First Military Uses of the Airplane

Today I have decided to try to throw bombs from the aeroplane. It is the first time that we will try this and if I succeed, I will be really pleased to be the first person to do it,” wrote Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti to his father. With other military aviators of the new Italian Royal Army Air Services Specialist Battalion, Lt. Gavotti had been sent to the Ottoman Turk provinces of Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica to fight in the Italo-Turkish War. His aeroplane was a Blériot monoplane, one of only a handful in Italy’s possession.

Today two boxes full of bombs arrived. We are expected to throw them from our planes. It is very strange that none of us have been told about this, and that we haven’t received any instruction from our superiors. So we are taking the bombs on board with the greatest precaution. It will be very interesting to try them on the Turks.”

In the earliest air actions, carried out by Italian airmen in Libya (Tripolitania), the bomb dropped by Lieut. Gavotti was a 2-kg weapon like the one shown here: it was known as a Cipelli bomb, so named after its inventor.

In almost every country there were adventuresome military personnel who wanted to demonstrate the utility of the aircraft in warfare. As soon as aircraft performance would permit carrying a few more pounds than just those of the pilot and his observer, attempts were made to install and use weapons. On January 19, 1910, the famous Louis Paulhan flew an airplane over a field in Los Angeles, and U.S. Army Lieutenant Paul Beck dropped dummy bombs. On June 9, the French lieutenant (later general) Philippe Féquant made the first photo-reconnaissance flight. On August 20, Lieutenant Jacob E. Fickel, U.S. Army, fired a rifle from his Curtiss biplane at a target in Sheepshead Bay, New York. On November 14, Eugene Ely launched naval aviation with a flight in his Curtiss pusher from the USS Birmingham. He would make the first landing on January 18, 1911, on the USS Pennsylvania. On March 3, the famed Wright exhibition pilot, Phil O. Parmelee, and his passenger, the future Chief of the United States Army Air Corps, Lieutenant Benjamin (“Bennie”) Foulois, used both radio and carrier pigeons to communicate with the ground from their Curtiss biplane. On June 2, 1912, Lieutenant Thomas DeWitt Milling flew a Wright Model B biplane, with Captain Charles de Forest Chandler firing a machine gun from the air. Both men became famous U.S. Air Service aviators. Similar indications of progress, not so well reported, took place in the military services of other countries.

Yet long before Chandler and Milling had fired a shot, the aircraft had gone to war, and in a significant way. On September 28, 1911, Lieutenant Colonel Vittorio Cordero di Montezemolo ordered the Aviation Unit of the Italian Specialist Battalion Headquarters to send an “air fleet” to Libya (then a part of the Ottoman Empire) as a part of a Special Army Corps “to protect Italian commercial interests.” It was, in fact, essentially an invasion of Turkish territory. Five pilots, under the command of Captain Carlo Piazza of the Eighth Field Artillery, were assigned to the task. They brought with them nine aircraft, including two Blériots, three Nieuports, two Farmans, and two of the dove-like Etrichs. All of these aircraft were equipped with fifty-horsepower Gnome rotary engines, and each one was provided its own hangar. More aircraft were dispatched later, along with a lighter-than-air unit consisting of four observation balloons and two airships.

The Italian invasion of Libya began on October 2, 1911, and had gone off relatively smoothly, but the transportation of the air fleet could not be undertaken until after the fall of Tripoli. Thus it was not until October 21 that Captain Piazza could report that his aircraft was ready for action.

The world’s first combat flight took place on October 23, when the Commander of the Air Fleet, Captain Piazza, took off at 6:19 A.M. to reconnoiter Turkish positions. In a sixty-one minute flight, he discovered several enemy encampments. While he was airborne, Captain Riccardo Moizo also took off to observe enemy dispositions. By this time, military observations from balloons had been conducted for many years, but this was the first military observation from an aircraft. The difference was enormous, for while the balloon was tethered (normally), the aircraft was free to fly wherever the pilot wished, allowing him to observe many more hundreds of square miles than the balloon observer could do.

There followed a yearlong series of sorties under extremely dangerous conditions. The French Military Air Force had signaled the Italian headquarters that it had found daytime flights over the desert to be particularly hazardous because of the air currents and the possibility of sandstorms. Nonetheless, the Italian air fleet carried on with surprising effectiveness for an initial effort at full-scale warfare.

On October 26, Captain Moizo’s Nieuport became the first aircraft ever to sustain combat damage. He had discovered a large encampment of some six thousand men, and came under rifle fire, suffering three hits in the wing, but no major damage.

It fell to Second Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti to make the world’s first combat bombing sortie, flying an Etrich Taube. He carried four of the grenade-like “Cipelli” bombs, each weighing about four pounds and roughly the size of a grapefruit. He dropped one on a Turkish position at Ain Zara, and three on the Oasis of Jagiura. Gavotti’s raid was widely reported, and had great effect upon the thinking of airmen in other armies. Another raid, this time by Captain Moizo, resulted in the Turkish government issuing what would become a familiar protest. They stated that bombs had been dropped on a hospital, a claim the Italians investigated and denied.

The tempo of the air campaign was accelerated, with heavier bombs being brought into play. Reconnaissance flights took place every day until weather conditions during December and January made regular sorties difficult.

During the long campaign, there were many other notable firsts, including the first dropping of propaganda leaflets, spotting for artillery, night-bombing and reconnaissance missions, and radio communications that involved no less a person than Guglielmo Marconi himself. The first pilot to be wounded in combat was Captain Carlo Montu, who was struck by a rifle bullet on January 31, 1912, over Tobruk. Sadly, the first pilot to die in combat was Second Lieutenant Piero Manzini, who crashed on August 25, 1912, shortly after takeoff for a photographic reconnaissance mission. The valiant Captain Moizo was forced to land behind enemy lines on September 10, when his Nieuport developed engine trouble. He was the first airplane pilot ever to be taken prisoner, and was not liberated until after the armistice was signed in November 1913.

The successful Italian air campaign received worldwide notice. On August 12, 1912, the London Times stated that “no one can have observed the work accomplished by the Italian airplanes at Tripoli without being deeply impressed by the courage and the ability of the Italian pilots and without being convinced of the valuable use of aviation in wartime.

On September 10, 1912, the Berliner Tageblatt took a slightly different view, reporting “for now at least, airplanes and airships are not practical used as offensive weapons: they have, however been shown to be very useful for reconnaissance. The Italian Command is always, thanks to aircraft, informed of every displacement of Turkish troops, and knows the exact positions of them. Moreover, following the photographs and relief maps made by the airships and airplanes, it has been possible to compile a map with which to conduct the war.”

The Italian air campaign had great effect upon the Italian people, who rejoiced when the principals were showered with decorations, and responded with a flood of poetry, songs, and even a board game celebrating it.

Perhaps the most influential aspect of the Italian campaign was philosophical rather than military, for it fell to Major (General Staff) Giulio Douhet, provisionary battalion commander, to make the full report on the campaign. Douhet had for years been an advocate of air power, writing articles in the service journal La Preparazione, but the campaign in Tripoli gave him his first chance to report facts rather than theories, and he made the most of it. His extensive report analyzed the technical and professional considerations that had affected the use of aircraft, and he drew interesting inferences on the preparation of flying personnel, their recruitment and training, as well as the types of aircraft to be procured. He concluded with an organizational proposal that became the structural framework for Italian aviation and industry during the 1914-18 war in Europe.

His experience and his report prepared him to write one of the most influential documents in the development of air power, Command of the Air.

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