It carried out the first blitz–and prepared England for the next one.
While England may have slept during the years between the world wars, it was a restless slumber haunted by dreams of war transgressing all sanctuary and moderation. Other nations may have contemplated the theory of strategic bombing, but the British had already tasted its bitter harvest. They had never forgotten the summer of 1917, when the German Gothas rained terror and destruction on London and the towns of the southern coast.
Fittingly enough, the nightmare’s first visitation literally floated into existence. Since 1793, when French revolutionaries established an infant balloon corps, lighter-than-air vehicles had been used intermittently for military purposes. They were employed primarily for reconnaissance, but the idea of balloon bombardment was deemed sufficiently credible for it to be banned by both the 1899 and 1907 Hague disarmament conferences. The magnitude and desperation of World War I made relatively short work of these prohibitions, and by late January 1915 German zeppelins had begun bombing English ports on the south east coast. By September these attacks had escalated to squadron-size night raids on London itself, and within a year the zeppelins had accounted for more than 400 dead and millions of dollars’ worth of property damage.
Nevertheless, German airships were fundamentally flawed as weapons.
They not only were huge targets, most be ing over 600 feet long, but were filled with highly flammable hydrogen. Consequently, a combination of British spotlights, antiaircraft guns, and incendiary-firing pursuit planes was soon turning the zeppelins into flying crematoria with such regularity that the attacks were halted in December 1916. But the English would soon face a much more dangerous threat: the Gotha G IV.
The roots of the German program to develop a heavy bomber aircraft go back to autumn 1914, when Major Wilhelm Siegert, a former balloon pilot, proposed a strategic bombardment of London using airplanes. But what he had in mind were the rickety 100-horsepower B-type aircraft with an extremely light bombload and a range so limited that a trip to London and back would have required launching them from airfields no farther from the target than the Pas de Calais.
The advance of the German army bogged down far short of this goal, necessitating a turn to the much longer-range zeppelins. Nonetheless, specifications were also issued for a Grosse kampffiugzeug (large bomber aircraft) or G-type, and a number of companies, including Gothaer Waggonfabrik
A.G. Gotha, began work. Over the next two years, a series of multiengine prototypes and limited-production models were created, but in each case they proved underpowered and unreliable. Finally, in October 1916, Gotha managed to generate a successful design, which would be rushed into production as the G IV.
The basic G IV was a large, angular biplane with a wingspan of over 77 feet and twin 260-horsepower, water cooled Mercedes engines linked to pusher propellers that drove the air craft for more than 300 miles (on auxiliary tanks) at a sedate 80 miles per hour. Yet the Gotha was no sitting duck. It was highly maneuverable, and the early, better-made models, even with a full, 2,600-pound fuel and bombload, could climb to between 18,000 and 21,000 feet-far higher than nearly all the interceptors they were likely to encounter. Even pursuit planes that succeeded in engaging G IVs at lower altitudes found them to be relatively tough customers. The bomber and its three-man crew were protected by two electrically heated 7.92mm Parabellum machine guns, one placed to fire forward and above, the other set up to shoot not only upward and behind the plane but also downward, through a special tunnel in the rear of the fuselage, thus covering a favorite angle of approach. This unprecedented “sting in the tail” would provide a nasty surprise for British pilots intent on attacking from below.
Yet the Gotha was primarily an offensive instrument intended to deliver explosives, and in this role its specifications were equally impressive. Subtracting weight for the crew and fuel, the G IV retained a bomb payload of 660 pounds at full range. While this compares unfavorably with the carrying capacity of the zeppelins–from 2,500 to 4,500 pounds of bombs, depending on the model–it does not take account of numbers. A typical zeppelin raid might include two or three of the giant craft, while the Gothas could come in waves of 25. The combined payload of the aircraft was at least as great, and the G IVs were both individually less vulnerable and collectively less subject to dramatic attrition, because the bombs were spread over many more vehicles.
Although the Gotha was destined to inflict damage primarily on civilians and their property, the aircraft’s features and armament did indicate some intention to limit indiscriminate destruction. Specifically, the G IV was equipped with a Goerz bombsight employing a three-foot Zeiss vertical telescope, constituting what aviation historian C.M. White calls “the first scientific attempt at bomb-aiming during the Great War.” Further, the Gotha’s initial basic bombload was divided between 110- and 27-pound projectiles, both useful primarily against point targets, or specific buildings. Racks for much heavier bombs meant for indiscriminate night raids were eventually fitted, but this was largely a reaction to the growing lethality of British air defenses. (The Germans apparently never thought of including poison-gas projectiles, and ignored the sinister “Elektron” incendiary bomb perfected in the final months of the war–mainly because the war was lost anyway.)
Nevertheless, when the Gothas were unleashed in late May 1917, it was primarily with a political purpose in mind, and this was clearly understood to include attacks on civilian facilities. Türkenkreuz (Turk’s Cross), as the bombing operation was called, was part of a two-pronged strategy–the other being unrestricted submarine warfare–intended to drive Britain from the war by striking at the home front. Symbolizing this resolve was the designation of central London the government buildings around Downing Street, the Admiralty, the Bank of England, and the press organs of Fleet Street–as the principal target area, with military installations and war production assuming secondary importance. Yet the actual results proved far less discrete, if almost equally devastating psychologically.
Typical was the Gothas’ first mass raid, which bad weather turned away from London. While the raid only lightly damaged military camps at Shorncliffe and Cheriton, it also slaughtered 60 people, mostly women and children, in the Folkestone commercial district. When the Gothas did succeed in reaching the capital, beginning in June, the results were much the same. The planes located and hit designated targets, but a 110-pound bomb also plunged through the Upper North Street Schools, bursting on the ground floor to kill or injure 64 children. And the bombing was destined to grow more in discriminate as British defenses improved.
Initially, British efforts were compromised by the government’s unwillingness to divert assets from the Western Front, by interservice rivalry, and by the sheer technical difficulty of adjusting to Germany’s shift from the lumbering zeppelins to the faster, higher-flying Gothas. British pilots frequently fumed in frustration as the bombers passed unscathed thousands of feet above.
But the early-warning net was soon streamlined to provide adequate reaction time. And with this came a dramatic improvement in the coordination of antiaircraft fire and aerial defenders, which in turn drew an increasingly heavy toll of Gothas. By the end of August, the bombers sought the cover of darkness, and daylight missions ceased.
So began what historian Raymond Fredette has called the first blitz, a weeklong string of random night bombings during the final days of September 1917. At first many Londoners looked upon the raids as a sort of out door spectacle. But after four such attacks, as many as 300,000 people nightly were taking refuge in the Underground, and numerous others hid in the tunnels beneath the Thames.
Each evening more than 10,000 anti aircraft shells were fired at the German raiders–and the spent bits of shrapnel raining down on the city added to the casualties. For all anybody knew, the bombing might never end.
But in fact the attack was a spasm, a supreme German effort. Virtually all the Gothas flew, as well as zeppelins and several enormous unstandardized aircraft known as Giants. Typical of this small class of behemoths was the R.39, with a wingspan of nearly 140 feet, four engines totaling almost 1,000 horsepower, a nine-man crew, and a bomb payload of 4,000 pounds. Yet only one Giant reached London and this, too, was typical.
The first blitz was a dismal failure. The kaiser awarded the coveted Blue Max to Rudolf Kleine, commander of the Gothas, but the facts bespoke an other result. Of 92 G IV sorties, only 55 reached England, and fewer than 20 found London. Thirteen Gothas–nearly one-third of the squadron–were destroyed that week. There would be other raids, but the cost would be still dearer. For by 1918 the British had nearly completed an air defense system, which in every essential save radar was like the one that stunned the Luftwaffe in 1940.
Still, the memory of the Gothas and that frightening week in September 1917 continued to haunt the English. As much as anything, this was why when war came again to the otherwise unprepared nation, there was not only air defense but civil defense and a heavy bomber force to wreak terrible vengeance on the homes of those who assailed them from above.
ROBERT L. O’CONNELL was an MHQ contributing editor.
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1990 issue (Vol. 3, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Gotha Bomber and the Origins of Strategic Bombing
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