Libya from the Air (With a Brief Look at Morocco)

Cyrenaica: A two-seat SVA in air-cooperation with a Squadriglia of Italian Royal Army's armored cars. 

The Italian Royal Army was the first armed force in the world to employ aircraft in combat, during the 1911-12 Italo-Turkish War for the control of the territory that became modern Libya. After the end of WWI the Italian airplanes were back in force on their Fourth Shore (as the Italians called Libya), and it was there, where airplanes had fought for the first time in history, that the European colonial forces grew their wings and learned to fly.

The following is a translation of an excerpt of an Italian "Storia dell'Aviazione," written by various authors and published in weekly installments in Italy by Fratelli Fabbri Editori S.p.A. beginning in 1973 (this comes from issue N. 42). After the Libyan chapter I added a page about what the Spanish airmen were facing in Morocco at about the same time.

I hope you will find it interesting, and your comments will be very appreciated.
Thank you, L. Pavese.

  Air Forces in the Colonies 

At the beginning of the war against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Italy had already been experiencing some troubles with taking control of the military situation in Libya.
During the two years from the completion of the initial occupation (1912) to the outbreak of hostilities in Europe (1914), the Italian troops had not been able to subjugate the rebel Libyan tribes or to gain complete control of the inland territories, let alone the oasis that was still in the hands of Ahmed Sharif as-Senussi, a religious chief hostile to Italy.
At the outbreak of WWI, the Italians had withdrawn all the aircraft from Libya, and they were not going to redeploy any other airplanes there until 1915. Therefore, for a period of about fifteen months, the Italians troops in Libya were deprived of the precious support of the air force, in the country where the airplane had received its baptism of fire.
Unwilling to tie down men and materials in the new colony, the Italian government gave the order to abandon all the inland garrisons, postponing the problem of the full pacification of Libya to after the end of the war in Europe. As a result, the occupation of the northern African country remained limited to a narrow band of land along the coast; but communications became precarious very soon, because coasting navigation was imperiled by enemy submarines and also because the Libyan rebels were supplied with weapons by the enemies of Italy.
As the Italian war effort increased on the European front, the disturbance actions grew in intensity on the part of the Libyans, who became more and more daring and also attacked – sometimes successfully – very important towns and garrisons.
For this reason, in the second half of 1915, the Italians were forced to rebuild an air force in Libya, not only for the purpose of maintaining communications between the garrisons but, above all, to perform a careful reconnaissance of the territory. But the requirements of the operations against the Austro-Hungarians did not permit the Italians to deploy to Libya the necessary number of aircraft, which caused the air operations to be very limited in scale; although practically every land operation was supported by aerial reconnaissance. In particular, the availability of several Caproni tri-motors, which with machine guns and light bombs easily controlled the caravans of camels crossing the desert, turned out to be very advantageous. But, above all, the availability of reconnaissance aircraft always kept the Italian military leaders well informed about the movement of the enemy and the concentrations of the guerrilla forces.

Tripolitania: a  tethered balloon extends the visual range of a mechanized unit. 

Flour from the air

In December 1918, right after the end of WWI, the Italian air force in Libya was vigorously reinforced. In mid 1919, it numbered 90 aircraft (20 of which were still being assembled) and 6 observation balloons.
The airplanes were immediately employed to extend surveillance and to maintain the mail connections among the presidios without interruptions. In several occasions, the military aircraft transported passengers, evacuated casualties and also performed demonstration flights for friendly Libyan chieftains.

Meanwhile the Italian military high command was elaborating a new strategy of movement, based precisely on the use of the air force. This new operational doctrine foresaw the almost complete elimination of burden animals, the replacement of heavy and automatic weapons with more modern ones and the assignment of several aircraft to each unit. This objective, that was eventually achieved, was to reach the high level of agility that was the only way to fight effectively the highly mobile camel-mounted rebels.
The fine-tuning of the new techniques, the training, the concentrations of troops and the completion of the necessary political steps took about three years. During that period, the contribution of the air force in Libya was significant; but the airplanes became essential in the six following years, from 1922 to 1927, when Libya was completely reconquered and totally pacified.
The Italians also employed the aircraft extensively for logistical tasks. Significant was the example of the garrison of Aziziya, cut off by the rebels who had also interrupted the railroad to Tripoli. Five Caproni tri-motors and a few reconnaissance SVA were charged with re-supplying Aziziya. In about two months, from mid February to mid April, five Caproni’s air-lifted more than forty metric tons of food and three tons of various material; they transported an entire company of Eritrean Askari (213 men) and evacuated 65 wounded and sick troops and 53 civilians.

1921: A tri-motor Caproni Ca.3 has just transported a group of Askaris to Aziziya. 

Another one has evacuated civilians.

Medevac with a Ca.3: Note the two stretchers secured to the fuselages.

And even the SVA’s carried food, by tying several bags of flour on the engine cowling with ropes. (That caused also an unusual accident, when one of the bags ripped in flight creating a flour-storm that reduced visibility to zero and forced the pilot of a SVA to crash land).

Libya 1914. Max Slevogt

The retaking of Libya.

At the beginning of 1922, the Italians started a series of wide ranging operations aimed at regaining total control of the country. Initially greater importance was given to Tripolitania, and it was clear from the beginning that the new tactics based on very mobile units supported by aircraft was bearing fruit.
In July of 1923, after one year of operations, the area of Misurata could be considered totally pacified. During that period the air force flew 2139 war missions, dropping more than 18 metric tons of bombs and fragmentation bombs. The airplanes transported more than kg 24000 of supplies, and the pilots landed many times on improvised airstrips to exchange information with the troops.

Italian bombs explode among the rebels

One of the tasks of the Italian air force was also to strafe and bomb the camps of the bands of raiders who, taking advantage of the situation, raided the peaceful Berber people.
During one of these missions, near the Egyptian border, a Caproni with a crew of four was forced to land for mechanical problems on the other side of the border. The aircraft was attacked by a band of raiders who killed the four airmen. The commanding officer was Major Ferruccio Capuzzo, the commander of the Italian air force in Cyrenaica. A fort was dedicated to his name, which was going to be the theatre of epic battles during the Second World War.
In December, when the Italian-British treaty for the definition of the Libyan - Egyptian border was signed, the oasis of Giarabub, the base of the Senussi Sect, remained in Italian territory. The immediate invasion of the oasis was decided. The occupation was completed in February of 1926 with a mechanized unit consisting of tanks, armored cars and trucks, supported by aircraft. Only a few hours after the entry of the Italian troops in the oasis the Caproni tri-motors were taking off with the mail and with the reports of the journalists  that followed the Army.
At the same time another Italian Army column headed for the oasis of Jalo.

Airfield of Slonta:  line-up of Ro.1 reconnaissance aircraft.

Just to give an idea of the conditions in which the Italian aviators were often forced to operate, these few lines excerpted from the report of Colonel Maletti, who led the unit, should suffice:
“A very violent wind was blowing...We heard the roar of an engine. That weather seemed to me absolutely forbidding for flying. The machine, that rocked in a terrifying way, flew over the field at such a low altitude that everybody thought it was looking for a place to land.
“I had the appropriate signals deployed, but the aircraft did not land.
“While it glided to launch a message, we saw it caught suddenly in a downdraft, just over the crest of of dune on which it dropped all at once at a height of not more than a meter or two.
“We thought it was doomed; but it managed to recover and it dropped a sack of bread among our tents, and in it a message in which the aviators said that the atmospheric conditions did not allow them to continue the reconnaissance and that they were forced to return to the base.
“We learned later that the aircraft (a two-seat SVA) had not returned to the base.I ordered the search to start right away...”
In fact the aircraft had been overwhelmed by the desert wind and it had been forced to do an emergency landing; but the officers, the pilot Milanti and the observer De Giuli managed to reach an Italian fort after a two days march.

Bases in the desert

In 1927 the conquest of Libya had been practically accomplished. But there remained several hotbeds of rebellion, and therefore it was necessary to intervene again in the Gebel (the Green Mountain) of Cyrenaica and proceed to the occupation of the Fezzàn and of the oasis of Kufra.
The participation of the Air force in these operations, which were completed in 1931, was actually far more demanding and risky than before. On one hand there was the all but infernal weather, the terrain that was not favorable to off-the-field landings, the interminable missions; and on the other hand the different tactics of the rebels, who had formed very small and extremely mobile units, and had given up carrying along their tents, their families, their burden animals with the baggage and basically all the impedimenta that would make them more detectable.

1927: The 37th Squadriglia SVA on the airfield of Tobruck.

The provisions for the Italian aircraft were carried by caravans of camels burdened with gasoline, oil and bombs. These caravans established forward bases near the combat zones, to allow the aviators to rearm and refuel quickly and return to the sky over the battlefield.
In the words of a pilot that participated in those operations:
“The base usually consisted of an airstrip with a rough or sandy surface (and when one had to take off at gross weight it made one’s hair stand up), a large depot full of barrels of gasoline and oil, a pile of crates of explosive and about twenty tents to house the aviators...
“The ground troops had themselves preceded, escorted and protected by the air force. The airplanes had established their base in Serdeles and they had been flying for a few days without interruption, from dawn to sunset, one pair of aircraft relieving another.
“They encountered unbelievable difficulties to orient and navigate in that fantastic ocean of sand , in which one dune resembles the other: when one thought he had fixed in one’s head the shape of a dune as a reference point, there were ten or one hundred dunes that looked just the same...
“It was not possible to land on the dunes. The wheels would sink causing the plane to overturn. The troops were too far to be able to rescue the crew, but the aviators did not think about that; they didn’t want to...”

1931: Lieutenant Colonel Lordi, chief of staff of the Italian Air Force in Cyrenaica, with Prince  Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, after a reconnaissance flight over Kufra. (Lordi would die in the March 24, 1944  massacre of Fosse Ardeatine .)    
In January of 1931, with the invasion and occupation of the oasis of Kufra ( in which Italian aircraft flew over areas never before overflown by anybody), the conquest of Libya was finally completed; although mopping up operations against isolated bands of rebels went on for some time after that.
Although in the language of the time most of the missions in Libya were called “Colonial police operations,” it is obvious that they were truly military operations. In particular the constant air support given to the land units expanded the operational horizon and demonstrated the possibility of a very close cooperation between ground and air forces.

A few years later, with more advanced techniques and aided by radio communications, the Germans first and later the Allies would demonstrate beyond doubt the validity of the concept of air-cooperation with ground forces.

Something else was going on in Eastern Africa; but that's another story.

Meanwhile, in Morocco...

The Rebellion of Abd el-Krim

While the Italian Air Force was seriously engaged in Africa, against the rebels and the raiders of inland Libya, the Spanish military aviators had their hands full with a large scale operation against the rebel tribes of the Riff.
The use of military aircraft, in this sector, had begun right after the Italians had employed the aircraft, for the first time in history, in the Libyan War of 1911-12.
As early as 1913, the Spanish Army’s air arm had recorded her first casualty: Lieutenant Pilot Rios Angueso, killed by a rifle shot from the Moroccan rebels, near Tetuàn.
At the beginning of the 1920’s, the operations in Morocco took an unexpected turn for the worse, due to the fighting spirit of a valiant and very combative Muslim leader, Mohammed ibn Abd el-Krim, the son of a great Moroccan ruler, who had previously been and ally of the Spaniards in the fight against the rebels, but had switched sides due to the harshness of Spanish General Silvestre.
Cuban born General Manuel Fernández Silvestre y Patinga, who was the territorial military commander, distinguished himself for his brutal treatment of both enemies and allies that ultimately caused widespread rebellion.

General Silvestre 

In June of 1921, at a place known as Anoual, near the Mediterranean coast, Abd el-Krim inflicted the Spanish forces a severe defeat. In the battle, the Spaniards suffered 11,000 casualties, and lost an immense quantity of rifles and ammunition. General Silvestre went to his tent and committed suicide.
Faced with such unfavorable turn of events, the Spanish Army decided to strengthen its aviation component, and created several escuadrillas equipped mainly with British aircraft, like the Bristol Fighter, to supplement the French Bréguet.

Spanish Breguét XIV's bombers over Morocco

The intervention of the aircraft was decisive. In several cases the Spanish presidios were able to resist the attacks of el-Krim’s men only thanks to the aerial carousels of the airplanes that made great use of light bombs and machine guns.
Very often the Spanish aircraft attacked from a very low altitude, and for that reason they suffered numerous casualties. The rifle fire was intense and efficacious, and the number of wounded pilots who were forced to land grew very rapidly. The Spanish aviation also launched artillery grenades loaded with Yprite gas; but the fact that the bombs were launched in small number, and dispersed, greatly reduced the lethality of the gas.

A Ghost Air Force.

The echo of the feats of the valiant Muslim leader in the whole of Morocco, had raised Abd el-Krim to a position of preeminence among the other rebel chieftains; and Abd el-Krim thought that he could take advantage of his high prestige to unite all the tribes in the fight against Spain.
In 1922, after very subtle diplomatic work, Abd el-Krim proclaimed the Republic of the Riff, which he meant to have internationally recognized. He even appointed a cabinet with four departments (Foreign Affairs, Home, Justice and Finances), and a fifth “ghost’ ministry. The latter, entrusted to the qaid Haddou, was the Department of the Air Force.
As one can imagine, this was sensational news among the Western powers. For the first time, peoples that were considered backwards and rebellious, in a colonial territory, were trying to avail themselves of the most advanced weapon available at the time, to face an imperialist power on a levelled field.
Indeed, Abd el-Krim was rightfully convinced that the air arm was the true strong point of the Spanish Army; and he hoped to be able to counteract with comparable weapons.
Today, it is still being discussed if the Moroccan leader had actually ever had any aircraft at his disposal.
According to some sources, Abd el-Krim did actually buy a few transport airplanes, from a French-capital commercial company that had tried to set up an air transport network in North Africa. The company had gone bankrupt, and the aircraft, supposedly, had been picked up by the government of the Republic of the Riff.
A very rudimentary hangar was actually sighted by Spanish reconnaissance aircraft, and a sizable strike force was launched to destroy it. The mission was accomplished in 1924; and nobody ever heard again of Abd el-Krim’s Air Force.

The Last Resistance.

Regardless of the apparent ease with which the Spaniards had maintained control of the air, the military operations in Morocco went on, for the remainder of 1924, in a much less than satisfactory way.
The entire territory was up in arms, and the garrisons, the presidios and the forts of the Spaniards were besieged by rebel groups that sometimes numbered thousands of militiamen.

A Spanish air arm unit on the the airfield of  Tauima (Melilla)

During this period, the air arm did all it could to resupply the besieged forces with food, ammunition, drugs and most of all ice, to preserve the victuals and to make it possible for the men to resist the infernal temperature of those lands.
The Spanish aviators perfected their air-resupply techniques, based on the use of a large number of airplanes. Part of these aircraft attacked the enemy, who was usually just a few dozen meters from the Spanish lines; while other airplanes flew at a height of a few feet, to drop the supplies safely. The technique was necessary because of the small perimeter of the forts and the redoubts; and by the fact that a miss of just a few feet would have delivered supplies to the rebels.
Nevertheless, the insurgent forces were led by smart leaders, who by that time had become experts at that sort of guerrilla and had set up units armed with rifles, with the sole task to fire at the supply airplanes, ignoring the other aircraft. This cost the Spaniard a skyrocketing increase in casualties, that reached levels never since touched by any colonial air corps. But regardless these successes, that put the Spanish forces on the defensive for the entire 1924, the star of Abd el-Krim was about to set.

The Moroccan leader on the cover of Time in 1925

 In 1925, Abd el-Krim launched his men against the French territory, aiming at the city of Fez. In this instance too, the French managed to contain the pressure of the rebel forces with the massive use of their colonial air force. The determining factor in the war though was that the French and the Spaniards had agreed to proceed jointly, and Abd el-Krim was caught in a crossfire.

French Potez XXV's, based in Biskra, Algeria, at the time.

In 1925, the Spaniards landed in force and launched a great number of airplanes against the rebels, which included the German Dornier Wal seaplanes, license-built in Italy. The insurgents were defeated, and under the pressure of the joint Franco-Spanish forces, especially the air forces, the army of the Republic fell apart.
Abd el-Krim obtained an honorable peace settlement, and was exiled with his family to the island of Réunion, in the Indian Ocean.




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