Classic History Books


William J. Claxton - The Mastery of the Air

In March, 1916, the fruits of the new policy began to appear, and people found them very refreshing. A
fleet of Zeppelins found, on approaching the mouth of the Thames, a very warm reception. Powerful

searchlights, and shells from new anti-aircraft guns, played all round them. At length a shot got home.

One of the Zeppelins, "winged" by a shell, began a wobbly retreat which ended in the waters of the

estuary. The navy finished the business. The wrecked air-ship was quickly surrounded by a little fleet of

destroyers and patrol-boats, and the crew were brought ashore, prisoners. That same night yet another

Zeppelin was hit and damaged in another part of the country.

Raids followed in such quick succession as to be almost of nightly occurrence during the favouring
moonless nights. Later, the conditions were reversed, and the attacks by aeroplane were all made in

bright moonlight. But ever the defence became more strenuous. Then aeroplanes began to play the role of

"hornets", as Mr. Winston Churchill, speaking rather too previously, designated them.

Lieutenant Brandon, R.F.C., succeeded in dropping several aerial bombs on a Zeppelin during the raid on
March 31, but it was not until six months later that an airman succeeded in bringing down a Zeppelin on

British soil. The credit of repeating Lieutenant Warneford's great feat belongs to Lieutenant W. R.

Robinson, and the fight was witnessed by a large gathering. It occurred in the very formidable air raid on

the night of September 2. Breathlessly the spectators watched the Zeppelin harried by searchlight and

shell-fire. Suddenly it disappeared behind a veil of smoke which it had thrown out to baffle its pursuers.

Then it appeared again, and a loud shout went up from the watching thousands. It was silhouetted against

the night clouds in a faint line of fire. The hue deepened, the glow spread all round, and the doomed

airship began its crash to earth in a smother of flame. The witnesses to this amazing spectacle naturally

supposed that a shell had struck the Zeppelin. Its tiny assailant that had dealt the death-blow had been

quite invisible during the fight. Only on the following morning did the public learn of Lieutenant

Robinson's feat. It appeared that he had been in the air a couple of hours, engaged in other conflicts with

his monster foes. Besides the V.C. the plucky airman won considerable money prizes from citizens for

destroying the first Zeppelin on British soil.

The Zeppelin raids continued at varying intervals for the remainder of the year. As the power of the
defence increased the air-ships were forced to greater altitudes, with a corresponding decrease in the

accuracy with which they could aim bombs on specified objects. But, however futile the raids, and

however widely they missed their mark, there was no falling off in the outrageous claims made in the

German communiques. Bombs dropped in fields, waste lands, and even the sea, masqueraded in the

reports as missiles which had sunk ships in harbour, destroyed docks, and started fires in important

military areas. So persistent were these exaggerations that it became evident that the Zeppelin raids were

intended quite as much for moral effect at home as for material damage abroad. The heartening effect of

the raids upon the German populace is evidenced by the mental attitude of men made prisoners on any of

the fronts. Only with the utmost difficulty were their captors able to persuade them that London and other

large towns were not in ruins; that shipbuilding was not at a standstill; and that the British people was not

ready at any moment to purchase indemnity from the raids by concluding a German peace. When one

method of terrorism fails try another, was evidently the German motto. After the Zeppelin the Gotha, and

after that the submarine.

The next year - 1917 - brought in a very welcome change in the situation. One Zeppelin after another met
with its just deserts, the British navy in particular scoring heavily against them. Nor must the skill and

enterprise of our French allies be forgotten. In March, 1917, they shot down a Zeppelin at Compiegne,

and seven months later dealt the blow which finally rid these islands of the Zeppelin menace.

 

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