A HUNDRED years ago today, an Italian airman named Giulio Gavotti dropped three hand grenades out of his monoplane onto a camp of Arab and Turkish troops at Ain Zara, just east of Tripoli, during the Italian-Turkish War. It was the world’s first aerial bombardment. Each grenade weighed three pounds, and it is likely that no one was hurt. “I came back really pleased with the result,” Lieutenant Gavotti wrote to his father. Italian newspapers raved about the sortie: “Terrorized Turks Scatter.”
From this modest beginning, the air raid as a style of war grew both in scale and imagination. Popular novelists like H. G. Wells had been fantasizing about war by airship and flying machine since the late 19th century. When the First World War began, these science fiction scenes recurred in the policy assessments of military planners, who assumed that victory and defeat in a bombing war would be absolute and immediate.