How German air raids during the First World War helped Britain refine techniques to combat aerial attacks during the Blitz.
‘The enemy dropped their final lot of bombs on Tontine Street… where crowds of women were doing their week-end shopping. I was told afterwards… that it resembled a battlefield – a gruesome mass of severed heads, arms and legs mixed with the wreckage of houses and broken windows.’ Sounds like the Blitz, but in fact this was the Kent seaside town of Folkestone on 25 May 1917 where Mrs Coxon recorded one of the most brutal air raids of the First World War. Over 50 bombs were dropped in the area around the harbour, where troops were being transported to France, and for ‘ten minutes or so death literally rained from the sky’, Arthur Crowhurst recalled. Although some books have attempted to record the civilian experience of aerial raids during this period, less is known about the men stationed on the Home Front in order to prevent them.
The first recorded air raid took place at Dover as early as Christmas Eve 1914 with no casualties. Before the war was over, around a 1000 civilian lives would be lost to enemy bombs, and for many servicemen fighting abroad, attacks on their families were unendurable. The war on the Home Front can be divided in two phases; the first, the era of the Zeppelin, from January 1915 to November 1916; the second from March 1917 to May 1918, when the daylight raids on the South and East of England were carried out with alarming ferocity by Germany’s elite Gotha squadrons. Throughout the war, pilots of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) were diverted from duties on other Fronts in order to repel these raids with varying degrees of success.
The Zeppelin was a huge bag of hydrogen in the shape of a cigar and as large as the Royal Navy’s famous Dreadnought. ‘The airship could be noisy or silent at will, motionless or swift-moving’ pilot L.E.O. Charlton explained, so ‘their monstrous bulk, ominously shaped and evil-looking, could obsess the mind and endow them with a fabulous power of destruction.’ A problem exacerbated by the poorly resourced home defence squadrons with ineffectual planes and few countermeasures. RNAS pilot Amyas Borton encountered one in May 1915 near Ramsgate (a raid that cost 2 lives) but ‘it thoroughly scared us off by shoving its nose skyward and going up to 10,000ft. leaving me… with difficulty reaching 7,500ft. Perhaps it is as well I couldn’t catch the thing as I don’t know what the devil I would have done with it.’
Luckily, the Zeppelin was too inexact to cause significant damage either to property, life or civilian morale, but there continued to be a feeling that the British air services should be doing more. By 1916 even the War Office conceded that ‘the present [intercept] stations do not form any definite line and allow of gaps through which hostile aircraft can penetrate.’ However, Zeppelin production was consuming men and materials which Germany desperately needed to fight the war elsewhere, and their dominance dwindled. But that wasn’t the end of the air raids and in 1917 Germany unleashed something far more deadly.
The first Gotha raid happened in March 1917. Confined to Kent, London and Essex by their size, they caused far more damage than their predecessor – the worst, in June, killed 158 people and injured 425. The Folkestone raid described above killed 77 civilians and 18 servicemen, with almost 200 people injured in just ten minutes. In spite of this renewed threat, men and machinery were still prioritised for the Western Front where a coordinated period of German attacks was tearing through the British squadrons. ‘The pilots who went up to fight the raiders had little to show for the gallantry… without the compensation of striking a blow at the enemy,’ former pilot H.A. Jones recalled after the war, ‘the overriding fact [being] that most of the aeroplanes sent up to fight the enemy were not good enough for the task.’
But there was a solution beginning to be developed, which would be vital in the Second World War – the London Air Defence Area (LADA). A number of observer stations were placed around the country to feed information to the control room in London, quickly relaying the location of enemy aircraft. Within 5 minutes local squadrons, searchlight operators and batteries in the vicinity were notified. Recognising the expertise of its pilots, the War Office was careful not to over-centralise decision-making, so it was ‘clearly understood that the Senior Flying Corps officer at each station is solely responsible for ordering machines into the air’ for ‘it is impossible for anyone except an officer on the spot to judge the local conditions.’ Partially as a result, only ten aeroplane raids occurred in 1918 with 168 casualties – almost 300 less than in 1917.
So much about First World War history concerns men far from home fighting to protect it. But many served in Britain and endured all the restrictions of the home front – rationing, darkened streets and their favourite drinking dens turned into YMCA canteens – as well as the expectation that they would protect civilian life. This meant their experience of war was very different; in some ways they were more immediately confronted with who and what they were fighting for and the consequences of losing. Yet, the long periods of activity followed by near futile attempts to intercept enemy raiders was far removed from the drive for technological improvement which characterised pilot life on the Western Front. How did they cope? As historians Cole and Cheeseman explained, despite ‘the seemingly endless disappointments, squadrons held to the belief that success would eventually come their way.’ In the LADA network, it finally did, and when the German raiders came again in 1940, Britain could call upon the techniques it developed during its first experience of air raids. ■
Maryam Philpott is the author of Air and Sea Power in World War I, and she currently works at the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Group, Imperial College London.
Image shows a Gotha GV crashed on the East Coast after being forced down by anti-aircraft fire at Little Wigborough, Essex.