A Brief History
On May 17, 1943, the British RAF conducted their famous “Dambusters” raid on dams on Germany’s rivers, a story we told in our article “May 17, 1943: 10 Most Daring, Dashing, Devastating Bombing Raids (WWII)“. Today we will discuss 10 Bombing raids of significance (historic or famous) that did not occur during World War II.
1. Balloon Bombs, Venice, 1849.
The first known use of aerial bombing, Austrians used unmanned balloons to carry bombs over Venice on July 15, 1849, which had revolted against Austrian rule and declared the Republic of San Marcos. The Austrians used the onshore breeze to carry 2 balloons armed with shrapnel bombs timed to explode 23 minutes after launch from the Volcano, a steamship. (Or maybe the Vulcan.) The number of balloons is also in question, with as many as 200 reported sent over Venice, or as few as 2. Either way, the public was said to be terrified of the new form of warfare, though no reports of casualties could be located. The world barely noted the watershed event, but of course bombing from the air would soon take on much greater implications.
2. Libya, 1911.
November 1, 1911, marked the next major step in aerial bombardment when an Italian, Giulio Gavotti, dropped a paltry load of four 1.5-kilogram bombs from an airplane on the village of Ain Zara in Libya. Gavotti was flying a Farman bi-plane and had expected to conduct aerial reconnaissance when he was surprised by the delivery of a box of small bombs intended for the use of being dropped (by hand) from airplanes. That historic first bomb was dropped on Libyan troops, men Gavotti referred to as “Turks.” Damage and casualties from this first raid are unknown, but the Italian press boasted of the innovation. Note: The first bombing of a city by a heavier than air aircraft occurred in 1912 when Bulgaria bombed the Turkish city of Adrianople (now called Edirne), dropping 2 small bombs on the city from an Albatross F-3 from an altitude of 500 meters.
3. Antwerp Zeppelin Raid, 1914.
World War I saw rapid advances in aviation, especially in the lethality of weapons deployed from airplanes and airships (Zeppelins). The Germans bombed Antwerp in 1914 from a Zeppelin intentionally targeting the city and not a military target. A total of 10 bombs were dropped, killing 10 and wounding another 40 people. Zeppelin bombing of England began in 1915, with the big airships dropping a dozen 50 kilogram bombs apiece, as well as 3 kilo incendiaries that turned out to be ineffective. The Zeppelins could carry a maximum load of 2 tons of bombs apiece, far more than any airplane of the time. (Fire bombs would reach a high technical level in World War II, burning huge parts of large cities to the ground.) The raids on London increased in ferocity until multiple raids by 23 airships in 1916 dropped what was then the staggering amount of 125 tons of bombs. Improved anti-air defenses led to a decrease in Zeppelin attacks, with only 11 such raids on England in all of 1917 and 1918. The Germans, as did other countries, turned to the development of large bomber airplanes instead of the slow and vulnerable airships. Bombing cities had become a regular tactic.
4. RNAS Bombing of Zeppelin Bases, 1914.
In retaliation for the Zeppelin raids on Antwerp and other targets, the British Royal Naval Air Service conducted bombing raids of their own against Zeppelin bases using 20 pound bombs, destroying at least 1 airship. These raids marked a new tactic of trying to prevent the enemy from employing their bombers by bombing the bombers first.
5. Billy Mitchell Sinks German Battleship, 1921.
One of the great proponents of airpower, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell was a US Army pilot that advocated for the United States to develop the airplanes, weapons and tactics that would place the US at the forefront of aerial warfare. His brash ways and intolerance of fools led to friction with superiors, ultimately resulting in his court martial and reduction in rank to Colonel. Before all that happened, Mitchell wanted to prove that airplanes could sink even the largest warships, and the surrender of the German fleet after World War I provided plenty of targets to test his theories. After sinking smaller vessels, Mitchell demonstrated the potential of air attack against ships by sinking the former German battleship Ostfriesland. The US Navy attempted to rig the demonstration against Mitchell, and the first attempt with smaller bombs damaged the great ship but failed to sink her. A mere 5 NBS-1 bombers carrying one 1100 pound bomb apiece attacked the target ship, scoring 3 direct hits but the other 9 bombers were called off by the Navy under suspicious circumstances. The next day 6 NBS-1 bombers and 2 Handley Page bombers, each carrying a single 2000 pound bomb (the bombs Mitchell wanted to use all along, but were not ready for the first bombing runs) made their attacks, sinking the battleship, proving that airplanes could be the master of the seas. From the time of the first 2000 pound bomb drop, it only took 22 minutes for the Ostfriesland to sink. Not only did the US Navy minimize the importance of the demonstration, even US Army Chief of Staff General JJ Pershing also made light of the demonstration, enraging Mitchell. Mitchell was vindicated by events and posthumously promoted to Major General.
6. Condor Legion Bombs Guernica, 1937.
During the Spanish Civil War outside countries found reason to intervene on behalf of their form of society, the Germans in favor of the Fascist (Nationalist) faction led by Francisco Franco and the Russians and other Communists on behalf of the Communist (Republican) side. A resurgent Germany under Adolf Hitler was rearming and forming a world class air force and was eager to use their new weapons and tactics in a dress rehearsal for the coming European war that they had planned. An aerial force called the Condor Legion was sent to Spain from July of 1936 to March of 1939. The German airmen honed their skills bombing Spanish cities, most notably Guernica in 1937, when Ju-52 (Stuka dive bombers) and Heinkel He-111 medium bombers destroyed the city in an unprecedented aerial bombardment unlike any that had come before. (Though it would pale by later World War II air raids.) An unknown number of people were killed, anywhere from at least 200 to as many as 1600 claimed by the Basque populace. The damage and carnage was so shocking at the time that the Nationalists at first blamed the Republicans for the raid, but German markings on bomb fragments proved otherwise.
7. Italians Drop Mustard Gas by Air in Ethiopia, 1928-1937.
The first known use of chemical weapons delivered by airplanes was conducted by the Italians in their war of conquest of Ethiopia perhaps as early as 1928, but certainly with incidents occurring in 1935 and/or 1936. The chemical agent of choice was Mustard, a truly abominable substance that causes chemical blisters, blindness, and death by ruining the lungs. In spite of Italy being a signatory member of international pacts against the use of chemical weapons, the Italians disregarded condemnation by other countries and continued their inhuman attacks on the Ethiopians anyway. Ethiopian soldiers with lightweight hot weather uniforms and sandals on their feet were particularly vulnerable to the effects of Mustard.
8. Israel Bombs Iraqi Nuclear Reactor, 1981.
Back when Saddam Hussein was firmly in charge of Iraq a surprise Israeli air raid destroyed an Iraqi nuclear power plant only 10 miles from Baghdad. Called Operation Opera (or Operation Babylon) the Israeli bombing followed an unsuccessful bombing raid on the same plant by the Iranian Air Force. (Iraq and Iran were at war at the time.) The September 1980 Iranian attack on the supposedly peaceful research nuclear facility (believed by virtually everyone to be intended to develop nuclear weapons) consisted of only 2 F-4 Phantom jets and only minor damage was inflicted in the first known attack of a nuclear facility. Iranian fear of radioactive fallout led to careful targeting of parts of the facility not including the reaction dome. The Israeli attack consisted of 8 F-16 fighters each carrying 2 X 2000 pound bombs escorted by F-15 fighters, overflying Saudi Arabian territory and using the Arabic language pretending to be a Jordanian flight on the radio to confuse potential Arab interception of radio messages. Prior to the attack, Israel conducted aerial reconnaissance of the target and practiced mock attacks. Another interesting development was photographic intelligence of the nuclear plant supplied to Israel by Iran. The bombing raid resulted in half the bombs hitting the target, putting the nuclear plant out of action and killing 10 Iraqis and 1 French technician. The plant never did get back into operation and was completely destroyed by the American air campaign against Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. No Israeli planes were lost in the stunning attack.
9. US Bombs Libya, 1986.
In 1986, Ronald Reagan was President of the United States and regularly threatened the use of US military power against the enemies of our nation. Moammar Qadaffi (spell this guy’s name however you want) was the radical nationalist leader of Libya with delusions of grandeur and a misplaced sense of his and Libya’s importance and power. The US had blamed Libya for various terrorist acts around the world, including an attack on US military personnel in Germany, and confrontations between Libyan and American air and naval forces in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya had ratcheted tensions even higher. The US launched a massive (during “peace time”) air raid of over 100 Air Force and Navy planes (32 carrying bombs) against Libyan targets on April 14, 1986 against alleged “terrorism centers,” including the headquarters of Qadaffi himself. Air Force FB-111 bombers flew all the way from England to bomb Libya, having to take the long route due to the refusal by France to allow the US to use French airspace on the raid. (US allies Spain and Italy also refused use of their airspace.) Military and suspected terrorist related targets were hit, as well as a Libyan airfield to prevent aerial interception of the raiders. Qadaffi claimed his 15 month old adopted daughter was killed in the raid, which many years later was proven untrue. The French embassy in Tripoli was accidentally damaged, somewhat ironically since France refused to go along with bombing. One US FB-111 was shot down by Libyan anti-aircraft fire with the loss of both crewmen. Information later revealed the bombing of Libya was justified using false evidence, information that angered the British who had supported the American attacks and later resulted in a retaliatory downing of a British airliner (Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland) by Libyan terrorists in 1988. The evidence against Libyan involvement in the Berlin terrorist attack was later found to be true.
10. US Accidentally Bombs Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, 1999.
In 1999, the former country of Yugoslavia was being wracked by sectarian warfare between the various ethnic groups, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Macedonian, as well as between Catholic and Orthodox Christians and Muslims. Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic had been conducting particularly brutal campaigns against his enemies, resulting in American bombing of Serbian targets in an attempt to force a Pax Americana on the region. When the US targeted the Yugoslav Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement in the capital city, Belgrade, 5 American bombs accidentally hit the Chinese embassy, killing 3 Chinese journalists and wounding 27 other people. The problem stemmed from the CIA providing the US Air Force with the wrong coordinates of the target, which was on the same street as the Chinese embassy. The Chinese government was predictably outraged and made an enormous show of their displeasure to the world and to their own citizens. The US eventually paid compensation to those killed and wounded and paid China to rebuild their embassy. The American Defense Secretary and the Director of the CIA blamed an outdated map as the reason for the wrong target being hit. The strike had been carried out by B-2 Spirit “stealth” bombers.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other raids would you include on this list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Black, Jeremy. Air Power: A Global History. Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
Hurley, Alfred. Billy Mitchell: Crusader for Air Power. Indiana University Press, 2006.
Morris, Craig. The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory (History of Military Aviation). Naval Institute Press, 2017.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Schalber of Möhne Dam after the attack, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. This image was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv) as part of a cooperation project. The German Federal Archive guarantees an authentic representation only using the originals (negative and/or positive), resp. the digitalization of the originals as provided by the Digital Image Archive.