First Wartime Aeroplane Flight

Bleriot XI (French, early WWI). Single-seat/two-seat reconnaissance. Developed from Louis Bleriot’s 1909 cross-Channel monoplane; existed in several sizes/ forms. Used in Italo-Turkish War 1911-12, Balkan Wars, early months World War I; thereafter as trainer. 50hp or 80hp Gnome engine; max. speed 75mph (120kph); makeshift armament of pistols and/or rifle or carbine.

Pioneers of Italian aviation. Captain Luca Bongiovanni and the sub-lieutenant De Muro. students pilots at the school of Aviano. photographed before a training flight. Italy 1912. (Photo by: SeM/UIG via Getty Images)
Nieuport monoplane

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.

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.”

Etrich Taube

The influence of World War I on the use of aeroplanes for military purposes has left a general impression that aerial warfare was originated during those fateful years. In fact, the true pioneers of air warfare in aeroplanes were a handful of courageous Italian airmen who served during the little-known Italo-Turkish War in Libya in 1911-12, almost three years before the commencement of the European conflict.

In August 1911 the Italian Army manoeuvres had shown a potential for aircraft in general reconnaissance roles, and on 25 September came an order to mobilise the Italian Special Army Corps and, more significantly. an Air Flotilla. On that date the Flotilla comprised a total of nine aeroplanes-two Bleriot XI monoplanes, two Henry Farman biplanes, three Nieuport monoplanes, and two Etrich Taubes-manned by five first-line pilots, six reserve pilots and 30 airmen for all forms of technical maintenance. All nine machines were immediately dismantled, crated and sent by sea to Libya, arriving in the Bay of Tripoli on 15 October. With minimum facilities available, the crated aircraft were put ashore and transported to a suitable flying ground nearby, where assembly commenced almost immediately. The first aeroplane was completed by 21 October.

On the morning of 23 October 1911, Captain Carlos Piazza, commander of the Air Flotilla, took off at 0619 hours in his Bleriot for an urgently-requested reconnaissance of an advancing body of Turkish and Arab troops and eventually landed back at base at 0720 hours. This was the first-ever war flight in an aeroplane. Shortly after Piazza left, his second-in-command. Captain Riccardo Moizo, piloting a Nieuport, also took off but returned after 40 minutes with little to report. Both men were airborne again on the following day, seeking the location of enemy troops and, in Moizo’s case, being successful.

Next day, 25 October, Moizo was again in the air and sighted a large Arab encampment in the Ain Zara region. As he circled his objective, Moizo was greeted with a barrage of rifle fire and three bullets pierced his Nieuport’s wings. Though these caused no serious damage, it was the first occasion on which an aeroplane had experienced hostile ground fire. Within the following three days two more aircraft had become available. These-an Etrich Taube, piloted by Second Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti, and a Henry Farman, by Lieutenant Ugo de Rossi-soon joined their seniors on scouting patrols over enemy camps and emplacements.

The Flotilla commander, Captain Piazza, quickly perceived further roles for his aircraft and, after several unsuccessful attempts, finally achieved a measure of air-to-ground co-operation with the local Italian artillery commander; Piazza dropped messages of correction or confirmation (in small tins) after observing the actual results of artillery fire. This presaged a major role for aeroplanes in the imminent European war. Piazza also envisaged the possibilities of aerial camera work and, on 11 November, sent an urgent request to his headquarters for provision of a Zeiss Bebe plate camera. After several weeks of waiting. Piazza took it upon himself to borrow a camera from the Engineer Corps in Tripoli and had this fixed to his Bleriot, positioned just in front of his seat and pointing downwards. Manipulation of the controls and the plate camera at once meant that only one exposure could be made on each flight, but it was the birth of airborne photo-reconnaissance.

The Turks, without any air arm, were forced on to the defensive and retaliated by rifle and machine gun fire. Since the Italian aviators could not fly very high, these weapons had some effect; one Italian aircraft outside Tripoli was hit seven times by rifle fire while flying at 2500 feet, though neither the aircraft nor the pilot was disabled. One luckless flyer had an engine failure behind enemy lines and was captured, though there appears to be no record of his subsequent fate; with the reputation the Turks had in those days it was probably grim.

Aerial bombardment

Although there appears to be no evidence that any of the Flotilla’s pilots ever attempted to take aloft and use any form of firearm, the concept of an offensive role for their aircraft was exemplified by the use of aerial bombs. The first-ever bombing sortie was that undertaken on 1 November 1911 by Second Lieutenant Gavotti, when he dropped three 2kg Cipelli bombs on the Taguira Oasis and a fourth bomb on Ain Zara. The relative success of Gavotti’s sortie led to the use of modified Swedish Haasen hand grenades and these were replaced by a small cylindrical bomb, containing explosive and lead balls, designed by Lieutenant Bontempelli.

By February 1912, the Flotilla’s machines had been modified to carry a large box (dubbed Campodonicos), each of which could hold ten Bontempelli bombs, which could then be released, simply by the pilot pulling a lever, in salvo or singly. The age of aerial bombardment had dawned. Nor was this form of aerial warfare confined to daylight sorties. Later in the campaign, on 2 May 1912, Captain Marengo, commander of a second air formation which arrived at Benghazi in late November 1911, made a 30-minute night reconnaissance as the first of several similar patrols. Then, on 11 June before dawn, Marengo dropped several bombs on a Turkish encampment, inaugurating the night bomber role.

During December 1911 and January 1912 the work of the Flotilla was severely hampered by atrocious weather conditions, including high winds and sudden storms. However, its aircraft continued to give direct tactical support to the ground troops by scouting ahead of advancing columns and locating enemy troops in the vicinity. Fresh aircraft for the Libyan airmen began arriving in January, along with new pilots, including Lieutenant Oreste Salomone, later to gain honours and national fame as a bomber pilot during World War 1. By the end of January, due to the eastward movements of the advancing Italian ground forces, it became necessary for the Libyan Flotilla to change its base airfield, and a move was made to Homs on 12 February. From here the aircraft flew in yet another new role: aerial propaganda. The pilots scattered thousands of specially prepared leaflets far and wide amongst Arab camps, with the result that large numbers of tribesmen were persuaded to become allied to the Italian cause.

Revolutionary tactics

By this time the value of the aircraft was being fully recognised by Italian Army commanders and the feats of the pilots were acclaimed in official dispatches. The overall commander of Italy’s Air Battalion. Lt Col di Montezemolo, arrived in Libya in February 1912 to inspect the Air Flotilla and report on its activities and results. One item in his subsequent report was the recommendation that Captain Piazza be repatriated to Italy, due to the commander’s bouts of fever, and that he be succeeded by Captain Scapparo. Piazza, once fit again, should be employed in organising flying tuition.

The obvious success of the Libyan Air Flotilla soon led to a second, though smaller flotilla being dispatched to Cyrenaica and based at Benghazi. Once established, this formation’s first war sortie-a reconnaissance patrol- was flown on 28 November by Second Lieutenant Lampugani. Though mainly restricted to the areas close to Benghazi, this formation had its full share of operational experiences. Most flights were met with fierce opposition from Turkish ground fire, including anti-aircraft artillery. This latter novelty was first experienced by Lieutenant Roberti on 15 December 1911 when flying over some Turkish trenches; his aircraft and propeller received several shrapnel strikes. As if to compliment the gunners on their accuracy, Roberti coolly dived across the enemy battery positions and dropped some of his personal visiting cards.

A terrible precedent

As recorded earlier, the commander of the Benghazi formation, Captain Marengo, instituted a series of night bombing and reconnaissance sorties between May and July. His only night-flying aid was an electric torch, fixed to his flying helmet and operated by a normal hand- switch, in order to read his few instrument dials. Tragically, it was a pilot of Marengo’s formation who became the Italian Air Service’s first-ever wartime casualty. On 25 August 1912 at 0610 hours Second Lieutenant Pietro Manzini took off for a reconnaissance patrol but almost immediately side-slipped into the sea and was killed.

With the end of the campaign, the Italian airmen won acclaim from the international Press. One particularly prophetic war correspondent, with the Turkish Army throughout the war, wrote, `this war has clearly shown that air navigation provides a terrible means of destruction. These new weapons are destined to revolutionise modem strategy and tactics. What I have witnessed in Tripoli has convinced me that a great British air fleet must be created.’ Certainly, by their skill, imagination and courage, the Italian Air Flotillas had inaugurated man’s latest form of destruction, pioneering most of the military roles for the aeroplane.

1 thought on “First Wartime Aeroplane Flight

  1. It was during the Mexican Civil War that air raids caused casualties for the first time. On May 6, 1914, a plane bombed Mazatlán, killing four people and injuring others. On May 13, a second air raid on Mazatlán killed several soldiers.

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