Gothas Over London
An original painting by Marii Chernev
On the night of 19 May 1918, the Gothas returned to England for the last and largest raid of the war. Under the command of Hauptmann Ernst Brandenburg, Bogohl 3 sent 38 Gotha IV bombers in a night raid against London but suffered heavy losses. Six Gothas were shot down by interceptors and anti-aircraft fire and a seventh aircraft was lost in a landing accident.”

It seemed obvious that searchlights must play a central role. They were the only way easily to point out the enemy to both AA guns and night fighters. Small fighting scouts could not carry the clumsy radio sets of 1917, and even if one was told ‘Enemy over Harrow’ by a radio message no night fighter could find that particular suburb by night, nor would he know the enemy’s altitude or heading. Morse messages by ground beacons were studied, but were even less useful. But if bombers could be tracked by several searchlights the confluence of their beams would give geographical position and altitude. By the third week in September a London Defence Area operations room had been set up, overlooking Horse Guards Parade, with a huge table covered with a map showing south-east England from Portsmouth to Harwich. On it were placed large counters, representing hostile aircraft, pushed along by girls with croupier-style rakes, to positions determined by messages passed to the centre by telephone from a network of ground observers. The whole area was marked out into a grid, with numbered and lettered squares. It was a fine system, wholly Ashmore’s creation, and one that was destined to play the central role in a more crucial battle over the same territory twenty-three years later. But in 1917 it lacked the essential input of quantified data.

Many people in various uniforms could telephone in reports of where bombers seemed to be. The only input that made any pretence at accuracy was a succession of bearings passed by listening posts. Sound seemed to be the only way of establishing the direction of night bombers. Humans have two ears, and binaural listening was once (and still is, among primitive peoples) vital to the accurate hunting of game. Today the most accurate binaural hearing is possessed by people who have lost their other distantly stimulated sense, sight. Blind people had top priority in south-east England in September 1917, and soon they were able to give a fairly accurate bearing on a Gotha at a range of up to five miles. Several such bearings from different sites gave a very helpful fix. At the same time, there was basic inaccuracy in the system. Fixes could be passed only by giving the designation of the lettered and numbered square. Searchlights and guns concentrated all their attention upon this square; but this was by no means the same as concentrating upon the bomber. Gradually, as the listening-post bearing changed, the controller eventually switched to an adjacent square. The problem of a bomber at the junction of four squares can be left to the imagination!

Then came a new bomber. On 28 September 1917 two of the nocturnal visitors were not Gothas but the first of the R-class (Riesenflugzeug, or Giant aircraft) to visit England. There were several makes of Giant, but the chief family came from the Zeppelin Werke at Staaken, and these first two were Zeppelin R IVs. Though not as big as later R-types the IV was formidable enough. Powered by four 220 hp Benz engines, it carried almost 2,000 kg (4,410 lb) of bombs, several times the load of a Gotha; and it was protected by seven machine-guns. Moreover, the noise of a Giant was quite unlike that of a Gotha, and the new intruder threw the listening posts into confusion. September was not a good month for the British night fighters. Indeed, the only way to hit the German bombers seemed to be to attack them at their airfields, and this was done to good effect in October, until the surviving Gothas and Giants were dispersed. (In modern jargon this would be called a ‘counter-air strike’, and in most scenarios it is still widely held to be the best way of blunting the edge of enemy offensive air power.)

But bombing German airfields in Belgium did not provide much of an answer to the long-suffering Britons who were being bombed almost nightly. In frustration they cried out for reprisals against German cities, and burned an effigy of the outspoken Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (father of the present peer), who urged the government to ‘come clean’ and tell the public that no effective defence against night bombers existed. Then, suddenly, there was a glimmer of light in the darkness. In fact, for the man who did it, the light was altogether too much. It was none other than Murlis-Green, and on 18 December 1917, by sheer luck, he found himself virtually in formation with a Gotha. Instinctively pulling in behind it, he opened up with his two Vickers guns. Their sudden bright flash completely blinded him for several seconds. During the next few minutes he tried, in effect, to sight on the Gotha and then fire while looking the other way. He saw his quarry drop a bomb, and he was able to follow its attempts to escape; but as soon as he fired he completely lost his ‘night adaptation’, the enlargement of the pupils that occurs gradually in subdued light, and which is vital to a night-fighter pilot. Suddenly the Gotha had gone, and Murlis-Green never found it again. Not until next day did he learn it had force-landed in the sea off Folkestone, trying to regain the British coast with both engines dead, and that the crew had been made prisoner. The night fighters had begun to score against bombers at last!

Immediately the Home Defence Camels were hastily modified to fit them better for night flying. The twin Vickers were replaced by two Lewis guns on a Foster adjustable mounting above the upper wing. Unfortunately this demanded a rearwards shift of the cockpit, which not only greatly lengthened the delay in getting the Camel NF into service (it retained its original designation of F.1) but also worsened the forward view, which in night landings was a matter of the greatest importance. Eventually, by the end of the year, NF Camels were ready for combat. Able to climb at over 1,000 feet per minute, they could easily outrun any German bomber and fire long bursts without significantly affecting the pilot’s vision.

Nor were these the only really effective night fighters. The equally good S.E.5a, faster than the Camel and much more relaxing to fly, was overcoming the unreliability of its original French engine and serving in several Home Defence squadrons. So too was the superb Bristol F.2B Fighter, as fast and manoeuvrable as any other combat aircraft despite having a crew of two. In night-fighter use aircraft began to appear in a new livery of dark olive green, and bearing a new night-flying roundel of plain red and blue, with no intermediate white ring. Guns were fitted with flash eliminators on their muzzles. As Murlis-Green discovered the hard way, on a dark night muzzle flash could cause temporary near-blindness. The incandescent source could be rapidly cooled by adding an expanding cone to the gun’s muzzle. Attention was paid to damping the flames from exhausts, and a new night gunsight was introduced with an illuminated ring just filled by a Gotha’s wings at a range of 100 feet. Dim cockpit lighting was introduced, and such unheard-of luxuries as a parachute, oxygen and a compact radio set were soon to be added.

London enjoyed a respite from bombing during the first weeks of 1918, but simply because it was blanketed under dense fog! Then on 28 January there were big headlines, in both Britain and Germany. The Germans read stirring accounts of the mission of a single Giant, which emphasized how difficult it was, with the existing defences, to bring one of these aircraft down. Though to modern eyes they looked huge, ungainly and frail – and indeed they could not safely be left on the airfield in a strong wind – the Giants were in fact reliable and strong. Their crews, numbering up to thirteen men, wore electrically heated suits and sometimes parachutes; some had enclosed cabins and an oxygen supply, and they communicated via a pneumatic message-tube system. Radio provided communications with the home base and with special navigation centres, while the number of cockpit instruments was not the four to seven then usual in combat aircraft but an unprecedented thirty-one, including a gyro-horizon to provide an attitude reference at night or in cloud. They were also prickly customers, with single or twin Parabellum machine-guns in the nose and above and below at the rear; some versions had gunners in wing nacelles or above the upper wing. In all respects they were worthy foes, and when manned by a brave and experienced crew could prove seemingly invincible – though of course, as in all air combat, a lot depended on luck.

On 28/29 January 1918 luck certainly favoured the most experienced crew of all, that of Hauptmann von Bentivegni, CO of Riesenflugzeugabteilung 501 (Giant Aircraft Unit 501). Flying an R VI, number R39, they thundered across Essex carrying a bomb load of 2,420 lb, included in which were two 660-pounders. Suddenly a night fighter appeared, and opened fire; von Bentivegni flung his vast machine into a tight diving turn and they never saw the fighter again. A little later they were attacked by a Bristol Fighter of 141 Squadron. By rights the fighter ought to have shot them down; instead the withering fire from the Giant was so accurate that the Bristol soon had to break off and glide down to a forced landing, with a wounded observer and bullets through the fuel tank and engine. R39 thundered on, skilfully breaking free from one searchlight beam after another until it was over central London. After making its bombing run it was again intercepted, but this time the fighter’s guns jammed. Over Chingford the Giant ran right into the cable of one of London’s many barrage balloons, yet contrived to slide clear without major structural damage. From there on its flight home was uneventful. And one of its 660-lb bombs did more damage than any other dropped in the First World War. Falling on the great Odhams printing works in Long Acre, it exploded inside the building. The huge presses crashed down to the basement, where over 500 were sheltering. The blast, the presses and fire killed thirty-eight, and seriously injured eighty-five.

And what was the good news for the patient British? Simply that, at long last, the defending fighters had managed to shoot down a bomber in flames over England. It was an unfortunate Gotha that got in the way of Lieutenant Banks – one of the bold trio who had proved that a Camel could be flown at night – and a fellow member of 44 Squadron, Captain Hackwill. With their Foster-mounted Lewises they could aim and fire without being blinded, and in a very short time the crippled raider was spiralling down, burning fiercely, to crash near Wickford.

Carefully directed, the German bomber arms, Kagohl 3 with its strong force of Gothas and Rfa 501 with its handful of Giants, might have held the initiative until near the end of the war. But it was not to be. Impetuous von Bentivegni, openly seeking the coveted Pour le Mérite (the ‘Blue Max’), ignored his weather officer’s dire Forecast on 9 May 1918 and sent four Giants against England. R39 got back in one piece, through either the sixth sense of pilot von Lenz or else pure luck, because the airfield was completely covered by fog. The other three did not make it, and crew casualties were severe. There was only one further major raid on England, and it was the biggest of all. On 19/20 May 1918 no fewer than forty Gothas and three surviving Giants were readied, and all but two of the Gothas set out. It was a mistake, spurred on by the great German offensive on the Western Front, and a wish to mount a ‘maximum effort’ attack on England. In the half-light of near-summer the unprecedented number of bombers provided clear targets; three were shot down by the guns and three more by night fighters, one of the successful pilots being the third of the pioneer night Camel-drivers, Captain Brand.

Had such heavy attacks continued there is little doubt the German losses would soon have become unacceptable. Though thirty-eight Gothas had taken off on 19 May, only nineteen penetrated near London and only thirteen to the city itself, and yet six were shot down. After so many months of frustration the Home Defence squadrons of what had, on 1 April, become the Royal Air Force (largely because of public outcry over the divided managment of British air defence) were at last confident of destroying at least some of the enemy. Though there was still no proper system, and the whole creaking edifice rested on chance encounters or the lucky aiming of the searchlight crews, the whole added up to significant deterrence. It was especially noteworthy how great was the contribution, on both sides of the bomber-vs.-fighter battle, of a handful of individuals of skill and experience. Men such as Murlis-Green, Banks and Brand appeared in dispatches again and again. They had begun to learn a new and challenging trade, while others lost their lives merely trying to survive in the night air. In the hardest of all schools, the Home Defence squadrons had become the world’s first defence against aerial attack by night. No other country created such a force; nor did Britain after 20 May 1918, because the German bombers were tied down in the great land battle until, in August, the High Command in Berlin decided ‘on military and political grounds’ to abandon attacks on London and Paris. Had they not done so there is little doubt the RAF night fighters would soon have stopped such attacks by making them demonstrably not worth while.

Immediately before this decision was announced, the Zeppelins of the Imperial Navy had one last fling. On 5/6 August, possibly having come to the conclusion that sudden death might be no worse than prolonged inactivity in a defeated Germany, Peter Strasser, the great pioneer who had formed and commanded the Navy Airship Division, climbed aboard one of his biggest and newest ‘super-Zeppelins’ (the great L70), boasting that it would be immune to Britain’s guns and fighters. He set course with four other monsters, his head filled with plans for a proposed three-ship bombing raid on New York – which in theory would have been within his force’s capabilities. Intending to cross the English coast at 21,000 feet, L70 instead made landfall at not much above 16,000 feet, and this proved fatal. By 1918 some RAF aircraft could climb much higher than this, and none more easily than the D.H.4, which – like its descendant, the Mosquito of the Second World War – had been designed as a bomber faster than contemporary single-seat fighters. A D.H.4 from RAF Great Yarmouth – the very town that had been attacked in the first airship raid on Britain – droned lustily towards L70 in the sure hands of Major Egbert Cadbury, with Captain R. Leckie manning the rear Lewis with Pomeroy ammunition. They closed with L70 and shot her into the sea in flames. Indeed, they almost shot down L65 as well, but Cadbury’s Vickers jammed at the crucial moment and Leckie was out of ammunition, and the frightened crew of L65 were able to put out the fire the D.H.4 had started.

Five days later, on 11 August, Lieutenant D.S. Culley climbed into his naval Camel 2F.1 as it stood lashed to a lighter towed at full speed behind the destroyer HMS Redoubt. Released, he climbed towards L53 far out in the North Sea and shot it down from 19,000 feet. It was the last of twenty-nine German airships to be destroyed in the First World War, along with sixty-two Gothas shot down, crashed or missing. It brought to a fiery close the first aerial bombardment campaign in history, in which men had courageously gone out night after night and faced exhaustion, anoxia, tortured eardrums, nose-bleeds, frostbite and death by bullet, fire or impact with the ground. The night fighter could hardly have been born in a tougher environment.

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