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.

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.

No less than six raids took place on London before the end of the month, but the greatest number of killed in any one of the raids was eleven, while on September 28 the raiders were driven off before they could claim any victims. The establishment of a close barrage of aerial guns did much to discourage the raiders, and gradually London, from being the most vulnerable spot in the British Isles, began to enjoy comparative immunity from attack.

Paris, too, during the Great War has had to suffer bombardment from the air, but not nearly to the same extent as London. The comparative immunity of Paris from air raids is due partly to the prompt measures which were taken to defend the capital. The French did not wait, as did the British, until the populace was goaded to the last point of exasperation, but quickly instituted the barrage system, in which we afterwards followed their lead. Moreover, the French were much more prompt in adopting retaliatory tactics. They hit back without having to wade through long moral and philosophical disquisitions upon the ethics of "reprisals". On the other hand, it must be remembered that Paris, from the aerial standpoint, is a much more difficult objective than London. The enemy airman has to cross the French lines, which, like his own, stretch for miles in the rear. Practically he is in hostile country all the time, and he has to get back across the same dangerous air zones. It is a far easier task to dodge a few sea-planes over the wide seas en route to London. And on reaching the coast the airman has to evade or fight scattered local defences, instead of penetrating the close barriers which confront him all the way to Paris.

Since the first Zeppelin attack on Paris on March 21, 1915, when two of the air-ships reached the suburbs, killing 23 persons and injuring 30, there have been many raids and attempted raids, but mostly by single machines. The first air raid in force upon the French capital took place on January 31, 1918, when a squadron of Gothas crossed the lines north of Compiegne. Two hospitals were hit, and the casualties from the raid amounted to 20 killed and 50 wounded.

After the Italian set-back in the winter of 1917, the Venetian plain lay open to aerial bombardment by the Germans, who had given substantial military aid to their Austrian allies. This was an opportunity not to be lost by Germany, and Venice and other towns of the plain were subject to systematic bombardment.

At the time of writing, Germany is beginning to suffer some of the annoyances she is so ready to inflict upon others. The recently constituted Air Ministry have just published figures relating to the air raids into Germany from December 1, 1917, to February 19, 1918 inclusive. During these eleven weeks no fewer than thirty-five raids have taken place upon a variety of towns, railways, works, and barracks. In the list figure such important towns as Mannheim (pop. 20,000) and Metz (pop. 100,000). The average weight of bombs dropped at each raid works out about 1000 lbs. This welcome official report is but one of many signs which point the way to the growing supremacy of the Allies in the air.