A Brief History
On November 1, 1911, the first known dropping of a bomb from an airplane in combat took place, ushering in one more way for human beings to kill each other. This first incident was merely an Italian pilot dropping 2 hand grenades from his rudimentary airplane on a Turkish position in Libya, but soon airplanes made specifically for bombing and dropping bombs specifically made for use by airplanes would darken the skies above battlefields and cities alike.
The first bomber airplane was adapted for bombing not by one of the world’s great powers, but by the Bulgarian Army in 1912, the Albatros F-2 in 1912, again, using the plane to bomb the Turks, this time in the First Balkan War, and again using grenades adapted for dropping from the air. The first airplane actually designed from the start as a bomber was the British Bristol T.B.8 and the Italian Caproni Ca 30, both in 1913. The T.B.8 carried 12 X 10 lb bombs and had a rudimentary bombsight. These planes first dropped bombs in combat after the start of World War I in 1914. At first, most planes dropping bombs did so by a crew member just dropping them over the side of his open cockpit, but racks made to hold bombs along the lower wing surface became standard.
The Great Powers involved in the Great War quickly began to develop bombing technology, with bigger planes and bigger bombs. Airships such as Zeppelins were also adapted for dropping bombs, and the people of England were shocked when nighttime raids by German airships started dropping bombs on them. Countermeasures to bombing by airship quickly made that technique a losing proposition, as fighter aircraft could easily catch the slow airships and shoot them down.
Effective bombers such as the Russian Sikorsky Muromets, the British Handley Page Type O, the German Gotha, and the French Breuget 14 were developed and saw extensive combat, including long range strategic bombing as well as battlefield interdiction.
After World War I military visionaries saw the need for large bomber fleets that could influence battles and disrupt national production and transportation. American Billy Mitchell proved airplanes could sink the largest ships by sinking interned German vessels.
Of course, not just high explosives can be dropped from airplanes, and various other weapons were developed before and during World War II, including incendiary flame weapons including Napalm, torpedoes, flares, smoke, poison gas, biological weapons, etc. The first guided bombs were used in World War II, both radio and television controlled. In 1945 the US upped the ante of aerial bombing by dropping 2 atomic bombs on Japan, forever redefining the nature of warfare. Bombers protected by guns were proven inadequate, so long range fighter escorts became necessary. Nighttime darkness also became the bombers’ friend, but radar cut through that veil.
The Germans brought tactical battlefield interdiction to a high level in World War II as a key component of their Blitzkrieg tactics, coordinating dive bombers and fighter bombers with ground troops. The British and Americans brought strategic bombing to a new, massive level, with enormous campaigns against the cities of Japan and Germany, laying waste to huge tracts of land. The Avro Lancaster, Boeing B-17, Consolidated B-24, and Boeing B-29 became the long range heavy hitters of the war, the model for future bombers. The supremacy of aircraft over ships became abundantly clear during World War II as evidenced by Pearl Harbor, Taranto, Midway, The Coral Sea, and Leyte Gulf.
After World War II giant bombers powered by jet engines became the key weapon for delivering nuclear bombs in the long Cold War. Guided bombs delivered precision result. Laser guidance, television cameras, and GPS made pinpoint targeting possible. Stealth technology took the place of guns or speed for the protection of bombers, and now unmanned aerial drones have largely replaced manned airplanes to deliver these precision weapons.
Are the days of manned bombers over? Drones can do virtually anything manned bombers can do, and at a greatly reduced cost, as life support systems add much weight, bulk and expense to the design of bombers. Drones can also be built to have much greater performance, as the limitations of the human body limit the performance parameters of current planes.
Question for students (and subscribers): Should we continue to fund and develop manned bombers, or go to an unmanned drone force? Tell us what you think about the state of affairs with bomber aircraft in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Smith, Peter C. History of Dive Bombing: A Comprehensive History from 1911 Onward. Pen & Sword Aviation, 2007.