Newsflash: Italy Bombs the Turks!

The first decade of the Twenty Century saw the birth of the heavier than air machine, or aeroplane, as not only a transport vehicle but also as a military reconnaissance platform. In the years that followed the Wright Brother’s amazing feat at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903; the aircraft evolved from a primitive looking machine, to a more efficient platform. By the end of 1909, advances in aircraft design had fermented a different military vision of the aircraft. Aviation pioneers frequently postulated possible uses for this new dimension of warfare. An obscure Italian Army officer named Giulio Douhet, who today is considered the father of the current strategic bombing concept, wrote in 1909 that: “At present we are fully conscious of the importance of the sea. In the near future, it will be no less vital to achieve the same kind of supremacy on the air”. Prophetic words that hold true today.

In 1910, a series of test were performed that seemed to confirm what Douhet had stated a year before. On the morning of January 19th, United States Army Lieutenant Paul Beck, dropped dummy bombs in the form of sandbags over a remote area of Los Angeles, CA from a rudimentary aircraft flown by Louis Paulhan. On June 30th, American aviation pioneer Glenn H. Curtiss dropped dummy bombs from an altitude of 50′ on a buoy silhouette in Lake Keuka. This exercise was followed on August 20th by another performed by US Army Lieutenant, Jacob E. Fickel, who fired a rifle round at a ground target while flying his aircraft near Sheepshead Bay, NY. These types of experiment made headlines around, not only the US but the rest of the world. They sparked the aviation community to tinker with devices aimed at dropping grenades or bombs from an aircraft. Again, another US Army officer took the lead when Lieutenant Myron Crissy, flying in San Francisco, CA; became the first man to drop a live ordinance from an airplane. All these experiments proved that the dropping of live bombs from an aircraft was feasible, but as it is the case with so many innovative ideas, perception, not reality, carried the early torch for the proponents of massive bombing campaigns.

Bomb dropping had been a constant topic among aviation pioneers and military leaders since early 1910. Even the respected Scientific American magazine ran cover stories about it. They all imagined cities reduced to rubble, fortifications destroyed, entire battle fleets sunk; all by the perceived power of this new dimension of warfare. They failed to notice, that while early test results were promising, they were conducted in a controlled environment. Their attack altitude was no more than three hundred feet. No gun was fired at them and their targets were stationary. Added to this was the fact that by the start of 1909, no armed force in the world possessed an operational airplane. The situation improved in 1910, when around fifty aircraft were operational in the entire world. But by mid 1911, the situation was different. The aircraft was used in combat for the first time. The occasion was a little known colonial dispute that erupted in a larger conflict pitting the Italians against the Ottoman Empire for the control of Libya. The Italians, aware of the fact that they would be fighting in territory the Turks considered a home area and in need of an edge, decided to deploy their infant air component. Their air assets consisted of nine of the early Taube airplanes and two observation balloons. The Taube was the brainchild of a brilliant Austrian engineer named Igo Etrich. The Taube, meaning Dove in German, was an all wooden, canvas covered aircraft. It had a fuselage length of 33′-5″ and a height of 10′-5″. Its wingspan covered 45.8 sq ft. Its air-form frame allowed the aircraft to become nearly invisible to the people on the ground when it flew at altitudes above 1,200′. The plane was powered by a primitive piston engine that gave it a top speed of just under 60 mph. Controlling the Taube was a relative easy task by those day’s standards. Control in flight was achieved by warping or twisting the wings and tail, very similar to what the Wright Brothers did with their Flyer airplane. The first Taube prototype flew in early July 1910, and by late that year, the German company Rumpler bought the license to manufacture the aircraft. The aircraft went on to serve in the Great War. One sample even flew over the French capital in late September 1914 dropping propaganda leaflets. On the Eastern Front, the Taube played an important role in the Battle of Tannenberg, providing German commanders with accurate information regarding the Russian army movements and troop dispositions. Badly outclassed when the War began, by early 1915, the plane was delegated to training duties. But in November, 1911; the Taube was destined to make history. On the early hours of November 1st, 1911, a lone Taube aircraft took-off from a desert strip en route to the main Turkish line. At the controls was Italian Army Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti. Passing at around three to four hundred feet, Gavotti made a fleeting impression on the Turks just below. After two passes, the Italian pilot commenced what we now call a bomb run. Once in position, Gavotti proceeded to drop four 4.5lb Cipelli grenades. He literally pulled their pins out with his teeth before lobbing them out of the plane’s rudimentary cockpit.

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 astonish Turks response to the world’s first aerial raid was even more 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 were injured in the attack. In the aftermath of the raid, with both sides claiming major damages 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. After carefully analyzing the data collected, many of them subscribed to the idea that the raid was less positive than originally reported. Many of the Italian grenades failed to detonate at all, the ones that did exploded harmlessly over the vast desert sand. But the most significant find was that of the attitude of the Turks to the raid. Contrary to common belief, the Turks had not been scared by the small Italian raid. On the other hand, when the first Italian Taube appeared in the sky, Turkish ground forces tried to zero in on it with their machine guns. A tactic they had perfected while targeting the slow moving Italian balloons that flew once in a while over the battlefield.

Again, the reality was different from perception, and once again, perception gathered the biggest press. Time and time again, newspapers across Europe would report the exploits of this obscure Italian army officer and proclaimed the death of the navy and army, while ascending the aircraft to almost mythical levels.

References:

1 Air Power, Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Books 2004
2 World War I, HP Willmott, Covent Gardens Books 2003
3 The Myth of The Great War: A New Military History of WW I, John Mosier, Perennial 2001
4 The Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft, Edt Paul Eden, Amber Books 2007

– Raul Colon

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