Zeppelin caught in searchlights.

History has not recorded the name of the first pilot to fly at night. He was probably a Frenchman, and the year was almost certainly 1909. Several aeroplane flights had been made more or less in the dark by the time both competitors in the race from London to Manchester, Claude Grahame-White and the winner Louis Paulhan, kept going into the night of 27/28 April 1910. Grahame-White boldly made a take-off in the pitch blackness at 2.50 a.m., but this race took place along the main line of the London & North Western Railway, with its succession of red or green signals. The event was well publicized and had attracted thousands of lighted houses, lighted cars and even bonfires. It did not by any means signify that pilots could henceforth fly from one place to another in darkness.

Probably the most fundamental of all the things a pilot needs to know is which way is up. It is dangerous, and potentially lethal, to rely on ‘seat of the pants’ sensations. An aeroplane can move in any direction, and in doing so can impart every conceivable kind of push, pull or rotary motion to the strapped-in pilot. This is no problem in what is called VMC (visual meteorological conditions), because the pilot can see the ground. But the modern VMC pilot is forbidden to fly near clouds or at night. Put him in the centre of a large cloud, or in the sky on a cloudy, moonless night, and he may soon cease to know which way is up. He can fatally easily enter a gentle diving turn, which can become ever tighter and steeper, while feeling through his ‘seat of the pants’ as if he was maintaining straight and level flight. Of course, if he was in a modern aircraft and had been trained in instrument flying he would know better. But in the earliest days of flying there were no instruments. Everything had to be learned the hard way.

Several of the pioneer aviators did learn, and the fact that the way was often not hard masked the true peril of the learning. Even more lethal than a clear night to the early pilot was dense fog. Sensible aviators stayed on the ground in a thin mist, but young Geoffrey de Havilland once made a complete flight in quite thick fog – saying long afterwards, ‘In those days we didn’t realise how dangerous it was’. Several of the early aviators at Brooklands and Hendon often flew by night when the weather was fine, and the same was true at Issy, Pau and other fields in France. It was recognized, however, that the landing was made more difficult, because there was no airfield lighting, and little to give the approaching pilot accurate information on his position and height above the field. Some pioneers remarked on the fact that the clear horizon, visible all round on a fine night, tended to vanish as altitude was lost. Only very few killed themselves; far more died because of loss of control in broad daylight.

In parallel with the select band of sporting pilots there grew up a new species of pilot who served his country in military uniform. Some flew for fun at their own expense, but from the mid-nineteenth century there had been officially appointed military balloonists, and from 1908 military aeroplane pilots. In 1910 the first aeroplanes appeared with guns. A French Voisin biplane – the sort of flying machine immediately pictured by the expressive phrase ‘stick and string’ – was burdened by a monstrous 37 mm (1.46 in) cannon; fortunately nobody dared to fire it. In August 1910 a Springfield rifle was fired, many times, from an American Curtiss pusher; but when young Major Robert Brooke-Popham, of the Air Battalion, Royal Engineers, fitted a Lee-Enfield to his Blériot in 1911 he was promptly ordered to remove it. In 1912 Colonel Isaac N. Lewis fitted one of his promising new air-cooled, drum-fed machine-guns to a Wright biplane of the US Army; his demonstrations were received with such complete lack of interest that he packed up and went to Belgium, there to set up a gun factory at Liège that not only kept the Allies supplied with Lewis guns in the coming war but also established Belgium as a leader in the international arms business. In British service the Lewis was standard rifle calibre, of 0.303 in (7.7 mm).

British pilots were discouraged from showing any interest in either aerial armament or flying after dark. Indeed, night flying as such was expressly forbidden in the Standing Orders of the Royal Flying Corps when it was formed in April 1912. The whole purpose of the flying machine – if it had any purpose at all – was obviously that it could provide a useful elevated position for battlefield reconnaissance, as had already been proved with balloons and kites. The first RFC pilots spent their first year, mostly on Salisbury Plain, learning not only how to reconnoitre, and to ‘spot’ for artillery, but also how to communicate with ground forces. A few, including Brooke-Popham, flouted authority and practised firing rifles in the air, a task which for several seconds at a time meant that the pilot had no free hand to hold the control column. Others daringly persisted in flying at night. This was especially the case with the bold spirits of No. 3 Squadron, which Brooke-Popham now commanded.

In April 1913 Lieutenant Cholmondeley of 3 Squadron flew on a moonlit night from Larkhill to Upavon and back, making a good landing. He and other pilots later flew ‘circuits and bumps’ by the light from the open hangar doors, until in June 1913 Lieutenant Carmichael asked Brooke-Popham whether he might experiment with a row of petrol flares laid across the landing ground. Carmichael thereupon supervised the first airfield lighting, pioneering the flare-path that was to serve military flyers until after the Second World War. He also got his B.E.2 fitted with a battery-fed lamp that shone upon his cockpit instruments. Though rudimentary, and accomplished without any considered discussion or design process, these advances were real enough. With proper direction they could have resulted in the RFC becoming the nucleus of a trained fighting force, able to give battle by day or night, by the time the First World War began on 4 August 1914. Unfortunately the direction from above was totally negative. The very notion of aerial combat was regarded as a pipedream. No combat aircraft were ordered or even considered in Britain, and when war came the RFC was still a puny force equipped with a few entirely unsuitable aircraft. Its sole mission was day reconnaissance for the land armies, and until many tragic mistakes had been made no RFC pilot’s report was even believed if it conflicted with what the Army had expected.

Hardly anybody in any of the warring nations gave much thought to war in the air, except for the growing airship services of the Imperial German Army and Navy. The Army airships were a mixture of Zeppelins, designated LZ, and wood-framed Schütte-Lanz ships, designated SL. Unfortunately for their crews the Army was obsessed with the belief that its airships would prove formidable tactical bombers over the land battlefields. The Navy, which concentrated entirely upon light-alloy-framed Zeppelins, designated L, thought in more strategic terms and intended to use its airships for ocean scouting and for bombing attacks on Britain. The British government did not have its head totally buried in the sand; it recognized that German airships might be sent to bomb Britain, and wondered what it could do about it. Only the Royal Naval Air Service had any immediate answer. On 8 October 1914 an RNAS Farman flew from Antwerp to Düsseldorf to bomb and destroy LZ 25 in its hangar (on 25 August 1914 this same ship had caused great alarm and 26 civilian casualties in Antwerp). On 21 November 1914 came an even more daring raid when three RNAS Avros flew 250 miles from Belfort to bomb the Zeppelin works at Friedrichshafen. Then the advancing German armies put the Zeppelin bases out of reach of Allied aircraft.

On the other hand, the German advance made it easier to raid Britain. Such raids seemed to begin very quickly. On 21 December 1914 a lone German seaplane droned over Dover soon after midday and dropped two bombs, which both fell in the sea. Three days later, on Christmas Eve, it came again and dropped a single bomb which fell on British soil, breaking windows near Dover Castle. On Christmas Day another seaplane slowly made its way high over the Thames estuary. A Vickers FB. 5 Gunbus tried desperately to reach it, and despite suffering a spluttering engine and jammed Lewis gun, succeeded in making the intruder drop his two bombs at Cliffe, Kent, rather than London. Perhaps the Germans were foolish thus to alert Britain to its state of complete nakedness to aerial attack. With unbelievable slowness the sluggish and reactionary politicians and staff officers set about thinking of a wholly new subject: air defence.

To be fair, the problem had been at least thought about in British government circles since 1912, but nothing tangible was done until the end of 1914. Then the first rudimentary steps were taken to defend London against possible aerial attack by setting up a system of lookout posts, three small guns (not, of course, designed for use in the previously unheard-of anti-aircraft role) and twelve searchlights. The idea of a blackout, by extinguishing or screening the lights of London, was discussed but considered to be too drastic. There seemed to be a lack of people who combined authority, leadership and the ability to think clearly. The possibility of aerial attack by both airships and aeroplanes had been self-evident for years. The fact that such attack did not begin at the very outset of the First World War should, perhaps, have been regarded as a blessing, giving the nation time in which to set up defences. The weeks stretched into months, but still nothing was done. Then came the unexpected seaplane visitations at Christmas, and the talking acquired a note of urgency. And then, on the night of 19 January 1915, northern East Anglia echoed to a distant throbbing of engines.

It was a dirty winter’s night, with snow squalls and rain. Those on the ground soon knew that above them were two Zeppelins, and there was absolutely nothing anyone could do to interfere with them. Inside the Zeppelins – L3 and L4 of the Imperial German Navy – it had been a long and tiring flight from their base at Fühlsbuttel. They had set out twelve hours earlier, in company with L6 from Nordholz. L6 had set course for London but been forced to turn back with engine trouble. In fact, all three ships, plus L5, had set out for England six days earlier, and all had been driven back by severe weather. On this occasion, however, L3 and L4 did succeed in reaching the British coast, and saw the occasional lights of towns and villages. Their target was Humberside, the great city of Kingston upon Hull; but neither airship could identify the ground beneath. Eventually each let go its bomb load on the best collection of lights it could see. Bomb aiming was still in its infancy, though the crews of naval Zeppelins had trained for several years and from 10,000 feet the best crews could usually get most bombs within about 650 feet (200 metres) of the aiming point. But on this occasion they could only see the ground at intervals and did not know for sure which country it was! L3’s nine bombs went down on Yarmouth, killing two people, injuring three and damaging sixty houses. L4’s load went down on King’s Lynn, though one bomb nearly hit the wireless station at Hunstanton, the casualties being two killed and thirteen injured. Bombing ordinary towns was then something totally new, and the Germans mollified their lingering feeling of guilt by claiming that King’s Lynn’s anti-aircraft (AA) guns had ‘opened hostilities’. In fact, no such guns existed.

As virtually the entire RFC was in France, the only aircraft available to defend Britain in January 1915 were those assigned to the task by the RNAS. Three such naval ‘fighters’ were in a condition of readiness at Great Yarmouth on 19 January, but it would have been futile to take off. There was no hope of reaching 10,000 feet within three-quarters of an hour, by which time the airships might be impossible to catch. And they would have been extremely lucky to get back on the ground again in one piece.

While the British public angrily argued over what those in authority ought to be doing, the Zeppelins came two or three times a week. Today it seems almost beyond belief that this could have happened. Early Zeppelins were 490 feet long, and they grew bigger as the months went by. They had a ceiling with full load of about 10,000 feet, though this also increased and eventually reached higher than 20,000 feet late in the war. At full throttle they could make about 50 mph, a speed that was later slightly improved upon; but in a stiff gale the speed over the ground might be barely walking pace. Each ship was a spidery network filled with inflammable hydrogen gas. One might be forgiven for thinking that, with a combination of such existing technology as the telephone, the searchlight and the gun, it might be possible to destroy every airship that dared poke its nose over the British coast. What actually happened was that nothing worried the raiding airships in the slightest, apart from the weather. (Admittedly it was a different story with the Army ships over the Western Front, which generally had very short lives indeed.)

With the RFC quite unable even to build up the required forces for the land battle, the entire burden of trying to shoot down Zeppelins fell on the RNAS. Urgent experiments were made with Lewis guns firing different kinds of ammunition, with darts, grenades and, in particular, with a crude but promising anti-Zeppelin bomb. This comprised a tube filled with petrol and fitted with a series of hooks and a fuse. The aeroplane pilot carried several clipped to the sides of the cockpit, and released them through a hole in the floor. As each fell, a lanyard triggered a mechanism in the fuse which both lit the petrol and released the spring-loaded hooks. The bomb was intended to hook on to the fabric of an airship, burn through and set fire to the gasbag inside.

During the spring of 1915 the bigger and more powerful P-class Zeppelins made their presence felt from Kent to Scotland. One of these, LZ38, was held in searchlight beams as she came in over Essex on the night of 17/18 May. RNAS Flight Sub-Lieutenant Mulock saw her – the first pilot of a night fighter ever to experience the sudden thrill of seeing his enemy – and urged his Avro 504 towards the illuminated monster, its willing Gnome engine at full throttle. He would have had no chance if he had had to take out much difference in altitude, but he was already at about the same height. Unbelievably, he realised he was going to get within firing range. Closing to about 2,000 feet distance he opened up with his Lewis. He could hardly miss. Then the gun jammed! LZ38 got away, and so did her sister LZ39, despite the latter being intercepted by no fewer than three RNAS pilots as she crossed the Belgian coast on her way back to her shed at Evère, Brussels.

One of the three unsuccessful fighters over Belgium was a Morane-Saulnier Type L, flown by Flight Sub-Lieutenant R.A.J. Warneford, which had simply been unable to climb fast enough. Warneford had been hoping, against all odds, to be able to encounter an airship when he was already at its altitude and carrying the flaming anti-Zepp bombs. On the night of 7/8 June 1915 he was detailed to bomb the sheds at Evère, and his Morane was carrying instead six 20 lb Hales-type high-explosive bombs. At about 3 a.m. on the 8th, as he was setting course for Brussels, he suddenly saw LZ37 homeward bound over Ostend. Climbing as hard as he could he managed to get above the monster and, taking careful aim, began to release his bombs. The last bomb caused the whole airship to explode. As the Zeppelin vanished inside a vast fireball, Warneford’s Morane was tossed upside down and went into a spin with the engine stopped. As the red-hot skeleton of LZ37 fell into the grounds of a convent near Ghent, Warneford was forced to land with a broken petrol pipe. He was able to effect a temporary repair before the arrival of German troops, and he took off again in the dark and reached his base. The first wholly successful night interception in history won Warneford the VC. Ten days later he crashed on take-off and was killed.

This victory, though over Belgium, did much to improve public morale in Britain, and improve the image of the frustrated night-fighter pilots. But literally hundreds of subsequent sorties resulted merely in extreme fatigue, sometimes in a distant sighting of a Zeppelin and, approximately as often, a crash either at the home airfield or in a totally unsuitable place for landing as a result of engine failure. Dozens of new airfields were hastily set up – not difficult, because all that was needed was a windsock, Besonneau canvas hangar and a few tents – and freshly trained pilots arrived to fly newly built aircraft. The trouble was, the sky seemed to be a very big place, and for a pilot of a defending fighter to intercept even as huge an enemy as an airship was pure luck. There was absolutely no system of interception whatever. Pilots took off with only the vaguest idea whether airships were about at all. There was no means of communicating with them once they were airborne, and they had to rely on what they could glean from searchlights or gunfire. Unlike the airship captains, they could not safely shut down their engines and listen for enemies.

On the other hand, the Kaiser’s Imperial Navy did enlist the new sceince of wireless communication, and went one vital step further. On 15 June 1915 L10 made the long trip from Nordholz to the Tyne. She bombed very accurately on an ideal target: blast furnaces and coke ovens all going flat out and visible for more than twenty miles, with surrounding factories and houses also brightly lit. The Zeppelin hardly needed the new radio navigation system that was used that night for the first time. Special receiver aerials and instruments in the airship picked up coded signals from Nordholz and from Borkum, the most westerly of the German offshore islands, so that when each signal strength was at a maximum the crew could work out their position by a rudimentary triangulation. Certainly one of the first, if not the first, airborne radio navaids in history, this simple form of the later DF (direction-finding) loop system at least ensured that never again would an airship intending to bomb Hull cruise aimlessly and finally bomb Yarmouth, 120 miles away.

At the same time, the German radio DF system was nothing like accurate enough for blind bombing. It could ensure that an airship arrived over a particular large city, but its accuracy was measured in kilometres rather than metres. On several subsequent raids, especially that on 9 August 1915, clouds and rain so interfered with visibility that the Zeppelins just let go their bombs at random. No airship dared penetrate hostile airspace by day, and in the short summer nights the timing had to be right if the lumbering ships were to retain cover of darkness throughout the dangerous part of the mission. It was at this time that the Naval Zeppelins introduced a bold observation technique. An observer was lowered in a streamlined car on a 2,700-ft cable carrying a telephone line. The intention was that the height difference should allow the observation car to dangle below the cloud base while the airship remained hidden; the isolated officer could also listen for the sound of night-fighter aircraft. He relied totally upon the cable; he had no parachute.

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