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.
At 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.
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.