CHAPTER XIII. The Zeppelin and Gotha Raids
The Zeppelin raids continued at varying intervals for the remainder of the year. As the power of the defence increased the air-ships were forced to greater altitudes, with a corresponding decrease in the accuracy with which they could aim bombs on specified objects. But, however futile the raids, and however widely they missed their mark, there was no falling off in the outrageous claims made in the German communiques. Bombs dropped in fields, waste lands, and even the sea, masqueraded in the reports as missiles which had sunk ships in harbour, destroyed docks, and started fires in important military areas. So persistent were these exaggerations that it became evident that the Zeppelin raids were intended quite as much for moral effect at home as for material damage abroad. The heartening effect of the raids upon the German populace is evidenced by the mental attitude of men made prisoners on any of the fronts. Only with the utmost difficulty were their captors able to persuade them that London and other large towns were not in ruins; that shipbuilding was not at a standstill; and that the British people was not ready at any moment to purchase indemnity from the raids by concluding a German peace. When one method of terrorism fails try another, was evidently the German motto. After the Zeppelin the Gotha, and after that the submarine.
The next year - 1917 - brought in a very welcome change in the situation. One Zeppelin after another met with its just deserts, the British navy in particular scoring heavily against them. Nor must the skill and enterprise of our French allies be forgotten. In March, 1917, they shot down a Zeppelin at Compiegne, and seven months later dealt the blow which finally rid these islands of the Zeppelin menace.
For nearly a year London, owing to its greatly increased defences, had been free from attack. Then, on the night of October 19, Germany made a colossal effort to make good their boast of laying London in ruins. A fleet of eleven Zeppelins came over, five of which found the city. One, drifting low and silently, was responsible for most of the casualties, which totalled 34 killed and 56 injured.
The fleet got away from these shores without mishap. Then, at long last, came retribution. Flying very high, they seem to have encountered an aerial storm which drove them helplessly over French territory. Our allies were swift to seize this golden opportunity. Their airmen and anti-aircraft guns shot down no less than four of the Zeppelins in broad daylight, one of which was captured whole. Of the remainder, one at least drifted over the Mediterranean, and was not heard of again. That was the last of the Zeppelin, so far as the civilian population was concerned. But, for nearly a year, the work of killing citizens had been undertaken by the big bomb-dropping Gotha aeroplanes.
The work of the Gotha belongs rightly to the second part of this book, which deals with aeroplanes and airmen; but it would be convenient to dispose here of the part played by the Gotha in the air raids upon this country.
The reconnaissance took place on Tuesday, November 28, 1916, when in a slight haze a German aeroplane suddenly appeared over London, dropped six bombs, and flew off. The Gotha was intercepted off Dunkirk by the French, and brought down. Pilot and observer-two naval lieutenants-were found to have a large-scale map of London in their possession. The new era of raids had commenced.
Very soon it became evident that the new squadron of Gothas were much more destructive than the former fleets of unwieldy Zeppelins. These great Gothas were each capable of dropping nearly a ton of bombs. And their heavy armament and swift flight rendered them far less vulnerable than the air-ship.
From March 1 to October 31, 1917, no less than twenty-two raids took place, chiefly on London and towns on the south-east coast. The casualties amounted to 484 killed and 410 wounded. The two worst raids occurred June 13 on East London, and September 3 on the Sheerness and Chatham area.
A squadron of fifteen aeroplanes carried out the raid, on June 13, and although they were only over the city for a period of fifteen minutes the casualty list was exceedingly heavy - 104 killed and 432 wounded. Many children were among the killed and injured as the result of a bomb which fell upon a Council school. The raid was carried out in daylight, and the bombs began to drop before any warning could be given. Later, an effective and comprehensive system of warnings was devised, and when people had acquired the habit of taking shelter, instead of rushing out into the street to see the aerial combats, the casualties began to diminish.
It is worthy of record that the possible danger to schools had been anticipated, and for some weeks previously the children had taken part in "Air Raid Drill". When the raid came, the children behaved in the most exemplary fashion. They went through the manoeuvres as though it was merely a rehearsal, and their bearing as well as the coolness of the teachers obviated all danger from panic. In this raid the enemy first made use of aerial torpedoes.
Large loss of life, due to a building being struck, was also the feature of the moonlight raid on September 4. On this occasion enemy airmen found a mark on the Royal Naval barracks at Sheerness. The barracks were fitted with hammocks for sleeping, and no less than 108 bluejackets lost their lives, the number of wounded amounting to 92. Although the raid lasted nearly an hour and powerful searchlights were brought into play, neither guns nor our airmen succeeded in causing any loss to the raiders. Bombs were dropped at a number of other places, including Margate and Southend, but without result.