Short seaplanes taking off for the Cuxhaven Raid.
Photos of the December 25th Cuxhaven raid published in the Illustrated War News five days after.
The common story of Christmas 1914 is the Christmas Day truce, where soldiers on both sides stopped fighting to celebrate the holiday during World War I. While that was happening in the trenches, the British were conducting a historic airstrike on the German navy.
Intelligence reports showed that Cuxhaven had zeppelin sheds, where the giant airships were being kept. From the start of the war, zeppelins had menaced the British. No fighter planes could catch the airships, and they flew unmolested over UK airspace. Thus, the Navy hatched their plan: If they couldn’t destroy the airships in the air, they would destroy them on the ground.
Unfortunately, the sheds were out of range for ground-based airplanes. However, British commanders really wanted to raid the sheds, so they developed an imaginative plan to use sea-based airplanes. There was no such thing as an aircraft carrier at the time, but the British improvised. Using converted passenger ferries that could carry seaplanes, the British planned to move their naval forces as close to Germany as possible and then launch the seaplanes to bomb the zeppelin sheds.
The Royal Naval Air Service carried out the Cuxhaven raids with seaplanes carried in the converted cross-Channel steamers Engadine and Riviera. Those who regard the naval and military leaders of the First World War as hidebound, unimaginative, and unwilling to adopt new technology may be surprised to learn how comparatively early in the war aircraft were employed on imaginative endeavors such as this. One might say that imagination outran the technical ability to achieve results. Because of the limited range of the aircraft, the raids required an offensive sortie into the Bight by Tyrwhitt’s flotillas and Keyes’s submarines. The first attempt on 25 October was a failure, largely due to heavy rain, and four aircraft did not even get off the water. On 21 November the Royal Naval Air Service attacked the zeppelin works at Friedrichshafen with land-based aircraft. Three planes took off from Belfort in eastern France, one was shot down, and, contrary to what the British thought, the zeppelin under construction at the target was not damaged. The attacks with seaplanes were the most promising, but remained frustrating. The next attempt, on 23 November, was recalled after Room 40 intercepted signals indicating German cruisers might be out in the Bight in the area where the attack would be launched.
The Admiralty made a major attempt on Christmas Day 1914. This time three seaplane carriers were involved, the Engadine, Riviera, and Empress. The Germans were expecting an attack that day; they believed an attempt would be made to block the German ports with merchant ships. They also feared a repetition of 28 August, when the battle cruisers had overwhelmed their scouting forces, and therefore kept only submarines and their two available zeppelins out in the Bight. The result was the first significant encounters between aircraft and warships, a preview of the great air-sea battles of future wars. The zeppelin L.6 attacked the Empress, which had fallen behind because of condenser trouble. A pair of seaplanes from Borkum also made a second attack. The British launched their nine seaplanes a half hour before dawn, but two failed to get off the water. None of the remaining aircraft did any damage to the zeppelin sheds; in fact, only one plane even reached them, and then it failed to recognize the target because the pilots had been given the wrong location. The other aircraft dropped their bombs on different targets with little effect. One plane did fly over the German fleet in Schillig Roads, obtaining intelligence and creating considerable excitement, but accomplishing little else. This should not detract from the courage of these early pilots, who pressed on in their primitive aircraft in the face of quite often heavy fire.
The British ships were attacked by the zeppelin L.5 and seaplanes as they searched for their aircraft that had failed to reach the designated recovery positions. Only three of the crews were rescued by surface craft. Keyes’s submarines rescued another three and were attacked by the zeppelin Z.5 in the process. The seventh crew was picked up by a Dutch trawler, treated as “shipwrecked mariners,” and subsequently returned without being interned. None of the ships suffered serious damage from zeppelins or aircraft—a German submarine on the scene also failed to get into a firing position. The British, in fact, seem to have come to the conclusion that ships had little to fear from the air as long as they had sufficient room to maneuver. The Christmas Day air raid of 1914 should probably be treated as a learning experience that pointed the way to the future when technology and experience would make aircraft much more effective.
The boost to British morale provided by the Cuxhaven raid on Christmas Day was soon offset by another startling German submarine success. Early on the morning of New Year’s Day, the submarine U.24 torpedoed and sank the predreadnought Formidable of the Channel Fleet. Vice Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly, commander of the Channel Fleet, had been conducting tactical exercises, and the ships, in apparent disregard of the submarine danger, were steaming slowly without zigzagging. Although a predreadnought, this was the first battleship to be sunk by a submarine during the war, and the loss of life was high, only 233 out of 780 officers and men surviving in the rough seas. Bayly, who claimed the Admiralty had failed to warn him submarines might be found so far west in the Channel, was relieved of his command. He eventually redeemed himself with his successful command at Queenstown later in the war.
British seaplane carrier HMS ENGADINE at anchor.
Built by William Denny and Brothers of Dumbarton for the South Eastern and Chatham Railway Company and completed in 1911, she was requisitioned by the Admiralty for naval service on 11 August 1914 and given temporary modifications in Chatham Dockyard to equip her as a seaplane carrier. She was commissioned on 1 September 1914 and allocated to the Harwich Force, taking part in a series of sweeps across the North Sea. On 25 December 1914 she launched aircraft against German Zeppelin sheds in the Cuxhaven Raid, in company with Riviera and Empress.
In February 1915 she was purchased outright by the Admiralty and taken in hand by the Cunard Steamship Company in Liverpool for improvements which included the fitting of a steel ‘box’ hangar aft with an operating platform and cranes positioned at the stern. After the modifications were completed in March 1915, she rejoined the Harwich Force and was based at Granton. In October 1915 she joined the BCF based in the Firth of Forth and carried out a series of tests to evaluate the high-speed towing of kite balloons attached to warships which proved the viability of the concept. She was present at the battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916 and the aircraft she launched to locate the German fleet was the first ever to take part in a sea battle. Although the aircraft’s successful reports were received by Engadine, their rebroadcast was, unfortunately, not taken in by the C-in-C in his flagship Lion. After the battle she took the damaged cruiser Warrior in tow and rescued her survivors when she foundered. In 1918 she was transferred to the MF and operated from Malta until the end of hostilities. In December the Admiralty sold her back to her former owners and she returned to use as a cross-Channel ferry. In 1923, with the regrouping of Britain’s railways, her ownership transferred to the Southern Railway and in 1932 she was sold to a ship broker who sold her on to Hermanos Inc in the Philippines in 1933 and renamed her Corregidor. In December 1941, during the Japanese invasion, she was sunk by a mine in Manilla Bay, with heavy loss of life.
Built by William Denny and Brothers of Dumbarton for the South Eastern and Chatham Railway and completed in 1911, she was requisitioned by the Admiralty with her sister ship Engadine on 11 August 1914 and given temporary alterations in Chatham Dockyard for use as a seaplane carrier. She joined the Harwich Force, together with Engadine, in October and took part in the Cuxhaven Raid on Christmas day 1914, together with her and Empress. She was fully converted into a seaplane carrier by the Cunard Steamship Company in Liverpool in February 1915, and on completion of the work she joined the Dover Patrol on 7 April 1915. Her seaplanes were used extensively to spot for the gunfire of monitors off the Belgian coast and other duties until 1918 when, with other early seaplane carriers, she transferred to the Mediterranean Fleet based in Malta. In 1919 she was sold back to her original owners and resumed duty as a cross-Channel ferry, transferring to the new Southern Railway in 1923. In 1932 she was sold to the Burns and Laird Lines and renamed Laird’s Isle.
In September 1939 she was requisitioned again by the Admiralty, this time under her new name, and used at first as a torpedo training ship and then as an ocean boarding vessel. After modifications in 1944 she was used as an infantry landing ship. In 1945 she was demilitarised and returned to Burns and Laird, who continued to operate her until 1957, when she was sold for scrap.
Built as a cross-Channel ferry for the South Eastern and Chatham Railway by William Denny & Brothers of Dumbarton, she was completed in April 1907 and requisitioned by the Admiralty on 11 August 1914. Until space was available in Chatham Dockyard for her modification she was used as a dispatch vessel for the RNAS, carrying the men and equipment of the Eastchurch Squadron to France. After 30 August she was fitted out as a seaplane carrier, and when the work was completed in September she joined the Harwich Force and took part in North Sea sweeps. On 25 December 1914 she joined Riviera and Engadine in launching aircraft against Zeppelin bases in the Cuxhaven raid.
In May 1915 she was taken in hand by the Cunard Steamship Company of Liverpool and given more extensive modifications to operate seaplanes, the work being completed in July.
On 18 July 1915 she was based at Queenstown in Ireland for patrol work which lasted until January 1916, when she sailed to join the East Indies and Egypt Seaplane Squadron based at Port Said. In April 1916 she was detached for operations off the Bulgarian coast, for which she was based at various ports in the Aegean Sea. In November 1916 she used her seaplanes to support operations ashore in Sinai and the coast of Syria. From January 1918 she was based in Port Said again and used her seaplanes for antisubmarine patrols over the eastern Mediterranean. Later in the year she was based in Gibraltar to support patrols in the western Mediterranean.
Empress was handed back to her original owners in November 1919. She was transferred to the Southern Railway in 1923 and later in the same year sold to the French Société Anonyme de Gérance et d’Armement. She was eventually scrapped in France in 1933.