CHAPTER XIII. The Zeppelin and Gotha Raids
In the House of Commons recently Mr. Bonar Law announced that since the commencement of the war 14,250 lives had been lost as the result of enemy action by submarines and air-craft. A large percentage of these figures represents women, children, and defenceless citizens.
One had become almost hardened to the German method of making war on the civil population - that system of striving to act upon civilian "nerves" by calculated brutality which is summed up in the word "frightfulness". But the publication of these figures awoke some of the old horror of German warfare. The sum total of lives lost brought home to the people at home the fact that bombardment from air and sea, while it had failed to shake their MORAL, had taken a large toll of human life.
At first the Zeppelin raids were not taken very seriously in this country. People rushed out of their houses to see the unwonted spectacle of an air-ship dealing death and destruction from the clouds. But soon the novelty began to wear off, and as the raids became more frequent and the casualty lists grew larger, people began to murmur against the policy of taking these attacks "lying down". It was felt that "darkness and composure" formed but a feeble and ignoble weapon of defence. The people spoke with no uncertain voice, and it began to dawn upon the authorities that the system of regarding London and the south-east coast as part of "the front" was no excuse for not taking protective measures.
It was the raid into the Midlands on the night of 31st January, 1916, that finally shelved the old policy of do nothing. Further justification, if any were needed, for active measures was supplied by a still more audacious raid upon the east coast of Scotland, upon which occasion Zeppelins soared over England - at their will. Then the authorities woke up, and an extensive scheme of anti-aircraft guns and squadrons of aeroplanes was devised. About March of the year 1916 the Germans began to break the monotony of the Zeppelin raids by using sea-planes as variants. So there was plenty of work for our new defensive air force. Indeed, people began to ask themselves why we should not hit back by making raids into Germany. The subject was well aired in the public press, and distinguished advocates came forward for and against the policy of reprisals. At a considerably later date reprisals carried the day, and, as we write, air raids by the British into Germany are of frequent occurrence.
In March, 1916, the fruits of the new policy began to appear, and people found them very refreshing. A fleet of Zeppelins found, on approaching the mouth of the Thames, a very warm reception. Powerful searchlights, and shells from new anti-aircraft guns, played all round them. At length a shot got home. One of the Zeppelins, "winged" by a shell, began a wobbly retreat which ended in the waters of the estuary. The navy finished the business. The wrecked air-ship was quickly surrounded by a little fleet of destroyers and patrol-boats, and the crew were brought ashore, prisoners. That same night yet another Zeppelin was hit and damaged in another part of the country.
Raids followed in such quick succession as to be almost of nightly occurrence during the favouring moonless nights. Later, the conditions were reversed, and the attacks by aeroplane were all made in bright moonlight. But ever the defence became more strenuous. Then aeroplanes began to play the role of "hornets", as Mr. Winston Churchill, speaking rather too previously, designated them.
Lieutenant Brandon, R.F.C., succeeded in dropping several aerial bombs on a Zeppelin during the raid on March 31, but it was not until six months later that an airman succeeded in bringing down a Zeppelin on British soil. The credit of repeating Lieutenant Warneford's great feat belongs to Lieutenant W. R. Robinson, and the fight was witnessed by a large gathering. It occurred in the very formidable air raid on the night of September 2. Breathlessly the spectators watched the Zeppelin harried by searchlight and shell-fire. Suddenly it disappeared behind a veil of smoke which it had thrown out to baffle its pursuers. Then it appeared again, and a loud shout went up from the watching thousands. It was silhouetted against the night clouds in a faint line of fire. The hue deepened, the glow spread all round, and the doomed airship began its crash to earth in a smother of flame. The witnesses to this amazing spectacle naturally supposed that a shell had struck the Zeppelin. Its tiny assailant that had dealt the death-blow had been quite invisible during the fight. Only on the following morning did the public learn of Lieutenant Robinson's feat. It appeared that he had been in the air a couple of hours, engaged in other conflicts with his monster foes. Besides the V.C. the plucky airman won considerable money prizes from citizens for destroying the first Zeppelin on British soil.