Category Archives: Air Raids

The tracking of Zeppelins has become quite sophisticated now. A central operations room has been established at the Admiralty to coordinate the messages coming in from the British wireless interception stations and those going out to the eight Warning Controls (the country was divided into areas for the purpose of warning of an attack).

When Zeppelins approached within 150 miles of the English Coast their position, course, and speed were communicated at once, by telephone from the Admiralty, direct to one or more of the East Coast flying-boat bases.

The commanding officers at each base then had the discretion to launch one or more flying-boats. The subsequent positions of the airship or airships were passed on, as they were plotted to the air stations, and then relayed by wireless to the flying-boats already in the air. The receipt of continuous information also enabled commanding officers to judge the need for sending up additional aircraft.

Today an additional innovation was added in a special squared chart of the southern part of the North Sea, known as Tracing Z. This enabled the positions of Zeppelins to be communicated by code signals based on the chart.

29 May 1917 – Advertisement Lighting Order

Today, Britain got even darker – literally, when the Government implemented a further lighting restriction covering all of England and Wales.

The ‘Advertisement Lights Order’ prohibited the use of illuminated advertisements, of lights outside or at the entrance to any place of amusement, and of all lighting inside shop premises for display or for advertisement after the shops had been closed.

The Order would remain in force for the next 2 years. From that time period it will be clear that this continued well after the war was over and the threat of air raids gone.

This was because the primary reason for the lighting order was not to impair the ability of raiders to find targets but simply to save coal and was made at the request of the coal controller.

In fact up to this point most Zeppelins had struggled to recognise targets in the dark and the recent aircraft raids had taken place in daylight.

In many ways the order really only served the purpose of reassuring the public, particularly in areas subject to frequent raids.

25 May 1917 – Heavier than air

After the failure of the Zeppelin attack yesterday, the Germans launched a new weapon against Britain today.  As the limits of Zeppelins were becoming clear, the aarival in Winter 1916 of the Gotha IV bomber finally made aircraft raids on Britain a realistic possibility.

The Gotha IV was a biplane of 75 feet wing span and 42 feet in length. It wa sfitted with two 260hp Mercedes engines driving pusher airscrews, carried a crew of three, and was armed with three machine guns, one of which could fire through a ‘tunnel’ to attack fighting aeroplanes. It could carry up to 500kg of bombs and had a top speed of about 80 miles an hour.

A specialist squadron, Kampfgeschwader 3 der Oberste Heeresleitung (Kagohl 3 – Battle Squadron 3) was set up. After months of preparation the Squadron made its first raid today.

DB37DCE3-FEFF-4287-B867-ABC6F26C01BB-367-0000003EE4E444F3At around 1700 the squadron of 21 bombers crossed the coast of Essex between the estuaries of the Crouch and the Blackwater.

Dense clouds were in place and although the noise of the aircraft was detected, observation of the aircraft was difficult.

The clouds forced them to abandon London as a target and instead  turned off  across the Thames at Gravesend and, passing over Kent west of Maidstone and Ashford, went out at Folkestone about 6.30 p.m.

After crossing the Thames they seem to have changed into some sort of group formation.  59 bombs of 50kg. weight and 104 of 12kg. were dropped, but 27 of the bombs failed to explode and a few others burst in the air.

Shorncliffe and Folkestone suffered most. Bombs on Shorncliffe camp and on Cheriton killed seventeen Canadian soldiers and wounded ninety-three, while the casualties at Folkestone were 16 men (one soldier), 31 women and 25 children killed, and 31 men (8 soldiers), 48 women, and 12 children injured. A majority of the casualties occurred in a crowded thoroughfare near the harbour (Tontine Street) where shoppers had congregated to make their Whitsun holiday purchases – this was the deadliest bomb dropped over Britain in the whole war. The total casualties for the raid were 95 killed and 195 injured.

Home defence squadrons from both the RFC and RNAS made 74 sorties to little effect. Most of them couldn’t even reach the height of the bombers due to inadequate aircraft – mostly BE2s. The sole encounter was from Flight Lieutenant Reginald Frederick Stewart Leslie from Dover pursued the Gothas over the Channel and fired 150 rounds into one of them before he was driven off.

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The aftermath of the bomb in Tontine Street

Fighting pilots from Dunkirk intercepted some of the raiders on the homeward journey and they reported that in the subsequent fighting they destroyed one Gotha and damaged another. According to German sources of information the losses were one Gotha destroyed in the Channel and another which, for some unknown reason, crashed in Belgium on its return.

The raid exposed the inadequacy of air defences and outraged the public, particularly given that no warning had been given despite the detection of the attackers at Dover.

24 May 1917 – Zeppelins return and a dramatic rescue

Despite poor weather consisting of snow and hail, six Zeppelins attempted a raid on London overnight (L40, L42, L43, L44, L45 and L47). L44 turned back with engine trouble just after reaching the English coast and dropped bombs in the sea. L47 miscalculated its position and also dropped bombs over the sea due to thick clouds.

L42 came farthest inland flying over Essex to Braintree, then turning north-west and, later, north-east, before going out to sea near Sheringham at 0325. overland for three hours. During that time bombs fell in open country causing some minor damage. On the way back, the ship was struck by lightning three times but got home.

The L45 and L43 followed similar paths across Suffolk and Norfolk through an area of thunderstorms. Between them they dropped 40 bombs damaging property and killing a farm labourer.

L40 did not reach land either and turned back with engine trouble. At the same time a flyingboat from Yarmouth, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Christopher John Galpin, set out for Terschelhng in the hope finding a Zeppelin. At about 0530 the L.40 suddenly appeared out of a cloud a mile ahead. The captain of L40 dropped his remaining bombs and climbed as rapidly as he could. Galpin had approached to within 300 yards when the nose of the Zeppelin met the clouds. He was able to fire off half a drum of incendiary ammunition but failed to hot and the Zeppelin disappeared.

Despite a large number of sorties from RNAS and RFC aircraft, there were no further encounters mainly due poor weather and visibility,

Two Sopwith ‘Baby’ seaplanes, had left from Westgate air station but only one returned. Flight Sub-Lieutenant Leonard Graeme Maxton was missing. It turned out that they had already been picked up by a trawler but this was unknown so at 0810 Flight Sub-Lieutenant Harold March Morris, with 2nd Class Air Mechanic GO Wright, went out in a Short seaplane to look for the missing Sopwith. What happened to the Short was told later by Morris in his report:

‘On Thursday 24th at 8 a.m. I was ordered with A. M. 2nd Class Wright as observer to go in search of Flight Sub-Lieutenant Maxton who had failed to return. I set out steering East for 30 minutes, then I turned N.W. for 5 when my engine suddenly stopped. I was forced to land.

The sea was choppy and the wind rising, so my observer sent off his pigeon while I kept the machine head to wind. At about 2.30 my starboard lower plane was carried away causing us to swing broadside on to the sea: we climbed out on to the other plane so as to balance things, but the machine gradually got tail to wind and the tail plane was smashed and the machine gradually began to sink tail first. As she sank we climbed out on to the floats and sat on them, till I was washed off, but managed to catch the tail under water and climb on again. Here we sat till the machine sat up propeller in air and finally turned right over, leaving just the underneath part of each float out of the water. By this time the sea was very rough and the wind blowing a gale. We clung as best we could all night and when morning dawned, the wind had dropped considerably and the sea was getting quieter. We watched all day and by evening the sea was calm and we caught sight of a lightship and a cruiser and two destroyers in the distance, but we could not make them.

About sunset six seaplanes, flying very low, and in diamond formation, flew over us as we waved to them and they answered by firing a green light, but they took no further notice. Their machines had our markings, but were going east and flying very fast. Nothing else happened till the Sunday when an aeroplane flew over, but failed to see us.

The weather remained calm till on the Tuesday at about 2 ‘clock we sighted an H.12, which also saw us; it circled round coming lower and lower and finally landed, although the sea was getting rough again. As it passed us we hung on to the wires and climbed in. We tried to get it up again, but the water was too rough and we only broke our tailplane, so we taxied for about 25 miles till we sighted the Orient which took us aboard and later on transferred us to the White Lilac which brought us into Felixstowe at about 9.30 p.m. on Tuesday night. The signal code book we had with us was first torn up and then thrown into the sea, just before our machine turned over.”

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Harold Dent Smith

The H12 crew were Flight Sub-Lieutenants James Lindsay Gordon and George Ritchie. Hodgson, Leading Mechanic SF Anderson, and Wireless Operator BW Millichamp.

One pilot was lost however, when Flight-Sub-Lieutenant Harold Dent Smith failed to return. It was assumed he had crashed in the sea and was drowned.

20 March 1917 – “A dangerously low point”

Lord John French, Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, wrote to Army Council today, putting the blame for the failure to intercept any of the Zeppelin raidera on the night of 16/17 March squarely on the reduction in personnel available for night patrolling.

In his letter he pointed out that the number of pilots serving in Home Defence had fallen from an average of 130 to just 71 on the night of 16/17 March. This when even 130 is well below the planned establishment and barely adequate to maintain an effective patrol. He also noted that many of his best pilots with experience of Zeppelin hunting had been sent overseas.

‘I recognize that the claims for trained pilots for overseas are all important, but in view of my responsibility for Home Defence it is necessary or me to say that in my opinion the Home Defence Wing, Royal Flying Corps, has been reduced to a dangerously low point, and one which does not enable the general scheme of defence on which the present disposition of the squadrons is based to be carried out effectively. The escape of the airship which raided Kent and Sussex on the 1 6th/ 17th instant was, notwithstanding the unfavourable weather conditions, in my opinion due to this cause.’

He asked that a minimum strength in pilots and aeroplanes should be fixed, and he stated that the existing scheme of aeroplane defence would require 100 trained night pilots.

The War Office did not bite and replied that the requirements for Home Defence were receiving close attention, but said that the shortage at home was not disproportionate to that existing in Royal Flying Corps establishments overseas, and that no minimum of aeroplanes or personnel could be fixed for any theatre of war.

17 March 1917 – Zeppelins are back

In the first raid since November 1916, five Zeppelins attempted to attack London overnight. One of them, L42, was the first of the ‘s-class’, Zeppelins, but L42 had to return early with engine problems.The remaining Zeppelins, L35, L39, L40 and L41, were modified ‘r-class’ models, with an engine removed for greater height.

Strong winds forced the raiders south.  L39 arrived first over Margate in Kent at 2220. Unfortunately thick cloud from 3000ft to 9000ft made target identification impossible    and L39 dropped bombs more or less blind. In the event L39 only dropped seven bombs, none of which caused any serious damage.  L39 reached the coast at St. Leonard’s at 2340 and then flew westward along the coast as far as Pevensey Bay and then went out to sea. Strong winds forced her south across the English Channel to Dieppe. Battling the wind across France, L39 passed to the north of Paris, but then stopped over Compiègne around 0530. Three batteries of French AA guns opened up and eventually they hit their target. L39 burst into flames and crashed at about 0555a with the loss of the entire crew.8ef58bdd5536ec0c20403f6703f1baf1-640x3601A short video of the wreck can be seen here.

About 20 minutes after L39 appeared over Kent, L35 appeared over Broadstairs, Kent. In the end 20 bombs in all were dropped, none of which caused any serious damage. L35 went out to sea at 0015 near Dover. L35 was also blown off course and flew over Calais. Strong winds prevented her reaching her home base at Ahlhorn near Bremen. Instead she managed to find a berth at Dresden, many miles to the south-east, but  was damaged entering the shed. 

The second wave arrived at 0100 over Herne Bay with L40, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Erich Sommerfeldt, led a second wave, arriving over Herne Bay on the north Kent coast at about 1.00am. 23 bombs fell causing little damage, though four sheep were killed. L40 went out to sea at New Romney at about 0215, and eventually got back to her base at Ahlhorn.

L41 arrived 20 minutes later at Cliff End near Pett, south of Winchelsea. L41 dropped 23 bombs over the Rye and Camber Sands area again causing minor damage L41 went out to sea at Dungeness at 0205 and crossed the French coast at Boulogne eventually reaching the base at Ahlhorn after a mission lasting almost 27 hours. 

 

16 March 1917 – Daylight

Early this morning, the second daylight raid of the year by an aeroplane took place. Once again only a single aeroplane was involved. The type is unknown, although at the time offical British sources claimed that it was the Handley Page 0/100, captured on 1 January 1917,  flown by a German crew. This was not substantiated at the time, and indeed seems very unlikely given that the bombs dropped were small 5kg ones.

The target was shipping in The Downs off the east Kent coast but a thick layer of cloud hindered the crew’s navigation. At around 5.30am the aircraft broke through clouds at a height of about 1,300 feet. The crew then discovered they were over land and approaching Westgate on the north Kent coast.

Flying north, the crew dropped two bombs on fields at Dent-du-Lion Farm, between Garlinge and Westgate, followed by a third that fell at Mutrix Farm. The RNAS had established a station at Westgate on land owned by Mutrix Farm and the next bomb landed about 150 yards to the east of the airfield. The aircraft now turned west, and the next bomb landed west of Mutrix Farm, on land between the road and railway line, with another striking the railway embankment. Damage was limited to broken windows.

The aircraft now turned south and rapidly dropped 10 bombs which all fell within 100 yards of each other in a field about 700 yards south-east of Westgate Station, casuing no damage. 

Turning north-west the aircraft’s next bomb landed on a lawn at Streete Court, a boys boarding school, followed by one on a greenhouse at a large house about 250 yards north of St. Saviour’s Church. The last bomb on land struck the ground about 20 yards from a bandstand and shelter on the sea front, shattering more glass, with the final two bombs falling in the sea within 300 yards of the shoreline.

The RNAS sent up three aircraft between 5.35 and 5.45am but the low cloud prevented them seeing anything.

The RFC also sent up three aircraft just before 6.00am, from Rochford (37 Squadron), Dover (50 Squadron) and Bekesbourne (50 Squadron), but they suffered the same problems with the low cloud and the raider escaped unharmed. 

[Data on this raid from Ian Castle (http://www.iancastlezeppelin.co.uk/16-mar-1917/4593673632).]