Precision and Purpose: Airpower in the Libyan Civil War

By Gregory Alegi; Christian F. Anrig et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
The Italian Experience: Pivotal and Underestimated

Gregory Alegi


Introduction

In 1911–1912, the Italian Army’s fledgling air component, reinforced by a handful of naval aviators and civilian volunteer pilots, pioneered in Libya the applications of airpower in real operations. Flying a single-seat, 50-horsepower Blériot XI monoplane, on October 23, 1911, Capitano Carlo M. Piazza carried out the world’s first operational sortie by a heavier-than-air aircraft, a 61-minute reconnaissance over territory at once unknown, inhospitable, and unfriendly.1 Piazza flew his Blériot for other notable flights, including the first naval artillery ranging (October 28), the first photoreconnaissance (February 23, 1912), and the first operational night flight (March 4, 1912); his colleague, Tenente Giulio Gavotti, dropped the first bombs on November 1, 1911, striking Ain Zara and Tagiura.2 Yet on October 23, 2011, the Italian Air Force (ITAF) did not celebrate the 100th anniversary of these milestone events. The omission was not due to a lapse of memory, but to ITAF involvement in its largest operation since the end of the Second World War,3 which absorbed a large amount of resources and enhanced the anniversary’s political sensitivity. Celebrating what historians see as the turning point in the metamorphosis of the airplane from sporting implement to practical military machine, and what the ITAF considers its informal birthday, seemed inappropriate, for the Italian Air Force had just fought another war in the skies above Libya.

For almost eight months in 2011, Italy employed the full spectrum of airpower capabilities, which had now expanded to roles and types unthinkable a century before–such as SEAD, air-to-air refueling, electronic warfare, and signals intelligence

1 For a recent succinct summary of the 1911–1912 air campaign, see Gregory Alegi, “Nei cieli della Libia. Colonialismo e i primi impieghi bellici dell’aeroplano,” in R. H. Rainero and P. Alberini, eds., Le Forze Armate e la Nazione Italiana (1861–1914), Rome: CISM, 2003, pp. 247–263.

2 The Libyan operation also prompted thoughts about establishing a transport service (mainly for mail service) and air-to-air combat (using the standard side arms issued to officers, as would indeed happen in the opening stages of the First World War)—and it brought about the first combat aircrew casualties (pilot Carlo Montù was wounded on January 31, 1912, and Tenente Manzini died on August 25, 1912).

3 Gen. s.a. Giuseppe Bernardis, email communication to all ITAF personnel, November 1, 2011.

-205-

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