SPOTLIGHT ON MEDALS
Air Commodore Graham Pitchfork MBE, provides an insight into flying service medals
Collectors with a specific interest in medals awarded to Britain’s flying services have to wait until the end of the First World War before adding campaign medals to their collection, writes Air Commodore Graham Pitchfork MBE, Past President of the Orders and Medals Research Society
Within months of the end of the war, men of the recently created Royal Air Force were in action, which resulted in the award of the India General Service Medal with the clasp Afghanistan N.W.F. 1919. This was the third clasp of the new ‘India’ medal sanctioned in 1908, and the second to be issued with the second type of obverse. Of the 12,500 clasps struck, 850 were awarded to RAF personnel drawn from four squadrons and support staff.
In 1919, the then Chief of the Air Staff, Major General Hugh Trenchard, produced a memorandum, which, inter alia, advocated the use of air power to ‘police’ trouble spots in overseas territories. His ideas were to be tested almost at once when Afghanistan declared war on India with hostilities commencing on 6
May 1919; the so-called Third Afghan War had started and was destined to last for just four weeks.
Many thousands of Afghan Army regular troops, aided by thousands of armed tribesmen were fiercely engaged at various points by British and Indian army columns supported by the few antiquated aircraft of the two resident RAF squadrons. They provided direct support of the army in addition to carrying out bombing raids against rebel towns and villages. While supporting a large army column, aircraft of 31 Squadron attacked the Afghan town of Jalalabad where large parts of the military quarters were burnt out.
A handful of aircraft reinforcements arrived, and these included two
‘heavy bombers’, both having made an epic direct flight from England at the beginning of 1919. On 24 May, the larger of the two, a Handley Page V/1500 Old Carthusian, took off from Risalpur to bomb Amir Ammanulla’s palace at Kabul.
Piloted by Flight Lieutenant Jock Halley, and with an observer and three mechanics on board, the heavily-laden bomber took off at 3 am on 24 May 1919. As the aircraft approached the Khyber Pass, Halley noticed a leak from the starboard engine. After consultation with his engine fitter, he decided to press on. Straining to climb, the aircraft just cleared the 8,000 feet Jagdalak Pass and Halley headed for Kabul where he dropped his bombs. He later commented; ‘if that didn’t frighten a city that had never seen an aircraft before, the sight and sound of the Old Carthusian low over the city at a few hundred feet with four engines roaring certainly did.’
On the return flight Halley had to stop one of the engines and keep the other three at full power to maintain height. The aircraft landed at Risalpur after being airborne for six hours.
Four of the larger bombs found their mark, including demolishing a wall of the Amir’s harem, and the raid so impressed the Afghans that the Amir hastily sought an armistice, followed by a peace treaty signed a few weeks later. As the subsequent Official History of the campaign records, the contribution of a handful of obsolete aircraft was one of the main military lessons of the war. It was the prelude to many more ‘air policing’ operations by the RAF.
Find out much more about medal collecting with the help of the Orders & Medals Research Society. The Society exists to promote a general interest in the study of orders, decorations and medals and to actively encourage and publish research into all aspects of civil and military medals, with a particular focus on those issued by Great Britain and the Commonwealth countries. Visit the website: omrs.org