Category Archives: Home Waters

4 June 1917 – Ostende

Following the unsuccessful attack on Zeebrugge on 12 May, Vice-Admiral Bacon turned his attention to the dockyard at Ostende, a larger target, but one that was flanked by houses.

After the weather curtailed a number of early attempts on 26 and 27 May, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, with destroyers and auxiliary craft, set out this evening.

To cover the operation in the direction of the Thornton Bank and the Schouwen Bank, Commodore Tyrwhitt went out with the Harwich Force, and, early next morning, he intercepted two German destroyers, one of which, the S.20, he sank. In the later stages of this destroyer action, German seaplanes from Zeebrugge took part and, coming down on the water, they picked up and carried home one officer and seven men of the crew of the S.20.

From 16,000 feet above Ostend, part of the destroyer action was watched from the aeroplanes which were in position ready to direct the fire of Vice-Admiral Bacon’s monitors.

D90B3FA7-74E0-47E9-B2B6-CF46F502DBE2-560-0000009203E2F8E8There were two DH4 aeroplanes for spotting, escorted by two others and by two Sopwith Pups. In addition, to prevent German aircraft spotting for the shore batteries against the ships, or from making direct bombing attacks on them, there were two fighter patrols in the neighbourhood.

The air observer’s signal that he was ready was made at 0322 and fire was opened within a few minutes. To avoid a possible initial shelling of the town, the monitors were ranged on a point about a 1,000 yards short of the eastern boom, and the guns were not lifted on their target until the line and direction had been given as correct. When the range was lengthened, fire was at once reported on the target, and a central hit was quickly signalled. Soon after fire was opened a German kite balloon ascended 5,000 feet behind Ostend presumably to direct the enemy coast batteries on the bombarding ships. One of the patrolling pilots in a Sopwith Pup, diving from 18,000 feet, shot the balloon down. Meanwhile numerous enemy smoke screens had been started and, by 0345, the docks and the surrounding country had become obscured. The smoke spread until it covered about ten to fifteen square miles, including the entire harbour, and, at 0400, Vice-Admiral Bacon judged it was useless to continue. Of the 115 rounds fired at that point, 36 had been spotted from the air, and photographs taken later in the day showed that at least twenty shells had fallen on the docks.

One object of the bombardment, the infliction of damage on the destroyer repair shops, had been attained. It was also revealed by U-boat prisoners, taken shortly afterwards, that the bombardment led to the sinking in the harbour of the submarine UC70 as well as an armed trawler, and that three destroyers which could not get out of harbour in time were damaged. The UC70 had been lying alongside a petrol lighter which was exploded by a direct hit; the U-boat was afterwards raised and repaired at Bruges.

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.

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.”


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.

14 May 1917 – Zeppelin destroyed

On 26 April the Admiralty put a new tracking system in place to detect Zeppelins. As the Zeppelin patrolled, their courses were methodically plotted by the British wireless interception stations, and if they approached within 150 miles of the English Coast the position, course, and speed were communicated direct to one or more of the East Coast flying-boat bases.

Local commanders then had discretion to send out aircraft – keeping them up to date with the Zeppelin’s position by wireless.

Soon after dawn this morning, in misty weather, news was received of a Zeppelin near the Terschelling Light Vessel.


Robert Leckie

A Curtiss H12 ‘Large America’, manned by Flight Lieutenant Christopher John Galpin, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Robert Leckie, Chief Petty Officer Vernon Frank Whatling, and Air Mechanic J Laycock, was sent out from Yarmouth.

After eighty miles, the flying-boat shut down the wireless to lessen the chances of discovery. At 0448, the crew spotted Zeppelin L22 ten to fifteen miles away, cruising slowly at 3,000 feet, The flying-boat was 2000 feet up and then climbed another 1,000 feet.

Leckie made a skilful approach and dived on the Zeppelin until he was twenty feet below and fifty feet to starboard of her gondolas. Then Flight- Lieutenant Galpin opened fire from the two Lewis guns in the forward cock-pit. After a burst of fire both guns jammed, and the pilot turned away to try and clear the guns. But no second attack was necessary. As the flying-boat turned, the L22 began to glow, and within a few seconds she was falling in flames. Her skeleton plunged upright into the sea, leaving no trace in the dawning light save a mound of black ash on the surface of the water.


A publicity shot of the crew and their H12

1 May 1917 – Torpedoed

Back on 19 April German seaplanes had attempted a surprise torpedo attack on the North Goodwin Drifter Division and Ramsgate harbour but failed to sink any ships. However the impact of the attack on the Admiralty was to raise fears of a series of more serious attacks. Those fears appeared realised today when a second more successful attack was carried out.


SS Gena

The SS Gena, a collier was sailing in the war channel north-east of Southwold when she was attacked by two Hansa Brandenberg GW seaplanes from II Torpedostaffel Zeebrugge.

One of the seaplanes successfully dropped a torpedo which struck the Gena. However, one of the downsides of these large seaplanes is the slow speeds (the GW can only do 65 miles per hour) and the fact that they have to fly close to the sea (within 25 feet) to drop the torpedo. This makes them much easier to attack.

Sure enough, the Gena got off two rounds from her gun before sinking and with her second shot hit one of the seaplanes (703). The plane crashed into the sea and the crew Leutnant Richard Freude and Flugmaat Karl Berghoff were taken prisoner by the escorting patrol vessels which also recued the Gina’s crew.

This was the first British vessel sunk by an airborne torpedo in British waters.

This caused some disquiet amongst amongst naval officers and unofficially many adopted a “shoot first ask later” approach to aeroplanes.

26 April 1916 – Bloody Paralysed

7 Naval Squadron has been based at Dunkirk since March 1917 and has been gradually building up tis force of Handley Page 0/100s and Short Bombers for bombing missions over German territory.

Today one of their Handley Page 0/100s (3115) was attacked on its way to a bombing mission by Vizeflumeister Muller of Seeflug 2 flying a Rumpler 6B1 (1037). Muller ruptured the 0/100s petrol tanks and the pilot Flight-Lieutenant Sub-Lieutenant Thomas Samuel Stanley Hood then attempted to fly his crippled aircraft towards land at Nieuport, but was eventually forced to ditch in the sea nearly two miles offshore, where it was immediately shelled by enemy shore batteries. Hood was killed in the crash.

Two nearby French seaplanes took off and one rescued 1st Class Air Mechanic F C Kirby. Another was downed by flak trying to rescue Gun Layer Richard Henry Watson and 2nd Class Air Mechanic William Charles Danzey. Watson and Hood were subsequently taken prisoner as were the French crew Morand de Jouffrey and Mat Bois. Watson died shortly afterwards of his injuries. Danzey died later in captivity.

24 April 1917 – U-boat destroyed (maybe)

As well as the various classes of airship that are carrying out patrols for u-boats, 13 April saw the beginning of H12 flying boats based at various stations are using the spider web patrol routes to try and detect u-boats.

Today an SOS call was received from an Italian ship saying she was under attack from a U-boat south of Portland Bill. Surface craft and seaplanes were immediately sent out, and an H12 flying-boat, which had landed at Portland the previous day with minor engine trouble, also went away to search the area. In the pilot’s seat was Lieutenant Commander Waugh, with observer 2nd Class Air Mechanic Charles Stanley Laycock and two other crew members.


A Curtiss H12 Flying Boat of the type used in the attack

The flying-boat’s crew found the U-boat on the surface and, probably because the morning was misty, approached within a quarter of a mile before the submarine commander became aware of the danger which threatened him.

He then prepared to dive, but while his conning tower was still awash, the flying-boat dropped two 100lb bombs which exploded above the submarine. Oil and bubbles came to the surface and, after a further uneventful patrol in the vicinity, the flying-boat’s crew returned to their base reasonably confident that they had disabled or destroyed the U-boat.

About an hour later, however, a destroyer saw the submarine breaking surface again near where she had last been seen and attacked. The destroyer dashed towards her, but she had submerged before the British vessel reached her. Judging the position of their target from her wash, the crew of the destroyer dropped two depth-charges and, following the explosions, oil gushed to the surface and spread over a large area. Patrols were maintained throughout the day and a hydrophone watch kept during the night. Late in the evening, a motor noise heard in the hydrophone of one of the destroyers seemed to imply that the U-boat had got under way again, but the Admiralty, weighing all the evidence, decided that the U-boat had been destroyed and awarded medals to the crew.

The Official history suggests that this was UB39 which sailed on 23 April, but never returned. However German records suggest that ship was lost on 7 May 1917. The wreck of UB39 was also discovered in 2007 east of the Sandettie Bank at position 51.20N, 02.09E – not far from the Belgian Coast and a good distance from Portland Bill and appeared to have been mined.

In fact German records do not indicate any U-boats lost around this time so the ship was either damaged and escaped or released oil to trick the attackers and then escaped.