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Thrilling Deeds of British Airmen by  Eric Wood

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SOME FINE BRITISH RAIDS

[39] IT is an undisputed fact that the British Flying Services have carried out some of the largest raids in the course of the war, and there have been so many of them that it is impossible to describe every one here. It is worth remembering that these raids differed from those undertaken by the Germans when their airships visited Britain: our raids are always against places of military importance, whereas the world knows the object of German frightfulness.

Quite early in the conflict our airmen, in twos and threes—and sometimes more—went on long-distance flights, to attack some important point behind the German lines, as, for instance, when Squadron-Commander Spenser Grey, and Lieutenants S. V. Sippe and Marix, of the R.N.A.S., on October 8th, 1914, sailed over the airship shed at Dusseldorf, dropped bombs which hit their mark and set fire to the [40] shed and the Zeppelin inside, as they plainly saw by the tall pillar of smoke and flame which arose immediately after the bombs struck.

Then, on November 21st of the same year, there was a daring aerial attack on the Zeppelin works at Friedrichshafen, on the shores of Lake Constance, where Count Zeppelin built the giant gasbags which were to be used on murder raids. The flying men who took part in the attack on the works were Squadron-Commander E. F. Briggs, Flight-Commander J. E. Babbington, and Flight-Lieutenant S. V. Sippe, who set out from an aerodrome in the neighbourhood of Belfort, their Avro machines, driven by 80-horse-power Gnomes, humming their way up until they were but mere specks in the sky. The course taken lay to the north of the frontier of Switzerland, and Friedrichshafen was sighted about midday. The success with which the airmen steered toward their objective made the Germans realize that British aviators were not to be despised as the "contemptible little army" had been; and yet, rather than admit this, the enemy avowed that the raid had only been possible by reason [41] of the fact that our diplomats in Switzerland had improperly given information which had assisted the aviators; which was another German lie that needed no refutation. What had happened was that the Britons had studied the problem and had made themselves masters of the route they were going to take, with the result that they surprised the Germans at Friedrichshafen, who had never expected such an attack from the air.

One of the airmen got lost temporarily in a bank of cloud, but Commander Briggs and his other companion dropped to the attack in a giddy volplane. Coming directly over the works they loosed their bombs, and the crash of the explosions mingled with the roar of firing guns, the sharp bark of rifles and the tat-tat-tat of machine-guns—all of which the Germans turned upon the daring aviators, who swept round in wide circles, their planes riddled by the bullets. When the third airman emerged from the cloud-bank he saw that his commander was in trouble: his machine was dropping. An unlucky bullet had pierced the petrol tank, the engine petered out, and the gallant pilot [42] knew that he would have to descend. He kept his head, however, and maintained control over his mount until he had brought it to a graceful landing near the devastated works. A crowd of Germans immediately surrounded him, and their appearance was so threatening that the Commander drew his revolver, thus keeping at bay the angry foe, who did not know that the revolver was empty! In due course a German officer came up and Commander Briggs surrendered, not a little mortified that his successful attack should have come to such an inglorious end.

Meanwhile, his two comrades were hurrying home, for the necessities of war decreed that they must leave the Commander to the mercy of the enemy. "If they had come unperceived," wrote one who described this affair at the time, "they were not to leave the country without risk. The news of their presence was telegraphed from town to town; motor-cars mounting machine-guns and anti-aircraft cannon were dispatched at full speed to the most likely points; observers were specially detailed to watch the Swiss border [43] and to note whether these adventurers crossed the frontier. But such was the extraordinary speed with which the airmen returned, that scarcely had the news of their arrival been received than the airmen themselves were over the place to which communication had been made and were out of sight before any effective step could be taken to intercept them."

When the airmen reached the flying ground near Belfort they received a hearty and enthusiastic welcome, and later they were decorated with the Legion of Honour.

Cuxhaven, the German war port situate at the mouth of the river Elbe and protected to seaward by the great fortress of Heligoland, had its first experience of modern war on the morning of Christmas Day 1914, when a number of British seaplanes appeared out of the mist and dropped bombs upon its ship-building yards and fortifications.

This raid, the first that the Royal Naval Air Service had undertaken from the sea, was extremely well planned. There were seven [44] seaplanes, which were borne out to sea by two new seaplane carriers, one an erstwhile cross-Channel steamer which had been converted into an auxiliary war-vessel. These two ships were escorted by several submarines, two destroyer flotillas, and the new light cruiser Arethusa, which, before she met with her untimely end in 1916, was to add to the many laurels gained by the long list of 'saucy Arethusas'  in the annals of the British Navy. While on their mother-ships the seaplanes, which were Short tractors, had their wings folded up; when the appointed rendezvous was reached, the machines were lowered over the side into the water, their planes were opened, their engines began to roar, and having driven through the water the distance required to get up sufficient speed to allow of rising, up through the mist they soared, droning on their way to their objective. The seven pilots engaged in the dashing adventure were Flight-Commanders Oliver, Hewlett, Kilner and Ross, Flight-Lieutenants Miley and Edmonds, and Flight-Sub-Lieutenant Gaskell Blackburn, each of whom was an experienced airman.

[45] Day was just breaking when the seaplanes whirred upward, leaving their escorts to move seaward to await their return from what was to prove a hazardous adventure. If the British anticipated that they would be unmolested they were quickly disillusioned, for not long after the seaplanes had left their mother-ships a squadron of enemy 'planes, accompanied by a Zeppelin, appeared and bore down toward the British machines, which, however, held on their way, knowing that the destroyers and the Arethusa  would deal with the coming foes. The Arethusa, provided as she was with special anti-aircraft artillery, was a formidable adversary, as the Zeppelin soon discovered, for, directly the airship was sighted, the gunners on the cruiser opened fire with such accuracy and at such a rate that the aerial monster was compelled to swing round and beat a hasty retreat.

Meanwhile, the German seaplanes, which naturally did not present such good targets to anti-aircraft guns, kept on their course toward the ships, arrived over them, and began dropping bombs, which fell so close to [46] the vessels that on many occasions the water spouts which were thing up as the result of the explosions broke and tumbled in cascades upon the decks. Fortunately, however, not a single bomb struck a ship, and the rapid gun-fire that was maintained rendered the situation so uncomfortable for the seaplanes that they turned tail and made for their base.


[Illustration]

THE BRITISH AIR RAID ON CUXHAVEN, CHRISTMAS DAY, 1914.

While this strange battle between aircraft and seacraft was in progress, the British sea planes were winging their way through the fog to Cuxhaven. Arrived there, they dropped their bombs and did a certain amount of damage, made their observations—which were the chief motive for the raid—and then swept round and flew seaward. Everything had been put upon a time schedule, which was so accurately adhered to that even while the enemy planes were still hovering over the British destroyers the raiders reappeared. Some of them swooped down to the sea, and taxied along the surface to where they knew that submarines were awaiting them. Immediately the conning-tower of the underwater craft appeared the nearest seaplane came to a stand- [47] still, the pilot unstrapped himself, and stood ready with knife in hand to rip up the great floats of his machine. When the conning-tower opened, and a naval officer appeared, the destructive work was carried out and the seaplane, costing over £1000, began to sink rapidly and was almost submerged by the time that the pilot had been taken into the submarine, which immediately dived beneath the surface. It may seem a wasteful method, but in war money must be sacrificed for the sake of that which is more precious; in this case the information which the pilots had gleaned far outweighed in value the cost of the machines which it had been necessary to destroy.

Four of the pilots were rescued by submarines in the manner described, but two who returned in the van of their comrades alighted on the surface near the seaplane carriers, to whose sides they taxied even while the enemy aircraft were still dropping their bombs. It was an occasion for some prompt work on the part of the men aboard. To enable them to pick up the seaplanes it was necessary for the two [48] ships to come to a standstill and so render themselves much better marks for the enemy bombs; they stopped, nevertheless, hoists were swung out, and the machines were picked up as they taxied alongside. A moment later the keen-eyed commanders, who were in constant communication with their engine-rooms, rang down for "Full steam ahead!" the ships trembled to the thrust of their engines, then leapt through the water, making for home.

There was one thing that marred the success of the enterprise, and that was that only six out of the seven intrepid pilots had been picked up, and the escorting vessels, knowing how risky it was to linger, had to steam away without the missing aviator. This was Flight-Commander Hewlett, who, as it afterward transpired, had an exceedingly adventurous time. The thick fog which enveloped the seaplanes greatly bothered Hewlett, and he lost his way, although after a long time he succeeded in reaching Cuxhaven. Arriving as he did after his comrades had left, he naturally received a very warm welcome from the [49] Germans, who were now on the qui vine, not knowing whether more of the daring airmen would appear. To make matters worse, the Flight-Commander, owing to the fog, had to fly low, so low, in fact, that as he swept over the war port he almost touched the tall masts of the ships lying at anchor in the harbour.

As soon as he had located his position, Hewlett set his machine to climb out of danger, dropping bombs as he went, and followed by a perfect hail of shells from every anti-aircraft gun within range. He knew that at any moment his upward sweep might be changed into a plunge to death, and the firing was so vigorous that he quite expected this to happen. Fortunately, however, either the German gunners were bad marksmen or else the fog which had baffled the airman was now interfering with the aim of the artillerymen; whatever the reason, no shell touched Hewlett's machine and no bullet found a resting-place in his body. Up and still up, and headed sea-ward, the seaplane flew, and the Commander was beginning to think that the Fates were not altogether unkind when something went wrong [50] with his engine, which began to back-fire and ultimately stopped.

This was indeed a tragedy. Commander Hewlett's one hope was that he might not have missed the escort. As he planed down to the grey, tossing sea, he scanned the horizon in search of a friendly ship, but none appeared, and he realized that, not having kept to the scheduled time, he had had to be left by the destroyers.

When his floats touched water the airman was in anything but a comfortable frame of mind. Neither of the possible alternatives—one of which was that he might stay there until the floats became so water-logged that they would not support the machine, in which case he would be drowned, and the other that an enemy ship might appear and take him prisoner—was at all cheering. It was all very disappointing, after having escaped from the inferno of Cuxhaven!

The airman, sitting in his machine and rocked to and fro at the bidding of the wind and waves, peered for a long and weary time through the mist, hoping against hope that [51] he might be rescued. When he had almost ceased to expect succour, the dark bows of a trawler appeared out of the mist, scattering the spray as she came. The stranded airman on the derelict seaplane—for by this time the machine was in a sorry plight—signaled for help; happily the lookout on the trawler saw him, and the vessel bore down upon the spot. The trawler proved to be Dutch, which from Hewlett's point of view was not so good as if it had been British, but by no means so bad as if it had been German.

It did not take long to make the trawler's captain understand what had happened, and, having scuttled his machine, Hewlett was taken on board the fishing vessel and carried to Holland.

The fact of his being taken into Holland raised a question of international law, which has laid it down that any member of the fighting services of a belligerent nation taking refuge in a neutral country shall be interned during the progress of the war. Commander Hewlett, however, set up the plea that this law did not apply to him, because he was a [52] shipwrecked mariner who had been rescued out at sea. There was, of course, much argument, but in the end the airman's plea was accepted, he was released, and in due course returned to England.

Thus every one of the daring raiders returned safely, and, considering how successful they had been both in bombing and in gathering information, the raid on Cuxhaven may be said to have been a complete triumph.


What was at that date probably the longest official report of one exploit in the air was that which was issued by the Admiralty dealing with a very satisfactory raid on February firth, 1915.

"During the last twenty-four hours," the report ran, "combined aeroplane and seaplane operations have been carried out by the Naval Wing in the Bruges, Zeebrugge, Blankenberghe and Ostend districts, with a view to preventing the development of submarine bases and establishments.

"Thirty-four naval aeroplanes and seaplanes took part.

[53] "Great damage is reported to have been done to Ostend Railway Station, which according to present information, has probably been burnt to the ground. The railway station at Blankenberghe was damaged and railway lines were torn up in many places. Bombs were dropped on gun positions at Middelkerke, also on the powerstation and German mine-sweeping vessels at Zeebrugge, but the damage is unknown.

"During the attack the machines encountered heavy banks of snow."

"No submarines were seen."

"Flight-commander Grahame-White fell into the sea off Nieuport and was rescued by a French vessel.

"Although exposed to heavy gun-fire from rifles, anti-aircraft guns, mitrailleuses, etc., all pilots are safe. Two machines were damaged.

"The seaplanes and aeroplanes were under the command of Wing-Commander Samson, assisted by Wing-Commander Longmore and Squadron-Commanders Porte, Courtney, and Rathbone."

[54] The very length of that communiqué  suggests that the operations were on a large scale and regarded as important, while behind the official language there is hidden a thrilling story, which will some day be told in full. Meanwhile, we have only glimpses, the best of which is that given in a letter from Flight-Lieutenant Harold Rosher, R.N.A.S., who took part in the raid.

The machines left their base on Wednesday morning, the 10th of February, at intervals of two minutes, the slowest machines going first. Driving into the mist they hummed across the Channel, with an escort of destroyers below. The farther they went the denser the mist became, the clouds were very heavy, and they ran into a driving snow-storm which utterly baffled them. The aviators had instructions to land at Dunkirk if the weather conditions were such that they could not reach their objectives, and when they arrived off the French coast it was evident to all of them that it would be Dunkirk for that day, whatever the morrow might bring forth. They did not give in without a struggle, however, and [55] pushed along the coast until it was impossible and imprudent to proceed any farther. Grahame-White, as we have seen, had to come down in the sea, where he waited in his machine until he was picked up. It had been a most exciting trip across Channel, even although a disheartening one. Flight-Lieutenant Rosher's experience was probably typical of many others. "The clouds got thicker and my compass became useless, swinging round and round," he wrote. "I was about 7000 feet up and absolutely lost. The next thing I realized was that my speed-indicator had rushed up to ninety miles an hour and the wind was fairly whistling through the wires. I pulled her up, but had quite lost control.

"A hair-raising experience followed. I nose-dived, side-slipped, stalled [lost speed], etc. etc., time after time, my speed varying from practically nothing up to over 100 miles an hour. I kept my head, but was absolutely scared stiff. I didn't get out of the clouds, which lower down turned into a snow-storm and hail, until I was only 1500 feet up. I came out diving headlong for the earth."

[56] By brilliant skill the aviator righted his machine, and he tried his utmost to get out of the snow-storm, skirt it and drive inland. Failing in this he then endeavoured to get beneath the storm, but was again unsuccessful. Realizing at last that he could not hope to accomplish his purpose he turned back for Dunkirk, where he found the rest of the party except one, presumably Grahame-White.

It was a crowd of pretty 'sick' aviators which assembled at Dunkirk that day, but all were determined that the Germans should feel the weight of the bombs which had been brought over for their especial benefit, and early the following morning the airmen were ready to take up the interrupted task. It was dark and misty and cloudy when the machines ascended and set out seaward to get as far off the shore as possible and thus be out of range of the anti-aircraft batteries, which began a wild song of hate as soon as the droning of the engines was heard below. At Ostend the raiders were bombarded from scores of guns, but this did not prevent them loosing their destructive missiles, and they [57] sailed on, leaving a trail of disaster behind. Flight-Lieutenant Rosher was among the party bound for Zeebrugge, and when they arrived there, the cloud-banks were so low that they had to let go their bombs when at a height of only 5500 feet. This, of course, gave the Germans a great opportunity, and their shrapnel burst all around, fortunately, however, without result. The shipping in the docks was struck by the British bombs, and the power-station burst into flame as the aviators winged their way across, and so out to sea.

Considering that the German gunners, who had had a good deal of experience against our raiding machines, were, as Lieutenant Rosher said, hitting at 8000 feet and reckoned on getting every third shot home, it says much for the skill of the British pilots that they all returned safely, well pleased with themselves at having given the enemy something to remember. But in case they might forget, on February 16th, the Naval Wing returned and distributed a plentiful supply of bombs over very much the same area as before. In this great raid there were forty machines [58] engaged, the Ostend and Middelkerke batteries were bombed, transport wagons on the Ostend-Ghistelles road were shattered, the mole and locks of Zeebrugge were further damaged, and the shipping off Blankenberghe and Zeebrugge suffered heavily.

While the British aviators were thus engaged on these points of importance, eight French machines, together with some British naval planes, swooped over to the Ghistelles aerodrome, on which they made a vigorous attack, so keeping the German airmen too busily employed to allow them to wing their way coastward to cut off the raiders, some of whom, nevertheless, fell victims to the enemy.

One of the largest raids undertaken by British machines was that on March 18th, 1916, when fifty British machines attacked the German aerodrome near Ostend and the submarine base at Zeebrugge. Had it been daylight when the raiders started there would have been a rare sight for spectators as the fifty machines spluttered their way over the flying ground and bounded up into the air [59] one after the other. It was night, however and nothing was to be seen except the occasional flash as pilots switched on their torches to indicate to comrades the direction being taken. With these intermittent lights to guide them the squadron formed into a V-shaped flight, with the bombing machines tucked in the centre and the fighting Moranes on the flanks, ready to tackle any enemy planes which might endeavour to head off the raiders.

The airmen sped over the dunes, with the sea gleaming below them and the subdued lights of Ostend in the distance ahead, and in due course divided into two parties, one making for Ostend, the other stealing through the night toward Zeebrugge. The attack on Ostend came as a complete surprise to the Germans there, and the aeroplane hangar felt the force of British explosives: resounding roars came to the airmen, who saw the flames belching from hangar and store-houses. The German flying men, taken by surprise, dashed for cover, leaving their aeroplanes burning merrily.

Meanwhile, the Zeebrugge party had also [60] reached their objective, having safely passed the anti-aircraft batteries, with whose positions they were conversant, seeing that all the pilots had made a careful study of the stretch of coast over which they had flown, and knew just where the batteries were placed. In the docks at Zeebrugge were many German destroyers and submarines, and at the first crash of exploding bombs something in the nature of a panic ensued. Destroyers hurried out to sea, where monitors awaited them; submarines dived quickly to escape the falling bombs; soldiers and marines on shore darted for cover, although many of them—two hundred, it was reckoned at the time—were killed. It was a scene of terror for the Germans; the bombs fell in quick succession as the aeroplanes followed one another over the docks, and so far as could be gathered afterward a tremendous amount of damage was done, which is not surprising, considering that during the raid on the naval base and aerodrome some ten thousand pounds of high explosives were distributed! The men who took part were to be congratulated upon the effectiveness [61] of their work, and it was probably due to the important results achieved that a week later the attempt was made upon the Zeppelin bases on the Sylt island, off Schleswig-Holstein, of which we have to tell in Chapter VI.

We have by no means exhausted the list of important raids, but the instances given are more or less typical of most of the others. Sometimes all the aviators returned, at others some were brought down or had to descend through engine trouble; in nearly every case, however, the raiders succeeded in their purpose, while the constant harassing of the enemy at strategic and important points served to keep him in mind of the efficiency of the British Flying Services.


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