From the day Belgium was invaded, the idea was that the German Army would simply occupy sufficient territory from which air raids with conventional machines could be made and, in anticipation, one Major Wilhelm Siegert was placed in command of a new force called Fliegerkorps der OHL, (OberstenHeersLeitung). Code named the Brieftauben Abteilung or ‘Carrier Pigeon Squadron’, it was supplied with thirty-six B-Type aeroplanes and divided into two Wings. Posted to the airfield at Ghistelles, a small village near Ostend in Belgium, it was, according to one of its officers, Major C C Neumann, composed of ‘the best and most experienced pilots from every branch of the Air Force’. To increase their mobility they were quartered in railway sleeping carriages and carried out their first raids on Dunkirk and other objectives behind the enemy Fourth Army Front. The onus was now on the Army to capture the requisite territory from which Siegert could operate.
The man charged with this task was General Erich Von Falkenhayn. In what was to become known as ‘The Race to the Sea’, he attempted to penetrate the Allied lines at Ypres on 14 October 1914, using the Fourth and Sixth Armies, but nine days later they were still being held at bay and, despite horrific casualties – the Germans alone suffering 130,000 – the offensive had petered out by 11 November resulting in stalemate. With both sides digging in for the winter, Siegert’s plans were looking forlorn. In the meantime the nascent squadron was employed in operations behind the enemy lines against Dunkirk, Furnes and La Panne, giving it plenty of practice whilst it anticipated being able to fulfil its actual role.
The spring of 1915 saw a reorganization of the force. The Fliegerkorps was divided into four units: the ‘Carrier Pigeon Squadron’ was transferred to Galicia to carry out operations against the Russians on the Eastern Front and a second squadron was formed at Metz near Nancy. Two reconnaissance Squadrons, A66 and A69, were also established. Neumann tells us:
Shortly after our Army broke through to Gotlitz, the Ostend Carrier Pigeon Squadron returned to the Western Front, having been equipped in the meantime with a newly designed 150 or 160hp C-Type machine in which the pilot sat in front with the observer behind. However, even with this type of aircraft it was not possible to attack England.
Their return to the west was timely, as the airships had by late 1915 proven not to be the war-winners it had been hoped they might be. Their eventual arrival also gave the airship mechanics a new use for their skills, serving as ground crew for the bombers. On 1 January 1916, the ‘Ostend Carrier Pigeon Squadron’ was given a somewhat more prestigious title in line with the greater kudos now attached to its intended role. It was henceforth known as No.1 Battle Squadron, or Kagohl 1, and divided into six flights. They were employed once more in a support role against enemy rear areas, and Neumann reports that these Fliegertruppes (Aviation Troops) were, …employed with excellent results in every undertaking of any importance and in various districts on the Western Front during 1916.
The prospect of capturing the necessary ground still eluded the Germans. Consequently a number of German aircraft construction companies had to be approached, and the practicality of constructing aircraft capable of reaching Britain from the territory currently held was discussed.
The firms consulted included Flugzeugbau Fredrichshafen Gmbh; Allgemeine Elektrizitäts Gesellschaft (AEG); and Gothaer Waggonfabrik AG (Gotha), and it was the latter which won the main contract to construct the aircraft. It called its prototype the Gotha ‘Ursinus’ G-I, equipped with two 160hp Mercedes engines. It first flew in 1915, and was followed by the G-II with its two 220hp engines. A number were provided to the squadron after further reorganization in September 1916. At this time one Hauptmann Gaede was given command of Halbgeschwader (Half-Squadron) No.1, which comprised Staffeln 1, 4 and 6. Halbgeschwader No.2 was allotted Staffeln 2, 3 and 5 and was dispatched to Bulgaria, and then to the Macedonian Front until May 1917 when it returned to duties in Belgium.
The Gotha G-IV had been developed by this stage, and large-scale production was to proceed at the Gotha, LVG and Siemens-Schuckert factories. On 25 November 1916 the Kommandierender General Der Luftstreitkrafte – Kogenluft – was established as a separate entity from the Army under the command of General Ernst Hoeppner. Upon assuming command he issued the first policy document which outlined the functions expected the squadron in its operations against the United Kingdom:
Since an airship raid against London has become impossible, the Air Service is required to carry out a raid with aeroplanes as soon as possible. The undertaking will be carried out in accordance with two entirely different schemes:
1. Bombing squadrons equipped with G (Large) Aeroplanes… …Scheme 1 will be carried out by Half-Squadron No.1 using Gotha G-IV aeroplanes. The requisite number of thirty aeroplanes will be ready by February 1 1917.
By despatching eighteen aeroplanes, each carrying a load of 300kg of bombs, 5,400kg could be dropped on London, the same amount as would be carried by three airships, and so far three airships have never reached London simultaneously.
Scheme 1 can only succeed provided every detail is carefully prepared, the crews are practised in long-distance overseas flight, and the squadron is made up of specially good aeroplane crews. Any negligence and undue haste will only entail heavy losses for us, and defeat our ends.
The project was code named Turkenkreuz, – Turks’ Cross, and the squadron would be called the Englandgeschwader, or ‘England Squadron’. It had four airfields allocated to it; Mariakerke, Melle-Gontrode, Ostacker and St Denis-Westrem, all sited around Gent about, forty miles behind German lines.
It was now that the full implications of the aircraft’s change in centre of gravity after losing its bombs and fuel, was fully appreciated. None of the airfields were anything like flat and level enough to accommodate a returning bomber and land it with much chance of it not crashing. As a result, the respective airfields would have to be made as flat as possible to reduce the possibility of this happening and this meant shifting tons of earth around to smooth and level them. Melle-Gontrode and St Denis-Westrem would not be ready until April, Mariakerke and Ostacker until July, so Ghistelles was to be used until then to house the aircraft, sharing facilities with Half-Squadron No.1. The force was to consist of six staffeln,each of six machines, and in theory a total of thirty-six bombers were to attack London in the forthcoming operation.
One vital element which an undertaking of this scale and magnitude needed was also in short supply by this stage in the war; first rate leadership. However, luckily for the squadron, one man would enter, stage left, to fill this void in the person of thirty-four year-old Hauptmann Ernst Brandenburg.
He had found his way into the Air Force like many of his colleagues, after being wounded in the trenches and subsequently assigned to what were considered lighter duties as an observer in a two-seater reconnaissance aircraft. He would prove to be the perfect candidate for the demanding assignment, to mould a cohesive unit practically from scratch, capable of launching the first-ever daylight strategic bomber raid. Such were the qualities of this man, that despite the punishing regime and unremitting requirements of the endless training, he would be able to earn the respect and admiration of officers and men alike, leading by example in his quiet, unassuming way.
It would be a task completely different to that which his colleagues in the airship service would have faced. There, the mighty vessels operated largely alone, with all the component parts, namely the crews, in one place; the bombs would be dropped from a single platform; there were none of the completely new skills that Brandenburg and his men would need to master. Almost forty different machines, untested in the kind of warfare upon which they were about to embark, would have to rise and fly in formation, keep together over featureless seas, and then, above hostile territory, finally unload their bombs in a tight pattern in order to gain the maximum results. Keeping in formation they would then attempt the perilous journey back to their airfields, expecting to be harassed all the way by enemy fighters baying for their blood.
Organization, training and tactics – all completely new and untried – General Staff maps of the North Sea and Dover Straits were studied intensely, while the flight path over Ostend and then Foulness, on towards the capital from the north-east (with Epping Forest serving as their marker) had to be rehearsed again and again. Just as important for the crews was to know the way back to base, along the north side of the Thames to the Estuary.
One of his first decisions was to form Staffeln 16, and place it under the command of Oberleutnant von Seydlitz-Kurzbach, by drafting in personnel from the Luftstreitkrafte; Staffeln 17 and 18 would follow in July. There were to be seven headquarters staff, Brandenburg, Adjutant Gerlicht and five officers whose responsibilities ranged from intelligence, reconnaissance photography, motor transport and administration. Three bombers were allocated to headquarters staff. So he could be identified easily by his men in flight and his instructions conveyed, the fuselage of Brandenburg’s machine was painted red.
In April 1917, Kagohl 3 was ready to move from Ghistelles to Melle-Gontrode and St Denis-Westrem. Despite this, things were not going well. As we have seen, examination of a wrecked German aircraft by the Allies exposed the sub-standard nature of much of the materials used in their manufacture and as a result the standard of construction of the engines left a lot to be desired and extensive modifications were required on the pipe work installed in earlier models. This rework alone took up most of the month.
By the middle of May both the aircraft and crew were as ready as they would ever be. Morale was boosted by visits from such dignitaries as Hoeppner and later by General Hindenburg, both of whom had bold words of encouragement for the crews, words which they were all too keen to justify.