Category Archives: Aerial Warfare

6 JUNE, 1918: Satan’s Little Helpers

Of all the gaps in our general appreciation of the First World War, none gets me more worked up than the way Anglophone posterity ignores the wartime invention of aerial bombing and its evil offspring, long-range bombing of civilian targets.  So I’m going to talk about it again.

Maybe it’s the strong whiff of denial that upsets me.  Anglophone popular history has long been accustomed to blaming Germany for everything bad that happened during the first half of the twentieth century, and is comfortable with blaming the Luftwaffe for the cult of civilian bombing.  Ask many Brits how that started and they’ll cite the Blitz of 1940, showing scant regard for the suffering of civilians bombed during the previous decade in China, Spain and the Low Countries (to name the most obvious cases), and completely ignoring the First World War.  Even those relatively informed Anglophones who might mention Guernica, Zeppelins and Gotha raids are apt to leave it at that, simply backdating the assumption of German guilt.

To be sure, the German military was an enthusiastic early proponent and serial pioneer of what was known as ‘strategic bombing theory’ – but only as part of a story that also has roots in Italy, Russia and above all Britain (30 December, 1917: Let’s Drop the Mask).

An Italian, Giulio Douhet, developed the theory and the Russian Army developed the first aircraft big enough to make it potentially viable, while German armed forces made the first systematic attempts to put it into practice, with their Zeppelin fleets and then with their purpose-designed Gotha bombers.  The British were meanwhile open to the arguments of their own strategic bombing theorists.  Though never first on the plot during the War’s early years, the British Army and in particular the Royal Navy always kept up with the game, developing purpose-built bombers and using them in increasing numbers to carry out raids against militarily relevant targets ever deeper inside enemy territory.

Nobody’s efforts ever came close to fulfilling the war-winning potential ascribed to strategic bombing by its ‘air-minded’ European proponents, but then nobody thought the technology was yet ready for the job and in any case no European authority was willing or able to advocate the slaughter of countless civilians during an epoch that still considered warfare a civilised activity.  By 1918 it had become clear to all but the most ardent enthusiasts that, even if strategic bombing might be a game-changer, it wasn’t going to win this war anytime soon.

The Italians and Russians were anyway in no position to risk resources pursuing the theory further, and the German high command, having noted the limited impact of Gotha raids, had scaled down its interest in air power.  With the French never more than dabblers in long-range bombing, because they were primarily interested in aircraft as an adjunct to the ground war on the Western Front, and the US military effort entirely focused on the same campaign, the only major military power still chasing the dragon was Britain.

Relatively rich in resources and right at the forefront of contemporary aviation technology, Britain was home to a fervent group of strategic bombing believers within the RFC and the RNAS, led with bombastic commitment by the nation’s most persistent profit of air power, Hugh Trenchard, and backed by some very noisy armchair strategists running the popular press.

Trenchard in 1918 – moderate moustache, radical views.

An early fan of Douhet, Trenchard had joined the RFC in 1913 and taken command of its home training squadron in August 1914.  By general consent one of the least competent British pilots to have gained his flying certificate in peacetime, but equipped with a clear-eyed determination to prove the importance of air power to modern and future warfare, he was transferred to France in November of that year as commander of No.1 Wing and was promoted brigadier-general in August 1915, when he replaced General Henderson as the RFC’s field commander on the Western Front.

It was a fact of life that Allied aircraft were inferior to German machines in 1915, but Trenchard wasn’t a man to let the weapon of the future languish on the defensive.  He committed his squadrons in wholehearted support of the BEF’s aggressive policy of ‘permanent warfare’ in the trenches, sending large numbers of obsolete aircraft on constant raiding missions over enemy lines and accepting heavy losses more cheerfully than many of his field commanders.  During another period of German superiority in the spring of 1917, he flung everything the RFC could muster in support of the ill-fated Nivelle Offensive, and emerged from the carnage of Bloody April as a fully-fledged bête noir for many combat officers (7 May, 1917: Up In The Air).

Trenchard’s approach was, understandably enough, a lot more popular with the British Army’s high command, and he made that count.  Always convinced that the offensive potential of aerial warfare lay in strategic bombing, he lobbied insistently for development of a mass bomber fleet, and eventually got one.  The creation of an independent RAF was in part a reflection of his views (not least because it enabled the grouping of army and naval heavy aircraft), and his preliminary appointment as its chief of staff in January 1918 was a demonstration of government commitment to the concept of strategic bombing.

The appointment was also fraught with political intrigue, centred on the machinations of Lord Rothermere, Britain’s new air minister and the contemporary definition, along with his brother Lord Northcliffe, of a press baron.  Rothermere’s principal aims can be summed up as a desire to get rid of Haig and his like, and to end the horror of the trenches by concentrating all available resources on winning the War through strategic bombing.  As such he led a political faction supporting a far more radical swerve to heavy bombing strategy than anything advocated by Trenchard, who never lost sight of the need for aircraft to respond to immediate tactical priorities on the ground, and was anyway a friend and supporter of Haig.  On discovering that Rothermere was simultaneously promising the Royal Navy a massive fleet of anti-submarine aircraft – a move that would effectively starve the Western Front of air power – Trenchard resigned in March, although his resignation was not officially accepted until 11 April.

Harold Harmsworth, Viscount Rothermere: check him out, he was nasty.

Now a major-general, Trenchard was instead offered command of the RAF’s planned strategic bombing force, the very embodiment of his ideas.  After trying and failing to add overall control of RAF offensive operations to the job description, he accepted the offer in May, and the new Independent Air Force  (IAF) came into being on 6 June 1918.

The IAF was specifically tasked with carrying out its own strategy for long-range, heavy bombing attacks on any target deemed militarily relevant, without reference to British Army or Royal Navy priorities.  Other powers had imagined it, and Germany had taken the first, relatively half-hearted steps towards putting it into practice, but the British were the first to follow strategic bombing theory all the way and create a weapon designed to win wars by inflicting mass carnage on an enemy’s homeland.

Like every other massed bombing fleet in history, the Independent Air Force was a failure.  Stationed at various airfields in eastern France, it dropped around 350,000 tons of bombs during the course of 162 raids that were rarely accurate and made little strategic difference to the course of the War.  Long-range raiders faced vastly improved anti-aircraft defences by mid-1918, and casualties were high.  In total, 153 IAF pilots and 194 other aircrew were killed before the Armistice, although those figures include losses during the final Allied offensives on the Western Front, when the IAF made a more conventional contribution, co-operating with other formations in support of ground operations.

Faced with disappointing results, Trenchard behaved like every other believer in strategic bombing theory in deciding that success was just a matter of deploying bigger fleets of bigger bombers.  The IAF grew in size throughout its short life.  By August it comprised four squadrons of day bombers and five of night bombers; it expanded constantly during the next four months; and plans to add Italian, Belgian and US units to Trenchard’s strength were interrupted by the Armistice.

State of the dark art: the Handley Page 0-400 was standard equipment for IAF squadrons in the summer of 1918.

Trenchard and his followers (including a rising star in Major Arthur Harris and a full battery of popular press barons) also typified true believers by exaggerating, or at least optimising, the impact of bombing raids on enemy production and morale.  Their excuse was the conviction that technological progress would make failure to develop a strategic bombing force a recipe for total defeat in any future war.  Their tragedy, in an epoch enthralled by the world-changing potential of new technologies, was to be believed.

Trenchard went on serve as RAF chief of staff from 1919 until 1930, and guided development of the service as a strategic bombing force while other powers opted for a more mixed approach to aerial warfare.  Though he had government support, he was never remotely likely to receive funding for the kind of fleet he envisaged in a political atmosphere dominated by disarmament and pacifism, and when war came the RAF’s bombers again proved too small and few in number to deliver on strategic bombing theory.

Belief was still strong – in 1938 official British government figures predicted the death toll from one major raid on London at around 600,000 – and so the Second World War’s heavy bombing story was essentially a repeat of the First.  Germany tried to bomb Britain into submission with what turned out to be insufficient force, and the British led the Allies in once more upping the game, pounding Germany (and Japan) with massive bombing raids, exaggerating their impact to secure the further expansion that would surely bring results, and failing consistently until 1945 revealed the grim truth about strategic bombing’s destiny.

Winning wars with huge fleets of big bombers had after all been a hideous chimera, leading humanity to Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the gateway to Hell.  The false, dark vision was foisted on humanity during and after the First Word War by misguided militarists from many countries, but the British tried harder than anyone to make it a reality.

31 JANUARY, 1918: Bring Them Down!

During the night of January 30/31, a century ago, two German bomber squadrons dropped fourteen tons of bombs on Paris, killing 49 civilians and injuring another couple of hundred. The raid was carried out in response to Anglo-French attacks on German cities, and illustrated how far the dark science of strategic bombing had come since the first single-seater machine had dropped the first small bombs on Paris at the end of August 1914 (30 August, 1914: The Bomb!). The attackers’ only loss over Paris was a reconnaissance machine, a DFV-CV, shot down by a French night fighter over the city’s eastern suburbs, and that was as good an illustration as any of how the science of anti-aircraft warfare had failed to keep up.

The most basic form of anti-aircraft fire was delivered by riflemen on the ground, who couldn’t help shooting at passing planes and occasionally brought one down, but systematic destruction of enemy machines had been considered a matter for artillery by all armed forces since the birth of military flight. Known to the British as ‘Archie’ or ‘ack ack’, and as ‘flak’ to the Germans, anti-aircraft guns were controlled by the artillery commands of armies or navies in every belligerent country except Germany, where they were run by the Army Air Service.

They didn’t amount to much between them when war broke out in 1914. A few German field guns had been modified to fire at the sky, the French Army possessed a total of two purpose-built anti-aircraft armoured cars carrying 75mm guns, and the BEF made do with a handful of mobile 3-inch guns on an enlarged mounting. This hardly mattered at first, given the small number of aircraft in use, their limited use in combat roles and a performance level that meant they could be pursued on the ground, but rapid development during 1915 forced all the major belligerents to come up with countermeasures.

At first, standard field guns were fitted with upward-firing mountings and set to work, and many of these mutants remained in service throughout the War. Purpose-designed AA guns were soon in production everywhere, but they were almost all minor adaptations of existing field gun designs. The Germans adapted 80mm and 75mm field pieces, and the French stuck with their ubiquitous ‘Soixante-Quinze’, while the British and US armies maintained their preference for 3-inch guns.

That was about it for wartime technological development in the field. Some shells were lightened but fired with the same charge (because that made them go higher), and 1918 saw the German Air Service introduce a rapid-firing 20mm cannon that became the basis for light anti-aircraft defence during the Second World War, but otherwise the guns themselves remained essentially unchanged.

On land, AA batteries were originally scattered around large areas in small groups (of at least two guns, so that a ranging shot could be followed up quickly), in the hope of catching slow-moving aircraft wherever they appeared. As it became clear that visual targetting of one aircraft’s three-dimensional movement almost never did the job, and as the numbers of aircraft and their attack potential mounted, guns were massed in large formations around anticipated targets such as military installations close to front lines, airfields, industrial centres, population centres and coastal installations. At sea, most major warships carried standard anti-aircraft guns by 1916, singly or in pairs, but nobody really expected them to hit anything.

Not too complex – just stick a field gun on wheels and give it room to point upwards – German AA gun, 1918.

Within this very basic framework, some advances were made in technique. Improving central command and control systems made massed AA operations steadily more efficient, as did use of telescopes to chart and anticipate a target’s course, while ‘barrage’ systems were employed to apply blanket coverage to a particular sector of airspace. As night attacks from the air became more common, searchlights and flares were employed to illuminate targets, and ‘barrage balloons’ sent up to force attackers into ‘barrage’ corridors. In case you were wondering about altitude settings for AA shells, they didn’t need much in the way of technical advance… the longer the fuse, the higher the explosion.

Most AA guns fired shrapnel, which stood by far the best chance of hitting something, but some battery commanders preferred to use high-explosive (HE) shells, which stood an outside chance of obliterating something. By 1918, HE shells had been superseded by incendiary shells, which offered gunners the best of both worlds. Originally designed by the British for use against German Zeppelins, they behaved like shrapnel but threw out balls of burning thermite.

Nobody could do without anti-aircraft guns to protect threatened areas, but they were responsible for only a small fraction of aviation losses, mostly on the busy Western Front, and it was generally recognised that they were no more than a token threat to rapidly improving aircraft designs. By 1918 they were seen as intrinsically deficient by most military planners, and post-war development concentrated on the use of fighter aircraft as the best defence against aerial bombing.

I mentioned balloons, and while I’m delving into the War’s smaller details I’ve got an excuse for a word about them. Barrage duties aside, hot-air and gas-filled balloons were a common sight throughout the War on static battlefields, where they performed observation duties for artillery commanders. Cheaper to run than aircraft, and a more stable viewing platform, they were winched by ground crew to various heights in groups of two or three, and their cross-referenced observations were transmitted to the ground by flag signals, or sometimes radio.

The two or three men crewing an observation balloon, ‘balloonatics’ to the British, were sitting ducks for any attacker, and on busy fronts they were attacked all the time, but the balloons themselves were notoriously difficult to destroy. Standard bullets generally passed straight through the fabric, forcing enemy aircraft into repeated, close-range attacks that risked entanglement in wires or cables, as well as the attention of any AA guns in the vicinity. Shooting down a balloon was generally credited as a full ‘kill’ by all air forces, and several ‘aces’ on both sides of the Western Front earned their name as ‘balloon busters’.

Up, up and a way to die… but at least they’ve got their parachutes.

Although some German balloons were equipped with powered winches by 1918, for rapid descent when under attack, crews’ survival chances had been further reduced by increased use of HE and incendiary bullets.  It was a tough job, and that was why balloon crews were, along with airship crews, were the only British airmen allowed to use parachutes.  And so to one of the War’s weird yet characteristic details, the parachute…

And this is how they used it.

Parachutes were well known in 1914, but the types used by wartime air services were strapped to the outside of the aircraft, and attached to the crewman by a long cord that automatically opened the chute when he jumped. Regular requests for the use of these from aircrew on both sides were refused on the grounds that they were too fragile for attachment to powered aircraft, and the fairly costly alternative of providing parachutes worn by the jumper was never considered, primarily on the grounds that the crew of an armed aircraft had no right to such protection. The German Air Service changed its mind in 1918, when it faced a critical shortage of aircrew, and a few pilots were given wearable models, but the British flying services in particular continued to regard requests for a parachute as tantamount to cowardice.  Wearable parachutes were used by espionage agencies on all sides for dropping agents behind enemy lines, but that’s another story.

There are no moral messages or world-changing historical threads here, just a quick glance at some of the less storied strangeness polluting Europe’s war-torn skies in 1918 – and a shred or two of evidence that the Great War featured more ways to die than heritage recalls.

30 DECEMBER, 1917: Let’s Drop The Mask

The Great War had just endured its fourth Christmas.  Popular history has reduced wartime seasons of goodwill to one heavily mythologised football match at the end of 1914, and so I’m always tempted to cry humbug at this time of year.  That’s because (in my opinion) the football match trope has come to exert an unfortunate influence on popular thinking about the First World War as a whole.

Sure, the story goes, the whole thing was ghastly, pointless, ill-led and an insult to the humanity of its victims – but at base we were still a more noble breed a century ago, somehow playing war by the rules of gentlemanly conduct. This echoes the kind of homespun machismo spouted across the social spectra in developed nations during the decade before 1914, when the idea that too much peace had diluted humanity’s will to progress helped nourish the political and popular militarism that propelled Europe towards war.  Both ideas are pure poppycock, like anything else based on the nobility of brutal violence, and so let’s commemorate Christmas 1917 with a nod to the First World War’s standard, none too gentlemanly response to the festive season.  That’s right, it’s time for another chat about civilian bombing.

Fighting went on all over the world throughout the Christmas period. Trench warfare persisted along the Western Front, particularly fierce in the areas around the BEF’s recent offensives, while Allenby’s invasion of Palestine engaged in mopping up operations after the capture of Jerusalem. The German guerilla war spat fire across East Africa, violent chaos engulfed Eastern Europe and the Caucasus in the wake of the Russian Empire’s collapse, and the global battle for control of the world’s oceans raged unabated. Many of these conflicts caused what we now call collateral damage, bringing suffering and death to civilian populations, but on one European battlefront civilians were being targeted for Christmas.

The war in northeastern Italy had taken a dramatic turn during the autumn.  Driven back in disarray by an Austro-German offensive, Italian forces were holding a line at the River Piave while Allied reinforcements of men and machines were rushed to the front (24 October, 1917: This Plan Sucks).  If Austro-Hungarian forces (along with the few German units still attached to the theatre) could break through at the Piave, the rich and heavily-populated plains of eastern Lombardy lay open to invasion, and the run-up to Christmas saw heavy fighting around, on and above the river.  Because the new frontline was so close to Venice and other large Italian towns, they became targets for aerial bombing.

Nice easy map – tricky position if you live near Venice.

Bombing of civilian targets had been a feature of Austro-Hungarian operations on the Italian Front since 1915, but it reached a crescendo as 1918 approached.  The lovely cities of Padua (Padova) and Treviso suffered the most.  Padua was attacked by air raids on the nights of 28, 29 and 30 December, and suffered six more raids in January and February, receiving a total of 718 bombs, while Treviso was attacked 16 times over the same period and took 517 hits. Vicenza, Venice and Ravenna were among the other venerable cities subject to attacks from the air, most of them carried out by the 4th Bomber Squadron of the German Air Force, which was transferred to the Italian Front in December and flew purpose-built Gotha bombers far superior to anything the Austrian air service possessed.

The numbers of bombs involved and their relatively small size highlight the difference in scale between civilian bombing in 1917/18 and its Second World War equivalent.  The early attacks by Austro-Hungarian aircraft had been carried out by small, single-engine machines that inflicted relative pinpricks, and the attacks on northern Italy over the Christmas period were no Blitz, but they were terrifying just the same and caused destruction on a scale that would be considered shocking today.  In total, air raids against Italian cities during the War killed 965 civilians and wounded 1,158, more than four-fifths of them in the regions immediately behind the front, as well as causing significant damage to ancient buildings, civic facilities and works of art.  They also provoked enormous outrage in Italy.

In many ways Italian fury was justified.  Civilian bombing was new and widely regarded as a barbarian practice, and though every air force claimed that its aircraft were aiming at militarily or economically legitimate targets, nobody expected them to be very accurate about it.  In other words collateral damage was inevitable, but the Italian government insisted (long, loud and into the 1920s) that German bombers were targeting non-military buildings on purpose.

This was of course denied, and couldn’t be proved either way, but there is no doubt that German air authorities, like those of every other country carrying out long-range bombing raids, regarded attacks on civilians and civilian culture as intrinsically valuable. Whether deliberate or accidental, the act of raining terror on unprotected populations was seen by strategic bombing theorists as a potentially war-winning tactic, likely to erode a nation’s will to fight and, according to the real enthusiasts on various air staffs, capable of doing so overnight.  Bottom line, and despite the heartfelt regrets expressed by German propaganda, bombers over Italy weren’t discouraged from scattering their loads onto the occasional Renaissance church or triptych, both as a contribution to the war effort and as a test of public reaction (among the victims and at home).

So while Allied propaganda made the most of every opportunity to illustrate enemy barbarism by lamenting its wanton disregard for irreplaceable cultural treasures (check out the film on YouTube), the outraged Italians had a point when they accused the German Air Service of war crimes – but both were fine examples of one-eyed hypocrisy.

Padua suffers…
…and Allied propaganda makes a fuss.

The Allies in general were every bit as excited as their enemies about the potential of massed strategic bombing, and no less comfortable experimenting with the effects of terror bombing on civilians. This was particularly true of the British, who had formed a strategic bombing group to carry out raids on the largest possible scale – but the only country more enthusiastic about strategic bombing than Britain or Germany was Italy.

An Italian air officer, Giulio Douhet, had been the first to propose the theory several years before the War.  He was still thundering its virtues in the Italian press as 1917 came to a close, but in the meantime he had done his best to promote Italian heavy bombing capability, encouraging the designer Gianni Caproni to build his three-engine CA heavy bombers, and then ordering them into large-scale production on his own authority.  Highly controversial at the time, and well above the pay grade of an Army major, Douhet’s initiative reflected the passionate turbulence of Italian military planning and, along with a series of scathing memos criticising his superiors, earned him a court-martial and a prison sentence in 1916. It also gave Italy an early lead in the field of strategic bombing.

Douhet: that moustache says fanatic, and wasn’t far wrong.

Douhet was pardoned thanks to the intervention of a man who was both the incarnation of Italian military passion and a near-fanatical proponent of strategic bombing, the poet and all-round human tornado Gabriele D’Annunzio. D’Annunzio is worth a paragraph or two of digression because he was, to put it mildly, a colourful character, and because he’ll crop up again as a very noisy wildcard amid the War’s last rites.  A writer by trade, and a fervent nationalist given to political agitation with an oratorical bent, he had quit Italy for France in 1910 to escape personal debt, but returned in May 1915 to add his voice and flair for publicity to the mounting chorus for intervention in the War.

D’Annunzio: that pose says narcissist, and wasn’t far wrong.

Once Italy was at war, D’Annunzio kept his profile high.  He’d turned 52 in March 1915, but gained permission to serve at various times as a cavalry officer, aboard a torpedo boat and as observer in command of a Caproni squadron.  His irrepressible ego and evident personal courage – highlighted by a wound in 1916 that cost him an eye but didn’t prevent him returning to action – had won him a lot of medals and made him an Italian national hero by 1917, with sufficient clout to secure the release of an air theorist he considered a visionary lighting the road to national glory.

Douhet would be rehabilitated as the head of the Italian Army’s Central Aeronautic Bureau in 1918, and would produce the first edition of his internationally influential blueprint for strategic civilian bombing (Il dominio dell’aria) in 1921, but his time in the wilderness had been about personal behaviour rather than his ideas.

Douhet was certainly considered a crank, if not a crackpot, by much of the Italian political and military establishment, but that was the lot of air enthusiasts in all the warring nations, especially those who made extravagant claims about bombers rendering the ground-warfare expertise of their superiors all but obsolete.  Douhet attracted extra opprobrium with his wartime demands for the immediate construction of 500 heavy bombers, a feat way beyond the capacity of Italy’s economy even if the government had been prepared to divert resources from the all-consuming ground campaign on its frontier.

And there’s the rub.  In Britain, France and Germany, desperation to find a way out of the ghastly stalemate meant cranks and crackpots were being given a chance to prove their ideas.  All three economies were capable of producing new aircraft designs for experimental purposes without diluting their efforts on the main battlefronts, and all three empires had plenty of use for heavy bombers, for attacks on both military installations close to the Western Front and the plethora of major civilian targets within range of their airfields.  The Italians not only needed everything they could produce, including ground-support aircraft, to maintain a front-line effort that became increasingly dependent on Allied reinforcement, but because the Alps and the range restrictions of contemporary heavy aircraft put most Austro-Hungarian towns of any size beyond attack from Italy, their heavy aircraft lacked targets for any serious civilian bombing experiment.

That’s enough rambling for one bleary day.  Aside from drip-feeding a bit of relatively obscure information, this particular ramble was aimed at the tendency, in Britain at least, to condemn strategic bombing as something designed and practiced by the bad guys, in our case Germany.  Just as the Blitz of the 1940s is shoved down our collective throats as the exemplar of evil, while the altogether more monstrous and massive bombing of Germany by the RAF is quietly downplayed, so Allied and Italian outrage at the festive bombing or northern Italy in 1917 masked their active desire to do exactly the same thing to their enemies on the grandest possible scale.  Gentlemanly?  Yeah, right…

7 MAY, 1917: Up In The Air

Set against the vast conflagrations of the two previous years, the spring of 1917 was turning into a relatively quiet fighting season, at least on land. By early May the big event, a massive Allied breakthrough attempt in the usual sectors of the Western Front, was still spluttering to a violent close around Arras in the north and the Aisne River further south, but it had obviously failed and the front was congealing into a familiar stalemate.

Elsewhere, the Russian Army’s collapse into revolutionary chaos was having a dampening effect on offensive planning wherever its troops were involved. The Eastern Front had fallen eerily immobile as German and Austro-Hungarian commanders waited to see how the ongoing revolution in Russia panned out.  On the Caucasian Front, Russian occupation of Armenia had collapsed but the Ottoman Empire was in no position to exploit the situation, leaving a regional power vacuum that descended into violent chaos, characterised by sporadic warfare between Armenian and non-Armenian elements.

North of Salonika, mutiny among his Russian units in early May persuaded Allied c-in-c Sarrail to call off his multinational army’s clumsy, costly and resoundingly unsuccessful attempts to follow up a failed spring offensive, and to abandon plans for any further offensive action in 1917.  Russian troops stationed in Persia, some 21,000 of them, had also ceased to function as a military force by May, but British commanders on the neighbouring Mesopotamian Front had taken a while to work that out.

In the face of steady advances by General Maude’s Anglo-Indian army, Ottoman forces on the Tigris and Euphrates had retreated north of Baghdad in March (11 March, 1917: Die Now, Payoff Later). Maude had received permission to push on to the railhead at Samarrah, intending to get between 10,000 Ottoman troops threatening Baghdad from the northwest and 5,000 more retreating from western Persia, and to drive the latter back towards General Berezov’s Russians.  After a preliminary operation had taken Fallujah, a key flood-control point on the Euphrates, a series of relatively small but intense engagements brought the British to Samarrah by the end of April.

British forces in Mesopotamia finally had a competent commander, but disease would kill General Maude within a few months.

The offensive did keep the two Ottoman armies apart, and it provided some good news for a success-starved British public, but it brought Maude’s battle losses up to 18,000 men since March. Another 35,000 had been put out of action by disease, forcing Maude to halt further offensive operations and suspend planned transfers of troops at a time of manpower build-up on other British fronts.

The prospect of eventually connecting with Russian forces in the Caucasus through Persia, always more credible on paper than in real life, had meanwhile lost its limited allure for those British strategists not committed to total concentration on the Western Front.     They were still interested in Palestine, which offered a chance to dominate trade and oil in a post-Ottoman Middle East, but that invasion had been put on hold in April after two failed attempts to take its first objective, Gaza.  British imperial forces in the theatre would spend the summer reinforcing for an autumn offensive, while those in East Africa were still being reorganised to incorporate troops recruited from African colonies, and wouldn’t resume their apparently endless pursuit of the last German army on the continent until July.

With advances on every other land front either stalling or stalled, Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s planned attack on the River Isonzo represented the last hope of any significant Allied success on land before the summer.  The offensive, which turned out lively enough to be worth a post of its own, was to be Cadorna’s tenth tilt at that particular windmill, and had been intended as support for the planned Anglo-French breakthrough on the Western Front.  In other words it wasn’t much of a hope, and its prospect did little to lift a mood of disappointment and frustration that touched every section of British and French society as 1917 first campaigning season grew old.

Even the cartoonists were getting grumpy about the War in May 1917.

The Central Powers – or rather Germany, since its allies were now too weak, too broke and too internally fragile to do anything on their own – had no plans for land offensives of any size during 1917, but needed to win the war at sea in a hurry.  The spring had been anything but quiet on naval warfare’s global front, as Germany’s all-out commitment to submarines threatened to cripple British supply lines, but May would see that particular threat blunted by the Royal Navy’s widespread adoption of a convoy system (1 February, 1917: Magic Bullets).

So unless you were rooting for the global spread of workers’ revolution, nothing taking place on land or sea during the early months of 1917 appeared likely to snap the world out of its ongoing nightmare anytime before the US Army arrived in Europe – and that brings me to the war in the air.

Aerial warfare was still the new kid on the block in 1917, and although almost three years of combat had generated lightning technical development in the field, it was still an essentially trivial sideshow.  Aircraft had been extremely useful as adjuncts to other branches of the military, performing reconnaissance, spotting and communications tasks for armies and navies all over the world, and lately coming into their own as direct support weapons for troops on the ground.  They had become infinitely more reliable during the War, as well as faster, more heavily armed and more versatile, but they had yet to make any strategic difference to anything in their own right.

On the other hand, aircraft had always been a very high-profile weapon, giving warfare the kind of dramatic, ultra-modern, mechanised glow that inspired propagandists and thrilled literate populations.  Any significant contribution made by air power – whether supporting massed armies on the European fronts, performing otherwise impossible reconnaissance or communications tasks on far-flung colonial battlefields or carrying out pinprick raids on enemy institutions beyond the range of other weapons – was likely to generate maximum publicity, but nothing matched the dash, glamour and gladiatorial distraction of combat between aircraft.

April 1917 had seen dogfights on the Western Front achieve global star status. In the crowded skies above the northern wing of the Allied spring offensive – the actions known to the British as the Battle of Arras – the appropriately named Richtofen Circus hit the headlines by taking a terrible toll of British pilots flying inferior machines.  Richtofen, who personally shot down 20 British aircraft during the month, was by no means alone as German hunting squadrons, or Jastas, destroyed some 250 British aircraft and killed four hundred airmen during ‘Bloody April’.

Propaganda machines joined the fight with predictable enthusiasm, but while the German press was free to indulge in simple crowing the Allies were required to find more subtle ways to praise their air forces.  The British press responded by reinventing Bloody April as a hard-earned success for the Royal Flying Corps, which had somehow managed to fulfil its ground support commitments in spite of overwhelming German air superiority.

More than two decades later the British would pull off the same trick at Dunkirk, keeping a straight face while turning embarrassing defeat into noble victory, but propagandists in 1940 could justify their claims by pointing to the preservation of troops and the boldness of their escape.  Their predecessors in 1917 were skating on much thinner ice.  British pilots and aircraft did indeed provide effective support for the ground offensive in April 1917, but the offensive itself was a complete failure and the RFC’s heroic sacrifices were, in strategic terms, completely pointless.

They were also avoidable. German success in the skies had come against superior numbers, and owed much to the Allied policy of pouring out tried and tested aircraft designs in large numbers, and then rushing barely-trained pilots to the front to fly them.  Bloody April convinced Allied strategists of the need to focus on quality over quantity, and within a few months better-trained aircrew in new, high-performance fighter aircraft would restore aerial parity over the Western Front, where they would remain locked into a loud but peripheral role in the wider battles.

The land war is stalled, the war at sea is cooling down and the air war is still a sideshow. The Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires have become passive or reactive participants in the War, belligerents only in name, and the approaching nemesis of US might is still some way off.  In the context of a world war, and in strictly military terms, there’s nothing much going on beyond the routine progress of death and disease on every front… unless you count a first glimpse of the false god destined to dominate military thinking for the next hundred years.

During the night of 6/7 May 1917, a single German aircraft, an Albatros fighter, dropped six 12.5kg bombs on north London.  The raid, which killed one civilian but otherwise caused only minor damage, was the first night attack on London by a fixed-wing aircraft.  Though the operation appears to have been an unofficial one-off, it came only a couple of days after a similar attack in daylight and, taken together as hindsight, the two flights constituted an announcement about the future of air power.

Satan’s little helper… the Albatros CVII.

Germany had developed long-range heavy bombers to replace the airships that had been spreading fear across southern England but doing little more.  The bombers were almost ready to arrive over English night skies in large numbers, and to test the theory – popular with some strategists – that they could transform wars between states into brief, long-range exchanges of massed aerial attacks on civilian targets.  The ease with which the lone Albatros came and went, escaping long before any British aircraft reached the scene, served to emphasise the fact that no effective defence existed against aerial bombing in 1917 – so it seemed the time had come for the bomber to have its day.

The heavy bombers would arrive over England within a couple of months and drop plenty of bombs, but they wouldn’t change the War.  Strategic bombing theorists on all sides would decide, much like the generals trying to break through trench systems on land, that instant victory was just a matter of attacking with more bombers, bigger bombers, bigger bombs or all three.  They would still be chasing that dragon when the War ended, and they’d be at it again throughout the Second World War.  A quick glance at the news in any given week should make it clear that many military theorists still believe heavy civilian bombing of one kind or another can be a war-winner, despite the fact that the one and only occasion on which a nation has been bombed into submission – Japan in 1945 – is generally regarded as an unrepeatable stain on human history.

It didn’t seem much of a big deal at the time, unless you happened to live around Hackney, but the night raid on London of 7 May was the Devil at the doorbell, ready to warp our futures with destruction and deceit.

24 MARCH, 1917: Imperial Sunset Strip

Life’s a weave.  There’s never just one thing going on within any given timeframe, and life’s stories – collectively known as history – are inevitably edits, imposing the appearance of coherent narrative by selecting and prioritising from a mass of potentially relevant information. That’s one way of pointing out that all written, spoken or illustrated history is subjective, because editorial decisions come with the job.

I mention this obvious truth because I make a bunch of those editorial decisions every time I post, and I don’t want anybody thinking they amount to a coherent narrative. These are snapshots, intended to shine a bit of light on the First World War’s largely forgotten dimensions, and ideally to provoke a wide-angle view of the thing, in contrast to the Tommy-tight focus promoted by British popular media.

A century ago today, for instance, the British began an invasion of Palestine that (in my opinion) made an enormous difference to today’s world, so I plan to talk about it – but any number of other centenaries have passed during the last few days, a good few of them ripe with significance for the future.

On 16 March 1917, for example, Aristide Briand’s French government fell. It had been in place since October 1915 without ever looking or feeling secure, and the issue that brought it down was Briand’s support for French c-in-c Nivelle’s hugely controversial Western Front offensive. The successor chosen by President Poincaré, veteran centrist grandee Alexandre Ribot, went on to authorise the attack and was very much a stopgap premier. Elderly and in poor health, he lasted only six months in the job and had little impact on French strategic direction, though he was responsible for reversing the French government’s hitherto unshakable support for Greek King Constantine, a move that would help untie that particularly frustrating political knot.

Any wartime premier of any major belligerent, even France, deserves more than that shallow paragraph has to offer, and I’m about to give the same short shrift to the impact of food shortages throughout northern Europe in the early spring of 1917. I’ve mentioned the failure of the 1916 harvest recently (12 February, 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear), and although its most potent long-term effects were felt in Germany, it was a major issue for, among others, the Low Countries and Great Britain.

In occupied Holland and Belgium, the effects of the poor harvest were exacerbated by German economic exploitation and caused widespread civilian hardship. In Britain, they were sharpened by losses to the German U-boat campaign, causing some discomfort along with a great deal of popular commentary – and in late March 1917 the British press was dominated by a severe national potato shortage. When Dutch civilians rioted over potato shortages in July 1917, they were fighting to stave off starvation, but although British outrage was primarily fuelled by addiction to chips it did reflect a popular sense that the War had come home to roost, brought into every home by a combination of mass casualties and basic shortages.

Oh well, you could still get tea.

In 1914 many Britons had regarded war as, at worst, a necessary evil, needed to sort out the geopolitical pecking order and to invigorate a nation grown idle with comfort. By the time British clocks went forward for only the second year, on 8 April 1917, nobody saw a good side to war any more.

There was, however, still a glimmer of dash and derring-do left in the conflict at large. While Lawrence was creating his own legend in Arabia, more conventional British officers were setting out on a parallel adventure in Palestine. On 26 March, British imperial forces led by General Murray attacked Ottoman lines blocking the only feasible route north from Sinai and the only viable way of establishing direct contact with the Arab Revolt.  The attack opened an invasion destined to stutter into life before maturing into a time bomb for the future disguised as a dramatic military success.

Based in Cairo, Murray had spent the second half of 1916 and the first weeks of 1917 making methodical preparations for an advance into Palestine, establishing supply lines across Sinai and building up his fighting strength (5 August, 1916: Backwards to the Future). By early 1917 he could call on about 75,000 front-line troops, against German General von Kressenstein’s Ottoman force of some 18,000 men – a combination of tribal irregulars, depleted Turkish Army units and German specialist forces – based on Gaza and deployed along a fortified line running about 40km southwest to the town of Beersheba.

Here’s a map.

Murray had sent ANZAC cavalry units to clear Turkish forward positions in December and January, and had intended to invade shortly afterwards, but loss of troops to other theatres forced him to postpone further attacks until March, when he finally received permission from London for an attack on Gaza. By that time water pipelines to the front had reached El Arish, and Murray – assuming that defenders, outnumbered 2-to-1, would retreat when threatened ­– had organised 35,000 of his best troops to deliver an attack as the ‘Eastern Force’. Much as Kressenstein wanted to retreat, he was under orders from theatre commander Djemal Pasha to hold the position… but before I get into what became known as the First Battle of Gaza, it’s worth making a couple of points about desert warfare in 1917.

Attacks on fortified positions in desert regions were dominated by artillery, machine guns and the other weapons associated with trench warfare on the Western Front model, but everything else – including exploitation of victories against trench lines – was about maintaining supplies, finding targets and making rapid movements across empty spaces to reach them. This meant that cavalry, whether mounted on horses or camels, was not the disastrous anachronism it proved on the main European fronts, but an absolutely vital reconnaissance and attack weapon, a fact worth remembering the next time some heritage pundit insists it was completely useless in a ‘mechanised’ war.

Aircraft were even better at reconnaissance, although they broke down too often in desert conditions to fully replace cavalry in the role, and were useful as ground attack weapons. Both sides deployed air units equipped with machines that were obsolete by Western Front standards in early 1917, but German Rumpler C-types and Halberstadt D-types could outperform the RFC’s sedate BE-2 fighters.  Murray could also call upon about a dozen wheeled seaplanes from four Royal Navy aircraft carriers stationed off the coast, but although aircraft carriers sound like a great leap forward with enormous implications, the floating airstrips of future wars were still in the development stage in 1917.  These were converted cross-Channel ferries, selected because they were fast enough to keep up with fleet units.  Each could only carry between three and seven seaplanes, which had to be winched in and out of the water for operations, and which weren’t enough to prevent Kressenstein’s pilots from holding their own in the air despite a numerical disadvantage.

HMS Ben-My-Chree off the coast of Palestine. This was Britain’s biggest aircraft carrier in 1917.

Eastern Force commander General Dobell spent two days massing the bulk of his troops near the coast about 8km short of Gaza, behind the Wadi Ghazi, before they crossed the wadi, undetected in dense fog, early on 26 March. Cavalry slipped through positions east and southeast of the town to cut off the Ottoman rear, but an infantry attack against the southeast approaches to Gaza failed in harsh conditions. Cavalry circled back in the afternoon to help the British take most of the high ground east of Gaza by evening, but darkness quickly reduced both sides to chaos.

Kressenstein thought the battle was lost so he cancelled a call for reinforcements, while Dobell thought the battle was about to be lost and recalled his cavalry from beyond Gaza. That left the two British divisions holding the high ground exposed to a counterattack, which arrived the following morning and – along with water shortages – persuaded Dobell to order a general retreat. The operation had cost about 4,000 British imperial casualties, against some 2,400 suffered by Kressenstein’s force, and could only be called a comprehensive failure.

General Sir Archibald Murray had been around a long time and, having served as chief of staff to original BEF c-in-c Sir John French, he knew a bit about self-serving propaganda. Unwilling to foist defeat on a British public laid low by spuds and the Somme, he simply tripled the number of Ottoman casualties in his reports and turned failure into substantial victory. Still sure Kressenstein would retreat given one more push, Murray wanted another crack at Gaza as soon as possible, and his creative use of fiction was enough to secure enthusiastic agreement from London.

Some generals deserved posterity’s scorn, and Murray was one of them.

Murray was wrong, and Dobell’s second attempt on Gaza in mid-April would be another expensive failure in the face of well-organised Ottoman defences. A summer of desultory trench warfare would follow, while both sides reinforced and the British brought a new command team to Palestine for a renewed offensive in the autumn. You might wonder why they’d bother, given that eastern Mediterranean deserts were never anyone’s idea of a game-changer in terms of winning the War. The answers lie, as usual, in the unstoppable combination of military momentum and imperial instinct.

Forward defence of Suez and reports from Arabia had convinced British generals that the Ottoman Empire was in trouble, and dangled the irresistible carrot of easy victories. Imperial strategists in London were never going to turn down an offer of post-War control over the oil-rich geopolitical axis that was the Middle East, and were keen to establish possession rights over the eastern Mediterranean seaboard before Arab rebels or international peace treaties could intervene. Of course the invasion of Palestine was a mere sideshow to the Great War, but it sat right in the mainstream of British imperial progress.

24 September, 1916: Who Let The Dogs Out?

Back in 1914, the German Army had announced the arrival of aerial warfare by sending a lone aircraft to drop very small bombs on Paris (August 30, 1914: The Bomb).  A little more than two years later, and a hundred years ago today, two French airmen completed a daring long-range trip to the German industrial city of Essen, where they dropped a dozen or so bombs on or around the Krupps armament works. Although part of the works was slightly disrupted for two days after the attack, and German sources claimed the a bomb had killed a child, Captain de Beauchamp and Lieutenant Daucourt didn’t achieve much more than a minor propaganda coup – but I’m bothering to commemorate their fifteen minutes of fame because it serves as a convenient and appropriate signpost for the end of aerial warfare’s first phase.

Warplane – 1914 version.
How they looked in 1914…

History can’t (and really shouldn’t keep trying to) put exact dates on its processes, so there was no precise moment when aircraft stopped being tactical adjuncts to more traditional methods of fighting and became the practical focus of strategic thinking, or when they moved beyond the experimental stage to become established, trusted weapons of war in their own right. Generally speaking, these things happened across the middle of 1916, and by late September the kind of demonstration missions typified by the Essen raid – essentially experiments to test the capacity and impact of warplanes – were no longer seen as the most aircraft could achieve on their own.

That tortuous set of statements calls for some context, so here’s a potted look at aerial warfare during the first two years of its existence.

Aircraft were still very new in 1914. The global impact of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight in 1903 had been delayed by wrangles over licensing agreements, and the first aircraft had finally reached military service (with the French Army) in 1911. When the War began in 1914, the French Aeronautique Militaire possessed 132 frontline machines, and as many again in reserve, while the German Army had responded to French expansion by providing its Air Service with even more aircraft, though the designs were generally inferior and trained pilots were in short supply. The British Royal Flying Corps was smaller than either, but well equipped and organised, while the Russian Army possessed a sprawling collection of aircraft that weren’t really organised at all. All four empires were also experimenting with naval aircraft by 1914, but no other state possessed more than a few imported machines.

War arrived before aircraft were ready for it, and technical limitations dictated their performance during the first months of the conflict. Fragile, skeletal and terrifyingly unreliable, they were too feeble to lift more than a token bomb load or any kind of weapon, they struggled to make any kind of forward progress against headwinds, and they could be destroyed on the ground in large numbers by a heavy storm. Ramming was the only effective combat tactic against other aircraft, and the vast majority of early operational casualties were caused by accidents. Formation flying was rightly considered dangerous and not attempted, while night flying only ever happened by accident.

Under the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that aircraft were restricted to unarmed liaison, reconnaissance and artillery spotting duties in 1914, or that what armies were looking for in aircraft was a stable flying platform, ideally with easy packaging for transport with mobile armies. That changed when mobile warfare on the Western Front (always the place to find the majority of First World War aircraft) turned into static trench warfare, at which point aircraft became far more important to armies, needed for long-range reconnaissance behind enemy lines, short-range photo-reconnaissance, a lot more artillery spotting and, as more powerful designs became available, short-range bombing of enemy lines and installations. At the same time, all belligerents developed countermeasures against enemy aircraft, modifying guns for anti-aircraft purposes and deploying some of its own aircraft as air-to-air ‘fighters’.

During 1914 and 1915, technological development was hindered by the widespread belief that the War would be ended by the next wave of offensives. This discouraged innovation, promoting modification and adaptation of existing designs, which grew steadily more reliable and mounted more powerful engines, so that they could soon drop something heavier than a grenade and carry machine guns.

Guns were obviously key to effective development of fighters, but finding ways to fire them accurately took a while longer. The first fighters were two-seaters, carrying a rear gunner, but performance needs called for faster, more maneouvrable single-seaters. Experiments with high-mounted guns, and with steel ‘deflector’ plates on propellers to enable pilots to shoot directly forwards, had limited success, and it was not until the autumn of 1915 that the German air service introduced ‘interrupter gear’, which synchronised gun and propeller to allow forward firing. It took the British and French a few months to produce shells reliable enough to work with interrupter gear, but by the middle of 1916 everyone was using it.

With optimism about the end of the War fading fast, entirely new designs finally began reaching combat units in numbers during 1916. Along with improved machines for all the tasks already allotted to aircraft, these included a new generation of fighters, designed for and capable of the dogfights that only then became the defining motif of aerial warfare on the Western Front. Most Western Front dogfights, incidentally, took place over German positions, thanks to prevailing winds and the same Allied doctrine of ‘permanent offensive’ that got so many trench soldiers killed for nothing much.

Bigger aircraft also began to make their presence felt from 1916. Along with the relative failure of the German airship programme, a few minor successes for Russian Sikorsky and Italian Caproni multi-engine bombers during 1914 and 1915 had encouraged the belief – popular among some theorists since the initial spread of powered flight – that wars could be won by strategic bombing of enemy territory.  Britain, France and Germany all introduced relatively long-range, heavy bomber aircraft during 1916, and all embarked on bombing programmes that grew more ambitious through the rest of the War.  They would achieve very little in strategic terms, but would do enough to convince theorists that, given technological progress, they would one day be capable of winning wars at a stroke.

The other major tactical development made possible by improved performance criteria was the fighter-bomber, as aircraft designed for direct support of ground troops came to be known. When first used by the British in support of their new ‘tanks’ during the summer of 1916, ground support aircraft lacked specialised equipment or organised tactics, but armoured and even cannon-armed machines would appear in numbers during the next two years, and by 1918 ‘trench fighting’ would be the aircraft’s principal combat role on the Western Front.

So the autumn fighting season in 1916 marked the aircraft’s arrival as an effective weapon purpose-designed for defined tactical and strategic combat roles. It also coincided with great leaps forward in the production capacity behind the British, French and German air arms, making possible a huge proliferation in the numbers and variety of aircraft available for combat duties. Numbers were further increased by the export of aircraft technology to other belligerent countries, notably Italy, which rapidly developed an indigenous industry producing good quality original designs, and the United States, which built aircraft for the Allies under licence before it joined the war in April 1917, and had 750 combat aircraft of its own by the Armistice. In this context it’s worth remembering that First World War aircraft were relatively cheap and easy to build, as evidenced by the US Army’s post-War decision to burn its entire air fleet in a French field rather than foot the bill for transporting it home.

... to this in September 1916.
The purpose-designed fighter, September 1916.

That was a very generalised snapshot of aerial warfare at one of its watershed moments, but it was only meant to set the table for the deadly derring-do of dogfight heroics, which really got going around a century ago, and to mark another stage in the prolonged experiment that was strategic bombing. In the first instance, I reckon you can rely on the heritage industry to provide all the detail you need, and though mass media may prove a little more reticent when it comes to the ultimately catastrophic choices made around bombing theory, you can rely on me to come back to that before too long.

One last point worth making is that, although warplanes performed in every theatre, including naval theatres, any discussion of contemporary aerial warfare’s cutting edge is obliged to focus on the Western Front, which saw almost exclusive deployment of the latest technology and was the only theatre to experience busy air traffic at all times.

8 FEBRUARY, 1916: No Cigar

It’s been eighteen months coming, but I’ve finally reached a week short on centenaries to get excited about.  True, 8 February 1916 was the day on which the British government made a formal request on  to its Far Eastern ally, Japan, for naval aid, but that didn’t get exciting for a couple of decades.  As I’ve mentioned before (23 August, 1914: Prowling Tiger), the squadron of Japanese destroyers that eventually arrived to join Allied Mediterranean patrols in April 1917 did nothing of any military significance, but did learn plenty about the latest naval techniques and equipment.

The last rites of the Central Powers’ invasion of the Balkans were also in progress, with Bulgarian and Austrian forces mopping up in Albania and Montenegro respectively, while the remnants of the Serbian Army were still being evacuated to Corfu, where a government in exile was established on 9 February.  Again, I’ve been there and done that (25 November, 1915: The Hard Way), and the same is true of the increasingly bonkers British Naval Africa Expedition, which was busy with its gunboat war for control of Lake Tanganyika (15 June, 1915: Do So, Mister Allnut…).

Early February also saw the usual trickle of naval losses, most notably the Amiral Charner, an old French cruiser stationed off the Syrian coast.  Part of the naval blockade of the Ottoman Empire, she was torpedoed by the U-21 on 8 February and went down with only one survivor.  Three days later, the British lost a much more modern light cruiser, the Arethusa, when it struck a mine off Felixstowe, a disaster that cost only ten lives but, so close to home, fuelled the pathological caution of British naval commanders in the North Sea.

Otherwise, on all the main battlefronts, the weather was being watched while offensives were being prepared.  Russian forces in the Caucasus were almost ready to begin a push into Armenia towards Erzurum; in northern Italy, yet another Izonso offensive was grinding towards action; and the German Army, after a year with its focus firmly to the east, was about to start punching its increased weight on the Western Front.  This was the quiet before the storm and everybody in the belligerent countries knew it.

That didn’t mean everybody was talking about it.  Offensives being of a necessarily secret nature, this was a good time for the official and unofficial press (and thus popular opinion) to focus on issues at home.  That, along with the sensational nature of the subject and the existence of some excellent illustrations, explains why newspapers and magazines in Britain and France were still full of news about Zeppelins.  It also gives me an excuse to go back a few days to an anniversary I skipped.

The source of most press coverage had been two Zeppelin raids at the end of January.  During the misty night of 29/30 January a single airship, the LZ77, bombed Paris, killing 29 civilians and injuring thirty.  This would turn out to be the last Zeppelin raid on Paris, and a turning point in German bombing strategy.

Two nights later, a fleet of nine German Navy Zeppelins set out from bases in northern Germany to bomb the British mainland, with instructions to fly right across the country and demonstrate their long-range power by attacking the vitally important port of Liverpool.  Nothing so bold had ever been attempted before, by Zeppelins or winged aircraft, and though the raid’s main purpose was to frighten the enemy, it was also an experiment to test the viability of very long-range bombing.

At this stage in the development of powered flight, Zeppelins were the only weapons available to those who advocated, and would later practice, the monstrosity of strategic bombing theory. That’s the theory, popularly associated with Göring and Harris but tried out by many others during and since the First World War, that bombing the Hell out of civilian targets can win wars on its own.  By 1914 the theory, first proposed by the Italian air theorist Douhet as early as 1911, had advocates in all the major belligerent states, but they all faced the problem that aircraft technology couldn’t deliver machines with the range or payload to make massed bombing of distant enemy targets feasible.

Up to a point, Zeppelins solved the problem.  Designed by German nobleman Graf (Count) von Zeppelin, and first flown in 1900, they were accepted into German Army service from 1909.  By August 1914, the German Army was using ten Zeppelins and the German Navy one, all attached to the high command for strategic operations.

Little use as frontline reconnaissance craft, because they took so long to get into the air, Zeppelins announced themselves as bombers at the very start of the War, when the Z6 successfully attacked Liège on the night of 6/7 August.  But the Z6 had to be withdrawn from service after ground fire forced it to crash land, and that set a pattern for Zeppelin operations: they could deliver long-range bombing raids, but were extremely vulnerable to attack and bad weather.

By the spring of 1915, with eight new airships commissioned and six lost, the German Army fleet was concentrated in Belgium for bombing missions over Flanders, France and England. Paris suffered regular small-scale attacks, and the first raid on London took place on 31 May.  Despite the introduction of new, bigger Zeppelins, with their trademark extendable observation cars slung beneath the ship, a bomb load of 1,200Kg and the ability to attack from above clouds, losses remained high throughout the year, even after bombing operations were restricted to moonless nights.

By the start of 1916 only six German Army Zeppelins were operational.  Still too slow and fragile for effective frontline operations, as would be confirmed by a final deployment at Verdun that saw three of four ships destroyed almost at once, their bombing role was being undermined by improvements in air defence technology.  That the gathering of naval Zeppelins for the raid on Liverpool was essentially a propaganda operation reflected the German high command’s fading faith in their ability to deliver a strategic blow.

On one level the raid failed miserably.  Mechanical problems and poor navigation in difficult conditions meant that the Zeppelins got hopelessly lost, scattering bombs around various towns and factories in the English Midlands.  Around 70 civilians were killed and about 115 injured (exact figures vary), making it the second most lethal wartime attack on Britain, but it failed to inflict any serious infrastructural damage.  On the other hand the Zeppelins suffered only one loss, when the L19 was shot down and crashed in the Channel, proving that very long-range attacks were possible, and they fulfilled their propaganda role by causing a genuine sensation. With new, higher-altitude models about to come into service, the airships had earned one last chance to prove their strategic value.


The L19 was lost with all hands after Dutch ground fire brought it down in the Channel… and the Allied press loved it.

They did well.  Attacks on England by flotillas of four and five ships were carried out without loss in April 1916 and, as numbers of operational ships grew, the next few months saw the climax of their career as long-range bombers. Britain suffered twenty more raids during the year, five German Army airships performed well on the Eastern Front, suffering just one loss, and three more were deployed in the Balkans, though with less success. Yet just as the Zeppelins were starting to deliver as promised, aircraft technology was finally passing the tipping point that ended the argument about their strategic value.

By late 1916, modern fighter aircraft could reach and destroy the highest airship, and heavier, multi-engine aircraft could deliver bigger, more efficient strategic bombing attacks.  A reorganised German Army Air Service lost interest in airships, preferring to concentrate on its heavy aircraft programmes, and ceased Zeppelin operations altogether from June 1917.  German Navy Zeppelins continued in service until the end of the War, carrying out small raids and occasional supply missions, but they were never more than a marginal nuisance.  The day of the military airship had passed.

In some ways the raid that shocked the Midlands during the last night of January 1916 was the Zeppelins’ finest hour.  The sheer distance they travelled and the surprise they caused took strategic bombing to a new level, and foreshadowed massed raids to come, as did the incidental fact that the attack caused only civilian casualties. In other ways it was their last hurrah, bigger than any operation subsequently attempted with airships, and the last time they carried the baton for strategic bombing theory before it passed to the ancestors of the B-52.

AUGUST 20, 1915: Harbinger

Just a quick note to remind anybody not paying attention that, a hundred years ago today, Russian aircraft bombed the Topkaneh arsenal in Constantinople. So what? So the Russian Army Air Service performed most of the tasks carried out by First World War air forces with borrowed or inferior aircraft, and was generally more characterised by bravery that effectiveness, but it was way ahead of the rest of the world in one, dark aspect of aerial warfare. I’m talking about strategic heavy bombing, possibly the most gruesome of all the terrible legacies left us by the First World War, and a hideous blight on human history ever since.

While the western pioneers of powered flight were scrambling to design faster, more manoeuvrable single- or two-seaters for interception and ground support work, and while the theorists of heavy bombing as a war-winning strategy awaited machines capable of the task, one Russian engineer was producing bombers of the future by the time the War broke out. By 1915 the Russian Air Force was using them as fleets to deliver heavy, long-range attacks on enemy targets, setting an example to be followed by strategic bombing believers all the way to Hiroshima and ‘Shock and Awe’.

The designer in question was Igor Sikorski. A genius destined to become the greatest name in Russian aviation, he had built the world’s first four-engined aircraft, ‘Le Grand’, in 1913, and by the following February his improved ‘Ilya Mourometz’ model entered service as a passenger aircraft. Named after a mythical Russian hero, the IM was an astonishingly advanced machine, featuring twin tailfins and an enclosed cockpit, and when war broke out the Russian Army began ordering the ‘flying ships’ as bombers.

Before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution halted production, a total of 73 IMs were built for the Russian Air Service, and they carried out more than four hundred heavy bombing missions, most of them against targets along the Eastern Front, in Germany or in Austria-Hungary. Heavily armed and reliable, they were steadily refined during the course of the War, so that later models could carry bomb loads of up to 700kg and featured a machine-gun turret in the tail. Thanks to their deadly array of well-positioned guns and because interceptors couldn’t fly through the backdraft from their four big engines, they proved almost impossible to shoot down. Only one IM was lost to enemy attack, along with two to mechanical failure, and they went on to fight on both sides of the Russian Civil War.

The raid on the Turkish arsenal was, like all Russian heavy bomber attacks, conducted on a relatively small scale using primitive bombs. It came on the same day that Italy belatedly declared war against the Ottoman Empire, a useful coincidence because you can’t talk about the early days of heavy bombing without mentioning Italy.

The theory that massed heavy bombing of its homeland would bring an enemy to its knees was pioneered by an Italian theorist, Douhet, and was well known throughout the West by 1914, but nobody had a Sikorski. By the later years of the War, two-and four-engined German, British, Italian and French designs would be able to deliver long-range attacks, using purpose-designed aerial bombs capable of causing serious damage to buildings and installations – but they were never available in sufficient numbers to carry out the kind of devastating attacks envisaged by strategic bombing theorists.

In any case, the theorists were never going to get their way.  Despite the enthusiasm of men like RFC commander Trenchard and his protégé, Harris, the barbaric practice of attacking civilians with vast amounts of ordnance was never seriously considered in the relatively civilised atmosphere of the First World War. That gruesome, doomed experiment would get fully underway in its aftermath.

18 JANUARY, 1915: Statements of Intent

A century ago, out on the eastern edge of England and under cover of darkness, low-flying German Zeppelins dropped bombs on Great Yarmouth and Kings Lynn, killing one or two residents in each and raising the curtain on a means of waging war that would blight much of the twentieth century.

You probably won’t hear much about the curse of ‘strategic’ or ‘area’ bombing from the heritage industry, or about the mounting enthusiasm for air attacks on civilian targets among military strategists all over Europe, and especially in Britain. Media consumers will, however, be seeing and hearing plenty about the raids themselves, the towns affected and the feelings of those involved, as reported by subsequent generations, so I’ll leave the eastern edge of England for now and turn instead to the eastern edge of the world.

I mentioned back in August that Japan, governed by a militarist, expansionist regime, treated the First World War as an opportunity to learn modern methods of warfare and to get in a little empire building while Europe’s big guns were busy elsewhere. Though in theory on the side of its European ally, Great Britain, and therefore able to seize the German enclave of Tsingtao on the Chinese coast, Japan’s interest in the wider war was purely notional. Like most relatively marginal belligerents, it had joined the conflict for gain – and the thing Japan most wanted to gain was control over China.

China was a mess. A nationalist regime had deposed the child emperor in 1912, but with warlords or rival parties in control of most provinces the new government’s writ never ran far beyond the area around Peking (as Beijing was then known to Europeans). Meanwhile the Empire’s vast territories were being chipped away by the incursions of major European powers, all of which had established well-defended coastal enclaves for trading purposes during the nineteenth century, and by Japan.

A victorious war in the mid-1890s had enabled Japan to detach Korea and the island of Formosa (Taiwan) from Chinese control, and to establish a dominant economic presence in the sprawling northeastern province of Manchuria. Once any danger of Russian rivalry had been eliminated by naval victory in 1904, Japan made no secret of its ambition to gobble up more of China, and was ready to act by the end of 1914.  On 18 January 1915, the Japanese government presented its Chinese counterpart with a list of grievances, known to history as the Twenty-One Demands, to be settled immediately on pain of war.

The Demands required China to stop leasing coastal enclaves to European powers, to give up effective control of both Manchuria and Shantung (Shandong) provinces, to permit Japanese part-ownership of Chinese heavy industries, and to accept Japanese ‘advisors’ at almost every level of government.  Barely surviving amid what amounted to internal chaos, the nationalist Chinese government could only accept the terms, although negotiations dragged on until May and British intervention prevented the appointment of Japanese advisors.

The Twenty-One Demands created a worldwide sensation at the time, and were generally viewed as a naked power grab. As anticipated in Tokyo, the major European states were too busy to do more than express disapproval, but the Demands did significantly heighten suspicion of Japan among politicians, soldiers and businessmen in the neutral United States. As such, they contributed to the momentous build up of naval and economic competition in the Pacific that would explode into warfare in 1941, but from a Chinese perspective they were merely a stage in a fifty-year war with Japan that would continue with barely a pause until 1945.

This was important stuff, helping shape the geopolitical landscape of the Second World War, and warping the economic and political development of China in ways that are still being played out. There is an argument that the entire first half of the twentieth century was one long world war, in which case China’s prolonged struggle for efficient self-determination could be seen as its defining tumult. Maybe not, but for all the long-term significance of bombs over Yarmouth, the world’s big story this time last century was the Twenty-One Demands.

25 DECEMBER, 1914: Bah! Humbug!

Poppycock’s War is running a little late, but then it’s Christmas and everyone knows war stops for Christmas. At least, it did in 1914, or so last week’s heritage commemorations would have you believe.

It’s been hard to miss the centenary of that football truce on the Western Front, and it’s been heartwarming stuff. The spirit of Christmas soothes mankind’s savage breast, ordinary men default to goodwill and a kick-about when the chance arises, there’s a whiff of honourable conduct in the air… it’s all very Old World, very British, and you could be forgiven for thinking the Football Truce reflected the respectful politesse of a bygone age. Well maybe, but let’s balance the picture with a glance at what the Royal Navy was up to on Christmas Day 1914.

On the evening of 24 December, three converted cross-Channel steamers, HMS Engadine, HMS Empress and HMS Riviera, left Harwich for positions off the north German coast. Escorted by two light cruisers and ten destroyers, each steamer carried three Short seaplanes, which were lowered into the water some 70 miles from Germany early on Christmas morning. Replacing wheels with floats to create seaplanes was almost as old as flight itself, but taking off from anything but calm water was still a lottery and only seven of the aircraft managed the feat before flying on to celebrate the festive season by carrying out the world’s first naval air raid.

Their official mission was ‘air reconnaissance’ of German military installations in Heligoland, Cuxhaven and the major naval base at Wilhelmshaven, locations far beyond the range of any land-based Allied aircraft, but the Navy also hoped to bomb the coastal airfield at Nordholtz, just south of Cuxhaven, which housed the half dozen Zeppelins then being used as very effective support for German ground operations on the Western Front. The raid’s underlying purpose was a more strategically significant attempt to provoke the German Navy’s High Seas Fleet into leaving port, and ten British submarines had been stationed off the coast to ambush any warships coming out of Wilhelmshaven.

None of the above really worked. Gathering coastal mist prevented any of the seaplanes from finding Cuxhaven, let alone attacking Nordholtz, and they eventually dropped small bomb loads on Wilhelmshaven, inflicting minor damage on seaplane base, a cruiser and a submarine. Some valuable reconnaissance was carried out, and the bombing did provoke the battlecruiser Von Der Tann into evasive manoeuvres that ended in collision with a cruiser, but the High Seas Fleet wasn’t tempted out to sea. Meanwhile all seven Short seaplanes received hits from ground fire, and only two made it back to the British fleet, although all the aircrew involved came through the mission unscathed. The only two men not picked up by British ships were rescued by a Dutch trawler and interned in the Netherlands.

Though the Royal Navy’s Christmas present to Germany, known to posterity as the Cuxhaven Raid, failed in almost every practical respect, its long-term influence was both significant and malign. Trumpeted by the British as a technical triumph, it confirmed the potential of naval air power to both sides, prompting rapid improvements in coastal anti-aircraft defences and encouraging the development of genuine aircraft carriers during the next few years. The raid also encouraged advocates of long-range strategic bombing, adding weight to the theory that aerial attacks on civilian or infrastructural targets could bring an enemy to its knees, while the outrage it caused in Berlin has been credited with influencing the German High command’s decision to use Zeppelins against Allied cities in 1915.

So that was a Merry Christmas from the Royal Navy, scaring a lot of people and giving a mighty leg-up to the theory that would see civilians bombed into oblivion all over the world to no real strategic effect for the next thirty years. Then again, the Navy was merely adhering to Britain’s military policy of the day and demonstrating aggression, essentially for its own sake and in defiance of any seasonal lull in the fighting. The same thinking, designed to keep the nation in warlike mood and the enemy on his toes, lay behind the British Army’s continuous trench raids all along the Western Front that winter, and the military’s stern disapproval of pacifist episodes like the football match.

Did the War take a Christmas pause? Not really, and not if the British had anything to do with it.