Aviation History

How Italian Caproni and S.V.A. First World War aircraft performed the first real military airlift in the history of aviation

These missions clearly illustrated the possibilities offered by transport aeroplanes.

From 1912 to 1927, the territory which became modern Libya was known to Europeans as Italian North Africa. Here the most famous leaders of the Libyan resistance were Idris al-Mahdi al-Sanussi (later King Idris I of Libya) and Umar Mukhtar (eponymous hero of film Omar Mukhtar, Lion of the Desert in which his character was played by Oliver Reed). Both were based in the eastern province of Cyrenaica rather than the western province of Tripolitania. Meanwhile the southern province of Fezzan only came to prominence during the later stages of this struggle.

As told by Air Vice Marshal Gabr Ali Gabr and Dr David Nicolle in their book Air Power and the Arab World 1909-1955 Volume 3 Colonial Skies 1918-1936, almost immediately after the Great War an independent state was declared in Tripolitania. Calling itself Al-Jumhurya al-Trabulsiya (The Republic of Tripolitania), and having its capital at Aziziya, the new state was proclaimed by a number of local Ieaders who went on to formally announce its establishment at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. These Libyan leaders did not, however, envisage a complete removal of the Italians from their country. Instead they wanted the Italian occupation to be replaced by an internationally recognised Italian commercial domination. The Republic of Tripolitania is also widely regarded as the first modern republic in the Arab World. Unfortunately, the Republic of Tripolitiania found very little support outside Libya and was ruthlessly crushed by Italian forces.

The actual reconquest of Tripolitania really began after the arrival of a new governor, the businessman and politician Giuseppe Volpi, who replaced Luigi Mercatelli on Jul. 16, 1921. Volpi would eventually be rewarded with the title of Count of Misratah. He also founded the world-renowned Venice Biennale Arts Festival. In Libya, however, Giuseppe Volpi’s first task was to revive the sagging morale of sometimes poorly supplied Italian garrisons. This was followed by a sudden offensive, which clearly caught the perhaps complacent Libyan resistance by surprise. It began at dawn on Jan. 26, 1922, when a mixed force including Italian, Eritrean and local troops as well as police landed on the coast outside Misratah which they then seized. Within little more than a year Tripoli and its outlying settlements were firmly back in Italian hands, followed by the coast and northern cultivated lowlands between 1923 and 1925. Italian forces then took control of the central semi-desert regions, followed by the deep desert. This offensive took Italian forces to the borders of Fezzan by the end of the 1920s.

Italian Air Force aeroplanes took part in almost all stages of this campaign, but the most remarkable use of air power resulted from what might have ended up as an Italian defeat within a fortnight of their initial victory at Misratah. On Feb. 9, 1922, the 10th Battalion Eritrean Askari was besieged in Aziziya when so-called “rebels” cut the railway line. On Mar. 19 the railway line between Tripoli and Zuwarah was also cut while the followers of the resistance leader Farad Bey seized control of Zuwarah itself. The only means of communication between the approximately 1,000 troops in Aziziya and the main Italian forces in Tripoli was now by air, and so a handful of Caproni tri-motors, originally designed as long-range bombers during the First World War, transported fresh troops to the outpost while also evacuating civilians and wounded soldiers. In this they were assisted by some smaller machines. The numbers of people involved meant that this was the first real military airlift in the history of aviation.

Caproni Ca.33

General Pietro Badoglio, Chief of the Italian General Staff, arrived in Tripoli on Apr. 26 to assess the situation, along with Col. Siciliani and Col. Riccardo Moizo who was now General Commander of the Italian Air Force. Moizo had been shot down and captured in 1912, during the original Italian invasion of Libya.

Remarkable as this airlift was, it clearly could not supply the Aziziya garrison with all it needed for a prolonged sieve. The available aircraft were simply too small and too few in number. In this emergency, three Caproni Ca.33 machines flew daily missions, along with half a dozen smaller Ansaldo S.V.A. single seaters and two-seaters. The Capronis usually carried sacks of flour, some of which were placed between the fuel tanks, others between fuel tanks and the central of the Caproni’s three engine, and also in the front observer cockpit. By reducing the crew of three to just two pilots, and by halving the amount of fuel normally carried, a Caproni could theoretically carry up to 1,200 kilograms of supplies or several passengers.

Meanwhile, the Ansaldo S.V.A. 5 single seater could carry six bags of flour (120kg) tied to the fuselage where the removed machine guns had been, and without unbalancing the aeroplane. Flying machine in this condition was nevertheless far from easy, as Squadron Commander Lieutenant R. Armellini found when flour spilled into his cockpit from a broken sack. This forced him to land hurriedly, damaging his S.V.A. in the process. Another S.V.A. was damaged while landing on a rough track next to al-Aziziya fort, and one Caproni pilot, Sergente Zagni, was killed when two engines failed simultaneously. These Capronis also carried a number of civilians back to Tripoli, including women and children, as well as injured Eritrean soldiers and those whose term of enlistment had expired. The latter were replaced by a new company of Eritreans, plus their officers.

This remarkable airlift continued until Apr. 10 when it was suspended pending the arrival of an Italian Army column commanded by a 39-year-old Colonel and enthusiastic Fascist named Rodolfo Graziani. By then the Capronis and S.V.A.s had made 335 flights carrying 42 tons of foodstuffs, 3 tons of other materials, 278 soldiers— including 213 reinforcements from Tripoli to Aziziya— and 53 civilians. After Graziani’s column lifted the siege, 40 wounded men from his force were also flown back to Tripoli. These missions clearly illustrated the possibilities offered by transport aeroplanes especially in colonial campaigns, and provided a lesson that would not be ignored by other European imperial powers.

Air Power and the Arab World 1909-1955 Volume 3 Colonial Skies 1918-1936 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Unknown

Ansaldo S.V.A. 5
Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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