100 Years of Bombing Libya

TThe celebrations of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Italian unification in March, 2011, were overshadowed by the crisis in Libya. Coinciding with Italy’s birthday, Silvio Berlusconi’s government decided to make seven air bases available to NATO allies for the bombing of Colonel Gaddafi’s forces.

By coincidence, this was one hundred years since the Italians invented aerial bombardment and initiated its practice precisely over Libya. A century later, the bomber returns to the scene of its bloody birth. Clio seems to take a perverse enjoyment in ensuring that history repeats itself, first acting as imperialism then as humanitarian intervention, without even needing to change the stage-set.

On 1st November, 1911, Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti dropped the first bomb from an aeroplane. According to the Ottoman authorities it hit the military hospital in Ayn Zara in the Libyan desert. The Italians strongly denied targeting an installation protected by the Geneva Convention. Modern aerial warfare and the propaganda battle which has accompanied it ever since was underway from the start.

Lt. Gavotti’s four bombs were modified hand grenades, but soon the Italians had learned how to drop incendiary bomb and shrapnel bombs – what we would now call cluster munitions.

The initial impact of aircraft overhead was alarming and disorientating to the forces below. Panic spread as an airplane engine was heard approaching. But soon enough the Turks and Arabs below learned the limitations of aerial bombardment and their terror subsided. The Italians decided that they had to increase the terrorising effect of their bombing and strafing to keep the enemy on the run. The Italian pilots also realised that fixed targets like villages or oases were easier to find and strike than mobile guerrillas.

The British Arabist, G.F. Abbott who was with the mixed Turkish-Arab forces resisting the invasion noted that they soon recovered from their fear partly because bombs which fell into the sand tended to explode harmlessly. But he added, “The women and children in the villages are practically the only victims, and this fact excited the anger of the Arabs.”

Antagonising the civilian population was an unfortunate side-effect of the bombing which became a major factor in turning the Italian invasion into a protracted counter-insurgency.

When the idea of occupying Libya as a fiftieth birthday present to themselves was turned into practice in September, 1911, Italians were assured of a quick victory there. They were told that the Ottoman Turkish regime was thoroughly hated by the Arabs living there and that a warm welcome could be expected for the soldiers bringing civilization and liberation from the Sultan’s tyranny. To use modern parlance, Italians were encouraged to expect a cakewalk. The media assured the soldiers, “Arab hostility is nothing but a Turkish fable.”

Gavotti’s dropping of the first bombs in history barely a month into the campaign was evidence of how quickly the Italians realised that things were not going to plan. Resistance in the main cities like Tripoli was quickly crushed but in the great expanses of territory even the 100,000 troops deployed by Italy were not enough to regulate a thousand-mile-wide country stretching deep into the Sahara. The newly-invented airplane offered a way of displaying Italian power across vast swathes of land which were in effect controlled by local Arabs who preferred the Muslim Turks to the Christian Italians – not least when the Italians preached civilization via shrapnel bombs dropped from a few thousand feet.

The alleged cruelty of local Arabs and Turks towards captured Italian soldiers was one of the justifications for the widening use of reprisals from the air and on the ground in Libya. In a fight against uncivilized folk like them the rules of war could be suspended. But the Libyans proved harder to terrify into submission than Rome anticipated.

Nevertheless, on 9th November, 1911, the Italian government declared victory, even though the war was only just beginning. With the mission far from accomplished, the war was vastly more costly than Italians had expected. Characteristically, the prime minister, Giovanni Giolitti, lied to Parliament in Rome saying the war had cost 512 million lire. That was a huge figure given that the War Ministry’s last annual peacetime budget was only 399 million lire. But in reality off-balance sheet accounting hid another billion lire in costs of the war against the Ottoman Empire over Libya. As for the human cost, 8,000 Italians were killed or wounded. No-one counted the Arab dead.

Although the Italian elite had economic aims in occupying Libya wrapped up in nationalist and civilizational rhetoric, oil was not the Italian motive. Only at the end of the Fascist period was any serious exploration undertaken which indicated that oil lay beneath the desert. Libya’s first major oil strike was outside Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte in 1959. At the end of thirty years of Italian rule, salt was still Libya’s main export. Italians were fed the idea that Libya would return to being the bread basket of the Mediterranean as it had been under the Roman Empire. Few in 1911 seem to have realised that the desert had spread over the Roman fields and cities long ago.

As the war dragged on enthusiasm in Italy waned but the newspapers and instant books of the day record how united the opinion-makers were in support of the war at its opening shots. Above all, there was admiration for the airmen dealing death from the sky. The cult of the pilot soaring across the sky while clinically disposing of a dot-like savage foe below was born.

The greatest living Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzion immediately sought to immortalize Lt. Gavotti’s act in his Canzone della Diana. (A few laters in the First World War, D’Annunzio would take to the skies over Vienna and drop leaflets threatening bombs to come.)Giovanni Pascole sentimentalised the feats of Italian pilots as the Libyan war passed it first Christmas in La Notte di Natale. The Futurist, Filippo Marinetti, took the air over Libya itself to urge Italian soldiers below to fix bayonets and charge.

Everybody seemed to support the invasion at the beginning. The great philosopher and future anti-Fascist, Benedetto Croce declared –apparently without irony – that occupying Libya was a worthy birthday gift to Italy on the fiftieth anniversary of its unification. The 1907 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, E.T. Moneta, became the first – though by no means the last recipient of the dynamite fortune’s largesse – to anticipate Barak Obama’s faith in aerial bombardment as a tool of progress for humanity and therefore declared it was not against his pacifist principles. The Catholic hierarchy had been hostile to the secular not to say Masonic Italian political elite but it endorsed Giolitti’s crusade in Libya with as much enthusiasm as its predecessors had backed the original version over eight hundred years earlier.

The meeting of the poetry scholars of the Dante Aligheri Society on 20thSeptember, 1911, broke up with cries of “To Tripoli!”

It was not only Italian proto-Fascist intellectuals like D’Annunzio and Marinetti who swooned at the thought of a pilot soaring high over the desert dealing death to savages below. Sweden’s Gustaf Janson described the intoxicating sense of unbridled power and of the pilot’s impunity in action against primitives below whose air defence was incapable of revenging their casualties: “The empty earth beneath him, the empty sky above him and he, the solitary man, sailing between them! A feeling of power seizes him. He was flying through space to assert the indisputable superiority of the white race.

Within his reach he had the proof, seven high-explosive bombs. To be able to sling them from the heavens themselves – that was convincing and irrefutable.”

A few Italians protested the naked aggression. It was left to the extremist Socialist newspaper editor, Benito Mussolini, to make the most unconditional rejection of the war. He was arrested after dismissing the national flag as a “rag to stick on a dunghill” in a speech denouncing the war in Forlì.
This was a stark contrast with the attitude of the ex-Marxist in power as Duce of Fascism after 1922. The airplane and the destructive power it could project enthralled Mussolini the Fascist as it had repelled Mussolini the Marxist. He declared that the airplane was “the first Fascist.” He became a born-again bomber.

Mussolini’s rejection of Marxism and his embrace of the thrill of ultra-modern war was simultaneous. Almost as soon as he came to power, Mussolini was taken up for his first flight by the war ace, Mario Stoppiani, who described the Duce’s “enthusiastic delirium” with the experience. Then he learned to fly (and to the alarm of his more pedestrian ally, Hitler, would take charge of the controls of planes with the timid Fuehrer on board.) Until George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin has there been a political leader who piloted himself so publicly?

The airplane was also used to suppress his opponents: Mafia bosses and Libyan tribal chiefs would be taken for a one-way flight out over the Mediterranean and pushed to their deaths in the sea below.

Mussolini developed the use of air power to repress rebels in Libya and eventually broke their resistance after almost twenty-five years occupation. In Ethiopia he took his war for civilization to new depths. Fascist Italy announced it would abolish slavery there but first it had to conquer the natives. The exiled Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, described to the League of Nations how the Italians used crop-spraying techniques designed to kill insects to poison his people. Mussolini’s regime made no bones about its methods and did not hide behind cant about having “no reports of civilian casualties.”

Flying Fascists became the order of the day as Mussolini became expansionist in the mid-1930s. His eldest son, Vittorio and his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, took part as pilots in bombing Ethiopia.Mussolini’s son, Bruno, wrote a lyrical description of what it was like to watch Ethiopians explode like petals when he dropped his bombs among them.

Bertrand Russell saw Bruno Mussolini’s evocation of air power’s immaculate ability to destroy puny humans as embodying the reality of the modern totalitarian regimes, but worse still of a future world controlled from the air. Russell asked, “If one could imagine a government that governed from an aeroplane… wouldn’t such a government get a completely different view of its opposition?” Russell feared that a regime of air power would “exterminate” any resistance or dissent. He thought the bomber rendered mass conscript armies redundant and highly-skilled mercenaries would replace them willing to do the bidding of their masters rather being part of the people: “”We seem now, through the aeroplane, to be returning to the need for forces composed of comparatively few highly trained men. It is to be expected, therefore, that the form of government, in every country exposed to serious war, will be such as airmen will like, which is not likely to be democracy.”

But the Italian Fascists were to discover that air power was a two-way street. Libyans and Ethiopians could not declare “no fly zones” over Rome or bombard Florence, but after 1940, the British then the Americans could.
Italian pioneering efforts at air warfare were widely admired and imitated.

Fiorello La Guardia was trained to fly by Italian instructors after the United States entered the First World War in 1917. The American pioneer of bombing, Billy Mitchell, recognised Italy’s role as an air power pioneer and became an admirer of the Fascist regime, calling it in 1927 “one of the greatest constructive powers for good government that exists in the world today.” Like Mussolini’s air chiefs, Mitchell was a moderniser who got left behind by the pace of change: he agreed with the Fascist airmen that aircraft carriers had no future.

In Britain, too, there were close links between Fascism and flying. Lady Houston, who funded Supermarine’s embryo Spitfire to compete in the Remy Schneider Flying Trophy also offered £200,000 to the British Union of Fascists led by flying enthusiast Oswald Mosley – so her contribution to defeating Fascism was greater than the effect of backing the British Union of Fascists – aspects of the patriotic myth which are omitted the Leslie Howard film First of the Few (1942).

Even today there is the odd, even erotic, irony that Mosley’s step-granddaughter, the glamorous model Daphne Guinness is amorously linked to Bernard-Henri Levi, the chief French exponent of bombing as the path to freedom in Libya – a strange misalliance between the Repubblica Salo and the République Sarkozyste, or a reconciliation of a false dichotomy?

But whatever the role of other countries in pioneering air flight or even Fascism, Italy can fairly claim to have got both off the ground. It put the warplane in the sky soon enough with a Fascist at the joy-stick. Giulio Douhet was the first serious strategist of bombing. Although he backed Mussolini, Douhet’s career as a practitioner of airpower was stymied in Fascist Italy by rivals with better party credentials.

One of the few dissenting voices in 1911 belonged to a schoolboy in Ferrara who would become the second most famous Fascist after Mussolini not least for his flying exploits. Then the fifteen year old Italo Balbo broke with the nationalist atmosphere and published an article denouncing the invasion of the territory which he would come to rule after 1933 as Mussolini’s viceroy. But in the meantime Balbo became Italy’s own Charles Lindbergh – a celebrity pioneer aviator who criss-crossed much of the globe to demonstrate the new Fascist regime’s commitment to the most modern manifestation of power – the airplane.

Back in 1911 like Mussolini, Balbo was an odd man out. Of course not every future Fascist opposed the war. Sergio Panunzio, for instance, remonstrated with the young Balbo for publishing an article against the pro-war consensus: “Why? To go against the grain, against reality, against the government.” Panunzio anticipated the classic Fascist argument that right was made by the might of media opinion and the might of state power.

Italians were to be proud of pioneering military aviation in the cause of civilization. In 1911, Italians achieved a series of aerial firsts: the first night flight, the first aerial photograph, the first aerial bombing – and the first plane to be shot down. Some pedants pointed out that if balloon-launched explosives were included then it was Italian territory which was the first target of bombing as far back as 1849. Then the Austrians besieging rebel Venice sent balloons filled with explosives drifting across la Serenissima which crashed onto the Austrian troops on the other side causing the first casualties of aerial friendly-fire. The governor of Libya, Balbo himself, fell victim to friendly fire when his three-engined plane was shot down by his own anti-aircraft forces at Tobruk on 28th June, 1940. In 1941, Bruno Mussolini was also killed testing a new plane. The airplane was beginning to eat the Fascists and the nation which gave birth to its military role.

Rejecting any romantic nostalgia for the days of one-on-one fighter-pilot duels in the First World War, Balbo was the proponent of launching “hundreds and hundreds” of planes into the sky in future wars. Mass attacks were to be the Fascist approach to aerial warfare – but Mussolini’s regime was stronger on intimidating bombast than putting resources into such a vast expensive programme. It was the democracies who built and deployed the first fleets of heavy bombers.

As the Second World War progressed, northern Italy was especially badly hit by bombing as the Allies advanced to drive out the Germans and destroy Mussolini’s Salo regime. Leaving aside the human cost, the cultural losses were enormous. Buildings like La Scala in Milan or the Bramante church housing Leonardo’s Last Supper in its miraculously unscathed refectory could be rebuilt but the works of art in them like the Mantegna fresco of the Life of St. James in the Ovetari Chapel in Padua were lost when shattered by Allied bombs.

The impact of the Second World War left Italians deeply suspicious of getting involved in warfare, let alone bombing former colonial territory. In 1999, Italy broke the tabu. Led by ex-Marxists, the Italian government accepted the use of their country as the main launching ground for airstrikes on Serbia over Kosovo briefly part of Mussolini’s inglorious new Roman Empire (1941-43). Fishermen in the Adriatic still moan about the risks of falling victim to NATO ordinance dumped in the sea. But now a regime with “post-Fascist” participation competes with the post-Marxists to justify Italy’s renewal of war over Libya just in time for the centenary of a Italy as the mid-wife of aerial warfare.

On this morbid anniversary, the crusade for civilization then has become a crusade for human rights today. The machinery of the contemporary crusaders may be faster than the bi-planes of 1911 and the bombs are certainly vastly more explosive, but the unanimity of the politicians and media across the West are a strange echo of Italy’s echo-chamber of mutually reinforcing propaganda from the men in power and men of the press. But today there isn’t even a Mussolini in parliament or the media to oppose air power as a force for progress!


Italians have written extensively about the war for Libya in 1911 and the invention of aerial bombardment by their fellow countrymen.

Useful English sources include:

Richard Bosworth, Italy and the Approach of the First World War (Macmillan: London, 1983)

Azar Gat, A History of Military Thought from the Enlightenment to the Cold War (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2011),

Alan Kramer, Dynamic of Destruction. Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2007)

Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing translated by Haverty Rugg (Granta: London, 2001)

Bertrand Russell, Power with an introduction by Kirk Willis (Unwin, 1938, reprinted by Routledge: London, 1995)

Dan Segre, Italo Balbo: A Fascist Life (University of California Press: Berkeley, 1987)

David Stevenson, Armaments and the Coming of War. Europe, 1904-1914 paperback edition (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2000)

John Wright, The Emergence of Libya: Historical Essays(Society for Libyan Studies: London, 2008).

MARK ALMOND, Oxford historian, is Visiting Professor in International Relations at Bilkent University, Turkey. He can be reached through his website.