1916 – Photo Album – Aviation in WWI Mesopotamia Campaign

Aviation in Mesopotamia Campaign WWI
Seaplanes on the Tigris
Basra and Kut

Forgotten Composite Air Force Squadron
“Air Commander Tigris Column”

Photograph Album


Basra and Kut-Al-Amara in Iraq, Bombay in India, 1916-1917. Album of photographs illustrating the work of the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps in Mesopotamia, particularly in the use of seaplanes, with some scenes pertaining to the definitive Second Battle of Kut, and also featuring a little-known Composite Air Force Squadron called “Air Commander Tigris Column” serving under the leadership of two notable and senior RNAS aviator commanders, Robert Gordon RNAS and Frederick Bowhill RNAS. The photographer and compiler of the album served in the RNAS during the Middle East Theatre of the First World War, and calls Bombay home. Contains 94 photographs, sepia gelatin print photographs measuring approximately 10 x 7,5 cm, neatly ensconced behind window mounts, recto and verso onto 12 thick leaves, captioned in manuscript. [The large majority of the photographs are from Mesopotamia; 2 show the Suez Canal; 10 are from Bombay.] Oblong 8vo. album measuring approximately 29 x 25 x 3 cm, greay cloth spine over blue cloth boards. Occasional images with mildly faded, wear to boards, otherwise in Very Good Condition, numerous striking images from an important campaign in the Middle East, with rare aviation photographs.

An uncommon opportunity is afforded with this primary source visual account – to see early British aviators and seaplanes in Mesopotamia – and to learn of their participation in the Middle Eastern Theatre of the Great War! The aviators, support crew, and aircraft seen here were involved in war-time reconnaissance of Turkish activity and in the relief of the Siege of Kut.

Most uncommon and intriguing, snapshot photographs illustrate the assembly of a seaplane, launching into the Tigris, and some having crashed. A group of petty officers pose in front of a “Short Plane.”

The officer shows his campsite at Kut-Al-Amara (now named Wasit). Another photograph shows the aviators’ camp flooded by the Tigris, and a damn of sandbags being erected. Camps for the aviators, mechanics, and all involved in the Naval Aviation Services were setup at Kut-Al-Amara, Otara, and Basra.

Further memorializing a noteworthy but forgotten group of aviators, the first page contains an image of a large number of service men captioned “Commander Bowhill & Captain Gordon’s Squadron,” referring to a composite squadron which operated seaplanes on the Tigris as well as other early aircraft. They did not have many aircraft at their disposal, and most proved ill-equipped for the heat and desert sands, putting the lives of these aviators especially at risk.

Very little documentation is readily accessible, and photographs of this aviation team are exceedingly scarce. “Air Commander Tigris Column” as they were known, were banded together in March 1916.

In June 1915 three Short Type 827 seaplanes (Ser. 822, 825 and 827) had been sent from UK via Gibraltar andarrived in Basra on 5 September. Under the command of Squadron Commander (Major RMLI) Robert Gordon RNAS, who had been transferred with RNAS air and ground crew from East Africa, the seaplanes were intended to be used for co-operation with the Naval forces in Mesopotamia. Forward reconnaissance and communications duties in support of the advancing (and later retreating) British forces were vital, however, so they were largely used for this purpose. The Type 827 seaplanes proved under-powered in the conditions and were eventually converted to wheeled undercarriages for land operations, which increased their utility. As Kut fell under siege, the RNAS Seaplanes withdrew to Basra on 7 December 1915.

On 17 January 1916 the RNAS squadron was reinforced by the arrival of two Voisin III biplanes (Ser. 8505 and 8506). The RNAS and RFC aircraft and pilots operated interchangeably from then on as a composite unit, supporting the Army “Tigris Corps” whose efforts were concentrated on relieving the besieged and soon starving garrison at Kut. In February, additional aircraft arrived for the RNAS – two more Voisin IIIs (Ser. V.1540 and V.1541), two Henri Farman F.27 (Ser. 3900 and 3901) and five Short 184 seaplanes (Ser. 8043 to 8047) with more powerful engines.

On 6 March 1916, “Air Commander Tigris Column” force was officially formed, being a composite force to operate as one formation under the orders of Wing Commander Robert Gordon RNAS. His ‘air force’ consisted of No. 30 Squadron RFC [Royal Flying Corps] together with the RNAS [Royal Naval Air Service] Squadron under Commander Frederick W. Bowhill RNAS, who had brought the five Short 184s out from England.

The months of March and April 1916 were taken up with support of the Kut relief column and with support of the increasingly desperate Kut garrison. The Turkish forces had now been reinforced by a German air squadron which included Fokker single-seat fighters. Air operations came to a climax between 15 and 29 April when they vainly attempted to keep the British troops besieged in Kut-al-Amara supplied by air-dropping food and supplies. Despite their limited ability to lift heavy loads in high temperatures about nine tons of food were dropped into Kut on 140 sorties. Despite opposition from German fighters, the cargo aircraft had to fly with only one pilot armed with a revolver for defence. All armament had to be left behind to maximize the stores lift. One Short was lost in air combat (Ser.8044). The 12,000-strong British garrison of Kut surrendered to the Turks on 29 April 1916. They included British and Indian troops, together with their Indian followers. By the end of the war, some 4,000 of them died from disease, starvation, or inhumane treatment at the hands of the Turks.

The RNAS withdrew from Mesopotamia in June 1916; its Short seaplanes were taken to Port Said and the crews were re-appointed to East Africa and elsewhere. The two remaining Voisin III biplanes were handed over to the RFC.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick William Bowhill GBE, KCB, CMG, DSO & Bar (1880-1960) was a senior commander in the Royal Air Force serving from 1914 when he was given command of the seaplane carrier HMS Empress, served through the Great War and also World War II, retiring in 1945. During the Great War, 1916-1917, he served with the Royal Naval Air Service in Mesopotamia for the Middle East Theatre. After the war Bowhill was sent abroad, being appointed in 1920 as the Chief of Staff to Group Captain Robert Gordon [whom he worked with in Mesopotamia] to participate in the highly successful Somaliland campaign. He went on to be Officer Commanding the RAF Depot in Egypt in 1925, then became Senior Air Staff Officer at Headquarters RAF Iraq Command in 1928 and Director of Organisation and Staff Duties at the Air Ministry in 1929.

Air Commodore Robert Gordon, CB, CMG, DSO (1882-1954) was an early British military aviator. He notably commanded the RAF’s Z Force in British Somaliland in 1920 as part of the Somaliland campaign. He commanded RAF Trans-Jordania in 1922-23. After some time as a supernumerary in 1923, Gordon attended the Senior Officers’ Course at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, the following year, he was appointed Officer Commanding No. 1 Group and 1925 saw Gordon promoted to air commodore and made Air Officer Commanding No. 3 Group in what was a return to his old command. Gordon retired at his own request only seven months later.

War related scenes show the Turkish hospital at Basra turned into RNAS headquarters, a battlefield at the village of Orata on the West Bank of the Tigris, and a Dhow with its sail shredded by a multitude of shots as it was prevented by British fire from approaching Kut-Al-Amara. A Turkish vessel was captured by the aviator squadron and converted to a workshop.

Three photographs show Turkish prisoners marching toward the RNAS hospital where they remained held under the supervision of Indian guards. [Turkish prisoners apprehended in 1917, were taken along Ashar Creek, brought to shore at the bazaar, and marched to No.3 British General Hospital Basra which had 1040 beds.]

Royal Navy vessels are seen monitoring Kut-Al-Amara (now named Wasit), where General Sir Frederick Stanley Maude and his new army reconquered Kut on February 23, 1917. Troops were transported along the Tigris on two barges and a stern-wheel river steamboat, according to the present scenes and manuscript captions.

Also important in terms of the Mesopotamian Campaign and piquing interest in Arab life, photographs show Arab settlements on the Tigris, a simple manual irrigation system, small handcrafted boats for children, and wooden gallows built for the public hanging execution of their felons.

British occupation of Mesopotamia (1914-1922)

In 1914, the British invaded Iraq (then called Mesopotamia) to protect their oil interests and what began as a very limited military expedition resulted in a 44 year military/political involvement, during which they fought a 12 year insurgency. Their involvement suffered from intelligence failures, Sunni-Shia rivalry, a Kurdish independence movement, a weak central government, looting and crime, inadequate infrastructure, and so on.

Known as the Mesopotamian Campaign, fighting commenced with the Battle of Basra in 1914 and continued for the duration of the war. The most notable action was the Siege of Kut, which resulted in the surrender of the British and British Indian Army garrison of the town in April 1916, after a siege of 147 days. Of 11,800 Allied soldiers who survived to be made prisoners; 4,250 died of disease or at the hands of their Ottoman guards during captivity.

The Siege of Kut al-Amarah, or the First Battle of Kut, 7 December 1915 to 29 April 1916, was at the time described as “the greatest humiliation to have befallen the British army in its history”. For the Turks and Germans however it was a significant morale booster, and undoubtedly weakened British influence in the Middle East. [Kut-Al-Amara (now named Wasit) is a city in eastern Iraq, on the left bank of the Tigris River, about 160 kilometres (99 miles) south east of Baghdad, and was the scene of a fierce battle during World War I.]

The Second Battle of Kut was fought on 23 February 1917, between British and Ottoman forces at Kut, Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). The battle was part of the British advance to Baghdad, by a 50,000-man British force organised in two army corps, which began in December 1916 and led to the capture of Baghdad. Led by British General Frederick Stanley Maude, the forces recaptured the city of Kut al-Amarah.

Mesopotamia refers to the area of the Tigris-Euphrates river system, and corresponds to modern-day Iraq, the northeastern section of Syria and to a much lesser extent southeastern Turkey, smaller parts of southwestern Iran and Kuwait. Widely considered to be the cradle of civilization in the West, Bronze Age Mesopotamia included Sumer and the Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empires, all native to the territory of modern-day Iraq.

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