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Military Digest: Pink’s War, applying the principles of air control

The emerging technological capabilities of the aeroplane presented a more efficient, less expensive, and comparatively more humane way of enforcing its will to the government and a better way of imposing discipline.

Written by Mandeep Singh Bajwa |
June 13, 2020 12:04:08 am
aerial warfare,Wing Commander RCM Pink world war 1, Royal Air Force (RAF), war pink, The RAF did not lack its own progressive theorists. They propounded the ideas of air control, blockage and stand-off bombardment. (Source:

The air operations in Waziristan on the North-West Frontier in the first half of 1925 were an important step in the development of aerial warfare; in particular the principles of air control. The campaign came to be known as Pink’s War after the operational commander Wing Commander RCM Pink. This was the only campaign ever to be named after a Royal Air Force (RAF) officer.

In the period between the two world wars the theory of air warfare was propelled by such thinkers as Mitchell and Douhet. The RAF did not lack its own progressive theorists. They propounded the ideas of air control, blockage and stand-off bombardment. The force was looking for relevance in peacetime, planning for future wars and securing its own prospects against a backdrop of a post-World War One struggle between the three Services for means. This was a period of austerity.

The use of air power for colonial policing presented a unique opportunity of testing the utility of air control. This seemed an attractive and intelligent option to the use of ground troops in expensive, lengthy and costly (in terms of casualties) campaigns. After the successful use of aerial bombardment in the Fifth Somaliland Expedition (against the armed Dervish movement putting up resistance to the colonialists) in 1920 the fledgling RAF was keen to further establish its military credentials as a force capable of power projection.

The opportunity presented itself in 1925 on the North-West Frontier of India. Ever since the British closed up to the borders with Afghanistan in the first half of the 19th Century the restless, freedom-loving Pashtun tribes of the region were a source of never-ending trouble – none more so than the Mahsuds of South Waziristan. Their belligerent, pugnacious behaviour coupled with the remoteness and inaccessibility of Waziristan made them an enduring cause of unrest. The region’s terrain was as if made for insurgency.

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Elaborate, costly and time-consuming punitive expeditions had to be mounted periodically by infantry, cavalry and artillery to subdue and suppress the Mahsuds at the same time maintaining a strategic footprint in the region. Large, ponderous columns requiring elaborate flank protection were required for what were known (not without reason) as Butcher and Bolt or Burn and Scuttle missions.

Air Vice Marshal (later Marshal of the RAF) Sir Edward Ellington, Air Officer Commanding, India made the unprecedented offer to quell the Mahsuds’ defiance by conducting air operations without using the Army. He was a strong advocate of Salmond’s policy of air control with greater RAF employment on the Frontier. Marshal of the RAF Sir John Salmond was an influential thinker on the use of air power in the inter-wars rising to become Chief of Air Staff in 1930.

The emerging technological capabilities of the aeroplane presented a more efficient, less expensive, and comparatively more humane way of enforcing its will to the government and a better way of imposing discipline. Air power presented an easy way to reach remote, mountainous regions. It meant the selective use of force including minimum deterrence and calibrated, planned escalation. The use of aircraft enabled a swifter, more graduated reaction to provocations.

The strategic aim was to blockade the tribesmen out of their territory instead of into it. Tactics planned aimed to compel a tribe to abandon their villages and grazing grounds and prevent harvests and routine agricultural activity. The Mahsuds were to be prevented from fighting the Army on equal terms. No opportunity was to be afforded to loot weapons and ammunition, a prime motivation for raiding activity.

Air control meant interrupting the normal pattern of life of the tribes to such an extent that a continuation of hostilities become intolerable in the face of mounting economic losses. The Army’s operational aim was always the military defeat of the tribesmen through causing casualties and physical control of territory. In contrast the RAF wanted to undermine their morale and sap their fighting spirit through denial and judiciously applied pressure. This was an appealing objective in political quarters hoping for the long-term establishment of stability and pacification.

By the end of February 1925 events were building up to a climax. Meanwhile the RAF’s staff planned for the intervention looking more and more on the cards, allocating the force to be employed. A final warning in the shape of leaflets in Pashto and Urdu were dropped over the tribal areas on 25th February. The force to be deployed was No. 2 (India) Wing based at Risalpur (now in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) commanded by Wing Commander Richard Pink, a seasoned aviator and commander. After coordinating conferences with Army commanders and staff at Northern Command headquarters at Rawalpindi, Pink set about deploying his forces and arranging his logistics.

No. 5 Squadron with ten Bristol F2B two-seat biplane fighter and reconnaissance aircraft (colloquially known as the ‘Brisfit’) was deployed to Tank airstrip adjoining Waziristan. The other aircraft type employed was the de Havilland DH-9A single-engine light bomber. These were flown by Numbers 27 and 60 Squadrons (with 8 aircraft in each) and stationed at Miramshah forward operating base in North Waziristan. A flight ex-No. 20 Squadron deployed to Tank on 18th March to reinforce No. 5 Squadron. The Wing’s operational HQ was also established there.

Conditions were issued in no uncertain terms to the Abdur Rehman Khel, Guri Khel, Fatidai and Maresai sub-tribes to ensure compliance including the usual payment of fines, surrender of a token number of weapons, cattle and recovery of abducted persons failing which air action was threatened. The Mahsuds were neither impressed nor subdued. They apparently didn’t think very highly of operations by aeroplanes. The stage was now set for the launch of the first successful air control campaign in military aviation history at dawn on 9th March 1925.

Action was based on the tribal principle of collective responsibility for crimes committed. The rationale behind this approach was that each tribe, sub-tribe, village and Malik (tribal leader) was responsible for all that went on in its area. No distinction was made between combatants and non-combatants or those who were guilty or innocent. The area of operations was around 50-60 square miles of mountainous terrain ranging in height from 3,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level. This necessitated aircraft with full bomb-loads to restrict fuel capacities to approximately 60% in order to attain bombing heights.

Targets for bombing ranged from villages with mud-houses and fortified watch-towers to inaccessible cave dwellings to isolated huts and enclosed compounds. Tribesmen themselves and their cattle in the open were legitimate targets too for strafing. The tactical formation employed was a flight of three machines. The targets being small in size it was not considered economical to attack with more than such a small number. Bombing runs were usually from a height of 3,000 feet above the targets. After a number of experiments, the best bomb-load for the purpose on the DH 9A was found to be eight 20-lb bombs under each plane and two 112-lb bombs under the centre section. The 20-lb bombs were used generally for harassing action and the 112-lb bombs against any major targets which were observed. Except in the morning and evening atmospheric conditions made accurate bombing problematic.

Tactics used were intensive air attack, air blockade and night bombing. Attacks from the air consisted of a series of coordinated raids. The power of attacks varied across time and place. Intensive air attacks were conducted by a series of coordinated raids. Air blockade consisted of constant raids on targets of opportunity creating continual harassment giving rise to a general feeling of uncertainty, insecurity and apprehension. By preventing cultivation or grazing of flocks the economic base of the tribes was hit hard.

On 30th March a Bristol fighter from No. 31 Squadron fitted out for night-flying arrived at Tank. Night bombing used moonlight for navigation. Flares were of great help. The first such sortie occurred on 4th April with ground crew employing searchlights and paraffin landing flares to recover the aircraft. This was a significant development. The Mahsuds considering themselves safe at night now faced round the clock aggression. Buoyed by the success of this game-changing tactic RAF headquarters ordered two more Bristol night-fighters flown from Ambala to Tank to augment the bomber force.

By 20th March, RAF operations had forced the majority of hostiles into hiding and completely upset their normal routine of life. On 21st March, Flying Officers NC Hayter-Hames and EJ Dashwood from No. 27 Squadron flying a de Havilland DH-9A biplane were forced to crash-land in hostile territory. The cause was probably accurate rifle fire, something that the tribesmen were noted for. Hayter-Hames was killed immediately. Dashwood heroically leapt into the flames of the burning aircraft to extricate the pilot and was severely burnt. He was taken into the care of friendly Guri Khel tribesmen who lavished care on him but to no avail. That bodies of both downed airmen were returned augured well for hope of a negotiated settlement.

Despite a number of minor successes, it was becoming clear to the commanders and staff by this stage that operations were likely to become drawn-out. The speedy victory initially sought was not visibly in sight. The campaign now developed into an air blockade enforced by a pair of aircraft patrolling a designated area ready to bomb and strafe targets of opportunity or call up reinforcements. Their very presence kept the hostiles’ heads down and under cover. The tactics were working.

To achieve a greater effect and give evidence of the force that backed up the government’s resolve a large offensive was mounted on 4th April prior to the first night-raid with some 38 sorties being flown during the day time. In the meanwhile, Jirgas had on and off appeared before officials with suggestions for terms. Nothing came out of these approaches though.

Squadron Leader TF Hazell, commanding officer of No. 60 Squadron made a forced landing at Sorarogha emergency landing strip after his engine cowling came loose on 4th April. His DH-9A was a total write-off though he and his gunner escaped with minor bruises. In the only incident of a large body of tribesmen being encountered in the open, a gathering of the Faridai sub-tribe was attacked on 9th April with bombs and machine-gun fire. Reinforcements were called in to turn it into a rout but the weather played spoil-sport.

Despite momentary lulls because of negotiations operations continued into the third week of April. Ultimately three days of exhausting, frustrating negotiations beginning 28th April brought results. The tribesmen having been ‘softened-up’ by the ruthless air offensive terms were finally agreed upon by all parties on 1st May. Fifty-four days of unremitting air action came to an end with all government terms accepted by the hostile tribes.

The Times of London, the British Empire’s gold standard as far as journalism was concerned, having ignored the campaign till now suddenly work up to state, ‘The operations of the RAF in Waziristan have been crowned with success’. Tribal casualties could not be computed correctly but were believed to be high. More important was the fact that the usual suppression and punitive aim was achieved without deploying ground forces and with negligible losses. As we already know only two British Servicemen (the unfortunate Flying Officers Hayter-Hames and Dashwood) were killed in action their plane being the only one lost to suspected enemy action. Squadron Leader Hazell’s DH-9A, as we already know was lost in an accident.

The operational statistics and comparison with earlier operations made an interesting study. Pink’s pilots flew 1,222 sorties to drop 154 tons of bombs and fire 100,000 rounds of ammunition on the hostiles. A total of 2,713 hours of flying time were used to unload all this ordnance. In sharp contrast ground action in 1919-20 to suppress the Mahsuds and punish them for transgressions cost 1,800 killed in action, 3,675 wounded and 40,000 sick (the overwhelming majority succumbing to the worldwide Spanish ‘flu epidemic). The financial cost of Pink’s operations was negligible compared to those which occurred five years earlier.

Utter helplessness and inability to retaliate against air attack wrought great psychological damage on the tribesmen and brought about their speedy capitulation.

Delay in initiating operations meant that warming weather made conditions easier for tribesmen and their families to stay out of doors or in caves. Passes into Afghanistan being free of snow and therefore open the tribesmen could take refuge there with ease.

A number of lessons were learnt by the RAF. Wear and tear on aircraft and engines from the ongoing training season resulted in the overall shortage of 27 planes and 40 engines. By 1st May the shortage had grown to 85 planes and 44 engines. Despite crippling shortages 2,700 hours of flying were done over a 54-day period

All pilots due to be rotated out of India on completion of their tenures had already left. Their replacements needed training and experience in flying in Indian conditions.

Pink was a dynamo of energy throughout the operations. His leadership undoubtedly played a vital part in ensuring success.

What was the impact of No. 2 Wing’s campaign on future operations? Firstly, the use of offensive sir support became a regular feature factored into all futuristic planning. The all-important task of road opening or securing communication routes for through traffic against raids, ambushes and sniping now featured fighter support. Transportation of troops and logistic support by air made their debut in Frontier warfare.

The tribesmen considered the use of aircraft rather ‘unsporting’ of the British. No rifles or ammunition could be recovered from aircraft. One Malik said, ‘Hostilities against aircraft were poor sport resulting in few casualties’. The Pashtuns had no anti-aircraft weapons or even machine-guns. They used rifle fire to try and stave off attacking aircraft. At times it was very accurate in keeping with their reputation for marksmanship. A young RAF officer wrote in 1928 that ‘The Mahsuds’ rifle fire was uncomfortably like that of a machine-gun and almost as effective’.

What lessons does Pink’s War hold for us in India now? The threshold of minimum force required for counter-insurgency operations in free India cannot obviously be crossed in the manner that the British could when dealing with a population other than their own. That much must be clear from the panicky decision of our government to sanction the use of air strikes on Aizawl in the beginning of the Mizo insurgency in March 1966. The misjudged action rankles to this day among the people of Mizoram and played a major role in recruitment to the insurgents’ ranks.

The entire technology and scope of air power have changed over the last century with the latest stand-off weapons, smart munitions, unmanned combat aerial vehicles and air-launched Cruise missiles. These provide a golden opportunity to launch aerial attacks from safe locations on our side of the Line of Control (LOC) on terrorist training camps, launchpads and support infrastructure in Pakistani-Occupied Kashmir, West Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. We made a start with the Balakot airstrike. Time to take it to the next level now.

Lastly, during his many flights over the area of operations, Richard Pink composed a piece of rhyme titled ‘Waziristan 1925’. The chorus ran –

Don’t you worry there’s nought to tell

‘Cept work and fly and bomb like hell,

With hills above us and hills below

And rocks to fill where the hills won’t go,

Nice soft sitting for those who crash

But war you call it?—don’t talk trash!

War’s a rumour, war’s a yarn,

This is the peace of Waziristan

Please contact the writer with your military story on or 093161-35343

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