The aerial bombing of New York City in World War One

In April 1918, New York was bombed from the air for the first time — with pamphlets promoting the Third Liberty Loan.[i] The elements of the economy, aerial bombing and destruction of the industry are interestingly linked together. Why did this bombing happen, and why is this interesting to me? It all started with an assignment.

What happened

I came across this interesting pamphlet (please, have a look) for my “Death and Destruction from Above: A History of Aerial Bombing, from Zeppelins to Drones” history course primary source assignment. This pamphlet captured my attention almost instantly when I discovered it as it revealed a lot about the nature of aerial warfare that was in its pioneer stage during World War One.

It was a pamphlet dropped on New York City on April 1918 by a Caproni bomber. The propaganda aimed to encourage American civilians to support the war effort by purchasing the liberty loan. An educated guess is that this pamphlet was produced by The Committee on Public Information establish in 1917. It is worth noting that the pilot for this propaganda was Silvio Antonio Resnati, a famed Italian pilot sent to America to make flying demonstration for the Italian Caproni bombers built in America.[ii]

The liberty loan sale initially received an unenthusiastic response. To popularize the sale, the U.S. signal Corp would send 3 to 5 training aircraft and perform aerobatics and mock dog fights. Then they would land nearby and wait for the crowd to gather. Then they would promote the sell of liberty bond by telling the crowd that people who bought the liberty loan could board the plane for a ride. This pamphlet bombing run could be seen as a successor of promoting liberty loan by performing air stunts.

Point of Interest

I closed my eyes and imagined the scene. Bombers are flying over the sky, dropping thousands of pamphlets to the streets. What if the bombs painted on these pamphlets were real bombs, and the Caproni bomber with the notorious German Gotha Bomber? This might be the first experience of American citizens being bombed, and they may link it with the German strategic bombing against London. Maybe New Yorkers felt the same sense of terror of the Londoners when they were being bombed? The experience was unprecedented.

The correlation of aerial warfare with the economy and industrialized warfare. “Every bond you buy is a bomb for Krupp”, meaning that the money is used to produce weapons like warplanes and bombs, reminding the public that they were participants of the war economic-wise. This is a feature that is found in wars between industrialized societies: Civilians were mobilized to fight a total war.

The most important message was the correlation between airforce and the destruction of enemy industry represented by this pamphlet. At the backside of the pamphlet shows a German Krupp factory being bombed by triplanes. Industries, but not cities, will be destroyed by the American airpower. This could be anachronism as aerial attacks against Allied industries in the Western Front was insignificant and probably not a good material for propaganda.

This correlation made me ask a lot of questions revolving the development of American bombing doctrine. Where did this imagination of destroying industries come from? Did Americans start constructing a popular consensus for strategic bombing before Billy Mitchell promoted it? This could be linked to theorists crafted their theories for future air warfare. British novelists like H.G. Wells had thought of the future of aerial warfare long before military planners started to think about it. How was the American airpower doctrine shaped? I will further study this topic this semester. Good luck to me!

P.S.

I could not find more information on the information relating to this propaganda pamphlet nor the bombing run in New York. I would be very grateful if you can help me to add something into it.

Please, share with me about your thought on air warfare and airpower.

P.S.2.

I found an even more interesting story from the Smithsonian Institution after writing this article. This US female pilot bombed with smoke bomb-shaped posters. Go have a look.

References

[i] Spink Switzerland, Italian Flights Abroad and Flights Related to Italy by Foreign Pilots (1910–1927): The Fiorenzo Longhi Collection of Airmails and Memorabilia, (Lugano: Spink Switzerland, 2012), Auction Catalog, 23.

[ii] Ibid.

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