Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 277th installment in the series.
May 25, 1917: German Planes Bomb Britain
Spring 1917 brought a new kind of scourge to the skies of Britain, in the form of German heavy long-range bombers – representing an escalation of the strategic bombing campaign as fast, nimble planes replaced the slow, awkward zeppelins that loomed over London and other English towns in earlier raids. Long-range bomber raids would be a regular (but unpredictable) feature of life in all the belligerent nations for the remainder of the conflict, giving civilian populations a taste of war’s terror, often hundreds of miles from the front.
The move to long-range bombers was prompted by the growing vulnerability of Germany’s zeppelin airships to a new generation of faster British fighter planes armed with incendiary ammunition. The latter included a new “tracer bullet,” the .303 SPG Mark VIIG, which emitted a regular bright green-white trail and was capable of igniting hydrogen in the zeppelins’ gasbags, resulting in spectacular explosions of the sort later familiar to the whole world from the Hindenburg disaster.
On September 2, 1916, Lieutenant William Leefe-Robinson shot down a zeppelin using incendiary ammunition for the first time, and five more zeppelins were brought down in the following months. One British pilot, Lieutenant W.J. Tempest, left this dramatic account of a successful interception on October 1, 1916:
I decided to dive at her… firing a burst straight into her as I came. I let her have another burst as I passed under her and then banked my machine over, sat under her tail and flying along underneath her pumped lead into her for all I was worth… As I was firing, I noticed her begin to go red inside like an enormous Chinese lantern. She shot up about 200 feet, paused, and came roaring down straight on to me before I had time get out of the way. I nose-dived for all I was worth, with the Zeppelin tearing after me… I put my machine into a spin and just managed to corkscrew out of the way as she shot past me, roaring like a furnace…
Another eyewitness, a British civilian named Michael MacDonagh, described seeing the same event from the ground:
Looking up the clear run of New Bridge Street and Farringdon Road I saw high in the sky a concentrated blaze of searchlights, and in its centre a ruddy glow which rapidly spread into the outline of a blazing airship. Then the searchlights were turned off and the Zeppelin drifted perpendicularly in the darkened sky, a gigantic pyramid of flames, red and orange, like a ruined star falling slowly to earth. Its glare lit up the streets and gave a ruddy tint even to the waters of the Thames. The spectacle lasted two or three minutes… When at last the doomed airship vanished from sight there arose a shout the like of which I never heard in London before – a hoarse shout of mingled execration, triumph and joy…
Their huge size and low speed and maneuverability meant zeppelins were sitting ducks from now on, a fact underlined by the loss of the zeppelin L-22 off Yarmouth on May 14, 1917. Clearly the German military would have to turn to new weapons in its effort to bring the war home to British civilians (motivated in large part by the German public’s demand for retaliation against the Allied “starvation blockade”). The obvious choice was long-range heavy bombers, specifically the Gotha G.IV, first introduced in 1916 (top, below).
The G.IV was a formidable aircraft: 40 feet long, with a wingspan of 78 feet, it carried a crew of three and was powered by two 260-horsepower Mercedes engines, giving it a top speed of 84 miles per hour and a maximum altitude of 16,400 feet. Its maximum takeoff weight of 8,763 pounds included a bomb payload of 1,100 pounds, in the form of up to ten bombs released directly from the underside of the plane (as opposed to a bomb bay). The plane also carried three machine guns, facing fore and aft, for defense against enemy fighters. With a maximum flight time of six hours and a maximum range of 373 miles, the Gotha G.IV could easily hit London and its suburbs, as well as other targets on the British coast and interior, from bases in Belgium and northern France.
On May 25, 1917, 21 Gotha G.IV bombers attacked London and other targets in southeast England, killing scores and highlighting the island nation’s vulnerability to the fast new raiders. After a mostly unsuccessful attack on London, the bombers struck the seaside town of Folkestone to offload their bombs before returning across the English Channel, inflicting numerous casualties, including 81 dead and over 100 injured in Folkestone, plus another 14 dead elsewhere. The total of 95 dead included 18 servicemen killed at the nearby Shorncliffe Camp, of which 16 were Canadian troops.
Jenkins Burris, an American correspondent and YMCA lecturer, happened to be in Folkestone during the German bomber raid, remembering:
When I rushed out of our house by the seaside I found crowds gazing upward in the direction of the sun. I could see nothing for the glare, neither apparently could the others. Suddenly two little girls cried: “There they are!” Then I saw them, two airplanes, not Zeppelins, emerging from the disc of the sun almost overhead. Then four more, or five, in a line; and others, all like bright silver insects hovering against the blue of the sky. The heavens seemed full of them. There were about a score in all and we were charmed with the beauty of the sight. I am sure few of us thought seriously of danger. Then the air was split by the whistle and rush of the first bomb, which sounds like the shrill siren of a police car. This was followed at once by a detonation that shook the earth.
With a jolt, the crowd suddenly realized that their town was under attack, but the German planes were already fleeing:
I glanced in the direction of the shell-burst, 100 yards away, and the debris was still going up like a column of smoke. Then came two more strokes, apparently in the same spot. Then three other bombs fell. I afterwards found the missiles wrecked the Osmond hotel and wounded our motor driver. Then another bomb demolished the manor house by the sea… Other shots fell, but I could count no further. They came thick and fast, like crackling, rolling blasts of our western lightning and thunder… Anti-aircraft shells were now bursting on the fringes of the air fleet. Then followed in the distance the purr of the machine guns and we knew that our own planes were up in pursuit.
As expected, these fast bombers were often able to elude fighter planes trying to intercept them (a task made even harder by the lack of warning when bombers were approaching, in an age before radar). James T.B. McCudden, a British ace, described a failed attempt to intercept German Gothas returning from a bombing raid in June 1917:
In a minute my machine was ready, and I took off in an easterly direction, towards the south of the Thames… I now found that there were over twenty machines, all with two-“pusher” engines. To my dismay I found I could not lessen the range to any appreciable extent. By the time I had got to 500 ft. under the rear machine we were twenty miles east of the Essex coast, and visions of a very long swim entered my mind, so I decided to fire all my ammunition and then depart… How insolent these damned Boches did look, absolutely lording the sky over England!
While the fighter pilots of Britain’s Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service might not be able to stop the enemy bomber raids, their comrades in Britain’s new strategic bombing division could at least repay them in kind, leading to escalating “tit-for-tat” raids foreshadowing the horrors of large-scale strategic bombing in the Second World War.
The British champion in the bombing contest was the Handley Page Type “O”, a huge biplane, which was first introduced in 1916 and began long-range bombing raids in March 1917 (above, below). Measuring 63 feet long, with a wingspan of 100 feet, the behemoth had a crew of four or five men and was powered by two Rolls Royce 360-horsepower engines, giving it a top speed of 97.5 miles per hour and a maximum takeoff weight of 13,360 pounds, including a 2,000-pound bomb payload held in a bomb bay. The Handley Page had a maximum flying time of eight hours, a maximum range of 700 miles, and was protected by five Lewis machine guns.
Paul Bewsher, a British bombardier who participated in long-distance raids by Handley-Page bombers based in northern France, recalled his first mission in the spring of 1917, a nighttime attack targeting a blast furnace outside the German city of Metz:
Below me now I could see incessant shell-bursts, vicious and brilliant red spurts of flame. I put my head out of the hole for a moment into the biting wind, and looked down, and saw that the whole night was beflowered with these sudden sparks of fire, which appeared suddenly like bubbles breaking to the surface of a pond. The Germans were firing a fierce barrage from a great number of guns… I was very excited as I lay face downwards in my heavy flying-clothes on the floor, with my right hand on the bomb-handle in that little quivering room whose canvas walls were every now and then lit up by the flash of a nearer shell… The engines thundered. The floor vibrated. Below the faint glow of the bomb-sights the sweep of country seemed even darker in contrast with the swift flickering of the barrage, and here and there I could see the long beam of a searchlight moving to and fro.
Bewsher’s account is testimony to the primitive state of technology employed in the strategic bombers at the time, as at the climax of the attack he is forced to resort to an age-old mechanical trick – kicking the offending machinery, in this case a bomb: “Then I pressed over my lever, and heard a clatter behind… I looked back and saw by the light of my torch that one bomb was still in the machine… I put my foot on the top if it and stood up. It slipped suddenly through the bottom and disappeared.”
Bewsher also noted that the reality of war could include instances of surreal beauty, in this case the spectacle created by German anti-aircraft searchlights and flares:
The dim country is slashed and cut across by these almost dazzling beams which wheel and hesitate and cross each other in gigantic patterns… A few second after the appearance of this company of searchlights there rise from three or four points in the neighbourhood of the docks long chains of vivid green balls, which cast an unearthly gleam upon the water of the basins… They bend over slowly in the upper sky, and one by one fade away to red sparks dropping swiftly.
As time went on many participants noted the emotional detachment of pilots in planes regarding their victims on the ground, the inevitable result of the physical distance between them, which left those on the ground looking like “ants” to the godlike pilots, if they were visible at all. Bewsher described the strange absence of feeling experienced by some bomber pilots, yet another instance of dehumanization resulting from modern warfare:
If at any time I had been sent at night to attack a British town I would have released my bombs with no feeling of horror; indeed I would not have had any feelings at all. At first sight that statement sounds brutal and incredible… The explanation is that the airman dropping bombs does not drop them on human beings… It is merely a scientific operation. You never feel that there are human beings, soft creatures of flesh and blood, below you. You are not conscious of the fear and misery, of the pain and death, you may be causing. You are entirely aloof.