Background and the Afghan civil war
In the late 1920s, the British Legation in Afghanistan was situated 2.5 miles west of Kabul city. At that time, the King of Afghanistan, Amanullah introduced a series of political changes intended to bring about a more European way of life in his country. Having created a parliament, Amanullah made several speeches to his legislature in September and October 1928 which were directly opposed in the chamber by conservative factions. In the country there were protests from the mullahs and Amanullah was denounced as a kafir or unbeliever.
With increasing rumours of civil war, the British Minister at Kabul and former RAF pilot, Sir Francis Humphrys, became concerned about the safety and lines of communication to the Legation. On 3 December Humphrys sent a message to the Air Officer Commanding RAF India, Geoffrey Salmond, asking him to maintain the air mail service to Kabul and prepare extra aircraft in case of an emergency. Salmond agreed with Humphrys assessment but he lacked suitable aircraft for transporting large numbers within his command, although he did have two squadrons of general-purpose Airco DH.9As and two Westland Wapitis. Salmond's only appropriate aircraft, a Handley Page Hinaidi, was in Baghdad as it had temporarily been assigned to transporting Sir Denys Bray, the Indian Foreign Secretary. Salmond did request that a single Vickers Victoria be detached from the RAF in Iraq and flown to India.
The first open rebellion against Amanullah's rule came from the Shinwari tribe who were angered by the imposition of various laws, including the requirement to wear European dress, the rule that required them to send a quota of their daughters to Kabul for education and the impositions of taxes (they had never previously paid tax). The Shinwaris attacked Jalalabad, cutting off its water supply and closing the Kabul - Peshawar road. Amanullah responded by using his fledgling Air Force, including Russian refugee pilots, to bomb the Shinwaris. The use of foreign "infidels" to subjugate Muslims roused other tribes to revolt and the country descended into civil war.
Effects on British Legation
In the situation of turmoil, an opportunist leader called Habibullah and his 3,000 disaffected tribesmen entered the conflict. They attacked Kabul on 14 December 1928, capturing the forts to the north-west of the city. Habibullah then advanced on the Asmai Heights, to the west of the Legation, and although checked by Amanullah's forces, Habibullah was not prevented from turning towards Kabul on a route which took him past the British Legation.
Sir Francis Humphrys met Habibullah at the gates of the Legation and although Habibullah was well disposed towards the British, his personal authority did not prevent his irregular forces from firing random shots into the Legation buildings. With the Legation situated between the rebel army and Government-controlled city, the British were effectively isolated. The Legation lost wireless communications with British India, having sent their last message on 16 December which requested the evacuation of women and children.
The requested Victoria departed Iraq, arriving in Karachi on 17 December. The following day it travelled to Quetta and after a local check flight had been carried out, it arrived in Risalpur on 19 December. The previous day a DH.9A of No. 27 Squadron piloted by Flying Officer Trusk and accompanied by Leading Aircraftman Donaldson flew to the Legation with the intention of dropping a Popham Panel which would enable air-to-ground signalling. However, before they could carry out their mission, small arms fire damaged their aircraft and they were forced to land at the nearby Afghan Air Force landing ground at Sherpur. Trusk and Donaldson decided to attempt to get to the Legation on foot and they ran between the opposing armies (who were exchanging fire) carrying a generator with them. Both airmen eventually made it to the Legation where they used the generator to power its wireless and re-establish intermittent communications with Peshawar and Miranshah.
From the 19 to 22 December, several DH.9As flew over the Legation. Although no landing was attempted, a fully working wireless set and other items were dropped by parachute. Evacuation began on 23 December, when a Vickers Victoria and four smaller planes landed on Sherpur. By New Year's Day 1929, over 300 women and children were airlifted to safety.
Situation deteriorated on January 14 when Habibullah entered Kabul city, and a decision was made to evacuate the remaining British personnel, along with expatriates from other nations as well as members of the Afghan royal family. The last planes left Sherpur airfield on 25 February, taking Sir Francis Humphrys to Peshawar.
The Kabul Airlift is notable as the first large-scale air evacuation in history, with a total of 586 people being rescued. Considering the limitations of aircraft at the time, operating amidst a civil war, bitter cold, and mountainous terrain, the Kabul Airlift was a remarkable feat of endurance for both the airmen and the civilians involved.
- Telegraph.co.uk - Afghanistan: 80 years since the British evacuation of Kabul
- RAF 'Heroes of Kabul' - 80th Anniversary. Royal Air Force official website
- Baker, Anne; Ivelaw-Chapman, Sir Ronald (1975). Wings over Kabul: The first airlift. London: William Kimber. ISBN 0-7183-0184-6.
- Bowyer, Chaz (1988). "Chapter Nine: Over the 'Grim'". RAF Operations 1918-1938. London: William Kimber. ISBN 0-7183-0671-6.