Episodes in the history of bombing

I spoke at the Shock and Awe conference in London last November, held to mark – commemorate is hardly the word – the centenary of the first bombs dropped from an aircraft (much more from openDemocracy here).  But I’m now realising that the episode and its reverberations were more complicated that I had thought.

Less than two years after the Wright Brothers’ first successful flight, Orville Wright was already convinced that the most immediate use for their new flying machine would be war.  In January 1905 the Wright Brothers approached both the British military and the US War Department about a contract – ‘flying has been brought to a point where it can be made of great practical use in various ways, one of which is that of scouting and carrying messages in time of war’ – but they were rebuffed.  Undeterred, the brothers continued to search for military customers – including France and Germany – and eventually won two contracts, one with the US Army and the other with the French, which they successfully fulfilled in 1908.  By 1910 France had 36 flying machines, Germany had 5, Britain had 4, Russia had 3, and Austria, Belgium, Italy, Japan and the United States had just one each.

But the Italian-Turkish war (1911-12) – the ‘Libyan’ or ‘Tripolitanian’ war – heightened the military interest in aviation.  After the Congress of Berlin in 1878, with the Ottoman Empire visibly crumbling, Cyprus had been occupied by Britain and Tunisia by France.  There had been shadow discussions about Italy’s possible interest in Tripolitania, but this remained empty talk until 1911 when, after a series of failed negotiations, Italy declared war and its troops landed in Tripoli in October 1911.  In addition to seapower and ground forces, Italy deployed nine aircraft; the assumption, evidently, was that they would be used much as Orville Wright had imagined. Accordingly, among the firsts achieved by the Italian pilots, according to Martin van Creveld‘s The age of airpower (Perseus Books, 2011), were ‘the first recorded flight by a military aircrat over enemy territory (October 22), the first use of aircraft to lay naval gunfire (October 28), the first wartime use of wireless for air-to-ground and ground-to-air communication [Marconi himself arrived to help] … [and] the first wartime use of aerial photography (November 23)’.

But what captured the public imagination was another first: on 1 November, when Lt. Giulio Gavotti dropped four grenades from his Taube monoplane on a Turkish-Arab encampment at Ain Zara east of Tripoli, this was the first bombing from an aircraft.  “AVIATOR LT. GAVOTTI THROWS BOMB ON ENEMY CAMP. TERRORIZED TURKS SCATTER UPON UNEXPECTED CELESTIAL ASSAULT.”

It was not a spontaneous attack. ‘Today I have decided to try to throw bombs from the aeroplane,’ Gavotti wrote to his father. ‘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.’

Neither was it a purely personal decision:

“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.’

This is how he described his mission:

 ‘As soon as the weather is clear, I head to the camp to take my plane out.  Near the seat, I have fixed a little leather case with padding inside. I have laid the bombs in it very carefully. These are small round bombs – weighing about a kilo-and-a-half each. I put three in the case and another one in the front pocket of my jacket…

‘After a while, I notice the dark shape of the oasis [Ain Zara]. With one hand, I hold the steering wheel, with the other I take out one of the bombs and put it on my lap. I am ready. The oasis is about one kilometre away. I can see the Arab tents very well. I take the bomb with my right hand, pull off the security tag and throw the bomb out, avoiding the wing. I can see it falling through the sky for couple of seconds and then it disappears. And after a little while, I can see a small dark cloud in the middle of the encampment. “I have hit the target!  I then send two other bombs with less success. I still have one left which I decide to launch later on an oasis close to Tripoli [Tagiura].

‘I come back really pleased with the result. I go straight to report to General Caneva. Everybody is satisfied.’

But the headlines were exaggerated and the satisfaction was short-lived.  A Times reporter with the Italian army wrote that ‘Bomb-dropping, whether from airship or aeroplane, does not appear to have been attended by any great measure of success, and it is not unlikely that that the possibilities of early development in this direction have been overrated.’  Creveld notes that most of the Cipelli grenades used as bombs missed their targets, ‘and the longer the war [went on], the more the Italians themselves tended to replace them with leaflets that called upon the enemy to surrender.’

Where aircraft did excel, he concludes, was indeed in reconnaissance: identifying enemy positions and mapping the terrain.  ‘Our only certain knowledge,’ wrote General Caneva, ‘derives from what our aviators have seen with their own eyes.’  There is a selection of aerial photographs taken during the campaign here (together with extracts from more letters from Gavotti to his father) from which I’ve taken this image:

Even so, others were more impressed by the possibilities of using airpower as a directly offensive force.  In 1911, in the new Revue Générale de l’Aéronautique Militaire, a Lieutenant Poutrin conjured up the spectre of a mass German air attack on Paris:

‘The aerial squadron will not be limited to observing and reporting. It is possible and even probable that it will be an aggressive force. As research progresses on this new branch of gunnery, aerial ballistics, it might enable such a force to attack military establishments and troops on the move along roads or by rail. Even now, 500 aeroplanes, each carrying 300 kg of explosives, can leave Metz, two hours after a declaration of war, to reach and fly over Paris.’

The phrasing is instructive: ‘fly over’. Poutrin was evidently under no illusions about the likely accuracy or extent of bombing in any ‘war of the future.’  But, he continued, invoking an affective response that would loom large in the next decades, ‘the effect on morale would be immense, and certain public monuments, the Élysée, the War Ministry, could be bombarded so that the normal functioning of the principal national services might become impossible.’  André Michelin was so taken by the prospect that in August 1911 (several months before Gavotti’s attack) he and his brother – their company already sponsored an Aviation Cup – wrote to the Aéro-Club de France offering to sponsor a bombing competition: ‘There is much discussion of the question of knowing whether the military aeroplane is a simple reconaissance device or whether it can become a terrible weapon of war.  Let us try to demonstrate, by facts, the power of the aeroplane.’   The Michelin Aéro-Cible or ‘Air Target’ competition was inaugurated one year later at Villacoublay near Paris.

The American press reported that the first contest was won by Lt Riley Scott of the US Army Coast Artillery Corps, who beat six French aviator-bombardiess to the 50,000 franc prize by using a bombsight and mechanism (left) that he had designed himself to drop 12 out of 15 bombs within a 20-metre diameter concrete circle from an altitude of 200 metres. Not surprisingly the French press fêted Scott’s pilot, Louis Gaubert, who shared the prize with him:

These national rivalries were diagnostic; one of Michelin’s aims in sponsoring the competition had been to secure France’s ‘supremacy in the air’, and that same month – August 1912 – Germany held its own bombing competition as part of the Aeroplan-Turnier in Gotha.

One Boston newspaper spoke for many when it reported that ‘the ever increasingly rapid development of military and naval aviation gives bomb-dropping competitions ever greater importance’, and the victorious Scott had no doubt about its significance.  According to Lee Kennett in The First Air War 1914-18 (Simon & Schuster, 1991), he thought that even a limited air attack on New York would be devastating (though he didn’t say where it could possibly come from): ‘No great accuracy would be needed in the congested areas, and the loss of life from fire, high-explosive bombs, and panic would be appalling.’  Those first two clauses would cast an even longer shadow over the decades ahead.

Already by the fall of 1912 a more elaborate fantasy of a German attack on Paris than Poutrin could ever have imagined was included in Gustaf Janson‘s account of the Italian-Turkish war, Pride of war.  In this vision of the future, 300 German aircraft – ironically ‘all constructed and bought in France’ – could ‘throw down ten thousand kilos of dynamite on the metropolis of the world in less than half an hour’ and Paris would be reduced ‘to a heap of ruins.’

‘Unexpectedly, without any warning dynamite begins to rain down on the city.  Each explosion follows on the heels of the last.  Hospitals, theatres, schools, museums, public buildings, private houses – all are demolished.  Roofs collapse, floors fall into cellars, the streets are blocked with the ruins of houses.  The sewers break and pour their foul contents over everything.  The water pipes burst, flooding begins.  The gas mains rupture, gas streams out, explodes, starts fires.  The electric light goes out… Above it all can be heard the detonations exploding with mathematical precision….  Men, women, children, insane with terror, wander among the ruins…. When the last flying machine has dones its work and turned northwards again, the bombardment is finished.  In Paris a stillness reigns such as never reigned before.’

By the eve of the First World War the numbers of military aircraft had soared and France had already lost its advantage.  In August 1914 Germany had 232 and Austro-Hungary 48 military aircraft, while Russia had 263, France 165, Britain 63 and Belgium 16.  Although Scott had won the Michelin prize using a Wright aircraft (right), the Wright Brothers remained sceptical of its role in bombing.  Orville Wright acknowledged the importance of striking targets like the Krupp works at Essen, as I noted in an earlier post, but he still believed the primary role for military aircraft was reconnaissance (‘scouting’).  ‘I have never considered bomb-dropping as the most important function of the airplane,’ he told the New York Times in July 1917, ‘and I have no reason to change this opinion now that we have entered the war.’

I’ll examine Wright’s claim in detail in a later post, but for now two observations are important.  First – then as now – aerial reconnaissance was increasingly and intimately involved in the fighting on the ground: aircraft (and balloons) were used to direct and co-ordinate the massive artillery barrages that shook the Western Front, missions that the fliers called ‘shoots’, and from 1916 aircraft were also routinely used in low-flying ‘contact patrols’ to monitor the advance of the infantry.  Here is Wright again (though he was, of course, hardly a disinterested observer):

‘It is the accuracy of aim now possible to both sides that results in such widespread destruction.  Gunners on both sides now hit the mark because of airplanes to direct the fire…  The war is being run absolutely from above.’

Second, although bombing missions were flown in the war zone and immediately behind the lines, and columns of troops, gun batteries, railheads and supply depots were all attacked, the most pregnant raids – though they had little strategic effect at the time – were those launched against towns and cities.  Paris did indeed come under repeated attack, and 250 people were killed in 24 air raids and three Zeppelin attacks.  But the main target for German airships and from 1917 giant Gotha bombers was ‘Fortress London’.  It wasn’t the apocalypse imagined by Janson, but it was a foretaste of the future.  Giulio Douhet, an Italian general who had been impressed by the lessons of the Tripolitania campaign, wrote in The command of the air in 1921 that

‘By virtue of this new weapon, the repercussions of war are no longer limited by the farthest artillery range of guns, but can be felt directly for hundreds and hundreds of miles… The battlefield will be limited only by the boundaries of the nations at war, and all of their citizens will become combatants, since all of them will be exposed to the aerial offensives of the enemy. There will be no distinction any longer between soldiers and civilians.’

7 thoughts on “Episodes in the history of bombing

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