19 October 1917 – The Silent Raid

Today, 11 naval Zeppelins (L41, L44, L45, L46, L47, L49, L50, L52, L53, L55, L56) attempted a raid on England.

The targets were various industrial centres in the North of England, and overall, and whilst successful in terms of the damage caused with 36 killed, 55 injured and nearly £55,000 worth of damage, five of the Zeppelins were lost and this turned out to be the last mass Zeppelin raid of the war.

For more detail on the damage caused by the raid see Ian Castle’s excellent website. Here I am going to focus on how the Zeppelins fared, as for all the talk of disaster, what is telling is that the British defences played no part whatsoever in the loss of the Zeppelins and had it not been for the poor weather including winds of up to 50 miles an hour, it is likely that the raid would have been more successful and losses would have been reduced.

L46 came in over the Norfolk coast but soon abandoned the mission and jettisoned the bombs. L46, flying at great height, was taken by the wind over neutral Holland but was unseen by the Dutch defences and reached home safely, the last of the raiders to do so on a direct route.

L41 also came inland over Lincolnshire and eventually reached Birmingham where bombs fell on the Austin plant at Longbridge. Turning for home, L.41 was carried over Northamptonshire, Essex, the Thames estuary, Kent and over to France where, after struggling in the wind for nearly three hours, she finally crossed the Western Front near La Bassée.

L53, came inland over The Wash bombing Bedford, Leighton Buzzard. And targets near Maidstone. L53 passed out to sea between Folkestone and Dover at 2330 but was carried by the winds behind Allied lines in France, L53 finally managed to push across the Western Front near Lunéville at around 0300.

L52 came inland over the Lincolnshire coast at 1930pm. High winds forced the ship south-west and then south dropping bombs at Kensworth and Hertford. The wind continued to carry L52 to the south-east and after crossing Kent the ship went out to sea near Dungeness at 2315. Carried across France, L52 managed to cross the Western Front near St. Dié at about 0530.

L55 also arrived over Lincolnshire and was blown south west and then south east eventually going out to sea near Hastings at about 2225. Once over France, the ship experienced severe engine problems, struggled with navigation and lost the use of the radio. The captain eventually got L55 back over Germany but, running out of fuel, they made an emergency landing at Tiefenort, where a storm wrecked L55 on the ground.

L44 arrived inland over the Norfolk coast at 1845 and headed south dropping bombs along the way. L44 went out to sea over Deal at 2052. Swept across France behind Allied lines, French AA guns opened fire on the ship just 10 miles from the Front Line and it crashed in flames at Chenevières. The entire crew were killed.

L49, came inland at 2000 over north Norfolk coast and proceeded to drop bombs all over he area. Struggling with engine problems and navigation, L49 crossed south-east England with the wind carrying her across France. Having seen L44 shot down, with only two engines working and attacked by a squadron of French aircraft, the captain decided to ditch to avoid being shot down. Once on the ground the crew were prevented from burning L49, leaving the Allies the prize of one the latest Zeppelin designs.

L50 came inland over Norfolk at 1945 and flew south-west dropping bombs along the way. The wind then carried L50 towards the south-east and out to sea. The ship seems to have had serious navigation issues at one point being 150 miles west of the Western Front. Seeing the fate of L44 and L49 the captain, with two engines out of action, decided to crash land and at least deny his ship to the enemy. He hit a wood, which ripped off two of the gondolas causing most of the crew to leap overboard. L50 then soared back up with four men still on board. The uncontrollable airship eventually disappeared over the Mediterranean and no trace of the ship or the four men was ever found.

L45 appeared over the Yorkshire coast at 2020, attempted to attack Sheffield but the ended up over Northampton. After dropping bombs there the ship ended up over London where most of the nights damage was done. The wind then carried L45 over the coast near Hastings at 0100. Blasted across France by the wind, L45 was unable to make headway to the east and eventually, when about 70 miles from the Mediterranean coast, he decided to make an emergency landing near Sisteron and the crew surrendered.

The crew of L45

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18 October 1917 – The cost of intelligence

  • An Airman: Lieut R T C Hoidge, MC

    For once the weather on the Western Front was good and 57 Squadron RFC were sent up to take advantage and carry out photographic reconnaissance of the Ypres area accompanied by some SE5a’s from 84 Squadron. They were in turn attacked by Jasta 27. At this point, C Flight from 56 Squadron RFC led by Captain Geoffrey Hilton Bowman came to their assistance. In the ensuing dogfight, Lieutenant Geoffrey Beville Shone from 56 Squadron was shot down in his SE5a (B588) by Leutnant Helmuth Dilthey from Jasta 27. Shone was badly wounded and later died from his injuries. Jasta 37 also appeared in the area and Leutant Ernst Udet shot down 2nd Lieutenant Stanley Miles Park from 84 Squadron in his SE5a (B546). He was taken prisoner.

    John Driffield Gilbert

    Shortly after this, 56 Squadron joined 4 SPADs fighting four 2-seaters, but they were attacked from above by 2 enemy scouts. They cleared west and came back going after two 2-seaters: Lieutenant Reginald Theodore Carlos Hoidge shot down one with a full drum of Lewis and 100 Vickers from 20 yards. Hoidge was then attacked by an Albatros scout which was driven off by Captain Bowman. Hoidge and Lieutenant John Driffield Gilbert then combined to send the other 2-seater down. Hoidge had to drive an Albatros off Lieutenant Gilbert’s tail in process. What then became of Gilbert is unknown but he failed to return from the patrol and was assumed dead.

    After all this 57 Squadron escaped unscathed and the photographic mission was successful.

17 October 1917 – Future Fleets

Following the success of the turret platform experiments on 1 October 1917, the Operations Committee of the Board of Admiralty met today to discuss the way forward for aircraft and the fleet. They decided that:

  1. All light cruisers and battle cruisers should carry fighting aeroplanes, provided their gun armament was not interfered with

  2. That the Furious should be fitted with an after landing deck, 300 feet in length, with such modification of the ship’s structure as was entailed thereby. (this was not completed until March 1918)

  3. That the Courageous and Glorious should not be fitted in the same manner as the Furious, but should remain unaltered,

  4. That it was unnecessary at that time to determine whether the Argus should be used exclusively as a torpedo-plane carrier.

16 October 1917 – An Air Ministry at last

Today in the House of Commons, e Chancellor, Andrew Bonar Law announced that

“A Bill to constitute an Air Ministry has been prepared and will shortly be introduced.”

It appears that that this was a last minute decision, and the Government gave into pressure from MPs and the wider public. Only the day before, the War Cabinet had expressed misgivings whether it would be possible to form an Air Ministry during the war without causing serious dislocation, and subsequently decided to make a cautious announcement in Parliament that a Bill would be introduced to co-ordinate the air services and provide for the eventual setting up of an Air Ministry’.

To cover up the indecision, the War Cabinet further decided that an Air Policy Committee of the War Cabinet should be formed, under the chairmanship of Lieutenant-General Smuts, to advise the Cabinet pending the establishment of an Air Ministry.

Prior to that there had been considerable public criticism of the failure to make an announcement following the publication of the recommendations of the Smuts committee.

There was also disagreement within Government about the way forward. At its meeting on 21 September the War Cabinet had considered announcing to the Press the decision to form a separate air service, but had deferred the question.

The question was again raised by Lieutenant-General Smuts at a Cabinet meeting on 8 October, at which Lloyd George said he had consulted Holt Thomas, who had had considerable experience in aeronautical matters, and his opinion was that the time was not yet ripe for the formation of an Air Ministry, and that an announcement in the Press would therefore be premature. After much discussion the Cabinet decided to adjourn the debate to give opportunity for Lieutenant-General Smuts to look further into the matter.

On 10 October Admiral Mark Kerr was told by Lord Cowdray that it was almost certain no independent bombing force to attack Germany would be formed. The admiral had, after making a close study of the German air position, reached the conclusion that the Germans were giving priority to the building of aeroplanes, and that a large-scale bombing campaign against England must be anticipated. He therefore addressed to Lord Cowdray a forceful memorandum pointing out “the extraordinary danger of delay in forming the Air Ministry and commencing on a proper Air Policy”.

So after a long period of procrastination the Government has finally been forced into a decision and the new Air Ministry and consequently an independent air service (which would become the RAF) will be formed.

16 October 1917 – Kifri crash

Out on the Mesopotamian front, 63 Squadron RFC arrived in August 1917 with a collection of RE8s, SPADs and Martinsydes. The hot weather played havoc with the wooden aircraft frames and none could perform to their best. 

Today it sent three of it Martinsyde G100s to bomb an enemy airfield at Kifri to try and reduce German air activity. 

One of these, piloted by Lieutenant Alfred Ernest Lionel Skinner, was hit in the fuel tank. Skinner was forced to land. He was able to set fire to his aircraft before being rescued by one of the other Martinsydes piloted by Lieutenant John Barthroppe Welman. 

In the end the raid had little impact but at least all the pilots returned. 

15 October 1917 – Steele Strikes again

In Palestine, 111 Squadron continued to take on the enemy’s aircraft with another success today. Sergeant Jack Graham, with the 5th Australian Light Horse recorded the battle:

Another great air duel took place this afternoon about 1600. Four Germans came over our lines and were met by four of ours. Capt. Steele who brought down the plane on the 8th succeeded in cutting one of the Germans off from his mates and fought him singlehanded. It reminded me of a hawk chasing a sparrow.

At the beginning of the duel, the planes were just specks in the sky, but our man was forcing the German down gradually. They were circling, diving, looping, banking and soaring overhead. The German trying to shake our fellow off, but Steele hung to his tail as if tied there and using his gun at every opportunity the German suddenly plunged down a couple of thousand feet, rolled on its side and crash! went one of its wings. Its fatewas sealed.

It crashed to earth a mass of wreckage and the pilot was found about thirty yards further on, smashed to a pulp.”

The diary of Aircraft Mechanic Joe Bull (1 Squadron AFC) tells a similar story:

“At 3.30 three Hun machines came over and were attacked by one of our BE2e’s and a Bristol fighter. The fighter knocked an Albatros scout and the Hun held up his hands but when Lieutenant Steele, pilot of the fighter, directed him to our aerodrome, he attempted to glide for his own lines, so they opened fire on him and shot his wings off, and he crashed to earth. The machine and pilot were smashed beyond recognition.”

The downed Albatross

The photo taken by Sapper Joseph McKinnion shows the remains of the aircraft. 

The crew of the Bristol  (A7194) which shot it down were 2nd Lieutenant Robert Crawford Steele and Lieutenant John Jordan Lloyd Williams. The unfortunate German pilot was Oberleutnant Richard Ernert from the FA301.

14 October 1917 – 64 Squadron RFC

64 Squadron RFC was formed at Sedgeford in Norfolk on 1 August 1916. Initially, it was equipped with a variety of types for training purposes, including Henry Farmans, Royal Aircraft Factory FE2bs, Avro 504s and Sopwith Pups. In June 1917, the squadron re-equipped with its intended operational equipment, the DH5 fighter, and began to work up ready for operations. The DH5 had poor altitude performance, and so the squadron extensively practiced low-level flying.

Today the Squadron moved to France to take up a role in fighter patrols and ground attack. 
Major Bernard Edward Smythies is the commanding officer. 

64 Squadron RFC’s DH5s lined up ready to leave for France.