This film is held by the Imperial War Museum (ID: IWM 876).


Everyday life for members of 99 (Madras Presidency) Squadron RAF at Ambala, India, June-September 1919.

(Reel 1) The troopship SS Barpeta brings a fresh contingent for the squadron into Karachi harbour. The men travel by train on to Ambala, where they get their first real view of India, including a hookah smoker, and the "local cab", a one-horse cart. Officers sit outside their bungalows and NCOs outside an open-air canteen in the cool of the evening. Out on the parade ground the airmen go through drill routines, bayonet fighting, and a boxing match. Indoors other airmen, with some help from Indians, work at their trades: some repair the engines of the squadron trucks and planes: others plane wood and drill metal, while others still repair tyres. In a workshop the wings and tails of aircraft being repaired are worked on. The squadron flies Bristol F2B Fighters. Some of the pilots pose for the camera. (Reel 2) "Life is not always dull. A message may arrive asking for a turbulent tribal village to be bombed." An officer receives the message and briefs the crews of two aircraft while their planes are bombed up. Throwing up a lot of dust the Bristol Fighters take off. Later a wireless operator at base receives a request for help from one of the planes. The second plane, on return, confirms that the first has made a forced landing in a field through engine trouble. A breakdown tender drives out to assist, and finding the aircraft starts repairs. Meanwhile recreation continues, with football and tennis matches at the squadron. At the RAF Depot in Karachi airmen go boating and bathing in the harbour. At one of the hill stations officers depart to stalk "buck", catching nothing but having time for a picnic. (Reel 3) Airmen shop in the bazaar at Ambala, and a civilian (the cameraman ?) joins in. 'Typical' Indians are shown. One of the camels used by the RAF for transport, "a quaint creature", is ridden by his owner. In the surrounding countryside the cameraman films mosques and Hindu temples. At this point the film breaks up into extra scenes from previous reels: the football match, the repair to the damaged aircraft, more of the football match. Then a game of billiards being played in the officers' mess. Finally the boxing match and the bayonet fighters again.


Remarks: probably a 'home movie', this certainly has all the faults associated with that genre. Failing to allow for the intense light of India, the cameraman often produces faded images and only rarely uses close-ups. In contrast he has used dissolves, iris shots and masked shots far too often, and with no understanding of their conventional meanings. His staged scenes are frequently so obvious as to be comical. The film tells far more about the attitudes of the British in India than about the realities of life there



With the Royal Air Force in India was filmed in 1919, the year in which the Ambala airbase, India’s first, was opened. Its original occupants were the 99 RAF squadron (Das, 2004). This nascent outfit was not particularly well equipped. In his book, The Central Blue, Sir John Slessor, Marshal of the Royal Air Force, recalled that ‘it was a common experience to have to borrow a propeller from one flight, a tail-skid from another and a wheel from the third to make a single aeroplanes [sic] in the squadron fit to take the air’ (quoted in Das, 2004).

Ambala is located in the north of India close to the Afghan border. During the British rule of India, Afghanistan was regarded as a buffer state, sandwiched between north-west India and the Russian Empire. By means of a series of wars against the country Britain took control of Afghanistan’s foreign policy and influenced the country’s choice of leaders. Britain was also responsible for drawing up boundaries. In 1893 the British Indian Foreign Secretary Sir Mortimer Durand undertook a mission to define the border between Afghanistan and India. The Durand line arbitrarily cut through tribal areas, prompting disturbances. These intensified after 1901 when the Indian Viceroy, Lord Curzon, created the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), which again cut through the homelands of the Pashtun tribes (Saikal, Farhadi and Nourzhanov, 2006, 50).

In 1919 Afghanistan’s new leader Amanullah Khan declared independence from Britain, sparking the third Anglo-Afghan War. Afghan troops allied with Pashtun tribesmen crossed the Durand Line in May 1919. In the ensuing combat British air power, limited as it was, proved decisive (Barthorp, 2002, 152). Although Khan agreed to an armistice in August 1919, skirmishes with the tribesmen continued. The main role of RAF in Ambala in late 1919 was to quash an uprising by the Wazir tribe (Haq, Khan and Nuri).

1919 was a pivotal year for India. The Government of India Act made concrete the Montagu Declaration of 1917, which had first proposed self-rule for the sub-continent. Although this act proposed no radical changes for central government, for the first time Indian ministers were given power at the provincial level. The Government also imposed the Rowlatt Act, which extended emergency wartime powers indefinitely. It was the nation-wide opposition that Gandhi organised in response to these measures that first gained him public prominence.



With the Royal Air Force in India sits halfway between a home movie and a professional film. It employs devices familiar from the cinema such as intertitles, dissolves, and irises. There is effective use of the intertitles (different borders are used to indicate distinct types of scene), but the framing devices do not accord with their conventional application in professional film. For example, without any explanation, a scene on a boating lake is shot entirely through an iris.

There is an attempt to construct a narrative within the film. The action commences with a troopship arriving and the film then shows the squadron’s first experiences of India. Scenes of repairs taking place in the airbase’s workshop prefigure the later mending of a damaged plane. Elsewhere, however, scenes are randomly assembled. This is most apparent in relation to the sporting activities of the RAF, which return to the screen when least expected.

The cameraman is limited in the subject matter to which he has access. The main action takes place in and around the compound, and the filmmakers appear a little weary of this fact. After the scenes in the workshop a title card announces ‘Life is not always dull’, adding that ‘A message may arrive asking for a turbulent tribal village to be bombed’. In this sequence we do not see any of the tribesmen or any of the bombing; instead the film laboriously details the departure and return of the planes. Drama is instead provided by the fact that one of the planes ‘malfunctions’, and we then witness staged sequences of its call for help and of its repair.

The film provides no background information regarding the tribal campaign and says nothing of the political changes taking place in India. What it does disclose is some of the colonial attitudes of the British. These are in evidence in filmmakers’ priorities and biases. They depict the methods and machinery of the RAF as up to date, and in contrast portray India as an antiquated society. The film’s ‘Indian Scenes’ are solely focused on traditional life, capturing hookah smoking, haggling, folk music and dance. The filmmakers are also generally more interested in Indian buildings than they are in the people of the sub-continent. There is only one scene in which the cameraman deliberately focuses on a group of locals. At an RAF football match Indian men among the crowd are filmed in medium close-up; it comes as a surprise when a panned movement of the camera reveals a smartly dressed British woman in their midst.

Colonial attitudes are also evidenced by the action that takes place within the film. Indians are regularly depicted performing subservient duties for RAF personnel. An extended example is provided in the scenes of a buck hunting expedition. As they head out on the hunt RAF officers get to occupy a horse and cart while their Indian servants have to walk behind. During the hunt one of the servants guides the officers towards the prey and carries their picnic. He is not allowed to share it with them, however. While the officers have their food and drink he has to sit apart.

In this film the hunts for tribesmen and for animals are portrayed in a similar manner; both come across as being good sport for the RAF. These events appear to be as much about the excursion as they are about the kill, not least because neither the tribesmen nor game can be witnessed. The hunts in fact appear to be more relaxing than the RAF’s sporting activities. It is only in the boxing and football matches that sinews are strained and conflict is apparent.

Richard Osborne (September 2009)


Works Cited

Barthorp, Michael, Afghan Wars and the North-West Frontier 1839-1947 (London: Cassell. London, 2002).

Das, Rahul. ‘India’s Oldest Airbase’, The Tribune, 17 August 2004, http://www.tribuneindia.com/2004/20040817/haryana.htm#12.

Haq, Noor ul, Rahshid Ahmed Khan and Maqsudal Hasan Nuri, Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, http://ipripak.org/papers/federally.shtml.

Saikal, Amin, Raven Farhadi and Kirill Nourzhanov, Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006).




Technical Data

Running Time:
49 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
2900 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries: