World War I Centennial: Bombs Over Libya


The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the seventh installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

March 5, 1912: Bombs Over Libya

An Italian military photographic unit at work in Libya. © Alinari Archives/CORBIS

In The War in the Air, published in 1908, H.G. Wells imagined a terrifying new form of aerial warfare, with cities turned into infernos by bombs dropped from the sky. The protagonist “had seen airships flying low and swift over darkened and groaning streets; watched great buildings, suddenly red-lit amidst the shadows, crumple at the smashing impact of bombs; witnessed for the first time in his life the grotesque, swift onset of insatiable conflagrations.”

Aerial bombardment, as Wells imagined it, was indiscriminate and barbaric: “[A] great multitude of workers, including many girls and women, had been caught in the destruction… and a little army of volunteers with white badges entered behind the firemen, bringing out the often still living bodies, for the most part frightfully charred.”

As with other subjects, Wells was remarkably prescient about the way this new form of warfare would unfold.

Less than a decade after The War in the Air was published, World War I would see London and a number of British coastal towns bombarded by German zeppelin airships in night raids that killed several hundred people. But the first combat deployment of airships actually came several years before the war, on March 5, 1912, in a minor conflict foreshadowing the looming disaster.

Above and Beyond

As tension mounted in Western Europe, a number of small wars erupted around the European periphery, further destabilizing an already volatile international scene. One of the most serious conflicts pitted Italy against the moribund Ottoman Empire. Italy, a latecomer to the colonial game, was eager to scoop up territories in North Africa and the Mediterranean, and the decaying, declining Ottoman Empire was in no condition to stop them – but the locals were a different story.

One of the main battlegrounds in the Italo-Turkish War was Libya, where the Italians attacked and occupied Tripoli in October 1911; by November they had occupied most of the major Libyan cities. However, guerrilla warfare continued in the countryside, with Turkish officers organizing small bands of Arabs to harass the Italian forces, who were confined to the narrow coastal strip along the Mediterranean Sea in the north of the country.

It was in this context that the Italians pioneered the use of airships in warfare. Beginning March 5, 1912, they deployed two hydrogen-filled dirigibles, the P2 and P3, for a variety of missions, including bombarding enemy encampments, conducting reconnaissance behind enemy lines, and dropping psychological warfare leaflets (which were of limited use, as most of the Arab irregulars probably couldn’t read).

The two airships made a total of 127 sorties during the war, including 86 combat missions, during which they dropped 330 bombs. Although these bombing missions were far from precise, they did produce significant results on a couple occasions, including the Battle of Zanzur of June 8, 1912, when they discovered and attacked a Turkish cavalry unit, helping ground forces achieve victory.

The Italians also pioneered the use of airplanes in warfare: on October 23, 1911, Captain Carlos Piazza flew the first aerial reconnaissance mission in history over Turkish forces entrenched at Azizia. Like the airships, this Italian innovation foreshadowed the prominent role played by airplanes – especially for reconnaissance – during World War I.

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