through Turkey. Both the British and the French badly underestimated the fighting abilities of the Turkish troops defending the Dardanelles. This was curious, considering that before the war the Turkish army had been reorganised by the Germans, their navy by the British, and their air force by the French. It is hard to see how these military advisers could have overlooked the Turkish forces’ combined competence on their own terrain. Nevertheless they did; and after a campaign that cost the French and the British and their Anzac divisions dear, the Entente armies withdrew to Egypt and Salonika in January 1916 to lick their wounds.

Among the survivors was the 22-year-old W. E. Johns, who had taken part in the Gallipoli fiasco as Private Johns of the Norfolk Yeomanry. He was well aware how lucky he was to have survived since he had left half his regiment behind in mass graves. Many had been killed in action but the great majority had died of dysentery, malaria or simply of exposure in the lethal late autumn blizzards. Once in Alexandria Johns was deployed for the next six months to various outposts of the Suez Canal defences, often in remote desert locations that he could not have guessed would prove extremely useful to him in twenty years’ time as the setting for several of his Biggles stories. In September 1916 he was transferred from the Norfolk Yeomanry to the Machine Gun Corps, sent back to England on a brief leave and promptly dispatched once again by troopship, this time to Salonika.

This Greek seaport, more properly Thessaloniki, was some fifty very rough miles due south of Lake Doiran on the border between Macedonia and Bulgaria. In late 1915 the French general Maurice Sarrail had led a joint French and British force in an attempt to go to the aid of Serbia using the rail link that ran past this lake, but he left it too late. Bulgaria had just thrown in its lot with the Central Powers and its troops cut the railway line that Sarrail and his men were relying on and he had to turn round and withdraw south to Salonika. The port promptly became the main base for Entente troops in the so-called Macedonian theatre. In true Balkan style Greece’s political position was equivocal since the country was split between royalists who, like King Constantine, favoured the Germans, and those who sided with the revolutionary Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, who favoured the Entente. It was not until June 1917 that Constantine abdicated after a coup supported by General Sarrail, to be succeeded by his son Alexander who endorsed the Prime Minister, and Greece as a whole (now often referred to as ‘Venizelan’ Greece) finally came down firmly on the side of the Entente powers.

That was in the future, however. Greece was still on the edge of civil war when in mid-1916 General Sarrail tried again to advance beyond the Macedonian frontier, meeting the German Eleventh Army from the west and the Bulgarians from the east. In support of this effort the RFC’s 17 Squadron was sent to Salonika in July. It came fresh from flying in Sinai, the Western Desert and Arabia and for a short while was the only RFC unit in Macedonia. The squadron comprised twelve B.E.2cs and three Bristol Scouts (both pre-war designs) plus two D.H.2s, the resilient little single-seat fighter that was even then helping to end the ‘Fokker Scourge’ over Flanders and France. Soon 47 Squadron was also sent to swell the RFC’s presence on the Macedonian front.

By the time Johns arrived at the front with the Machine Gun Corps in October 1916 the British trenches ran through formidable country from Lake Doiran (‘that fever-ridden sewer’ as he later called it) south-westwards along the Macedonian border. It was the tactical stalemate of that terrible winter that confirmed Johns’s views about politicians and the military, as well as of war in general. He wrote later of the ‘lies and lies, and still more lies that made it impossible for men to stay at home without appearing contemptible cravens’:

I helped to shovel eighteen hundred of them into pits (without the blankets for which their next-of-kin were probably charged) including sixty-seven of my own machine gun squadron of seventy-five, in front of Horseshoe Hill in Greek Macedonia. We were sent to take the hill without big guns. Oh yes, they sent guns out to us, but when they got to Salonika there wasn’t any tackle big enough to lift them out of the ships. At least, that’s what we were told. Later, when we took the hill and the guns afterwards appeared, there wasn’t any tackle powerful enough to haul them up the hill. So back we came again.

By early 1917 there was an increasing German presence in the air over the Macedonian front, and in February they humiliatingly bombed the headquarters of the British XII Corps in Salonika, the Yanesh Hotel. An eyewitness lamented that the Entente’s air defences were no match for the German machines and that all they could do was get into the air to avoid being bombed on the ground. It would have taken them twenty minutes to climb to meet the Germans, by which time the attackers would be landing back at their base at Drama. This can’t have been good for morale, particularly with such a wide variety of potential witnesses of the raid, Salonika having become the port where all the Entente’s troops and supplies for their Balkan armies were landed. At any one time the town was a polyglot jumble of British, French, Italian, Russian, Serbian, Venizelist-Greek, Indian, Algerian, Annamese and Senegalese troops.

During this year Lance-Corporal Johns, like so many thousands of others, finally went down with malaria and was hospitalised in Salonika. During his long recuperation he decided he had had his fill of the infantry. He applied for a transfer to the RFC, obtained his discharge from the Machine Gun Corps and in September 1917 was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the RFC and sent home to be taught to fly. ‘I was learning something about war,’ he wrote later. ‘It seemed to me that there was no point in dying standing up in squalor if one could do so sitting down in clean air.’ It was an impeccably Bigglesian sentiment.