The Roaring Lions of the Air

Lawrence James describes how costs and logistics made air power a way of enforcing British policy in the Middle East between the wars.

‘The roaring lions of the air' was the name given by Iraqi tribesmen to RAF bombers during the 1920s and 1930s. These machines flew over the deserts and mountains of Iraq, Jordan, southern Arabia, the Sudan, Somaliland and the North-West Frontier. They were a reminder of the power of the British Empire and the ability of its chastising arm to reach the remotest regions and punish the wayward. In official language this new disciplinary system was called 'air control', a cheap, scientific and, according to its supporters, humane method of keeping the imperial peace.

When formally adopted for the Middle East in 1921, air control was seen as an answer to one of the most awkward problems facing the rulers of Britain's empire. The first two decades of the twentieth century had seen an end to the late-Victorian surge of imperial conquest, and the onset of a period of consolidation, in which the foundations of settled government were laid. In the broadest terms, the empire was publicly represented as a benevolent force that introduced stability and order to lands which had lacked them, and set their peoples along a road towards physical and moral regeneration. In many areas the process inevitably led to conflict; the small wars of empire continued.

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