Manufactured explosive weapons

Death from the skies: aerial bombardment since the First World War

In the 100 years since the outbreak of hostilities in Europe, the beginning of the terrible years of the First World War, the methods and means of warfare have dramatically and drastically changed.

During the Great War, the majority of fighting happened on the front lines, with countries pitted against countries in battles dominated by guns, artillery and tanks.

Today, conflicts tend to be fought between government forces and rebel groups, such as what is unfolding in Syria and Ukraine. Unlike 100 years ago, today terrorist organisations cause huge levels of harm in countries like Iraq and Pakistan, using tactics such as suicide bombings to create as much devastation as possible. And unlike a century ago, today conflicts are fought with a combination of high-technology weapons and rudimental bombs, such as the use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and barrel bombs.

Before, and during, the First World War the majority of casualties were combatants; there was a great hesitancy to deliberately bomb civilians. Today, however, civilians bear the brunt of the impacts during conflict and armed violence.

Civilians made up over 90% of casualties of explosive weapons worldwide in 2013, as recorded by AOAV. Explosive weapons are regularly used in populated areas, killing and injuring tens of thousands of civilians each year, and civilians have been deliberately targeted.

In 1914  it was almost impossible to imagine that aeroplanes would be used in conflict to drop bombs on civilians. The aeroplane itself had only been invented ten years before, and had since then been used just for the daring and the wealthy.  This changed during First World War. First Zeppelins, then Gotha IV bombers, dropped bombs over the UK, terrifying the local population. However, the damage caused by these aerial bombardments was relatively limited in comparison to the harm caused by air attacks today.

Aerial bombardment today is a very different thing. Helicopters and jets are used to fire missiles at cities and towns. Barrel bombs, full of pieces of metal, are dropped from planes over unsuspecting communities. Drones target suspected militants in Pakistan and Yemen, often killing and injuring civilians.

The development of the use of aerial bombardment since WWI has been drastic. Air attacks today result in death and devastation to civilians, buildings and infrastructure. Those who are most often impacted by attacks from the air, civilians, have little to no means to defend themselves.

AOAV here considers the development of aerial bombardment in the last 100 years, by looking at key examples in the use of aerial bombardment since WWI. Specific incidents have been chosen due to their impact in the development of aerial bombardment, or because they provide an example of a particular method or means of such warfare.

It should be noted that this is not a comprehensive list of incidents, and examples such as the bombing of Pearl Harbour and the bombing of Dresden have not been included. The use of chemical and nuclear weapons was also not included, as AOAV considers such weapons to constitute a separate category of weapon.

1. Zeppelin and Gotha bomber use in WWI, 1915 – 1919: “The beginning of modern warfare.”


Click here to read more about this incident.

2. Guernica, 1937: “The Most Appalling Air Raid Ever Known”

Guernica, Ruinen

Click here to read more about this incident.

3. London Blitz, 1940 – 1941: “Nothing seemed safe.” 


Click here to read more about this incident.

4. The bombing of Hamburg, 1943: “Simply beyond the grasp of the imagination.” 


Click here to read more about this incident.

5. Cluster bomb use in Laos, 1964 – 1973: “The most protracted bombing of civilian targets in history.”  


Click here to read more about this incident.

6. NATO strikes in Kosovo, 1999: “The most precise application of air power.” 


Click here to read more about this incident.

7. Barrel bomb use in Rier, Sudan, 2002: “When a government devours its own people, there are no easy solutions.” 

Barrel Bomb 1

Click here to read more about this incident.

8. Baghdad ‘shock and awe,’ 2003: “For all their ‘smartness,’ enough bombs had gone awry…to kill many hundreds of civilians.” 


Click here to read more about this incident.

9. Azaz, Syria, 2012: “The earth, the trees, the sky are weeping for us.” 


Click here to read more about this incident.

10. Drone strike in Yemen, 2013: “Whatever we do, they will never look at us as human beings.” 

Dec. 17 airpower summary: Reapers touch enemy forces

Click here to read more about this incident.


Did you find this story interesting? Please support our work and donate.