AIRPOWER 1918 Part I

1918 Gotha G.Va – Taras Shtyk

1918 Fokker DVII Hermann Göring – Taras Shtyk

1918 Siemens Schuckert D.III Ernst Udet – Taras Shtyk

1918 Caproni Ca-42

Integral to the balance of intelligence advantage was air superiority, which had never been more fiercely contested than in 1918. During the war aircraft speeds and ceilings had doubled, engine horsepower quadrupled, and bomb payloads grew even more. German aeroplane speeds had risen from 80 to 200 kilometres per hour, and maximum loads from 3.5 to 1,000 kilograms. Since the development of fighters (or ‘pursuit’ aircraft as the Allies called them – ‘hunter aircraft’ or Jagdflugzeuge was the German term), combat had spread into the skies. Aircraft took up roles that they would keep through the Second World War and beyond: not just guiding the artillery but also striking ground targets as a form of flying artillery themselves. They operated at sea and in every theatre on land. They also embarked upon strategic bombing.

By 1918 ‘strategical’ bombing existed as a concept and was discussed as such in the newly formed British Air Staff and Air Ministry. It meant attacks on home-front targets such as cities, factories, and railways rather than the enemy forces. Militarily the two sides’ efforts in good measure cancelled each other out, but bomber raids on Paris and London hardened Allied public opinion against Germany, and prompted reprisal raids, which if the war had continued would have become much bigger. An escalation dynamic was in evidence that anticipated later tragedies, although as yet the technology was scarcely comparable to that which a generation later laid waste to Europe.

The first Hague Peace Conference in 1899 had banned the dropping of projectiles from balloons but only for a five-year period, and before 1914 the popular press and fiction writers had foreseen air attacks on cities. London’s vulnerability caused a panic in 1913.83 After war began, humanitarian considerations caused little hesitation. The French bombed Ludwigshafen in 1914, and they and the British continued to raid enemy border towns into 1915–16, although neither had yet developed specialized bomber aircraft and the damage caused was slight. From Germany, only Zeppelin airships could reach London, and they came under the German navy. Gradually Wilhelm – who had scruples about targeting historic buildings and his cousins’ palaces, while the Chancellor was worried about neutral public opinion – ceded to the navy’s enthusiasm, and raids on London began on 31 May 1915. For some months the British had no answer, but during 1916 new BE2C aircraft arrived that climbed higher and were stable at night, and fired incendiary ‘Buckingham’ bullets. Supported by better anti-aircraft guns, searchlights, and an improved ground observer system, they shot down so many Zeppelins that from September 1916 raids on London ceased. Because of raw-material shortages the airships’ skin was no longer rubberized, and their ribs consisted of wood rather than aluminium, making them even more flammable. The danger seemed over, and in early 1917 the British authorities were winding down their civil defence arrangements.

But the Zeppelins prepared the way for bombing by aircraft. German engineers had been working on the Gotha G-IV bomber since the start of the war, and the OHL wanted it ready for raids to coincide with unrestricted submarine warfare. London, 175 miles from the Gothas’ bases in Belgium, fell within their 500-mile range. Unlike French cities, it could be approached over water, without ground defences, and the Thames estuary provided a conspicuous guideline. Gothas carried a smaller payload than did Zeppelins, but they were faster (87 mph), higher (up to 10,500 feet), more heavily armed (carrying three machine guns), and harder to shoot down. Moreover, whereas the British decrypted the Zeppelins’ wireless code and always had warning of their arrival, the first daylight Gotha raids (codenamed Operation Türkenkreuz) were unanticipated. They killed and injured 290 people at Folkestone on 25 May, and on 13 June they killed and injured 594 in bombing centred on London’s Liverpool Street Station and the East End, including eighteen children at the Upper North Street school in the East India Dock Road; on 7 July another raid on the capital claimed 250 more casualties. By this stage there was media uproar and tense discussion in the War Cabinet. Two fighter squadrons returned from the Western Front (over Haig’s protests) – and a new agency, the London Air Defence Area (LADA), was created under Major Edward B. Ashmore, a gunner moved from Flanders. Ashmore added another barrier of fighters east of London and altered their tactics so that they attacked the Gothas in groups rather than singly, and the same bad weather that bedevilled British troops in Belgium assisted him. In three raids during August the Gothas failed to reach London, and in the last they lost three aircraft, one to AA fire and two to fighters. Perhaps prematurely, they switched to night attacks.

Night bomber attacks were the last and most challenging of the threats against London during the war. Now the Gothas were joined by Riesenflugzeuge or ‘Giants’, with a 138-foot wingspan (that of a B-29 Superfortress in the Second World War), a maximum height of 19,000 feet, nine crew wearing heated flying suits, six machine guns, and a payload of up to 2 tons, including 1,000-kilogram bombs that could wreck a housing block. They could take enormous punishment, and none were ever shot down. During ‘the blitz of the harvest moon’ between 24 September and 1 October 1917 night-flying bombers visited London six times. For the British this was the most trying time: their anti-aircraft batteries were nearing exhaustion due to ammunition expenditure and deterioration of the barrels, 100,000–300,000 people took shelter in the Underground each evening, and up to one sixth of munitions production was lost, although contemporary estimates ran much higher. Worsening weather and wear and tear on the bombers and their crews then provided relief, and during the winter Ashmore installed better searchlights and balloon barrages while the Sopwith Camel proved itself as an effective night fighter. As in the campaign against the U-boats, there was no one spectacular turning point but gradually the defenders inflicted greater losses and the attackers caused less damage. From October the British read German wireless messages, and once given more warning their aircraft destroyed an average of one tenth of the Gothas on each raid. Terrible episodes still took place, such as the bombing of a basement shelter in Long Acre on 28 January, with over a hundred killed and wounded. But in the biggest raid of all, on 19 May 1918, forty-three aircraft took off but six were lost in action and seven in accidents, while according to a survey by the medical journal The Lancet the civilian mood had now improved. From this point raids on London (though not the provinces) ended, in part to redirect the bombers to the Western Front. In addition the campaign was taking a growing toll of aircraft, a total of twenty-four being lost in action and another thirty-seven in accidents. Partly because of raw-material shortages the Gothas were shoddily made, and their undercarriage was liable to collapse on landing. By 1918, moreover, British fighters could be mobilized much faster and Ashmore established an operations control room where observers’ reports were centralized and instructions coordinated in a manner prefiguring the second and more celebrated Battle of Britain.

A parallel Gotha campaign against Paris began on 30–31 January 1918, leaflets dropped over the trenches justifying it on the grounds that the French had refused peace. By 15 September a total of fourteen raids had dropped 664 bombs, although the heaviest attacks came in the spring, seventy people dying on 11 March in a panic crush at the Bolivar Métro station. As against London, the Germans launched a multi-faceted attack on the city’s morale, as the Gotha raids preceded the ‘Michael’ offensive and on 22 March the first shell landed from the ‘Paris gun’, the precursor to 370 more between 23 March and 8 August. In fact the gun caused greater shock than the Gothas, which dropped 30 tons of bombs compared with 100 tons on Britain. Fighters played a smaller role in air defence than in London, partly owing to a shortage of planes, so anti-aircraft guns were the main – and quite effective – defensive implement. Even though Paris was only two hours’ flying time from the enemy trenches, few of the bombers reached their destination and most got lost or turned back. Only eleven of the thirty Gothas that departed on 30 January arrived, and of 483 sent in total thirteen were shot down and only thirty-seven got through to the city.

Total casualties in Paris from air raids were 266 killed and 603 wounded (the Paris gun killing a further 256 and wounding sixty-two), while British casualties in the Gotha and Giant raids numbered 856 dead and 1,965 wounded, and the property damage was estimated at £1.5m. Ashmore later compared these figures to the more than 700 lives lost annually in London in the 1920s on the roads. Certainly they were small in comparison with the thousands dying daily on the Western Front, and the Germans could have pursued the campaign more ruthlessly. By August 1918 they had ready a new device based on magnesium and aluminium, the Elektron Bomb, which was incendiary enough to set off firestorms. After delays due to bad weather, a raid on London was planned for 23 September. But at the last moment Ludendorff called it off, because the German government feared reprisals, but perhaps also because he was already contemplating the ceasefire appeal that he demanded five days later. Humanitarian sentiment, however, formed no particular constraint. When in 1917 Bethmann Hollweg complained that Gotha bombing was ‘irritating the chauvinistic and fanatical instincts of the English nation without cause’, Hindenburg replied that being conciliatory would gain nothing and the raids kept war material away from the Western Front: ‘It is regrettable, but inevitable, that they cause the loss of innocent lives as well.’ More important as a limiting factor were technical considerations. A Giant cost over half a million marks and each one needed a fifty-man ground crew: only eighteen were built. Even the cost of a Gotha doubled between 1916 and 1917. Although supposedly aircraft were second only to submarines in their claims on manufacturing resources, Germany lacked the manpower and raw materials to fulfil its construction programmes, and strategic bombing competed with the needs of army support. In addition the prevalent cloudy weather over North-Western Europe hindered all kinds of air activity (as over Kosovo as late as 1999), but especially bombing: which meant sustained attacks as in September 1917 were rare. And in comparison with their Second World War successors, 1918 bombers carried tiny payloads and delivered them inaccurately, not least because bombsights were still under development. The Gothas attacking London operated at the limit of their range, under fire, and mostly at night, and achieved little beyond random terror. They hardly damaged docks and railways or the armaments industry, even the enormous complex at Woolwich Arsenal being hit just once. Hence the main practical consequence was to tie up Allied resources in air defence, which Hindenburg and the commanding general of the German air force, Ernest von Hoeppner, recognized as an objective. At least in this respect they had considerable success. Britain lost forty-five aircraft and seventy-eight aircrew in the battles over its home islands, all the latter in accidents, whereas German casualties were several times heavier. But while in 1917–18 Germany committed approximately 100 Gothas, 15 Giants, and 30 Zeppelins to the British campaign, Britain committed some 200 aircraft to its defence, supported by searchlights and by anti-aircraft guns crewed by 14,000 ground personnel.

Nor was this the end of the reckoning, as the Gotha raids caused a redirection in British air policy, which otherwise would not have happened at this time, nor met so little resistance. After the Liverpool Street bombing, the Cabinet decided almost to double the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) from 108 to 200 squadrons, with most of the extra aeroplanes being equipped for bombing. Although this target was never reached, production rates rose substantially. Jan-Christian Smuts, the South African general and former defence minister who had joined Lloyd George’s War Cabinet, reported to it on 9 August that ‘the day may not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial centres and population centres on a vast scale may become the principal operations of war, to which the older forms of military operations may become secondary and subordinate’. He recommended merging the RFC with the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), under an Air Ministry with its own air staff to plan for the employment of an aircraft surplus that the Ministry of Munitions – overconfidently – expected. Motivated partly by reports that Germany planned a huge bomber expansion, the government approved Smuts’s recommendations and passed legislation to create the Air Ministry in January 1918, the merger into the new RAF following in April. Finally, in the wake of the ‘harvest moon’ raids, the Cabinet authorized immediate reprisals. The climax of the German raids on London and Paris was followed by the climax of the Allied air assault on the Rhineland.

The 1918 strategic air offensive against Germany was predominantly British. The Americans took part, using British DH9 bombers, and suffered heavily, but the French high command was ambivalent, partly because it feared retaliation and partly because it believed that bombs were better employed against the German army and its staging areas. The French had developed the fast and high-flying Bréguet XIV B.2 two-seater bomber, which could be escorted over Germany by a long-distance heavy fighter, the Caudron R.XI. During 1918 they fought a battle of attrition: in the first quarter they dropped 200 tons of bombs and lost 20 aircraft; in the second they dropped 500 tons but lost 50 and the authorities hesitated over whether to continue; but in the third quarter they dropped 700 tons and lost 29 and in October they dropped 600 tons and lost 3. They were slowly winning mastery of the German skies. As for the British, from October 1917 their 41st wing carried out day and night attacks on Germany from Ochey in Lorraine. In June 1918, the Independent Force, RAF (or IF) was created, under the command of Sir Hugh Trenchard, previously commander of the RFC. Now the raids were intensified and their radius lengthened. According to Sir Frederick Sykes, the Chief of the Air Staff, ‘as the offensive is the dominant factor in war, so is the Strategic Air Offensive the dominant factor in air power’, and the offensive would aim to dislocate the enemy munitions industries, attack the U-boats in their bases, and ‘bring about far-reaching moral and political effects in Germany’. Between October 1917 and November 1918, 508 raids took place, dropping 14,911 high-explosive bombs and 816,019 incendiaries. In July and August the British went to the limits of their range, bombing Cologne, Frankfurt, Mannheim, and Darmstadt. The Air Staff priority for 1919 was the Ruhr’s steel and chemical industries, and the new Handley Page V/500 bomber, becoming available in November 1918, could reach Berlin.

Yet if anything the Allies’ raids were less destructive than Germany’s. German casualties from air raids during the war totalled 746 killed and 1,843 injured: the damage was valued at 24 million marks (£1.2m), but industrial disruption was slight. Sykes cited photographic evidence of damage to factories and German press reports that the Rhinelanders were demanding more protection, but a post-war RAF investigation was more sceptical. Although alerts and sleepless nights disheartened the workforce, few blast furnaces were damaged and the huge BASF chemical works at Ludwigshafen, a major target, never had to shut down. Similarly the French tried to halt supplies from the Briey iron ore mines in Lorraine, a location close to their border that produced 80 per cent of Germany’s output, but their efforts were completely ineffective.

Three main explanations can be cited, the first being technical. By late 1944 Britain and America were dropping 90,000 tons of bombs on Germany per month in 18,000 sorties, as a result of which the Third Reich’s armaments output finally began to decline: between October 1917 and November 1918 the British dropped 665 tons in total, and less accurately. Similarly an Allied campaign in June–July 1918 dropped 61 tons of bombs over the Germans’ railways but demonstrated that bombs could not destroy trains unless landing within a few feet of them. Germany’s fruitless efforts in June to smash the Allies’ crucial railway viaduct at Etaples pointed to the same conclusion. Moreover, the Allied bombers had just five and a half hours’ endurance, so only Germany’s south-western corner was in reach. The weather was another obstacle, the campaign winding down as the autumn skies became more clouded. And although the British DH4 bomber was a dependable workhorse, the new DH9 proved constantly unreliable and many missions were abandoned because of engine failure.

The second explanation was the Germans’ countermeasures. In 1916 they introduced a centralized observation system and unified fighter defence, later supplemented by searchlights, anti-aircraft guns, and balloons. In summer 1918 they reinforced their fighters to 320; and British losses became formidable: 104 day bombers and thirty-four night ones were lost to German action and 320 crashed behind Allied lines, while in September the IF lost 75 per cent of its aircraft in one month. By the end of the war air defence, like the rest of German aviation, was being slowly paralysed by shortages, but until then it exacted a high price.

The third and final impediment came from the Allies’ own priorities and policies. Foch shared the general French lack of enthusiasm, stating in a 1 April directive that ground attacks against the enemy troops should be the main objective (and air fighting only as necessary to achieve it) alongside bombing of key railway junctions. He wanted the IF under his authority. In October the British agreed to an inter-Allied bombing force under Trenchard that would be answerable to the Marshal, and this body would have overseen strategic bombing in 1919. But Trenchard himself never carried out operations as the air staff had intended, and like the French he was a strategic bombing sceptic who as RFC commander had seen his primary duty as assisting the army. Although Sykes instructed the Independent Force to ‘obliterate’ first the German chemical industry and then the Lorraine steel industry, in fact of 416 raids between June and September 1918 only thirty-four were against chemical plants and another thirty-four against steel plants, whereas 185 were against rail targets and 139 against aerodromes, objectives that Trenchard had been told to leave for other parts of the RAF. Even the locations on which effort was concentrated escaped critical damage: the ‘railway triangle’ round Metz and Sablon was the most heavily attacked single target, but traffic there was never halted for long. It was also true that Trenchard never received a force commensurate with the government’s initial intentions, as although the IF grew from five to nine squadrons he had been required to plan for thirty-four. Only 427 of the 1,817 bombing aircraft sent from Britain to France in 1918 went to the IF, and at the armistice only 140 of the 1,799 RAF aircraft on the Western Front were assigned to it. Various reasons lay behind this, notably that the expected production surplus did not materialize and losses during the Ludendorff offensives were heavy. But even a much larger Independent Force would have achieved little, and airpower’s most important function remained direct support of the armies.

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