German strategic bombing during World War I
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The best-known German strategic bombing campaign during World War I was the campaign against England, although strategic bombing raids were carried out or attempted on other fronts. The main campaign against England started in January 1915 using airships. From then until the end of World War I the German Navy and Army Luftstreitkräfte mounted over 50 bombing raids on the United Kingdom. These were generally referred to as "Zeppelin raids": although both Zeppelin and Schütte-Lanz airships were used, the Zeppelin company was much better known and was responsible for producing the majority of the airships used. Weather conditions and night flying conditions made airship navigation and maintaining bombing accuracy difficult. Bombs were often dropped miles off target (one raid on London actually bombed Hull) and accurate targeting of military installations was impossible. The civilian casualties made the Zeppelins an object of hatred, and they were dubbed "baby-killers". With the development of effective defensive measures the airship raids became increasingly hazardous, and in 1917 the airships were largely replaced by aeroplanes.
Although the military effect of the raids was small, they caused widespread alarm, leading to the diversion of substantial resources from the Western Front and some disruption to industrial production. Concern about the conduct of defence against the raids, the responsibility for which was divided between the Admiralty and the Army, led to a parliamentary inquiry under Jan Smuts, whose report was to lead to the creation of the Royal Air Force (RAF) on 1 April 1918. The defence organisation developed by the British was an important precursor of the fighter direction system that would prove vital in winning the Battle of Britain. The raids were also influential because they led to an overestimation of both the material and psychological effects of the bombing of cities.
A minor consequence of the risk of being driven out of bed at night was the development of night clothes for women.
Airships made about 51 bombing raids on England during the war. These killed 557 and injured another 1,358 people. More than 5,000 bombs were dropped on towns across Britain, causing £1.5 million in damage. 84 airships took part, of which 30 were either shot down or lost in accidents. Aeroplanes carried out 27 raids, dropping 246,774 lb (111,935 kg) of bombs for the loss of 62 aircraft, resulting in ground casualties of 835 dead, 1,972 injured and £1,418,272 of material damage.
On 6 August 1914 the German Army Zeppelin Z VI bombed the Belgian city of Liège, killing nine civilians. This was followed by night raids on Antwerp on 25 August and 2 September. In the first month of the war Germany formed the "Ostend Carrier Pigeon Detachment", a cover name for an aeroplane unit to be used for the bombing of the English Channel ports. During the opening months of the war a German pilot flying a Taube regularly dropped bombs on Paris. The first raid consisted of five small bombs and a note demanding the immediate surrender of Paris and the French nation. Before the stabilisation of the Western Front, German aircraft made a number of raids on Paris, slightly damaging Notre Dame Cathedral.
The first bombing raids on England were nuisance raids carried out against Channel ports. German press reports mention a raid carried out on 27 October, but there is no British record of any incident on this date. The first confirmed raid occurred on 21 December, when a Friedrichshafen FF.29 dropped two bombs into the sea near the Admiralty Pier in Dover. These raids, usually carried out by one or two aircraft during daytime, continued throughout the war, with little effect.
Campaign against Britain
Proposals to bomb Britain were first made by Paul Behncke, deputy chief of the German Naval Staff, in August 1914. These were backed by Alfred von Tirpitz, who wrote that "The measure of the success will lie not only in the injury which will be caused to the enemy, but also in the significant effect it will have in diminishing the enemy's determination to prosecute the war". The campaign was approved by the Kaiser on 7 January 1915, who at first forbade attacks on London, fearing that his relatives in the British royal family might be injured. Following an attempt on 13 January 1915 which was abandoned because of the weather, the first successful raid took place on the night of 19–20 January 1915. Two Zeppelins targeted Humberside but were diverted by strong winds, and dropped their bombs on Great Yarmouth, Sheringham, King's Lynn and the surrounding villages. Four people were killed and 16 injured. Monetary damage was estimated at £7,740 (UK£ 187,200 in 2018). The raid prompted alarmist stories about German agents using car headlights to guide Zeppelins to their targets, and there was even a rumour that a Zeppelin was operating from a concealed base in the Lake District.
An Imperial Order dated 12 February authorised the bombing of London's docks, which was interpreted by the German General Staff as permitting bombing targets east of Charing Cross. This interpretation was formally accepted by the Kaiser on 5 May 1915. The first Navy attempts to bomb London, made by L 8, failed owing to poor weather. The first was made on 26 February but turned back due to headwinds: a second attempt ended when the airship flew below the cloud base to check its position and found itself over Belgian army positions near Ostend: riddled by rifle fire, it came down near Tienen and was destroyed by the wind. A four-airship raid by the Army on 17 March ran into fog and was abandoned, one airship bombing Calais and being damaged on landing. On 20 March the three remaining Army airships set off to bomb Paris; one was lost on the return journey. Two Navy raids failed due to bad weather on 14 and 15 April, and it was decided to delay further attempts until the more capable P-class Zeppelins were in service. The Army received the first of these, LZ 38, and Erich Linnarz commanded it on a raid on Ipswich on 29–30 April and another on Southend on 9–10 May. LZ 38 also attacked Dover and Ramsgate on 16–17 May, before returning to bomb Southend on 26–27 May. These four raids killed six people and injured six, causing property damage estimated at £16,898. Twice Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) aircraft tried to intercept LZ 38 but on both occasions it was either able to outclimb the aircraft or was already at too great an altitude for the aircraft to intercept; the B.E.2 took about 50 minutes to climb to 3,000 m (10,000 ft).
On 30 May, Captain Linnarz again commanded LZ 38 on the first London raid; LZ 37 was also to be part of the raid but suffered structural damage early on and returned to Namur. Flying from Evere LZ 38 crossed the English coast near Margate at 21:42 before turning west over Southend. London police were warned of an incoming raid around 23:00; a few minutes later small incendiaries began to fall. These devices, weighing 11 kg (25 lb), were filled with thermite and the exterior was wrapped in tarred rope. In total some 120 bombs were dropped on a line stretching from Stoke Newington south to Stepney and then north toward Leytonstone. Seven people were killed and 35 injured; 41 fires were started, burning out seven properties and the total damage was assessed at £18,596. Aware of the problems that the Germans were experiencing in navigation, this raid caused the government to issue a D notice prohibiting the press from reporting anything about future attacks that was not mentioned in official statements: previous press reports had contained detailed information about where bombs had fallen. Fifteen defensive sorties were flown against the raiders, only one of whom managed to make visual contact with the enemy. No ground-based guns fired and no searchlights found the airship; one pilot was killed when attempting to land.
The naval airships also tried to raid London. On 4 June strong winds led the commander of L 10 to misjudge his position, and the bombs were dropped on Gravesend. L 9 was also diverted by the weather on 6–7 June, attacking Hull instead of London and causing considerable damage. On the same night an Army raid of three Zeppelins also failed because of the weather; in an added blow, as the airship returned to Evere they ran into RNAS aircraft flying from Veurne, Belgium. LZ 38 was destroyed on the ground and LZ 37 was intercepted in the air by R. A. J. Warneford in a Morane Parasol, who dropped six 9 kg (20 lb) Hales bombs on the Zeppelin, which caught fire and crashed into the convent school of Sint-Amandsberg. Two nuns were killed and all but one of the Zeppelin's crew also died. Warneford was awarded the Victoria Cross for his achievement. As a further consequence of the raid both the Army and Navy Zeppelins withdrew from their bases in Belgium: their vulnerability was now clear.
After an ineffective attack by L 10 on Tyneside on 15–16 June the short summer nights discouraged further raids for some months, and the remaining Army Zeppelins were reassigned to the Eastern and Balkan fronts. The Navy resumed raids on Britain in August. On 9–10 August, four Zeppelins were directed against London; none reached its target and one, L 12, was damaged by ground fire near Dover and came down in the sea off Zeebrugge. Despite eight attacks by RNAS aircraft the airship was towed into Ostend where it was later dismantled. The four-Zeppelin raid was repeated on 12–13 August; again only one airship, L 10, made landfall, dropping its bombs on Harwich. A third four-Zeppelin raid tried to reach London on 17–18 August; two turned back with mechanical problems, one bombed Ashford, Kent in the belief it was Woolwich, but L 10 became the first Navy airship to reach London. L 10 was also misnavigated, mistaking the reservoirs of the Lea Valley for the Thames, and consequently dropped its bombs on Walthamstow and Leytonstone. 10 people were killed, 48 injured and property damage was estimated at £30,750. Guns were fired at L 10 and a few aircraft took off in pursuit, but the Zeppelin suffered no damage. L 10 was destroyed a little over two weeks later: it was struck by lightning and caught fire off Cuxhaven, and the entire crew was killed.
Two Army Zeppelins successfully bombed London on 7–8 September: SL 2 dropped bombs on the Isle of Dogs, Deptford, Greenwich and Woolwich, and LZ 74 was forced to drop weight on its approach and scattered 39 bombs over Cheshunt, before heading on to London and dropping bombs on Bermondsey, Rotherhithe and New Cross. Eighteen people were killed and 28 injured; property damage totalled £9,616. Fog and mist prevented any aircraft taking off, but anti-aircraft guns fired at LZ 74 with no effect.
Then we saw the Zeppelin above us, just ahead, amid a gleaming of clouds:
high up, like a bright golden finger, quite small (...) Then there was flashes near the ground — and the shaking noise. It was like Milton — then there was war in heaven. (...) I cannot get over it, that the moon is not Queen of the sky by night, and the stars the lesser lights. It seems the Zeppelin is in the zenith of the night, golden like a moon, having taken control of the sky; and the bursting shells are the lesser lights.
The Navy attempted to follow up the Army's success the following night. Three Zeppelins were directed against London and one against the benzol plant at Skinningrove. L 11 turned back early with engine trouble; L 14 suffered the same problem while over Norfolk: its bombs were dropped on Dereham and the Zeppelin returned home. L 13 reached London, approaching over Golders Green, and Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Mathy began bombing around 22:40. The bomb-load included a 300-kilogram (660 lb) device, the largest yet carried. This exploded on Bartholomew Close near Smithfield Market, destroying several houses and killing two men. Further bombs fell on the textile warehouses north of St Paul's Cathedral, causing a fire which despite the attendance of 22 fire engines caused over half a million pounds damage: Mathy then turned east, dropping his remaining bombs on Liverpool Street station. The Zeppelin was repeatedly caught by searchlights and all 26 anti-aircraft guns in London were active, but every shell exploded too low and the falling shrapnel caused both damage and alarm on the ground. Three aircraft were in the air. None even saw the Zeppelin; one crashed on landing, killing the pilot. The raid killed 22 people and injured 87: the monetary damage was over one sixth of the total damage inflicted by bombing raids during the war.
After three more raids were scattered by the weather a five-Zeppelin raid which became known as the "Theatreland Raid" was launched by the Navy on 13 October. Arriving over the Norfolk coast around 18:30 the Zeppelins encountered new ground defences installed since the September raid under the guidance of Sir Percy Scott. These new gun sites proved ineffective, although the airship commanders commented on the improved defences of the city. A 13-pounder near Broxbourne was put out of action by three bombs dropped from L 15, which continued to London and began bombing over Charing Cross, the first bombs striking the Lyceum Theatre and the corner of Exeter and Wellington Streets, killing 17 and injuring 20. Further bombs were dropped on Holborn: as the airship neared Moorgate it was engaged by a new 75 mm gun sited at the Honourable Artillery Company grounds in Finsbury. L 15 quickly recognised this new threat and jettisoned ballast, dropped only three more bombs (one landing on Aldgate High Street causing much damage) before departing, having suffered some engine damage from the shells. L 13 dropped some bombs around Guildford and later others near Woolwich. L 14 dropped bombs on Otterpool Army Camp near Folkestone, killing 14 soldiers and injuring 12, and later bombed Tonbridge and East Croydon. Both the other Zeppelins, L 16 and L 11, were even further off course. L 16 dropped up to 50 bombs on Hertford and L 11 scattered a few bombs over Norfolk before heading home. In total, 71 people were killed and 128 injured. This was the last raid of 1915, as bad weather coincided with the new moon in both November and December 1915 and continued into January 1916.
There were a total 20 raids in 1915, in which 37 tons of bombs were dropped, killing 181 people and injuring 455.
In December 1915 additional P-class Zeppelins and the first of the new Q-class airships were delivered. The Q-class was an enlargement of the P-class, lengthened to 178 m (585 ft), adding two gasbags, and improving both ceiling and bomb-load. Improved defensive measures made raids more hazardous, and several airships were destroyed. By mid-1916, there were 271 anti-aircraft guns and 258 searchlights across England, and the introduction of an effective combination of explosive and incendiary bullets gave the defending aircraft their first successes. New types of Zeppelin with improved ceilings restored the advantage, but led to further flying and navigation problems; oxygen was needed to fly at high altitude, the extreme cold led to crew fatigue and technical problems, and the meteorologists of the time did not appreciate the differing wind conditions likely to be met at altitude. Nevertheless, in 1916 twenty-three raids dropped 125 tons of bombs, killing 293 and injuring 691 people.
Aerial defences against Zeppelins were haphazard, and divided between the RNAS and the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), with the Navy engaging enemy airships approaching the coast while the RFC took responsibility once the enemy had crossed the coastline. Initially the War Office believed that the Zeppelins used a layer of inert gas to protect themselves from incendiary bullets, and discouraged the use of such ammunition in favour of bombs. The initial trials of incendiary bullets in mid-1915 were unimpressive, and the explosive Pomeroy bullet attracted little official interest. However experiments undertaken in 1916 using a mixture of explosive and incendiary rounds were promising, and the use of this mixture of Pomeroy, Brock, and Buckingham bullets brought the defending aircraft their first victories, using the technique of firing machine guns upwards at 45 degrees into the airship.
Ten home defence squadrons were organised by February 1916, with London's defences assigned to No. 19 RAS at Sutton's Farm and Hainault Farm (renamed No. 39 (Home Defence) Squadron in April 1916, who were also allocated North Weald Bassett airfield in August 1916). The number of aircraft varied: in February there were only eight squadrons at less than half-full strength, and by June the number of squadrons had been cut to six and only No. 39 Squadron was at full strength and equipped with the B.E.2c aircraft, which was being outclassed on the Western Front, but provided a stable gun platform suited to night fighting.
The first raid of 1916 was carried out by the German Navy. Nine Zeppelins were sent to Liverpool on the night of 31 January – 1 February. A combination of poor weather, difficult navigation and mechanical problems scattered the aircraft across the Black Country hitting Tipton, Wednesbury and Walsall. A total of 61 people were reported killed and 101 injured by the raid. Fifteen of the fatalities occurred in the town of Tipton. L 21, captained by Max Dietrich, caused the majority of the damage. Despite ground fog, 22 aircraft took off to find the Zeppelins but none succeeded. Six aircraft were damaged beyond repair and two pilots were killed when attempting to land. One airship, L 19, crashed in the North Sea because of engine failure and damage from Dutch ground–fire: all 16 crew were lost.
Further raids were delayed by an extended period of poor weather and also by the withdrawal of the majority of Naval Zeppelins in an attempt to identify and resolve the recurrent mechanical failures. Raids resumed in March: three Zeppelins set off to bomb Rosyth on 5-6 March but were forced by high winds to divert to Hull, killing 18, injuring 52 and causing £25,005 damage. On 30 March-1 April ten airships set off to bomb eastern England and London. Most turned back because of mechanical problems or the weather; L 15 was intercepted by Claude Ridley, who was unable to do more than fire a few rounds at extreme range; it was then damaged by anti-aircraft fire over Purfleet before being attacked by Alfred de Bathe Brandon using Ranken darts. It came down in the sea near Margate, all but one of the crew surviving. Most of the 48 killed in the raid were victims of a single bomb which fell on an Army billet in Cleethorpes. The following night two Navy Zeppelins, diverted from London by the weather, bombed targets in the north of England, killing 22 and injuring 130. On the night of 2-3 April a six-airship raid was made by Army and Navy airships, the Navy targeting the naval base at Rosyth and the Forth Bridge and the Army targeting London. None of the airships bombed their intended targets; 13 were killed, 24 injured and much of the £77,113 damage was caused by the destruction of a warehouse in Leith containing whisky. A two-Zeppelin raid the following night was prevented from bombing London by the weather and caused no casualties or damage, and another against the north of England on the night of 5-6 April had little effect: one of the three raiders turned back with mechanical problems, and although the iron works at Skinningrove and a colliery near Bishop Auckland were bombed the casualties only amounted to one dead and nine injured.
On 28–29 July the first raid to include one of the new R-class Zeppelins, L 31, took place. These were 200 metres (660 ft) long, with a capacity of 55,000 cubic metres (2,000,000 cu ft), powered by six engines and capable of operating at 4,000 m (13,000 ft), and could carry up to four tons of bombs. The 10-Zeppelin raid achieved very little; four turned back early and the rest wandered over a fog-shrouded landscape before giving up. Adverse weather dispersed two raids on 30–31 July and 2–3 August. On 8–9 August, two Zeppelins were part of a nine airship raid on Hull. The sixth successful London raid was on 24–25 August when 13 Navy Zeppelins were launched and Heinrich Mathy's L 31 reached London; flying above low clouds, 36 bombs were dropped in 10 minutes on West Ferry Road, Deptford Dry Dock, the station at Norway Street and homes in Greenwich, Eltham and Plumstead. Nine people were killed, 40 injured and £130,203 of damage was caused. L 31 suffered no damage in the attack but several weeks of repair work were needed following a hard landing.
The biggest raid to date was launched on 2–3 September, with 12 German Navy airships and four from the German Army taking part. A combination of rain and snowstorms scattered the airships while they were still over the North Sea. None of the naval airships reached London, and only the army's LZ 98 and the newly commissioned Schütte-Lanz SL 11 achieved their objective. SL 11 came in over Foulness with the intention of attacking the capital from the northwest. It dropped a few bombs over London Colney and South Mimms before it was picked up by a searchlight over Hornsey at about 01:50 and subjected to an intense but ineffective barrage. It was lost in cloud over Wood Green but rediscovered by the searchlights at Waltham Abbey as it bombed Ponders End. At around 02:15 one of the three aircraft in the sky that night finally came into range, a B.E.2c piloted by Lt. William Leefe Robinson flying from Suttons Farm. Robinson fired three drums of ammunition from his Lewis gun, one on each of three passes. After he emptied the third drum, the airship began burning from the stern and was quickly enveloped in flames. It fell to the ground near Cuffley, witnessed by the crews of four of the naval Zeppelins. There were no survivors. For bringing down the first rigid airship downed on British soil and the first 'night fighter' victory Leefe Robinson received the Victoria Cross. The pieces of SL 11 were gathered up and sold by the Red Cross to raise money for wounded soldiers.[N 1]
The loss of SL 11 ended the German Army's interest in raids on Britain. The German Navy remained aggressive, and a 12-Zeppelin raid was launched on 23–24 September. Eight older airships bombed targets in the Midlands and Northeast, while four M-class Zeppelins (L 30, L 31, L 32, and L 33) attacked London. L 30 did not even cross the coast, dropping its bombs at sea. L 31 approached London from the south, dropped a few bombs on Kenley and Mitcham and was picked up by searchlights. Forty-one bombs were then dropped in rapid succession over Streatham, killing seven and wounding 27. More bombs were dropped on Brixton before crossing the river and dropping 10 bombs on Leyton, killing another eight people and injuring 30. L 31 then headed home. Also coming in from the south was L 32, delayed by engine problems. It dropped a few bombs on Sevenoaks and Swanley before crossing Purfleet at about 01:00. The Zeppelin then came under anti-aircraft fire as it dropped bombs on Aveley and South Ockendon. Shortly thereafter, at 01:10, a B.E.2c piloted by 2nd Lieutenant Frederick Sowrey engaged L 32. He fired three drums of incendiaries and succeeded in starting a fire which quickly spread. The Zeppelin came down at Snail's Hall Farm, Great Burstead. The entire crew was killed, with some, including the commander Oberleutnant-zur-See Werner Peterson, choosing to jump rather than burn to death.
L 33 dropped a few incendiaries over Upminster before losing its way and making several turns, heading over London and dropping bombs on Bromley at around midnight. As the bombs began to explode, the Zeppelin was hit by an anti-aircraft shell fired from the guns at either Beckton, Wanstead, or Victoria Park despite being at 4,000 metres (13,000 ft). Dropping bombs now to shed weight, a large number fell on homes in Botolph Road and Bow Road. As the airship headed towards Chelmsford it continued to lose height, coming under fire at Kelvedon Hatch and briefly exchanging fire with a B.E.2c. Despite the efforts of the crew, L 33 was forced to the ground at around 01:15 in a field close to New Hall Cottages, Little Wigborough. The airship was set alight and the crew headed south before being arrested at Peldon by the police. Inspection of the wreckage provided the British with much information about the construction of Zeppelins, which was used in the design of the British R33-class airships. One 250 hp (190 kW) engine recovered from the wreck was subsequently substituted for two (of four) 180 hp (130 kW) engines on a Vickers-built machine, the hitherto underpowered R.9.
The next raid came on 1 October 1916. Eleven Zeppelins were launched at targets in the Midlands and at London. As usual weather played a major role and only L 31 under the experienced Heinrich Mathy, on his 15th raid, reached London. Approaching from Suffolk, L 31 was picked up by the searchlights at Kelvedon Hatch around 21:45; turning away, the airship detoured over Harlow, Stevenage and Hatfield. As the airship neared Cheshunt at about 23:20 it was quickly picked up by six searchlights. Three aircraft of No. 39 Squadron were in the air and closed in. A B.E.2c piloted by 2nd Lieutenant Wulstan Tempest engaged the Zeppelin at around 23:50; three bursts were sufficient to set fire to L 31, and it crashed near Potters Bar with all 19 crew dying, Mathy jumping from the burning airship. His body was found near the wreckage, embedded some four inches in the ground. Tempest had had to dive out of the way of the stricken airship and, possibly suffering from anoxia, crashed without injury on landing.
A raid on 27–28 November avoided London, instead targeting the Midlands and Tyneside. Nine Navy airships took part. The bombing was largely ineffective, killing four, injuring 37 and causing £12,482 damage. Two airships were shot down by the defending aircraft: L 34 was brought down in flames off the coast at Hartlepool by 2nd Lt. Ian Pyott flying a B.E.2c and L 21 was attacked by three aircraft near Yarmouth: Flt Sub-Lt. Edward Pulling was credited with the victory and awarded a DSO, the other pilots receiving the DFC. The following day a single LVG CIV made the first German aeroplane raid on London: hoping to hit the Admiralty, six 10 kg (22 lb) bombs fell between Victoria station and the Brompton Road.
There were no further raids in 1916 although the Navy lost three more craft, all on 28 December: SL 12 was destroyed at Ahlhorn by strong winds after sustaining damage in a poor landing, and at Tønder L 24 crashed into the shed while landing: the resulting fire destroyed both L 24 and the adjacent L 17.
The losses during 1916 caused the Germans to increase the ceiling of their airships. This was first achieved by lightening the existing craft, principally by removing one of the engines. This increased the ceiling to over 4,900 m (16,000 ft). Meanwhile, new types with a lightened hull framework were developed.
In late 1916 Germany had begun planning a daylight bombing offensive against Britain using aeroplanes, called Operation Türkenkreuz (Turk's Cross). In anticipation of the campaign, Kampfgeschwader der Obersten Heeresleitung 3 (Kagohl 3), nicknamed the "England Geschwader", was formed, consisting of six Kampfstaffel (Kastas) under the command of Hauptmann Ernst Brandenburg. Kagohl 3 initially operated from Sint-Denijs-Westrem and Gontrode in the Ghent area of German-occupied Belgium.
The first raid of 1917 took place on 16–17 March: five high-altitude Zeppelins encountered very strong winds, and none reached their targets. On the return flight L 39 suffered an engine failure and, blown over French-held territory, was brought down in flames by ground fire. The lack of success was repeated on 23–24 May, when six Zeppelins set out to bomb London but were frustrated by a combination of high winds and thick cloud. A few bombs were dropped on Suffolk, killing one person and causing £599 damage.
Daylight Gotha raids
Kagohl 3 received the first Gotha G.IV aircraft in March, and on 25 May, the squadron commenced Operation Turkenkreuz, sending 23 Gothas to bomb London. Two were forced to turn back over the North Sea due to mechanical difficulties and cloud over London caused the remaining bombers to divert to secondary targets at the Channel port of Folkestone and the nearby Shorncliffe Army Camp. The raid resulted in 95 deaths and 195 injuries, mostly in Folkestone. In Shorncliffe, 18 soldiers (16 Canadian and two British) were killed and 90 were wounded. Nine Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) Sopwith Pups engaged the bombers near the Belgian coast as they returned, shooting one down.
A second attack on 5 June was diverted to Sheerness in Kent but a third raid on 13 June, was the first daylight raid on London, causing 162 deaths and 432 injuries. Among the dead were 18 children, killed by a bomb falling on the Upper North Street School primary school in Poplar. This was the deadliest air raid of the war and no Gothas were lost. In 1938, Air Commodore Lionel Charlton described the raid as "the beginning of a new epoch in the history of warfare". News of the raid was received enthusiastically in Germany and Brandenburg was summoned to Berlin to be awarded the Pour le Mérite, Germany's highest military honour. On taking off for the return journey, the engine of his aircraft failed, Brandenburg was severely injured and his pilot, Oberleutnant Freiherr von Trotha, was killed.
The reason for the relatively large numbers of casualties seems to have been ignorance as to the threat posed by aerial bombardment of a city in daylight. Lt. Charles Chabot, a Royal Flying Corps (RFC) pilot on leave recorded that: "...Raids hadn't become a very serious thing and everybody crowded out into the street to watch. They didn't take cover or dodge".
As there had been little planning, early attempts to intercept the Gothas were ineffective. Large numbers of British aircraft were put into the air but were unable to climb high enough to engage the bombers. Captain James McCudden was part of the engaging force of 92 aircraft but due to the limited performance of his machine, had no success in intercepting the bombers.
On 16–17 June, an attempted raid by six Zeppelins was met with some success; two airships were unable to leave their shed due to high winds and two more turned back with engine problems. Of the two that reached England, L 42 hit a naval ammunition store in Ramsgate, while L 48, the first U-class Zeppelin, was intercepted near Harwich and attacked by a DH.2 flown by Captain Robert Saundby, a F.E. 2b flown by Lt F. D. Holder and Sgt S. Ashby, and a B.E.12 flown by Pierce Watkins. The Zeppelin came down in flames near Theberton in Suffolk: Watkins was officially credited with the victory.
A further Gotha raid of 22 aircraft was made on 7 July, resulting in 57 deaths and 193 injuries on the ground. One hundred sorties were flown against the formation, resulting in one Gotha shot down, three damaged and two fighters shot down. Felixstowe and Harwich were bombed on 22 July and Southend and Shoeburyness on 12 August, with the loss of one Gotha, four others crashing on landing. On 18 August, the largest raid of the war was attempted, despite a warning of unfavourable weather. Twenty-eight aircraft took off and soon encountered the predicted high winds, after nearly two hours in the air they had made so little progress that Zeebrugge was still in sight. After a further hour the English coast came into sight, revealing that the Gothas were some 64 km (40 mi) off course. With barely enough fuel left to return to Belgium, the flight commander called off the attack. The high wind caused two aircraft to come down in the North Sea and others ran out of fuel and were lost making forced landings, two coming down in neutral Holland.
On 22 August, 15 aircraft set out to attack Margate and Dover. Five turned back over the North Sea and the rest were met by heavy anti-aircraft fire and fighter aircraft over the Isle of Thanet. Two Gothas were shot down almost immediately and a third was shot down over Dover.
The improved British air defences forced Kagohl 3 to abandon daylight raids. While night raids provided a measure of protection from interceptors and anti-aircraft fire, they greatly complicated navigation and landing. Many damaged aircraft limped back to their airfields only to be lost in landing accidents.
The first night raid by the Gothas took place on 3 September against Chatham, as an experiment by five aircraft. The 152 deaths included 130 naval recruits whose dormitory was hit, the worst bombing incident of the war. Encouraged by the lack of night defences, a raid on London was carried out the following night. Of the eleven aircraft which set out, nine reached England and five got as far as London; 18 defensive sorties were flown but none made contact. The defensive flights were significant in that the aircraft used included Sopwith Camels, proving that it was practical to fly the type at night. One Gotha failed to return, probably shot down by anti-aircraft fire from Fort Borstal near Rochester.
Six raids followed at the end of September. These included the first raids on England by the enormous Zeppelin-Staaken Riesenflugzeug of Riesenflugzeug-Abteilung 501. On 24 September 16 Gothas set off and 13 reached England, most bombing Dover and other targets in Kent, with only five reaching London. This coincided with an unsuccessful Zeppelin attack on the Midlands. The following night 15 Gothas set out, with similar results, only three aircraft reaching London. One of the bombers came down in the North Sea, probably the victim of a Sopwith 1½ Strutter flown by Douglas Bell and George Williams of 78 Squadron. On 28 September, 25 Gothas and two Riesenflugzeuge took off but most turned back due to adverse weather. Three people were wounded and £129 damage was caused, for the cost of three Gothas lost and six damaged on landing. The following night seven Gothas and three Riesenflugzeuge took off, killing 40 and injuring 87 for the loss of one aircraft. By this time the population of London was thoroughly alarmed, with up to 300,000 people seeking shelter in Underground stations and others leaving London to sleep in whatever accommodation was available, some in fields. On 30 September, 11 Gothas set off to raid London and on 1 October 18 took off, eleven reaching England. Over 14,000 rounds were fired by British anti-aircraft guns without scoring a hit. By now shells were in short supply and many of the guns had fired so many rounds that their barrels were worn out. The Government reallocated new 3 inch (76.2 mm) guns from arming merchant ships against submarines, to the defence of London. The barrage was also proving hazardous to those on the ground, in that week eight people had been killed and another 67 injured by falling fragments.
The RNAS and RFC carried out bombing raids on German bomber airfields at St. Denis-Westrem and Gontrode, forcing the squadrons to relocate to Mariakerke and Oostakker, with the staff headquarters moving to Ghent. The next raid against England was carried out on 29 October, when three aircraft set out, two diverting to Calais because of the weather and the third dropping its bombs on the Essex coast. The following night a big raid was mounted, the bomb load including large numbers of a newly developed 4.5 kg (10 lb) incendiary bomb. 22 Gothas took off, of which over half released their bombs over Kent, with little effect other than the destruction of a gasometer in Ramsgate. Bombs were dropped on the eastern suburbs of London but many of the incendiaries failed to ignite and five aircraft crashed when attempting to land.
Poor weather prevented raids in November and the Gotha crews occupied themselves with training flights. To lessen the chance of a raid meeting adverse weather, in December the Germans began to send out a radio-equipped Rumpler C.IV to make weather observations off the English coast. The weather cleared on 5 December, when 19 Gothas and two Riesenflugzeuge attacked in waves. Casualties were light but over £100,000 of damage was caused, mostly in London. Two Gothas were brought down by anti-aircraft fire and one with an engine disabled, attempted a landing at Rochford aerodrome, struck a tree on approach and crashed. The second aircraft came down near Canterbury and in both cases all the crew survived but a third aircraft and crew was reported missing.
On 28 January 13 Gothas and two Giants set off, six of the Gothas turning back because of poor visibility. Over a hundred defensive sorties were flown, resulting in one Gotha being shot down after being attacked by two Sopwith Camels from the 40 Squadron RFC, flown by Second Lieutenants Charles Banks and George Hackwill, the first victory for night fighters against a heavier-than-air bomber over Britain; both pilots were awarded the DFC. On the ground, 67 people were killed and 166 injured: the casualties included 14 dead and 14 injured in stampedes, when people queuing for admission to shelters were alarmed by maroons set off as a warning that a raid was expected; another 11 were injured by shrapnel from anti-aircraft fire. Many of the other casualties were caused by a 300 kg (660 lb) bomb, which fell on the Odhams printing works in Long Acre, which was being used as a shelter.
The following night, the first raid undertaken by Giants unaccompanied by Gothas took place. Four aircraft from Rfa 501 took off, one turning back before reaching England and casualties and damage were light. Eighty defensive sorties were flown and one Giant was attacked by five aircraft, one attack succeeding in disabling an engine. British fighter pilots' efforts against the Giants were handicapped by poor intelligence work, although the existence of these aircraft was known, the information had not been passed on, and many pilots may have underestimated the range from which they were firing.
Rfa 501 attacked by itself again on 16 February, four aircraft reached England, one carrying a 1,000 kg (2,200 lb) bomb which, aimed at Victoria station, fell half a mile away on the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. An aircraft attacked the following night, hitting St. Pancras station; 21 people were killed and 32 injured. Another Giant raid took place on 7 March: five aircraft reached England, one carrying another 1,000 kg (2,200 lb) bomb, which fell on Warrington Crescent near Paddington station: among the dead was Lena Ford, who had written the lyrics of the popular wartime song Keep the Home Fires Burning.
On 12 March, five Zeppelins attempted a raid on the Midlands: headwinds caused them to mistake their position and two dropped their bombs in the sea, the rest bombing the Hull area with little effect, their commanders thinking that they were over Leeds. Another raid was attempted the following night but only one of the three airships reached England, bombing Hartlepool. The bombs killed eight people and an RFC pilot was killed when he flew into Pontop Pike near Dipton, County Durham. A third airship raid took place on 12 April: again the altitude and weather caused navigational problems and although attacks were claimed on a number of towns in the Midlands, most of the bombs fell in open countryside. Seven people were killed, 20 injured and £11,673 damage was caused.
By the middle of March, the Gotha squadron was once again ready to attack England but had to support the Spring Offensive which started on 21 March, being used to bomb Calais, Dunkirk, Boulogne and troop concentrations and railways. On 9 May, Rfa 501 suffered a catastrophic blow when four aircraft attempted to bomb Dover. High winds caused them to be recalled when over the Channel, by which time fog had covered their base. One aircraft landed safely, the crew of a second survived a crash in which the aircraft was damaged beyond repair and the remaining two crashed with the loss of all but one member of each crew.
The last and largest aeroplane raid of the war took place on the night of 19 May 1918, when 38 Gothas and 3 Giants took off against London. Six Gothas were shot down by interceptors and anti-aircraft fire and a seventh aircraft was forced to land after a protracted close quarters engagement with a Bristol fighter of 141 Squadron from Biggin Hill, crewed by Lieutenants Edward Eric Turner and Henry Balfour Barwise. This was the first victory of the war for Biggin Hill, for which Turner and Barwise were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The British estimated that 1,200 kg (2,700 lb) of bombs were dropped, although the German figure was 1,500 kilograms (3,200 lb). 49 people were killed, 177 injured and damage was £117,317.
After this raid, both Kagohl 3 and Rfa 501 were principally used for army support. The development of the 1 kg (2.2 lb) B-1E "Elektron" incendiary bomb, led to a project, Der Feuerplan (The Fire Plan), which involved the use of the whole German heavy bomber fleet, flying in waves over London and Paris and dropping all the incendiaries that they could carry, until they were either all shot down or the crews were too exhausted to fly. The hope was that the two capitals would be destroyed in an inextinguishable blaze, causing the Allies to sue for peace. Thousands of Elektron bombs were delivered to forward bomber bases and the operation was scheduled for August and again in early September 1918 but on both occasions, the order to take off was countermanded at the last moment, perhaps because of the fear of Allied reprisals.
The last Zeppelin raid on Britain took place on 5 August 1918, when four Zeppelins bombed targets in the Midlands and the North of England. The airships reached the British coast before dark and were sighted by the Leman Tail lightship 48 km (30 mi) north-east of Happisburgh at 20:10, although defending aircraft were not alerted until 20:50. Despite thick cloud two aircraft intercepted the recently commissioned L 70, which was carrying Peter Strasser, Führer der Luftschiffe of the German Imperial Navy, as an observer. The Zeppelin was shot down in flames with no survivors. Egbert Cadbury and Robert Leckie flying a DH.4 were credited with the victory. The remaining airships dropped their bombs blind, relying on radio bearings for navigational information and none fell on land. An attempt was made to salvage the wreckage of L 70 and most of the structure was brought ashore, providing the British a great deal of technical information. The bodies of the crew members were buried at sea.
- For unknown reasons, when the SL 11 became the first German airship to be shot down over England, it was described officially and in the press as Zeppelin L 21 (LZ 61's tactical number). This mis-identification persisted for decades, even though it is clear that the authorities were always aware of SL 11's correct identity. It has been suggested by Ray Rimell that the reason for this confusion was a calculation by the authorities that the downing of a hated and feared Zeppelin "baby killer"' would play better with the public than the destruction of an almost unknown Schütte-Lanz type.
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In popular culture
- The first Gotha air raid on Folkestone on 25 May 1917 was dramatised in a BBC Radio play titled "A Lightening" by Sarah Daniels that used real historical figures and testimony mixed with the stories and characters of the BBC radio series Home Front