Aid airdrops in Gaza recall their use throughout history

The British Royal Air Force carried out the first wartime airdrops during World War I in Iraq. Since then, airdrops have become more sophisticated and have been used in many conflicts.

Humanitarian aid is seen being airdropped over Gaza on March 10, 2024.
Humanitarian aid is seen being airdropped over Gaza on March 10, 2024.

Aid airdrops in Gaza recall their use throughout history

Earlier this month, the US Air Force, with support from Arab states, began a series of humanitarian airdrops into Gaza. It seemed logical to do, given that all attempts at a ceasefire have failed.

On 2 March 2024, 66 pallets containing 38,000 ready-to-eat meals were dropped on the Gaza shoreline. Three days later, another 36,800 meals were dropped in northern Gaza. Then, on 7 March, American and Jordanian aircraft made a third airdrop of 38,000 meals.

Many have criticised the measure as too little, too late, saying that more than ready-to-eat meals, what the people of Gaza need is a sustainable ceasefire.

A last measure

Often associated with regular armies, the UN began resorting to them in 1973 to relieve the Western Sahel in Africa from a crippling six-year drought that had ruined the lives of people in Chad, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Senegal and what is now Burkina Faso.

Another famous airdrop took place in Ethiopia in response to a horrific famine in 1984 and was led by Great Britain.

Airdrops are usually a last measure for war zones, given their cost, which is seven times higher than ground transportation. They also lack precision and often reach only a tiny fraction of the people who need it.

A view shows remains of what appears to be a parachuted crate that had been carrying aid for Gaza, washed up on Israel's shore of the Mediterranean Sea, in Ashkelon, Israel, March 11, 2024.

They were never as easy as they may seem to an outside observer. They required delicate calculations of the mass of the objects being dropped and the direction of the wind to ensure that the drops fell in the right direction.

Accuracy is incredibly important to avoid the good ending up in enemy hands, and it requires low-flights at high risk of being shot down.

The airdrops don’t always contain food and are sometimes filled with medicine, clothing, hygiene essentials, military equipment, and political or military messages.

The earliest airdrops were made by paddled bundles from aircraft that lacked any kind of precision and often ended up in the wrong hands. They have since been developed into parachuted crates as cargo aircraft developed rear access ramps that pilots could extend for unloading the aid.

During the Vietnam War, aircraft flying at high altitudes began using the parachute, slowing the load and stabilising its landing without harming recipients.

Although most have attributed the method to the Americans during World War II, it actually began much earlier and was devised by the British during World War I.

Airdrops, given their exorbitant cost, are usually a last measure for war zones. They also lack precision.

Iraq, 1915

The first example of wartime airdrops was actually a flop, carried out by the British Royal Air Force during World War I.

In 1915, the British army began an operation to liberate Baghdad from the Ottomans. After a failed ground offensive, British troops were besieged and began an operation to take Baghdad from the Ottomans.

The ground offensive was a disaster, and they found themselves besieged in the town of Kut al-Amarah on the left bank of the Tigris River.

The Turkish siege began on 7 December 1915 and lasted until the British finally surrendered on 29 April 1916. Eight thousand British troops were in the town, many of whom were Indians and Africans.

All of them were starving, and the British Air Force had tried relieving them with airdrops of flour, lentils, and rice. In the first documented airdrop in aviation history, the planes were confronted by Ottoman soldiers.

Many of the supplies were dropped indiscriminately and ended up either in the Tigris or seized by the Ottomans. Only 16,800 pounds of supply reached the besieged British forces.

The Netherlands, 1945

During the Second World War II, airdrops became common on both sides of the battlefield. The Nazis used it to drop containers to their troops, and in 1944, the British and Americans resorted to airdrops for the Polish resistance working against the Germans.

The most famous example of all, however, was in the Netherlands, which had been occupied by the Nazis since 1940. All of the country's good and agricultural produce was used to feed the German army, putting the population in great shortage.

When the Nazis removed the country's water defences, large scale-flooding ensued, ruining harvest and plunging the people into starvation.

In response, Operation Manna was launched by the Allies on 29 April 1945, where 7,000 out of 11,000 tonnes of food were airdropped into the Nazi-occupied western part of the Netherlands. It would last until 7 May 1945, days after the fall of Berlin and the suicide of Adolf Hitler.

Burma 1943-1945

Also, during World War II, the British relied on airdrops for their troops in British Burma, a country that had been invaded and occupied by the Japanese in 1942.

Although they knew the terrain inside out, having occupied it themselves since the early 19th century, their pilots had to fly low over vast jungles, mainly at night, in complete darkness.

Allied transport aircraft managed to save a large British force along the Indian border in March 1944, flying more than 20,000 tonnes of supplies to troops besieged by the Japanese Army. During the years 1943-1945, the British dropped a total of 615,000 tonnes of supply on Burma.

Bosnia, 1993

More sophisticated airdrops were dispatched to besieged Muslims in eastern Bosnia during the 1990s, carried out by American, German, and French aeroplanes.

Bosnian Serbs managed to capture much of the assistance but the US Air Force carried on with its operations, dropping nine million meals and 144 tons of medical equipment on nineteen towns, including the refugee centers of Srebrenica and Gorazde.

During the Yugoslav Wars between 1992-1996, airdrops were frequent in Bosnia and Herzegovina, conducted by a coalition of 21 countries. More than 12,886 sorties were made in Sarajevo alone, delivering 159,622 tons of food and medicine.

The first example of wartime airdrops was actually a flop, carried out by the British Royal Air Force during World War I in Iraq.

Afghanistan 2001

More recently, the Americans have resorted to airdrops in Afghanistan, days before launching Operation Enduring Freedom against the Taliban on 7 October 2001.

The airdrops began five days later, with 68,880 daily rations of food and medicine. Due to Afghanistan's difficult terrain, the procedure would continue even after the fall of the Taliban, reaching 3.5 million pounds of cargo in 2006. It nearly doubled in 2007 and reached 60.4 million in 2010.

Haiti, 2010

On 12 January 2010, a massive earthquake struck Haiti, with no less than 52 aftershocks, killing anywhere between 100-160,000 people.

To get past the congestion of roads and Haiti's main airport, the US began a series of airdrops by parachute, despite claims by then-Defence Secretary Rober Gates, who argued that it would be too dangerous.

Aid dropped by American aircraft near the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, which was destroyed by the earthquake on January 10, 2012.

South Sudan, 2014

After famine was declared in South Sudan in March 2014, humanitarian aid organizations supported by the World Food Programme (WFP) began a series of targeted airdrops.

Syria, 2016

France carried out the first airdrops in Syria in 1941. They weren't humanitarian aid but coloured leaflets carrying the signature of General George Catroux, the official representative of General Charles de Gaulle.

They promised the people of Syria independence from the hated mandated system that had been in place since 1920 but said that French troops would only withdraw after the guns in Europe went silent.

Seventy-five years later, WFP carried out high-altitude airdrops on the town of Deir ez-Zor on the Euphrates River in February 2016, delivering 21 tons of food assistance during the Syrian war.

It was the highest elevation airdrop in history and would last for a total of 18 months.

font change

Related Articles