One hundred years of bombs from the air

First attempted from a biplane over North Africa in 1911, the use of aerial bombing has become a terrifying feature of modern warfare. But are bombs all bad?

When Italy joined in the air strikes on Libya last month, history was repeating itself. One hundred years ago, on 11th February, 1911, a young Italian pilot carried out the world's first-ever bombing raid – over Libya.

In letters obtained by the BBC, Lieutenant Gavotti describes his experience as Italy fought with troops loyal to the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

With no training, and while flying the plane solo, he had to remove the detonator pins with his teeth and then throw the bombs over the edge – careful to avoid the wings.

With nowhere to store the bombs, it was as dangerous for the pilot as for those below. 'These are small round bombs,' he wrote, 'weighing about a kilo and a half each. I put three in a case and another one in the front pocket of my jacket.'

Gavotti did not cause any casualties when he dropped his explosives on the oasis of Ain Zara. But once attack from the air had been proved possible, warfare would never be the same again.

The horror of aerial bombing is now written in the blood and screams of history. In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, the town of Guernica was bombed by German allies of the dictator, General Franco. Hundreds of innocent civilians were killed and the horror, when painted by Pablo Picasso, became a lasting image of war.

In February 1945, in the final months of WWII, around 25,000 civilians in the German town of Dresden were crushed, burned or suffocated to death after relentless attack from British and US bombers. Even Winston Churchill was ashamed.

And then in April 1945, a US plane dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese town of Hiroshima, killing around 140,000 civilians.

For many, the rather innocent bomb-throwing of Gavotti has, with technological advance, become one of the world's greatest evils. Previously, battles had been about soldiers squaring up to each other.

Now, the long and destructive reach of aerial power places defenceless citizens on the battlefield as well, with terrible consequences.

Comparing nightmares
But is there a case to be made for the bomb? There are those who look at history and say 'Yes'.

Some of Europe's darkest days were caused by the 80 Years War in the 16th and 17th centuries. Why 80 years? Because no one could deliver the decisive blow.

Many say the bombing of Dresden and Hiroshima hastened the end of World War Two – a lesser nightmare to stop a greater nightmare.

Bombs are sledgehammer rather than scalpel. But in the ethics of war, does the sledgehammer have a place?

You Decide

  1. Can it ever be right to drop a bomb on a city?
  2. 'Fight a tyrant by killing innocent people and you become the tyrant.' Do you agree?


  1. Pablo Picasso painted 'Guernica' in response to the bombing of the town. Paint/design/draw/sculpt your own response to bombs from the air.
  2. 'Sometimes a lesser evil is right to stop a greater evil.' With reference to one or more aerial bombings, argue the case for or against this statement.

Some People Say...

“In war, the end always justifies the means.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How can bombing civilians end a war?
In World War Two, they believed it broke the morale of the people. With the bombing of Dresden, the allies were also trying to remove Nazi supply lines by hitting the railway network. But Churchill still called the bombing of cities 'mere acts of terror and wanton destruction.'
Which country first used bombs in this manner?
It was the Nazis who invented terror bombing with attacks on Guernica, Coventry, Rotterdam and Warsaw. The US and British attack on Dresden followed these.
Bombs will always kill innocent people.
True. Inexact targeting makes this inevitable as has been proved recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. The armed forces argue that their target is always military – but that civilians may get caught up in the destruction. They call this unintended or 'collateral damage' and justify it in this way.


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