WWI Air War: Balkans and Mesopotamia I

SMS Königsberg Reccon. Brian Withams; (c) Brian Withams, GAVA; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Pilots and observers have consistently maintained the ever-changing fortunes of the day and in the war zone our dead have been always beyond the enemy’s lines or far out at sea. Our far-flung squadrons have flown over home waters and foreign seas, the Western and Italian battle line, Rhineland, the Mountains of Macedonia, Gallipoli, Palestine, the Plains of Arabia, Sinai and Darfur…

King George V to all RAF squadrons after the Armistice

‘Our far-flung squadrons… battle-line…’ Kipling’s ‘Recessional’ was evidently echoing in the unconscious of whoever drafted the King’s message. The poet’s anxious prayer to the ‘Lord of our far-flung battle-line’ embodied the worry that without His blessing Britain’s global empire represented vainglorious overstretch. ‘Far-called, our navies melt away…’ It was inevitable that the war in Europe should have had tentacles reaching overseas into the Balkans, Middle East and Africa since the major combatants – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Italy – all had empires or spheres of interest and influence far beyond the main European fronts. As usually happens in wars, well before the end men in suits were cooking up post-bellum deals, scheming how various frontiers might be redrawn and what colour the new maps should be. Among the more notorious of these deals was the secret Sykes–Picot agreement in which one Briton and one Frenchman decided how the entire Middle East should be carved up. The fallout from those arbitrary lines drawn across a map in crayon on a May day in 1916 has now persisted for a century and may yet become literal.

The political geography of the Middle East was considerably determined by the twin fading dynasties of Ottoman Turkey and Qajar Persia. The protracted struggle for the Ottoman Empire’s former possessions had already been a background factor of the Crimean War in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1914 Turkey sided with Germany and the Central Powers, which left the Entente – chiefly Britain, France and Russia – with regional wars on its hands, Britain fighting the Turco-German forces from the Balkans to Sinai and Palestine and on through Mesopotamia. It was above all vital for Britain to maintain its lifeline with the Empire via the sea route that included the Suez Canal and Aden, an important coaling station. But in view of the Royal Navy’s gradual switch from coal to oil at this time (the new Queen Elizabeth-class battleships were oil burners), it was equally vital to secure the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s oilfields in Mesopotamia, and especially its huge refinery at Abadan in what is now Iran. In order to drive the Turks out of Palestine and elsewhere, Britain entered into an alliance with Sherif Hussein bin Ali of Mecca, who was leading an Arab nationalist movement that also wanted the Turks out of the Middle East. The British army officer under General Allenby’s command working with Sherif Hussein to free the Hejaz (the western coast of Arabia) was T. E. Lawrence, who gave this assessment of the Arabs’ campaign:

Of religious fanaticism there was little trace. The Sherif refused in round terms to give a religious twist to his rebellion. His fighting creed was nationality. The tribes knew that the Turks were Moslems who thought that the Germans were probably true friends of Islam. They knew that the British were Christians, and that the British were their allies. In the circumstances, their religion would not have been of much help to them, and they had put it aside. ‘Christian fights Christian, so why should not Mohammedan do the same? What we want is a Government which speaks our own language of Arabic and will let us live in peace. Also, we hate those Turks.’

The armies involved in the Middle East conflict were naturally accompanied by air support which, especially in desert landscapes with little cover, was useful for observing troop movements and bombing supply lines. As far as maintaining an air presence went, the British had an advantage over the Germans for purely logistical reasons. The merchant fleet, escorted by the Royal Navy, could reliably supply Britain’s protectorate, Egypt, via Alexandria and Port Said, whereas the Germans had to bring their aircraft, spares and equipment overland from Germany on the long and difficult haul down through the Balkans and Turkey.

Some RFC and RNAS squadrons were even further-flung than King George’s message-drafter knew, for they were also present in a minor way in East Africa and India. In India a few squadrons were based almost exclusively on the North-West Frontier in what today is Pakistan, dealing with the ‘troublesome tribesmen’ in Waziristan who were part of Britain’s continuing imperial headache, albeit one that was independent of the Great War. In Africa, though, the Kaiser’s colonial presence was fought with varying success in both German South-West Africa (Namibia) and German East Africa (today’s Tanzania).

Probably the most famous air action in the latter was the destruction of the German light cruiser Königsberg in 1915 after it had hidden some ten miles inland in the complex delta of the Rufiji river, temporarily immobilised by engine failure. The Königsberg had long been a menace to British shipping in the Indian Ocean and the Admiralty viewed her elimination as a priority. Royal Navy warships arrived off the Rufiji delta but failed to find the German vessel because its crew had camouflaged the ship with foliage cut from the surrounding forest. It was a clear case for aerial reconnaissance. A local pilot was hired, together with his privately owned Curtiss F. seaplane, but this did not survive many missions. Two G.III Caudrons and two Henri Farman F.27s were sent down from Dar-es-Salaam (the F.27 was essentially a ‘Rumpty’ with a bigger engine and without its ‘horns’: the curved skids on the undercarriage) but nor were these up to the task. The Navy then deployed two RNAS Sopwith ‘Folders’: Type 807 biplanes with folding wings for shipboard storage. However, their Gnome Monosoupape (single valve) rotary engines proved too weak in the hot climate even as their airframes came unglued in the tropical damp. Three of Short’s ‘Folders’ were then deployed that, while also suffering in the heat and unable to climb above 600 feet, did manage some useful photo-reconnaissance work and finally pinpointed the Königsberg’s position. Two shallow-draught monitors were sent whose guns fatally crippled the German ship, thereby removing a major threat to Allied traffic in the Indian Ocean.

However, the Königsberg’s menace did not end there because most of its crew went to join an extraordinary guerrilla force led by a true genius in the art of bush warfare. This was General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck who was the officer in charge of all military forces in German East Africa. Between 1914 and 1918, living off the land and with a mere 14,000 men – German and local African – he managed to tie down and harry 300,000 Allied troops, remaining uncaptured at the time of the Armistice. It is pleasant to record that ‘The Lion of Africa’ survived until 1964. He was the only German commander ever to invade British imperial territory in the First World War, and his four years of improvised bush tactics mark him as probably the greatest-ever exponent of this form of warfare.

It was against Lettow-Vorbeck and in support of General Smuts that 26 Squadron flew reconnaissance missions in their B.E.2cs and ‘Rumptys’ (by that time the sort of antiquated aircraft most easily spared from the Western Front). But theirs was a tiny contingent and the task proved hopeless since little could be observed in thick bush from the air. Apart from that the African climate proved too much for fragile wooden aircraft designed for northern Europe, susceptible to wood-boring pests and warping as well as to weakened adhesives. No airman is much comforted by the thought of termites in his airframe and still less by the possibility that at any moment it might come unglued in the air. Thirty years later in the Second World War this same problem had to be addressed when the wood-framed de Havilland Mosquito was deployed in the Far East. By then new formaldehyde-based adhesives had been devised that seemed mostly to work; occasional airframe failures were attributed to sloppy assembly in de Havilland’s factories at Hatfield and Leavesden.

King George’s reference to Darfur in his message was significant for the way in which it related to the wider picture of the British campaign in the Middle East. Since the turn of the century the Sudanese sultanate of Darfur (the land of the Fur people) had effectively been independent under its ruler, Ali Dinar. From its geographical position of sharing frontiers with Italian-administered Libya and the French-administered district of Chad (then part of French West Africa), Dinar felt himself drawn into the wider conflict, being already estranged from Sudan’s British administration ever since Kitchener had ordered the mass killing of wounded Mahdists after the Battle of Omdurman in 1899. Instinctively, the Sultan sided with Libya’s politico-religious Senussi tribe, who were waging their own anticolonial war against the Italian occupation. He believed Turkish and German propaganda that promised the creation of an Islamic state in North Africa after the war was over and the Italians, the French and the British had all been driven out.

Ali Dinar’s rebelliousness led to British intervention in 1916, motivated half by needing to keep the peace in Sudan and half by macro-political considerations. Four B.E.2cs flew observation and reconnaissance missions over remote Darfur territory as well as dropping propaganda leaflets on the town of Al Fashir, Dinar’s stronghold. After fierce ground battles between the British Army and Dinar’s men Lieutenant John Slessor in his B.E.2c bombed the Fur troops retreating to Al Fashir, during which he was hit in the thigh by a bullet. Shortly afterwards all four aircraft and Lieutenant Slessor himself were withdrawn to Egypt for repair and the Darfur campaign ended with Ali Dinar’s death in November 1916. Many years later John Slessor was to become Air Marshal Sir John and finally a hawkish Cold War Chief of the Air Staff in the early 1950s.

It is shaming to see how quickly Europeans betrayed their promises to the Middle-Eastern allies they had so assiduously cultivated during the First World War. The Libyans’ faith in Turco-German visions of an Islamic state in North Africa was shattered when the Italians not only stayed on after 1918 but began importing Sicilians en masse to displace local Arabs and turn the country’s sole fertile coastal strip into ‘the garden of Italy’. The Arabs’ faith in British promises of a pan-Arab state from Aleppo to Aden was likewise destroyed once it was clear the Sykes–Picot agreement had secretly broken the promises even before they were made. The hopes of young nationalistic Egyptians were similarly dashed when the British stayed on in their protectorate after the war with a military occupation of the Canal Zone that included a considerable RAF presence. And the Ottomans’ faith in the Germans likewise came to naught. To this day the malign ghost of these and other betrayals haunts Middle East peace talks as an unbidden but ever-present delegate.


On the other side of the Mediterranean fighting had become general ever since the abortive British and French Gallipoli campaign that began in April 1915 at the western end of the Dardanelles – the narrow strait separating Europe from Asia. It was across this bottleneck that German lines of supply to the Middle East had to run. They came south-eastwards through the Austro-Hungarian Empire, through Bulgaria (which had finally sided with the Central Powers in September 1915) and thence through Turkey. Both the British and the French badly underestimated the fighting abilities of the Turkish troops defending the Dardanelles. This was curious, considering that before the war the Turkish army had been reorganised by the Germans, their navy by the British, and their air force by the French. It is hard to see how these military advisers could have overlooked the Turkish forces’ combined competence on their own terrain. Nevertheless they did; and after a campaign that cost the French and the British and their Anzac divisions dear, the Entente armies withdrew to Egypt and Salonika in January 1916 to lick their wounds.

Among the survivors was the 22-year-old W. E. Johns, who had taken part in the Gallipoli fiasco as Private Johns of the Norfolk Yeomanry. He was well aware how lucky he was to have survived since he had left half his regiment behind in mass graves. Many had been killed in action but the great majority had died of dysentery, malaria or simply of exposure in the lethal late autumn blizzards. Once in Alexandria Johns was deployed for the next six months to various outposts of the Suez Canal defences, often in remote desert locations that he could not have guessed would prove extremely useful to him in twenty years’ time as the setting for several of his Biggles stories. In September 1916 he was transferred from the Norfolk Yeomanry to the Machine Gun Corps, sent back to England on a brief leave and promptly dispatched once again by troopship, this time to Salonika.

This Greek seaport, more properly Thessaloniki, was some fifty very rough miles due south of Lake Doiran on the border between Macedonia and Bulgaria. In late 1915 the French general Maurice Sarrail had led a joint French and British force in an attempt to go to the aid of Serbia using the rail link that ran past this lake, but he left it too late. Bulgaria had just thrown in its lot with the Central Powers and its troops cut the railway line that Sarrail and his men were relying on and he had to turn round and withdraw south to Salonika. The port promptly became the main base for Entente troops in the so-called Macedonian theatre. In true Balkan style Greece’s political position was equivocal since the country was split between royalists who, like King Constantine, favoured the Germans, and those who sided with the revolutionary Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, who favoured the Entente. It was not until June 1917 that Constantine abdicated after a coup supported by General Sarrail, to be succeeded by his son Alexander who endorsed the Prime Minister, and Greece as a whole (now often referred to as ‘Venizelan’ Greece) finally came down firmly on the side of the Entente powers.

That was in the future, however. Greece was still on the edge of civil war when in mid-1916 General Sarrail tried again to advance beyond the Macedonian frontier, meeting the German Eleventh Army from the west and the Bulgarians from the east. In support of this effort the RFC’s 17 Squadron was sent to Salonika in July. It came fresh from flying in Sinai, the Western Desert and Arabia and for a short while was the only RFC unit in Macedonia. The squadron comprised twelve B.E.2cs and three Bristol Scouts (both pre-war designs) plus two D.H.2s, the resilient little single-seat fighter that was even then helping to end the ‘Fokker Scourge’ over Flanders and France. Soon 47 Squadron was also sent to swell the RFC’s presence on the Macedonian front.

By the time Johns arrived at the front with the Machine Gun Corps in October 1916 the British trenches ran through formidable country from Lake Doiran (‘that fever-ridden sewer’ as he later called it) south-westwards along the Macedonian border. It was the tactical stalemate of that terrible winter that confirmed Johns’s views about politicians and the military, as well as of war in general. He wrote later of the ‘lies and lies, and still more lies that made it impossible for men to stay at home without appearing contemptible cravens’:

I helped to shovel eighteen hundred of them into pits (without the blankets for which their next-of-kin were probably charged) including sixty-seven of my own machine gun squadron of seventy-five, in front of Horseshoe Hill in Greek Macedonia. We were sent to take the hill without big guns. Oh yes, they sent guns out to us, but when they got to Salonika there wasn’t any tackle big enough to lift them out of the ships. At least, that’s what we were told. Later, when we took the hill and the guns afterwards appeared, there wasn’t any tackle powerful enough to haul them up the hill. So back we came again.

By early 1917 there was an increasing German presence in the air over the Macedonian front, and in February they humiliatingly bombed the headquarters of the British XII Corps in Salonika, the Yanesh Hotel. An eyewitness lamented that the Entente’s air defences were no match for the German machines and that all they could do was get into the air to avoid being bombed on the ground. It would have taken them twenty minutes to climb to meet the Germans, by which time the attackers would be landing back at their base at Drama. This can’t have been good for morale, particularly with such a wide variety of potential witnesses of the raid, Salonika having become the port where all the Entente’s troops and supplies for their Balkan armies were landed. At any one time the town was a polyglot jumble of British, French, Italian, Russian, Serbian, Venizelist-Greek, Indian, Algerian, Annamese and Senegalese troops.

During this year Lance-Corporal Johns, like so many thousands of others, finally went down with malaria and was hospitalised in Salonika. During his long recuperation he decided he had had his fill of the infantry. He applied for a transfer to the RFC, obtained his discharge from the Machine Gun Corps and in September 1917 was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the RFC and sent home to be taught to fly. ‘I was learning something about war,’ he wrote later. ‘It seemed to me that there was no point in dying standing up in squalor if one could do so sitting down in clean air.’ It was an impeccably Bigglesian sentiment.

WWI Air War: Balkans and Mesopotamia II

The importance of Salonika and the Macedonian front to the Entente meant that such air activity as there was became increasingly well organised. The Germans’ Fliegerabteilung (Air Force Detachment) 30 was attached to the Bulgarian and Turkish armies, with an important base outside the Greek town of Drama, some forty miles north-east of a British airfield on the island of Thasos, itself along the coast to the east of Salonika. At that time Drama was not yet part of Venizelan Greece and the German machines regularly made reconnaissance flights from it over Salonika. However, the British had set up a chain of wireless-equipped observation posts along the front and any enemy aircraft crossing the line were reported to Salonika and Thasos, from where scouts were scrambled to meet the Germans.

Although aircraft on both sides were regularly shot down, there must have been something about the terrain and general conditions that reawakened a spirit of comradeship among the opposing airmen. The countryside which they daily overflew in their small biplanes was extremely daunting, and they knew that if they suffered engine failure or were shot down and injured rather than killed their chances of rescue were slender indeed among the thickly wooded mountains, ravines and coastal marshes, none of which offered a road or landing place for miles. At least in France with its open fields there was the chance of either rescue or capture, unless one fell in no-man’s-land and the aircraft became an artillery target. The weather, too, was unpredictable in this area between the Aegean and the mountainous interior. Storms blew up within minutes, accompanied by violent winds and down-draughts that caused a German observer, unnoticed by his pilot, to be flung out of his cockpit over these same mountains. At any rate both sides regularly dropped message bags with streamers on each other’s airfields with notification of an aircrew’s fate, and even with invitations. On one occasion a British pilot dropped a note that read:

As we have met so often in the air and peppered one another, we should also be very pleased to make the personal acquaintance of the German airmen of Drama. We therefore make the following proposition. Give us your word of honour that you will not take us prisoners, and we will land a motor boat on the eastern shore of Lake Takhino to meet you.

‘Unfortunately,’ the German pilot who recounted this added,

we had bad experiences with that sort of fraternisation not long before on the Russian front, and so an order was issued forbidding us to go in for anything of that kind – and I’m still heartily sorry about it for I should have been ever so pleased to shake hands with those Tommies.

Their refusal was understandable given the reference to the Russian front, long since a byword among German airmen for duplicity and barbarities of every kind. Not only was there a short film doing the rounds of captured men being crucified, but wounded aircrew were frequently butchered, then stripped and robbed of everything including all documents, so identification of the naked and dismembered corpses was often impossible.

In Macedonia, on the other hand, opposing airmen often did their best to preserve the niceties. When Lieutenant Leslie-Moore from the RNAS squadron at Thasos was shot down he was brought to Drama and welcomed in the Staffel’s mess, as was normal. After a celebratory dinner his captors shamefacedly apologised for only being able to offer him tea since coffee had become virtually unobtainable. Leslie-Moore said this was no problem if he might be allowed to pencil a note to his commanding officer that the Germans could drop over Thasos. This read:

Dear Major,

I have just dined with the German Flying Corps. They have been very kind to me. I am going up to Philippopolis [Plovdiv] tomorrow. The Germans have asked me to ask you to throw them over some coffee on Drama which they want in [the] mess here. Good luck to all, A. Leslie-Moore.

It was a shame that when a British pilot obliged, the German diarist noted regretfully that ‘they could not catch the streamer he dropped because a strong wind carried it away into the mountains. But we were gratefully convinced that it contained the coffee we desired. I can only hope that it did not agree with the dishonourable finder,’ a remark that probably reflected a degree of disenchantment with the locals, whether Greek, Turkish or Bulgarian. The Germans generally found their allies amiable enough, but language and cultural barriers often proved insurmountable and there was a complete lack of the rigorous Prussian army-style honesty and efficiency they were used to.

But as W. E. Johns had discovered in both Gallipoli and Macedonia, the real problem everybody faced in the Balkans was not bullets so much as microbes. Typhus felled thousands, malaria tens of thousands. One British Army officer later wrote: ‘When we went to Macedonia, we knew it was a fever country. But no-one was able to realise the full extent of the deadliness of – for example – the Struma plain. Our people sank under the malaria like grass-blades under a scythe. One infantry battalion dwindled from its strength of 1,000 to one officer and nineteen men.’

An incident tangential to the Macedonian front but still worth mentioning on account of its fame was the attempt by a German airship in the autumn of 1917 to take medical stores and other badly needed supplies from Bulgaria to East Africa (where the RFC’s 26 Squadron’s B.E.2cs and Farmans were flying patrols against General von Lettow-Vorbeck’s guerrillas). It was a feat that merely confirmed Germany’s supremacy in airship technology. The heavily laden Zeppelin L.59 took off from Yambol in Bulgaria, crossed the Mediterranean, flew obliquely across Egypt and down through Sudan to the confluence of the Blue and White Niles south of Khartoum. It was little more than halfway to its destination when it was recalled by wireless on account of a false rumour that the German garrison in East Africa had been evacuated and abandoned. Captain Bockholt simply turned the L.59 around in mid-air and headed back to Yambol, where in due course he landed uneventfully, having been in the air for ninety-six hours and flown 4,200 miles. It was an epic flight.


The Italian Front also offered airmen the challenge of forbidding terrain, and this at first without adequate maps. The Austrian maps of the Julian Alps, in particular, proved useless for military purposes, being too small-scale. In late September 1917 the German General Staff urgently needed to relieve the pressure on the Austro-Hungarian troops in Trieste, but couldn’t advance its own divisions without reliable large-scale maps. German squadrons were called in to make a complete photographic survey of the region on both sides of the lines. This involved flying fifty miles each way over impassable mountains, itself a nerve-racking enterprise with the prospect of surviving a crash-landing small and of being rescued smaller still.

After the catastrophic Italian defeat at Caporetto in November 1917, the RFC rushed three Camel squadrons and two squadrons of R.E.8s to the Italian front. Air activity over the front became constant but by now, as in Macedonia, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians found themselves badly outnumbered, especially as the Italian fighter forces were becoming seasoned and effective. Even so, Austro-Hungarian aircraft still managed to bomb Padua, Treviso, Mestre and Venice in December, causing the usual terror and destruction. In fact the air war over the north of Italy had from the first been predominantly one of bombing. The Italian military visionary Giulio Douhet had elaborated his ideas of air warfare well before the war, and he continued his warnings via the press. On 12th December 1914 he wrote in a Turin newspaper:

To be safe from enemy infantry it is sufficient merely to be behind the battlefront; but from an enemy who dominates the air there is no safety except for moles. Everything that is to the rear and keeps an army alive lies exposed and threatened: supply convoys, trains, railway stations, powder magazines, workshops, arsenals, everything.

Today this might seem like stating the obvious, but in 1914 the military on all sides needed to be reminded of their vulnerability to air attack. Immediately after Italy’s May 1915 declaration of war on Austria-Hungary, until so recently its prewar ally, Austro-Hungarian airmen vengefully bombed Venice and Ancona, following up with a further raid on Venice in October. The Italians retaliated by bombing Austrian railways and aerodromes with their impressive tri-motored Caproni heavy day-bombers. Douhet had inspired Gianni Caproni to design this big machine and then ordered by him to go into production with it, an order Douhet had no authority to give and for which he was imprisoned. He was later pardoned thanks to the intervention of the poet, patriot and national hero Gabriele d’Annunzio, who had long been a friend and champion of Caproni’s. Whatever else might be said about d’Annunzio’s egomania, affectations and philanderings, there was no doubting his outstanding physical courage. Despite having lost an eye and been rendered nearly blind in an air crash in 1916 he was not only given the command of a squadron of Caproni’s bombers but flew with them on raids, such as one in August 1917 when, at the age of fifty-four, he led a fleet of thirty-six aircraft to bomb Pola in the south of the Istrian peninsula. So far all the Italian Army’s smaller scout and observation aircraft had been imported from France; but by the end of the war Italy had developed a lively and efficient aviation industry of its own that Mussolini went on to foster with great enthusiasm. In Italy, at least, aviation and Fascism had begun to be close bedfellows, as Mussolini’s biographer Guido Mattioli would observe.

For their part the Austro-Hungarians kept up their own bombing campaign, which in its way was as impressive as the Italians’ effort since they were mostly flying single-engined aircraft on long sorties. Even though by the end of the war Austro-Hungarian air raids on northern Italy – including several on Venice and at least one on Milan – had killed upwards of 400 civilians, and Italian air raids had probably killed a similar number of Austro-Hungarians (the exact number is not known), the most decisive effects of the air war in that European theatre probably came from what the combatants learned for future use in terms of organising an aero industry and the military deployment of aircraft generally.

This was certainly true where recognising the potential of fighter aircraft was concerned. The top Italian ace, Francesco Baracca, fell in flames in June 1918 with a total of thirty-four victories. An inspirational figure, he flew French machines exclusively, mainly Nieuports and SPADs, painted with his personal emblem of a prancing horse: the cavallino rampante. Many years after his death, when Baracca was an enshrined national hero, his mother presented a copy of this emblem to Enzo Ferrari who adopted it as his company logo and on whose cars it can be seen to this day.

WWI Air War: Balkans and Mesopotamia III

However, the theatre of war outside France and Belgium that had the gravest long-term consequences was that of Palestine and Mesopotamia. It is easy enough to see now why the Turco-German attempt to gain the Suez Canal, hold Palestine and Baghdad and retain the Turkish grip on Mesopotamia was doomed. Their lines of supply from the north were far too long, too shaky and critically affected by adverse weather in the winter months, with terrible roads and the incomplete rail link easily washed out or undermined. The steam trains hauling the goods could also not rely on supplies of coal, wood or even water along this increasingly desert route. It was some 900 miles by rail and road from Constantinople [Istanbul] down through Palestine to Beersheba, their base for the Canal campaign. Added to that, in the northeast Russian troops began crossing the Ottoman border from around the Caspian, marching south to harass the Turks holding Baghdad. Yet in the early months of 1916, following the humiliating rout of the Entente forces in Gallipoli and the Dardanelles, it is understandable that the Germans and Turks fancied their chances of success.

The Germans began their Suez campaign in early 1915 and soon acquired an aerial presence with fourteen two-seater Rumpler C.1s, ‘tropicalised’ for desert use as best they could be with enlarged radiators. They were facing the British Canal defence forces, some of whom (like W. E. Johns) had been withdrawn there after the retreat from Gallipoli, and others who were fresh reinforcements. Compared to the Germans, reliant on their creaking rail-and-road link, the British were well supplied. They were already laying a railway with a twelve-inch cast-iron water pipe running beside it from Ismailia across Sinai up towards Palestine, and had reached Bir Qatia. Meanwhile, Colonel Kress von Kressenstein had moved his men and two observation aircraft to El Arish, only about ninety miles from the Canal, and carried out a brilliant lightning raid on Bir Qatia, taking prisoner twenty officers and 1,200 men. The Turks had been counting on the Libyan Senussi to divide the British effort by attacking Egypt from the west at the same time, but the attack never took place and Bir Qatia was as near as the Turco-German forces ever came to menacing the Suez Canal directly. From now on, their story turned into one of steady northward retreat. Nevertheless, one of their Rumplers did achieve an astonishing morale-boosting coup by flying the 600-mile round trip from El Arish to Cairo, where the crew bombed the railway station and took various aerial photos, including one of the Pyramids at Giza.

Despite the setback at Bir Qatia, the British went on building the railway across Sinai at the rate of over 700 yards a day and reached El Arish just before Christmas 1916. They were soon in Khan Yunes and threatening Gaza, at which point the German forces must have realised they would do well if they could hold on to Palestine. They regularly sent observation machines back over the long haul to Suez, taking photographs of the British supply chain and doing what they could to harry the troops. By now the military on both sides were learning the techniques of desert survival, including camel riding, and were well aware of the logistical problems involved in desert warfare, the primary one being, of course, water. Any deployment had to be planned with reference to known wells. Aircraft presented problems of their own, including the need for large supplies of petrol and oil as well as spare parts. The airframes were drying out, the wood warping and cracking, while the sand in the air abraded propellers, stripped the dope from the wings’ leading edges and blasted windscreens opaque. Both sides managed to maintain a very high level of intelligence using spies and double agents often landed by air and robed à la Lawrence of Arabia, sneaking hither and yon through the desert on various clandestine escapades. This was to become the setting for one of W. E. Johns’s most exciting early novels, Biggles Flies East (1935), which has Biggles based first in Al Qantarah in the Canal Zone but flying for a German Staffel as a double agent. The narrative is full of the details of a desert campaign that Johns would have gleaned first-hand during his seven months in Egypt in 1916, spiced up with facts about flying in such unforgiving country that he briefly experienced in 1924 when he was in the RAF and spent time in both Iraq and Waziristan on India’s North-West Frontier.

Meanwhile, 700 miles to the northeast in Iraq, one of the most humiliating defeats in British military history was imminent as Major-General Charles Townshend’s contingent of largely Indian troops was bottled up in the town of Kut al Amara by the Turkish Army’s XVIII Corps. Kut was a hundred miles south of Ottoman-held Baghdad, and the defenders had been trapped there since December 1915. In the following four months various attempts to relieve them had failed in a series of battles the British Army had lost. In April 1916 30 Squadron RFC carried out daily drops of food and ammunition over Kut, possibly the earliest example of supply by air. At the time 30 Squadron contained an Australian ‘half-flight’ that had been recalled from India to help in Mesopotamia, but it is hard to see what on earth the wretched airmen could have been expected to do with the aircraft they were given. They had two ancient Maurice Farman ‘Rumptys’ and an even more veteran Maurice Farman ‘Longhorn’: the hideous pusher-engined contraption with enormous upward-curving wooden skids in front of its wheels to which a forward elevator was attached. What anybody was hoping such ludicrous museum pieces might achieve in a Middle Eastern battle zone is beyond conjecture. They not only had an absolute top speed of 50 mph in an area where desert winds frequently blew a good deal faster, but the machines’ antique wing design lost most of its lift in the hot air, to the extent that above certain temperatures neither type could even take off, let alone fly missions.

The Turkish besiegers were not much better supplied and were uncertain of being able to defend Baghdad at all costs. At this point Turkish Fokker E.III monoplanes arrived and began to bomb Kut. A German Staffel also arrived in Baghdad. One German pilot, Hans Schüz, shot down three RFC machines over Kut in short order and brought to an end the British supply drops. This, together with the Turks’ daily bombing of the town, led to a collapse of morale among Major-General Townshend’s mainly Indian troops. He finally surrendered the garrison and his men to the Turkish commander, having failed to negotiate an abject cash deal for their release using T. E. Lawrence as an intermediary. It was a resounding triumph for the Turco-German forces, and the Germans in Baghdad treated it as being on a par with their victory in the Dardanelles. However, the rejoicing was short-lived because it was here that the Germans’ own lines of supply began to break down badly. Aircraft and spares were not getting through on the long haul from Constantinople and, thrown back on its own resourcefulness, the Staffel in Baghdad was forced to become inventive.

After petrol, one of the biggest necessities for maintaining aircraft in the desert was a supply of propellers. At that time these were all made of wood that was laminated, glued and pressed before being accurately carved into the final complex shape. In the extreme desert heat the glue softened, the wood dried out and the laminations began to open up. The German airmen in Baghdad were reduced to making their own propellers from scratch even though they lacked the proper equipment. Improvisation was the order of the day, and they scoured the workshops of Baghdad for anything they could use. They even built an entire aircraft that they later claimed flew remarkably well. Some also taught themselves to distil petrol and to make bombs out of cast-iron pipes.

Their Turkish allies were now being threatened from the other direction by Russian forces advancing down through Persia. Soon the Staffel in Baghdad was reduced to a ratty handful of old aircraft plus a single new one that had managed to get through. It was a copy of a British R.E. type, and the RFC airmen stationed behind the British lines noted this with glee. One day they dropped a parcel of spare R.E. parts on the Staffel’s base with a note that read: ‘We congratulate the newly arrived bird upon its success. Herewith a few spare parts which, no doubt, will soon be required.’ This was only one of a series of jocular notes dropped by the airmen of both sides, echoing those in Macedonia that betokened mutual esteem and a joint recognition of the dangers and hardships that operations in such extreme landscapes offered. Hans Schüz, who ended the war with ten victories after flying an Albatros D.III in the retreat through Palestine, observed:

The limit was reached one day when the English airmen proposed that we should all land at some neutral spot to meet over a cup of tea and exchange newspapers and gramophone records. However, we were unable to see eye to eye with them in this conception of warfare. Those who know the English are aware that, in spite of events like this, they would always fight in the air with the greatest determination and keenness. No doubt our machine guns and bombs provided them with plentiful antidotes to boredom.

It was a repeat of the RFC’s proposal for a get-together in Macedonia, the sort of gesture soldiers tend to make only when they suspect they have the upper hand. Thereafter the decline in conditions for their German opponents in Iraq accelerated. The Staffel’s few remaining aircraft managed to photograph evidence that the British Army was preparing for an attack on Baghdad in the shape of new encampments beside the Tigris and increased steamer traffic on the river. Unfortunately, the heat tended to melt the chemicals on the photographic plates, which were anyway in short supply, and the results of these flights were not always commensurate with the risks. Captain Schüz’s retrospective narrative began to show signs of sheer frustration:

One request for more aeroplanes and the necessaries of war followed on another; but it was a long way to Constantinople. In vain did the handful of Germans endeavour to accelerate the arrival of supplies. All such demands were rendered nugatory by that peculiarity of the Turkish temperament about which we have already complained. If it should be Allah’s will that we should be victorious, then victory shall be ours, even without new aeroplanes; but if Allah hath ordained otherwise, then nothing can help us. Kismet! All is fate!

By the time the British finally attacked towards Baghdad in December 1916 the remaining German aircraft were barely airworthy. Their wings were warped, instruments were missing from the cockpits and the wheels no longer had tyres, the rubber having perished. The aircraft had to take off and land on wheels whose rims were bound with wired-on rags. (It would not be long before rubber was in such short supply back home in Germany that training aircraft were shod with wooden wheels.) Baghdad at last fell to the British and after a hectic retreat the Turkish army reassembled in Mosul only sixty or seventy miles from the Turkish border. Captain Schüz went back to Germany to demand fresh supplies in person and returned in April 1917 with nine new scouts:

In order to confound the English by the unexpected appearance of a new type, I covered the 300-odd miles from the railhead of the Baghdad line to the front in one day. But even this rapidity was of no use. On the same day an English machine appeared at a great height and dropped a tin of cigarettes with the following message: ‘The British airmen send their compliments to Captain S. and are pleased to welcome him back to Mesopotamia. We shall be happy to offer him a warm reception in the air. We enclose a tin of English cigarettes and will send him a Baghdad melon when they are in season. Au revoir. Our compliments to the other German airmen. The Royal Flying Corps.’ The English secret service had again done a brilliant piece of work.

For the next sixteen months the Germans and the Turks were steadily pushed back as British and Indian troops moved northwards, having already taken Gaza and Beersheba on the way to Jerusalem. They were supported by RFC squadrons under their GOC Palestine, General Sefton Brancker, the man who in 1914 had flown a B.E.2c hands-off from Farnborough to Netheravon. (Brancker was to survive the war only to die in the crash of the R.101 airship in 1930. He was last heard from via a spirit medium in a séance, describing himself as ‘rather busy’.)

In December 1917 General Allenby secured Jerusalem after several battles. The following September he finally defeated the Ottoman army at the Battle of Megiddo and was free to march into Damascus. After making heroic efforts in the air, the remaining German Staffeln retreated to Aleppo and thence flew northwards in stages across Turkey to Samsun on the Black Sea. By then they knew the war was lost and their efforts in the blazing sands of the Middle East had been in vain. News was coming in from Germany of increasing unrest and mutiny there as, inspired by the Russian Revolution and utter disenchantment with the men who had led the country to ruin and defeat, Communists and anarchists fomented social unrest. It must have been a bitter moment for the airmen on the shores of the Black Sea, looking back on the hundreds of hours they had spent in the air, wobbling in the thermals above the endless camel-coloured landscapes of rock and sand and dried-up wadis beneath which they had left so many of their former comrades. Retrospectively, the desert must have seemed to them as Mount Everest does today: a locus of pointless travail. At the same time they were no doubt looking forward with a mixture of relief and apprehension to being back in a changed Germany they might scarcely even recognise as their homeland.

They certainly had no monopoly of bitterness. Prince Feisal, Lawrence and his victorious Sherifian forces were in Damascus when Allenby arrived and had already announced a provisional Arab government. Lawrence had to translate for the Prince as Allenby informed him that this might not be recognised. Seventeen months later, shortly after he had proclaimed the independent Kingdom of Syria, Feisal was abruptly told that this was null and void and Damascus was to be handed over to the French. Sykes–Picot had triumphed. By then Lawrence was back in Britain on leave, sick with forebodings of the betrayal he knew was in store for his Arab comrades.


That story had a curious sequel. In 1920, and with some difficulty after the wholesale demobilisations that followed the war, W. E. Johns had managed to get himself reinstated on the RAF’s active list. With the recently established rank of Flying Officer he was posted to the deskbound job of an Inspector of Recruiting in London. The new downsizing RAF was keen to reinvent itself with fresh volunteers, and F/O Johns was under strict instructions not to enlist former officers of the RFC, RNAS or RAF. He was based in offices in Covent Garden and was deeply affected by the pathetic sight of jobless ex-servicemen living rough in the city. One day a former pilot from 110 Squadron, who had been in Landshut POW camp in Germany with him, walked into the office, having survived a week of sleeping in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields with a single penny bun to eat each day. Forbidden to wangle him a job, Johns could only give the man some of his own cash and send him away. The anger and disgust he felt at the way neglect was being lavished on these men who had risked their lives for their country came out in a story he later wrote about an ex-RFC pilot who decided to live a postwar life of crime in order to give the proceeds to needy ex-servicemen. So much for Lloyd George’s ringing promise of ‘a land fit for heroes to live in’. Johns’s mistrust and contempt for politicians became yet more deeply ingrained.

One day in August 1922 a potential recruit walked in to whom Johns took an instant dislike. He was thin, pale-faced and somehow arrogant. He gave his name as Ross but failed to provide a birth certificate so Johns sent him away to get the necessary documents and meanwhile contacted Somerset House. This check confirmed that the man’s identity was false, so when Ross returned Johns quite rightly rejected him. He came back within an hour in the company of a messenger from the Air Ministry bearing an order for Ross’s enlistment. Reluctantly, Johns sent him upstairs for the obligatory medical inspection, but one look at the scars on Ross’s back was enough for the doctor to turn the man down on medical grounds. He was all too plainly not of the calibre needed for the rejuvenated RAF, since apart from anything else he was already thirty-four. This time the Air Ministry sent its own doctor to the Covent Garden depot to sign Ross’s medical form. Furious at this high-handed treatment, Johns complained to his own CO who simply told him that he had just rejected Lawrence of Arabia, so he might as well shut up if he wished to keep his job. There was nothing anybody could do. The Chief of Air Staff, Sir Hugh Trenchard himself, had facilitated the whole process of smuggling Lawrence into the RAF disguised as Aircraftsman Ross, and that was that.

Johns never forgot this lesson in military realpolitik. Together with his wartime experiences it no doubt accounted for the deep scepticism of his later editorials in Popular Flying and elsewhere when commenting on official pronouncements by service chiefs and politicians. In some ways his belligerent advocacy for a properly prepared British air response to Germany’s rearmament in the 1930s had something in common with Noel Pemberton Billings’s denunciations and warnings in the House of Commons during the First World War. Though vastly different in character, both ex-pilots were unafraid of men in gold braid and had admirably clear vision and opinions when it came to understanding air power and its consequences.

Imperial Russian: Navy Seaplane Carriers

A far cry from the capability offered by Cold War era and modern day aircraft carriers, during World War 1 the Imperial Russian Navy operated a number of Seaplane Carriers including the Orlitza (pictured) which served with the Imperial Russian Baltic Fleet.

The Seaplane Carrier Imperator Alexander I

The Seaplane Carrier Imperator Nikola I

In the second decade of the 21st century, design studies were underway with the aim of building a nuclear powered aircraft carrier for the Russian Federation Navy to replace that services sole conventional powered Aircraft Carrying Heavy Cruiser, Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, Kuznetsov, which was, by that time, in her third decade of service, the four aircraft carrying cruisers of the Kiev Class and the two Moskva Class helicopter carriers having long since been retired. The design and building road to produce a Soviet and later Russian aircraft carrier force had been long and arduous, the Soviet Union facing trials and tribulations faced by no other aircraft carrier building nation. Among these were the wartime sieges, massive depletion of workforces due to the horrific death tolls on the eastern front and enemy occupation of land mass or cutting off of build and design centres. On top of this was the fact that wartime priorities for production resources inevitably went to the land and air forces locked in the largest clash of armies the world had ever seen as the Soviet Union struggled, first for survival and then to expel the Axis invaders from its soil before continuing on to take Berlin, the German capital, in 1945.

There are several points in history that could be defined as the commencement of air operations from ships at sea. However, it is an incontestable fact that the type of ship known as the aircraft carrier was born out of the labour pains of World War 1. There were, however, several landmark events leading up to the aircraft carrier as defined in the 20th and 21st centuries. For example, in 1806 the Thames Class Frigate HMS Pallas (launched in 1804), deployed kites used to scatter anti-Napoleon leaflets over France during the Napoleonic Wars, this considered to be the first air operation launched from a ship at sea. The first offensive air operation from a ship is considered to have taken place in 1849 when the Austrian ship Vulcano launched Montgolfiere hot air balloons on a failed attempt to drop small size bombs on the city of Venice. The pioneers of these audacious early ship launched air operations could hardly have dreamt that by the early 20th century powered flight would become a reality, and that such machines would be operating from ships at sea.

In the years proceeding World War 1, a new classification of warship emerged in the shape of the Seaplane Carrier. The first true seaplane carrier is considered to have been the French vessel Foudre, which was converted from a torpedo boat tender to carry seaplanes, from 1911, housed in a covered hanger on the main deck.

In Britain, the Royal Navy converted the Protected Cruiser HMS Hermes to a Seaplane Tender for trials in 1913. Having been paid off at the end of 1913, Hermes was recommissioned as a Seaplane Tender in August 1914, the month World War 1 started, ,but was sunk  by a German Submarine a short time later.

There were a not insignificant number of merchant vessels and warships converted to serve as seaplane tenders/carriers in several navies during the war years of 1914-1918, including several such vessels that would serve with the Imperial Russian Navy in the Black Sea and Baltic Sea theatres. The first such vessel was the Seaplane Carrier Almaz, converted from the Cruiser of the same name (completed in 1903) in 1914.

The Almaz, in her incarnation as a Seaplane Carrier, was destined to serve in the Imperial Russian Black Sea Fleet, mainly out of the port of Novorossiysk on the Russian Black Sea coast. She carried an embarked force of Grigorovich M-5 Type seaplanes that were tasked with general reconnaissance and fire support spotting duties. In the turmoil, commencing in February 1917, leading to the October 1917 Revolution that would ultimately through various twists and turns lead to the state recognized as the Soviet Union (USSR – Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), the Almaz changed hands several times, at various times being in the charge of Ukraine, Germany and Britain before being turned over to the White Russian Fleet opposed to the Red Russian (future Soviet) forces. Following the acceptance of defeat and the internment of the White Russian Fleet in Algiers in French North Africa in 1920, the vessel was turned over to France in 1928 and ultimately scrapped in 1934.

No less than four more fully fledged Seaplane Carriers (other vessels are noted to have undergone some modifications work) followed the Almaz, including the Orlitza, which was converted from the merchant ship Imperatritza Aleksandra I in 1915, this vessel, post conversion, operating an embarked force of seaplanes for reconnaissance and spotting duties with the Imperial Russian Baltic Fleet. Records are vague, but it appears that this vessel was returned to civil service as a merchant ship in 1923.

A Russian passenger liner (which entered civil service in 1913) was, under the name of Imperator Nikolai I, converted to a Seaplane Carrier from sometime in 1915, serving with the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The ship was renamed Aviator in May 1917. Having survived World War 1 and the revolutionary campaigns in post war Russia, the vessel, having been captured by German forces at Sevastopol in spring 1918 and handed over to Britain in November that year, was sold to the French Maritime Service in 1921 for Messageries Maritimes service as the Pierre Loti.

The Russian Merchant Liner Imperator Alexander I, (Aleksander I) which entered civil service in 1913, was commissioned into the Imperial Russian Navy in 1915 as a Seaplane Carrier. This vessel was renamed Respublikatec on 11 May 1917. In 1921 she was sold to the French Maritime Shipping company Messageries Maritimes, being operated as the merchant ship Lamartine before being renamed Khai Dinn in 1940.

The Romanian (Rumanian) State Maritime Service Liner Ruminia (completion date being around 1904) was taken over by Russia in 1916 and converted to a Seaplane Carrier, retaining the ships civil name. This vessel operated with an embarked force of between 4 and 6 Grigorovich M-9 Type flying boats tasked with the reconnaissance and spotting roles. The Ruminia was returned to Romania in late 1918, having been captured by German forces in spring 1918 and handed over to Britain in November that year.

During World War 1, which was, perhaps naively, described as the war to end all wars that failed to live up to its epithet, the British Royal Navy, then the World’s dominant maritime power, operated not only seaplane carriers, but also introduced a number of aircraft carriers, in that aircraft would take-off from the flying-off deck. While the Imperial Russian Navy had operated the above seaplane carriers during the war, no aircraft carriers were introduced to service, neither was there any serious plans for the introduction of such vessels. By contrast, Britain was making great strides in the evolution of aircraft carrier design, having introduced, HMS Ark Royal, considered to be the World’s first, albeit rudimentary, aircraft carrier in that the seaplane engines would be started on non-flying-off deck. This vessel, in reality a seaplane carrier converted from a merchant vessel in 1914, went on to serve in the Dardanelles campaign in 1915, and in other theatres through the 1918 Armistice.


Republic F-105 Thunderchief

As Republic F-105D Thunderchief fighter-bombers make a low-level strike on a North Vietnamese target, one sustains a serious hit, in Jim Laurier’s illustration “Thud Ridge.”

LETHAL ENCOUNTER by William S. Phillips

In 1951, a design team under Alexander Kartveli at Republic Aircraft began work as a company venture on a new high-performance, single-seat low-level nuclear strike aircraft. The new aircraft, which was given the company designation of “AP-63”, where “AP” stood for “Advanced Project”, was to replace the Air Force’s Republic F-84F Thunderstreak.

Many different design concepts were considered, gradually evolving towards something along the lines of a “stretched” F-84F with a bomb-bay for a nuclear weapon. The aircraft was to be fitted with an Allison J71 engine, though as it turned out, this powerplant would not prove powerful enough for the aircraft that finally flew and was never actually used.

The AP-63 would also be able to carry air-to-surface missiles (ASMs) and air-to-air missiles (AAMs) on underwing pylons. It was to have a top speed of Mach 1.5 and would be capable of defending itself against enemy fighters. The aircraft would have sophisticated combat avionics and mid-air refueling capability.

Initial contracts were awarded to Republic in 1952 and 1953 for what at first was a total of 199 aircraft, with initial delivery in 1955. In reality, the USAF requirements were shifting at the time, and the company did not receive a solid contract until February 1955, for 15 aircraft. These 15 aircraft were finally completed as two “YF-105A” evaluation aircraft; three “RF-105B” reconnaissance aircraft, which were later redesignated “JF-105B” and used for “special tests”; and ten production “F-105Bs”.

The initial flight of the first YF-105A was on 22 October 1955, with the second flying on 28 January 1956. The YF-105A was a sleek, big aircraft with mid-mounted wings swept back 45 degrees; similar sweptback tail surfaces, with an “all moving” horizontal tailplane; engine intakes in the wing roots; a ventral fin for yaw stability at high speeds; and tall and stalky tricycle landing gear with single wheels. The main gear hinged in the wings, retracting towards the fuselage, and the nose gear retracted forwards.

The wings were relatively small for the aircraft’s size to gave it high “wing loading” that ensured a smoother ride at low level, though at the expense of agility and with the price of a long take-off run. Flight controls were hydraulically boosted. The pilot sat in a cockpit with a clamshell canopy, on a Republic-designed rocket-boosted ejection seat.

Although the plan was to fit production aircraft with the Pratt & Whitney (P&W) J75 turbojet, as the J75 was not available at the time the two YF-105As were powered by the P&W J57-P-25 turbojet engine, with 45.4 kN (4,625 kg / 10,200 pounds) dry thrust and 66.7 kN (6,800 kg / 15,000 lb) afterburning thrust. Despite the fact that the J57 was substantially less powerful than the J75, the YF-105A was still capable of Mach 1.2.

The first YF-105A was severely damaged in a landing on 16 December 1955 after losing one of its main landing gear in flight. An attempt was made to repair the machine, but the effort proved too costly and the aircraft was scrapped. The other YF-105A remained in service for development testing for several years.

The first of four “YF-105Bs” or “F-105B-1s” performed its initial flight on 26 May 1956, and was fitted with the P&W YJ75-P-3 engine with 71.2 kN (7,260 kg / 16,000 lb) dry thrust and 105 kN (10,660 kg / 23,500 lb) afterburning thrust. The F-105B-1 also differed from the YF-105As in having reverse-swept instead of straight air intakes, plus an “area-ruled” fuselage.

The reverse-swept intakes helped reduce the likelihood of engine stall from high-speed shock waves in the engine inlets. There was a moveable “plug” in each inlet that could be shifted forward and back to improve high-speed airflow, as well as auxiliary ducts that opened when the aircraft’s landing gear were extended. Area ruling was an innovation of the 1950s in which changes in aircraft cross-section were made as gradual as possible to improve transonic handling, resulting in a “wasp-waisted” fuselage configuration.

However, the initial F-105B-1 suffered damage on landing during its first flight when its nose gear failed to extend. The aircraft was judged repairable, until a crane operator dropped it during an attempt to get it off the runway at Edwards Air Force Base, and it was written off. This slowed down the flight test program, which compounded the delays encountered by Republic in putting together such a sophisticated and advanced aircraft.

The development effort was also complicated by the fact that the USAF requirements were continuing to shift, but these changing requirements also led the USAF to become more enthusiastic about the “Thunderchief”, as it was formally named in June 1956. In March 1956, the service had ordered 65 F-105Bs and 17 RF-105Bs, followed by an order for five two-seat “F-105C” trainers to provide instruction in the Thunderchief’s advanced avionics systems.

The RF-105Bs were cancelled in July 1956, though three prototypes lacking both armament and photographic gear were completed and used as trials aircraft. The F-105Cs were axed in 1957, but F-105B production went ahead.

The second F-105B flew on 30 January 1957. It also suffered a landing gear problem and had to “belly in”, but repairing the damage was straightforward. First flight of a production aircraft was on 14 May 1958.

The USAF Tactical Air Command (TAC) had a full squadron of Thunderchiefs in service by mid-1959. On 11 December 1959, Brigadier General Joseph Moore, commander of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing, set a world’s speed record of 1,958.53 KPH (1,216 MPH) over a 100 kilometer closed course in an F-105B.

F 105B / F-105D / F105F in service

The Thunderchief was a complicated aircraft, leading to high maintenance rates. The electronic systems were particularly unreliable and the hydraulic systems badly needed redundancy. Initially, the aircraft required 150 maintenance hours per flight hour to keep it in the air and so aircraft availability rates were poor. However, efforts to work out the bugs continued, and presently Republic and the Air Force began to get ahead on the serviceability curve, with F-105Bs brought up to snuff through a program designated “Project Optimize”.

When the Thunderchief was in flying condition, it was an impressive aircraft, like its Republic ancestors big, rugged, and powerful, but unlike them surprisingly sleek and photogenic.

The sweptback wings featured low-speed ailerons and high-speed spoilers to improve handling, as well as full-span leading-edge flaps to improve takeoff and landing characteristics. The Thunderchief also featured an interesting airbrake system consisting of four “cloverleaf” segments around the jet exhaust that opened like flower petals. The cloverleaf exhaust also served as a variable engine exhaust, opening nine degrees automatically when afterburner was engaged. Only the horizontal petals could be extended when the aircraft’s landing gear was down.

Full production F-105Bs were powered by a P&W J75-P-19 engine, with 71.6 kN (7,300 kg / 16,100 lb) dry thrust and 109 kN (11,100 kg / 24,500 lb) afterburning thrust.

The aircraft was fitted with a single General Electric (GE) M61 six-barrel 20 millimetre Vulcan Gatling-type cannon, firing from the left side of the nose. The fighter could also carry 3,630 kilograms (8,000 pounds) of stores in its bomb bay, as well as an additional total of 1,815 kilograms (4,000 pounds) of stores on five external stores pylons, with one pylon on the aircraft centreline and two under each wing.

The bomb bay could carry a Mark 28 or Mark 43 nuclear weapon, though as the Thunderchief became more focused on conventional attack the bomb bay was usually fitted with an auxiliary fuel tank with a capacity of 1,476 litres (390 US gallons). The internal fuel capacity without the bomb bay-tank was 4,396 litres (1,160 US gallons) in seven tanks in the rear fuselage.

The F-105B could also carry two 1,705 litre (450 US gallon) drop tanks, one on each inboard stores pylon, and another 1,705 liter or 2,464 liter (650 US gallon) drop tank on the centreline pylon. Total fuel capacity could be as high as 11,750 litres (3,100 US gallons). The aircraft was fitted for probe-and-drogue inflight refuelling, with a retractable probe on the left side of the nose just forward of the cockpit.

The F-105B only equipped two USAF squadrons, with the variant phased out to the US Air National Guard (ANG) in 1964. Some of these aircraft were passed on to the Air Force Reserve later. However, the USAF had already requested modifications to the F-105B for all-weather operation in November 1957, well before the Thunderchief entered service, leading to the definitive “F-105D”.

The F-105D’s nose was stretched by 38 centimetres (1 foot 3 inches) to accommodate the “AN/ASG-9 Thunderstick” system. This featured the “R-14A” multi-mode radar to provide air-to-air, air-to-ground, and low-level terrain-following capability, and the GE “FC-5” automatic flight-control system to provide navigation and weapons-delivery capabilities. Cockpit instrumentation was updated accordingly. The circular dials of the F-105B’s cockpit were also replaced with horizontal and vertical “tape” style indicators.

The F-105D was powered by an uprated J75-P-19W turbojet with water-methanol injection, providing 118 kN (12,000 kg / 26,500 lb) boost thrust. Intake ducting was modified and the airframe, landing gear, and brakes were strengthened. The F-105D also incorporated a somewhat unusual feature for a ground-based fighter: an arresting hook at the rear of the ventral fin to allow it to snag runway cables on an overshoot.


   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

   spec                    metric              english

   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

   wingspan                10.59 meters        34 feet 9 inches

   length                  19.61 meters        64 feet 4 inches

   height                  5.97 meters         19 feet 7 inches

   empty weight            12,475 kilograms    27,500 pounds

   max loaded weight       23,970 kilograms    52,840 pounds

   max speed at altitude   2,240 KPH           1,390 MPH / 1,210 KT

   service ceiling         13,720 meters       45,000 feet

   range with tanks        3,850 kilometers    2,390 MI / 2,080 NMI

   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

The armament and weapon load was the same as the F-105B, but the entire 5,450 kilogram (12,000 pounds) weapon load could now be carried externally. The F-105D could also carry four “Sidewinder” AAMs or four “Bullpup” ASMs.

Initial flight of the first of three “F-105D-1s” was on 9 June 1959, with deliveries to TAC beginning in early 1961. However, late in 1961 all F-105Ds were grounded when an airframe failed a fatigue test in the laboratory. The problem was quickly corrected.

The F-105D was manufactured in a series of production blocks that incorporated various refinements, with 353 more produced up to the definitive “F-105D-25” production block, of which 80 were built. All earlier production was brought up to F-105D-25 specification through an update program designated “Project Look-Alike”, begun in 1962 and completed in 1964

In addition, 39 “F-105D-30s” were built with improved instrumentation, and then 135 “F-105D-31s” with dual probe-and-drogue / boom refuelling capability, adding a tanker boom socket in the nose. Total F-105D production came to 610 aircraft, with the last delivered in 1964.

Although the Air Force had cancelled a two-seat strike version of the F-105D designated the “F-105E” in 1958, the service decided that they needed a two-seat Thunderchief after all and ordered yet another two-seat version, the “F-105F”. The first flew on 11 July 1963.

The F-105F featured tandem clamshell cockpits; dual flight controls; the dual inflight refuelling capability of the F-105D-31; a taller vertical tailplane; and a fuselage stretch of 79 centimetres (31 inches) to accommodate the second cockpit. The F-105F was intended mostly to introduce new pilots to the aircraft’s complicated electronic systems, as the back seat had too poor a view to make it a useful flight trainer. However, the aircraft was also fully combat-capable.

The last of 143 F-105Fs was delivered in January 1965, ending Thunderchief production. The word had come down from the top to concentrate on the McDonnell F-4 Phantom for the attack role. 833 F-105s of all types were built in total. All went into service with the USAF. No other US service operated the Thunderchief, and the type was never exported.


By this time, America’s war in Southeast Asia was ramping up. The USAF 36th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) relocated from Japan to Korat Air Force Base in Thailand in August 1964. These F-105s were supposed to be used to provide cover for air rescue operations, but in practice they were often used as strike support for US Central Intelligence Agency operations in Laos.

On 14 August 1964, Lieutenant Larry Davis’s F-105D was chewed up by flak over Laos. Davis made it back to Korat and landed safely, but his aircraft had to be written off as a loss. It was the first Thunderchief to fall to enemy action.

Six months after the introduction of the Thunderchief to Southeast Asia, the 36th TFS was relocated to another base in Thailand at Takhli, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) to the northwest. The 35th TFS moved into Korat. More Thunderchief units arrived, eventually constituting the 6234th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) at Korat and the 6235th TFW at Takhli. Some F-105 squadrons were operated from the Da Nang air base in South Vietnam for a short period of time early in the war, but they were then relocated to Thailand.

The US government denied that the Air Force was operating out of Thailand until 1966, but in fact the F-105s were increasingly busy. They conducted a month-long bombing campaign designated “Barrel Roll” beginning in early December 1964, Barrel Roll was intended to support Royal Laotian forces fighting with the North Vietnamese Army and Communist Pathet Lao insurgents.

This was just a warmup to a bigger air war. On 7 February 1965, in response to an attack by Communist Viet Cong guerrillas against a US base camp in South Vietnam, American President Lyndon Johnson ordered “Operation Flaming Dart” to strike targets in North Vietnam.

The strikes were conducted by US Navy, US Air Force, and South Vietnamese Air Force aircraft, with the F-105s making their initial sorties into North Vietnam itself on 8 February. The Viet Cong responded with further raids on American facilities in South Vietnam, and the US responded with more air attacks.

These strikes led up to a prolonged air campaign against North Vietnam codenamed “Rolling Thunder”, with the first attack performed on 2 March 1965. Rolling Thunder was largely the brainchild of US Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, and had the objective of pressuring North Vietnam to the bargaining table by performing a series of restrained but increasingly severe strikes, hence the codename.

The 2 March strike didn’t give much reason for confidence in the scheme. Three F-105s and two F-100 escorts were shot down, with four pilots killed and one becoming a prisoner of war (POW). The North Vietnamese seemed barely disturbed by the attack. Indeed, as the losses showed, they had been expecting it.

The F-105 became the USAF’s primary strike aircraft for Rolling Thunder, ironically because the Air Force was reluctant to risk the loss of their B-52s, the backbone of their strategic bomber force. In a further irony, B-52s were heavily used for tactical strikes, particularly on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The F-105 took the brunt of the air war. Pilots were generally fond of the big, sturdy, powerful machine, giving it names such as “Lead Sled”, “Super Hog”, “Ultra Hog”, “Iron Butterfly”, and most of all “Thud”. Most of the dangerous bugs that had plagued the type early on had been worked out, and the Thud could take a lot of punishment and come back home. In 1966, one F-105 was hit with a flak round that took out a chunk out of its wing 1.2 meters (4 feet) across, and the aircraft still limped back to base.

The major complaint against the F-105 was that it was, like all its Republic ancestors, a real “Earth lover” that always needed as much runway as it could get to make it into the air. Its highly loaded wings did give it an unbeatable fast ride at low altitude, but they didn’t give the Thud much in way of maneuverability, and the thing was generally regarded as being about as agile as a brick.

Fitted with multiple ejector racks (MERs) on its stores pylons, the Thud could carry eight 340 kilogram (750 pound) bombs, giving it an impressive strike capability. It could carry other air-to-ground munitions, such as napalm canisters and 70 millimeter (2.75 inch) unguided rocket pods. It could also carry four AIM-9 Sidewinder AAMs, with a special rack allowing two to be carried on a single stores pylon.

North Vietnam was divided up by the US military into a set of target zones referred to for some reason as “Route Packages (RPs)”. As the air attacks ramped up, so did the effectiveness of North Vietnamese air defenses, and US losses continued to rise. The most heavily defended area was “RP-6A”, in and around Hanoi. US pilots referred to Hanoi as “downtown”, a reference to the contemporary Petula Clark pop hit of the same name, whose lyrics include the line: “Everything’s waiting for you there.” To enter into this target area, the F-105s had to fly over a region of hilly ground that became known as “Thud Ridge”.

The missions were dangerous and casualties were high. At the peak of the air war, the chances of a Thud pilot surviving 100 missions over North Vietnam was only about 75%. To increase frustration of the pilots, the air war was being “micromanaged” from the top by President Johnson and Defense Secretary McNamara. The strikes were conducted with highly specific “rules of engagement (ROE)” that defined what was to be hit and what wasn’t.

ROEs are now common in the limited warfare practiced in the conflicts that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, but they were more or less a new idea in 1965, one that Air Force pilots had not been trained for and that the politicians in charge didn’t seem to have thought out very well. The ROEs seemed to shift frequently with absolutely no understandable rhyme or reason. What was absolutely clear to Thud pilots, however, was that they were getting shot at by a fearsome network of anti-aircraft guns of varying calibers, as well as SA-2 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and their squadron mates weren’t always coming back.

The North Vietnamese air defense system was so effective that countermeasures became a high priority. “Strike packages” were often led by a Douglas RB-66 Destroyer electronic countermeasures (ECM) aircraft to blind air-defense radars, as well as provide navigation and precision all-weather targeting for the rest of the aircraft in the package.

F-105s also carried one or sometimes even two “ALQ-72” ECM pods on underwing pylons to jam air defence radars. The ALQ-72 was developed by GE beginning in 1961 in response to the emerging SA-2 SAM threat, with the pod originally designated “QRC-160”, where “QRC” stood for “Quick Reaction Capability”. A formation of F-105s all carrying ALQ-72 pods could effectively blind North Vietnamese radars.

Aircraft crews approaching defended territory would run their last system checks and switch on their ECM gear, getting green lights on their cockpit panels to show that things were working. The slogan was: “Clean up, green up, and turn on the music.”

T-Stick II / Wild Weasels / Combat Martin / Northscape / Twilight

F-105Ds were given various refinements to improve their maintainability and survivability in the course of the war, such as countermeasures and a strike-assessment camera.

30 F-105Ds were were fitted with advanced attack avionics beginning in 1969 under the “Thunderstick (T-Stick) II” program, featuring an improved LORAN radio-beacon navigation system to hit targets at night or in bad weather. The avionics were stored in a dorsal fairing that ran from cockpit to tail. However, by this time the F-105D was being withdrawn from combat and the T-Stick II aircraft never went to war.

The F-105F was heavily committed to combat over Southeast Asia. Some were quickly adapted for the “Wild Weasel” air-defence suppression role, fitted with electronics to detect enemy radars and target air defense sites for destruction in advance of strike packages. The original Air Force “Wild Weasel I” was a modified two-seat North American F-100F Super Sabre, but the F-100 wasn’t fast enough to keep up with F-105 strike packages, and so the F-105F was selected for the role.

The major elements of the modification were addition of the “APR-25 Radar Homing And Warning (RHAW)” system, which picked up and located radar sites; the “APR-26 Launch Warning Receiver (LWR)”, which provided warning of a missile launch; and an “IR-133 Scan Receiver” to search for emitters. The back-seat “electronics warfare officer (EWO)” controlled these devices and had a cockpit CRT to help locate targets.

The first such F-105F “Wild Weasel II”, sometimes informally known as an “EF-105F”, performed its first flight on 15 January 1966, and the Wild Weasel Thuds were engaged in active combat by the spring of that year. A total of 86 Wild Weasel F-105F conversions were performed.

The Wild Weasel F-105F was armed with the new “AGM-45 Shrike Anti-Radar Missile (ARM)”, a modified Sparrow AAM with a radar-homing head, to destroy radar transmitters, and attacked air-defense sites with CBU-24 cluster bombs and other munitions. Sometimes Wild Weasel F-105Fs worked with F-105Ds in “hunter-killer” teams, with the Wild Weasel Thud pinpointing the target and the F-105Ds destroying it.

While other aircraft could avoid air-defense sites when possible, Wild Weasels actually had to attract their attention and take them on. This led to the Wild Weasel motto, which was “YGBSM”, standing for “You Gotta Be Shittin’ Me!” Apparently this was the reaction of the first Wild Weasel aircrews when they were told what they were getting themselves into.

Wild Weasel crews were generally gutsy sorts, and they evolved tactics for outflying SAMs launched at them. They would watch for a missile launch, and then fly straight at the SAM at high speed, turning at the last moment. The fast-moving SAM would not be able to turn quickly enough to bring the fighter into the blast radius of its warhead.

Two Wild Weasel F-105F pilots won the highest American military award, the Congressional Medal of Honor. On 10 March 1967, Captain Merlyn F. Dethlefsen was piloting one of four Wild Weasel Thuds paving the way for a strike package. The leader was shot down by anti-aircraft fire, and North Vietnamese MiG-21 fighter made repeated passes on the survivors, trying to force them to dump their ordnance. Dethlefsen pressed home the attack anyway and destroyed the site. All three surviving Wild Weasels returned home with severe damage. Dethlefsen was personally awarded the medal by President Johnson.

On 19 April 1967, Lieutenant Colonel Leo K. Thorsness had completed a Wild Weasel strike when his wingmates were shot down. He was low on fuel but stayed around to cover the air rescue operation, driving of a flight of MiG-17s that tried to interfere. Thorsness shot down one MiG and damaged another. He passed up an opportunity to refuel from a tanker when another aircraft breathing fumes showed up, and landed safely at Ubon, a forward base in Thailand.

On 30 April, Thorsness’ F-105 was hit and badly damaged. He and his EWO ejected, Thorsness being badly injured in the process, and were captured by the North Vietnamese. They spent over six years in a North Vietnamese POW camp.

56 Wild Weasel F-105Fs were later updated to an improved “Wild Weasel III” configuration with the designation “F-105G”, featuring improved avionics, as well as jammer pods that were faired into the forward fuselage, freeing up the underwing pylons for other stores. 14 of the F-105Gs were further modified to carry the big AGM-78 “Standard Anti-Radar Missile (STARM)”, an air-launched variant of the US Navy’s “Standard” SAM.

In late 1967, about a dozen F-105Fs serving in Vietnam were fitted with a Hallicrafters QRC-128 VHF radio jammer to disrupt communications between MiG pilots and their ground controllers. The big box, called “Colonel Computer” by flight crews, replaced the back-seat crew member. These aircraft were referred to as “Combat Martins” and were identifiable from a large square blade antenna just behind the cockpit. Beginning in 1970, they were re-converted to the Wild Weasel configuration.

In early 1967, F-105Fs were also modified to provide a night-strike capability, with a modified R-14A radar system for improved targeting and other, minor, changes for night operations. These were known as “Northscape” or “Commando Nail” aircraft. The program does not seem to have been a success, since it was abandoned by the end of the year, with the aircraft re-converted to Wild Weasels.

By the spring of 1968, the Rolling Thunder campaign had proven a clear failure. American casualties had been high and the North Vietnamese proved entirely indifferent to the attempt to bomb them by gradual increments to the negotiating table. A month-long bombing halt was called, somehow appropriately, on 1 April 1968, with intermittent strikes dwindling away until they stopped completely on 1 October. They were formally called off on 1 November, as American presidential elections were coming up.

There were no more strikes to the north for about three years. During this time, the F-105s were withdrawn from the strike role, the survivors going back home. The last strike mission of the F-105 was on 6 October 1970.

However, Wild Weasel Thuds remained on hand for combat. Attacks on North Vietnam in earnest in the spring of 1972, beginning with an operation codenamed “Freedom Train”, intensifying into “Linebacker I”, to finally end with a climax of destruction named “Linebacker II” during the Christmas season that year. The bombing was much less restrained and much more effective than before, with Linebacker II finally pushing the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table.

Wild Weasel Thuds were in the thick of the action, generally operating in hunter-killer teams with Phantoms to make the most of the limited numbers of F-105Fs still available for combat. They stayed in action until the US finally ended its overt involvement in the war in early 1973.

The loss record of the Thunderchief in the war speaks volumes about the level of its commitment. 385 F-105s were lost, with only 51 of these losses due to operational accidents.

Flak and SAMs were the worst hazard, taking down 312 F-105s. North Vietnamese MiGs claimed 22 Thunderchiefs, but the Thuds more than evened the score, with the F-105 credited with the destruction of 27.5 MiGs. Interestingly, 24.5 of these kills were performed with cannon alone. This is very much the opposite of the kill records of the other major fighter types in the war, the Vought F-8 Crusader and the F-4 Phantom, in which most kills were achieved with missiles.

Thunderchiefs began to be transferred from USAF service to the Air Force Reserve and US Air National Guard in January 1971, with the last Thunderchiefs, F-105Gs, in USAF service sent to the Reserves in July 1980. The last flight of a Reserve Thunderchief, an F-105D, was on 25 February 1984, and the Thud was out of service with the ANG in early 1985. There are some survivors on static display, but none remain in flying condition.


Span: 34 ft. 11 in.

Length: 67 ft. 0 in.

Height: 20 ft. 2 in.

Weight: 54,580 lbs. max.

Armament: One M61 20mm Vulcan cannon plus 14,000 pounds of ordnance–conventional bombs, rocket packs, missiles and special weapons

Engine: One Pratt & Whitney J75-P-19W of 26,500 lbs. thrust with afterburner

Cost: $2,237,000

Serial number: 63-8320


Maximum speed: 1,386 mph

Cruising speed: 596 mph.

Range: 1,500 miles

Service Ceiling: 50,000 ft.

Thuds, the Ridge, and 100 Missions North

Rolling Thunder – The Thud

The F-105 flew more than 75 per cent of all Rolling Thunder strike sorties. Art by Adam Tooby.

The F-105 flew more than 75 per cent of all Rolling Thunder strike sorties. Art by Adam Tooby.

Aviators as well as ground crews and maintainers graced the airplane with the kind of brand loyalty that is otherwise found among Coke drinkers, Harley riders and A-10 Warthog drivers (another Republic product).

“I just loved it from the moment I saw it,” said Captain Hank Goetz in the documentary Thud Pilots. “Everybody wanted to get their hands on it.” Colonel John Casper enthused: “Greatest airplane I’ve ever flown. It was a delight to fly, and I’ve flown the F-5, the F-4, the A-10, the F-16. but [the F-105] was the one I really loved flying.” Captain Sam Morgan: “There was nothing, with that airplane, that I couldn’t get out of. You could pull all the Gs you wanted, you could run as fast as you wanted, it was just a great airplane. And you looked good on the ladder.”

Thud pilot Vic Vizcarra called it “the Cadillac of the air. Huge, comfortable cockpit. I had all the confidence in the world in that airplane. It had terrain-avoidance radar, not terrain-following. You had to manually fly it. I remember one training mission I flew entirely under the [radar] bag. My instructor said, `Hey Vic, look where you are.’ I was in a tiny valley, huge mountains on each side. It proved to me I’ll be able to do this mission in real weather.”

“It was a beautiful airplane, and it was a real thrill to fly,” said Colonel Calvin Markwood. And Marty Case, with 2,000 hours in Thuds, noted: “I really liked the cockpit layout. The pitot heat [switch] was unlike any other airplane. It had a little cube on the end of it, like an ice cube, so you’d feel around for that and you knew you had the pitot heat.”

Colonel Randolph Reynolds flew the F-105 in Vietnam as well as with the Air Force Reserve. “I loved the Thud and came to know its every nuance,” he wrote. “The cockpit was expansive…. The stick in the Thud seemed directly linked to the rate of rotation of the nose, a control characteristic that made flying the airplane a joy.”

Some of the admiration probably wasn’t deserved. After all, the Thud was the only aircraft in Air Force history that had to be withdrawn from combat because nearly half the fleet had been shot down or crashed, leaving too few to be tactically useful. It also quickly failed as a Thunderbird team aircraft, when one broke in half during practice for only its seventh show. And the airplane’s design and gestation was a tortuous, troubled and controversial process.

“But for the challenge of the air war,” Colonel Jack Broughton wrote in Thud Ridge, “I guess the Thud would show up in most people’s book as a loser. But gradually, a startling fact became apparent-the Thud was getting to North Vietnam as nothing else could…. The name that was originally spoken with a sneer has become one of utmost respect throughout the air fraternity.”

Nobody knows for sure where the nickname comes from. Some claim it can be traced back to the Howdy Doody character Chief Thunderthud, but that’s unlikely. The generally accepted explanation is that it’s the sound the airplane made when it hit the ground, as it too often did.

It could have been worse. The airplane’s original moniker was Ultra Hog. (The runway-eating Republic F-84 was the Hog, and the sweptwing F-84F became the Super Hog.) Some pilots called their F-105s Nickels, for the five designator. None called them Thunderchiefs.

Rolling Thunder

The bombing of the North continued, with only a few pauses, from spring 1965 to the eve of the 1968 US presidential election. During the war the United States and its allies would drop nearly 8 million tons of bombs on Indo-China (6,162,000 tons by the US Air Force). This is more than twice the tonnage dropped by the Allied powers in all of World War II. Most of it fell in Laos and South Vietnam.

The air war against the North was actually separate from the war in the South, in that it was controlled by Washington rather than MACV. Although commander of US forces in the Pacific (CINCPAC) Admiral Ulysses Grant Sharp in Honolulu had operational command, Washington determined the targets to be struck. In the air war, as on the ground, gradual escalation was the operational mode. Ostensibly a military operation, the air war over the North was in reality a political tool, designed to force the DRV to give up its support of the insurgency in the South. Its goals were to halt infiltration and bring North Vietnam to the bargaining table.

Fighter-bombers and interceptor aircraft rather than strategic bombers carried the bulk of the war over the North. Operation Rolling Thunder consisted of some 304,000 sorties, but only 2,380 were by B-52s. The Air Force relied chiefly on the F-105 Thunderchief and F-4 Phantom. The F-105 flew more than 75 per cent of all Rolling Thunder strike sorties. At more than 50,000 pounds fully loaded, the “Thud” had difficulty turning in dogfights but still accounted for more MiG kills than any other US aircraft save the F-4. The F-4 Phantom may have been the best multi-role aircraft ever built, although the tell-tale black smoke from its engine made it an easy target for air defenses. Flown by the Air Force, Navy and Marines, the F-4 shot down 55 MiGs (18 MiG-21s), more than any other aircraft. The A-4 Skyhawk, a small single-seat fighter capable of carrying 4 tons of bombs, flew more bombing missions than any other Navy aircraft in Vietnam. There were also the Navy and Marine all-weather capable A-6 Intruder and the Air Force F-111 (Aardvark).

Rolling Thunder underwent the same gradual escalation as the ground war. At the beginning of the bombing campaign Hà Nôi had no jet aircraft, no missiles, fewer than 20 radar installations and only a few obsolete antiaircraft guns. But within two years thanks to support from the USSR the DRV boasted the most sophisticated air defense system in the world. Colonel Jack Broughton, Deputy Commander of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, described North Vietnam “as the center of hell with Hanoi as its hub”.

On 24 July Russian surface-to-air missiles (SAMS) claimed their first victim, an F-4C. By the end of the year there were 60 SAM sites in North Vietnam. Also that year the DRV obtained MiG-15 and MiG-17 aircraft. On 3–5 April 1965, US aircraft struck rail lines to Hà Nôi, the furthest penetration north to that time. Six US aircraft were lost, including one downed by MiGs in the first air-to-air combat of the war.

North Vietnam’s air defence system grew dramatically. By the end of 1966 the DRV had some 150 SAM sites and 70 MiG interceptors; over 100 radar sites provided early warning and tracking for some 5,000 anti-aircraft guns. During 1967 SAM sites increased to some 250. That year there were also 7,000 anti-aircraft guns and 80 MiG fighters, ranging from the MiG-15 to the advanced MiG-21. The number of SAM firings illustrate this growth. In 1965 a total of 194 SAMS were fired, but over the next year 990 were launched, followed by 3,484 in 1967.

Against these defences Admiral Sharp committed the most sophisticated aircraft and weaponry in the US inventory. In 1967 the US first used the Walleye “smart bomb”, a 1,000 lb bomb locked onto a target by a TV eye. US fliers also developed technological countermeasures to deal with MiG and SAM threats. They were slower to develop air tactics for dealing with North Vietnamese pilots, abetted by problems with inaccurate air-to-air missiles. In late 1967, in a stunning turn of events, DRV pilots began shooting down more US aircraft than they were losing. The Air Force largely ignored problems with its tactics, formations and missiles, but the Navy undertook a complete reassessment of its air-to-air operations and in 1969 established its Top Gun training course for pilots. Thereafter it enjoyed a 12-to-1 kill ratio.

Despite SAMS and MiG interceptors, guns remained the most deadly threat to attacking aircraft. Of 3,000 US aircraft lost during the Vietnam War, some 85 per cent were downed by guns. Missiles accounted for only 8 per cent; less than 2 per cent of some 9,000 SAMS fired at US aircraft reached their targets. MiG kills amounted to 7 per cent. In the air war over North Vietnam the United States lost nearly 1,000 aircraft, hundreds of men taken prisoner, and hundreds more killed or missing in action.

Washington steadily escalated the bombing of the North from more than 10,000 sorties a month in 1966 to more than 13,000 a month in 1967. Bombs struck thousands of fixed targets, many more than once, and thousands more moving targets. By the end of Rolling Thunder the US had dropped more than a million tons of bombs on North Vietnam. This cost the DRV more than half its bridges, virtually all of its large petroleum storage facilities, and nearly two-thirds of its power generating plants. It also killed some 52,000 people. US pilots could, and often did, drop more bombs in one day than the French had been able to deliver during the entire siege of Ðiên Biên Phu, but the bombing did not bring Hà Nôi to the negotiating table. Undoubtedly it strengthened US and South Vietnamese morale and made the war much more costly for the DRV, both in terms of lives lost and matériel. It also forced the diversion of labour from farming and other pursuits to repair bomb damage and man air defences.

Throughout Rolling Thunder the Air Force searched for a magic technological bullet to win the war, without success. Earl Tilford has noted:

Cluster bombs, napalm, herbicide defoliants, sensors dropped along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to monitor traffic and aid in targeting, gunships, and electro-optically guided and laser-guided bombs all promised much, and while some delivered a great deal of destruction, in the end technologically sophisticated weapons proved no substitute for strategy.

Operation Rolling Thunder was a failure. Supplies still reached the South at a level sufficient to sustain DRV/VC military operations, especially as they required only a small fraction of that necessary to sustain US/RVN forces. One estimate held that 10 to 20 truckoads of supplies a week supplemented by porters would maintain the insurgency, and there was no way the bombing could prevent that amount from getting through. Also, despite pauses in the bombing, Hà Nôi showed no inclination to end its support for the war. If anything, the bombing intensified Hà Nôi’s determination and solidified popular support in the DRV for the war effort.

While not as dramatic as the air war over North Vietnam nor as costly in terms of casualties as the ground war in the South, the war at sea was important, and the US Navy played a large role in it. The Navy had found itself largely unprepared for Vietnam. Long geared to nuclear war, it had neglected shore bombardment and amphibious assault. After the Tonkin Gulf incidents the Navy instituted frequent gunnery exercises and extended the service life and returned from mothballs several gun cruisers and the battleship New Jersey. New aircraft such as the RA-5C and the A-6 Intruder aided reconnaissance and strike capabilities, and Shrike missiles allowed aircraft to hit North Vietnamese anti-aircraft radars.

The most visible US Navy role was in Seventh Fleet carrier operations. Carrier aircraft participated in Rolling Thunder and also provided support to ground forces in South Vietnam, and on occasion in Laos and Cambodia. Surface warships gave fire support to friendly troops ashore. In Operation Sea Dragon the Navy mounted harassment and interdiction raids along the North Vietnamese coastline. Another important mission was halting infiltration by sea from the North. Market Time patrols, begun in 1965, involved long-range aircraft, medium-sized surface ships, and fast patrol craft known as “swift boats”.

In the Mekong delta a “brown-water fleet” came into being, consisting of fibreglass patrol boats, shallow-draft landing craft, and fire-support monitors. US Navy unconventional warfare teams known as SEALS (Sea-Air- Land) and Navy helicopter units searched out VC/PAVN troops far from the sea; and Navy river convoys resupplied the Army and Marines inland. On several occasions, the Navy also put Marines ashore in amphibious assaults.

First World War Bombing of London 1915—1918 Part I

The First World War began in August 1914. Despite the German aim of a swift victory, their plans were thwarted. By the end of the year, the German army and its opponents, on both Western and Eastern Fronts, were stuck in trenches and the war seemed to have reached a stalemate. Given allied naval superiority and victories in the world outside Europe, matters looked unpromising for Germany. Therefore, in May 1915, the Germans decided to attack London from the air, in order to destroy the nerve centre of the British economy. It was thought that if the City — the financial heart of the country, replete with the Stock Exchange, the Bank of England and numerous warehouses — could be knocked out, then a victory for Germany would be all the closer. Initially, on 5 May 1915, the decision was taken to restrict bombing to the part of London east of the Tower. But lobbying from the High Command persuaded the Kaiser to sign an order in July for unrestricted aerial attacks anywhere on London, apart from the royal palaces and historic buildings — though how the latter were to avoid being damaged was unclear.

At first, the Germans attacked London with zeppelins — sausage-shaped airships capable of dropping bombs on the city. Zeppelins had been anticipated by the British as a potential threat at the outset of war. Aerial gun defences and aircraft squadrons were placed in readiness on the Thames estuary. The latter carried men armed with rifles, which fired incendiary bullets, causing the German airships to explode. From autumn 1914, however, zeppelin bases were attacked by British aircraft. Nevertheless, in 1916 there was Parliamentary criticism of the inadequacy of London’s air defences. In all, there were eleven zeppelin raids on London, in which a total of 522 people were killed in the bombing, and treble that number injured. Material losses were limited, except in a few raids, and in one case the damage amounted to £1.5 million (around £90 million in modern terms).

It is worth noting that air-raids took place against other English towns and cities (as well as Allied cities like Antwerp, Paris and Warsaw), though it was London that bore the brunt of the attacks.

Apart from the zeppelins, there were raids by aircraft, but compared with the Second World War, on a relatively small scale: two attacks by single aircraft in 1916 and several in 1917—1918, involving about twenty aircraft (Gothas). These raids killed 670 people and injured 1,960 others, mostly in the City and the East End. Yet contemporaries were not to know that these attacks would be dwarfed by those of the later conflict, so this new style of warfare was an unpleasant novelty.

Perversely, however, many were struck by the splendour of the spectacle these flying machines presented and were eager to view their progress. John Buchan’s fictional hero, Richard Hannay, describes such a raid in the novel, Mr Standfast, set in 1918:

Then I realized that something very odd was happening. There was a dull sound like the popping of corks of flat soda water bottles. There was a humming, too, from very far up in the skies [. . .] The drone grew louder, and, looking up, I could see the enemy planes flying in a beautiful formation, very leisurely as it seemed, with all London at their mercy.

The writer Arnold Bennett (1867—1931) recalled accompanying friends to the top of the Waldorf Hotel on 11 September 1915 to watch the progress of two zeppelins. He wrote that the machines were ‘Fairy-like [. . .] [the] spectacle agreed to be superb. Noise of bombs agreed to be absolutely intimidating. And noise of our guns merely noise of pop-guns’. One raid was described by Vera Brittain’s aunt, who wrote: ‘the noise of the bombs & the aerial guns was terrific, past imagining unless heard’. A patient in a hospital described one thus:

one of the zeppelins, which looked like a great silver cigar in a luminous cloud, which was the smoke of the shrapnel from our anti-aircraft guns bursting underneath it. One of the guns was only about a mile away from the hospital, and that and the bombs made a terrific noise.

Many of the hospital patients were ‘afflicted with nerves’.

Meanwhile, Lady Cynthia Asquith saw the raids as an amusing diversion. On 1 June 1915 she wrote in her diary: ‘I was horrified at the idea of having slept through it [the zeppelin attack]’, and three months later: ‘I shall never get over having missed it — it makes me furious’. However, on 13 October that year, her wish was almost granted and she wrote:

we heard the magic word ‘zeppelin’. We rushed out and found people in dramatic groups, gazing skywards. Some men there said they saw the zeppelin. Alas. I didn’t! But our guns were popping away and shells bursting in the air. I felt excited pleasurably, but not the faintest tremor and I longed and longed for more to happen. Bibs was the only member of the family who had sufficient imagination to be frightened and Letty’s fun was spoilt by the thought of the children.

Miss Mary Coules described a similar scene in September 1915:

bombs dropping — it makes a steady boom like cannon [. . .] I could hear the ack-ack shells bursting over the City. True enough, there were bright flashes all over the sky, & sharp bangs whenever a shell burst — quite a different sound from the bombs. We watched them chase the zeppelin from the west to the north-west, shells bursting around it [. . .] It only lasted 15 minutes, so far as we were concerned. Still, it was thrilling while it lasted.

Michael MacDonagh, a journalist, described his first sight of a zeppelin on 9 September 1915:

I saw an amazing spectacle. High in the sky was a zeppelin, picked out of the darkness by searchlights — a long, narrow object of a silvery hue. I felt like what a watcher of the skies must feel when a new planet swims into his ken, for it was my first sight of an enemy airship.

Yet, as he noted in the following month, while he and others were looking upwards at the zeppelin, ‘The thing of beauty had transformed herself into a hellish monster, and was pouring fire and death upon the crowded streets.’

The young Evelyn Waugh recorded in his schoolboy diary in 1915:

Alec [his elder brother] woke me up in the night at about 11 o‘clock saying the zeps had come. We came downstairs and the special constable was rushing about yelling ‘Lights out’ and telling us the zeppelin was right overhead. We heard two bombs and then the Parliament Hill guns were going and the zep went away in their smoke cloud to do some baby-killing elsewhere.

Recalling these events almost fifty years later, the now famous author recalled that the raids did not seem dangerous:

No bomb fell within a mile of us, but the alarms were agreeable occasions when I was brought down from bed and regaled with an uncovenanted picnic. I was quite unconscious of danger, which was indeed negligible. On summer nights we sat in the garden [. . .] On a splendid occasion I saw one brought down, sinking very slowly in brilliant flame, and joined those who were cheering in the road outside.

John Buchan describes the initial effect of the bombing:

People in the streets were either staring at the heavens or running wildly for shelter. A motor-bus in front of me emptied its contents in a twinkling; a taxi pulled up with a jar and the driver and his fare dived into a second-hand bookshop [. . .] The man who says he doesn’t mind being bombed or shelled is either a liar or a maniac. The London air-raid seemed to me a singularly unpleasant business.

Once the novelty had worn off, and people had satisfied their curiosity regarding the appearance of the enemy aircraft, they began to react — in other words, they sought protective cover. Lady Asquith observed that ‘all the traffic ceases, and the streets magically empty — the whole population swallowed up in houses.’ Nevertheless, some enthusiastic spectators remained, for another contemporary account refers to ‘The streets were full of excited semi-dressed people’.11 Generally speaking, however, Londoners were learning how to react to aerial attack. Arnold Bennett described how, during a raid on 3 October 1917, ‘Piccadilly emptied very fast. All the people ran out of the Park.’ A few days earlier, a raid began just after he left his club, ‘The buses seemed to quicken, the streets appreciably emptied. Most people hurried; I did, but a few strolled along. I was glad when I got to the Albany.’ On another occasion he wrote: ‘Everybody ran. Girls ran [. . .] However, I found that after a Turkish bath I couldn’t run much in a heavy overcoat. So I walked. It seemed a long way.’ It was also bad for business. Bennett recalled a proprietor of a restaurant telling him that: ‘although his place was always full of a night, he had only four people on Monday night, and not a single customer on Tuesday night (fear of the raids)’.

Many were terrified, Lady Asquith recording several examples. On one occasion, she wrote: ‘Parlour maid came in quaking with fear, the potatoes rattling in the dish and informed us that the postman had told her the worst raid yet known was then in progress over London.’ And a month later: ‘poor little Martin was very frightened and refused, quite rationally, to be reassured, saying “But when they come with bombs they do kill people. They killed my papa.”’ There was also a rumour that the premier, Lloyd George (1860—1945), was so shaken with terror that two typists fainted at the sight, thinking some disaster had occurred.

Others made money from the raids. Miss Tower wrote: ‘one big wine dealer was reported to have let several of his cellars’. During the bigger air-raids of late September 1917, sandbags were on sale, ranging from a shilling to twopence each, depending on which part of London they were being sold in. Some people charged up to five shillings for a night’s shelter in their property, depending on how wealthy the ‘clients’. Taxi-drivers are reputed to have demanded exorbitant fares.

Precautions were taken by some. Miss Tower wrote:

People began to make preparations for zeppelin raids […] people we knew had furnished theirs [cellars] and slept with big coats and handbags for valuables by the bedside. Most people had water or buckets of sand or fire extinguishers on every landing. We rather laughed at this at first but by degrees everyone came round to taking certain precautions.

Poorer people could not take the same precautions as their social superiors. Many left the factories earlier in order to find shelter somewhere. Public parks and fields outside London were chosen as places to shelter, as well as the London Underground. But officials were scandalised: parks were supposed to be clear of the public and closed at dusk and, as for the Underground platforms, as one sign read: ‘At no time must the platforms be used except by persons alighting from, entering in or waiting for trains.’ Yet there was little officialdom could do. One park-keeper was shocked that people were still in his park after closing time. He complained to a constable, who explained that he could hardly arrest them all. Sensibly, he told the park-keeper to simply lock the park gates and go home. Elsewhere, ugly confrontations between police and squatters erupted, especially in the East End.16 The Underground, however, remained the main option for shelterers. Lloyd George claimed that, following the raid of 7 July 1917:

At the slightest rumour of approaching aeroplanes, Tubes and tunnels were packed with panic-stricken men, women and children. Every clear night the commons around London were black with refugees from the threatened metropolis.

In October 1917, a quarter of a million Londoners sheltered in the Underground stations. Some clambered aboard the carriages of the Tube trains. Two such were William Bignell (1890—1970), a soldier on leave, and Alice Howard, his girlfriend. They sought sanctuary on a Tube train during a raid in 1917, when sheltering at Finsbury Park station. Unfortunately for them, the train set off and they found themselves at Hammersmith: they could only return home the following morning after paying the appropriate fare.

In two instances there was panic, leading to stampedes and deaths. One of these happened at Bishopsgate on 28 January 1918, when a rush to the shelter resulted in one man falling and others being suffocated or being pushed against the walls. Fourteen died in a similar incident at Mile End Underground station. John Buchan recorded:

I found the Tube entrance filled with excited humanity. One stout lady had fainted, and a girl had become hysterical, but on the whole people were behaving well. Oddly enough they did not seem inclined to go down the stairs to the complete security of the Underground; but preferred rather to collect where they could still get a glimpse of the upper world, as if they were torn between fear of their lives and interest in the spectacle. That crowd gave me a good deal of respect for my countrymen. But several were badly rattled.

As in the case of the parks, there was hostility towards the shelterers. One instance of this was recorded by Arnold Bennett. He recounted how:

Very poor women and children sitting on stairs [of the Underground] (fear of raids). Also travellers in lift and lift man grumbling at them because no fear of raid, and they answering him back, and middle-class women saying to each other that if the poor couldn’t keep to the regulations they ought to be forbidden the Tube as a shelter from the raid.

It should be noted that no air-raid shelters were constructed during this period. Yet the public demanded that precautions be taken. In 1915, the police commissioner noted that: ‘manifestations of popular opinion have occurred in favour of the total extinction of the street lighting when warning is received of an impending attack by hostile aircraft’. There were meetings of local government officials to discuss measures to be taken. It was decided that, when enemy airships or aircraft were seen, lighting in the capital would be dimmed but not wholly extinguished, for fear that utter darkness would cause panic and hinder the emergency services.

First World War Bombing of London 1915—1918 Part II

Meanwhile, some fortunates simply fled the capital. Bruce Cummings, a naturalist, said that one raid left him with ‘a fit of uncontrollable trembling’ and the next induced a heart attack. He finally quit the capital for the safety of the countryside. Generally speaking, though, it was only the middle classes who could leave London, mostly women and children, though we do not know how many did, nor for how long. But it was noted that some factories in London employing people from the East End saw the number of employees fall, as some fled to Brighton.

Some Londoners, however, refused to budge. Beatrice Webb recorded her reactions at the time, which were those of fear, followed by stoic acceptance of the danger:

Six successive air-raids have wrecked the nerves of Londoners, with the result of a good deal of panic even among the well-to-do and the educated. The first two nights I felt myself under the sway of foolish fear. My feet were cold and my heart pattered its protest against physical danger. But the fear wore off, and by Monday night’s raid I had recovered self-possession.

For many Londoners, however, the only shelter was their own home. On 19 February 1918 Michael MacDonagh wrote that he, his wife, and his wife’s sister:

sat in our little kitchen during the raid. We have ceased going into the poky coal cellar, for it really affords no additional safety to compensate for its discomfort [. . .] Like millions of other Londoners — average people, simple, natural unheroic — who are in the same situation as we are tonight, the idea that a raider might come our way and drop a bomb on our house is so utterly preposterous — the chances against it running to millions — to be entertained for a moment. Why should the raider single us out of all vast London for a visit? Why indeed? Ridiculous!

A similar attitude was voiced by the Lord Chancellor on 31 January 1918 when the debate at the House of Lords was interrupted by bombers overhead: ‘It must never be said that the peers of this ancient Realm were compelled to cease their deliberations on public affairs by a German air-raid.’ And stoicism was displayed during a raid on Reuters. Miss Coules wrote: ‘the office behaved splendidly. One man actually stuck to his post and worked all through it — rather than go out and watch the bombs drop’. But the office boys were allowed to go to the cellar if they wished.

The epitome of coolness under fire was Lady Asquith. On 17 February 1918 she ‘read Keats’s letters to the accompaniment of another air-raid’. In the previous year, she described a dinner on the night of a raid:

It was funny, sitting down calmly to dinner, with Tonks and his sister to the accompaniment of such an orchestra. They are quite blaseé, having been in London for all the previous ones. The noise still exhilarates me. We stayed in the dining room — it being the most sheltered part of the house. It was a very much more desultory raid than the previous ones, going on intermittently for about three hours.

Yet even her spirits could sink and on the following day she wrote, after noting bomb damage, ‘Felt tired and depressed’.

Sir Henry Rider Haggard was in London during the war and on the night of a raid in October 1916 was invited down into the servants’ hall in the basement, and he took his pipe and a novel. He later wrote: ‘I confess I am heartily tired of zeppelins and should like some good nights’ rest.’

One alleged bomb expert told Arnold Bennett that sheltering in the cellar was the worst thing to do because the bombs only exploded after they had crashed through every single floor, so that the first floor (or cellar) was not safest.

During a lull in a raid on 29 January 1918, MacDonagh decided to leave his shelter and risk going home. Although he had often walked through London at night, this time it was different. There were no buses or taxis, and no itinerant street hawkers, such as coffee-stall men, roast chestnut sellers or hot potato men.

After a raid there was, naturally enough, great relief. Life went on pretty quickly, as Bennett recorded in 1915. At 10.45pm the raid began and half an hour later, he wrote that he thought it ‘very strange to see motor buses going along just as usual, and a man selling fruit just as usual at corner. People spoke to each other in the street’. He added that once the all clear was sounded, the next sound was ‘The footsteps of man. Then the footsteps of ten people, of twenty, of a hundred. The town was alive again’.

Sometimes the airborne raiders were shot down. On 2 October 1916 a zeppelin had been hit and was in flames. If it went down on London, the destruction would have been immense. People watched its progress with keen interest. Michael MacDonagh reported:

When at last the doomed airship vanished from sighting there arose a shout the like of which I never heard in London before — a hoarse shout of mingled execration, triumph and joy: a swelling shout that appeared to be rising from all parts of the metropolis, ever increasing in force and intensity. It was London’s Te Deum for another crowning deliverance.

The crowds went wild. Miss Tower wrote on 2 October 1916, when two zeppelins were hit, ‘I was startled by an outburst of cheering from the crowd below’. Another observer recalled:

The spontaneous barrage of cheering and shouting made the roar of 100,000 people at a pre-war Cup Final sound like an undertone. People danced, kissed, hugged and sang. The hysteria and the abandoned emotion were not confined to one neighbourhood [. . .] The crowd’s reactions everywhere were described as being greater than that which celebrated the relief of Mafeking.

The first airship to be shot down crashed in Potters Bar, Middlesex, 14 miles from the capital. Crowds boarded trains to visit. MacDonagh recalled that all twenty seats in his compartment were taken, and there were ten people standing. Once at Potters Bar railway station, there was another 2 miles to travel. He recorded: ‘It was a joyful crowd all the same.’ Some showed a morbid curiosity. One lady asked if she could see the charred and mutilated remains of the crew, ‘May I go in? I would love to see a dead German.’ But her request was refused. Likewise, people came from miles away to see the bomb crater at Brentford.

Charities also raised money by cashing in on the raids. In September 1916 the remains of downed zeppelins, including one that had fallen near Cuffley, were displayed at the grounds of the Honourable Artillery Company in the City. The entrance fees raised £150 for the Red Cross. In the following month there was a ‘Great Demand for Zeppelin Relics’. Strips of wire from the same zeppelin were sold in London by the British Red Cross — apparently, half a million were sold after the War Office gave the remnants of the zeppelin to the charity.

Reactions were sometimes ugly. The Bishop of London referred to the zeppelins as ‘baby killers’ after a baby was killed in an air-raid on 31 May 1915, and as we have seen, this emotive terminology was adopted by others. After houses in Streatham had been bombed on 24 September 1916, there was anger. MacDonagh recorded the scene:

Bitter resentment against the Germans found expression among the people generally in denunciation and curses. Oh, those Huns! Harmless and defenceless citizens, far away from the Front, liable to be killed in their beds by a marauder in the skies who steals upon them unawares; whose presence they realise only when their homes are tumbling about them in ruins. ‘How dastardly!’ ‘Barbarians!’ ‘Infamous!’ ‘Blast and damn them!’

More violent reactions also occurred. Following the first zeppelin attack, Londoners retaliated in the only way open to them. They attacked the shops of Germans long resident in England, just as their predecessors in 1666 had molested Dutch and Frenchmen in the wake of the Great Fire. Even long-established German shopkeepers, who had been in London for years, found themselves in danger from their former friends and customers. One German baker was only saved from serious injury by the intervention of the police. And yet, some constables were reluctant to protect the German shopkeepers and those who did were verbally abused by the crowds. Quite what the German shopkeepers thought of all this is another matter — they were probably shocked that people they had known for years could attack them because of the actions of their fellow countrymen.

The mood could change, however, once a raid was over.

For example, one journalist noted that: ‘Last night there was nervousness and exasperation; today there was curiosity. What I saw was like a fair attended by holidaymakers.’ Lady Asquith went to see bomb damage at Lincoln’s Inn, denying the accusation from a friend that her excitement was due to boredom.

The bombing on the night of 9 September 1915 killed nine people travelling on one bus in the City and injured another eleven on that doomed form of transport. Over half a million pounds’ (approximately 30 million in modern terms) worth of damage to property had occurred and another twenty-nine people had died and 113 others had been injured, as well as the bus casualties on 9 September. Yet, as Michael MacDonagh noted: ‘The crowds of visitors to the extensive area of the raid were more curious than angry, I thought.’ Boys and girls, on seeing shop windows smashed by the bombs, gathered shards of glass and pieces of shrapnel: ‘There was an eager hunt for souvenirs of the raid.’ Occasionally, penknives had to be used to prise out such items from pavements and walls. When the relics had been carried away, there was applause from onlookers. Some thought the damage minimal. Miss Coules wrote, after a visit to see the aftermath of a raid in September 1915: ‘Considering that there were three zeppelins, it really isn’t very extensive.’

Nevertheless, the civilian authorities did little to lessen potential danger, leading to some displays of animosity on the part of disgruntled locals. That said, some public buildings were protected by sandbags, but air-raid shelters were not constructed, despite public pleas. Instead, civilians were told to take shelter in their own homes or in public buildings. MacDonagh recorded on the occasion of London’s first daylight raid (7 July 1917):

There was deep exasperation at the audacity, ‘the damned impudence’, of the Germans. Did they not show how they despise our defences by twice coming over in broad daylight and successfully carrying off their-raids [. . .] [a British airplane was seen overhead] [. . .] ‘Give the Bosches hell — when you overtake them.’ Derisive laughter burst out, fists were shaken at him.

Miss Tower noted:

People began to get very excited about the zeppelins and to blame the government for not providing better protection against them, and there were meetings to suggest air reprisals and in other ways to give valuable help to the authorities.

Retaliation was demanded. Seeing aircraft bring down a zeppelin, a Cockney news-vendor shouted: ‘Now we can hit the buggers in their own bleedin’ backyard.’ On 2 October 1917, after seeing bomb damage, Lloyd George said: ‘We shall give it all back to them, and we shall give it back very soon. We shall bomb Germany with compound interest.’ The ‘Welsh Wizard’ always knew what to tell people, but in this case action did not match his words.

Due to wartime censorship, newspapers were remarkably reticent over the bombing, so in place of hard facts, stories circulated. Miss Tower recorded, on going to work in a hospital on the night after a raid:

all kinds of yarns and rumours were busy. An airship was reported to have been brought down on Hampstead heath, in Finsbury Park, Regent’s park and at Harrow and Gravesend; in the last she was said to have fallen into the river and had been destroyed by a torpedo boat.

Another story told how a fire had been deliberately started in a factory in Wood Lane, in the City, in order to guide the bombers (a blackout was in force), but as Miss Tower commented: ‘I dare say this story was not true.’

The London air-raids provoked reactions. Many, at least at first, saw them as a novel spectacle — a form of entertainment. Others, however, appreciated the danger. Although casualties were relatively light, this was a new form of warfare in which civilians were placed in deadly peril. But there was little they could do except take cover wherever they could find it or leave the capital. The German bombing campaign was not aimed directly at civilians, but the financial resources of the country — in this it failed. The last raid on London, which occurred on 19 May 1918, resulted in several losses among the attackers: six out of the eighty aircraft involved were shot down. Further aerial attacks on London were called off as being too costly.