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  • Writer's pictureShaun Lewis

A most daring raid

In my novel, The Wings of the Wind, my hero participates in a very daring bombing raid over Germany. The events I describe are accurate as the raid did actually take place in November 1914. Prior to the start of WW1, the Royal Navy's Director of the Air Department, Captain Murray Sueter, visited Germany and took a flight in a Zeppelin. On his return, he reported that the new innovation posed a huge military threat to Britain as the airships could fly higher and faster than any of the newly-formed Royal Flying Corp's aeroplanes. In October 1913, Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote a paper arguing that Britain needed fighter aircraft for home defence and bombers to attack the Zeppelin bases. As the army was only interested in using aircraft for reconnaissance, the Royal Naval Air Service was formed on 1 July 1914 and assigned both the roles of air defence and strategic bombing.

Within two months of the outbreak of war, Sueter turned his mind to an attack on the Zeppelin works in Friedrichshafen. The trouble was that with Switzerland neutral and Austria allied with Germany, the only way of reaching the factory on the shore of Lake Constance in Germany was from France to the west. After protracted negotiations with the French, who were fearful of reprisals from Germany, they agreed to allow the RNAS to make use of an airship station at Belfort, 125 miles from Friedrichshafen. However, as the airship station had no runway, the bombers needed to be crated up and sent to Belfort by train. This did have the advantage of secrecy, but made the operation more difficult to plan.

The aircraft chosen for the raid was the Avro 504, built in the works of A V Roe near Manchester. The aircraft had a maximum speed of 80 knots and was a twin-seater. However, to increase the endurance, one of the seats was removed and replaced with an additional fuel tank. The aeroplanes were adapted to carry four Hales bombs, each containing 4.5lbs of explosive. Squadron Commander Shepherd was chosen to lead the raid and Squadron Commander Briggs, an engineer who flew, to supervise the loading of the aircraft into crates and unpacking/reassembly in France. On 10 November 1914, the RNAS party comprising five pilots, five riggers of the ground crew and an A V Roe engineer (Roy Chadwick who later went on to design the Lancaster bomber) departed Southampton for Le Havre in one ship whilst their aircraft and spares sailed in another ship.

The RNAS party and their machines arrived safely in Belfort and 48 hours later the aircraft were assembled and ready to fly. However, reassembling the crated machines proved to be the least of the RNAS men's problems. In the absence of a runway, the French and British cleared stones and fences from the grass airfield to create a rough runway. Unfortunately, whilst Shepherd was taxiing to test fly his aircraft, it suffered significant damage due to the rough terrain. Accordingly, the decision was taken to cancel all test flights and that the maiden voyages of the reassembled machines would be the attack itself. This caused some apprehension amongst the less experienced pilots. Moreover, as none of the pilots had dropped bombs before, Chadwick had to train them in the use of the bomb release mechanism. On the grounds of secrecy, the RNAS personnel were not allowed to leave the two hangars assigned them as living quarters and workshops. There were only enough portable heaters to keep the engine oil from freezing, so the men slept fully clothed in the freezing winter conditions. As a result, Shepherd fell ill and to avoid the risk of other men succumbing to the same illness, the liaison officer took to the alternative risk to secrecy by moving the men to a nearby hotel.

Shepherd was unable to recover in time for the raid and was substituted by the reserve pilot. To add to the difficulty of the pilots, at the last minute, the French insisted that no maps be carried so that in the event of an aircraft being shot down, the Germans could not prove that the raid had originated from French territory. Finally, on 21 November, the weather was deemed fit to mount the raid and the aircraft took off at 09.30. Briggs assumed command of the operation. He was first to drop his bombs, but shortly afterwards his aircraft was hit and he was forced to make an emergency landing outside the factory sheds. The Germans were not amused by the raid on German territory and vented their frustration on him before he was taken to hospital. He was later to escape captivity. Sadly, whilst the other three pilots were able to return safely to France, only one bomb succeeded in hitting one of the sheds and none of the Zeppelins was damaged. British propaganda exaggerated the success of the raid. Even so, the raid was a psychological success. The fledgling RNAS had succeeded in mounting a raid on Germany, forcing the Germans to move their Zeppelin works deeper into Germany. The raid demonstrated the ingenuity, spirit and calibre of the officers of the RNAS. Despite no airfield, unfamiliarity with their aircraft, no maps and no experience of bombing raids, they reached their target. It set the tone for the RNAS for the rest of the war.

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