WWI Air War: Balkans and Mesopotamia III

However, the theatre of war outside France and Belgium that had the gravest long-term consequences was that of Palestine and Mesopotamia. It is easy enough to see now why the Turco-German attempt to gain the Suez Canal, hold Palestine and Baghdad and retain the Turkish grip on Mesopotamia was doomed. Their lines of supply from the north were far too long, too shaky and critically affected by adverse weather in the winter months, with terrible roads and the incomplete rail link easily washed out or undermined. The steam trains hauling the goods could also not rely on supplies of coal, wood or even water along this increasingly desert route. It was some 900 miles by rail and road from Constantinople [Istanbul] down through Palestine to Beersheba, their base for the Canal campaign. Added to that, in the northeast Russian troops began crossing the Ottoman border from around the Caspian, marching south to harass the Turks holding Baghdad. Yet in the early months of 1916, following the humiliating rout of the Entente forces in Gallipoli and the Dardanelles, it is understandable that the Germans and Turks fancied their chances of success.

The Germans began their Suez campaign in early 1915 and soon acquired an aerial presence with fourteen two-seater Rumpler C.1s, ‘tropicalised’ for desert use as best they could be with enlarged radiators. They were facing the British Canal defence forces, some of whom (like W. E. Johns) had been withdrawn there after the retreat from Gallipoli, and others who were fresh reinforcements. Compared to the Germans, reliant on their creaking rail-and-road link, the British were well supplied. They were already laying a railway with a twelve-inch cast-iron water pipe running beside it from Ismailia across Sinai up towards Palestine, and had reached Bir Qatia. Meanwhile, Colonel Kress von Kressenstein had moved his men and two observation aircraft to El Arish, only about ninety miles from the Canal, and carried out a brilliant lightning raid on Bir Qatia, taking prisoner twenty officers and 1,200 men. The Turks had been counting on the Libyan Senussi to divide the British effort by attacking Egypt from the west at the same time, but the attack never took place and Bir Qatia was as near as the Turco-German forces ever came to menacing the Suez Canal directly. From now on, their story turned into one of steady northward retreat. Nevertheless, one of their Rumplers did achieve an astonishing morale-boosting coup by flying the 600-mile round trip from El Arish to Cairo, where the crew bombed the railway station and took various aerial photos, including one of the Pyramids at Giza.

Despite the setback at Bir Qatia, the British went on building the railway across Sinai at the rate of over 700 yards a day and reached El Arish just before Christmas 1916. They were soon in Khan Yunes and threatening Gaza, at which point the German forces must have realised they would do well if they could hold on to Palestine. They regularly sent observation machines back over the long haul to Suez, taking photographs of the British supply chain and doing what they could to harry the troops. By now the military on both sides were learning the techniques of desert survival, including camel riding, and were well aware of the logistical problems involved in desert warfare, the primary one being, of course, water. Any deployment had to be planned with reference to known wells. Aircraft presented problems of their own, including the need for large supplies of petrol and oil as well as spare parts. The airframes were drying out, the wood warping and cracking, while the sand in the air abraded propellers, stripped the dope from the wings’ leading edges and blasted windscreens opaque. Both sides managed to maintain a very high level of intelligence using spies and double agents often landed by air and robed à la Lawrence of Arabia, sneaking hither and yon through the desert on various clandestine escapades. This was to become the setting for one of W. E. Johns’s most exciting early novels, Biggles Flies East (1935), which has Biggles based first in Al Qantarah in the Canal Zone but flying for a German Staffel as a double agent. The narrative is full of the details of a desert campaign that Johns would have gleaned first-hand during his seven months in Egypt in 1916, spiced up with facts about flying in such unforgiving country that he briefly experienced in 1924 when he was in the RAF and spent time in both Iraq and Waziristan on India’s North-West Frontier.

Meanwhile, 700 miles to the northeast in Iraq, one of the most humiliating defeats in British military history was imminent as Major-General Charles Townshend’s contingent of largely Indian troops was bottled up in the town of Kut al Amara by the Turkish Army’s XVIII Corps. Kut was a hundred miles south of Ottoman-held Baghdad, and the defenders had been trapped there since December 1915. In the following four months various attempts to relieve them had failed in a series of battles the British Army had lost. In April 1916 30 Squadron RFC carried out daily drops of food and ammunition over Kut, possibly the earliest example of supply by air. At the time 30 Squadron contained an Australian ‘half-flight’ that had been recalled from India to help in Mesopotamia, but it is hard to see what on earth the wretched airmen could have been expected to do with the aircraft they were given. They had two ancient Maurice Farman ‘Rumptys’ and an even more veteran Maurice Farman ‘Longhorn’: the hideous pusher-engined contraption with enormous upward-curving wooden skids in front of its wheels to which a forward elevator was attached. What anybody was hoping such ludicrous museum pieces might achieve in a Middle Eastern battle zone is beyond conjecture. They not only had an absolute top speed of 50 mph in an area where desert winds frequently blew a good deal faster, but the machines’ antique wing design lost most of its lift in the hot air, to the extent that above certain temperatures neither type could even take off, let alone fly missions.

The Turkish besiegers were not much better supplied and were uncertain of being able to defend Baghdad at all costs. At this point Turkish Fokker E.III monoplanes arrived and began to bomb Kut. A German Staffel also arrived in Baghdad. One German pilot, Hans Schüz, shot down three RFC machines over Kut in short order and brought to an end the British supply drops. This, together with the Turks’ daily bombing of the town, led to a collapse of morale among Major-General Townshend’s mainly Indian troops. He finally surrendered the garrison and his men to the Turkish commander, having failed to negotiate an abject cash deal for their release using T. E. Lawrence as an intermediary. It was a resounding triumph for the Turco-German forces, and the Germans in Baghdad treated it as being on a par with their victory in the Dardanelles. However, the rejoicing was short-lived because it was here that the Germans’ own lines of supply began to break down badly. Aircraft and spares were not getting through on the long haul from Constantinople and, thrown back on its own resourcefulness, the Staffel in Baghdad was forced to become inventive.

After petrol, one of the biggest necessities for maintaining aircraft in the desert was a supply of propellers. At that time these were all made of wood that was laminated, glued and pressed before being accurately carved into the final complex shape. In the extreme desert heat the glue softened, the wood dried out and the laminations began to open up. The German airmen in Baghdad were reduced to making their own propellers from scratch even though they lacked the proper equipment. Improvisation was the order of the day, and they scoured the workshops of Baghdad for anything they could use. They even built an entire aircraft that they later claimed flew remarkably well. Some also taught themselves to distil petrol and to make bombs out of cast-iron pipes.

Their Turkish allies were now being threatened from the other direction by Russian forces advancing down through Persia. Soon the Staffel in Baghdad was reduced to a ratty handful of old aircraft plus a single new one that had managed to get through. It was a copy of a British R.E. type, and the RFC airmen stationed behind the British lines noted this with glee. One day they dropped a parcel of spare R.E. parts on the Staffel’s base with a note that read: ‘We congratulate the newly arrived bird upon its success. Herewith a few spare parts which, no doubt, will soon be required.’ This was only one of a series of jocular notes dropped by the airmen of both sides, echoing those in Macedonia that betokened mutual esteem and a joint recognition of the dangers and hardships that operations in such extreme landscapes offered. Hans Schüz, who ended the war with ten victories after flying an Albatros D.III in the retreat through Palestine, observed:

The limit was reached one day when the English airmen proposed that we should all land at some neutral spot to meet over a cup of tea and exchange newspapers and gramophone records. However, we were unable to see eye to eye with them in this conception of warfare. Those who know the English are aware that, in spite of events like this, they would always fight in the air with the greatest determination and keenness. No doubt our machine guns and bombs provided them with plentiful antidotes to boredom.

It was a repeat of the RFC’s proposal for a get-together in Macedonia, the sort of gesture soldiers tend to make only when they suspect they have the upper hand. Thereafter the decline in conditions for their German opponents in Iraq accelerated. The Staffel’s few remaining aircraft managed to photograph evidence that the British Army was preparing for an attack on Baghdad in the shape of new encampments beside the Tigris and increased steamer traffic on the river. Unfortunately, the heat tended to melt the chemicals on the photographic plates, which were anyway in short supply, and the results of these flights were not always commensurate with the risks. Captain Schüz’s retrospective narrative began to show signs of sheer frustration:

One request for more aeroplanes and the necessaries of war followed on another; but it was a long way to Constantinople. In vain did the handful of Germans endeavour to accelerate the arrival of supplies. All such demands were rendered nugatory by that peculiarity of the Turkish temperament about which we have already complained. If it should be Allah’s will that we should be victorious, then victory shall be ours, even without new aeroplanes; but if Allah hath ordained otherwise, then nothing can help us. Kismet! All is fate!

By the time the British finally attacked towards Baghdad in December 1916 the remaining German aircraft were barely airworthy. Their wings were warped, instruments were missing from the cockpits and the wheels no longer had tyres, the rubber having perished. The aircraft had to take off and land on wheels whose rims were bound with wired-on rags. (It would not be long before rubber was in such short supply back home in Germany that training aircraft were shod with wooden wheels.) Baghdad at last fell to the British and after a hectic retreat the Turkish army reassembled in Mosul only sixty or seventy miles from the Turkish border. Captain Schüz went back to Germany to demand fresh supplies in person and returned in April 1917 with nine new scouts:

In order to confound the English by the unexpected appearance of a new type, I covered the 300-odd miles from the railhead of the Baghdad line to the front in one day. But even this rapidity was of no use. On the same day an English machine appeared at a great height and dropped a tin of cigarettes with the following message: ‘The British airmen send their compliments to Captain S. and are pleased to welcome him back to Mesopotamia. We shall be happy to offer him a warm reception in the air. We enclose a tin of English cigarettes and will send him a Baghdad melon when they are in season. Au revoir. Our compliments to the other German airmen. The Royal Flying Corps.’ The English secret service had again done a brilliant piece of work.

For the next sixteen months the Germans and the Turks were steadily pushed back as British and Indian troops moved northwards, having already taken Gaza and Beersheba on the way to Jerusalem. They were supported by RFC squadrons under their GOC Palestine, General Sefton Brancker, the man who in 1914 had flown a B.E.2c hands-off from Farnborough to Netheravon. (Brancker was to survive the war only to die in the crash of the R.101 airship in 1930. He was last heard from via a spirit medium in a séance, describing himself as ‘rather busy’.)

In December 1917 General Allenby secured Jerusalem after several battles. The following September he finally defeated the Ottoman army at the Battle of Megiddo and was free to march into Damascus. After making heroic efforts in the air, the remaining German Staffeln retreated to Aleppo and thence flew northwards in stages across Turkey to Samsun on the Black Sea. By then they knew the war was lost and their efforts in the blazing sands of the Middle East had been in vain. News was coming in from Germany of increasing unrest and mutiny there as, inspired by the Russian Revolution and utter disenchantment with the men who had led the country to ruin and defeat, Communists and anarchists fomented social unrest. It must have been a bitter moment for the airmen on the shores of the Black Sea, looking back on the hundreds of hours they had spent in the air, wobbling in the thermals above the endless camel-coloured landscapes of rock and sand and dried-up wadis beneath which they had left so many of their former comrades. Retrospectively, the desert must have seemed to them as Mount Everest does today: a locus of pointless travail. At the same time they were no doubt looking forward with a mixture of relief and apprehension to being back in a changed Germany they might scarcely even recognise as their homeland.

They certainly had no monopoly of bitterness. Prince Feisal, Lawrence and his victorious Sherifian forces were in Damascus when Allenby arrived and had already announced a provisional Arab government. Lawrence had to translate for the Prince as Allenby informed him that this might not be recognised. Seventeen months later, shortly after he had proclaimed the independent Kingdom of Syria, Feisal was abruptly told that this was null and void and Damascus was to be handed over to the French. Sykes–Picot had triumphed. By then Lawrence was back in Britain on leave, sick with forebodings of the betrayal he knew was in store for his Arab comrades.


That story had a curious sequel. In 1920, and with some difficulty after the wholesale demobilisations that followed the war, W. E. Johns had managed to get himself reinstated on the RAF’s active list. With the recently established rank of Flying Officer he was posted to the deskbound job of an Inspector of Recruiting in London. The new downsizing RAF was keen to reinvent itself with fresh volunteers, and F/O Johns was under strict instructions not to enlist former officers of the RFC, RNAS or RAF. He was based in offices in Covent Garden and was deeply affected by the pathetic sight of jobless ex-servicemen living rough in the city. One day a former pilot from 110 Squadron, who had been in Landshut POW camp in Germany with him, walked into the office, having survived a week of sleeping in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields with a single penny bun to eat each day. Forbidden to wangle him a job, Johns could only give the man some of his own cash and send him away. The anger and disgust he felt at the way neglect was being lavished on these men who had risked their lives for their country came out in a story he later wrote about an ex-RFC pilot who decided to live a postwar life of crime in order to give the proceeds to needy ex-servicemen. So much for Lloyd George’s ringing promise of ‘a land fit for heroes to live in’. Johns’s mistrust and contempt for politicians became yet more deeply ingrained.

One day in August 1922 a potential recruit walked in to whom Johns took an instant dislike. He was thin, pale-faced and somehow arrogant. He gave his name as Ross but failed to provide a birth certificate so Johns sent him away to get the necessary documents and meanwhile contacted Somerset House. This check confirmed that the man’s identity was false, so when Ross returned Johns quite rightly rejected him. He came back within an hour in the company of a messenger from the Air Ministry bearing an order for Ross’s enlistment. Reluctantly, Johns sent him upstairs for the obligatory medical inspection, but one look at the scars on Ross’s back was enough for the doctor to turn the man down on medical grounds. He was all too plainly not of the calibre needed for the rejuvenated RAF, since apart from anything else he was already thirty-four. This time the Air Ministry sent its own doctor to the Covent Garden depot to sign Ross’s medical form. Furious at this high-handed treatment, Johns complained to his own CO who simply told him that he had just rejected Lawrence of Arabia, so he might as well shut up if he wished to keep his job. There was nothing anybody could do. The Chief of Air Staff, Sir Hugh Trenchard himself, had facilitated the whole process of smuggling Lawrence into the RAF disguised as Aircraftsman Ross, and that was that.

Johns never forgot this lesson in military realpolitik. Together with his wartime experiences it no doubt accounted for the deep scepticism of his later editorials in Popular Flying and elsewhere when commenting on official pronouncements by service chiefs and politicians. In some ways his belligerent advocacy for a properly prepared British air response to Germany’s rearmament in the 1930s had something in common with Noel Pemberton Billings’s denunciations and warnings in the House of Commons during the First World War. Though vastly different in character, both ex-pilots were unafraid of men in gold braid and had admirably clear vision and opinions when it came to understanding air power and its consequences.