History Behind The Card: Italian War Monoplane.
Card #76 of 85, W.D.& H.O Wills, Aviation series 1912, Vice Regal – Black-back issue
- Captain Carlo Maria Piazza on March 17, 1881 in Busto Arsizio, Italy – June 24, 1917, Milan, Italy.
This Wills’s Aviation card is about an Italian War Monoplane, but actually depicts a French designed and manufactured aircraft. And I already wrote about it a while back.
That’s no fun… but since this card clearly depicts an aeroplane used by Italy in a war, we should discuss the war it flew in… and considering this card was issued in 1911, it sure wasn’t flown in WWI…
More than anything, this tobacco card represents military history—it also gives us a better time-line as to when this 85-card set of Aviation cards was released.
It is representative of Sunday, October 23, 1911,when Italian Captain Carlo Piazza took off at 6:19AM and flew his French-designed and -manufactured Blériot XI monoplane aircraft over the lands of Turkey’s Ottoman Empire to spy on its ground troops.
We know that the 75- and 85-card Wills’s related tobacco cards were released in 1911.
But, since the reverse of this card denotes that information (sort of), we know that the 85-series of card was released at least after October 23, 1911… but before 1912 began.
Since there are 10 additional cards (from the previously released 75) in the 85-card series, and this was first (as card No. 76), it was hardly a late news-arriving after-thought. Regardless… it implies that the card series was released in late October 1911 through December of 1911.
No histories of this card series have ever given a 1912 issue date.
Let’s look at the actually aviation history now.
The October 23, 1911 flight of Captain Piazza as depicted on the card’s reverse, was the first time an aeroplane was actually used in a war—in this case in the Italo-Turkish War fought between the Kingdom of Italy and the Ottoman Empire of September 29, 1911 to October 18, 1912—for reconnaissance.
Before we get into the interesting details of the war, let’s first take a look at the man named Maria, Captain Carlo Maria Piazza.
Born March 21, 1871 in Busto Arsizio, Italy, Piazza was a person who loved his athletics, taking part in fencing, gun shooting, horse riding, even winning a gold medal at a horse racing contest in Pesaro in 1899.
He obtained his pilot’s license on June 30, 1911 in Somma Lombardo (in Lombardo, Italy), and then added a military pilot’s license on August 1 of the same year.
It was at this time, that Piazza, when learning to fly and actually flying, he became friendly with aeroplane manufacturers and their pilots across Italy, especially in Malpensa.
I only bring that up, because the town where Piazza was born—Busto Arsizio–is now known as Milan–Malpensa. I know, nothing earth-shattering. Gimme a break, I’m trying to translate an Italian Wikipedia page on Piazza…
Italy, in September 1911, carried out military maneuvers in Monferrato—and thus became the first to have an aeroplane deployment. The while idea was to fly over enemy lines for the Red Team, and spy on what the Blue team was doing or what its full compliment was.
Despite a fog, the reconnaissance went well… paving the eventual way for aviation to be needed, should a war arise.
The war began over Tripoli, Libya.
Italy’s claims for Libya go back to Turkey’s defeat by Russia The claims of Italy over Libya dated back to Turkey’s defeat by Russia in the Turkish-Russia war of 1877-1878. At that time, there were discussions whereby France and Great Britain agreed to the occupation of Tunisia and Cyprus, respectively, which were both a part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.
After the French took over Tunisia in 1881, the Ottoman Turks loaded up the city of Tripoli in Libya to protect it from possible invasion by the French.
Italy, however, felt differently about Tripoli—and Libya in general. The Italians felt that it should belong to them.
The feelings continued to fester until March 1911 when Italy’s newspapers staged a large-scale lobbying campaign in favor of an invasion of Libya.
The newspapers claimed that Libya was rich in minerals, had plenty of water, and most importantly, was only defended by about 4,000 Ottoman soldiers. The population was described by the Italian media as being hostile to the Turkish troops, and thus could use with a bit of liberating… besides, claimed the Italian newspapers, any war over the land could simply be considered a ‘walk-in-the-park’.
I’m not sure if Libya was rich in minerals, or even packed with large amounts of water… anyone reading such claims would think it would make a wonderful addition to the Italian territories. How could they know, except from what they were told.
So… since Italy felt that Tripoli was within its own territories in Africa, Italy decided it needed (in 1911) to protect its Italian citizens who were living there from “the evil Ottoman” people trying to over run it (since 1881).
When the war began, Italy’s Royal Army Air Services took all of its aeroplanes—every single one the country had… all French-made, except for the Austrian-made Taube’s—to Tripoli, Libya, and all under the command of Piazza and the 1st Flottilla Aeroplani (the 1st Aerplane Squadron).
You can read more about the Etrich aeroplane HERE.
Its aeroplane inventory consisted of:
- two Blériot XI;
- three Nieuport monoplanes;
- two Farman biplanes, and;
- two Etrich Taube monoplanes.
Nine aircraft. It’s actually quite a large number considering we are talking about 1911.
Piazza’s inaugural recon flight on October 23, 1911 was aboard a Blériot XI that only had a 25-horsepower, three-cylinder engine, no instruments of any kind, and used Wright brothers’-style wing-warping.
How could they send a man up in a crate like that? It was like a small lawnmower with wings.
On November 1, Second Lieutenant Giolio Gavotti, in an Etrich Taube, would carry out the first aerial bombardment.
After a shipment of of bombs were sent to the pilot’s base, the pilots weren’t exactly sure what to do with them.
These bombs weren’t like the bombs we know today, rather these were actually two crates of WW1 hand grenades. A Gallaher’s Cigarettes The Great War Series I card issued in 1915 below will give you a decent idea of what they looked like, and how they worked.
While these cards show the hand-made version, regular military hand grenades weren’t much different, essentially looking like classic cartoon TNT sticks, but with a a longer fuse.
Keep in mind that the image below depicts a typical trench scene from 1915… but what we are talking about was four years earlier still in 1911.
Please note, that a version of the hand grenade had been invented and used commonly some 150 years earlier… but was reinvented again in the early 1910s..
By the way, you can also click HERE to see how pilots dropped bombs during WWI. Please note, however, that our story here is pre-WWI.
Anyhow, because no one told the pilots how to use them, the pilots were quite nervous, and yet Second Lieutenant Giolio Gavotti volunteered to go on a flight with a few grenades to try them out.
Flying an Etrich Taube monoplane, Gavotti tied a padded leather pouch to the inside of his open cockpit, and then added three grenades, with a fourth tucked in his jacket pocket.
On November 1, 1911, Gavotto took off on his mission, flying to Ain Zara, an oasis east of Tripoli, where he spied a large camp of Arab warriors who were working with the Ottoman Turks.
After circling the oasis twice at a height of about 100 meters, he attacked.
He held the aeroplane controls in his left hand and using his right, took out a single grenade, armed it and then tossed it over the side of the plane, taking care not to hit his own wing.
Landing in the middle of the camp, the grenade exploded, tossing up a cloud of smoke and dust.
Encouraged, he threw the other three grenades, but does not appear to have hit anything else in the world’s first air raid.
Here’s what Gavotti had to say about the event in a letter home to his father:
“Today I have decided to throw bombs from the aeroplane. It is the first time that we will try this and if I succeed, I will be really pleased to be the first person to do it.”
“After a while, I notice the dark shape of the oasis. With one hand, I hold the steering wheel, with the other I take out one of the bombs and put it on my lap… I take the bomb with my right hand, pull off the security tag and throw the bomb out, avoiding the wing. I can see it falling through the sky for couple of seconds and then it disappears. And after a little while, I can see a small dark cloud in the middle of the encampment. I am lucky. I have struck the target.”
If Gavotti killed anyone with his aerial assault, no one knows… not even if anyone was hurt., and yet the Italian press called him a hero after hearing about the attack.
Because the aviation term “bomber” had not yet been invented, newspaper reports of the day called Gavotti the “flying artilleryman” who invented “the art of winged death.” Nice.
Back to Piazza… in 1912 he was the first ever person to be captured behind enemy lines as an aeroplane pilot. His aeroplane had developed engine problems, and was forced to land.
Captured, the Turks did not release him until November of 1913.
During the course of the war the Italian pilots would go on to fly 712 sorties, drop several hundred bombs, and according to intelligence estimates kill a total of 26 people. Their effect on morale, however, was far greater than the low number of casualties might suggest. Having bombs dropped down on them, the enemy felt shock and awe, and yes, fear.
Of course, at some point in time, the Turks became the first to shoot down an enemy aeroplane via a rifle.
What’s interesting to me, however, is that the Italian Wikipedia entry claims that while Piazza’s initial adventures in Tripoli were interesting, it suggests in stead that his flight on October 20, 1913 was one more worth remembering.
In an afternoon flight, Piazz flew his aeroplane up from Mirafiori to the valley of Susa, and then flew towards Moncenisio high up in the mountains… He flew to height of 3,200 meters (1.99 miles), and made his landing at an altitude of about 2,000 meters (1.242 miles)… it was the first landing in the high mountains… and was done without much incident to Piazza, except for perhaps that time he fainted from the thin air…
While there seems little doubt that French aviation Alfonso Pègoud was the first pilot to perform a loop in an aircraft back on September 3, 1913, Piazza became the first Italian pilot (and fourth all-time) to perform the feat in March of 1914.
During 1914, Piazza spent a long period of time as a pilot trainer in Malpensa, and was a proponent for stating just how important an aeroplane could be used during WWI.
He gained a promotion to Colonel, earned a silver medal from Italy and war cross from France for his war time contributions.
Unfortunately, it was in 1917 that Piazza contracted an illness, eventually succumbing to it on June 24, 1917, dying in Milan, Italy. He was buried with full military honors in the cemetery of Viggiù, in Italy.
- Crew: 1;
- Wingspan: 34 feet – 10 inches (10.62 meters).
- Length: 38 feet (11.58 meters);
- Weight: 816 pounds (370.13 kilograms);
- Powerplant: 1× Gnome air-cooled 7-cylinder radial, 50 horsepower engine;
- Armament: none.
Should you wish to read more about the Bleriot XI aeroplane, check out my article HERE.