Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Pink’s War—A Charming Name for Death from the Air

Tribal fighters in the North-West Frontier.  A British general in the early 20th Century wrote a guide for operations in the region.  "First, plan your retreat.  All expeditions into tribal lands end in retreat."  That made attacking them from the air an attractive option.

Killing proclaimed fanatical Afghan tribesman at arm’s length from the air did not originate with the Soviets in their misadventure in the ‘80’s or with Bush’s cruise missiles or Obama’s drones.  The Brits in India had been battling them on the famous North-West Frontier for decades when they decided to try to wipe out the last resistance by the raiding tribes in a strictly air campaign that began on March 9, 1925.  It was the first time the Royal Air Force (RAF) ever conducted operations totally independent of the Army or Navy.  It is also thought to be the first offensive war conducted entirely from the air.
It went down in history or at least a footnote to history as Pink’s War in honor of the RAF officer who commanded operations, Wing Commander Richard Pink.  Unintentionally the name also evokes the heady days when Britain and her far-flung empire were always represented on maps in the color pink.  In 1925 a hell of a lot of the globe was pink.
The British had a long and bloody history fighting the Afghans beginning with the disastrous First Afghan War (1839-42) the ended with an army of the British East India Company being completely destroyed almost to the last man—only 1 officer, a doctor, made it alive back to India.  The Second Afghan War (1878-1880) was fought largely on the North-West frontier and was marked by more near massacres of British and Indian units.  This was the war immortalized in the tales and poems of Rudyard Kipling.  Ultimately, at great cost the British secured a recognized border between the Emirate of Afghanistan and India and control over Afghan foreign relations and defense which checkmated Russian ambitions in the so-called Great Game.  In exchange the British withdrew most of their troops from Afghanistan proper and allowed self-rule on local matters.
A Third Afghan War erupted in 1919 when Afghanistan decided to invade the North-West Territories to assert and gain complete independence.  Although the regular Afghan Army was ill-trained, badly organized, under supplied, armed mostly with a hodge-podge of obsolete weapons, and short on powder and ammunition they could rely on up to 50,000 tribal irregulars.   These were actually fierce warriors and excellent troops who were well armed and supplied with guns and ammunitions stolen from the British and excellent flintlock rifles of their own manufacture.  They were highly skilled in the guerilla tactics of hit, run, and ambush and could melt into the mountains and civilian populations.
The British and the Indian Army were superior in numbers and in training.  But it was recovering from years of service of many of its best units in World War I against the Germans and Ottomans.   Moral among troops of both armies was low as they hoped to be demobilized after 4 years of service in the Great War.
The Afghans, particularly the tribal auxiliaries, were able to inflict painful casualties and take some smaller garrisons.  They were supported by civilian insurrections in some of the North-West Territory’s principle cities.  After initial Afghan success, the British were able to rally and even to counter attack into Afghanistan.  The RAF provided an edge to the British by providing reconnaissance and intelligence on enemy movements, bombing and strafing enemy units and supply lines, and even bombing the Palace in Kabul.  Despite this the prospect of a lengthy war loomed and the possibility of becoming bogged down in a draining ground war of attrition.  The British had little stomach for that prospect.  Negotiations were opened with Afghan Amir Amanullah.   On August 9, 1919 a peace was declared.  The British claimed a tactical victory for holding its ground and having the border reaffirmed.  The Afghans, however, achieved their main war aim—complete sovereignty and independence.  During the short conflict the Afghans lost about 1000 dead, but the British also paid a heavy price—236 killed in action, 615 wounded 566 dead from cholera, and 334 dead from other diseases and accidents.
After the war officially ended, resistance by Afghan tribes in the North-West Frontier continued.  The British had to continue a low grade war against them for the next five years, employing cavalry and infantry on punitive raids when their installations, police stations, civil government offices, and military posts were attacked or when troops and commerce were ambushed.  But one by one the tribes were subdued or pushed across the border.  By 1925 only the Abdur Rahman Khel and three smaller Mahsud tribes in South Waziristan remained defiant.

Their stronghold was in some of the most rugged and remote mountain terrain in the Northwest Territory.  It shared a porous border with Afghanistan to the west where fighters could slip away for refuge or through which volunteers from other tribes might come in case of a prolonged or escalating conflict.  On the south as British India proper and the possibility that raid could be launched into the Raj itself.  A land offensive in such terrain would be extremely dangerous and costly.  The British faced the possibility of taking a defensive posture and enduring periodic raiding.
But recalling the effectiveness of the RAF in the Third Afghan War, the air officer commanding in India, Sir Edward Ellington conceived of an all-air operation to punish the rebels.  To command he picked a veteran officer with wide experience, Richard Pink.
Pink, was born on November 30, 1888 in Winchester, Hampshire, England.  He was educated at the Royal Naval College, at Dartmouth, Devon.  In 1904 at the age of 16 he enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1904.  He rose quickly in the service and by 1911 was a lieutenant in the submarine service.  With the outbreak of war in 1914, Pink transferred to the new Royal Navy Air Service, where he trained as a pilot and was assigned to anti-submarine duty.  During the war he served with distinction, including commanding anti-submarine units based in Midford Haven, Longside, and Pembroke.
When the Navy Air Service was absorbed into the new RAF, Pink, a promising officer, held various staff jobs and training commands.  He was made Wing Commander—the equivalent of Lt. Colonel in 1919.

Wing Comander Pink arrives at the forward base at Miriamshah.
In 1923 he arrived in India to take command of the No. 2 Indian Wing consisting of the Nos. 5, 27, and 60 Squadrons.  In 1925 he was tapped by Air Vice-Martial Ellington to plan and lead the all-air operation against the Waziristan tribesman.   No. 6 squadron flying Bristol F2B fighters stationed in Tank a district capital near the Wasiristan border, and 27 and 60 Squadrons stationed at a forward base at Miramshah on the Afghan border began operations on March 8 by dropping flyers alerting the local population of impeding action and warning them about harboring fighters.  The next day strafing and bombing runs against suspected insurgent formations began.   Around-the-clock night and day bombing by deHavilland DH9A light single engine bombers was meant less to inflict casualties or damage civilian villages than to completely disrupt daily life and prevent the villages from becoming safe havens for the tribal fighters.  Inevitably, however, there were civilian casualties and some villages were heavily damage.  Herd of goats, mainstays of the agricultural economy were killed or scattered.
The campaign was, or seemed, relentless.  On May 1 after 53 days tribal leaders gave up and agreed to end hostilities and accept governance by British approved local councils answerable to colonial bureaucrats.  None of their leaders were arrested or prosecuted after the so-called Honorable Peace.

A Bristol F.2b Fighter like those flown in Pink's War.

No one counted tribal casualties.  The RAF lost only two men and one aircraft in the operation.  It was such a stunning success that it became the only action officially named for an RAF officer.  Jealous senior official in the War Office at first resisted bestowing honors for Pink and his men of the upstart RAF, but eventually the India General Service Medal with the Waziristan 1925 bar was awarded to the 46 officers and 214 enlisted men who participated in the action.  The Waziristan bar is the rarest of all such distinctions which can be attached to the ribbon.  Pink was promoted to Group Captain “in recognition of his services in the field of Waziristan” and several of the combat pilots received medals including a Distinguished Service Order, three Distinguished Service Crosses, and 5 Distinguished Flying Medals for Sergeant Pilots.   14 other men, including the two who were killed were mentioned in the dispatches.
Pink seemed destined for great things in the service.  He was mentioned as a possible future Chief of Air Services.   But he contracted cancer and died on March 7, 1932 in England at Princess Mary's RAF Hospital, RAF Halton.  He was just 43 years old.



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