Key point: The bombers did significant damage to Britain, but it was not enough.
On May 25, 1917, a fleet of 21 bombers lumbered in a line at 12,000 feet over the English coast. The biplanes, each carrying 13 bombs, had wingspans exceeding 70 feet, immense for World War I aircraft. German military leaders called the planes Gothas, hoping the name would add an element of terror to English citizens in their homes below.
Earlier that day the Gothas, a top-secret weapon carefully concealed at Belgian airfields, had taken off and headed toward England, about 175 miles away. The super-bombers were led by Ernst Brandenburg, personally selected to head Kagohl 3, the elite of Kaiser Wilhelm’s bombing squadrons organized for raids on England. The target was London. Because the British weren’t expecting these newly designed warplanes, they were not prepared to spot their arrival or to stop them.
Ironically, in the spring of 1917, British residents believed the battle for the skies over their country was already won. They had been able to sleep soundly in their beds for about eight consecutive months with no German Zeppelins daring the North Sea with their deadly bombs. The Gothas now heading toward London had a much greater potential for causing damage than the Zeppelins, which could muster only small bomb loads.
The German Gotha
Although no other bomber, German or Allied, cradled more than two 112-pound bombs, the Gotha was capable of carrying more than 10 times that amount and dropping them with remarkable accuracy by using a high-tech Goerz bombsight.
Twin engines gave these bombers a top speed of 88 miles per hour and a ceiling of 16,000 feet, well above the reach of most defensive fighters then based in England. Because the Gothas flew so high, tanks of liquid oxygen were available if needed by crewmembers. The aircraft’s many unique features convinced German leaders that the Gotha was a plane capable of winning the war.
The 34-year-old Brandenburg took off with 23 bombers from grass fields near Ghent and headed for the Nieuwunster Airfield 40 miles away to refuel. (A reserve fuel tank was later installed under the upper wing to avoid this delay on future raids.)
One Gotha experienced engine problems halfway to the coast and landed near Thielt. Another suffered fuel line problems over the North Sea and began falling behind. Unfortunately, Brandenburg had no radio (because of its prohibitive weight) to find out what was wrong with this Gotha, which was painted with undulating serpents from nose to tail. Finally, the pilot of the troubled plane fired several red flares to indicate he was turning back and dumped his bombs into the sea. Meanwhile, an observer on board scribbled a message about the bomber’s problems to be carried back to a German coastal station by one of two pigeons aboard.
"The Whole Street Seemed to Explode, With Smoke and Flames Everywhere"
Brandenburg had marched off to war in 1914 as an infantry officer, but after being severely wounded ended up an air observer flying over the front. From observer he had moved up to command the important Englandflieger, or England Squadrons, which he was now leading up the Thames Valley without opposition. Thick, towering clouds greeted the planes over the capital instead of the clear weather forecast in Belgium. Accurate bombing would be impossible, so the pilots reluctantly turned southeast and headed off to find another target.
They dropped a scattering of bombs along the way over Kent. These were aimed at Lympne Airfield and destroyed a few British airplanes about to take off. The Gothas then went in search of Folkestone, a major supply port for British armies in France.
The sky was clear at this seaside resort filled with unsuspecting crowds in a holiday mood for a Whitsun celebration. The Gothas droned high overhead. Although the raid lasted only 10 minutes, 60 bombs found their way to unsuspecting throngs in the Tortine Street shopping district. “The whole street seemed to explode, with smoke and flames everywhere,” one eyewitness reported. “Worst of all were the screams of the wounded.” The death toll was 95 along with 260 wounded, far higher than from any German Zeppelin airship raid.
The Gothas droned out over the North Sea again for the return flight to Belgium, ending their raid. The Germans had just introduced a new degree of aerial warfare, changing how wars from the sky would be fought during World War I and in future wars.
German efforts to create strategic bombing from the air with specially designed monster planes sprang from the hope of escaping the war’s hideous and interminable slaughter of ground troops. The bombers appealed to the German emperor and his High Command because they believed civilians had been softened by the Industrial Age and saw a chance to strike at the working class, considered Britain’s soft underbelly.
The Kaiser’s Secret Weapon
Brandenburg was personally selected to head Kagohl 3, the elite of the Kaiser’s bombing squadrons for the raids on England, by General Ernst von Hoeppner. Kagohl 3 was attached to the German Fourth Army in Flanders, but operated independently of fighting on that front. Its orders came directly from the German Army High Command (OHL).
A striking commander with dark, intelligent eyes, Brandenburg emphasized training his crews to handle the unwieldy bombers and to fly together like geese. In the middle of May when the Gothas were ready for their first raid on London, the revered Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg was driven to a Flanders airfield in a large open car to give Kagohl 3 airmen a fitting sendoff. The lined-up planes were snow-white except for bold black crosses on their tails and fuselages and customized body painting to suit a crew’s own taste.
The Germans began air attacks in late 1914 by using their unique Zeppelins. While drawing considerable publicity, these airships caused only minor damage. When the OHL lost faith in the Zeppelins, it ordered increased Gotha bomber production. These planes were produced by the Gothaer Waggonfabrik AG Company, a prewar maker of railway carriages. The German High Command wanted 30 Gothas ready by late May.
Dubbed “the Kaiser’s secret weapon,” Gothas were a big improvement over early aerial combat efforts in small, rickety planes. Early emphasis had been on “dogfights” between opposing pilots, then some airmen began tossing small bombs from their open cockpits. Soon French pilots were dropping pencil-sized steel darts called flechettes on unsuspecting ground troops 1,500 feet below. Some were said to have fatally wounded a German general riding on horseback.
Bombing efforts gradually became more sophisticated until larger bombers like the Gothas were specially designed to pack a bigger wallop. Gothas were only 41 feet long, far shorter than their extensive wingspans. Two early Gotha models had 72-foot wingspans, with wings on more widely used G.IV models extending 77 feet. The bombers ranged from the G.I model with two 160-horsepower Benz motors, to the improved G.IVs equipped with more powerful 260-horsepower Mercedes motors. The fuselage and wings were made of plywood and fabric.
Brandenburg Pounces on London
In the front sat the navigator/bombardier, who was also the front gunner. Behind were the pilots. The tail had two guns reachable by a tunnel running through the rear fuselage. One was called the “sting in the tail” because it shot downward to cover the tail’s blind spot. The other rear gun was able to shoot above the plane if an attacker approached from that direction.
The machine guns were fitted with electrical dynamo-driven heating so they could be fired in the cold air of high altitudes. Because of chilling temperatures, the airmen dressed as warmly as possible. In addition, oxygen was taken along, but it wasn’t always used. “We rather preferred to restore our body warmth and energy with an occasional gulp of cognac,” claimed one pilot.
Brandenburg had to wait weeks for another try on London, but when good weather was predicted, he pounced. Brandenburg and 14 Gothas took off from Ghent at 10 am on June 13, hoping to return before forecast thunderstorms at 3 pm.
By midday the Gothas were droning up the Thames. The distant rumble was heard first by English suburb dwellers, who stepped outside to watch the planes—their wonder greater than their fear. They stared in awe at the distinctive formation three miles up. Because of their great height, a British volley from ground guns proved fruitless.
At 11:35 am, the Gothas dropped some bombs on London’s East End, with a cluster falling between the Royal Albert Docks and the borough of East Ham. Eight men were killed at the docks and bombs damaged some sheds, offices, and railway cars. Brandenburg, in the lead plane, fired a white flare signaling the Gothas to unleash their main bomb loads, Liverpool Street Station being the prime target. With terrible explosions, 72 bombs landed within a mile of the terminal—only three hit the station itself. Some victims were trapped in a wrecked dining car and two coaches were set afire.