"From the top, one can see well and hit easily."
The beginning of 1915 reserved a bitter discovery for the populations already sorely taxed by six months of war. On the night of January 19th, two German Zeppelin dirigibles carried out the first aerial bombardment in history on civilians, releasing bombs and incendiary devices on some Norfolk towns. This first foray onto British soil claimed six victims, and, above all, made a huge impact on the public, who considered the attack a barbaric act. The dirigibles that carried out the raid represented the latest evolution of a successful airship developed by Ferdinand von Zeppelin. The first took off on July 2nd, 1900, to be followed by another 24 by the outbreak of the war. They were used both for civilian flights and for reconnaissance and bombing. After the raid on the two coastal towns, similar actions continued in subsequent years, even reaching London, hit on May 31st, 1915. The British were thus the first population forced to live with the threat of death arriving from the skies, and a war fought not only on the battlefields, but also on their doorstep.
Figures drawn up after the end of the war showed 556 dead and 1,357 injured in raids carried out by Zeppelins. Although not a negligible amount, it does not demonstrate the effectiveness of dirigibles in aerial bombardment; quite the opposite. In fact, their advantages recognised at the beginning of the war (their capacity and autonomy) were eclipsed by the countermeasures taken, such as the training of the population and the use of blackouts, which forced to bomb blindly, the development of antiaircraft weapons, and the constantly improved performance of fighter planes, to which the airship remained very vulnerable. The evolution of the conflict decreed that the airship was clearly outclassed by the airplane.
Much of this story had already been written well before the outbreak of the war by the Italian, Giulio Douhet (1869 - 1930); it is still considered among the classics of modern military doctrine. Following a series of articles published in 1910, Douhet hypothesized rapid progress in the aircraft industry, in particular for the motorised plane that, in a few years, would outclass the airship not only for the transport of people and things, but also for offensive use in war. This is a surprisingly lucid analysis, considering that it dates back to a historical moment in which the Zeppelin seemed to attract high opinion, whereas the motorised plane was an experimental flying machine with uncertain performance.
This showed considerable foresight about what was to happen five years later. Douhet foresaw the use of the aircraft in war would result in three specialisations: reconnaissance, bombing and fighting. Lastly - and this is his most valuable contribution to contemporary military strategy - Douhet first formulated the concept of the "dominion of the air," understood as an all-encompassing, strategic objective, able to determine victory in war. Hence arose a call for Italy to abandon its warships, moving towards a decision for the State to produce aeroplanes directly, aiming to achieve supremacy of the skies.
Douhet perfected the doctrine of "dominion of the air" before and during the Great War, until definitive publication under this title in 1921. Aerial bombardment represents the main focus of the theory as an indispensable means to lead to victory in a short time, annihilating the opponents’ air force and hitting the enemy beyond the front lines, at military targets, means of communication, industries, general infrastructure, and, last but not least, inhabited areas. Douhet was aware of the terrorist connotations of the bombing of civilian targets. He reflected on this point, both theoretically and as a result of the episodes of bombing civilians, such as those committed by Germany in 1915. His conclusion was clear, however. Even a brutal, but short, war towards civilians would be far preferable to a long entrenched war such as the one Europe endured between 1914 and 1918. The implications of this doctrine, worrying for their author himself, would become strikingly clear during the Second World War. During the Great War, Douhet’s idea found its first practical application in the first bombing plane, designed by Gianni Caproni - closely associated with Douhet. Construction of the prototype commenced in 1913 and the first flight was in October 1914. It was a three-engine biplane aircraft (two hauling engines in the tail beams, one pushing on the fuselage) with a wingspan of almost 23 metres, which evolved continually with a different engine. Despite the resistance that this project encountered from the high military command, since 1916 the Italian aviation bombardment consisted of Caproni production planes, used increasingly in the conflict, until they became a model envied and imitated by all the Allied nations. The collaboration between Douhet and Caproni formed not only an important part of aviation of the Great War, but also led to the very idea of an aviation strategy that is still part of military doctrine.