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Early aerial warfare: Darfur 1916

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Dramatic images on news broadcasts of stealth jets striking targets in the world’s trouble spots with radar-guided bombs are the epitome of modern technological warfare. But such methods can be traced back to a far less sophisticated beginning on a spring day in 1916 when a 19-year-old English pilot raced his primitive wood and canvas biplane down a dirt landing strip in the western Sudan. 

Flying over the desert, he spotted a medieval army of horsemen clad in chain mail and white robes with long swords and spears that had not changed since the Crusades. Lt. John Slessor was sure the men below must have thought he was a god soaring across the heavens. What seemed almost a joke to Slessor was the start of a way of war that reverberates to this day in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Ali Dinar, ruler of Darfur in the western Sudan, had long resented British control of the region. With Britain distracted by World War One, he declared his independence. A British force of 3,000 men, mostly infantry with camel and horse units, was sent to deal with the sultan. At the last moment, a handful of aircraft was added. Aircraft were still very much in their infancy: flimsy structures of wood, wire and canvas. One of the biggest challenges was preventing white ants devouring the aircraft in their tent shelters; giant arrows made of white cloth had to be laid out in the desert to guide the pilots across the trackless wastes.

Bad weather meant the air detachment missed the main battle when the British force mowed down Ali Dinar‘s spear men with cannon and machine gun fire. A single aircraft piloted by Slessor got into the air the next day as the British approached the Darfur capital of El Fasher.

Ali Dinar was waiting for the British outside the city with 2,000 cavalry that were the cream of his army. Slessor’s BE2c had a single machine gun and could only carry four 20 pound bombs, but he attacked. He zoomed over the horsemen, releasing on each pass a single bomb that bowled over clumps of riders and animals. There was only one bomb left when Slessor glimpsed Ali Dinar on a white camel in the centre of the army. Slessor released his last bomb. Its blast tore the camel to bits, hurling the sultan to the ground and sending his army fleeing. Hours later the British advanced unopposed into the sultan’s abandoned capital.  

Four months later, Major PRC Groves, the staff officer of the air detachment, sat at his desk reading a scathing army attack on the airmen. The army claimed the aeroplane was not ‘an engine of war’, and it could not cope with difficult weather or terrain. Even worse, it claimed that the air wing had inflicted just 10 casualties in Darfur.  Groves countered that the air detachment had faced enormous difficulties and that the capability of aircraft was expanding almost daily. And then, with remarkable foresight, he wrote of how air power would transform warfare in desolate regions such as the Hindu Kush or Arabian deserts. Ground expeditions were expensive and took months to organise; aircraft had the flexibility, range and speed to intervene instantly; a handful of planes could put down unrest swiftly, and at minimal cost in money and casualties. “The ‘maintenance of order’ by threat of using aeroplanes,” Groves summed up, “… and otherwise harassing a countryside, would appear to be eminently practicable.” And then, as if only just grasping the implications of his thoughts, he concluded: “Its potentialities as an instrument of Government … appear very great.”

By Barry Renfrew 

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