20 Apr 2016
By Christmas Day 1914, five months into WW1 the opposing armies were entrenched in a bloody stalemate along the Western Front, stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss Frontier. Early in December Pope Benedict XV petitioned the governments for an official Christmas truce - "that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang" - his plea fell upon deaf ears.
However, Christmas Day that year; at several points along the Western Front, soldiers from both sides downed their weapons and crept out of their trenches onto No Man's Land to recover the dead and wounded before uniting together in singing carols and exchanging small gifts. There was to be no such respite for the Royal Navy, who on that day were to carry out the world's first carrier airstrike, The Cuxhaven Raid, our April meeting topic by SMHS member Dave Dimer.
With Bleriot's crossing of The Channel in 1909 and the rapid development of aircraft that followed, it was said that "Britain is no longer an island". By the outbreak of WW1 in 1914, Zeppelins were being used by the Germans for reconnaissance, and aerial bombing raids on England were a real prospect. The Cuxhaven Raid had two aims, firstly the reconnaissance of German military targets in the Heligoland Bight area and secondly the bombing of the Zeppelin sheds at the Nordholz base near Cuxhaven, thought to be the HQ of German airship operations.
Nine Short Bros Folder aircraft were carried on three seaplane tenders with an escort of the British Surface Fleet (Harwich Force) and submarines. The aircraft would be fuelled for a 3-hour flight and carry three bombs each. On the day of the attack the target area was engulfed by fog. Seven of the nine aircraft proved serviceable and whilst the fog obscured the targets it also confused the German defenders. The pilots all returned safely. Ten bombs had been dropped, though the Zeppelin sheds survived unscathed. Three aircraft returned to their carriers, a further three pilots put down near British submarine E11. The pilots were recovered and the seaplanes scuttled. The final aircraft developed engine trouble and ditched, the pilot being picked up by a passing Dutch trawler. Dave provided detail on all the individual pilots, including some of the pioneers of naval aviation.
Results in terms of damage to the Germans were mixed but the raid illustrated how the use of seaplane carriers enabled attacks beyond the normal reach of aircraft. The German High Seas Fleet was now under threat of airstrike when in harbour. The first attack involving craft above, in and under the water had proved that the Royal Naval Air Service, although still in its infancy, would play a pivotal role in WW1 and pointed the way to major carrier strikes on enemy fleet bases in WW2; such as the British attack on the Italian Fleet at Taranto in 1940 and the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor the following year.
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