The British forces in Egypt have been preparing to attack Gaza. 5 Wing RFC is in support, consisting of 14 Squadron and 67 Squadron (1 Squadron Australian Flying Corps). They have 21 B.E.2c’s and e’s, 14 Martinsydes, and 7 Bristol Scouts on strength although only 12 B.E.’s and 9 Martinsydes are currently serviceable.
On 24 March Sir Charles Dobell commander of the Eastern Force, issued detailed operational orders for the RFC for the forthcoming assault:
‘A permanent contact patrol of one aeroplane will be maintained with the Desert Column, reporting direct to battle head-quarters, Desert Column. G.O.C. Desert Column will be responsible for transmitting information received from this contact patrol to Eastern Force headquarters, or battle headquarters, as the case may be. Five aeroplanes will be detailed for general reconnaissance, reporting to battle headquarters. Eastern Force; all information gained by these aeroplanes of movements of the enemy main body (at present in the Tell en Nejile-Huj area) or of his central detachment (at present in the Tell esh Sheria-Abu Hureira area), or of the approach of enemy troops from the Lydda-Er Ramie area, will be dropped at battle head-quarters, Desert Column, as well as at battle head-quarters. Eastern Force. Six aeroplanes will be detailed for co-operation with the artillery. A wireless-receiving station is allotted to the heavy artillery, three to each division, and two to each mounted division. Six aeroplanes will be detailed for patrol duties.’
A further order was issued yesterday:
‘If during the attack on Gaza the enemy should make any forward movement in strength from the Tell en Nejile-Huj area or the Tell esh Sheria-Abu Hureira area, or from both, the O.C., Fifth Wing, Royal Flying Corps, will prepare immediate arrangements for sending out all available machines for offensive action against the advancing enemy troops, at the same timereporting his action to battle headquarters. Eastern Force.’
German aeroplanes have also been active in support of Turkish forces, and due to the superior nature of their aircraft they have been able to operate virtually unscathed. The German force consists of Rumpler two-seaters and a few Halberstadt fighters. The German commander of the Turkish forces, Kress von Kressenstein, was now well aware that the British were planning an attack and has made adjustments to his forces accordingly. Part of the Turkish 16th Division was moved into Gaza from Tell esh Sheria, and the defences of the town were also considerably strengthened with additional artillery. In addition, orders were given for the Turkish 53rd Division, which had been maintained at Jaffa and Er Ramie because of fears of a British landing, to march down the coast to Gaza. Kress also held a considerable part of his force back from Gaza to counter attack.
The British attack began this morning under thick fog, which made it difficult for the RFC patrols to maintain contact. German pilots reported the advances back to the German commander He ordered the 53rd Division to march to Gaza immediately.
Later in the morning the fog began to lift, and the RFC aircraft were able to report the progress of the attack, co-operate withthe artillery, maintain patrols to counter enemy aircraft, and reconnoitre areas in which the Turkish reserves were known orthought to be.
The air reports showed that by 1100, Gaza had been surrounded by mounted troops. However the Ah el Muntar ridge, which dominated the town, was not in British hands. It was not until 1610, that a contact-patrol observer reported British troops about 300 yards east of the Labyrinth, a maze of entrenched gardens left of the Ali el Muntar ridge.
After this air reports began to arrive at Headquarters showing the arrival of Turkish reinforcements from Huj and Beersheeba. With dusk rapidly approaching, Gaza not fully captured and Turkish reinforcements on the move, the British commander made the decision to retreat at around 1810. The decision was possibly premature as the ridge was captured about 20 minutes later.
According to the assertion of His Excellency Djemal Pasha, the German Air Force had saved the situation during the battle. Whether this is true or not there is no doubt that the German aircraft were able to operate with virtual impunity due to their superior performance and firepower. They were able to carry out reconnaissance at will and this assisted the German commander in both the preparation of his defences and in managing his forces during the battle. The RFC were lucky in many respects that the Germans had a limited number of aircraft and weren’t able to mount sustained mount offensive operations.
That said, on the day the Germans had a two-seater forced down which crash landed on the Beersheba aerodrome.
For more detail on the battle see World War One Live.