The First Use of UAVs to Attack an Enemy

January 19, 2021

Robotic Combat Vehicles have become a standard in modern warfare, with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – or UAVS for short – having been a feature in warfare for decades. But when was the first recorded attack by a UAV?

The answer is surprising.

No, it is not the United States Army Air Force Operation Aphrodite missions in 1944, which saw remote-control B17s or B24s laden with explosives crash into targets – or try to, at least. It is not even the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane of 1917, which was a remote-control aircraft laden with explosives and intended to crash into targets.

We are seeing a theme emerging, aren’t we?

No, in fact the first use of UAV’s to attack a target was….

The Austrian Empire’s siege of Venice, 1849.

The Republic of Venice which had been independent for more than 1,000 years, was conquered in 1797 by Napoleon, who ceded it to Austria later that year. Naturally, the Venetians were not happy about this.

In 1848, practically the whole of Europe erupted in revolution. Not wanting to miss an opportunity, the Venetians booted out the Austrians and declared Venice and its surrounding territories the Republic of San Marco. The Austrians weren’t too impressed, and they rapidly retook most of the new Republic and besieged Venice, leading to terrible deprivations amongst the citizens.

However, the Venetians were stubborn in their defence of liberty and the Austrian commander, Field Marshall von Radetsky, found that he could not bring his siege artillery close enough to the city because of its formidable coastal defences and surrounding lagoons.

Then a young Austrian artillery lieutenant named Franz von Uchatius came up with a cunning plan. He proposed using balloons to carry explosives over Venice.

Released when the wind was blowing in the right direction, these would each carry a bomb weighing between 24 and 30 pound (because, you know, precision) with a time fuse that blew up the balloon, dropping the payload into the city.

And so, the stage was set for a truly momentous event in the history of warfare – the first attack on a target by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

This occurred on July 12, 1849. It went about as well as you would expect.

An eyewitness reported that:

“The balloons appeared to rise to about 4,500 ft. Then they exploded in mid-air or fell into the water, or, blown by a sudden southeast wind, sped over the city and dropped on the besiegers.

“Venetians, abandoning their homes, crowded into the streets and squares to enjoy the strange spectacle. … When a cloud of smoke appeared in the air to make an explosion, all clapped and shouted.

“Applause was greatest when the balloons blew over the Austrian forces and exploded, and in such cases the Venetians added cries of ‘Bravo!’ and ‘Good appetite!’”

Despite this less than stellar start, the Austrians launched another, larger attack on August 22. Again, this seems to have hit their own side as much the Venetians, but they did also reportedly cause some damage in the city itself this time, which surrendered two days later. Though that was probably more due to the Cholera epidemic ravaging the city, to be honest.

And there we have it. The first use of UAVs to attack an enemy – starting a tradition of inaccuracy and a fondness for hitting large groups of civilians that was a hallmark of aerial warfare until recently.

Oh, and Franz von Uchatius? He went on to become a General and invented the first moving picture projector in 1853. So, we can probably thank him for playing a major role in the creation and evolution of modern media – from cartoons to film to television to the internet and, ultimately, to this article.

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