100 Years Of Air Power

It’s been 100 years since the first use of air power in war:

The first instance of airpower was a tactic employed in the Italo-Turkish War, fought between Italy and the Ottoman Empire. In 1911, Italy moved toward its longstanding goal of establishing a colony in North Africa when Germany deployed its Panther gunboat to Agadir, Morocco, to protect German firms that were seen as threatened by regional instability. Other European powers (particularly Britain and France) were perturbed by Germany’s gunboat diplomacy, because the port at Agadir had previously been closed to European warships. In the midst of the crisis, Rome capitalized on the uncertainty and announced that Italian interests were also threatened, specifically in the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (two regions that now comprise modern Libya). On September 29, 1911, Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire.

That same day, Italy deployed a military force with a small aeronautical section named the First Aeroplane Flotilla to Derna and Tobruk and another air unit was deployed to Benghazi.  The First Aeroplane Flotilla was made up of nine primitive machines, most of which were monoplanes, and eleven pilots under the command of Captain Carlos Piazza. On October 25, 1911, the Flotilla launched the first air reconnaissance mission of the war. Italian air patrols discovered advancing Turkish troops, enabling Captain Piazza to deploy ground forces that defeated the unsuspecting enemy. Over the next several days, Italian pilots continued to conduct surveillance missions, although they grew increasingly creative; on several occasions, pilots dropped messages on Italian warship decks with enemy locations to correct the gunners’ aim.

On November 1, 1911, a young Italian pilot named Lieutenant Guilio Gavotti was ordered to throw Cipelli grenades from his aircraft to strike enemy encampments in the oases of Ain Zara and Taguira. On the morning of November 1, Lieutenant Gavotti took off on his own from the Italian base in a Taube aircraft, heading towards the Turkish encampments. Flying three to four hundred feet above the ground, he circled the Turkish base two times. On the third run, Gavotti dropped four, five pound Cipelli grenades. According to reports, he pulled the security pins off the grenades with his teeth and tossed them out the window, all the while trying to avoid the wings of the aircraft. Most of the grenades exploded in the open desert, although others hit noncombatants.

Somewhat surprising to me only because I assumed that World War I marked the beginning of the use of airplanes as a military instrument. Also, kind of ironic given recent events that it all started with bombing Libya.

H/T: Andrew Sullivan

FILED UNDER: Africa, Military Affairs, , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. John Peabody says:

    Hmmm… Observation balloons had been used at least 30 years before 1911. But “100 years of heavier-than-air machine power” is not very snappy.

  2. @John Peabody:

    As I recall, there was some experimentation with Observation Balloons during the Civil War, or perhaps I’m thinking the Crimean War. So, you have a point there. All that same, I assume the author considers “air power” to mean the offensive use of airplanes, etc in combat. I’m not sure, but I don’t think balloons or dirigibles were ever used in that way

  3. John Burgess says:

    Observation balloons were notably used by the US forces during the Battle of Fredericksburg. There were many other uses, primarily by the Army of the Potomac, but it was a hassle using them. If I recall correctly, they were supervised by the Topographical Corps of the US Army, though operated by civilians for the most part.

    According to this article, the Confederates had their own balloon effort, though it was pretty minimal.

    That article also notes that some balloons were used as artillery OPs, so that might count as ‘offensive’ use.

  4. John Peabody says:

    Airships were used for bombing the British mainland in WWI, but probably not to great effect. I agree, though, that offensive use of air power is the crux…and in 2011, the issue is over unmanned air power!