Britain’s Bold Strike From the Sea
On Christmas Day 1914, an audacious British air attack on a Zeppelin base in northern Germany caught the Germans with their defenses down.
By Timothy J. Kutta
Flight Commander Douglas A. Oliver was concerned as he flew on through the fog over Germany. He and his observer, Chief Petty Officer Budds, had been flying in the thickening fog for almost 30 minutes. The weather on this Christmas Day in 1914 was calm and cold, but neither of the crewmen in their open cockpits felt the sting of the winter air. The thrill of carrying out a daring seaborne air attack on the enemy prevented them from noticing the cold.
The single-engine, two-seat Short Type 74 float biplane droned on in the gray envelope of fog. The 100-hp Gnôme rotary engine was running smoothly despite the heavy load of fuel, the observer and pilot, plus three 20-pound bombs. It was a long way to the target, and fuel would be a major concern if they stayed in the air too long. They had enough fuel on board for a three-hour flight. This would give them sufficient time to fly to their target and return to their seaplane tenders located in the North Sea. If they became lost or disoriented, however, they might well never find their target–or worse, they might run out of fuel over enemy territory.
Visibility was decreasing, so Oliver decided to descend from his attack altitude of 2,000 feet to 700 feet to find a break in the fog. Suddenly the aircraft emerged from the fog over the Elbe River directly above five enemy destroyers of Half-Flotilla III. Signalmen on the enemy destroyers rushed to their blinker lights and flashed challenges to the unidentified aircraft. Oliver managed to quickly determine his position and disappear back into the fog, just as the enemy gunners delivered a barrage of anti-aircraft fire at his plane. Undamaged by the enemy fire, Oliver continued on his course. The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was about to bomb the German Zeppelin shed at Cuxhaven.
Prior to World War I, the only way to launch an attack on Great Britain was from the sea. The British, protected by their great naval fleet with its long tradition of victory, were confident that no enemy would dare approach the island nation by water. In the years just before the war, however, the creation of workable heavier-than-air machines and dirigibles opened a new avenue of possible attack on the British Isles. If one of the Continental powers could create a fleet of dirigibles or airplanes, as the heavier-than-air machines came to be called, they might well be able to strike the very heart of the British empire with impunity.
The great nations of Europe raced to develop airplanes, but the science of these machines was still in its infancy. The aircraft engines of prewar years could not attain the power or range to present anything other than a short-range threat of a few hundred miles.
Dirigibles were another matter entirely. The science of lighter-than-air craft had been around since the early 1800s. Most of these craft were simply large balloons filled with gases that were lighter than air. They had been used for observation during several wars and skirmishes. Although they proved effective, the early dirigibles were bulky, difficult to control, and usually remained tethered to a fixed point during operations.
Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin began conceptual work on a much improved adaptation of the balloon in 1873. Instead of using a single bag of gas, Zeppelin planned to build a rigid structure that would hold gas cells at various intervals within its framework. The new craft would have engines for propulsion and a gondola suspended below the rigid structure to house the engines, an aircrew and even passengers. Such a craft, Zeppelin reckoned, would be more of an airborne ship than a balloon. It could be controlled in the air by its engines, would have a long range, and be able to carry several tons of cargo.
Count Zeppelin solidified and refined his concept over the next few years. He gained supporters for his idea of creating a rigid lighter-than-air ship that would have wide commercial and military applications. He began serious design work on his first ship in 1892 after leaving the army. The first Zeppelin lighter-than-air ship flew in June 1900. These airships, commonly called “Zeppelins,” after their creator, were intended purely for commercial use. However, it did not take defense experts long to conclude that the airships had tremendous military potential.
The sight of the huge silver airships gliding effortlessly through the sky was impressive, and the English press could not exaggerate the threat these airships presented. Zeppelin scare stories began to appear in the press in 1910. Articles titled “The Airship Menace,” “The Black Shadow of the Airship,” and “Germany: Lord of the Air” predicted that huge fleets of giant German airships, armed with dozens of cannons and machine guns and loaded with heavy bombs, would appear over Britain and rain death and destruction from the sky. The articles appeared in magazines and newspapers and were widely read and believed throughout Great Britain. The panic that resulted from the articles reached such proportions that there were reports of Zeppelins sighted cruising over Sheerness, Portland, Dover and Liverpool.
The Germans, of course, had no such fleet. Although Zeppelin, Parseval and Schutte-Lanz, the major manufacturers of airships, were building bigger and better airships, the science of dirigible design was still in its infancy. The three major producers of airships constructed 26 dirigibles prior to the outbreak of World War I, but many of those were small experimental factory models that had little value as military machines. In addition, the life span of early airships was very limited. Accidents were frequent, and many resulted in the destruction of a dirigible.
Germany entered World War I with a military that had a total of seven dirigibles ready for combat. These airships were armed only with machine guns, and the crews had little, if any, experience dropping bombs. The German army had conducted only one major experiment in dropping bombs from airships prior to the war, and there were no bomb shackles for holding bombs aboard the airships and no bomb-aiming devices.
The British government was unaware of the small number of German airships at the beginning of the war, and it was convinced that Zeppelin bombers would arrive momentarily after the beginning of hostilities. When the skies over England remained clear, the British breathed a collective sigh of relief. The respite, however, was short-lived. German Zeppelins bombed Antwerp on the evenings of August 24 and September 2, 1914. Damage was minimal, but the British military was put on notice to find a defense against the Zeppelins.
The British military determined that countering the Zeppelin threat was an aviation problem. It promptly notified the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), the pre-eminent flying service in Britain at that time. The RFC, however, had sent almost all of its men and planes to France in August 1914 to support the British Expeditionary Corps. By joint agreement, on September 3, the aerial defense of Great Britain was officially left in the hands of the RNAS.
The director of the Air Department of the Royal Navy was Captain Murray Frazer Sueter. He had acquired extensive experience with airships while serving as the inspector of Britain’s failed dirigible Mayfly. Now, teamed with the new first lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, the RNAS was directed to find a way to stop the Zeppelins.
The RNAS initially tried to protect Great Britain by flying endless coastal patrols with its few aircraft and pilots. The patrols were of little value because there was little possibility that the patrol planes would be within visual range of a Zeppelin when it crossed the coast of England. The patrols were further restricted because the Germans had already shown their intention to use Zeppelins at night. The RNAS had no aircraft outfitted for night work, and few of its pilots had ever attempted night flying.
There were other problems associated with the Zeppelins. Assuming one of the fighters was fortunate enough to locate a German dirigible, there was no established or proven way to attack and destroy the enemy airship. However, there were many theories–including flying above the dirigible and bombing it out of the air, or towing a grappling hook behind the plane, which was intended to grab the Zeppelin and rip a huge gash in its vulnerable gas bags.
Experiments soon proved that none of these methods was particularly effective for destroying a Zeppelin. Although the scientists and military armament specialists worked hard to find an effective weapon, the military planners were forced to find their own way to defeat the dirigibles.
The planners soon arrived at a solution: If Zeppelins could not be destroyed in the air, then they would have to be destroyed on the ground, where they were extremely vulnerable. They were housed in huge hangars to protect them from the weather and wind. If these hangars were bombed, the explosion would either destroy the building and crush the dirigible in the debris or set the building on fire. The latter would quickly ignite the highly explosive hydrogen gas that the Germans used in their airships.
British Intelligence knew the exact location of the main German dirigible bases in Düsseldorf, Cologne and Friedrichshafen–bases within range of London. They were also aware that a new base had been constructed at Cuxhaven in northern Germany that could easily be used as a base from which to attack England.
Armed with this intelligence, the planners proposed a series of raids on the major Zeppelin bases, starting with the closest ones at Düsseldorf and Cologne and working to the more distant targets later. Both Churchill and Sueter agreed to the plan. They ordered the Eastchurch (No. 3) Squadron of the RNAS, which had moved to the Dunkirk area in early September, to carry out the first raid on September 22, 1914.
Four aircraft took off from Antwerp in the early morning to attack the enemy airship sheds. Two of the raiders were assigned to bomb Cologne, and two were sent to Düsseldorf. Each aircraft was armed with several 20-pound bombs, which were the standard RNAS bombs of the time. Unfortunately, thick ground fog obscured both cities, and only one pilot was able to find his target. Although he managed to drop several bombs on the dirigible facility at Cologne, little damage was done.
The raid was repeated on October 8. The weather again obscured the targets, but one of the pilots managed to score a direct hit that destroyed a dirigible shed at Düsseldorf.
Encouraged by its success at Düsseldorf, the RNAS then planned an ambitious 250-mile round-trip raid on the Zeppelin sheds at Friedrichshafen, near the Swiss border. The raiders flew to the French fortress of Belfort, where they armed and fueled for the raid. Four aircraft were assigned to the raid, which was launched on November 21. One of the raiders failed to get off the ground, but the other three reached their target and succeeded in doing considerable damage.
The RNAS next planned for a raid on Cuxhaven. The other raids had been easy compared to Cuxhaven. The raids flown from Antwerp had been relatively short range; and while the raid on Friedrichshafen was across a great distance, the target was still within the range of land-based aircraft. Cuxhaven, however, was in northern Germany, near the mouth of the Elbe River. No aircraft then in existence had the range to fly from England or France to Cuxhaven and return. The planes would have to be launched from the sea.
The theory of launching land-based aircraft from ships with specially built decks was not new. The British had carried out a few experiments in this area, but they did not possess the ship, planes or pilots to launch such a raid on Cuxhaven. During fleet exercises in 1913, however, the seaplane tender Hermes and her aircraft had performed admirably and demonstrated that seaplanes could be used in a variety of roles–including attacks on enemy bases. Unfortunately, Hermes was retired shortly after the exercises. The British were building specialized ships for shipboard aviation operations, but none was in service in the fall of 1914.
The Admiralty realized the vital necessity of providing seaborne aerial reconnaissance for the fleet during war, and purchased three fast cross-Channel packets on August 13, 1914–Empress, Riviera and Engadine. These were converted into seaplane tenders.
The Admiralty planners had been devising an attack on the north German coast since the beginning of the war. They had hoped to draw major elements of the German fleet out into the North Sea where the more powerful British fleet could engage them. A seaplane raid on Cuxhaven would fit well into these plans, so an operation was quickly devised to carry it off.
The plan was simple, yet it had the potential to reap great rewards. Three converted seaplane tenders, each with three seaplanes on board, would be escorted to the Heligoland Bight by a task force of cruisers and destroyers. Once within range, the seaplanes would be launched to attack the airship sheds at Cuxhaven.
The British planners had little doubt that the force would be spotted and attacked by the German navy. British submarines would be positioned outside the principal German anchorages in the area to pick off enemy ships as they went to sea. The British navy hoped to destroy the German dirigible base and sink several enemy ships as well. The first sea lord and his staff quickly approved the aggressive plan and scheduled it to get underway in mid-October as soon as all of the forces could be assembled. A final planning meeting was conducted on October 22, 1914, by Admiral Prince Louis of Battenberg; the chief of the naval staff Vice Adm. Sir Doveton Sturdee; and Commodore Reginald Yorke Tyrwhitt, commander of Harwich Force, which would carry out the actual seaplane raid.
Tyrwhitt was the overall commander of the raid. His Harwich Force consisted of three cruisers and eight destroyers. Squadron Commander Cecil J. Estrange Malone was in command of the three converted seaplane tenders, the seaplanes and the actual execution of the aerial attack on Cuxhaven. The submarine force was commanded by Commodore Roger Keyes. The force was ordered to set sail from England early in the morning of October 24 and conduct the raid on Cuxhaven. The ships set sail as directed, but bad weather soon forced them to return to port.
The Admiralty still wanted to launch the raid, but was forced to reschedule it for a day when the weather was better and the necessary forces would again be available. During the lull, the naval planners expanded the operation. It was decided that major elements of the British battle fleet would support the operation when it was launched. They would stay some miles away from Harwich Force but would be in position to engage any German naval forces that made it past the British submarine picket line. The operation was attempted again in late October and twice in November, but in all three instances the weather conspired against the British, and the ships were forced to return to port.
Finally, on December 2, 1914, orders were issued to launch the raid at dawn on December 25. Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty moved his battle cruiser force south to Rosyth on December 21 to support the raid. The 11 British submarines of Commodore Keyes’ force departed Harwich on the evenings of December 23 and 24. The three seaplane carriers left Harwich at 0500 hours on December 24 and were followed at intervals by the rest of Harwich Force. Other British naval units were also on the move. The 1st Battle Squadron, 6th Cruiser Squadron, 2nd Flotilla and others, a total of more than 100 ships and thousands of men, were moving to provide protection for Harwich Force.
German spies operating in England already had observed the increased naval activity generated by one of the previous raid attempts and had notified the German government that the British were again planning some type of naval operation. The increase of naval activity, just before Christmas, drew the spies’ attention, and the Germans were once more notified to expect some type of attack.
The German admiralty was uncertain about the exact implications of the warning. Having experienced similar alerts in the past, it simply passed a notice to the German fleet in northern Germany to be alert for signs of the enemy. When no British attack materialized, the sailors of the German fleet settled down to enjoy Christmas aboard their respective ships.
Harwich Force reached the seaplane launching point, some 40 miles northwest of Cuxhaven, at 0600 on December 25. The seaplane carriers came to a stop and quickly lowered their seaplanes into the water while the destroyers and cruisers steamed in a protective ring. Within 30 minutes nine short floatplanes–four Admiralty Type 74s, three Folders, and two Admiralty Type 135 biplanes–were bobbing in the Heligoland Bight.
The signal to take off was given at 0654, but all of the aircraft were having difficulty starting their engines in the cold. It was not until 0700 that the first two Short Admiralty Type 74s made it into the air. They were followed at intervals by five other aircraft. Two of the seaplanes, one Short Admiralty Type 74 and one Short Folder, were unable to start their engines and were hoisted back aboard ship. The raid would have to be carried out by only seven aircraft, each carrying three 20-pound bombs.
Amazingly, the British ships and aircraft remained undetected for 90 minutes by German submarines and ships patrolling the approaches to the German coast. But despite the fact that the German patrol boats had not found the British, the German ships at anchor around the mouth of the Elbe River were already on alert.
At 0530, the German battleship Mecklenburg had mistaken a friendly trawler, which was emerging from a fog bank, for an enemy ship and opened fire. The noise of the broadside resounded across the mouth of the Elbe River, and all the ships within earshot went on full alert. When it was discovered that the trawler was friendly and no enemy had appeared by 0600, the alert level was reduced, but many of the ships’ gunners remained near their guns.
The patrolling German submarine U-6 finally spotted Harwich Force 20 nautical miles off the coast at 0730 and broadcast the alert. Less than 15 minutes later, a British floatplane, flown by Flt. Cmdr. Francis E.T. Hewlett, descended out of the fog over the mouth of the Elbe River to get his bearings. The German gunners were ready. A spirited anti-aircraft barrage from destroyers and a nearby battleship quickly forced Hewlett to climb back into the fog.
The other British pilots were also lost in the fog. Although the sky out over the ocean had been clear, a thick fog bank, which started at the coast and extended inland, threw off any hope of accurate navigation. The pilots struggled for the next two hours in the fog to locate the dirigible sheds. They frequently descended out of the clouds to try to get a fix on their location, only to be forced back up into the fog by the alerted German anti-aircraft gunners.
Finally, with their fuel running low, the pilots searched for a break in the fog and attacked what targets they could, but the damage they did was minimal. Hewlett located an enemy destroyer at 0820 and attacked it. Flight Commander Robert P. Ross spotted and attacked what he believed was a submerging submarine. Flight Commander Douglas A. Oliver attacked a seaplane base on Langeoog Island. Flight Lieutenant Charles H.K. Edmonds attacked the light cruisers Stralsund and Graudenz. Sub-Lieutenant Vivian Gaskell Blackburn attacked an anti-aircraft site and dropped bombs on the city of Wilhemshaven.
Flight Commander Cecil F. Kilner and Flt. Lt. Arnold J. Miley became hopelessly lost in the fog. Sighting no targets of value, they simply returned to their ships, dropping their bombs along the way to lighten their load. The Germans reported that one pilot actually dropped bombs on the dirigible base, but the British pilot was probably lost and scored by accident because none of the attacking pilots reported actually finding the base.
The British floatplanes turned back out to sea to rendezvous with the ships. The last one crossed over the German coast at 0935. Many of the planes were low on fuel, and only two aircraft made it back to the fleet. The rest landed short of the seaplane carriers and were recovered by the patrolling British destroyers or submarines.
Tyrwhitt ordered Harwich Force to withdraw at 1145 after recovering the floatplanes and ensuring that the other pilots had been recovered. A few destroyers remained behind as a rear guard until the early afternoon, and Keyes finally withdrew the last of his submarines at 2000.
Thus the Cuxhaven raid came to an end. Although the operation failed in its intended purpose to destroy the Zeppelin sheds, it did give the British reason to be proud. The Royal Navy and Royal Naval Air Service had combined forces to plan and execute a major operation that struck at the enemy’s homeland. Although the enemy airships had not been destroyed, the British naval forces served notice that they would not sit idly by while the Germans prepared their Zeppelins to bomb Britain. British morale soared after news of the raid was released. The raid was, if it accomplished nothing else, a boost to morale. *
Timothy J. Kutta is a retired Marine officer and the former head of the history department at the U.S. Army Transportation School, Fort Eustis, Va. He suggests for additional reading: The Naval Annual 1913 (reprint), edited by Viscount Hythe; The Cuxhaven Raid, by R.D. Layman; and The Royal Air Force: A Concise History, by A.O. Pollard.