The Sky on Fire: The First Battle of Britain, 1917-1918

The Sky on Fire: The First Battle of Britain, 1917-1918


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The Sky on Fire: The First Battle of Britain, 1917-1918 by Raymond H. Fredette, Tom D. Crouch

A fascinating examination of the strategies and uses of air power in the First World War, Sky on Fire covers not only developments in military hardware and tactics but also how public policy and political considerations shaped the ways air power was deployed. Providing an excellent balance of data and statistics as well as human insights, Fredette’s book is essential reading for readers interested in the air power, both historically and in contemporary conflicts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781560980162
Publisher: Smithsonian Institution Press
Publication date: 01/28/1991
Series: History of Aviation Series
Edition description: REISSUE
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.05(w) x 9.04(h) x 0.65(d)

About the Author

Raymond H. Fredette is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who during World War II flew 31 combat missions over Germany.

Read an Excerpt

The Sky on Fire

By Raymond H. Fredette

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1991 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8827-0


'A Single German Aeroplane'

World War I, 'the dreadful tragedy that was turning the world into hell', was at its anguishing mid-point in late 1916. The dead and the wounded already numbered millions. The spectacle of huge armies deadlocked in battle along hundreds of miles of front seemed incapable of producing any new horror or surprise. The machine-gun, massed artillery, poison gas, the tank and the flamethrower had all been tried with deadly but indecisive effect.

Few illusions remained, except possibly in America. President Woodrow Wilson, his campaign aided by the slogan, 'He kept us out of war', was barely re-elected for a second term in November. Aged Franz Josef I of Austria-Hungary died a few weeks later. His death ended a reign longer than that of Queen Victoria, one of sixty-seven years, and foreshadowed the doom of a polyglot empire. The French were at an ebb, their élan drained by the bloodletting of Verdun. In December they forsook 'Papa' Joffre, their stolid commander-in-chief who had turned defeat into a 'miracle' at the Marne in 1914, and replaced him with the bombastic General Nivelle.

The Germans occupied a vast area stretching from the coast of Flanders to the plains and marshes of eastern Russia. General Brusilov's spectacular summer offensive, 'the greatest Russian victory of the war', had spent itself by September. Pushed to their limit, the long-suffering armies of the Czar had little more to give for a cause that was about to be engulfed by revolution. The Italians, bitterly engaged against the Austrians high in the Alps since early 1915, had gone to war with the Germans only that August. The Romanians joined the Allies that same month, hoping to profit from the death struggle of their neighbours. The Germans, Austrians, and Bulgarians overran the hapless nation before year's end, as they had little Serbia in 1915.

Great Britain was fighting on 'in the shadows'. Herbert Asquith, who had been Prime Minister for nearly a decade, and his wobbly coalition Government fell in the first days of December. The Battle of the Somme had just ended, at least officially, if not for the troops in the line. The sacrifice of that cataclysmic clash was still too fresh, too numbing, to be fully grasped. At sea, German U-boats were sinking British ships at an alarming rate, and a serious food shortage threatened the country. Harassed at home by night-bombing Zeppelins, the British people had to turn to the air for some sign that the Germans could be bested.

In that autumn of 1916, the raiders were being brought down in flames, their incandescent death-throes setting the sky on fire for miles around London. Courageous pilots of the Royal Flying Corps flying slow but steady aeroplanes were shooting down the hydrogen-filled monsters with incendiary and explosive bullets. The Germans, stunned by the agonizing end befalling some of their best crews, called the devices 'an invention of the devil'.

A reprieve from the raids seemed as certain as the sure-fire defences after 28 November 1916. In the early morning darkness two Zeppelins were destroyed, not on the outskirts of London, but at the coast. England's dimmed-out cities were jubilant. But the date of the double victory over the airships, the first such triumph on one single night, was to be remembered for a far more foreboding reason. In broad daylight, barely six hours after Luftschiff 21 of the German Imperial Navy disappeared with no survivors beneath a black oily scum on the sea off Lowestoft, a series of small explosions gently shook London's busy West End.

Unannounced and unheard beyond a few streets, the feeble blasts inflicted some damage between the Brompton Road and Victoria Station. Quite suddenly, as if struck by lightning, a baker's shop lost its chimney. A stable was wrecked and the roof of a rear addition to a house collapsed. The business office of a large dairy was mysteriously ventilated, its files and furniture scattered. A dressing-room was gutted in a noisy impromptu performance at the Palace of Varieties, a music hall near the station. 'One cobblestone was cracked in Eccleston Mews, opposite No. 23,' noted one meticulous report.

The detonations gave rise to some astonishment, if not alarm, in the immediate area. Rumours abounded as to what had caused them. In all London only two people could be found who were certain that they had seen an aeroplane. The others read about it in the evening newspapers.

'Between 11.50 and noon this morning six bombs were dropped on London by a hostile aeroplane flying at a great height above the haze,' announced a brief, matter-of-fact bulletin from the Horse Guards, Home Forces Headquarters. 'The material damage is slight,' the statement reassured, as if such an intrusion was nothing unusual. First given as four injured, the casualties were later revised to ten wounded.

Quite regularly since 1914, single-engined German aeroplanes had braved the Channel, one or two at a time, to drop a few small bombs along the coast. Their favourite target was Dover Harbour. After more than twenty such 'tip-and-run' attacks, the British had come to accept them as a routine nuisance. It was the cheek of this latest incursion that surprised most people. Certainly, no enemy pilot had been so foolhardy as to fly over London before.

The first Germans to do so were Lieutenant Walter Ilges and Deck Officer Paul Brandt, two young naval airmen. With Brandt at the controls, they had taken off from Mariakerke, an airfield near the Belgian coast, in a single-engined L.V.G. (Luft-Verkehrs-Gesells-chaft) biplane. Used primarily for reconnaissance, the machine could easily reach London and return to its base.

Although Ilges had often photographed installations along the English coast, he had never flown very far inland before. With the eagerness of a schoolboy on a summer outing, he took scores of pictures of aerodromes, factories, docks, and other choice targets along his meandering course over Essex and up the Thames. Once over the capital he took more pictures and released the six twenty-pound bombs. Hopefully aimed from 13,000 feet at the Admiralty buildings in Whitehall, all missed the target by at least a mile.

The midday raider left the city from the south, and again escaped detection by flying a wide arc around the British squadrons based at Dover and Dunkirk. Over the Channel the L.V.G. developed engine trouble. Ilges had to toss his precious camera overboard to lighten the load. The pair reached the French coast in a long gliding descent, but without hope of regaining their own lines. Shortly after two o'clock that afternoon they made a forced landing at Boulogne.

The two Germans hastily set fire to their aeroplane, and tried to escape on foot. The French soon captured them with a large-scale map of London still in their possession. Even as prisoners-of-war Ilges and Brandt may have sought recognition for their rather startling flight. Its import, only seven years after Louis Blériot blazed the way across the English Channel in a tiny monoplane, was lost to the British. They were too busy exulting over the two Zeppelins.

'London generally was quite undisturbed by the audacious visit,' reported The Times with some concern. The paper was part of the politically powerful Northcliffe press, then publishing half the dailies sold in London. Even before the war, it had been a policy of the newspaper chain to boom aviation as having 'revolutionized the art of warfare'. The force behind this stand was the brilliant but capricious Lord Northcliffe.

When, in the autumn of 1906, Alberto Santos-Dumont made the first public flight in Europe with a heavier-than-air machine, the colourful 'Napoleon of Fleet Street' was said to have been riled at the way a night sub-editor of his Daily Mail covered the event. 'Don't you realize, man,' scolded Northcliffe, 'that England is no longer an island?'

On the day after London's first aeroplane raid, The Times responded with a warning editorial entitled 'Two Airships and an Aeroplane'. The aeroplane, being 'relatively cheap and elusive', was seen to have 'far more dangerous possibilities than the large and costly Zeppelin'. The newspaper reminded its readers 'that, like all fresh portents of the kind, this isolated visit is by no means to be ignored.... It is wise to regard it as a prelude to further visits on an extended scale and to lay our plans accordingly'.

Even less tolerant of the general apathy over the attack was pugnacious Charles G. Grey, a 'promoter of decided opinions' who 'did not hesitate to prophesy'. Perceptive and prolific, he had written on aeronautics since 1909. He was also the founder of The Aeroplane, a periodical he was to edit for nearly three decades. Not quite forty when the war began, and physically unfit for active service, Grey was undoubtedly the most caustic critic of British air policy then in print. His lively writings prickled with the barbs he aimed at any official he deemed guilty of 'two-dimensional' thinking.

'When the aeroplane raids start, and prove more damaging than the airship raids, the authorities cannot say that they have not had a fair warning of what to expect,' he lectured in his weekly editorial. Grey added his fond and facetious hope that 'the London shopkeeper' would now 'realize that there is a serious chance of proper war being carried into the very heart of his sacred city'.

That danger was far better understood the following summer when German bombers came to London in formation. Nearly everyone recalled then that lone aeroplane which practically no one had seen. And a thoughtful few, ever looking ahead, seemed to have been awe-stricken by a vision of modern warfare. Among them was Lovat Fraser, a Times leader-writer.

'If I were asked what event of the last year has been of most significance to the future of humanity,' he wrote in July 1917, 'I should reply that it is not the Russian Revolution, nor even the stern intervention of the United States in a sacred cause, but the appearance of a single German aeroplane flying at high noon over London last November.'

Among the fateful turns of 1917, a pivotal year of this century, was the début of the heavy bomber in warfare. The nightmare dignified with the name of combat by professional soldiers at the front would henceforth come to the cities; and warfare, once so waged, would quickly lose whatever dignity one could still claim for it in an age of modern weapons.

World War I in the air is popularly recalled as a romance of dawn patrols, a tale of chivalrous duels between Spads and Fokkers. Strategic bombing is not commonly associated with that war. This notion ignores the coordinated Allied bombing effort directed against Germany in 1918. It also neglects the earlier bomber raids made by the Germans against England.

Obscured by defeat and disbanded after the Armistice, the airmen who flew for the Kaiser have long served as foils for the air successes of the Allies. The beginnings of strategic bombing are invariably recounted in terms of British achievements. Lord Trenchard is cited as 'the architect of air power', and Sir Frederick Handley Page is widely recognized as 'the father of the heavy bomber'. Their contribution, however important, is only part of the story.

While limited and indecisive, the German raids on England during World War I are significant as the first systematic strategic air campaign in history. Besides the notorious Zeppelins, two distinct types of bombers were used in these raids—the twin-engined Gotha and the much larger Riesenflugzeug or Giant aeroplane. Depending on the weather and other factors such as crew replacements, these aircraft attacked Britain in squadron strength on an average of once every two weeks for an entire year.

In October 1917, London was raided on six of eight consecutive nights. The German concept of attack incorporated the idea of 'round-the-clock' bombing. This goal could have been achieved if the Army High Command had been willing to commit the bombing squadrons it would have required. Fire raids were also attempted, first with the Zeppelins and later the bombers, only to fail because of defective incendiary materials. A much improved 'Elektron' magnesium bomb was available in quantity in the summer of 1918. Political reasons alone deterred the High Command from permitting its use against London in the last months of the war.

The German raids caused considerable unrest. Unlike World War II, the British people were not expecting to be bombed by enemy aircraft. Faced with severe political repercussions at home, an 'enlightened' Government headed by David Lloyd George hastily legislated the world's first independent air force in 1917. The British, as a consequence, are credited with providing the lead in a 'revolution of arms'. But the maze of circumstances from which the Royal Air Force emerged as a third Service in 1918 is all but forgotten today. Least remembered of all is the way in which nascent German air-power spurred the British to establish that independent Air Force in the first place.

Britain's indisputable pioneering claims lie more in the field of air defence. During the first Battle of Britain, a complex network was installed around London combining anti-aircraft guns, fighters, barrage balloons, observer and listening posts, and a direct-line telephone communications net. A marvel of ingenuity and organization, the London Air Defence Area finally prevailed against the German bombers in 1918. Except for some technological refinements, notably radar, it was essentially the same air defence system which was to serve Britain so well in 1940.

All this happened several years before General Giulio Douhet, the Italian air prophet, published his first book, and his American counterpart, General William Mitchell, sank his first battleship off the Virginia Capes. That the strategy of bombing cities far from the battle lines should have been born of the Teutonic mind should come as no surprise. In two World Wars the Germans seemed capable of bridging all obstacles save one—the English Channel.

The Gothas and the Giants were, in a sense, the V2s of World War I. These early bombers and the first rockets in warfare traversed the same skies to strike at the same target—London. Both came too late to stave off a German defeat. And though they were without decisive effect on the war in which they were first used, both portended as much for the next conflict.

Since the first aeroplanes were mere contraptions, and civilian ones at that, few early air enthusiasts of any country were to be found among the higher ranks of the military and political leaders. It remained for inspired tinkerers to improve the flying machine and proclaim its potential in warfare. A small group of aeroplane manufacturers, seeking orders for their product, hopefully approached the British War Office as early as 1908. Colonel J. E. B. Seely, Haldane's Parliamentary Private Secretary, dismissed them, saying that 'we do not consider that aeroplanes will be of any possible use for war purposes'.

British officials were also reluctant to promote 'a means of warfare which tends to reduce the value of our insular position and the protection of our sea power'. But air developments abroad could not long be ignored. In 1912, a Royal Flying Corps consisting of a Military Wing and a Naval Wing was created. Seely had since become Under-Secretary for War, upon Haldane's elevation to the House of Lords. His was the task of discussing the Cabinet decision with Brigadier David Henderson, the officer who was to head the new arm.

'What is the best method to pursue,' he asked Henderson, 'in order to do in a week what is generally done in a year?' Seely explained that the Army had 'about eleven actual flying men'. There were 'about eight' in the Royal Navy. 'France has about two hundred and sixty-three, so we are what you might call behind....'

The enthusiasm of the French for the aeroplane was imbued with a national pride much like that with which the Zeppelin was being advanced as a symbol of Teutonic might. General Helmuth von Moltke, the Chief of the German General Staff, reminded his superiors in Berlin at every turn of 'the progressive achievements of France'. Anxious that Germany should not trail behind, Moltke pleaded for a large air force. He even urged its 'complete independence', a step which 'should be taken now'.

A more conservative German War Ministry authorized, also in 1912, a flying corps to be organized as a component of the Imperial Army's transportation service, the Verkehrstruppen. Despite this modest beginning the Germans mobilized 180 aeroplanes in the West at the outbreak of the war. This force was nearly equal to that of the opposing French and British air units combined.


Excerpted from The Sky on Fire by Raymond H. Fredette. Copyright © 1991 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Maps,
List of Illustrations,
Foreword by Hanson W. Baldwin,
1. 'A Single German Aeroplane',
2. The Coming of the 'Wong-Wongs',
3. Air War and Baby-Killing,
4. The England Squadron,
5. Gotha in the Sea,
6. A Grand but Deadly Show,
7. 'Send Over ... One or Two Squadrons',
8. 'The Hammer is in Our Hands',
9. The Raid Heard Round the World,
10. The Fortress of London,
11. Sunday in Southend,
12. Defeat of the Day Raiders,
13. 'The Magna Carta of British Air Power',
14. Trials and Experiments,
15. Giants to the West,
16. The First Blitz,
17. 'We Will Give it All Back to Them',
18. 'All that Flies and Creeps',
19. Winter Twilight of the Gotha Bombers,
20. The Nights of the Giants,
21. Khaki and Blue: An Air Force Is Born,
22. The Biggest Raid—and the Last,
23. Retreat to Oblivion,
24. The First Bomber Command,
25. Only a Beginning,
26. The Sky on Fire,
AN AFTERWORD By Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor, G.C.B., D.S.O., M.C.,

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