Classic History Books


William J. Claxton - The Mastery of the Air

For nearly a year London, owing to its greatly increased defences, had been free from attack. Then, on
the night of October 19, Germany made a colossal effort to make good their boast of laying London in

ruins. A fleet of eleven Zeppelins came over, five of which found the city. One, drifting low and silently,

was responsible for most of the casualties, which totalled 34 killed and 56 injured.

The fleet got away from these shores without mishap. Then, at long last, came retribution. Flying very
high, they seem to have encountered an aerial storm which drove them helplessly over French territory.

Our allies were swift to seize this golden opportunity. Their airmen and anti-aircraft guns shot down no

less than four of the Zeppelins in broad daylight, one of which was captured whole. Of the remainder,

one at least drifted over the Mediterranean, and was not heard of again. That was the last of the Zeppelin,

so far as the civilian population was concerned. But, for nearly a year, the work of killing citizens had

been undertaken by the big bomb-dropping Gotha aeroplanes.

The work of the Gotha belongs rightly to the second part of this book, which deals with aeroplanes and
airmen; but it would be convenient to dispose here of the part played by the Gotha in the air raids upon

this country.

The reconnaissance took place on Tuesday, November 28, 1916, when in a slight haze a German
aeroplane suddenly appeared over London, dropped six bombs, and flew off. The Gotha was intercepted

off Dunkirk by the French, and brought down. Pilot and observer-two naval lieutenants-were found to

have a large-scale map of London in their possession. The new era of raids had commenced.

Very soon it became evident that the new squadron of Gothas were much more destructive than the
former fleets of unwieldy Zeppelins. These great Gothas were each capable of dropping nearly a ton of

bombs. And their heavy armament and swift flight rendered them far less vulnerable than the air-ship.

From March 1 to October 31, 1917, no less than twenty-two raids took place, chiefly on London and
towns on the south-east coast. The casualties amounted to 484 killed and 410 wounded. The two worst

raids occurred June 13 on East London, and September 3 on the Sheerness and Chatham area.

A squadron of fifteen aeroplanes carried out the raid, on June 13, and although they were only over the
city for a period of fifteen minutes the casualty list was exceedingly heavy - 104 killed and 432 wounded.

Many children were among the killed and injured as the result of a bomb which fell upon a Council

school. The raid was carried out in daylight, and the bombs began to drop before any warning could be

given. Later, an effective and comprehensive system of warnings was devised, and when people had

acquired the habit of taking shelter, instead of rushing out into the street to see the aerial combats, the

casualties began to diminish.

It is worthy of record that the possible danger to schools had been anticipated, and for some weeks
previously the children had taken part in "Air Raid Drill". When the raid came, the children behaved in

the most exemplary fashion. They went through the manoeuvres as though it was merely a rehearsal, and

their bearing as well as the coolness of the teachers obviated all danger from panic. In this raid the enemy

first made use of aerial torpedoes.

Large loss of life, due to a building being struck, was also the feature of the moonlight raid on September
4. On this occasion enemy airmen found a mark on the Royal Naval barracks at Sheerness. The barracks

were fitted with hammocks for sleeping, and no less than 108 bluejackets lost their lives, the number of

wounded amounting to 92. Although the raid lasted nearly an hour and powerful searchlights were

 

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