Today marks the 100th anniversary since the first air raid. Conducted during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-1912, a young Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti was ordered to fly his plane into battle and drop numerous small one-and-a-half kilogram bombs.
Earlier this year the BBC translated Gavotti’s letters and personal effects, compiling a story on Gavotti’s role in the air raid.
In one letter to his father, Gavotti remarked that, “Today I have decided to try to throw bombs from the aeroplane”.
With the world’s maiden flight by the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in only December 1903, Gavotti’s decision in Libya is considered the first ever use of planes in an offensive strategy at war.
Earlier this year, Italian forces returned to Libya as part of a NATO-led bombing campaign against Gaddafi loyalists.
Gavotti would have had no idea how brutal the technique of dropping bombs from the sky would prove to be by the time of the Second World War – from the Allies’ targeting of civilians at Dresden, the attacks by Hitler’s forces on the populated and industrial cities of Coventry and London, and the total destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
According to the files sourced by the BBC, and aired in a special BBC Witness podcast, Gavotti to have little time to reflect on the implications of his orders:
“Today two boxes full of bombs arrived,” he wrote in a letter to his father, sent from Naples. “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.”
By bringing aircraft to the battlefront, the Italians were doing something new.
Plane wonks over on Century of Flight explore the normative implications of Gavotti’s act with greater detail:
Aviator Lt. Gavotti Throws Bomb on Enemy Camp. Terrorized Turks Scatter upon Unexpected Celestial Assault was the headline on all the wire services.
A tremendous exaggeration to put it mildly. But an exaggeration that would in the future hold true. The astonished Turks response to the world’s first aerial raid was equally exaggerated. They claimed that the Italian’s bombs had hit a civilian hospital outside the contested area and that the damage had caused “great lost of life”. A fact that was vigorously denied by the Italian government. A post-conflict inquiry found that an artillery shell was the culprit for the hospital’s damage and that no civilian or military personnel was injured in the attack.
In the aftermath of the raid, with both sides claiming major damage resulting from the use of this new kind of “indiscriminate” attack, outside observers were brought in by the governments of Great Britain, France, Germany, Imperial Russia, and even the United States.