Freelance writer from Cornwall
“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.”
2nd Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti, Italian Air Force.
November 1, 1911.
It is dawn at an Italian airstrip somewhere in Cyrenaica, what we now call northern Libya. After a scanty breakfast and the usual pre-flight checks Sottoteniente Giulio Gavotti fires up the engine of his ‘Etrich-Taube’ monoplane (barely more than a powered glider) for a standard flight over enemy territory during the Italo-Turkish War.
But this will not be a standard flight at all. Gavotti has resolved to attempt something never before seen or performed in flying history. Gavotti intends to find enemy targets and deliver history’s first-ever airstrike by dropping several ‘Cipolli’ anti-personnel grenades onto whatever targets of opportunity present themselves. To do this, Gavotti will have to fly his underpowered and sluggish aircraft one-handed while rummaging in a bag for his grenades, pull their pins with his teeth, swap each grenade and the control column from one hand to the other and then drop the grenades over the side onto his targets. Assuming he isn’t hit by ground fire, doesn’t drop a grenade inside his cockpit, his engine doesn’t break down and he doesn’t run into bad weather, Giulio Gavotti will take his place in the Pantheon of pilots as having flown history’s very first bombing raid.
His weapons, by today’s standards, are pitiful, a leather satchel containing four ‘Cipolli’ grenades each weighing four pounds and about the size of grapefruit. His targets are far too large for such weapons, with the benefit of a century’s hindsight. He doesn’t even cause any casualties, not a single enemy soldier is dead or wounded. But within its context, its time and place, his actions are momentous. From the First World War (involving the first destruction of an entire army entirely using air power) to the Second World War (Hamburg, Cologne, Coventry, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki) via Vietnam’s ‘Linebacker’ raids and the ‘Shock and awe’ tactics employed against Iraq, all flowed from Giulio Gavotti’s one-man airstrike.
Gavotti’s aircratf wasn’t exatly a Stealh Bomber, either. The Etrich-Taube could carry two airmen (Gavotti’s bombing raid was a solo flight to make room forhis bombs). It was just under ten metres long with a 14.3-metre wingspan, was 3.2 metres high and had a top speed of 62mph provided by a Mercedes engine that was outclassed even by some racing cars of the period. Hardly what you’d call a thoroughbred by today’s standards but, again, this has to be put into context as this was less than a decade after the Wright brothers made the first-ever manned, powered flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. In 1906 they gave their first European demonstration flight at Le Mans along a stretch of road nowadays known as the Mulsanne Straight’ as it form part of the Le Mans 24 Hours circuit. No doubt, Gavotti might have preferred to be at the controls of a B-52 or a Lancaster but they simply didn’t exist.
His cargo wasn’t exactly on a par with later raids such as those of the Luftwaffe or RAF Bomber Command, either. Just four ‘Cipolli’ anti-personnel grenades each weighing four pounds and about the size of a grapefruit. Hardly Dresden or Hiroshima, but certainly we have to put this into the same context. As nobody had performed an aerial bombing raid before and nobody happened to have a crystal ball, nobody could have predicted exactly how far (or how quickly) aerial combat, bombing and bombers could (or would) advance, especially not when forged into a full-scale armed force during the crucible of the First World War.
Gavotti first targeted the Jaguiara Oasis (nowadays submerged beneath downtown Tripoli). He flew over at 600 feet to avoid ground fire as, while he didn’t know if he could kill enemy troops, he had a reasonable idea that their guns could kill him if he strayed low enough to make an easy target. With three of his four bombs dropped successfully on the oasis he turned to his secondary target, the Ain-Zara military encampment. His fourth and last bomb fell successfully and detonated, without any of the four causing a single casualty. Still, it was a first in world military history and the precursor to infinitely worse death and destruction.
And it wasn’t Gavotti’s only first, either. On March 20, 1912 he also performed the first aerial reconaissance by night. Other pilots (Gavotti included) had successfully performed and survived aerial recon by day, but nobody had even attempted it by night. It was considered just too dangerous until Gavotti proved the doubters wrong.